Flowing through the heart of this national park, the Whanganui River begins its journey high on the mountains of Tongariro National Park and travels 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 waterway as their spiritual ancestor.
The river's wilderness, its rich culture and history, and its relatively easy navigability are the 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 at any time. Two major two- to three-day walks and many shorter ones explore the lowland forest. 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.