Despite the (relative) proximity of New Zealand, it has been a long time since I’ve done an overnight hike, or tramp, here. Twenty one years, almost to the day, since I completed a six-day walk at Nelson Lakes with friends during the long University summer break. So I’m excited to be heading over for a weekend to do the 43km Tongariro Northern Circuit – which ends up being 59km with a few side-trips. (A couple of years later I’m back for the longer Round the Mountain tramp, which is a much more challenging route.)
I’ve managed to book a camping spot a month or so ago (all the huts were totally booked, although I much prefer a tent then a full hut!) and a basic room at the Skotel Alpine Resort in Whakapapa for the night before my hike. Having flown from Sydney on the Friday before the hike, it’s a slightly inauspicious start when the Quarantine Service “loses” my tent on arrival at Auckland airport. Or to be more precise, after I hand it over for inspection they return it to someone else and have no idea when it might be brought back! So I’m happy when I finally get to Whakapapa village around 11pm, ready for an early start the next day. Even though I’ve booked a camping spot and I’m about to set-off without a tent…
I’m up at 6am the following day, with the start of the Tongariro Northern Circuit being only a few minutes walk from the hotel. Directly ahead is Mount Ngauruhoe. I’ll be seeing a lot more of this conical, volcanic peak over the next day and a half!
Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (Day 1)
The gravelled track rises gently from the trackhead: the signage here is not very clear, and I soon have a suspicion that I’m not on the track I should be! (I’m actually on the Round the Mountain Track and not the Mangatepopo Track that I should be on! I’ve planned on doing the track clockwise so I have a long first day.)
It’s easy walking, through a few patches of beech forest, but mostly grassland.
After about half an hour there’s a sign showing the extent of the lava flow from the Tongariro and Ruapehu volcanoes. I guess it’s helpful to have an idea how far I need to run, if Mount Ngauruhoe, which is still active, erupts in the next day or so! (One of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand, Ngauruhoe first erupted 2,500 years ago, with the most recent one being in 1977.)
As the Tongariro Northern Circuit track crosses Wairere Stream, there’s a great view of the snow-covered Mount Ruapehu to the south. Another active volcano – the largest in New Zealand – Ruapehu is also the highest point on the North Island with three major peaks. It too will be a fairly constant sight for much of this trip!
Just after crossing Wairere Stream is a junction with the track to Taranaki Falls (the track I’m on continues to Waihohonu Hut – which is not where I want to go!) I take the turn-off down a set of steep steps down to the base of the impressive Taranaki Falls. The Wairere Stream falls 20 metres over the edge of a large lava flow, with a large volume of water coming from what seems to be a small crack in the rocks.
The Taranaki Falls Track follows the Wairere Stream downstream: it’s pleasant walking with the trail following the river fairly closely.
When the track is not close by the river, it goes through patches of semi-rainforest, well shaded from the morning sun.
I’m finally on the Mangatepopo Track and back on the correct Tongariro Northern Circuit route. The Mangatepopo Track soon leaves the forest and travels through tussock grass and low heath. It has been a bit of a detour going via the Falls, taking me almost 2.5km and at least half an an hour longer than what it would have been if I’d started on the Mangatepopo Track. But it meant I got some nice photos of Taranaki Falls without any people around.
Although my guide book says the previously very muddy track has been upgraded and improved and is fairly easy walking, the owner of the Skotel where I stayed last night suggested I skip this section and take a shuttle to Mangatepopo Road. It’s the most boring section of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, he warns me. I’m tempted, but I like the idea of completing the entire circuit. As I walk along this section, seeing only a handful of other people, I’m glad I chose to do this part of the circuit. The only downside is that it is quite exposed – and I’m walking into the morning sun.
Directly ahead is Pukeonake (1,225m) – the smallest volcanic crater on the plateau, and inactive unlike its bigger brothers (or sisters)!
This section of the Tongariro Northern Circuit is generally flat, although it frequently drops into small valleys formed by small streams. Sometimes there’s a sturdy bridge across the bigger creeks, and other times a bit of a steep scramble down and back up the other side. Despite a few muddy sections, most of the streams are completely dry. I can imagine it would be a far less pleasant and more time-consuming journey after a few days of heavy rain.
After about three hours (12.2km) my nice quiet track merges with the main Tongariro Crossing Track, and I’m joined by a few people. Actually, a huge amount of people. If my car wasn’t three hours walk away, I think I would have given up. It really was unpleasant: more of a Ghastly Walk than a Great Walk. I make a brief stop at the Mangatepopo Hut, where I fill up my water bottle, before reluctantly re-joining the queue of hikers.
Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (Day 1)
Did I mention it was busy… The Tongariro Crossing has been referred to as “one of the best day hikes in the world”, attracting over 100,000 visitors per year. Overcrowding has been recognised as an issue at Tongariro in recent years: “visitor numbers have reached breaking point. Tourists bring about $20 million a year to the region, but crowding has started to devalue the experience.” So on a fairly nice day, on a weekend, in the January school holidays I didn’t expect to have the track to myself – I just wasn’t prepared for the volume of people. I plod on, trying to stay clear of a (fortunately) small number of dickheads who felt the scenery would be enhanced by broadcasting music from their backpacks. Unfortunately if you’re doing Tongariro Northern Circuit you can’t avoid this section – although I’ve added some tips at the bottom on avoiding the worst of the crowds.
From Mangatepopo Hut, the track starts to climb – very gently at first – over a series of old lava flows. Next to the track is the Mangatepopo Stream, which originates nor far away on the slopes of Mt Tongariro. (The water from the stream is not suitable for drinking, as it contains dissolved minerals – fill up at the Mangatepopo Hut as there’s isn’t any water along the Tongariro Crossing track for a while.)
It’s only about 45min to the side-track to Soda Springs Falls, which is also a popular spot for having a break after the initial ascent. The springs are on the western slope of Mt Tongariro, and are only a 300m (10 minute) walk from the main track.
The stream supports a wide swath of grasses and yellow buttercups, in stark contrast to the bare volcanic landscape that’s devoid af any green-ness.
From Soda Springs the path ascends quite steeply, after some warning signs advising of the general dangers of proceeding past the signs. Since most people would have arrived on a shuttle bus (parking is limited to four hours), I’m not quite sure what you’re supposed to if you suddenly decide you don’t want to go any further. (I’ve since been advised that – if you have mobile reception – you can call the shuttle to come and pick you up if you turn back.). Like many other walks, the signs follows the general trend of warning everyone that they’ll probably die a horrible death if they proceed past the sign. Looking back down the Mangatepopo Valley, it’s a very barren landscape, with the smaller volcanic peak of Pukeonake at the far end.
Mount Ngauruhoe summit climb
Just before the Tongariro Northern Circuit track reaches South Crater, there’s an obvious but unmarked trail up to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe. A fictional volcano in the Lord of the Rings movie, Ngauruhoe – or Mt Doom – represented the endpoint of Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy the Ring. Both Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu were used in the movie, but no filming was permitted of the summit of Ngauruhoe as the Māori believe all mountain peaks be sacred. I learn this later when writing this blog post, and it explains why there is no signage and very few people hiking up the sleep slope. The signs showing the summit route were removed in the summer 2017, and for reasons I can’t understand there were no new signs erected explaining that the mountain peak is sacred. You’ll find most older maps and brochures still show the route to the summit. Since I haven’t heard of any other mountain peaks where access has been removed, it’s all a bit confusing!
(You’ll have to make up your own mind: the main track was so busy that even with the knowledge that the Māori prefer you don’t climb, I think I would have taken this detour just to get away from the crowds!)
The climb is hard work and progress is slow – while there’s a rough track at the beginning, as you gain altitude you more or less need to find your own route up the scree slope. Consisting of very loose tephra (“fragmental material produced by a volcanic eruption”), it’s a slippery slope and I seem to be sliding backwards more than I am making forward progress. I really can’t imagine how you could have hundreds of people all trying to make their way up here, and I suspect that the real reason the signage was removed and people discouraged from making the ascent was more for safety reasons. The smaller the tephra the harder it is to climb, so I find the easiest route is along a low ridge of larger rocks.
As I gain altitude, I can see the Tongariro Crossing / Tongariro Northern Circuit track crossing the South Crater and climbing up the steep spur to Blue Lake; Mount Tongariro is obscured by a band of thick cloud which is heading towards me!
I finally reach a ridge just below the summit, which I almost claim as victory. But from here I can’t see into the crater, so I persevere…
The crater itself is a little underwhelming: I’m not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps a cauldron of boiling lava, or at least some steam hissing from the bottom… it looks quite benign for an active volcano.
What is interesting is the many different colours of the volcanic rock, from almost black to bright red (the red colour being from oxidised iron in the rock).
It’s much quicker and easier going down, although I still find it strenuous as the terrain is very inconsistent. Sometimes the tephra is quite deep and you can almost glide down the slope (although I suspect if you saw me, the word “glide” would not be in the first hundred words you’d think of) and other times a thin layer of fine scoria on top of larger rocks makes it quite treacherous. Nevertheless, with thick cloud descending on the mountain I make the descent back to the main track in about an hour.
