Round the Mountain (Ruapehu, NZ)

Round the Mountain is a challenging and undulating multi-day track that circles Mount Ruapehu on New Zealand’s North Island, traversing a mix of desert and forest landscapes.

The key word to describe this hike is “undulating”. Derived from the Latin word undula, meaning “wavelet”, hiking the Round the Mountain track is like traversing a never-ending series of waves. You’re either going down, or up, one of the 675** ridges and valleys along the trail. Sometimes it’s a small gully, other times it’s an enormous valley carved by glaciers as they retreated down Ruapehu thousands of years ago. Of course, I didn’t know this a few months ago when Connor, a fellow Scout Leader, suggested doing this hike. As much as I was looking forward to hiking with Connor and Jeffrey (also part of our Scout group) – rather than my usual sole hiking – I was thinking the four days we had planned for the hike was way too long…
** 675 is an entirely fictitious number. The actual number may well be much higher.

Distance Ascent Descent Time
Whakapapa to Waihahonu Hut 15.4km 327m 362m 4:30min
Waihahonu Hut to Rangipo Hut 14.4km 681m 220m 6:20min
Rangipo to Mangaturuturu Hut 25.2km 942m 1243m 10:15min
Mangaturuturu to Whakapapa 20.7km 793m 899m 8:30min

Day 1: Whakapapa village to Waihahonu Hut (15.4km)

We start our circuit at Whakapapa, one of several starting points for the hike and arguably the most convenient (as there is plenty of parking, as well as a few accommodation options). Having warmed up with an ascent of Mount Ruapehu in the morning, we set off down the Upper Taranaki Falls Track around 3pm (after making what we felt was a very sensible decision not to wait until the bar opened at 4pm for a quick beer before setting out). The well-formed track heads east towards Waihohonu Hut, with frequent views of the perfectly-formed volcanic cone of Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance.

This track forms part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit – a New Zealand “Great Walk” which I did the previous year – so the track is of a very high standard. We make good progress, with a quick stop at the river just above Tararaki Falls where I filter some water.

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After the Taranaki Falls turn-off, there are more views of Mount Ngauruhoe and of the track as it winds through the low tussock grass.

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The first third of today’s walk is generally uphill. The highest point is reached just before the Tama Saddle, where there is a side-track to the Lower Tama and Upper Tama lakes. The track then undulates (you’ll hear that word a few more times!) through a few valleys and across some streams, which are all dry.

The last third of the walk is generally downhill: there are more views to the north of Mount Ngauruhoe (a fairly common sight by now), and in front of us to the east of the Kaimanawa Range. (The Kaimanawa Range extends for 50 kilometres and forms part of the North Island Volcanic Plateau.)

As we get closer to Waihohonu Hut, the track reaches the Waihohonu Stream, where we have a brief rest and I fill up my water bottle again.

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There’s less than an hour from here to Waihohonu Hut, our destination for today. The track follows the Waihohonu Stream past Old Waihohonu Hut, and down to the new Waihohonu Hut, which we reach at about 8pm. I’m pleasantly surprised that the fairly modern, 28-bunk hut is busy but not at full capacity. (As Waihohonu Hut is one of the Tongariro Northern Circuit huts, it must be pre-booked and generally gets pretty busy – when I stayed here the previous year in January there was not a single spare bunk.)

Day 2: Waihahonu Hut to Rangipo Hut (14.4km)

We leave the crowds behind, as we swing south down the Round the Mountain Track – most people are continuing northwards around the Tongariro Northern Circuit. The day is overcast as predicted, with the likelihood of some rain later in the day. But for now we remain dry and enthusiastic! We see only one other solo hiker setting off down the same track as us, a young Kiwi tramper who is doing some hiking and climbing, and is sporting a 20-year old backpack that weighs about the same as all of our backpacks combined.

The track is initially very well-constructed, as it crosses the fast-flowing Ohinepango Stream and descends to the Ohinepango Springs. (A huge volume of cold and pure water discharges from underneath an old lava flow into the Ohinepango Stream, making it a good spot to replenish water bottles.)

