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Ruapehu – Guide for Backpackers

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Be an Explorer of volcanoes!

Volcanoes and a rugged landscape are what make Ruapehu one of the very rare dual UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ruapehu region includes Tongariro National Park and Whanganui National Park on the North Island. We’ll go over some of the awesome things to do in Ruapehu in this Ruapehu guide.

Backpackers flock here to climb up active volcanoes or ski down them in winter. But the way to see it all is by hitting a bike trail! Especially the 3-day ride Mountains to Sea, the Timber Trail, or the Fishers Track. Hikes are not lacking in this district either, with the Tongariro Crossing being a major highlight.

For national park activities, see our guides on Tongariro and Whanganui.

Things you can’t miss in Ruapehu

  • Climb to Mt Ruapehu’s crater lake
  • Check out Tawhai Falls and Mangawhero Falls
  • Explore Mordor by bike
  • Ski down an active volcano
  • Bike to the Bridge to Nowhere
  • Learn how to pronouce Whakapapa properly…
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Hiking Mt Ruapehu

In summer, the unmissable Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake hike and the famous Tongariro Crossing will cater to your volcanic needs. Because we all have volcanic needs. Due to the weather conditions being better in summer, it is a good time to do these hikes for clear views.

Lord of the Rings Scenery

If you don’t fancy the full-day walks mentioned above, there are shorter volcanic walks. One in particular is the 30min Meads Wall walk starting at the top of Mountain Road. As you walk, some of the area may feel familiar. This could be because it was a filming location for The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo, Sam and Gollum are sat watching the Black Gates of Mordor open. This is just the start of the Lord of the Rings scenery in this district so check out The Famous Lord of the Rings Filming Locations in Ruapehu.

other walks around Ruapehu

See what a ski field looks like in summer by taking the Waterfall Express Chairlift then taking the descending track to see cascading waterfalls. This 1 hour to 1h30min walk is aptly called the Waterfalls Descent. In the villages at the base of Mt Ruapehu, Whakapapa Village and Ohakune, you’ll also find a great range of hiking trails. Check out 13 Walks Around National Park Village & Whakapapa Village.

Don’t feel like taking a hike? You can still get an awesome view by taking the scenic chairlift up the volcano.

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Bike trails in Ruapehu

Ruapehu is the home of some epic bike trails including the Mountains to Sea trail. This 3-day adventure involves 200km of biking and 31km of jet boating to get from Mt Ruapehu to the Whanganui coastline. Travel through volcanic and rainforest landscapes of Tongariro National Park and Whanganui National Park.

Besides 3-day long trips, there are more than 10 other bike trails to try. Get to the Bridge to Nowhere, a bridge abandoned in the Whanganui National Park forest, by doing the Mangapurua Track. Plus, there is the 42 Traverse – 42 because it’s 42km – which is a challenge both uphill and downhill.

On the Ohakune side of Mt Ruapehu, there is the Old Coach Road cycling and walking track. Highlights include a historic train tunnel and a couple of viaducts, one of which you can walk across. Along the way there are plenty of information signs to read about the track. Despite being advertised as a track for families, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s too easy. Expect a few climbs but some fun descents! From Ohakune you can get a shuttle to Horopito, costing around NZ$15, and then cycle your way back to Ohakune on the 14.5km track.

Finally, the better known Timber Trail around Pureora Forest takes you across suspension bridges, the tallest of which is 55m high!

For more awesome bike trails, check out Mountain Biking in Ruapehu.

Ruapehu Alpine Lifts

Mt Ruapehu in Winter

The winter season at Mt Ruapehu lasts well into spring, unlike ski fields found in the South Island. This one mountain has a lot to offer snowsports enthusiasts. So strap on your skis/snowboard/blades or whatever and head to the three ski areas.

The mountain’s small club field is Tukino is on the east side of the mountain. Very different to the commercial fields, it can only be accessed by 4wd or shuttle from the little town of Waiouru.

Whakapapa, on the northwest side of Mt Ruapehu, is the largest ski field in New Zealand! It’s a great place to learn how to ski/ride as it has a complete beginners area called Happy Valley. There’s no chance that you will stumble across a black run by accident. On the other hand, with 30 intermediates and 24 black trails, any keen skier will have a blast.

On the southern side of Mt Ruapehu is Turoa. The ski field has the highest chairlift in NZ, the Highnoon Express, reaching 12 intermediate trails and 24 black trails. Base yourself in Ohakune for the convenience and apres ski session.

For about skiing Mt Ruaphu, check out Ski Season in New Zealand: North Island or South Island?

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New Zealand’s highest cafe

Knoll Ridge Cafe is worth visiting in both winter and summer. Situated 2020m above sea level, you can have your lunch with the most stunning volcanic view.

To get there, take the scenic chairlift up. But don’t leave without taking Amphiteatre Walk. The 2-hour hike downhill gives you a chance to get some amazing photos of the surrounding volcanic country. You can even see as far as Mt Taranaki!

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Ruapehu has so much more to offer…

… That we couldn’t justify doing just one backpacker guide for the area!

For guides on specific districts within Ruapehu, see these guides:

If you have more time in Ruapehu…

  • Feast your eyes on a beautiful landscape, while biking the Ohakune Old Coach Road. This old horse and cart road is now a popular bike trail.
  • See the largest greenstone structure in the Southern Hemisphere at The National Army Museum of Waiouru.
  • Drive down the scenic Forgotten World Highway (SH43).
  • Hike around something that is truly “forgotten”: Lake Rotoaira.
  • Take a RailBike on the Forgotten World Adventures railway.
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