When leaving The Coromandel and heading South, there is a sweet little stop off to stretch your legs and experience some of the natural and historical wonders of the North Island. Located between Waihi and Paeroa, Karangahake Gorge is an old gold mining site where you can hike through old caves, along train tracks and through tunnels from the mining days.
This area was once the busiest and most lucrative gold mining area in New Zealand. So a stop here not only provides you with beautiful nature but rich history. New Zealand is full of amazing outdoor activities, including hikes.
You could hike a trail every day while you are here and not even scratch the surface of what is offered for trails. Karangahake Gorge has been one of our favorites to date.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide)
The History of the Karangahake Gorge
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The Karangahake Gorge was formed by the flowing waters of the Ohinemuri River which cuts through the canyon dramatically. New Zealand’s Highway Number 2, a main national thoroughfare roughly follows the course of the river and the gorge, and before the modern paved road, there was an extensive rail system that also followed the pattern of the Karangahake Gorge, but that is no longer in use.
That railway was built here to help with the enormous mining operations that began work in the 1880s. Karangahake Gorge experienced a huge gold mining boom when prospectors discovered huge deposits in the rocks.
For decades, Karangahake mining operations accounted for almost half of New Zealand’s gold finds and prompted an influx of workers, miners and settlers from across the British Empire looking to strike it rich.
The gold boom proved short-lived, however, and today most of the old tunnels and mine shafts are abandoned, and the railway, which became unnecessary, was bypassed with a more convenient route that didn’t wind through the mountains of the range at Karangahake.
The towns became depopulated, and development stalled, but now tourism has provided a new emphasis for the service industry and helped find a use for the massive mining installations, tunnels and even the railway line that lay here in disuse but surrounded by glorious nature.
Our Visit to the Gorge
Our hike started by crossing one of two suspension bridges that hang over the Ohinemuri River. The river was low during our visit, so there was an abundance of exposed rocks that created small waterfalls and pools in the river.
Once we had crossed the two suspension bridges, we headed up the hills on a trail that walked us through some historical points and old buildings that pertained to the gold mining days. The structures were solid, even in ruins, and were completed with plaques to describe what they were and how they were used during their prime.
We then reached an area where gold cart tracks still existed. These parts of the trail lead us around the side of the mountain and into a tunnel. As we walked this part, it was easy to imagine the miners that worked on these hills and the stories they told their families about their time spent in the mines.
Not too long after coming across the track we were lead into a long tunnel. This tunnel was carved out in the stone as a way to transport the gold quickly from the other side of the mountain to the river for transport. The tunnels are so dark, without light you cannot see your hand in front of your face.
We stumbled through, catching a glimpse of the gorge below at various openings along the way. It was hard to not get a chill while walking through the damp tunnel and I couldn’t help but shine my light around in search of the shimmer that has so long been sought after in these hills.
After many years of mining the gorge and several tragedies, the government deemed the area too unsafe to continue mining. The area was purchased as a nature reserve and mining is no longer permitted. The gold will be forever held by nature.
If you find yourself in The Coromandel and are looking for a nice hike, stop off at Karangahake Gorge. The Karangahake Tunnel Loop Walk will take you back in time on a 45-minute loop.
Other Things to do at Karangahake Gorge
The Hauraki Rail Trail
The Hauraki Rail Trail is a rather modern development that has completely regenerated the old mining railway in Karangahake Gorge, and along much more of the length of its track too.
This trail is a long network of cycle tracks that can be biked or hiked, and the section at Karangahake Gorge is one of the best parts of the total 80 kilometers that are open to the public.
The trail connects the Thames in New Zealand to Waihi, and if you are looking to enjoy one of the most popular cycling routes in the country, then you can certainly use it as a way to really experience the Karangahake Gorge at the same time, either passing through or starting or ending at the gorge itself – the options are endless!
The Historic Walkway
The most impressive and encompassing walk to undertake is a hike (or indeed, a bike) along the Historic Walkway. The track roughly follows the course of the old railway line that ran between Paeroa and Waihi, and that now forms much of the Hauraki Rail Trail too.
Leave your car in the carpark at Karangahake Gorge, before following rail track, and then the river, all the way to the small town of Waikino, from where you can either walk back or hitch a ride back.
The total length of the Historic Walkway is 7 kilometers, which you can complete in around 2 hours of easy strolling, one way, so allow 4 hours for the complete return journey, if you choose to tackle this long section all the way to Waikino.
Along the route, you will see not only some incredible natural scenes but also the most historic parts of the gorge, as you pass old mining batteries, abandoned shafts, and darkened tunnels.
