Above Huka Falls, the Waikato River presses through a ravine of sheer rock cliffs, creating a churning canal of rapids. At the end of this ravine, the water surges out as Huka Falls, where it makes a powerful push into the river below. To see the waterfall and the ravine, visitors can simply walk 200 meters from a car park by Huka Falls. To add a walk along Waikato River to the itinerary, set out on Spa Thermal Park in Taupo. Spa Park – Huka Falls Walkway offers a 7.3-kilometer (4.5 miles) round trip walk from Spa Park to Huka Falls. At the start, the walk passes Hot Water Stream, which is an alluring place to swim or soak any tired limbs.
To reach the official start of the walkway, you will need to walk 500 meters down a hillside in Spa Thermal Park. Take a gravel trail next to a sign for Spa Park – Huka Falls Walkway and follow markers to the start of the track. Pass a bench after 250 meters and continue across a grassy field that slopes toward Waikato River. This is New Zealand’s longest river, flowing out of nearby Lake Taupo. Just 50 meters past a sign marking the start of Huka Falls Walkway, and 0.55 kilometers from the start, the track nears the river and crosses Otumuheke Stream, also known as Hot Water Stream.
Several paths lead down to the water surrounding the bridge over Otumuheke Stream. Above the bridge, steam rises from the piping-hot stream. As these thermally heated waters meet the cold waters of the lake-fed Waikato River, a blend of friendly temperatures are created for bathers. Because these natural hot springs are pleasant and free of charge, they are a popular destination for Taupo visitors, and you can expect the stream to be full of swimmers on nice days. (Otumuheke Stream is a lot like Boiling River in Yellowstone National Park, USA.) If you plan to swim, perhaps its best to save that for the end of the walk, when you only have a short distance to go back to the car park. Signs along the track warn of swift currents in the Waikato River, so be cautious if you enter the water.
The walkway continues north and ventures downstream along the bank of Waikato River. There is light forest along the track, so you will pass in and out of shade as you go. Even though you are traveling downstream, the track goes uphill and down over several undulations in the terrain. The track is never particularly steep or challenging, but you will cross a few bluffs along the river with pleasant views of the blue waters. At 1.25 kilometers from the start, spot tents and campervans in a campground on the other side of the river called Reid’s Farm, a reserve established in 1935. Farther down the trail, and 1.9 kilometers from the start, a short spur on the right ascends to a lookout perched above Huka Falls Walkway. This wooden platform overlooks a bend in Waikato River and has educational panels about the river’s history.
Continue down Huka Falls Walk, crossing a footbridge 100 meters beyond the overlook. Hike straight through a junction with a gravel road after another 400 meters and come to asecond footbridge, three kilometers from the start. From here it is just 500 meters to the impressive bridge over Waikato River, spanning the rapids above Huka Falls.
At 3.5 kilometers from the start of the walk in Spa Thermal Park, reach a bridge that crosses Waikato River and connects to a car park on the other side. The bridge spans a ravine with sheer rock walls. Waikato River squeezes through this narrow trench and becomes frothy with vivacious rapids as the water careens off rock walls and races down the ravine. The water below the bridge looks like a violent, swirling sea, barely resembling the more inviting waters just upstream, where kayakers could be seen. A panel on the bridge explains that:
The water surging through this narrow gut is flowing from Lake Taupo. This is the Waikato… New Zealand’s Longest River, at the start of its 425-kilometer journey to the sea south of Auckland. Here the river is confined by hard geothermally-altered rock. Over time, it has carved a channel about 15 meters wide and 10 meters deep through the underlying softer sedimentary layers. The water churns along this channel towards Huka Falls at a rate much faster than the river’s average flow of 400 cubic meters per second. Hour by hour, the rushing Waikato water continues to erode this gut. Gradually, as the river scours more from its bed, Huka Falls will ‘move’ upstream, perhaps one day to the site of this bridge you are standing on.
