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Northern Tongariro Circuit (43km) is located in Tongariro National Park, the Central Plateau of New Zealand’s North Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. However, be warned – it is an active volcanic area. For hut booking, visit Department of Conservation (DoC) and organise transport.
You can also see my Northern Tongariro Circuit photos.
This is a loop track which can start from Whakapapa either clockwise (as described below) or counter clockwise. Furthermore, you can start the track from Mangatepopo Hut (dropped off by transport) and complete this circuit in two or three days. You can also start from Mangatepopo Hut to do the fantastic one day Tongariro Crossing. Please see Doc Tongariro Crossing. Alternatively, do consider the quieter one day Hiking the Pouakai Crossing Track.
Day 1 – Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut (8.5km)
We arrived at Whakapapa after a short drive from the National Park. It was chilly. We obtained some information and car park permits from the DOC office. We parked our cars on the main road, opposite the Chateau. The tail begins just behind the Chateau (Ngauruhoe Terrace). We left at 0830. The sun was up and the sky blue. The early part of the track was through bush – grasses, alpine shrubs and tussock. Towards the east is Pukekaikiore and the iconic conical Ngauruhoe mountains. In the west – the majestic snow covered Ruapehu. In thirty minutes, we arrived at the junction to Taranaki Falls.
We re-entered the beech forest. To the left, a bridge to continue towards Mangetepopo Hut. We decided to see the falls today as the weather on the last day is expected to be stormy and windy. We continued onto the Lower Taranaki Falls Track. This was mainly a bush walk with tussock and beech forest. Part of the track is on board walks. Groups of school kid with teachers and parents in tow moved in both directions of this track. We approached a bridge. Wairere Stream flowed swiftly cutting into the volcanic rocks to form a narrow gorge. The river course continued over Cascade Falls surrounded by beech forest. The track continued uphill parallel to the stream. The snow peak of Ruapehu appeared above the tree canopies. In the distant, Taranaki Falls came into view. The fall is impressive, dropping about 20 meters. All the kids we passed stopped here for lunch. It is good to see them out and about. At the base of the fall, the force was strong with mist sprays.
We retraced our steps back to the junction with a bridge. Crossed the Wairere Stream and continued through the beech forest. Followed by the short bush and grasses. Parts of the track is exposed and eroded in many places as several streams crossed the track. Gullies and muddy paths became a hazard. The track was basically walking over one hill to another. There isn’t much altitude gain. As we stepped away from the forested areas, bird songs decreased. Views of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe were clear. Although the sun occasionally hid behind the sun, it felt like a sauna. More volcanic rocks appeared. It seemed like a long slog across a dry and open valley. Besides the stunning landscape, it was just hard walking. After several accents and descents, skirting along Pukekaikiore, we spotted Mangatepopo Hut surrounded by golden tussocks grasses. We reached the hut, just off the main track, at 1430.
Moving clouds partially obscured the summit of Ngauruhoe. Mangatepopo Valley was carved out by glaciers from Tongariro. Around 1730, thick clouds descend on the mountains and temperatures dropped. Sam, the warden, revealed that tomorrow’s weather was not good. Strong wind, rain and cold temperatures were expected in the afternoon onward. We planned to depart early.
Day 2 – Mangatepopo Hut to Outrere Hut (12.8km)
Today is meant to the hardest part of the track. We will be walking over Tongariro’s craters and climb the crater wall and into the emerald lakes on the other side. It can be physically demanding due to its terrain and steepness. Furthermore, the weather can contribute severely to its difficulty. We left early anticipating that a cold storm and rain is brewing. Sam, the warden, advised us to leave early. Under a heavy dark sky and thick fog, now invisible Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, we left Mangatepopo Hut at 7am.
Under a cloak of thick fog, we walked through old lava fields densely vegetated with tussock and shrubs. Volcanic rocks are scattered everywhere. We passed a signage – “STOP. Hiking the Tongariro Crossing is NOT RECOMMENDED TODAY due to bad weather”. We continued. Visibility was limited to a hundred meters. A series of wooden steps elevated us higher into the clouds. It continued over a relatively flat saddle, still on wooden boardwalks. This is to protect the fragile vegetation – tussock grasses and alpine shrubs and from the harsh terrain. The fog accentuated the old lava rocks. In this environment and atmosphere, the landscape was captivating. A bright day may have diffused their appearance.
