Flowing through the heart of this national park, the historic and scenic Whanganui River begins its journey high on the mountains of Tongariro National Park and flows 329 km (204 miles) through steep gorges, forested wilderness, and isolated pockets of farmland. For several hundred years the Te Atihau nui a paparangi tribe of Māori has lived along the riverbanks, and they still regard the river as their spiritual ancestor.
The river's wilderness, its rich culture and history, and its relatively easy navigability are its main draws. Scenic jet-boat trips operate throughout the year from several points along the river. Single and multiday kayak trips, both guided and independent, are extremely popular. Most visitors kayak in summer, but a river trip is feasible any time of year. Two major two- to three-day walks and many shorter walks explore the lowland forest and history of the river. Totaling 317 km (197 miles), the Mountains to Sea—Nga Ara Tuhono Cycle Trail traverses remote forest tracks (challenging for mountain bikes) and roads through Tongariro and Whanganui national parks from Mt. Ruapehu to the river's mouth. It can be ridden in stages.