The mountains of Tongariro National Park form the highest parts of the North Island; an area of volcanoes, hot springs, colourful lakes and old explosion craters. Perhaps more than any other tramping area in New Zealand, this is a dynamic, ever-changing landscape, one with regular volcanic activity. As recently as August and November 2012, the Te Maari craters erupted, sending ash and debris over the surrounding area and damaging Ketetahi Hut beyond repair.
Ruapehu periodically sends lahars down its flanks, and underwent a series of spectacular, if minor, eruptions in 1995 and 1996; Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1975, but is by no means dormant. Indeed, Ruapheu and the Tongariro/Ngauruhoe complex are considered among the most active composite volcanoes in the world.
As one of our most accessible national parks, surrounded by and penetrated by several roads, the area offers a myriad of tramping and walking opportunities, including the exceedingly popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Trampers wanting a longer challenge can take on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, which forms a loop around Mt Ngauruhoe, or tackle the 4-5 day Round-the-Mountain Track that circumnavigates Mt Ruapehu.
1. Te Maari Craters
These craters, in the park’s north-eastern corner, form the centre of Tatau Pounamu Wilderness, one of two such areas at Tongariro with no tracks or huts. The craters are part of the Tongariro volcanic complex, which also includes the cone of Ngauruhoe.
2. Blue Lake
Trampers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing pass Blue Lake, the largest body of water on the track.
3. Mt Tongariro
The smallest of the three main summits in the national park, Tongariro is easily reached as a side-trip from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
4. Red Crater
This steaming vent of Red Crater lends a sulphurous odour to the atmosphere of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The peak above Red Crater forms the highest part of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at 1886m, from which trampers can look down upon the dyke, formed by a vertical column of lava. Below are the aptly named Emerald Lakes.
5. Mt Ngauruhoe
A very young volcanic cone, Ngauruhoe is only about 2500 years old, and geologically speaking, is part of the Tongariro complex. The 2287m summit is a popular side-trip for those tackling the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. An equally appealing but more strenuous route to the summit is from the Tama Lakes.
6. Tama Lakes
Both the upper and lower Tama Lakes are water-filled explosion craters. The startlingly blue lakes make a good side-trip from the Tongariro Northern Circuit.
7. Old Waihohonu Hut
Now the oldest hut in the park, Old Waihohonu was erected by the Tourism Department during the summer of 1903-04. The separate men’s and women’s quarters reflect the social norms of the time. Pumice used to fill the wall cavities makes this possibly New Zealand’s first insulated backcountry hut. Now a historic site, the hut forms a side-trip for those staying at the new Waihohonu Hut.
Tahurangi, at 2797m, is the highest of Ruapehu’s several summits, and the apex of the entire North Island. While a straightforward ascent during summer, those tackling the peak in winter need to be fully prepared for alpine conditions. The summit has grand views over the Crater Lake and virtually the whole of the national park.
9. Lake Surprise
Lake Surprise may indeed be a surprise to those heading south along the Round-the-Mountain Track, but it’s no mystery to those heading north. Situated on a shelf above the Mangaturuturu Valley, the lake is visible from as far away as the Turoa Ski Field Road. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant destination for a day trip, or overnight tramp to Mangaturuturu Hut built by the Wanganui Tramping Club in 1958.
10. Rangipo Hut
Rangipo is one of several Lockwood-style huts built during the heyday of the park’s Lands and Survey era in the 1960s and 1970s. Situated on the edge of the Rangipo Desert, at 1600m, it’s the highest of all the huts on the Round-the-Mountain Track (the New Zealand Alpine Club’s Whangaehu Hut is the highest in the park). The windswept landscape of the Rangipo Desert is a curiously barren place, with only the hardiest plants and mosses eking out a living among its sparse soils.