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A volcanic adventure
Hiking around an active volcano would have to be one of life’s most memorable experiences. And if you decide to climb to the summit, the feeling of achievement is even more uplifting.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit encircles the cone of Mount Ngauruhoe - the most perfectly-shaped volcanic cone within the Tongariro National Park. Although it’s resting at the moment, this mountain is New Zealand's most active volcano with 61 eruptions since 1839.
Walked in its entirety, the track is 41 kilometres long and takes three to four days. However the first day follows the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is probably New Zealand’s best-known day hike. So if you don’t have time to do the full circuit, you can opt to do a single day.
Journey into crater land
As you can imagine, the Tongariro Northern Circuit is all about volcanic terrain and landforms. You’ll see craters, lava flows, explosion pits and steaming vents. Strange smells, outlandish colours and the crunch of scoria underfoot add to the feeling that you’ve landed on an alien world.
Red Crater is a volcanic highlight to keep your camera busy. Ash eruptions occurred here in 1897 and 1926. Currently the only signs of activity are steam fumaroles - the hydrogen sulphide emissions have a distinctive ‘rotten egg’ smell. On the far side of the crater you’ll see a large lava dike - a pipe that once fed magma from the vent of the volcano. North Crater is a solidified lake of lava; you can use your imagination to picture what it would have looked like before it cooled.
The lava flows and jagged lava forms you’ll see on the walk were produced during spectacular, fire-fountaining eruptions. Ngauruhoe really knows how to turn on the heat! The youngest flows are black, erupting from the mountain in 1949 and 1954.
Explosion pits that have filled with water inject unexpected colours into the volcanic landscape. The Emerald Lakes, formed around 1800 years ago, are coloured by escaping volcanic gases and leachate from the surrounding rocks. The steam vents above the lake are responsible for the sulphurous smell.
Blue Lake is cold and acidic. Considered tapu (sacred) to the Maori people, it sits like an oasis in the volcanic desert.
Cold water springs
Near the head of the Mangatepopo Valley, which you’ll encounter on the first day of the walk, a short side track leads to Soda Springs. Here you’ll find moisture-loving wild flowers and a small, sparkling spring that forms a waterfall over a mossy wall. The scene is a beautiful piece of softness in an otherwise harsh landscape.
From Old Waihohonu Hut, near the end of the circuit, you can take a short detour to Ohinepango Springs, which bubble out of a fissure in the rock. If you’re lucky, you may see a pair of native blue ducks with their distinctive white bills and steel-blue plumage. Hikers have been known to take a dip in the Ohinepango Stream - it’s chilly, but very refreshing.
The summits of Tongariro (1967m) and Ngauruhoe (2287m) aren’t officially part of the circuit, but many walkers take the time to detour up one or both. From Red Crater, poles mark the route up Mount Tongariro (allow two hours return). The track up Mount Ngauruhoe begins at Mangatepopo Saddle (allow three hours return). Mount Ngauruhoe starred as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, so you’re actually making your way through Mordor.
From the top of Ngauruhoe, it feels like you can see forever. The panorama includes the north peak of Ruapehu, the notched Pinnacle Ridge and the western mountains of Taranaki, Pihanga and Edgecombe. A series of lakes are visible to the north, where Lake Taupo dominates the horizon.
A grand place to stay
The Tongariro Northern Circuit begins and ends at Whakapapa Village, which serves snow sports enthusiasts during winter (there are two ski fields in the national park) and hikers during the rest of the year. The most iconic man-made feature of the village is the Bayview Chateau, one of New Zealand’s most famous heritage buildings. Built in 1929, this Georgian mansion provides luxury accommodation and dining - it’s a grand place to stay before and after your walking adventure.
Chief Te Heu Heu’s gift to the nation
The three volcanoes that form the nucleus of Tongariro National Park were gifted to the people of New Zealand in 1887 by Ngati Tuwharetoa chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV. He did this to protect the sacred mountains for all time.
Tongariro was the first national park to be established in New Zealand and the fourth in the world. In 1993 the park was the first site in the world to be granted dual World Heritage status, recognising both its natural and cultural values.
Booking a walk with a tour provider
There are a number of specialist tour operators who can aide you in bringing your walking experience to life. Whether you are looking for a guided tour or accommodation along the track browse through our business listings to find the walkin experience that is right for you.
Booking a walk independently
If you want to walk a Great Walk independently you will need a Great Walks Pass The fees for this varies between each Great Walk, but all prices are very reasonable as they are heavily subsidised in order to foster participation by many people.
For some Great Walks you may need to make a booking, for others simply purchase a Great Walks hut or campsite pass before your trip
- For the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn, Heaphy and Abel Tasman the online system allows you to check availability and pay for your booking. Book online
- Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Centres national wide can make hut or campsite bookings on your behalf. A booking fee applies.
- Call on +64-3-249 8514, fax +64-3-249 8515, email email@example.com