From the Ohinepango Springs junction, the track becomes a “poled route” – and the fun begins! While the “track” is still obvious and easy to follow, it’s much rougher and scrambling is often required where erosion has resulted in deep gullies and channels.

It’s also our introduction to the “undulating” nature of the track over the next few days, with multiple ridges stretching out in front of us. Although the total elevation gain / loss of each day is never particularly large, it is more demanding than you’d expect as you’re constantly alternating between ascending and descending.

It takes us exactly two hours to cover the 6.1km to Mangatoetoenui Stream, which originates at the Mangatoetoenui Glacier near the top of Mount Ruapehu. This is also the first lahar path that we cross (lahars being volcanic mudflows triggered by heavy rain or melting snow and ice). Today the Mangatoetoenui Stream looks very benign; about 25 years ago (on 28 October 1995) heavy rain triggered the failure of deposits on the Mangatoetoenui Glacier and generated a lahar event that flowed over 15km downstream to the Tongariro River. We fill up water bottles again here and don raincoats, as the weather starts to close in.

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Even along the river there is mimimal vegetation, with the the landscape being very dry de to the the eastern side of Mount Ruapehu being in its rainshadow (the prevailing winds being from the west and north-west).  Only tussock grass and some snow grasses are able to survive these drying winds and poor soil quality.

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From Mangatoetoenui Stream there’s a long ascent up to Tukino Road. In summer there’s locked gate just after the Round the Mountain track crosses the road; in winter Tukino Road is used to access the small Tukino club ski field.

Three kilometres along the track from Tukino Road is the highlight of today’s walk, the Whangaehu River. This is another lahar path, with multiple signs warning of the danger. Mudflows destroyed the bridge here in 1975, 1995 and 1999. New Zealand’s worst rail accident, on 24 December 1953, was caused by a large lahar that swept away the Whangaehu River bridge downstream at Tangiwai just as a Wellington-to-Auckland express passenger train was crossing it. This resulted in the deaths of 151 passengers, and prompted the installation of a lahar warning system further upstream. 

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A swingbridge crosses high above the Whangaehu River, which originates at Crater Lake near the top of Mount Ruapehu.

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Repaired in March 2018 after having been out of action for almost six months due to damage to its main cables, the swingbridge is an impressive engineering structure. Although it’s a bit disconcerting to be walking over the narrow and swaying bridge, with the river a long way below…

…the river itself is equally impressive, carving a deep gorge through the rocks as it flows downstream.

Having successfully navigated the swinging bridge across the river, we continue along the path that ascends steeply up the opposite side until we are above the “danger zone”.

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The track continues to ascend toward Rangipo Hut, with more undulations as we clamber over successive rocky ridges. We are now in the Rangipo Desert, the only true desert landscape in New Zealand.

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The Rangipo Desert receives an average of 1048mm to 1548mm of rain a year, so it’s technically not a desert (generally defined as an area receiving less than 250mm annual rainfall), but the drying winds are a major factor in creating a desert-like environment.

Perhaps because we are now firmly in Mount Ruapehu’s rain shadow, it has finally stopped raining. With the clouds lifting we can see out over the wide valley to the east, much of which is a closed Army Training Area.

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We’re glad when we finally reach Rangipo Hut around 2pm, having walked almost non-stop for six hours. We’ve taken a bit longer than the time shown on the signs, and it’s been more exhausting than we expected due to the constant ridges that need to be traversed.  The plan is to have lunch at Rangipo Hut before continuing, but just as we are about to set out the clouds close in and the rain starts again. We decide to stay here overnight rather than pushing on. We enjoy a relaxed afternoon at the 20-bunk hut (one more solo hiker joins us a few hours later), which looks out over the Rangipo Desert and Kaimanawa mountains.

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Although the rain soon clears again, we’re happy with our decision to have a shorter day. After a nice sunset and early meal, we sleep well ahead of an early departure the following morning.

