Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Natascha hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit, at the Red Crater

We were not sure what to expect of hiking the Tongariro Northern circuit. But we were prepared to meet many people, as it is one of the most well-known tracks on the Northern Island. And we expected to meet even more people on the one day we shared partly with the popular “Tongariro Crossing” day trip. We had heard statements like:

„A thousand people per day do the Tongariro crossing.“ „Too many for my taste, but I‘m used to New Zealand tramps where you meet nobody the whole day.“ „Oh, it wasn‘t so bad, we had expected more.“

The start of the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Taranaki Fall to Tama Lakes

Day 1: Whakapapa Village – Oturere Hut.

27 km, 1061 m up, 810 m down

The volcanic cone of Mt Ngauruhoe is looming over the heath when we approach the Tongariro visitor centre. Whakapapa Village looks almost deserted in the morning light. We have decided to hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit anti-clockwise, and thus against the current, as it were. Our first day to Waihohonu Hut being not so hard, we start not too early. The path first slopes gradually up to the saddle between Mt Ngauruhoe and the mighty snow-capped Mt Ruapehu. A few day-trippers head out in our direction, towards the clear Tama Lakes or the Taranaki waterfall.

Hiking on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, near Lower Tama Lake

Later in the day, we meet occasional hikers with some more luggage coming from the huts in the park. Before 3 pm, we are already at the historic Waihohonu Hut. Travellers on the “Grand Tour” of New Zealand alighted here from their stage coaches since since 1904.

Changing a campsite reservation on a NZ Great Walk: it’s possible

The hut warden at the neighbouring new Waihohonu Hut advises us that we might still change our camping reservation. We had made all the reservations months ago because even the campsites in the National Park become so quickly unavailable, but she calls the next hut for us. There would be space on the campsite, she says, if we wanted to continue. It is such a nice day that it feels too early to stop here – so we continue to Oturere Hut.

The hiking on the Tongariro Northern Circuit turns out quite demanding on this stretch. We go up through overgrown forest, and then down through overgrown forest. And again up, and then up and down for a while in an ever more lonely and volcanic landscape. We arrive after everybody else, at around 7 pm, at the Oturere Hut. Nevertheless we are glad that we added these three hours to our schedule for today, and that we won’t have to do it tomorrow.

Day 2: Oturere Hut – Mangatepopo Hut

14 km, 570 m up, 740 m down

Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The next day is the steepest and highest part of the trail. We are going to hike to the Emerald Lakes and over the Red Crater. This part of the trail is called the “Tongariro Crossing” and everybody knows about it. After all, it is advertised all over New Zealand’s North Island as a must-do day hike.

Hikers on the Tongariro Crossing, from Emerald Lakes

It is very likely the most popular day-hike in the whole country. Tourists arrive in the morning by shuttle at the starting point at Mangatepopo. Transfer busses pick them up 6 to 10 hours later at the other end, at a much lower altitude. Nobody ever does the day hike in the opposite direction, it seems, with 400 m or so more to climb. From our last hut on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, however, it is actually not that many altitude meters. In fact, once we have reached the brilliantly colourful Emerald Lakes, we only have less than 200 m of altitude to the top of the Red Crater.

The lakes owe their exceptional colour and clearness to the volcanic minerals. And like all rather newly formed volcanic lakes, their water is so clear because there is almost no organic life in them. We have, in similarly clean water in Hokkaido, seen the enigmatic moss balls: Marimo, round algae balls lying on the ground of a lake.

Hikers queuing for the Tongariro Crossing

This is where we encounter the day hikers, even though it is already midday and most must already have passed. Resting at the Lakes and trudging up the steep volcanic sand to the crater, we meet several hundred hikers going in the opposite direction. Some of them are walking in sneakers and struggling with the difficult terrain. “How much longer is it to the official end of the “Crossing”? About 20 minutes will do?”, an exhausted-looking youngster asks us. From the top of the Red Crater, we can see the trail of day hikers extending northwards. They still have to go past another lake and into the next valley. Maybe 3 or 4 hours more for the exhausted hiker…

Red Crater from the Tongariro Crossing

Beyond the summit, we are alone again in the grey and barren landscape of recently erupted volcanoes. Mt Ngauruhoe is again right next to us, clearly visible on another spectacularly pleasant day. It has played a role in the Lord of the Rings movies, but is impressive enough on its own. The walk down to Mangatepopo is long, but easy, as the path is broad and sloping gently for the masses of day-hikers. There are wooden boards and staircases most of the way, some toilet blocks lower down in the valley. Again, we are among the last to arrive at the hut.

