Access 13, or the Pillars of Hercules Run, is a very scenic run that can be scratched through at residual flows in a packraft. It is generally only kayaked on scheduled release days. The tracks in and out are tricky. Above this run is the deadly Tree Trunk Gorge and below it another deadly stretch above Waikato Falls. You must know the take-out as the bottom gorge can not be run (a kayaker died here in late 2019).
If you base yourself at Urchin or Kaimanawa camp sites off Kaimanawa road you can walk to the put in. A car shuttle is easy. Drive back south on SH1 to Tree Trunk Gorge Road and drive until you cross the bridge. Check out the spectacular view of the Tree Trunk Gorge beneath the bridge. Leave a car at the Bridge on Kaimanawa Road. If hitching convince your ride they must see the Tree Trunk Gorge view from the bridge (or walk 4 km from the highway).
From the Bridge above Waikato Falls walk up the gravel road past the Urchin campsite turn-off until you reach the Kaimanawa campsite (half an hour). Then follow the well-graded tramping/mountain bike track to Tree Trunk Gorge Road (one hour max). Immediately after the last sidestream before the road, there is a signposted access to the river. Use this if you don’t mind missing the spectacular paddle upstream into the bottom of Tree Trunk Gorge (don’t miss it). Carry on up the track until it approaches the cliff-edge. There may be a spike in the ground used for lowering gear (present in Feb 2020). Work your way carefully down to the river. If it’s wet and slippery rig a safety line with your throw bag.
The best access, used by kayakers, is on river left at the bridge. An obscure entry leads to a well defined track to a cliff edge where boats are lowered. A track marked with ribbons winds around to the left and then steeply down to the river. There are some ropes to assist (test them before you trust them).
On the River
Paddle upstream a few hundred metres on flat water through an overhanging gorge to the base of the last drop on Tree Trunk Gorge. This Tree Trunk Gorge above this last drop has claimed the lives of a number of paddlers including some who were unaware of its existence. Don’t get too close to the base of the waterfall, view it from a safe distance.
From the gorge down it’s pretty straight forward Class II+ or technical III at low flow. In places the channel splits and it’s a guessing game. Be wary of pins in the steep boulder banks.
Most rapids are boulder banks. At higher flows of say 10m3 after rain it can be solid Class III or during a release Class III +. We ran it in June 2023 (Rangipo gauge said only 0.6m3) with the sidestreams generating a good flow. There was a lot of technical Class III and some rapids are better walked due to their steep bouldery nature with potential for pins and wood.
After an hour the river meets a huge cliff, the Pillars of Hercules, with a narrow flat-water gorge cut through it. You can get out before the Pillars gorge on river left where a walking track leads you back to the road between Urchin and Kaimanawa Campsites. Stop at the entrance to the Pillars of Hercules with the bridge visible above you. It may be possible to paddle through for the scenery and paddle back upstream. From the entrance to the Pillars mini-gorge pack your gear and walk back upstream on river left about 300m, then cut across the terrace to a sheer bluff wall. You will find a spot where the bluff yields slightly and you can scramble up a gut in the face. It can be slippery and a little exposed. At the top hang right and you’ll find the track.
If you end up paddling through the Pillars and out the other side there is a stream on river left that you can ascend to the same track. Alternatively, there’s some nice river below so paddle on. After some more Class II/III below the Pillars watch out for overhead transmission lines. There is one rapid after these and then a stretch of flat water to the take-out. Below the take-out is a section that can not and must not be paddled. As recently as 2019 the unpassable gorge took the life of a kayaker. The bits that kill can not be seen from the road.
Do not go past the sign that says “do not pass this point”. Note you do have to look to river left to see this sign.
From the sign head perpendicular to the river until you cross a small stream or wet gut. From this point a rather precarious track leads up the cliff angling to the north. Halfway up you may see ropes that are used to pull kayaks up. The difficulty of this portage means it is run a lot less than it might be. But for Packrafters it’s an easy 15 minute walk to the bridge where you can look at the nasty gorge or walk on 5 minutes to the access 10 put in.
Some parties abseil into the pool immediately above Waikato Falls to take the drop. Do some research before even contemplating this.
The nature of the river that is visible from the road is quite different to the wide river bed between the gorges so it needs more water than you would think. We ran it at a couple of cumec in February so it should be do-able for much of the year. Release days are scheduled and the river is a mighty Class III+ on those days. The Tongariro at Rangipo gauge only shows what passes the dam and this is usually less than a cumec. This is because the river is part of a hydro scheme which takes much of the water through tunnels around this section and then dumps it back in the river below Waikato Falls. Water is then removed again at the Poutu Canal intake.
The flow in the Pillars of Hercules run is mainly residual flow from the Waihohonu and various Desert Road streams (the ones that make the road wind around their gullies). Have a look at how much water is flowing through Tree Trunk Gorge and then decide. The flow of the Waipakahi (which becomes the Tongariro River after Rangipo Dam) is probably indicative of whether the Desert Road side-streams will be up.
In summer it may have only a couple of cumec. This means sliding down wet boulders in some places and walked in others but it is still a nice trip. As the flow increase the difficulty rapidly climbs. Apparently the gauge should be above 10m3 for this trip to shine. We ran it in June 2023 with the gauge at 0.6m but a lot of water was coming down sidestreams and it felt like 5-10 cumec. This made for pretty full on Class III on the boulder banks. So it’s not a place for Class II paddlers.