Tongariro Northern Circuit was my first New Zealand’s Great Walk. It was also the first overnight hike in my life! I did camp before, but it was rather during road trips. Carrying food supplies, water, tent, sleeping bag, gas stove, cooking pot, water filter, clothes for change – all of it on my back for 2 days in volcanic landscape sounded like a challenge. What an exciting one!
Tongariro National Park
You will be hiking in one of the oldest National Parks in the world!
In 1894, Tongariro became the first National Park established in New Zealand and the fourth to become such worldwide. From 1993 it is on the World Heritage List for both Maori cultural significance and volcanic landscape. There is a wide choice of walks available in the area, suitable for all levels of fitness. Two of them are especially worth considering!
Tongariro Northern Circuit is the longer version of more popular 1-day Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It only depends on your personal preference which version you decide to hike. However, I do encourage you for longer exploration. Northern Circuit includes the most scenic part of Alpine Crossing and adds the chance to camp among active volcanoes in Taupo Volcanic Zone: Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and bit further on the horizon – Ruapehu. It gives you extra time to stop and enjoy the breathtaking scenery, an opportunity to test your limits on over 40 km track and make new friendships with all the fellow hikers that you get to meet on the way! Most likely you will also beat the crowds that start Alpine Crossing every morning from Mangatepopo Road End. And believe me, in high season is A LOT of people. You also won’t need to pay extra for the transport as it is in case of one-way Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Do you feel encouraged?
The legend has it…
Before going to Tongariro National Park, I visited the second highest volcano of New Zealand – Mount Taranaki. There is a legend that connects all the peaks in the central area of North Island. It says that both Taranaki and Tongariro were in love with Mount Pihanga and the fierce fight between them started. Tongariro won and Taranaki escaped to the west coast where he was trapped by Pouakai Ranges in the place he stands now. Taranaki is often covered in clouds, hiding the tears shed after his lost love.
Welcome to Mordor
Tongariro National Park acted as a filming location for Peter’s Jackson world-famous trilogy Lord of the Rings. Volcanic rocks and unique landscape were ideal for creating Mordor and Mount Ngauruhoe shape was digitally enhanced to make Mount Doom. Other locations include Emyn Muil (Iwikau Village at Whakapapa), Ithilien Camp (Mangawhero Falls) and scenes with Orc Army (Rangipo Desert). It’s quite cool add-on for all fans, even though sometimes you need to use your imagination to recognize the places.
Clockwise or anticlockwise?
Tongariro Northern Circuit is a loop track and can be hiked in either direction. I started clockwise from Whakapapa Village towards Mangatepopo Hut and further to Oturere Campsite. In this way, I tackled more difficult part on the first day. It’s a good choice because of higher energy level at the beginning, however, you will be carrying a backpack loaded with most of your food supplies on the ascent to Red Crater. That’s also the more popular directions among hikers. I personally think that the track is so spectacular that it doesn’t matter which direction you choose.
Bookings of huts and campsites
The season for Great Walks begins usually at the end of October and lasts until the end of April. In this period, bookings for huts and campsites are required. Outside of the season, they work on a first-come, first-served basis, however, please do remember that because of weather conditions the trail becomes much more difficult to tackle (avalanche risk) and experience is required.
Booking can be done at the Department of Conservation website. After a booking is done, don’t forget to drop by to DOC Office in the Whakapapa Village to pick up physical tickets and re-check weather conditions.
Both huts and campsites have pros and cos. Doing all Great Walks, I used huts only on Milford Track and that’s because camping there is forbidden. I like to feel that I am totally independent and rely only on own supplies and equipment. Moreover, camping gives more flexibility to re-schedule the hike when the weather turns bad. Huts are rather booked out weeks in advance, especially on the most popular tracks like Tongariro Norther Circuit, Milford Track, Kepler Track or Routeburn Track. The chance to postpone the adventure is small, meaning you either go in bad weather or don’t go at all.
Great Walks huts have bunk beds, mattresses, heating, toilets, basic gas cooking facilities, solar-powered lighting and cold water.
