For years in my mind the Karangahake Gorge just marked a rough halfway between Auckland and Tauranga. I knew it as the winding road that’s usually flooded but does have some nice views to be seen out of the car window. However, a couple of years ago I packed up for the day and ventured across the river to explore a network of tracks that go far deeper into the gorge than I ever knew was there. The tracks take you right down by the rushing river and into authentic old mining tunnels in the pitch black. Once you discover these paths you’ll regret just passing through all this time!
Always check the weather and route alerts before you explore the outdoors and be prepared for the conditions. Tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back. Respect New Zealand’s environment, wildlife and land owners by following the Tiaki Promise. Leave only footprints, take only photos.
The Windows Walk is a 45-50 minute return track that will take you through the old mining tunnels. You won’t get very far at all on this walk without a torch or headlight; your phone’s torch will do but the brighter the better. It’s named the Windows Walk because every so often in the dark of the tunnels, there are ‘windows’ in the rock face that allow you to overlook the gorge from a great height. The large holes were once used to tip tiling into the Waitawheta Gorge below.
Begin at the car park and head over the river on the main bridge that transverses the river. Turn left towards a second swing bridge to cross that and keep right to begin along the track. You’ll head up a few stairs with the option to make a super short detour on your left to a lookout with a great view back over the river and car park. Follow the old mining railway tracks up and along the gorge’s huge embankment until they eventually lead you beyond the mouth of the tunnels. Turn on your torch or headlight and walk straight with some diversions on your right to check out the ‘windows’. When you emerge on the other side of the tunnels there is a set of stairs that you can descend to explore the swing bridge below. Beyond the swing bridge the Windows Walk links with Crown Walkway but this is closed indefinitely due to a danger of rockfall so when you’re done exploring, turn around and return via the same track.
This track is so much fun and I highly recommend pausing your drive through the gorge to check it out. If it’s a wet day (or has been raining recently), be aware that in the tunnels droplets from the ceilings will be getting you wet if you’re not wearing a rain jacket and keep an eye out in the dark for large puddles to avoid wet feet. I’d suggest not leaving your waterproof boots out in the rain the night before to then have to sacrifice your dry socks and a pair of sneakers on the track...learn from my mistakes. Remember your torch!
Rail Tunnel Loop Track
If you have the time to extend your adventure a little longer, this track can be perfectly combined with the Windows Walk in the Karangahake Gorge. The 45 minute (2.5km) Railway Loop Track will take you through an impressive old railway tunnel that is over 1km long and swings around to a well defined track closely following the river for the best views possible. The Rail Tunnel is well lit however you will benefit from a torch on this track too.
Start at the carpark and cross the main bridge. Take a few cute pictures at the information display then carry on to the right from there down the track. The track will take you to the Western Portal footbridge that passes over the road and leads you to the massive tunnel. The shaft is somewhat well lit but having your own torch will ensure you know exactly where you’re walking. It’s a fun adventure to walk through this historic railway relic and time seems to stretch on as you’re heading towards the light at the end of the tunnel (literally). When you emerge back into the day, you’ll cross the Eastern Portal Bridge that takes you over the Ohinemuri River. If you want to loop back around to your starting point, look out for a track immediately on your right after the bridge ends. If you continue straight rather than taking this loop track, you will be on the Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway which is significantly longer. The track will loop back to your starting point while dipping down right beside the river for an exciting and scenic walk.
If you want to combine this with the Windows Walk I’d recommend starting with the Railway Tunnel Loop and walk it in the direction described above. The loop track will finish right where the Windows Walk begins (immediately before you cross the small swing bridge). Perfect day out!
Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway
The Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway is a longer return option that passes by Owharoa Falls, Victoria battery and finishes at the antiquated Waikino Station where you can grab a well-deserved Tip Top or train ride before returning via the same track.
Begin this walkway by completing the first section of the Railway Tunnel Loop as described above. After emerging from the 1km Railway Tunnel and crossing the Eastern Portal Bridge over the river, keep walking straight. The track will take around 4 hours return and easily follows the river upstream on a flat gravel track. Eventually you’ll reach the entrance to Owharoa Falls and the Victoria Battery (or what’s left of it). Like most things in the Gorge, the battery has an important mining history. It was constructed in 1897 to crush quartz and was the largest of its kind in New Zealand at the time. The foundations and some ruins still stand, making it an impressive historical landmark on this walk. Once you’ve walked through the Battery there will be an underpass leading to Waikino Station that marks the end of your track.
While the Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway does show off a beautiful waterfall and a significant mining site, it didn’t particularly tickle my fancy. The track is long, gravel and flat with no defining features to entertain you for a four hour return trudge. The Battery and waterfall both have a car park which is like a knife in the heart after walking almost two hours (I prefer to hike to places only your legs will take you. If you’re happy with the walk, no worries!). I’d love to take a bike ride on this track (it is a section of the 173km long, Hauraki Rail Trail) and it’s ideal for biking with kids, being so flat, but probably I wouldn’t walk it again. I’d highly recommend making a side trip to these landmarks by vehicle if you don’t choose to walk the track in its entirety. To find the car parks, turn off the main road onto Waitawheta Road and either turn left (Victoria Battery) or park on the side of the road up a little further (Owharoa Falls) after the one lane bridge.
Side Trip: Owharoa Falls
This waterfall is so close to the main road you can almost hear it’s water singing in tune with the river as you drive past. The waterfall is six metres high and ends in an ideal swimming hole below. It’s the perfect rest stop during a summer roadie to cool off with a dip, stretch your legs for a look or have some lunch by the water. In the colder months it might be too much to brave a swim but the higher rainfall will turn this Fan waterfall into a raging spectacle you’ll want to see regardless. To get there, turn off of SH2 onto Waitawheta Road and look for a small unmarked parking bay on your right after you cross the one lane bridge. From there, grab your towel or camera and head down the small marked track by the roadside. After two minutes of walking, Owharoa Falls will open up in front of you!
Facilities: The car park has a modern toilet block and plenty of parking. There is a drinking fountain and drink bottle refill station. Dogs are allowed on a leash only. Maps and further information on all of the tracks are available on a board in the car park.
Next time you’re driving through the Karangahake Gorge I hope you plan to make it an adventure in itself with all these walks at your disposal! It’s location is accessible to many nearby cities, also giving you the option to dedicate your day to exploring the Gorges’ gorgeous twists and turns. You up for it?