If you go all the way across the bridge, you will come to Huka Falls Car Park. Stay on the east side of Waikato River and explore the final 150 meters of Huka Falls Walkway, which ends at a viewpoint for the waterfall. Huka Falls is a frothing mass of water that sprays out of the gorge and makes a short but impressive plunge into a wide pool. The waterfall is a mix of vivid blue water and pure white foam. Huka Falls might only drop about 9 meters (30 feet), but the river is so deep at this point as it exits the narrow ravine that if you account for the depth of the water, the violent waterfall could measure even taller. A panel at the viewpoint provides additional information about Huka Falls:
About 200,000 liters of water plunge nine meters over the great rock face of Huka Falls every second – that’s enough to fill five Olympic swimming pools every minute. Such a momentous flow of water creates a dangerous undertow at the bottom of the falls. This has claimed the craft of many river users foolhardy enough to try to navigate the falls. Upstream from the falls, the Waikato is clear and reflective. After plunging over the falls, it picks up masses of tumbling air bubbles that create breathtaking colors and give the falls their name, after the Māori word for ‘foam’. The flow over the falls is so strong that it prevents the upstream migration of trout and native fish such as ells, which is why there are no eels to be found in Lake Taupo.
The trout that flourish in Lake Taupo and surrounding streams today were introduced in 1890.
Huka Falls is New Zealand’s most visited scenic reserve so there will likely be crowds around the waterfall and rapids. However, the walkway between Spa Park and Huka Falls receives far fewer visitors.
For those looking to hike farther, Aratiatia Walkway continues down the east bank of Waikato River to Aratiatia Dam by the Aratiatia Rapids. The dam is one of many hydroelectric generators along the Waikato River, which produces a good percentage of New Zealand’s electricity.
Otherwise, return the way you came for a 7.3-kilometer (4.5-mile) round trip hike with 45 meters (150 feet) of elevation change. If you arranged to have a second vehicle at the Huka Falls Car Park, you can cut that distance in half for a one-way stroll on Huka Falls Walkway. Starting from Huka Falls Car Park, it is just a short 400-meter round trip walk to the viewpoint for Huka Falls.
Bikes are not allowed on Spa Park – Huka Falls Walkway. However, cyclists may use Rotary Ride to reach Huka Falls from Spa Thermal Park. The cycle track runs parallel to Huka Falls Walkway, but is set farther back from Waikato River. Dogs are allowed on leashes only on the first 500 of this walk leading up to Spa Park – Huka Falls Walkway, where dogs are not allowed. Dogs are allowed on the cycle track to Huka Falls. There is no cost to park at Spa Thermal Park and no permit is required to hike Huka Falls Walkway, so get out and enjoy!
Directions to Spa Thermal Park: From the central business district of Taupo, take Tongariro Street (Thermal Explorers Highway) north from the i-SITE Visitor Center for 300 meters. Take the second exit at a roundabout onto Spa Road (effectively a right turn). Go 1.8 kilometers and turn left into Spa Thermal Park. Proceed 650 meters to the car park at road’s end where the walk begins. From State Highway 1 east of Taupo, exit on Centennial Drive and head west toward Taupo. Centennial Drive becomes Spa Road and passes the park entrance.
Trailhead address: Spa Road, Taupo, Waikato, 3378, New Zealand
Trailhead coordinates: -38.6729, 176.08835 (38° 40′ 22.43″S 176° 05′ 18.05″E)
Directions to Huka Falls Car Park: From the central business district of Taupo, take Tongariro Street (Thermal Explorers Highway) north from the i-SITE Visitor Center for 4.8 kilometers and turn right onto Huka Falls Road. Go another 3 kilometers and turn right into the car park by the bridge, following signs for Huka Falls. There is a cafe and gift shop at the Huka Falls Car Park.
Trailhead address: Huka Falls Road, Wairakei, Waikato, 3377, New Zealand
-38.6495, 176.0891 (38° 38′ 58.20″S 176° 05′ 20.76″E)
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