As I re-shoulder my overnight pack and continue along the Tongariro Crossing / Tongariro Northern Circuit track, I notice it’s much quieter. Where previously I was in the middle of the huge day-tripping queue, almost everyone is now ahead of me. The hike has become a lot more enjoyable, as I complete the last few hundred metres up to the South Crater.
The South Crater is technically not a crater, but a basin that is thought to be have been created by a glacier and later filled with sediment. While my map showed a small lake near the track, the entire “crater” was dry. The track across the South Crater is completely flat, until the climb at the far end up the ridge to Red Crater.
The track up the ridge to Red Crater is fairly steep and a bit slippery in parts… but a piece of cake after the scree slope of Mount Ngauruhoe!
Looking back from the half-way up the ridge up to Red Crater, the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe is still shrouded in thick cloud, and you can get a sense of the the huge size of the South Crater.
Looking east over the Kaimanawa Forest Park and Desert Road it’s a bleak landscape, with not a tree in sight. The only vegetation that seems to survive is the white mountain daisy (Celmisia incana) which grows in dense patches of shade between some of the rocks.
The final stretch of the Te Arawhata ridge goes to the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing (and Tongariro Northern Circuit) – other than the Ngauruhoe peak – at 1886m above sea level.
From this point there’s sweeping views to the east and Mount Ngauruhoe to the south, as well as into the Red Crater. There’s a path from here to the summit Tongariro, which is obvious but unmarked (as with the Mount Ngauruhoe, signage was removed in 2017).
Within the Red Crater is a formation known as a “dike” (or “dyke”), formed by molten magma moving to the surface through a vertical channel in the crater wall and then solidifying. As the magma drains out, it leaves the dike partially hollow. The red colour is from high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock.
From the top of Red Crater the track heads steeply downhill over loose scree, and caution is needed… this is arguably the most spectacular part of the walk. Below are the Emerald Lakes (Ngā Rotopounamu) and in the distance Blue Lake (Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa or “Rangihiroa’s mirror”). The Tongariro Alpine Crossing track is clearly visible crossing the Central Crater and ascending to the Blue Lake.
Near the Emerald Lakes the Tongariro Crossing and Tongariro Northern Circuit routes separate: I’ll be heading east down the Oturere Valley.
The Emerald Lakes, the result of previous volcanic explosions, are an incredible colour as a result of minerals washing down from the Red Crater.
Once I reach the largest of the Emerald Lakes, I take a slight divergence from the main track and head around the southern side of the second-largest of the lakes. This takes me past some of the fumaroles that are venting steam, with temperatures up to 138°C.
The hot and sulphuric steam has completely covered some of the rocks with a thick white coat.
Up close to one of the Emerald Lakes you can see that despite (or perhaps because of) the dissolved minerals, they support a dense layer of marsh-like grasses around the perimeter.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit track is pretty rough here as it continues to descend into the Oturere valley: in the distance is the Kaimanawa Ranges and Rangipo Desert.
I’ve seen a waterfall in the distance, which is the Oturere Falls. The Oturere Stream flows down from the Emerald Lake and cascades into the Oturere Valley. Although the track roughly follows the Oturere Stream and looks tantalizingly close on the topo map, it’s never close enough to fill the water bottle. And if the water originates from the Emerald Lakes, it might not taste too good! This entire section from Soda Springs is completely dry, and while I’ve got enough water I could have used more than the 1.5L I’m carrying. This is the longest section of the Tongariro Northern Circuit without any water source.
The stark, moon-like (and water-less!) desert landscape was caused by two million years of volcanic eruptions, especially the Taupo eruption a mere 2000 years ago, which coated the landscape with a thick layer of pumice. As a reminder of the volcanic forces that sculpted the terrain, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu are visible above the valley.
I’m glad to finally reach the Oturere Hut around 4pm, where I can fill up my water bottle from the tank and have a break. Behind the cozy hut is a small camping ground, and at the end of the camping ground there’s a view of the Oturere Stream tumbling down the valley.
Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (Day 1)
From the Oturere Hut the Tongariro Northern Circuit track skirts the eastern flank of Ngauruhoe, and heads straight towards Mount Ruapehu. It’s still a fairly “volcanic” landscape, but there’s more tussock grass and signs of life.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit track is generally flat, but crosses multiple valleys. The first one looks pretty dry from a distance, but there’s a trickle of water in the stream.
The next few valleys are dry, and between them the track crosses some large, open gravel fields.
