The 43 kilometer Tongariro Northern Circuit begins as a typical beautiful New Zealand hike. Further along the route it’s easy to see this is no ordinary hike. Walking through dramatic volcanic landscape feels like you’re on an alien planet. With steaming mountains on the left and Mount Ngauruhoe on the right, this Great Walk earns the title in every possible way. Everything about it is great, along with exciting and other-worldly. Out of every hike in New Zealand, Tongariro Northern Circuit was my favorite.
National Park Village to Mangatepopo Hut
The shuttle to the trail head left right at 6am. It was dark and everyone was quiet, even as we piled out of the shuttle. It had already pulled away when I noticed a sign that said “2 kilometers to Mangatepopo Hut.” It was supposed to be a 8.5 kilometers hike so I became suspicious. As I inspected the large map on display I suddenly realized I was at the wrong trail head.
At first I felt sheepish in booking the wrong shuttle until I looked around and saw three other people had made the same mistake. Although it made me feel better, this was a big lesson to never again rush through booking an overnight track. I had called and booked a shuttle to “the trail head” without knowing there were two popular trail heads. I should have specified the trail head for Tongariro Northern Circuit, not Tongariro Crossing, which is where I was. It took me a few minutes to think about my next move.
Tongariro Crossing is Day 2 of Tongariro Northern Circuit. I had two options: Find a ride to the actual trail head and do the hike properly or continue 2km to Mangatepopo Hut and go from there.
Since it was pouring rain and I was fighting off a cold I decided to hike the 2 kilometers to Mangatepopo Hut. It was hardly 9am when the hut came into view. I poked my head inside and saw people packing and eating breakfast. The hut was very cramped so I left again and began to walk back on the trail I should have taken in the first place. The rain came down relentlessly. I told myself I’d be walking in the rain anyway if I had gone to the correct trail head, but after an hour of rain and fog I turned around.
I got to the hut again around noon. It was empty except for the ranger, who laughed at my story of taking the wrong shuttle to the wrong trail head. She made me feel better and said “In this rain it might have been the best mistake to make.” We talked for a while and I felt my cold getting worse. I excused myself from the conversation and curled up in my sleeping bag for a long nap.
I woke up several hours later surrounded by people. I still felt groggy but tried to socialize and enjoyed listening to people describe their wet and miserable hikes. Out of all the days to accidentally skip part of the trail, this seemed like the best one. SCORE! After dinner I went to bed early, hoping to feel better the next morning.
Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut
I woke up feeling much better than the previous day. It was time to kick some hiking ass! Mangatepopo Hut is only 12.8 kilometers to Oturere Hut but there are several side trips available.
Blue Lake – 30 minutes return
Mt Tongariro – 2 hours return
Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) – 3 hours return
Mt Ngauruhoe is the most difficult side trip but well worth the time and effort (assuming your legs are sturdy enough). The trail is steep and covered in skree. Hiking up Mt Ngauruhoe gives the saying “2 steps forward and 1 step back” an entirely new meaning. The way up is slippery and dangerous. Screams of “Watch Out!” can be heard down the mountain as large rocks go flying past.
The entire way up boasts incredible views. At the top of Mt Ngauruhoe the trail goes off in different directions, including around the crater (if you want to see where Frodo threw the ring). Even though it was a warm morning it was cold and windy at the top. Bring a jacket.
With a little confidence the way down takes half the time if you decide to “skii” down the skree. It’s loads of fun but be careful because it’s even more dangerous than the way up. Rocks fall from people “skiing” above you, so keep an ear out for the screams of “Watch out!” According to the ranger an average of one evacuation a day takes place on this dangerous mountain.Back at the bottom the main trail continues upwards, offering great views of Mt Ngauruhoe. Once Red Crater comes into view it’s ok to breath a sigh of relief because it’s all downhill from here. Red crater is absolutely gorgeous and the not-so-creative name suddenly makes sense when you see it.
On the other side of Red Crater are Emerald Lakes. Caution is advised because the trail slopes steeply down and many people fall here, including myself. I only scraped my knee, but I came to the aid of a fallen hiker who had not worn appropriate footwear. Please be careful when hiking Northern Tongariro Circuit or Tongariro Crossing because neither of them are easy.
