Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park in New Zealand and the largest on the North Island. Gifted to the nation by the Ngāti Tuwharetoa people in 1887, this stunning mountainous region provided much of the dramatic scenery for the Lord of the Rings films.

The park has a spectacular combination of dense forest, wild open countryside, crater lakes, barren lava fields, and rock-strewn mountain slopes. Its rugged beauty and convenient location, almost in the center of the North Island, make it the most popular and accessible of New Zealand's parks. Three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu, tower above its Central Plateau overlooking miles of untamed country that stretch to the West Coast on one side and the aptly named Desert Road on the other. The volcanoes are no sleeping giants; Tongariro is the least active, but Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu have both erupted in recent years. In 1995, 1996, and again in 2007, Ruapehu spewed ash, created showers of rock, and released lahars (landslides of volcanic debris) that burst through the walls of the crater lake.

Best Time to Go

Your best window for decent weather is November through March, and the busiest time is between Christmas and New Year. Keep in mind, however, that even during summer you may feel like you're experiencing all four seasons in a single day, with weather ranging from hot and sunny to cool and rainy, and even snowy at higher elevations. In winter, cold alpine conditions are not uncommon. Suitable clothing should always be carried and sensible footwear worn.

Best Activities

Hiking and Tramping. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been described as the best one-day walk in the world. Approach it with the expectation that sudden changes of weather, even during summer, are always possible. There are numerous other trails covering the area and various types of accommodations, from cheap backpacker campgrounds to lodges and at least one first-class hotel. Most of these will organize transport to get the keen walkers to places where hikes can vary from an hour to several days. The longer trails will have huts to provide basic overnight stopovers.

Horseback Riding. Horses were brought to New Zealand by white settlers in 1814, and within a few years herds of feral horses were common. One, known as the Kaimanawa Wild Horses, established itself on the Central Plateau, virtually under the eastern shadow of Mt. Ruapehu. For a number of years they have been confined to a protected area, and travelers often catch a glimpse of these horses from Desert Road, State Highway 1.

Skiing. June through October (give or take a week or two, depending on conditions), the slopes of Mt. Ruapehu come to life with hundreds of skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. On occasion the runs have to be cleared when the mountain’s crater lake threatens to overflow, but this hasn't decreased the area's popularity. The combined fields of Turoa and Whakapapa form the largest ski slope in New Zealand and have brought a measure of prosperity to the once sleepy villages of National Park and Ohakune.

Viewing Volcanoes. Massive and downright awesome, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu dominate from whichever direction one approaches, and the views from Desert Road are a photographer's dream. If you travel from the south on State Highway 1 on a clear day, the first glimpse of Ruapehu as the road crests will take your breath away. Farther north on the same road, the enormous, almost perfectly truncated, cone-shaped bulk of Ngauruhoe looms alongside a series of hairpin bends.

One-Day Itinerary

The best one-day itinerary is indisputably the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The 19.4-km (12½-mile) walk starts and finishes in different places, so make arrangements for drop-off and pickup points. Several firms and most lodgings will organize this at a reasonable charge . Check on the condition of the trail before you depart—there have been geological disturbances and, as a result, some parts of the track may not be accessible. Good footwear is essential and you should carry warm clothing, even in summer. Bring food and drink because there's none to be found along the route.

The trail makes its way up the Mangatepopo Valley, a reasonable incline running by a stream and old lava flows. It's a harsh environment for vegetation, but you’ll spot moss and lichens and occasional wetland plants. It's a steep climb to the Mangetepopo Saddle, which lies between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, but the views on a clear day can seem endless. For the adventurous, an unmarked track leads to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom if you're a Lord of the Rings fan). It's very steep and estimated to be a three-hour trip; adding this excursion requires a high level of fitness. The main trail proceeds to the south crater of Tongariro to a ridge leading up Red Crater. Here you can often smell sulfur. Rising 6,120 feet, the Red Crater's summit is the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. From here the trail has a lot of loose stones and gravel and is extremely rough underfoot as it descends down to three smaller water-filled craters known as the Emerald Lakes (so named for their brilliant greenish color). The trail then continues across Central Crater to the Blue Lake to lead across the North Crater and downhill all the way to the Ketetahi Hut, where you'll be glad to sit and take a breather. Afterward, hike on to the springs of the same name; these are on private land, which the trail artfully skirts, but their steam cloud is impossible to miss. From here it’s pretty much all downhill through tussock slopes to the start of the bush line and a long descent through forest to your pickup at the end. As you fall asleep in the transport (and no doubt you will), you'll delight in the knowledge that you have accomplished something to boast about for years to come.

Three-Day Itinerary

Serious walkers with time to spare might wish to tackle the Tongariro Northern Circuit. This well-marked 43-km (26½-mile) route, which encompasses parts of the shorter Tongariro Alpine Crossing, offers up volcanic terrain and outstanding mountain vistas. Hikers following it can take advantage of several comfortable, well-maintained huts. These must be booked in advance at the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre for the “Great Walks Season” (the third week in October to the last week in April); at other times, hut availability is on a first come–first served basis. Note that the circuit is best tackled in the warmer months (November through March), and a good degree of fitness is required.

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