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Day 3: Rangipo Hut to Mangaturuturu Hut (25.2km)

Today’s going to be a long day: our plan is to get to at least Blythe Hut, so we’re up and on the track at 7am. It’s very misty and overcast as we resume our journey across the barren desert landscape.

The mist gradually clears and and the rain holds off, as we make our way along the poled route.

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As the clouds lift, there’s a great view of Mount Ruapehe looming over us to the north-west. Well, maybe “looming” is a little dramatic – but it’s nice to be able to see the mountain we have been walking around for the past two days!

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The highest point of Mount Ruapehu, with a distinctive pyramid shape, is the Te Heuheu peak (2,732m).

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The “feature” of this section of the Round the Mountain hike is the massive Wahianoa Gorge, which we reach about an hour (2.5km) from Rangipo Hut. It’s an impressive sight – and slightly disconcerting to see the track going straight up the steep scree slope on the opposite side.

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But before we reach the uphill bit, we have to get down… it’s a rocky and slippery sloped with loose scree, which we navigate carefully and slowly to avoid falling too many times…

In the middle of the wide glaciated valley is the Wahianoa River, which originates at the base of the Wahianoa Glacier. A sturdy suspension bridge spans the river.

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From the bridge it’s back up the other side of the steep valley – which as it turns out is not anywhere near as bad as it looks! In fact, going up the slope is almost easier than getting down into the valley, as there’s less of slipping.

As we traverse the opposite side of the valley, there’s sweeping views again of the wide Wahianoa Valley we’ve just crossed.

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From the top of the valley, the track continues through a landscape that’s still very stark and rocky. The wind has picked up and there’s cloud coming down from the direction of Ruapehu, bringing the threat of more rain.

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There’s a lot more undulating ridges as we contiue our way towards the southern flank of Ruapehu.

As we reach a point almost directly south of the Ruapehu Crater Lake, we see trees again as we enter a forest in the Karioi Rahui area. I discover later that this is the largest forested lava flow in New Zealand, and contains almost half of the priority threatened species in the Tongariro/Taupo region, the largest mistletoe population in the North Island and the largest studied short-tail bat population in NZ.

Whether by coincidence or the fact that we are leaving the Ruapehu rain shadow, it starts to rain as we make our way through the mostly beech forest. There are a few sections of boardwalk, many small streams (most are flowing unlike the dry riverbeds in the Rangipo Desert) and a couple of bridges over the next three kilometres as we descend to Mangaehuehu Hut.

Reaching Mangaehuehu Hut at around 12:30pm (it’s taken us just under five hours from Rangipo Hut) we stop for a quick lunch, before resuming our hike.

Our topographical map indicates that the track has gone from being a “marked route” to a “tramping track”, although to my eye there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference. There are a lot more sections of boardwalk as the track continues to descend. We make good progress despite lots of undulations as we traverse small gullies, through a landscape that’s partly alpine tussock and partly mountain beech.

As we lose altitude, the beech forest gets thicker and we start seeing more ferns and lower-elevation vegetation. The track crosses a number of streams, including the Waiharuru Stream, Mangaehuehu Stream and Mangateitei Stream.

We reach the junction with the track to Blythe Hut at 2:30pm; we unanimously agree to push on to the next hut. It’s now raining gently as we reach the Waitonga Falls, just past the Blythe Hut turn-off.  Waitonga Falls is Tongariro National Park’s highest waterfall, with a drop of 36 metres. It’s also rather underwhelming. I wouldn’t have been too thrilled if I’d made the effort of walking down from Ohakune Mountain Road just to see the distant falls.

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We encounter a few people for the first time in almost three days, who are undertaking the relatively short hike to the falls. The well-made track ascends initially through beech and kaikawaka (mountain cedar) forest, and then past Rotokawa, an alpine tarn (the tarn is tapu, or sacred healing water, to the Maori).

