Tama Lakes – Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park in the North Island of New Zealand is famous amongst travellers due to the superb Tongariro Crossing 1-day hike. However, many travellers are unaware of another great 1-day hike – Tama Lakes.

According to the Department of Conservation, some of the oldest lava flows on the slopes of Ruapehu and Tongariro can be found at the Tama Saddle so it makes for a fascinating landscape and it is always exciting to hike amongst volcanoes.

Tama Lakes occupy six explosion craters, created around 10,000 years ago during an explosive eruption period. The hike takes you to Lower and Upper Tama Lakes. The 5-6hr return journey also holds fantastic views of all 3 of the giant volcanoes in Tongariro National Park – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. You will also see the sweeping alpine landscape full of native tussock grass, lava flows and streams.

Tama Lake map
Map of the hike – red line
Mt Ruapehu and the beautiful volcanic landscape

What to know before you go

  • The National Park is remote and the weather is varied. Be sure to pack for all weather conditions even if it looks nice as things change fast. The winds can pick up and even on sunny days it can be cold. This means a warm and waterproof jacket, warm hat and even gloves.
  • Bring all your own food and water. Although there are plenty of streams it is not recommended to drink out of volcanic streams.
  • Tell someone where you are going. This track is not as popular or busy as the Tongariro Crossing.
  • Sunscreen and sunhat as it is an exposed walk with no shelter
  • Use the bathroom at Whakapapa Village, there are none on the track (perhaps also bring some toilet paper and a small plastic bag for rubbish just incase)
  • Be prepared to be away for at least 5-6hours

Hiking the track

Starting out

The track starts close to the famous Tongariro Chateau in Whakapapa Village where there is plenty of parking. The closest public toilets are on the main road near another carpark and by the information centre. It pays to go now as the alpine landscape has very few places to hide…

The start of the track is well marked out at the end of the carpark, there is a map and more information on the region. The majority of the track is part of the Tongariro 3 day Circuit which is a Great Walk. This means that it is well laid out and relatively easy to walk. The track is made up of mostly gravel as well as a few boardwalks and stairs. There are also plenty of signs to guide the way. The track is not overly steep but meanders along small ridgelines and valleys.

The track does reach a point after about 2hrs where you will head off the main circuit and on to the Tama Lakes track. It is well signed and also provides timing guidance (see picture below). We find that DOC times can be quite liberal and we generally manage to go faster than what is stated. However, it is best to prepare to take as long as suggested.

The track is well laid out and easy to follow
There are signs with time guidance and directions

The Lakes

The first point you will reach is Lower Tama Lakes, it is a breathtaking spot and a nice place to rest and enjoy the views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes.

From here is where it gets more difficult. To reach the viewpoint for Upper Tama Lakes you have to climb a steep end slippery slope which is very exposed to the elements. The rocks can be slippery and difficult to walk on, it can also get very windy and cold so it is a real challenge and is why this track is considered advanced.

Although tempting for some, it is not recommended that you wander down the steep scree slopes to the Lake. The environment is very harsh and you would not want to risk injury.

Lower Tama Lake with a snowy Mt Ruapehu in the background

It is worth the extra 30min push to get to the top. You will be rewarded (weather permitting) with views of Ngauruhoe and Upper Tama Lake as well as the whole Alpine region and Mt Ruapehu.

We didn’t stay long up here, we sheltered and tried to eat lunch. We ate very quickly in all our warm gear as it was cold and windy.

Getting down back to the normal track is also a challenge. The slope is steep and has patches of scree which is very slippery.

Both Upper (left) and Lower (right) Tama Lakes
Upper Tama Lake and a very cloud Mt Nguarahoe 
Alisdair navigating the scree slope

Taranaki Falls

Tama Lakes is a one-way hike, this means once you have been to the Lakes you will follow the same route back to the carpark. There is a small detour near the end of the walk which will take you to Taranaki Falls.

The Taranaki Falls is a separate loop walk that you will see from the carpark. This means that by taking this detour you will still return back to the carpark at the same time that it would take if you were to follow your original route. We would recommend you check it out, it is a lot busier than the rest of the track as the hour loop track is more appealing to families and other tourists.

The walk is sheltered with some steep parts and it is possible to go down to the waterfall, the water is very cold so swimming is not so appealing.

Taranaki Falls

The end

We were very tired at the end of the walk, being exposed to wind and cold can really take it out of you. We recommend calling into the nearby Tokaanu hot springs for a dip. It is quite basic but it is reasonably priced for a private thermal pool.

A private hot pool at Tokaanu

Where to stay?

As the hike takes all day, it pays to stay nearby the night before. There are plenty of places in National Park Village and is where we would normally stay. You can usually find a reasonably priced private room in one of the many hostels or hotels. The National Park Village does mostly cater for the Tongariro Crossing crowd so is also a great base if you are doing this hike.

National Park Village also has a small service station where you can pick up snacks and supplies, there are also a few cafes and a bar.


For more on hiking in New Zealand check out;

Or want to hike in another part of the world? Check out;

Tongariro National Park




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