List of huts and campsites
Mangatepopo Hut and Campsite – it’s only 9.4 km from the trailhead at Whakapapa Village and unless you really want to take your time and enjoy the landscape, it’s simply not far enough to justify overnight stay.
Oturere Hut and Campsite – the most picturesque overnight stop and the only one I stayed on the track. It’s 21.4 km from the trailhead and I must say that for the last 2-3 km I was tired and couldn’t wait to reach the place. But it’s worth pushing. The clouds passing through the top of Ngauruhoe at dusk were unforgettable. It’s just next to the hut where you can use the facilities as well as have a chat with fellow hikers. It can get quite windy there and before I started to set up a tent, the ranger approached me. First, I thought that she wants to collect a ticket, but it wasn’t a case. Instead, she warned me that the day before, one of the hikers tried to set up a tent but the wind was so strong that the tent was blown away into the valley in a matter of seconds. The rather surprised hiker was forced to spend the night on the floor in a hut.
Waihohonu Hut and Campsite – I had a booking there for the second night, but it took me only 2 hours to reach the place from Oturere. Therefore, I decided to spontaneously change the plans and push until the end of the trail. But again, if you want to take your time and not rush, then it’s a nice place to stay.
Huts: 36 NZD per adult per night, 17 years old and under free (booking still required)
Campsites: 15 NZD per adult per night, 17 years old and under free (booking still required). Campers can use huts facilities (except for the beds obviously).
It’s best to monitor the conditions on MetService. The weather can change quickly, and strong winds are known on this track due to exposed terrain. It’s also worth dropping by to DOC office and reconfirm weather conditions. I learned the importance of it on my own skin (more below)!
2, 3 or 4 days?
Many people keep asking how many days they should split the distance for. The track offers 3 huts and campsites on the way, however, if you decide to stay in all of them, you won’t hike for longer than 3-4 hours per day. That’s rather short for me. I initially planned to have a tough first day, spend the night at Otutere campsite and on the next day stop for the second night at Waihohonu campsite. After departing from Otutere early, I arrived Waihohonu only after 2 hours. It was 9 am, the weather was perfect, my level of energy high enough so I just decided to push till the end. I wasn’t the only person that changed the plans in this way.
If you are reasonably fit and don’t mind walking over 20 km a day, do it in 2 days.
If you prefer to sleep longer, make picnics along the way and do side trips, do it in 3 days.
If you prefer to do all of the above plus read a book and take all the scenery really slow-paced, then 4 days is the answer.
Track details and profile
Distance: 43.1 km (loop)
Time: 2-4 days
The track profile and other useful details can be found inside the Department of Conservation (DOC) brochure.
Stage 1 – From Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut and Campsite (2-3h, 9.4km)
The start of the hike took me… 3 days. I arrived at Whakapapa Village a day before and was welcomed by cold weather, fog and pouring rain. Not perfect conditions for the first overnight hike. I didn’t know what to do so I went to the Visitor Centre asking DOC staff for advice and they said that indeed it won’t be very enjoyable to walk out there. „If you have time, go to see Taupo and Rotorua first, and we will postpone your bookings by 3 days”. It was an excellent decision and I must say that the DOC staff is always very helpful and professional. In the end, it’s not only about covering the distance of 40+ km but actually seeing some landscape.
I came back 3 days later and that time the weather seemed to be more friendly. I left the car at the parking near the Visitor Centre and hit the track in the early morning. I was the only hiker walking the narrow path across huge wide spaces with the cone of Ngauruhoe appearing on my right side. After around 1 hour, I met the only hiker during that stage. The guy was walking with a backpack 3 times smaller than mine and he was actually doing Te Araroa Trail which is 3000 km route from the top of North Island to the bottom of South Island. What a badass.
I don’t know if I was shocked after a short chat with another hiker or maybe my backpack was too heavy with all the unnecessary things I took (more likely), but I slipped on one of the big and wet stones, lost my balance and fell down on my face. Hiking poles didn’t help! Falling was quite straightforward, getting up with huge and heavy backpack not so much.