After about four kilometres the track swings to the east and follows the top of a long ridge. Directly behind me is Mount Ngauruhoe.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit track eventually drops from the ridge into the valley, bringing the welcome sight of trees and lush green vegetation. Although I know that each step I take descending to the Waihohonu Stream means a step uphill on the other side of the valley, it’s nice to be walking under a canopy of trees.
At the bottom I take the backpack off and have a short break by the fast flowing river, refilling my water bottle, rinding my feet and enjoying the peaceful surroundings. I haven’t seen a soul since the Emerald Lakes (except for the people staying at Oturere Hut), and it feels like days since I was with the hoards of people along the Tongariro Crossing!
The track follows the Waihohonu Stream for a short distance, before crossing it over a timber bridge. There would have been an idyllic camping spot by the stream just after river crossing, although you’re only supposed to camp at designated sites… and in any case, my tent is still at Auckland airport…
Although the Tongariro Northern Circuit track climbs fairly steeply back up to the top of the ridge through ferns and beech forest, it’s easy walking and doesn’t take long to reach the top.
I’m getting close to Waihohonu Hut, my destination for today… as the track descends I can see the hut in the broad valley, at the edge of another patch of forest.
There’s another nice section of thick forest and a sturdy metal bridge over a branch of the Waihohonu Stream, and I’ve reached the hut!
It’s almost 8pm, and I’m just in time to catch the Hut Warden, Dani Patterson, talking about the history of the hut and local area. Waihohonu Hut is the “Taj Mahal” of the TTongariro Northern Circuit huts; the biggest and best of them with a large communal area and kitchen as well as an outdoor area with picnic benches. The hut is full, but I explain my predicament of being unintentionally tentless (no pun intended) and Dani is extremely helpful. While there is no spare tent I can borrow, she suggests a few areas of the hut where I can bunker down for the night, and even upgrades my ultralight sleeping mat for a deluxe air mattress! The first day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit has been a long one, but incredibly scenic!
There’s still a few hours of daylight left, so before cooking dinner I make the short trip to Ohinepango Springs. The well-marked track heads south to the natural spring, crossing a tributary of the Ohinepango Stream not far from the hut.
After following the Ohinepango Stream (or one of its upper branches) for a while, the track ends up at the spring. The water emerges from under an old lava flow, although it’s not exactly obvious that it’s a spring. There’s a huge volume of water, which is cold and tastes great.
There’s a bit of colour in the sky and the moon is rising as I get back to Waihohonu Hut, ready for dinner and good night’s sleep.
Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa village (Day 2)
The wind is howling with gusts of up to 80 km/h and rain is forecast all night, so I’m not in a hurry to leave the hut in the morning… Fortunately and almost exactly as forecast, the rain stops and the sky starts to clear at 8am as I set off for the last leg of the Tongariro Northern Circuit.
Less than a kilometre from Waihohonu Hut, I make the very short detour to the historic Waihohonu Hut. Built in 1904 to accommodate park visitors and tourists travelling by coach from Waiouru or Tokaanu, it was replaced by a new Waihohonu hut in 1968. It was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park and the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. Overnight use has been discouraged since 1979, and it has been preserved as example of the typical early two-room mountain huts.
From the historic Waihohonu Hut the track heads west, following an upper branch of the Waihohonu Stream.
Mount Ruapehu is to the south…
…and to the north is Mount Ngauruhoe, wearing a skirt of thick cloud that refuses to leave the mountain.
The track gradually ascends towards the Tama saddle, undulating a little as it negotiates a few valleys created by streams.
There are some sections of boardwalk and occasionally a few wet sections where water flows through the tussock grass and over the gravel, but it’s fairly easy walking through the open country.
Tama Lakes side-trip
Just after the climb up to the Tama saddle, there’s a sign-posted side trip to the Tama Lakes, two crater lakes formed by a series of volcanic explosions. I leave my overnight backpack at the junction and head down the boardwalk.
The Lower Tama Lake is reached very quickly, with mimimal ascent. There’s interpretative signage about how the lakes were created, and even a bench made of tussock grass on which to sit and admire the view of the lake, and Mount Ruepehu behind it to the south. However, the views of Lower Tama Lake get better as you head up the steep and rocky ridge.
At the top of the steep ridge is a view of Upper Tama Lake, below Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s extremely windy, otherwise it would be tempting to slide down the other side of the ridge for a swim in the lake (although, in the same way that summits are considered sacred to the Māori, I believe swimming in the alpine lakes is also discouraged).
It has taken just over an hour to see the two lakes, and I think it’s worth doing the detour off the main Tongariro Northern Circuit track. I continue west along the main track, which crosses six streams before reaching Taranaki Falls.
