We knew that our trip would entail a lot of driving, but this was the longest day of driving that we just couldn’t plan around. We were not near an airport and there were things we wanted to do around Tongariro National Park, but there is not a lot of NZ that we really wanted to see between this latitude and Wellington which is at the very southern tip of the north island. The only solution that made sense to us was to drive. It was going to be a long day.
A few weeks back Melanie and I got to attend a wedding for a good friend of ours in Greensburg, PA. It was a beautiful God-filled event in a beautiful location with beautiful weather and beautiful food – they even had a table with nothing but piles of cookies in limitless flavor choices!
Day two of the trip was going to be the workhorse. This was our only full day to hike and we wanted to pack in as many falls as possible. First up was Raven Cliff Falls. This is the postcard waterfall for the park – actually for the entire area – so we didn’t want to chance missing it. It also was going to be by far the longest hike with a minimum of two miles to get to the observation platform or four miles get to the suspension bridge. We opted to do both and I’d estimate the total round trip mileage to be eight to nine miles. Sadly, I’ve waited too long to write this down and I can’t remember the total hiking time. The trail was only moderately difficult. Most of the time it was pretty flat without any really spectacular views. Just a nice walk in the woods. It helped that we visited in the middle of the week I’m sure. I’d imagine with its popularity, this one could get unpleasantly busy on the weekends.
Strangely enough, as popular as these falls are, the trailhead is pretty poorly marked. The parking lot is easy to find. You then cross the street to find a big map listing a bunch of trails. It does not identify this as the Raven Cliff Falls Trail. You then walk a few paces down a well-maintained path and see a sign for the Foothills Trail (had I bothered to check my map from home more carefully I’d have seen that the Foothills and the RCF trails merge at this point). It lists several destinations, but not RCF. You then walk further down the trail and finally you see the sign you’ve been looking for. We were not the only ones confused by this. We met a conductor for the local symphony wandering around on the road looking for the trail head. We even met folks as we were leaving that had been hiking down the trail for a while that weren’t sure they were on the right one. Now you, dear reader, know what to look for and you can be the expert when you visit the falls.
After awhile you reach the fairly new observation platform. I had read a report from one of the locals lamenting the replacement of the old platform. He claimed that this new platform was in a completely different location and the view was ruined. I had to agree once I saw the falls. They were spectacular. A really great shape in a nice setting but they were so tiny! How can a 400’ falls look so small? You can see that they are distant in the attached picture and this is zoomed in as far as my little point and shoot camera would go. We were not even at the best viewing angle. It was obvious that the promotional images of this falls were not shot from this location. I cannot understand why this change was made. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
We had planned to hike to the suspension bridge before but this less-than-stellar overlook sealed the deal. We backtracked to the Foothills Trail split and continued on to the Natureland Trust Trail which took us to the suspension bridge. This was pretty cool. It was nice and shaky like a suspension bridge is supposed to be. The view from here is good and unique, but because of the way these falls are made up, you can only see the upper drop from here. A worthwhile side trip but it isn’t wide-eyed greatness. We stopped and ate lunch on the bridge with the sounds of the water rushing under us.
Just for fun we decided to follow the trail across the bridge to see if it ever popped out of the underbrush really close to the falls. It was obvious almost from the second we crossed the bridge that this is not a popular option as the trail becomes much wilder right away. It is also incredibly steep. At one point I found a small side spur marked with double blue blazes that I wanted to follow. It was so steep here that we didn’t think Melanie could lower or lift herself over some of the sheer drops so I decided to check it out myself. I was reminded of the description of the secret trail to Elrond’s Last Homely House. I dropped down the trail to an open area roped off with a steel cable fence. Sadly, it was at a bend in the mountain and the falls were around the corner from me. I guess we were not going to get a better view of this falls. I’m really glad Melanie didn’t climb down with me. I was just barely tall enough to pull myself back up to the main trail.
After that, it was a simple backtrack to the trail head. We passed a lot more people on the way back and were thankful that we had started so early that morning.