Rail Tunnel Loop
If you haven’t got time to complete the full walk on the Historic Walkway from Karangahake Gorge to Waikino and back again, then a great way to see the highlights of the gorge and get a taste of the intriguing mining history of the area, is to tackle the much shorter Rail Tunnel Loop.
The Rail Tunnel Loop uses the same route of the start of the Historic Walkway trail, before looping back again to the carpark.
From Karangahake you’ll follow the path to the Crown Battery, once a huge processing facility used in the mining operations, and now abandoned amongst the foliage, before making your way through the gloomy interior of a one-kilometer-long mining tunnel that cuts through the rock.
It’s an impressive hike, and after emerging into the sunlight from the tunnel, you’ll turn around to complete the loop back to Karangahake, instead of carrying on to Waikino, the route you’d take if attempting to complete the Historic Walkway in its entirety.
The Rail Tunnel Loop is the best way to see Karangahake Gorge if you are just passing through, as the return trip should only take around an hour, if not less, covering just 2.5 kilometers.
This wonderful walk will take you from Karangahake, across the marvelous suspension bridge that spans the river, to bring you into one of the old gold mining areas of the gorge. It’s a relatively short and easy walk at just 2.5 kilometers, but one that will soon have you immersed in the history of the Karangahake Gorge.
After crossing the river, you’ll walk through the tunnels carved into the cliffs by the miners, along with disused rail tracks and past the last vestiges of the gold boom.
The walk gets its name from the fact that the tunnels you’ll pass through had huge windows carved out of the rock to let in both light and air for the workers, and that now provide exceptional views over the scenery for tourists.
The Victoria Battery
Towards the end of the Historic Walkway, you’ll pass through the imposing ruins of the Victoria Battery, as you near the town of Waikino. If you aren’t walking the whole trail, you can easily drive to Waikino and walk the short path from town to the Victoria Battery instead.
Built at the end of the 19th century during the gold rush, this was an impressive installation that facilitated the crushing of rocks and ore to extract the gold.
Owharoa Falls is a beautiful collection of three waterfalls found in the Karangahake Gorge, just a few kilometers down the road from Karangahake, where you will have begun your hikes.
You can walk here along the trails, as the Historic Walkway will pass by on its way through to the Waikino, but if you are feeling lazy or are pressed for time, then there’s a carpark just off the main highway where you leave your vehicle, before taking the short stroll to the waterfalls.
These are lovely, layered, cascade waterfalls, and they are surrounded by beautiful forest and run into some great plunge pools below, where in summer, you will definitely want to cool off, especially if you’ve just hiked here.
Location and How to Travel to Karangahake Gorge
Karangahake Gorge is located in the North Island of New Zealand, with the nearest large and well-known cities of interest being Rotorua, Hamilton, Tauranga, and Auckland, making it perfectly suited to be included in any itinerary of the region.
While there are no major airports right next to the gorge itself, it’s easy to fly into the larger cities, especially Auckland, both domestically and internationally before making your way overland here. It’s around 2 hours by road from Auckland, 1 hour from Hamilton, 2 hours from Rotorua or 1 hour from Tauranga.
Book a day tour: Karangahake Gorge and Mount Maunganui from Auckland
The Karangahake Gorge itself is found between the two smaller towns of Paeroa and Waihi, which can both be used as bases if you fancy exploring the area on more than just a day trip.
These towns are actually in the Karangahake Gorge itself, and even if you are driving along the main highway, you’ll pass through the cavernous canyon and get a glimpse of the natural beauty of the area.
Most of the trails can be accessed from Karangahake town itself, where you can find plenty of parking, as well as shops and cafes and a few accommodation options too.
When to Visit Karangahake Gorge
Karangahake Gorge can be visited throughout the year, due to New Zealand’s lovely, temperate climate, however, your experience may vary depending on the exact season you are here.
The summer months bring lots of visitors and other tourists to New Zealand, and you’ll find that November through to March are generally the busiest times of year wherever you may be in the country, and Karangahake Gorge will be no exception to this rule, especially given its accessibility.
Summer brings with it scorching hot weather and while you’re unlikely to experience rain, you will find the hikes and trails become more difficult in the intense heat. Make sure you start your walks early in the day and pack plenty of water. In summer you’ll definitely want to save time on your itinerary for a stop off at any of the nearby waterfalls too!
Fall and Spring can be the most pleasant times of year to visit when it’s not too crowded and the weather isn’t intensely hot, as in summer. In Spring, you’ll find the gorge blooming with life and color, while in autumn, everything begins to turn to wonderful shades of brown, orange and yellow as the vegetation begins to shed its leaves across the area.
The cold months of winter appear between June and September, and you will find the gorge takes on a new character of its own, although the weather isn’t always exactly pleasant and it’s hardly a winter wonderland.
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