Tongariro National Park: The Complete Guide

View of snow capped mountains in Tongariro

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

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Tongariro National Park

Address
Manawatu-Wanganui 4691, New Zealand
Phone +64 7-892 3729

Tongariro National Park, located in the center of the North Island of New Zealand, is one of the country's most important natural areas and one of international renown. The three volcanoes in the park are the focal point of Tongariro and have shaped the unique local topography over hundreds of thousands of years. It is one of only a handful of areas in the world to be granted dual World Heritage status by UNESCO, for both its natural beauty and its cultural significance to the Indigenous Māori tribes.

The area, and especially the three mountains, are of great significance to the local Māori tribe, the Ngati Tuwharetoa. In 1887, Chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV passed ownership to the New Zealand government on the condition that it remained a protected area. In 1894, it was declared the first national park in the country (and only the fourth national park to be established anywhere in the world).

Things to Do

The top attractions at Tongariro vary with the seasons, but regardless of what time of year you're visiting, there's always something to do and see. In the warmer months, the park is bursting with vegetation and life to explore on a nature hike. Spend a couple of days walking around the park and you'll see active volcanoes, crater lakes, fields of tussock grass, beech tree forests, and more. If you prefer to move around on wheels, hop on a mountain bike and you'll be able to cover much more ground.

If you're visiting during the Southern hemisphere winter, Mount Ruapehu inside the park is one of the premier ski destinations in all of New Zealand—and one of the only options on the North Island. The season varies based on the snowfall, but the runs are typically open from early July until October. There are two ski resorts to choose from, Whakapapa on the north face of the mountain or Tūroa on the south face. Whakapapa is the larger of the two and appropriate for all ages and levels, while Tūroa has steeper slopes and is a favorite for experienced skiers and snowboarders.

Mountaineering and climbing are available throughout the year, with excellent rock climbing spots to take advantage of in the summer. Ice climbing when there's snow is one of the most popular wintertime activities, but it's not the place to learn if you've never attempted it. Only the most experienced climbers should attempt to do so when there's ice, or hire a professional guide to accompany you.

Best Hikes & Trails

You'll need to throw on a pair of comfortable hiking shoes and hit the trails at Tongariro to experience the best of the national park. Mid-spring to fall is the peak season for hiking, which is from November to May. However, travelers with alpine hiking experience can also traverse many of the trails in the wintertime.

  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing: The most famous trail in the park is 12 miles of hiking through active volcanoes. Even though the trail is well-maintained and completed by hikers of all skill levels, don't underestimate the difficulty. It takes all day to walk the whole thing and rapidly changing weather conditions can turn this moderately difficult hike into a potentially dangerous one.
  • Rotopounamu Track: Take a leisurely stroll around Lake Rotopounamu, which is filled inside of a crater and surrounded by native forests. The 3-mile loop trail is a favorite for families and birdwatchers, so pack a picnic to enjoy on the shores of the lake.
  • Taranaki Falls Track: Get unbeatable views of Mount Ngauruhoe while climbing over hardened molten lava on this easy 4-mile loop trail, which takes hikers by the 65-foot Taranaki Falls. It's especially impressive in November and December when the snow is recently melted and the fall is at its peak.

Where to Camp

There are three campgrounds in the park run by the Department of Conservation, two of them located on the north end and one on the south end of the park. All of them are open to tent campers and RVs, and all of them require advance reservations for spending the night.

  • Whakapapa Holiday Park: Whakapapa is the most developed campground at the national park and includes amenities like a camp store, wireless internet, barbecue pits, hot showers, and potable drinking water. There is also a shuttle system that stops at Whakapapa Campground that goes to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing trailhead in the summer and to the Whakapapa Ski Area in the winter.
  • Mangahuia Campsite: This peaceful campsite gets fewer visitors, making it a favorite for nature lovers who want to escape the crowds and enjoy their time outdoors. The bathrooms are rustic with no flush toilets and you'll have to boil water from the on-site taps before drinking.
  • Mangawhero Campsite: Camp out in the forest at the base of Mount Ruapehu at the southern end of the park at Mangawhero. The campground is basic, but it's right outside of the town of Okahune in case you need to pick up something urgent. If you plan to ski at the Tūroa ski resort, this is the campground for you.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are towns all around the park with access to Tongariro, but the main villages with the most options are Whakapapa and Okahune, which are closest to the Whakapapa and the Tūroa ski resorts, respectively.

  • DOC Huts: Scattered across the park are various huts run by the Department of Conservation, which are basic shared accommodations with a number of bunks for hikers to stay in. They're especially ideal for winter treks when it's too cold for tent camping. Some of them accept reservations and others are first-come, first-served.
  • Chateau Tongariro Hotel: A historic building that dates back to the 1920s, the Chateau Tongariro Hotel is in the village of Whakapapa. If you aren't into camping or the rustic huts, this elegant lodge is probably more your style. High tea is served every afternoon to enjoy after a day of hiking or skiing, and the rooms are all impeccably decorated with a timeless touch.
  • Park Hotel Ruapehu: This lodge is located in National Park village, about 20 minutes by car from Whakapapa. It's an excellent gateway for summer or winter activities, with easy access to hiking trails and both ski resorts.

How to Get There

Tongariro National park is smack dab in the center of the North Island and about halfway between the major cities of Auckland and Wellington—it's about a five-hour drive from either one of them. State highways circumnavigate the park, so road access from any direction is pretty simple if you're taking a road trip across the North Island. The main gateway towns into the park are Whakapapa and Okahune, so you'll likely be heading to one of the two.

The nearest airport is in the city of Taupō on the edge of the popular and namesake lake, which is about an hour and 15 minutes from Whakapapa. The main train line connecting Wellington and Auckland makes stops in the villages of Okahune and National Park, for travelers who don't have access to a vehicle but still want to visit Tongariro.

Accessibility

There are two trails in the park with accessible access for visitors who use wheelchairs. The first one leaves from Whakapapa Village and is a short 15-minute loop with information panels about the local flora and fauna. Starting at Okahune near the Mangowhero Campground, there's a longer loop that takes about an hour and is also accessible for travelers with wheelchairs.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Being an alpine climate and with some high elevations, temperatures can vary dramatically, even on the same day. If walking through the park during the summer, it's wise to include some warm clothing, particularly at the higher altitudes.
  • Always make sure you take a raincoat or jacket since rainstorms are frequent, even if they're not in the forecast. There's no dry or wet season in New Zealand, so expect to encounter some rain regardless of when you visit.
  • The Tongariro Alpine Crossing walks directly by some active volcanoes. Even though an eruption occurring while you're there is unlikely, it is a possibility (the last eruption occurred in 2012). Follow volcano risk guidelines when you're anywhere in the park, but especially on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
  • If you're a fan of "The Lord of the Rings," you may recognize one of the volcanoes as the iconic Mount Doom from the movies. In reality, it's Mount Ngauruhoe.
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Tongariro National Park: The Complete Guide