New Zealand has many great full and multi-day walks, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of them. However in winter thanks to heavy snow and increased danger levels, it’s often closed to the public unless you pay big dollar for a guide. That doesn’t mean you have to miss out though. During our recent road trip around the North Island, we found the perfect winter alternative to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing that perhaps even rivals it… The Tama Lakes Track.

Dec and Leah at Tama Lakes with fog and snowy mountains
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We had found ourselves faced with bad weather, again, just as we arrived to the National Park region. This had been an ongoing theme during our North Island road trip and it was something we’d learnt to deal with. Something else we soon realised we would have to deal with was the fact that the Tongariro Crossing was going to be impassable during our visit. This is the main reason we, and most other travellers, visited the Tongariro National Park but thankfully, the helpful staff at the visitor centre were able to point us in the direction of an alternative walk to the Alpine Crossing which turned what could have been a mediocre, miserable visit into one of the biggest highlights of the North Island – despite the rain!

Why did we need a Tongariro Alpine Crossing winter alternative?

In winter, the mountain ranges of the National Park region get a lot of snow fall. This is great for the ski resorts but not so great for those wanting to do the 9 hour day hike through the alpine terrain. With snow comes the added risk of avalanches, something the area sees a lot of throughout the winter season as well as complete loss of track markers. With this in mind, the DOC find it much safer to close the walking track off from the public unless accompanied with an experienced alpine/mountaineering guide. That doesn’t stop people attempting it though and these people usually end up needing a heli-rescue due to being unprepared and inexperienced. All this equated to us needing to find an alternative or miss the National Park entirely, something we didn’t want to do.

First impressions of Tongariro National Park

We drove to the National Park region from Mount Taranaki, via the forgotten highway which is an experience in itself. This meant we got pretty good views of the mountain ranges from a distance but that didn’t prepare us for what it would feel like driving along the bottom of Mount Ngauruhoe.

The towering snowy mountains were enough to make us feel tiny in our big Britz Motorhome. Even with the knowledge that we wouldn’t be able to do the famous Alpine Crossing, we were excited to get to camp and explore the area for a few days… whether there was a storm brewing or not.

We arrived just in time for sunset and spent our first night sat on the lawn of the Chateaux watching the clouds roll in as the sunset. The rain started not long after that and it felt like it didn’t stop for days but it didn’t hinder our enjoyment of the Tongariro National Park. I mean, how could it? The place was stunning. We went to bed that first night plotting what to do on our first full day our main aim was to find an alternative for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing closures and we were prepared to extend our stay if we had to.

A Britz Campervan parked in front of snow capped mountains

Finding our winter alternative to the Alpine Crossing

We got up at the crack of dawn and headed to the information centre to speak with the staff who know the area. Luckily while the rain was really heavy over night, it seemed to have slowed and was hopefully going to hold off until the late afternoon so it was looking promising for us to be able to do a day hike – if there was one open!

The information centre staff were really helpful with aiding us choose the best route for the day, weather forecast and our time frame. We were looking for a good day walk with mixed terrain, something a little more challenging than a stroll in the park but one that didn’t need additional equipment. The suggestion they came up with was the Tama Lakes Track, one we had never heard of before but their description peaked our curiosity enough for a decision to be made.

If you’re ever at the Tongariro National Park while the Alpine Crossing is shut, don’t be afraid to seek advice at the information centre – that’s what they’re there for! Ask about the weather forecasts and what the track conditions are like. They’ll be able to help you make a decision and help you choose alternatives! They even have up to date information on the current avalanche risks, if you’re there during the season.

The Tama Lakes Track

After hearing the lady at the information centre describe the Tama Lakes Track, we knew it was going to be the perfect winter alternative to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

It’s a 7-8 hour return walk through alpine and volcanic terrain that winds past rivers and waterfalls before making a steep incline towards two crystal blue volcanic crater lakes… the path varies from a solid easily marked track to loose volcanic rock and even snow! It was going to be the most challenging walk I’d ever done and I couldn’t wait.

It was a little past 8 when we left the information centre to find the start of the track, a mere 5 minute walk away just behind the Chateaux. From here the track is very easy to follow and starts off as a neat, well worn track towards Taranaki Falls. We meandered through woodlands and followed a river with intermittent rapids until we found ourselves at the base of the waterfall and on the edge of an alpine field. I’m sure I’ve said it before about waterfalls, and I’ll say it again, but it was magical.

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river through tongariro
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I’m not quite sure what I expected from an alpine walk in the middle of winter, but what we saw wasn’t it. Dark black rocks from the volcanic history, splattered with vivid red moss and long yellow grass. And so many birds!

This first stretch of track lulled me into a false sense of security. Not only was this going to be my longest walk, it was my first walk carrying my own bag of essentials. Not being used to hiking with weight, I was expecting to feel it almost straight away but the first hour passed without a glitch – thanks to the well defined path.

From here things got interesting, fast.

It wasn’t long after this that we started to see snow speckled alongside the track. It had been well over 2 years since we had last seen snow and this was enough to cover your shoes, so it was hard to fight the urge to pick it up and start a snowball fight. There’s no doubt in my mind that if it wasn’t for the fact I knew I’d need my energy to reach the upper Tama Lake, a fully blown snow war would have started right there.