Just before reaching Ohakune Mountain Road there’s a smaller but much more picturesque waterfall visible from the track.

We reach Ohakune Mountain Road after a final footbridge; the next section is along the road. It’s a very dreary walk up the sealed mountain road, not helped by the fact it’s now raining heavily. I make a brief detour to the Mangawhero Falls, which have a 28m drop and are located just off the road.

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We keep trudging up the road. It’s a shame the Round the Mountain track can’t avoid this uninspiring section. We’re hoping someone might offer us a lift, but a) there’s almost no traffic except for heavy construction vehicles (the road is being re-sealed further up) and b) I wouldn’t stop and offer myself a lift, being in a totally wet, bedraggled hiker and grumpy state…

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We’re happy to finally reach Wanganui Corner, where the Round the Mountain track resumes. After the long uphill road section, the track rapidly descends into the Makotuku valley, down to the Makotuku River. (I still haven’t worked out why some rivers and called streams, and some streams like this one are called rivers…)

Despite – or perhaps because of – the rain and low cloud, it’s quite stunning scenery. Multiple streams cascade over fern-covered rock and low grass. You could easily think you’d been transported to the Scottish highlands!

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Until we reach the next ridge, where there’s an abrupt change from the rolling grass to lichen-covered lava rocks.

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We’re now following the Mangaturuturu River downstream into the Mangaturuturu Valley, with the track descending quite steeply as it follows the fast-flowing river.

The river is an impressive site as it cascades over the volcanic rocks, coating them with a white substance. This white lining is allophane, which is precipitated from water fed by springs enriched with COthat enters the groundwater system from a geothermal source. This is one of only two locations in New Zealand where this occurs.

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The route down is increasingly treacherous as it gets steeper, with the Mangaturuturu River needing to be forded just above the highest cascade. With the water level swelled by today’s rain, we don’t even try to keep our shoes dry as we wade carefully through the fast-flowing water.

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The next section is the most challenging bit of the entire walk. We spot a route marker that appears to be at the top of a cliff. Peering down, we realise with some trepidation that indeed the subsequent marker is at the bottom of the cliff…

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…as we get closer, we realise it’s not quite a cliff, but a very steep and rocky bluff. Taking it very slowly over the slippery rocks, we part walk, part clamber and part climb down: a fall here would cause some serious damage!

The track continues to follow the Mangaturuturu River downstream after the Cascades: by now I’ve given up even trying to dry the camera lens. I literally don’t have a dry piece of clothing left on my body! 

A bit further downstream the track swings to the north, and crosses a tributary of the Mangaturuturu River – it’s another crossing where any hope of keeping dry feet is abandoned.

Finally the VERY welcome sight of Mangaturuturu Hut comes into view. Being one of the smaller huts (10 bunk capacity) we’re hoping we might have the hut to ourselves. We don’t. But we end up having our best “hut experience” of the hike. There’s already three hikers who arrived an hour or so before us, the combustion stove is on and the little hut is nice and warm. We quickly peel off our layers of soaked clothing and put on some warm and dry clothes, and over some delicious freeze-dried meals enjoy a convivial discussion with Alison and Meryl, two Kiwi hikers who are also doing the Round the Mountain circuit.

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Mangaturuturu Valley Reloaded

The sun is out again on the following morning, so before setting off on the final leg of our Ruapehu circuit, Jeffrey and I make a quick return to the base of the Mangaturuturu River Cascades to get some photos. Ironically, it’s somehow less photogenic without the mist and rain – but at least I can now get a photo that’s not half-blurred by water on the lens.

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The water levels are a bit lower than the previous evening, so this time we can get back to the hut without getting wet feet – as elegantly demonstrated by Jeffrey leaping between river banks.

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Day 4: Mangaturuturu Hut to Whakapapa (20.7km)

As a result of our back-track to the Cascades, it’s not until 10am that we are finally on our way… The Round the Mountain Track descends from just behind the Mangaturuturu Hut to the Mangaturuturu River, which we cross without any difficulty.

