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 were prepared 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.“
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 in Whakapapa Village 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.
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, where travellers since 1904 alighted from their stage coaches while doing the “Grand Tour” of New Zealand.
The hut warden at the neighbouring new Waihohonu Hut advises us that we might change our camping reservation (which we had made months ago because even the campsites in the National Park are so restricted) to the next hut 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: 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, but 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
The next day is the steepest and highest part of the trail, hiking to the Emerald Lakes and over the Red Crater. This part of the trail is called the “Tongariro Crossing”, and is advertised all over New Zealand’s North Island as a must-do day hike.
It is very likely the most popular day-hike in the whole country. Tourists are shuttled in the morning to the starting point at Mangatepopo, and picked 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 – once we have reached the brilliantly coloured Emerald Lakes, we only have less than 200 m of altitude to the top of the Red Crater.
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 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 past another lake and into the next valley. Maybe 3 or 4 hours more for the exhausted hiker…
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 prepared for the masses of day-hikers: 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
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 only 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 and 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
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – so in season hut and camping reservations are essential. We hiked at the beginning of February and huts as well as camping facilities were booked solid. Camping facilities at the Oturere Hut were somewhat wider than the few places that could officially be booked, so in reality it was not quite so restricted – but 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 – for all kinds of emergencies and for curious fellow hikers.
We have not been sponsored for our trip to New Zealand and all expenses have been paid by ourselves.