The track undulates gently through endless tussock grass, and is mostly boardwalk or compacted gravel. There’s a few more people around including some families with young children, with Tama Lakes a day-walk destination from Whakapapa village.
I’m soon back at the top of Taranaki Falls, which compared to the previous morning is a lot busier. It’s another very popular destination and picnic spot. (I’m glad I stopped by the falls at the start of the Tongariro Northern Circuit.)
I complete the circuit via the Taranaki Falls track along the Wairere Stream, which has another nice cascade just below the main falls.
As the track descends, the Wairere Stream becomes much tamer and – if it was a few degrees warmer – I would have found a quiet spot for a swim. There are a few older kids carrying towels who seem to know where the best swimming spots are.
The end is now in sight, with Chateau Tongariro (built in 1929) visible in the distance… there’s one last section of beech forest and a stream to cross before I’m back at the car, finishing the Tongariro Northern Circuit around 2pm on the second day.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit has been a spectacular hike despite the somewhat soul-destroying crowds of the Tongariro Crossing. I’m keen to come back and do a few more of the NZ Great Walks – but I’ll plan to tackle these in the off-season months!
DAY ONE - Tongariro Northern Circuit 0.0km Whakapapa trackhead (Round the Mountain Track) 2.9km Junction with Taranaki Falls Track 4.6km Taranaki Falls Track meets Mangatepopo Track 12.2km Mangatepopo Hut 15.0km Side-track to Soda Springs 15.3km Soda Springs (optional side trip - 600m return) 17.3km Unmarked track to Mount Ngauruhoe summit (side-trip) 19.0km Mount Ngauruhoe summit (2,287m) 21.0km South Crater (flat section). Toilets located here. 22.8km Red Crater (1,886m) 28.2km Oturere Hut 33.9km Track crosses Waihohonu Stream 36.3km Waihohonu Hut 37.5km Ohinepango Springs 38.7km Waihohonu Hut DAY TWO - Tongariro Northern Circuit 39.4km Historic Waihohonu Hut 47.9km Junction with track to Tama Lakes 48.6km Lower Tama Lake 49.9km Upper Tama Lake 52.0km Back at main track 55.7km Junction with Taranaki Falls Track 59.2km Whakapapa trackhead (via Taranaki Falls track)
Tongariro Northern Circuit Tips
- Beat the crowds. The Tongariro Crossing gets super-busy in December/January – unless you enjoy crowds start very early – there are are some shuttles as early as 6am so you beat the crowds. Or if you’re doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit, considering leaving much later – by early afternoon you’ll have the track almost to yourself.
- Cook without gas. I brought my lightweight camping stove, which I did use – but discovered that all the huts have gas cooking rings, which helps if you’re trying to travel light.
- Don’t get burnt! Bring and apply plenty of sunscreen. The track is mostly exposed. I made the mistake of not applying sunscreen until about 10am, but even the early-morning sun will give you a sunburn.
- Bring lots of water. There are parts of the walk where you’re walking next to a stream for hours… but for about 15km along the Tongariro Crossing and down into the Oturere valley there is no water. I’d recommend carrying at least 2L for this section. (I never treated the tank water at the huts or water from streams, although it’s recommended you purify/boil the tank water).
- Wear decent shoes. You don’t need serious hiking footwear or gaiters (unless you’re doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit after heavy rain) – but I wouldn’t wear sandals as some people were wearing. There are steep sections with loose and sharp rocks, and you want something with grip that will also protect your feet.
Where to start the Tongariro Northern Circuit
There are multiple start/end points for the Tongariro Northern Circuit (around 4-5 hours drive from Auckland). The traditional starting point is Whakapapa, which has accommodation and some (limited) public transport.
- Whakapapa Village – this is the only trailhead with accommodation within walking distance and where you can leave your car. Shuttles from here will take you to the Mangatepopo trailhead or you can start/end here.
- Mangatepopo car park – starting point for Tongariro Crossing and serviced by shuttles. Max 4 hours parking in summer.
- Ketetahi Road – end point for Tongariro Crossing with overnight car parking available.
Accommodation near the Tongariro Northern Circuit
There are two hotels in Whakapapa Village and a camping ground. I’ve always stayed at the Skotel Alpine Resort, which is pretty good value and very close to to the start of the trails.
More information on Tongariro Northern Circuit
- DOC Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk brochure [PDF]
- DOC Tongariro Northern Circuit Track Guide [PDF]
- DOC Tongariro Crossing Map and Fact Sheet [PDF]
- NZ TopoMap – Tongariro Northern Circuit
- NewZealand.com – The Lord of the Rings Filming Locations