Tongariro National Park
The most appropriate heading to describe the 75,000 hectare park, located at the very heart of the North Island, is “volcanoes.” Indeed, quite a number of important ones are found here. Not only is Tongariro New Zealand’s oldest and most popular National Park, having attained world heritage status in the meantime, but it also provides fine examples of characteristic volcanic landscapes.
The snow-covered Mount Ruapehu, 2796 m high and boasting a warm crater lake, is the highest and largest mountain on the entire North Island. This giant old volcano offers excellent skiing conditions during the winter in the north (Whakapapa) and in the southeast (Turoa).
Well-marked tracks and cosy mountain huts make Mount Ruapehu and the neighboring slopes very popular with hikers during the summer months. In addition to shorter walks lasting a few hours, you can also go on hikes for up to three or four days. These can take you all the way around the volcano, for example. When hiking in mountainous regions, through bush forests or open grassy plains, it is essential to bear in mind that weather conditions can change rapidly a great hazard in such surroundings.
The Department of Conservation organizes an extensive summer program (from December to January), including guided hikes and lectures. If you are here during the summer, you shouldn’t miss taking part in them.
Mount Ngauruhoe, 2290 m, and still active after all these years, lies to the north of Mount Ruapehu. It last erupted in 1974. Athletic hikers risk the climb up to Mount Ngauruhoe’s summit in summer. However, the ascent has to be carefully planned. Those attempting it in winter should be well-equipped with the essential equipment and knowledge.
A fascinating range of craters and colorful volcanic lakes stretches from Mount Ngauruhoe to Tongariro (1968 m). The track leading through this unique volcanic landscape to the hotsprings situated at the Ketetahi Lodge with splendid views across Lake Taupo and the countryside to the north is impressive.
As the Tongariro National Park is fairly close to densely-populated areas, there are generally a large number of visitors in the park at any given time. It is therefore advisable to take a tent with you if you are planning to stay a few days.
If you are traveling by car and pressed for time, you should go on the Whakapoapanui Walk. It takes approximately two hours and follows the river bearing the same name. The walk takes you to the magnificent Taranaki Falls in about two and a half hours. Both walks start from the information center. Then it’s time for a well-deserved lunch – perhaps the trout you caught at Turangi.
After lunch, drive through the National Park Village before continuing the journey on Highway 4, this time heading towards Ohahune. Like most places in the vicinity of Tongariro, Ohakune is fairly quiet during the summer months. However, this is not so in winter, when many towns in this region are teeming with skiers heading for Mount Ruapehu. In the evening, there is international apres-ski
in the bars and clubs. If you come here during the summer, it’s very hard to imagine just how busy it can get in the winter months.
After a short stop, it’s therefore best to continue on to Waiouru on Highway 1. You should allow yourself plenty of time for frequent stops to take in the magnificent panoramas of the volcanic mountain world on the left side.
Should you want to return to Turangi, take the Desert Road heading north. The best time is at sunset. In the crimson twilight, the entire countryside is transformed into one of the most beautiful regions on the entire North Island. The high tussock grass dances gently in the wind, and the snow-covered peaks of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro glisten in the background. If you are very lucky, you may see a spiral of white smoke hanging over the volcano.
Those traveling south should keep of this scenic countryside in mind during the next 115 km. From here to Bulls, the landscape is rather monotonous.