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 79,000ha 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 section on the Mountain to Sea bike trail
- Ski on an active volcano
- Visit one of the charming villages on the border 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.
For a complete guide, head on over to Guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
TONGARIRO NORTHERN CIRCUIT
One of the 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 Great Walk 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 quieter and awesome alternative to the Tongariro Northern Circuit is the Round the Mountain Track on Mt Ruapehu. Take in the volcanic and forest landscapes of the national park around New Zealand’s largest volcano, Mt Ruapehu. For more information, check out 12 Awesome Alternatives to the New Zealand Great Walks.
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 kamikaze, try the 42 Traverse for its long and rutted downhill sections.
For a full list of bike trails in the Tongariro National Park, check out Mountain Biking in Ruapehu.
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 basin 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. Only attempt the climb when it is safe to do so. More information can be found at How to get to the Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake in Winter.
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 for more details on what to expect from New Zealand ski fields.
NATIONAL PARK VILLAGE and Whakapapa 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 Tongariro with the mountain backdrop makes a good Kodak moment. It is the highest township in New Zealand, Whakapapa Village, at 825m.
Both National Park and Whakapapa Village are the closest townships to activities such as the Tongariro Crossing. Check out some of the shorter hikes, like these 13 Walks Around National Park Village & Whakapapa Village. However, they are not the only favourable base for the Tongariro National Park, as the larger towns of Turangi and 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). 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 starting from Turangi
- Kayak on the Whakapapa River
- Take on the climbing wall at National Park Village
- Do more hiking.
Where to stay in Tongariro?
- National Park Backpackers, National Park Village
- Ski Haus, National Park Village
- Howard’s Mountain Lodge, National Park Village
- Skotel Alpine Resort, Whakapapa Village
- Whakapapa Holiday Park, Whakapapa Village
- The Crossing Backpackers, Erua
- Station Lodge, Ohakune
- Ohakune Central Backpackers, Ohakune
- LKNZ Lodge, Ohakune
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