A flat volcanic soil trail in the Mangatepopo Valley led towards the Soda Springs – cold water falling off a mountain side. A short detour brought me to a closer viewpoint. From here-on, the trail climbed over a good well laid track. Ngauruhoe was still obscured by the persistent low hanging fog. The steep climb on wooden steps of over 300 meters is called the Devils staircase. The track crossed over old lava flows and plentiful of volcanic debris. I first walked this crossing in 2004 and this was the hardest part to climb. Back then, there were not steps or well laid tracks. Just a scramble over loose rocks. The climb is near vertical. Near the top, sunlight sporadically penetrated through the dense fog. The trail all the way back to Mangatepopo Hut and beyond was clearly visible. The base of distant Mt Taranaki filled the western horizon. However, the impending rain was within striking distance.
At the end of this arduous climb, a welcome sight – the flat South Crater (1650m). However, the whole crater was white-out by dense fog. It was still cold and the wind moderate. The dark sky threatened with imminent rain. Fortunately, the flat walk aided by marker poles enable us to cross safely. South Crater is not a true crater but a glacially carved basin. Sediments, eroded from the surrounding mountains, settled to form a layer of clay-like surface.
The fog mysteriously lifted and Mt Tongariro (1967m) and the Red Crater rim appeared. The ground seemed to be filled with smoke rising up slowly. It looked like a lunar landscape. Ngauruhoe (2287m), the youngest volcano in the park, magically appeared to revel its near-perfect cone. Sam informed us that Ngauruhoe is very much active and lookout for the vent fuming on its summit. As the clouds receded, I managed to spot the furious vent puffing hot steam from its belly. Previously, a steep hike up Ngauruhoe’s summit was possible. Today, it is “tapu” (scared to Maori). For the Lord of the Rings fan, this is Mt Doom. We crossed the South Crater in half an hour.
Now another serious climb was presented, the rim of the Red Crater. Wind picked up on this exposed mountain. A steady stream of climber slowly made their way up. On either side of this rim are precipitous drops. Again, it is advisable to stay close to the marker poles. I looked back to the South Crater and Ngauruhoe. A thick fog edged slowly and engulfed everything on its path. It headed our way at the highest and most exposed part of the climb. Stunning views of Oturere Valley lay below my feet. Beyond that, the Kaimanawa Range. Scattered around the rim and in the valley below are old lava vents, red from oxidation of iron from the rocks. A reminder of past explosive eruptions. Eventually, the storm clouds hit us. Temperature dropped to minus and visibility very limited. The icy wind tossed us around. We kept moving up to the highest point, at 1886m. Only with the aid of marker poles we managed to stay on the track. Views of the crater rim and Tongariro summit were obscured.
We just wanted to descent and get away from this strong icy wind. This was easier said than done. It was a steep descent over a scoria filled ridge. The turquoise coloured Emerald Lakes, a collection of three small explosion pits filled with water, appeared momentarily before consumed by the prevailing fog. A small window without fog provided some stunning views of not only the Emerald lakes but also the distant Blue Lake, the trail towards now defunct Ketetahi Hut, the steaming fumaroles, the North and Central Craters. With good balance and careful sliding over the loose scoria scree, we managed to get off the crater rim. Walking poles can be useful in this steep descent.
The views of these Emerald Lakes are quite magical, literally floating in a lunar landscape. The colour are determined by the erosion of minerals from the Red Crater. Sometimes, they take on a emerald colour. Sunlight also affects the brilliant colours. I gazed at the lake’s dazzling sight. Around 1230, we arrived at a junction – one track along the Central Crater- another drainage basin, led towards Ketetahi Hut (the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing) and the right track towards Oturere Hut (on the Tongariro Northern Circuit). I was tempted to go to the Blue Lake but with uncertain weather and impending rain, continued towards Oturere Hut. The crowd thinned.
