The Tongariro Northern Circuit is the first of NZ’s Great Walks that we have done. the three day trek takes you through spectacular and truly unique volcanic landscapes. This guide is filled with pictures and information from each day of the journey.
Last summer, Isaac and I did the Tongariro Northern Circuit tramp with his parents. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks and the first Great Walk we have done. It is located in Tongariro National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The National Park is one of only 29 sites in the world with a dual World Heritage status, for it’s natural and cultural significance.
As the Tongariro Northern Circuit is a Great Walk, the DOC website has great resources, including route maps, track conditions and weather updates. Please do read the details on the DOC website before you book the trek, so that you are well informed before you go. It is essential that you are fully prepared for the walk, understand the risks and take precautions to stay safe. Click here to read the information provided by DOC.
The tramp is a 2-4 day circuit, depending on how fast you walk, how far you want to walk each day and where you choose to stay. We did the trek over 3 days as a party of 4. As the walk is a circuit, you can do it either clockwise or anti-clockwise. We did the walk clockwise, tackling the difficult day on Day 1 of the trek and we would highly recommend doing the walk that way! This is our (co-written) guide to what to expect each day, the things to look out for and to ensure that you thoroughly enjoy your trek through the stunning landscape. We had such a great time together, while appreciating the beauty of the National Park. It is one of our favourite multi-day treks and we think everyone should do it!
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Day 0: Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut
Time: 3-5 hr
Distance: 8.5 km
There are a few options for starting the Northern Circuit if you are doing it clockwise. You will have to leave your vehicle at the allocated overnight car park at Whakapapa Village, but you will spend your first night at Mangatepopo Hut. The walk to the Hut from Whakapapa Village is 3-5 hours, depending on the weather conditions. However, the Mangatepopo car park is only 30 minutes from the hut. Isaac’s Mum and I opted to be dropped off at the carpark and walked our packs to the Hut, while Isaac and his Dad drove the car around to Whakapapa and walked the 3-5 hours to meet us back at the Mangatepopo Hut. The third choice is to get a shuttle bus from either National Park Village or Whakapapa Village to the Mangatepopo car park and walk to the hut from there.
Day 1: Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut
Time: 5 hr
Distance: 12.8 km
Starting Day 1 from the Mangatepopo Hut, you will encounter many others walking the must-do day trip – the Tongariro Crossing. As it’s one of the longer days, you’ll want to have a good breakfast and an early start. The track starts off with a gentle uphill, you walk alongside a stream winding its way up the valley. Before the uphill starts, there is a short detour to soda springs, a small waterfall. It is well marked, so you won’t miss it.
Once you get past the detour to your left, it’s up up and more up to the top of the crossing, up the Devil’s Staircase. You get a bit of a break as you cross the south crater, a nice flat section before the final uphill for the day. At the red crater summit, you reach the highest point of the whole circuit, at 1,886m above sea level. This is the perfect place to stop for some epic panoramic photos, to have some snacks or your lunch, before heading down the other side.
Making your descent, you are first greeted with a steep scree slope leading down to the emerald lakes. Be prepared for lots of slipping and sliding down the scree! Also, bonus points if you can find the steam vents on the side of the path to warm your frosty fingers. As you make your way down, you won’t miss the stunning Emerald Lakes, which is no doubt what tempted you into doing this hike! Stop and get some photos with the beautiful Emerald Lakes, there is nothing else in the world quite like them.
After the Emerald Lakes, the path forks and you will have to turn right, following signs to Oturere Hut. However, this means you won’t get to see the Blue Lake, which is another 10 minutes down the Tongariro Crossing track. If you are interested, make another side trip, as it is mostly flat between the lakes. Once you take the turn-off towards your next hut, there will be fewer people along the path and you can enjoy the descent. The scenery was stunning and I couldn’t help but think of Mordor and Middle Earth as we walked through the volcanic landscape. All the while you have Mount Ngauruhoe (AKA Mt Doom) towering over you on the left. Oturere Hut sits at an altitude of 1,360m above sea level. From Oturere Hut, there is a short track to the Oturere Falls. If you have the energy, do this before you settle down for the evening, it is a pretty spot and fun photo opportunity.
Rest up well at the Oturere Hut, you deserve it after climbing the steepest and most challenging part of the three-day circuit!