On the other side of the river, the track immediately starts ascending and there’s a nice view across the Mangaturuturu Valley to the Cascades and Mount Ruapehu.

After the initial climb comes Rotongaro Lake Surprise, a broad, shallow lake with a backdrop of beech forest and tussock.

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A less pleasant surprise after Lake Surprise is the seemingly never-ending staircase that climbs up to the ridge. (It was constructed to protect the fragile alpine environment.)

The boardwalk eventually ends but the climb continues, with views over Lake Surprise and beyond Tongariro National Park to the south-west.

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Ahead of us are the rocky foothills of Mount Ruapehu. The clouds are starting to collect around the base of the mountain and there’s the threat of more rain. (As we’re struggling up the steep track we bump into somone who is jogging down… he explains he’s surveying the track ahead of the “Ring of Fire” trail-run the following week. We’ve just completed a quarter of the track in one day. Just thinking about doing the entire circuit in last year’s fastest time of 8:30min is rather mind-boggling! Or insane?)

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As the track swing around the base of the cliffs, we cross a few streams and waterfalls that originate from the upper slopes of Mount Ruapehu.

The rain continues to hold off as the track traverses Mount Ruapehu, just above the treeline. Or to be more accurate: the track undulates around Mount Ruapehu, dropping into some wide valleys carved by rivers and often requiring us to navigate deeply eroded and muddy sections of track.

Despite the effort and undulation-fatigue we are collectively struggling from, it’s generally quite a picturesque section of the hike.

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To the west are grassy valleys, mountain tarns and distant waterfalls cascading from lava bluffs on Mount Ruapehu.

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Stretching into the distance to the east is Whanganui National Park.

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We stop for a quick lunch around 1pm at one of the many rivers that intersect the track, eating the last of our Salada crackers and wraps, and replenishing our water supplies. Then it’s back to the undulations, with the track determined to make us work hard as we get closer to Whakapapaiti Hut.

After another of walking (it’s now 2:30pm) we’re peering down into the Whakapapaiti Valley, with the Whakapapaiti Hut visible almost directly ahead (bottom left photo). It feels like we’re almost there, after a fairly demanding four hours to cover 10km since we left Mangaturuturu Hut.

Alas, it’s not quite that easy… as if to teach us a lesson for our naive optimism, between our vantage point on the ridge and the hut are two more valleys to cross and rivers to ford…

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It takes us another hour to reach the junction with the Whakapapaiti Valley Track, which continues down the Whakapapaiti Stream to the hut, while the Round the Mountain continues up the side of the steep valley to Bruce Road. (For reasons I can’t quite fathom other than perhaps a sadistic streak in the track designers, the junction is located half-way up the slope, requiring us to now walk back down to the Whakapapaiti Stream.) We have all agreed we’ll return to Whakapapa village via the Whakapapaiti Valley; the alternate route being a steep climb up to Bruce Road, and then a walk down the road to the village – not the nicest end to a hike.

With the rain now coming down heavily, we trudge down the Whakapapaiti Valley Track, reaching the hut just before 4pm. Seeing as the rain is showing no signs of abating and we don’t have much food left, we abandon our original plan to have a break here, and continue down the track.

From the Whakapapaiti Hut the track follows the river down the valley, crossing the river about one kilometre downstream. There are signs warning not to attempt the  crossing of the river if it’s in flood: despite the current heavy rain the water levels are not very high. But the water is flowing rapidly and by this point my shoes are already so wet that I just wade across one of the shallower sections.

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On the other side of the river, the track continues through a mixture of tussock and beech forest. It re-crosses the Whakapapaiti Stream a couple more times, over a footbridge in both cases. The rain is still pouring down, but at least this section of track is relatively flat. And I’ve come to the sad realisation that once you are totally soaked down to the inside of your underwear… it doesn’t really matter how hard it rains. My only concern is that keeping my camera dry has become an impossible task, and my photos are getting a bit an Impressionist feel.