The smell of sulphur fuming out of the fumaroles wafted through the air. Many day walkers were still making their way down the scree. Ngauruhoe was visible intermittently. We descended into the glacier carved Oturere Valley filled with volcanic rocks and debris. The track began to descend steeply over jagged old lava flows, eruptions from Tongariro’s Red Crater. Some areas with steep drops. Can be dangerous in places especially when wet. As the track progressed, expansive views of Kaimanawa Ranges and Rangipo Desert appeared. A ribbon-like waterfall cascaded down from the vertical lava walls. We crossed several old lava flows that resembled waves frozen in stone. On the ground, stunted alpine grasses and plants. Mosses took a foothold in sheltered places. On the left, columns of broken stones, packed together to form continuous vertical black walls. These are columns of basalt rocks.
As we descended further, the track was on soft volcanic ashes along unusual volcanic rock formations. Waves and waves of them. It was a matter of climbing one after another. Eventually Oturere Hut became visible. With the anticipated rain, it was a relief to get to the hut. Along the way, towards the left, cascading over the ridge is a waterfall, part of the Oturere Stream.
We arrived at Oturere Hut (1360m) at 1400. The hut’s configuration was strange – there were bunk beds in the kitchen! Cooking stoves are limited. After a quick hot drink, I ventured back towards the edge of the ridge to see the waterfall again. It was getting cold. Storm clouds descended onto the mountains and no views of Tongariro, Kaimanawa Range nor Ngauruhoe. Around 1730, strong winds and heavy rains lashed onto the huts and mountains. I was glad to be warm, dry and fed inside the hut.
Day 3 – Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (7.5km)
I was up early at 0500. Today’s walk is expected to be only around 3 hours. Early morning sun rose above the Kaimanawa Range and the sky blue. A waning half-moon floated above the brown and rugged volcanic landscape. The present weather was in complete contrast to the previous day’s evening weather. Although bitterly chilly, the soft warm morning sun on my face was bliss. A breeze blew from the west and the golden needle leaves of tussock grasses swayed to one side. I revisited the waterfall as the surrounding landscape took on a golden tint. The conical Ngauruhoe was completely engulfed in dense clouds.
We had the kitchen to ourselves as most other hikers were still in bed. We left the hut at 0715. Just after we left the sheltered hut, the icy wind blew into our faces. I pulled my jacket tight and shafted my hand into the trousers pockets. Within a few minutes of walking, I was completely taken by a pleasant surprise. I came face to face with a stunning view of the snow-covered Mt. Ruapehu. The clarity of the mountains was superb. The hike ascended and descended with the ebb and flow of the old lava flows. As molten lave cooled, it was thrusted upwards and eventually collapsed with weathering. Some over 50 meters high. They resembled frozen waves. The landscape was stunning with volcanic rocks of mixed sizes strewn all over.
As we progress, on some stretches, the ground was flat and covered with fine volcanic sand. As the sum warmed the land, clouds dissipated. Ngauruhoe eventually appeared with fresh snow on its conical peak. The sight was magnetic. Against a cobalt blue sky and half-moon, it was magical. Views of Both Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe constantly appeared with the ebb and flow of the track. We descended from one giant wall towards a tiny stream in the valley. Like all walks, if you go down, there is a obvious uphill climb. Slowly we climbed up over a vast flat mountain.
Eventually, we could see the Beech forest tree line. After crossing a bridge, under the canopy of the forest trees, it was cooling. a relief from the searing heat. Moss and lichen covered trunks and branches. The uphill track twisted around the slopes with exposed tree roots. Within half hour we exited the cool forest into an open hilltop (1268m). Across the meadow of low colourful alpine shrubs and ground lichens, Ngauruhoe was visible, with the summit covered in in clouds. To the west however, the landscape was barren valley, covered in volcanic rocks. The view led towards the almost invisible Ruapehu. As we descended, Waihohonu Hut appeared at the end of the vegetated area. Beyond that was just rocks. a short walk after crossing the fast flowing Waihohonu stream, we reached the hut at 1100.