Leah walking through alpine fields with snow on mount doom

Once we reached areas with snow it’s safe to say the easiest part of the track had come and gone. After this we had several streams and small rivers to hop across. Ones that, thankfully, had yet to flood due to rain or snow melt so the rocks were still fairly easy to hop across. We stopped by one of the pretty river sections for a snack and to take some photos, it was here that a rather jolly hiker informed us there was only 30 minutes left until the lakes. This would be the most challenging part of the walk.

In total it took us roughly 3.5 hours to reach the lower Tama Lake, a sight I yet again wasn’t prepared for. We hadn’t seen pictures of these lakes before, our sights had been set on doing the Tongariro Crossing so we hadn’t thought to do any further research. All we knew is what the information centre and signs near by told us. Which was that the Tama Lakes were formed from old volcanic craters and kept ‘topped up’ by rain water and snow melt. This water was crystal blue against the black rocks and snow capped mountain, made even better by the fact that very few people had attempted this walk that day – unlike the shrouds of people you always see in photos of Tongariro.

The Lower Tama Lake was only a taster for what was to come though as we still had a further 200m of elevation to tackle before we reached the Upper Tama Lakes. I know 200m isn’t a lot but this climb was a steep 45’ over loose icy volcanic rock. It would only take us 30 minutes to achieve but this was the hardest part of the track. Especially as the weather was turning nasty pretty quickly.

tama lake in snow
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We had been really lucky with the weather up until this point, clouds seemed to roll in and pass by without much fuss. Maybe the odd little shower but nothing major, certainly nothing that made us want to turn around and head back to the car. However, on our incline to the Upper Lake the clouds came in so thick we only managed to get a fleeting glimpse of Upper Tama lake before the fog made it disappear before our eyes and ended up taking shelter behind a large rock at the top due to the viscous winds that picked up unexpectedly.

Our walk back to camp was a completely different experience to the walk to the top. Blue skies had been traded in for nasty black clouds and the wind seemed adamant in knocking us off our feet. Had these conditions appeared half way through the walk I’m confident we’d have resorted to trying again another day. As it happened though we got back to the chateaux, where we stopped to thaw out over a hot chocolate, just in time for the heavens to open.

Even with the change in weather I still feel strongly about the Tama Lakes day hike being a fantastic option for those winter days when the crossing is closed. It has the right balance of challenge and ease that makes it suitable for younger children too. There are a few things you need to be prepared for though.

Be prepared before you go.

While the Tama Lakes track is the perfect replacement during the Tongariro Alpine Crossing winter closures, there are still a few things you need to know before you head off on your National Park day walk and just like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, this winter walk requires a few things to ensure you’re safe. Don’t worry, specialist winter hiking equipment isn’t essential – that’s what makes this such a good alternative to the Alpine Crossing!

Weather

The first and most important thing is to know what the weathers doing. Having a quick look to the sky won’t suffice with this walk as the higher you go the more unpredictable the weather becomes. It also gets colder with attitude. For every 1000m in elevation you loose 7’c, so if it’s already a relatively cold day it’s going to be a lot colder at the top. Pop into the information centre like we did and have a chat to the staff there, they will know the most up to date information regarding the track conditions as well as have print outs of the forecasts for both the village and the top of Tama Lakes.

We were also warned that if fog starts coming in and you start to lose visibility you should turn around. We witnessed this first hadn’t but thankfully it was while we were already on our way back. Some of the track markers are hard to spot at the best of times so keep this in mind if the weather starts to turn.

Avalanches

Of course, winter is avalanche season. Especially once the snow starts melting and becomes unstable. So along with checking the weather you also need to check for avalanche warnings. Make sure your phone has plenty of batteries and people know where you are – this is another great reason why you should drop in to the information centre. Having staff know that people are on the track means they know to look for you if anything happens.

Snow on the mountain with fog rolling in across Tama Lake

Difficulty

While the track starts of fairly easily it gets steep in places and there are a lot of steps. It is a nice mix of difficulties but those who aren’t used to hill walking or have low – mid fitness might find it more challenging. In winter I wouldn’t recommend taking small children on this walk due to the snow hazards as you near the top but also due to the river crossings.

Food + water

Pack a decent lunch and plenty of snacks. You can never have enough snacks on a long walk like this. It’s better to be prepared and not use it, than to find yourself stuck for whatever reason without enough food or water. There are no water taps along this route so you’ll need to carry water with you.

Layers

As we said, the weather changes fast on these alpine tracks. Take plenty of layers including gloves even if it isn’t snowing. We recommend a minimum of a thermal layer and a lightweight waterproof on top of your normal clothes.

As much as we like summer barefoot hikes, this is a walk we don’t recommend you do in flip-flops, the loose volcanic rocks are sharp and the ground is unstable in some places. Solid walking shoes are a must. If you like barefoot walks too, check out Merrells barefoot line – we love these shoes for hikes.

We did a few hikes in the Australian Outback in barefeet. You can read about those here!

Quick facts

  • Difficulty = Moderate – Hard

  • Terrain = Volcanic, Alpine, steep + lots of steps

  • Alltitude = 1430m above sea level

  • Time = 7-8 hours return (including photo stops)

  • Highlights = Lakes, waterfalls and snow-capped volcanoes

So there you have it. Our unexpected Tongariro Alpine Crossing winter alternative. If you’re heading to this area during winter and unsure if you’ll be able to make the famous walk, we highly recommend doing the Tama Lakes day hike or better yet do it as well as the Crossing!

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