After around 2-2.5 hours I arrived at Mangatepopo Hut and here I realized that walking times provided by DOC are way overestimated (it is around 4h in track description). Refill your water bottle here if necessary, you will need for next, much more demanding stage.
This stage is the least impressive, therefore if you doubt your fitness level, you can start the hike from Mangatepopo Road End and cut 9 km from your first day. You would need to arrange transport, as you will not complete the full loop.
Stage 2 – From Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (3.5 – 4h, 12km)
Here the most popular part of the hike known as Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts. Luckily, I was already on the way for over 2 hours so all the crowds doing the 1-day version of the hike were far ahead of me.
The track becomes wider and continues up the valley towards Mangatepopo Saddle. The wide valley is just impressive, and I seriously had the music theme from Lord of the Rings playing in my head.
Climb to the Saddle is the most challenging part of the day and here backpack starts to be really heavy. It also becomes warmer and the sun starts to burn my skin. I knew I forgot something, and that something was sun cream. Luckily it didn’t take long until I saw a couple having a rest and being kind to save me from sunburns by sharing the cream. The climb continues up to the Red Crater where I took the long break to take in all the views. In clear weather, you can even see Mount Taranaki! Magnificent.
Then the track goes down to Emerald Lakes. It’s a steep way down with plenty of small and slippery stones that proved to be challenging for a lot of tourists. My hiking poles proved to be very helpful to keep the balance. After descending, there is an option for 30min return side trip to Blue Lake which I took. It’s a sacred place for Maori and you must not touch the water. After that, I retrieved my steps and followed the track into Oturere Valley. Here I got the feeling like walking in the desert among lava forms. Ruapehu with its snowy peak is clearly visible on the horizon. After around 1 hour, I reached Oturere Hut and Campsite. If you desperately need a bath in ice-cold water, there is a waterfall close by (ask the ranger).
Stage 3 – From Oturere Hut and Campsite to Waihohonu Hut and Campsite (2-2.5h, 8.1 km)
The track continues for over 8 km through stream valleys and gravel fields. The morning fog made the atmosphere during the walk unique. On that day, there was a running event going on so I was passed by hundreds of runners. After around 2 hours I reached Waihohonu Hut, changed my initial plan of staying there overnight and continued until the track end.
Stage 4 – From Waihohonu Hut and Campsite to Whakapapa Village (4-4.5h, 15.4 km)
The track follows Waihohonu Stream and climbs Tama Saddle. The area is known for strong winds. I experienced it on my skin, especially during a side trip to upper Tama Lake (1.5h return). Even though I left the backpack at the crossroad and continues just with a bottle of water, it was a steep incline and the wind made it very difficult to keep the balance. From the upper viewpoint, you get fine views over the lakes as well as Mount Ruapehu. After coming back to the crossroad and taking my backpack, it was another 2 hours to Whakapapa Village. I decided to add a bit more to the distance and check out Taranaki Falls as well. Don’t miss it!
Blue Lake – Half an hour detour from the track junction nearby Emerald Lakes (along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Track).
Tama Lakes – Two crates filled with water. It takes 15min return to Lower Tama and 1h return to Upper Lama. You can leave your backpack at the junction of the tracks and go light. Be careful of strong winds.
Taranaki Falls Track – An alternative way to reach Whakapapa Village. Go down the steps to the base of the waterfall.
Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe Summits – Technically, both summits can be climbed as a side trip. However, the route is not poled and the same as lakes, mountain’s summits are sacred for local Maori tribe and climbing is discouraged. I didn’t go to either of them and will not advertise this option.
Time to chill
It was wonderful 2 days in an out of this world landscape. When I reached parking, I was tired as hell. It’s a kind of physical exercise that consume your calories but build psychological strength and satisfaction. If I would need to select 3 places that I would like to visit again on North Island, Tongariro National Park would be one of them without a doubt!