Today’s short walk provide ample time to explore the surrounding and take thing easy. We descended towards Ophinepango Stream to explore the Ophinepango Spring. The sun was intense and intensified by the bare volcanic rocks. However, the water was very cold. Waihohonu is the best hut I had experienced. New, well laid out and had views of both Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. With only 1.5 hours walk, the is access to the Desert Road. Fantastic for a day hike, I thought.
Later in the day, I explored the historic Waihohonu Hut built in 1904. People used this hut for skiing. The accommodation is separated by sex. The men’s quarters had a fireplace and apparently the women only wanted a – mirror! Imagine between Wanganui to Pipiriki (by boat). Onward by horse drawn carriages to Waihohonu Hut and moving towards Lake Taupo. Then, continued by steamboat to Taupo. What an incredible journey.
The evening warden Danielle’s talk about the weather was concerning. Gale force winds – north westerlies (50 – 80 km/h) with rain and cold temperatures are expected in the day.
Day 4 – Waihohonu to Whakapapa (14.3km)
At 0530, I was not sure what the fuzz was about the anticipated poor weather. It was blue sky and the brilliant orange-yellow sunrise. Even the half moon was clearly visible. At 0600, Ngauruhoe basked in the soft warm dawn morning sun. At 0640, as we left the hut, a rainbow above Mt Doom (Ngauruhoe) but with dark cloud looming above. Visibility was still god as we descended along Waihohonu Stream along wooden steps. Pukekaikiore on my right remained visible. The air became cold and the wind began to pick up. More storm clouds developed above. I was prepared with my rain jackets. How quickly the weather transformed. This is the biggest challenge in Tongariro. The weatherman got it right.
The valley landscape was stunning with golden tussock tossed around by the winds. However, low storm cloud began to sweep over from the western horizon. Soon we found ourselves too tossed around by the wind and engulfed by the dark clouds. It was 0800. many streams seem to have passed over the track. Bog formed occasionally. Fortunately, a winding boardwalk facilitated our progress. Rain, from drizzle to light, made the temperature to plummet. Hikers became silhouettes gingerly walking into oblivion. In expose places, gale force wind blew. Some area became wind tunnels. My hands were near freezing. I could hardly make out the track. The guide poles were the only aid that can be relied on.
Although wet, cold and windy, the landscape was stunning. A very primordial landscape. Visibility was less than 50 meters. At one point, near a stream, the wind howled through – a wind tunnel. Unfortunately, with very poor visibility, I could only manage slow progress as I was unable to locate the guide poles. My fellow hiker’s hands were now frozen. Every adjustment of gear and clothing was painfully slow. I was looking forward to seeing Tama Lakes as we continued onto the Tama Saddle. It was exposed and windy. We arrived at the junction to the lakes, at 0930. With deteriorated weather, there was no hope of seeing anything. It was just a white-out. We continued towards Whakapapa on the Tama Lakes Track.
The track was relatively level with the occasional steady climb and descent. At 1100, we arrived at the Taranaki Falls Track junction. We visited the falls on day one as we anticipated today’s poor weather. Suddenly, the clouds cleared to reveal the falls, which appeared just of the main track. In the background, the fresh green beech trees. A few meters on, we crossed a bridge over the Wairere Stream. Just a few meters away, the stream disappeared over the falls. The stream looked small, but it plundered down 20 meters. From here, Whakapapa is only an hours’ walk.
We reached the “End of Lava Flow”. On the southern side of Ngauruhoe, on the Tama Lakes area, is where the oldest lave flows stopped progressing. Beyond this, volcanic rocks disappeared, and we entered the beech forest. Away from the wind and partially the rain, on well laid paths, we reached Whakapapa around 1145. The rain did not relent. It is a wonderful track will all of nature’s works thrown in (minus exploding volcanoes). Stunning views of mineral lakes and volcanic fields, fuming volcanic vents, unpredictable weather, structural waves of old lava flows, the majestic active mountains, and the soothing beech forest. This track stands apart from all other track – walking in a scared area surround by active volcanoes.