Day 3: Mangatepopo-Whakapapa Village

10 km, 290 m up, 350 m down

Hiking from Mangatepopo Hut to Whakapapa Village in Tongariro National Park

Today we can really have a lazy start. For whereas everybody else is heading for the volcanic slopes of the Red Crater (with many other hikers), we are on the last stretch of our Northern Circuit. We will only be crossing some foothills to return to Whakapapa Village. In the first 5 minutes of our hike we meet about 100 people who are just coming from the drop-off point. All are eager to start their Tongariro Crossing day hike. But soon we turn into a different trail and are almost alone for the rest of the morning. 5 pairs of hikers are walking in the opposite direction, and Mt Ruapehu is standing in front of us. Mt Ngauruhoe is in clouds today – we were lucky to have such good views on the volcano for the past two days.

When we dip into a forest and hear Chinese chatter, we know we are nearing Whakapapa Village, the end of our three-day Tongariro trail. People in shorts are walking towards the Taranaki Waterfall. Then a group of perhaps 30 young people in flip-flops, carrying towels, rugby balls and packets of crisps are pushing past us. Ten minutes later we arrive in the village and see the Kiwi Experience backpacker bus that apparently carried the group to their picnic trip in the mountains.

What you need to know before hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Mangatepopo Hut on the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s so-called Great Walks – along with one “walk” that is actually a canoe trip but also fantastic. That means that in season hut and camping reservations with the New Zealand Department of Conservation are essential. We hiked at the beginning of February, in main season. Months before, the huts as well as the camping facilities were booked solid. Camping facilities at the Oturere Hut were somewhat more spacious and wide. Thus, although there were officially only a few places campers could book, in reality there was space for some more tents. On the other hand, at Mangatepopo Hut it would be difficult to find space for an extra tent. You have to bring your own food, pots, and plates, but even campers can use the gas stoves in the kitchen.

And yes, there is a certain risks of earthquakes and volcano outbreaks. Write your name and where you are heading next into the “intentions book” in the huts. This is useful or all kinds of emergencies (and for curious fellow hikers). We enjoyed our multi-day hike in the Tongariro National Park, but it did not quite make our personal list of highlights of our New Zealand travel.

NB: We were not sponsored for our trip to New Zealand. We paid all expenses of hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit ourselves.

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  1. Thank you for the tips that would help us a lot if we plan to hike in Tongariro Northern Circuit. New Zealand is a country we are hoping to visit soon, too! 🙂
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, 100 people in 5 minutes, indeed it is a very popular hiking trail! I am not well versed in hiking, but I’m glad to know this area is prepped for day hikers and can be relatively doable for someone like me! Lovely photos, the landscape is so incredible.

  3. I enjoyed reading about your hiking trip and yes, I was also worried about the risk of earth quakes and volcano outbreaks. I guess it’s part of the experience and the thrill. It’s cool that they have a intentions book for emergencies.

  4. That landscape is worth the hike I guess. But it does sound like a lot of strength is needed. New Zealand does offer some lucrative attractions for the uninitiated traveller. I would love to visit the country.

  5. What a scene hiking experience. I especially love the hike you did to the Emerald Lakes and over the Red Crater. Stunning!

  6. You make me feel so lazy reading this! I’m a newbie hiker so don’t know if I could manage this, but the views make it worthwhile. The place is beautiful however!

  7. Wow, when I saw the top photo, in my head I was thinking, this must have been an epic hike! These look like some of the best views on Earth, especially, that Red Crater. There are just plenty of landscapes to explore in New Zealand!

    1. Dear Trisha, the Tongariro Trail is one of the Great Walks in New Zealand and absolutely worth it. However you have to register with the huts and campsites before.

  8. Wow! The views are just amazing! No wonder a lot of people are trying to attempt the trails. I believe they have report on daily earthquake and volcano activities in the area for visitors who plan to hike here.

  9. Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit in Northern Island is still on my list, as I hadn’t enough time to do that during my Island road trip. You had such an amazing adventure! Hiking to the Emerald Lakes and over the Red Crater seems to be fabulous. The views are breathtaking. Thanks for the tips about camping reservations!

  10. This hike is just worth it for those stunning views. I loved every picture on your blog post. The red crater and those blue pools – they reminded me of the landscape in a place called Ladakh in India. The same rugged beauty -Sigh! I hope I get to this part of the world soon

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