Day 2: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut
Time: 3 hr
Distance: 7.5 km
The majority of Day 2 involves a downhill descent, with a few gentle uphills throughout the day. The scenery is stunning as you cross ancient lava fields and gravelly valleys, dominated by strangely shaped rock outcrops, your feet crunching on a bed of pumice. This day was definitely the most enjoyable, meandering through the beautiful scenery, marvelling at the volcanic landscape and pretending to be strong while holding up giant pumice rocks. This was the quietest day of the tramp for us, as the track is only used by those doing the Tongariro Northern Circuit.
If the weather is clear, you’ll again be greeted with views of Mount Ngauruhoe, as the circuit track essentially loops around the mountain. We were also able to see Mount Ruapehu across the valley, still snow topped in early December.
Towards the end of the day, you reach the bottom of a valley, cross a bridged stream and ascend once again to reach Waihohonu Hut in the next valley. After crossing the stream, you walk through native New Zealand bush, a stark contrast to the barren volcanic terrain. The shade is welcome on a sunny day. You will finish the day at Waihohonu Hut, a refreshing sight at the end of another day of walking. There is another small stream a few minutes before the hut, which provides you with a great (but cold), opportunity for a wash, if not for your sake, then for the sake of those sharing a bunk room with you.
From Waihohonu Hut, there is another side-trip to a Ohinepango Springs. The 2km track will take about 40 minutes return. While the source is not the most spectacular spring I’ve seen, the walk is pretty and the stream is gorgeous. After a relatively easy day of walking, this short walk is a great add-on, if you’ve got the energy!
Rest up well again – Waihohonu Hut is the newest in the circuit, with good facilities. You will need good rest before Day 3, the last day of the trek, where you will cover the longest distance.
Day 3: Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village
Distance: 14.3 km
Time: 5 hr
Start off the day with high spirits as you will need those to tackle this big day of walking. You’ve made it to the final day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, where you’ll return to your car at Whakapapa Village. This is the last day of the walk and while you may feel tired, this day has some of the best side-trips that are well worth it. The walking is easy going, with gentle rolling hills and gurgling streams.
Early on in the day, you will see signs towards the Old Waihohonu Hut, the first hut built in Tongariro National Park in 1904. If you’re interested in the history of the area, it’s a good side-trip, as the hut was the first base for recreational skiing in New Zealand. I was amazed that it was still standing after 60 years of active use and being older than 110 years.
The walk continues on a steady uphill towards the Tama Saddle. Again, you are only sharing the path with others doing the circuit up until this point. The next side-trip option to Tama Lakes is a very popular day trip for many in the area. From the track, it is 20 minutes return to Lower Tama Lake and 1 hour, 30 minutes return to Upper Tama Lake. The track to Upper Tama follows a steep ridge, attempt this if you have the energy and time to do so, it is well worth the effort. We were too tired at this point to make the side trip to either of the lakes, but returned in winter to see the lakes. Read all about our hike to Tama Lakes here. They are both absolutely stunning, no matter what the season.
After crossing the Tama Saddle, you follow a gentle downhill again, giving your weary legs the help they need to continue. The next notable spot is Taranaki Falls, an incredible place to stop for lunch and a great photo op. You’ll cross paths with a lot more people as they make the short hike from Whakapapa to the Falls. From the Taranaki Falls, there are two routes back to the Whakapapa Village, both with a similar distance and time. The lower track is a lot more shaded than the top, going through NZ bush and following a stream for parts, so if it’s a warm day, this may be the better choice. The upper track continues through the volcanic field, while Mount Ngauruhoe watches over you as you make your way to the village.
AND that’s the end of the clockwise Tongariro Northern Circuit. Congratulations!
Of course, if you are doing it anti clockwise, Day 3 will be Day 1 and so on, as you will do the trek in reverse to the way that we did it.
Things To Know
Please remember that the Tongariro National Park is an active volcanic area, with eruptions as recent as 2012 and 2007. Know where the volcanic hazard zones are and check the likelihood of volcanic activity before your trip. Click here to learn more about the risks and to ensure that you know what to do if there is an eruption.
NZ weather is very unpredictable, even more so in the alpine environment through which you’ll be walking. Expect the weather to change, even in summer – and be prepared for it. During winter months, much of the circuit is covered in snow and ice, alpine experience and equipment is usually required in this season.
All the accommodation for this Great Walk must be booked in advance. There are limited bunks in each hut, so bookings are essential. There are also limited campsites at each hut, if you are bringing your own tents, which must also be booked. You can book a campsite or huts online here.
Want to discover more of New Zealand’s Great Walks? Check these out:
034: NZ’s Most Popular Walk – The Milford Track