Emerald Lakes are breathtaking and worthy of a long snack break. Afterwards, continue a little further on the main trail to the sign post. Oturere Hut is 4.8 kilometers from here. The trail turns right, goes down into Oturere Valley, then flattens out over alien-like desert landscape. This last part is easy and Oturere Hut is set in a beautiful location with Mt Ngauruhoe looming in the background.
Oturere Hut is the smallest one and some of the bunks are even in the kitchen. There is a big valley out front and a waterfall to the left. It’s a short five minutes to the top of the waterfall and you may find other hikers bathing in their underwear. The water is cold but it feels nice to freshen up.
Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut
It’s only 7.5 kilometers to the next hut so take it easy in the morning. The trail is interesting enough, but nothing compared to the previous day. First it continues through terrain similar to the day before. It’s a strange desert landscape with small valleys and strange rock formations. Then the trail follows a ridge line and goes down to a pretty beech forest.
Follow the stream at the bottom of the valley and it will eventually lead to a bridge. It’s a picturesque spot and I couldn’t resist sitting on the bridge with my feet hanging off the edge. Now it’s time for a workout. The trail gets steep and goes up the opposite side of the ridge. The trail eventually breaks out of the forest and Waihohonu Hut comes into view around the last corner.
The hut looks very close but don’t get excited yet because it’s another kilometer away. Waihohonu Hut is huge, especially compared to the other huts along the trail. It’s less claustrophobic and thankfully a good place to wait out an evening storm (which is exactly what I did). The storm created bizarre cloud formations unlike anything I’d seen before!
Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa
There’s not much elevation gain on this 14.3km day, making it easy going. The terrain gets more lush and little valleys give the day some excitement. Mount Ruapehu stands beautifully in the distance and keeps you company the whole time. At the right time of year different flowers and shrubs throw some color into the landscape.
It’s an all-around fun day that ends with lovely Taranaki Falls. A five minute walk leads to the bottom of the falls. This is the perfect place to spend some time if you’re not ready for the trail to end because Whakapapa isn’t far from here.
The last day went by quickly and I was in Whakapapa sooner than I’d have liked. It was so much fun and I would do this track again in a heart beat. The amazing sights and variety in terrain make Tongariro Northern Circuit a hike worth remembering.
Interested in Hiking Tongariro Northern Circuit?
Compared to the other 9 Great Walks Tongariro Northern Circuit is relatively close to Auckland. If driving isn’t an option, Naked Bus goes from downtown Auckland to National Park Village or Whakapapa in 7.5 hours ($61NZD, round trip, includes a bag). Sure, 7.5 hours is a long time but it’s hard to beat for the price. The bus was on time, comfortable, and offered limited wifi.
Where to Stay
Whakapapa is where Tongriro Northern Circuit begins. There is no need to book transportation from Whakapapa to the trail head because it starts right next to the resort. There is limited accommodation but the convenient location next to the trail head could be worth the price. The visitor’s center is also here, along with a few restaurants.
National Park Village is 16km from Whakapapa and the trail head. There is a lot more accommodation here but transportation must be booked to/from the trail head. There is one convenience store and a couple restaurants.
If you’re doing the 19.4 kilometer Tongariro Crossing transportation will need to be booked from both Whakapapa and National Park Village. Please be aware that booking transportation to “the trail head” is a BAD idea! I did not realize there are two very popular trails and wound up at the wrong trail head. Be sure to specify which hike you are doing (Tongariro Crossing or Northern Tongariro Circuit) to get to the correct trail head.
I chose to stay at National Park Village because of the budget accommodation. Before hiking Tongariro Northern Circuit I stayed at National Park Backpackers ($30). They have a kitchen, dorms, and offer shuttle service to the trail head. At the end of my hike I stayed at National Park Tavern ($90). This is a quiet motel with individual rooms, good showers, a kitchen, and free laundry. Perfect after finishing a 3-day hike.
There are no grocery stores. Buy all the necessary food ahead of time. There is a convenience store in National Park Village with a decent amount of stuff but it’s expensive and the selection is obviously limited.
It was very cold at night (in late March), so bring warm gear. The huts supply gas, filtered water, and mattresses. There is no place to throw trash so “pack it in – pack it out.”
On the second day (going clockwise) some sections of the trail are covered in skree. Bring band aids if you’re prone to skinned knees.