We stumbled over a picture of Omanawa Falls on Instagram and after reading more about it, we had our minds set on going. We read online that the official trail to the falls had been closed off years ago due to safety concerns, but locals had created an unofficial path down to the base of the falls. That path has also officially been closed for public access, but with a little climbing, you can get on the trail. We don’t encourage people to go as it can be dangerous and there have been a few accidents in the past, but if you decide to go here is how we did it.
Please only take this path if you’re in good shape, aware of the potential legal repercussions of going, and don’t mind scrambling a bit.
Omanawa Falls are a 20 minute drive from Tauranga. Access to the trail is on Omanawa Road in the Bay of Plenty region, about 10.5km down the road after turning from Highway 29. The trail head is on the left side coming from Tauranga/Auckland. There is a big gate stating that the track to Omanawa Falls is closed. The trail doesn’t have proper parking and isn’t overly easy to spot, but if you keep an eye out you’ll be able to find it.
Big signs stating that the trail is closed shouldn’t make you think it’s unsafe on this portion since the first 10 minutes of the trail are very easy and will lead you to a lookout over the falls. Shortly before reaching the lookout there is a metal fence blocking the path. At the time we visited, a big hole had been cut into the fence and it was easy to climb through. A few meters after that fence we got a first look at the falls from above.
Omanawa Falls is a beautiful plunge waterfall in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by steep cliffs and native New Zealand forest. The lookout path leads to a gated off tunnel which leads to the bottom of the falls and a water pump that fed the southern hemisphere’s first underground power station. Unfortunately access to the tunnel, which would make the bottom of the falls a quick stroll, has been closed off to the public.
To get to the unofficial path you need to get past a big red metal gate that is to your rear right as you face the tunnel. If you climb the first few stairs you can swing yourself easily around the side of the metal gate and onto the path to the falls.
The path is very steep in places and goes up a hill into the forest. After 10 or 15 minutes of ascent the path levels off, follow the furthest left path which leads to the descent toward the falls.
The descent starts of relatively easy but comes across some sketchy spots. In one part there is a sheer drop to your left and most of the path has been washed away. With a bit of care and by holding onto some roots, it’s manageable. Shortly after that drop-off is a rope tied to a tree, which you’ll need to hold and lower yourself down a 3 or 4 meter steep drop.
After you’ve come down the portion with the rope it is relatively easy going. There are three somewhat sketchy ladders propped against the hill that you’ll need to descend. After the last ladder the path meets up with the official trail (from the inaccessible tunnel) and leads to a wooden staircase down the last 10-20 meters to the bottom of the falls.
At the bottom we were greeted by the mystical surroundings of Omanawa Falls. The wooden stairway leads to a small platform next to the water pump station. The noise coming from the generator running the station is the only thing disrupting the peace and beauty of Omanawa Falls.
Behind the falls is a big cave and the water in the lagoon was very clear. We climbed on to some of the big rocks surrounding the lagoon and David wanted to see the cave up close so he decided to jump into the freezing cold water, despite it being winter and not very warm.
The water is quite cold year round, so be careful if it’s a cold day and you’re swimming alone. The surroundings, the journey to get there, and the waterfall itself make it my favorite waterfall in New Zealand so far. If you’re in good shape, understand the danger, and are up for a little adventure then and we highly recommend a visit.
Only a 15 minute drive from Omanawa Falls lays another beautiful waterfall, McLaren Falls. The waterfall is impossible to miss if you get onto McLaren Falls Road as the road turns into a bridge leading over the falls. We were visiting the falls in winter, so it had been raining a lot lately and the water flow was pretty strong. In summer or when it hasn’t been raining much the water levels are very low due to a dam just upstream from the falls.
A few times in summer each year the hydroelectric company running the dam releases the water, which can be observed from the bridge. We got lucky with the water flow and got to admire the powerful McLaren Falls from up close. While it may not be quite as mystical as Omanawa Falls, it is definitely worth the visit if it’s been raining recently.
If you liked this make sure you check out nearby volcanic Rotorua!