Tongariro National Park – Guide for Backpackers
Welcome to volcano country!
The Tongariro National Park answers the “burning” question: how many ways can you enjoy a volcano? Pun intended… Distinct volcanoes lie within the 79000ha of the Tongariro National Park. For backpackers, this means walking New Zealand’s most popular day walk – the Tongariro Crossing, skiing down the volcano of Mt Ruapehu, and seeing Mt Ngauruhoe/Mt Doom from The Lord of the Rings.
Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park, which was established in 1887. Furthermore, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site meaning it’s considered a culturally and physically significant place by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. That’s got to count for something!
Things you can’t miss in Tongariro National Park
- Hike New Zealand’s best day walk: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
- Do a sections on the Mountain to Sea bike trail.
- Ski on an active volcano.
- Visit one of the charming villages on the boarder of Tongariro.
TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
This day-walk is considered the best in New Zealand due to the astonishing views of the volcanic peaks and the emerald and blue lakes. The trek is challenging but doable. And, of course, totally worth the thigh burn. The track starting from Mangatepopo is 19.4km journey up the ‘devil’s staircase’ then a steady up-a-crater and down-a-crater from then on. The end of the track is at Ketetahi. Be sure to book transport to and from the crossing in advance such as one of the shuttle services. The weather can dramatically change up the mountains so prepare for all conditions with plenty of food and water. Last of all, prepare your camera and your eyes because you are going to see some amazing sights.
TONGARIRO NORTHERN CIRCUIT
One of the 9 Great Walks of New Zealand, the Tongariro Northern Circuit incorporates the Tongariro Crossing and explores the surrounding national park. The track goes from one extreme landscape to another including glacial valleys to geothermal areas, active volcano craters to brilliantly blue lakes, and exposed fields to dense forests. During the peak season, make sure to book the backcountry huts to stay in and be prepared for all conditions! For more information on the Great Walks, see our Guide to the 9 Great Walks of New Zealand.
A quick and exhilarating way to see Tongariro is through taking the network of biking trails in the area. The longest trail is the epic Mountains to Sea/Nga Ara Tuhono. This 3-7 day journey starts on the side of Mt Ruapehu, goes through the Tongariro and the Whanganui National Parks following the Whanganui River all the way to the coast. Of course, you can join and leave the track at any point for a shorter ride – we recommend Fishers Track or Old Coach Road. For those feeling kamikazi, try the 42 Traverse for its long and rutted downhill sections.
SKI ON MT RUAPEHU
That’s right, you can ski or snowboard on an active volcano! Stoked! All snowsports lingo aside, Mt Ruapehu has the largest ski fields in New Zealand: Whakapapa and Turoa. The ski fields lie in a huge basins with steep shoots and drop-offs to the beginner areas with wider runs. Be sure to hike to Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake before take a 1000m ride back. Check out the less crowded club field Tukino for the true Kiwi ski experience. The ski fields on Mt Ruapehu are the places for spring ski in New Zealand, as they tend to stay open through October.
Check out our guide to the Ski Season in New Zealand.
NATIONAL PARK VILLAGE
If the name of the village is anything to go by, National Park Village is a no-nonsense village. The village, which is the northern gateway to Tongariro National park, has a number of backpacker accommodations to make your base while taking on the mountains. Not quite a backpacker hostel, the chateau with the mountain backdrop makes a good Kodak moment. It is the highest township in New Zealand at 825m and is the closest township to activities such as the Tongariro Crossing. However, it is not the only favourable base, as the larger town of Taupo is also used by backpackers when visiting the Tongariro National Park.
Ohakune is a small town known as the southern Tongariro gateway. Like National Park Village, it is a good base for the national park activities, especially skiing at the Turoa ski field and mountain biking.
Although it’s small, it boasts itself as the apres ski capital of the North Island with a number of bars and restaurants at ‘The Junction’, which is 2km from downtown (the main street). To get there, Mangawhero River Walkway. However, this area is only buzzing in winter. You’ll find a more relaxed atmosphere in summer, with visitors coming to the town to either do the Tongariro Crossing or take on one of the biking trails, as there are shuttles from the town taking you to the most popular activities. The closest bike trails are the Old Coach Road (see Ruapehu guide for more information) and the trail from Ohakune Mountain Road. For a few jumps and pumps, check out the Te Pepe Pump Track on ‘The Junction’ side of town.
You may have also noticed from the image that Ohakune prides itself on being the “Carrot Capital”. See the giant fibreglass carrot on the east side of Clyde Road. This is also the start of the Jubilee Walk, a short but pleasant walk through the forest .
If you have extra time in Tongariro
- Buy a carrot from Ohakune then pose with the giant carrot.
- Raft on the Tongariro River.
- Kayak on the Whakapapa River.
- Take on the climbing wall at National Park Village.
- Do more hiking.
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