Near the end of the Whakapapaiti Valley Track is the picturesque Waikare Stream, which we cross on another footbridge.

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Shortly after crossing the Waikare Stream and with the rain finally easing, is a view of Mount Ngauruhoe in the distance.

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One final crossing of the Whakapapanui Stream and we’ve reached the carpark at Whakapapa… Just another 500m back to the Skotel for a well-earned beer at the bar!

Reflecting on our four-day adventure, it’s a very different proposition to the adjacent Tongariro Northern Circuit which I completed a year ago. Both offer spectacular scenery – although the northern circuit offers far better “scenic value per kilometre”, incorporating the other-wordly ànd spectacular Tongariro Crossing into a shorter loop (55km versus 75km total distance). But in catering to large numbers of hikers, it sometimes feels a little too refined, with long sections of boardwalk and well-graded tracks. By comparison the Ruapehu Round the Mountain track is a far more “raw” experience: the terrain is more challenging (and undulating!), you’ll get muddy feet, you will need to ford some rivers and at the end of the day, you won’t arrive at a hut that’s full of hikers.

The other revelation for me, as a very grumpy-when-raining hiker, is that the sometimes adverse weather enhanced the overall experience. I arrived hoping for four consecutive sunny days, and got four days of highly variable weather. Walking through valleys filled with mist and climbing down the treacherous and rocky bluff next to the Mangaturuturu River in the pouring rain enhanced the whole adventure. I’d probably have a different opinion had there been four days of constant rain, but quite enjoyed the mix of weather. (I say that in hindsight, of course: there were some moments when trudging along a track that was more like a river, with totally wet clothes and waterlogged shoes, I was a little grumpy…!)

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DAY ONE (15.4km)
 0.0km Whakapapa Village (Upper Taranaki Falls Track). 1135m asl
 4.3km Highest point of today's walk (1342m as)
 6.6km Junction with Tama Lakes track
14.9km Junction with track to Old Waihohonu Hut
15.4km Waihohonu Hut / 28 bunks (1098m asl)
DAY TWO (14.4km)
16.4km Junction with side-track to Ohinepango Springs
16.7km Ohinepango Springs
21.5km Mangatoetoenui Stream footbridge
24.1km Track crosses Tukino Road
27.4km Whangaehu River footbridge
29.8km Rangipo Hut / 20 bunks (1556m asl)
DAY THREE (25.2km)
32.8km Wahianoa River footbridge
37.6km Track enters Karioi forest
40.4km Mangaehuehu Hut / 18 bunks (1285m asl)
45.1km Junction with track to Blythe Hut
45.8km Waitonga Falls
47.8km Ohakune Mountain Road (1166m asl)
49.3km Side-track to Mangawhero Falls
51.5km Wanganui Corner - Round the Mountain track resumes (1504m asl)
53.6km Cascades - steep descent
55.0km Mangaturuturu Hut (1250m asl)
DAY FOUR (20.7km)
56.5km Lake Surprise
65.8km Whakapapaiti Valley Track / Round the Mountain track junction
66.7km Whakapapaiti Hut (1250m asl)
67.9km Whakapapaiti River crossing
69.2km Junction with Whakapapaiti Hut Track
73.5km Junction with Lower Silica Springs Track
75.0km Bruce Road (carpark)
75.5km Whakapapa Village (Upper Taranaki Falls Track)

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Location
Distance 75km. 4-6 days.
Grade Hard. Total ascent is 2,730m.
Season/s November – April (alpine experience needed for winter circuit)
Map/s Interactive topographical map [AllTrails]
Tongariro Circuit & Round the Mountain Track 1:60K
Mount Ruapehu (NT-MR40) 1:40K
For more detailed (1:25,000) maps you need:
BH34 Raurima  – download [54MB]
BJ34 Mount Ruapeha – download [47MB]
BJ35 Waiouru – download [53MB]
BH35 Turangi – download [49MB]
GPS Route PlotaRoute map with option to download GPX / KML file
Resources

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