Photo by KELSI MILLAR on Unsplash
One of the most popular day hikes in New Zealand is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. However, if you have more time on your hands you can tackle one of “The 10 Great Walks of New Zealand” -this extended trail through the Tongariro National Park is called The Tongariro Northern Circuit.
The three to four day tramp takes you through the heart of the national park where you’ll encounter all kinds of otherworldly landscapes. You’ll sidle past smoldering volcanoes and thermal steaming vents, wander through ancient beech forest and clap your eyes upon emerald, sapphire and turquoise lakes.
Essentially, if you need any further evidence that New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world – this hike proves it!
Tongariro Crossing by Yogi de on Wikipedia
Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit was a highlight of the year I spent working and travelling around New Zealand on my working holiday visa. This was my first-ever multi-day hike which means it’s an experience I’ll never forget. It was definitely tough in places but one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
To help you plan your own Great Walk along the Tongariro Northern Circuit, I’ve prepared a tramping guide based on my own experience. In this guide, you’ll find out what to expect, what to take, when to stay and what the itinerary has in store for you.
Tongariro Northern Circuit: An Overview
This 43.1-kilometre loop gives you a taste of New Zealand landscape at its purest and most fascinating.
You can either hike in a clockwise direction (Mangatepopo Hut first) or anti-clockwise (Waihohonu Hut first).
After weighing up various accounts and opinions, I opted for the clockwise direction which I understand is the most typical route. So for the purpose of this guide, I’ll be sharing my experience of the clockwise tramp.
Oturere Hut to Waihohonu hut
Tongariro Volcanic vents
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a moderate tramp which suits hikers with a reasonable degree of fitness. There is a strenuous climb up the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ that made me puff and a bit of a scramble to reach the Red Crater – the highest point of the track. Besides these sections, there are a few other hilly moments, but overall the terrain is relatively flat.
Of course with a backpack full of food, warm clothing and camping deal – this does add a bit more of a challenge.
The track is in excellent condition. It’s generally a mix of boardwalk, gravel and dirt track – plus the scree of the descend from the Red Crater.
The whole route is clearly marked – not at one point did I need to stop and scratch my head.
There are three DOC-managed huts along the track with adjacent campsites where you will sleep.
Highlights of the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Descent to Emerald Lakes
- Volcanic landscapes including Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mordor from Lord of the Rings) and Mount Tongariro
- Ancient lava flow and active steam vents
- The Emerald Lakes and sapphire-coloured Tama Lakes
- Cascading waterfalls and trickling streams
- Wildflowers and beech forest
- The chance to meet other hikers at the huts
- On a very clear day – you might catch a glimpse of the ‘banished’ Mount Taranaki from the track
As a massive fan of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings films, having the chance to see Mount Ngauruhoe from all different angles made this Great Walk very special.
How many days does it take to complete?
This Great Walk typically takes 4 days/3 nights to complete.
It is possible to complete it as a 3 day/2-night tramp, however, I would definitely recommend taking the fourth day if time permits.
This allows more time to soak up the scenery, take photographs and enjoy some relaxation at the huts.
Where is the starting point?
Whakapapa Village by 123_456 on flickr
Unlike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which starts and ends at different points, the Tongariro Northern Circuit is a loop. The track starts and concludes at Whakapapa Village.
There is a car park just a short drive down the road from the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre and the trailhead starts from here.
You can leave any valuables in the secure lockers at the visitor centre.
There are a number of shuttle buses to Whakapapa Village. The nearest Intercity bus and train station is National Park township and shuttle buses run from here. Check online (shuttles from Taupo to Tongariro Northern Circuit) for shuttles departing from Taupo and Turangi.
Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Because the Tongariro National Park is an active volcano area, there is always a risk of eruption. You can check the latest tramping advice with the Department of Conservation before you set off.
Once you have the green light, this is the itinerary that you will follow when hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Day One: Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut
8.5 kilometres, 3-4 hours
The first day of the Tongariro Northern Circuit is the perfect hike which will warm up your muscles for the journey ahead.
The boardwalk track is fairly flat and as you amble along you can appreciate volcanic views. You’ll pass ancient lava flows and the steam vent of Pukekaikiore with Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in the background.
A side trip (1-hour return) takes you through the bush to see a small waterfall on the way to the hut.
As today’s hike isn’t too long, you don’t need to worry about starting too early. That being said, the track is very exposed and will be more taxing beneath the scorching New Zealand sun on a hot day.
Day Two: Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (via the Emerald Lakes)
12.8 kilometres, 5-7 hours
The Red Crater
This is the pinnacle of the Great Walk – the day that you see the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes!
Today you are following the route of the Alpine Crossing so you should expect to share the track with day trampers. For that reason, I recommend being up and on your way as early as possible. I packed up my tent and left camp by 6 am to try and beat the crowds.
Leaving the hut and campsite, you will follow a flat track for the first hour. But don’t get too excited – this soon turns to a steep climb up the Devil’s Staircase. After that, you can catch your breath as you walk through the Central Plateau and prepare for the scramble up to the highest point of the tramp; the Red Crater.
Take your time to savour the views!
The descent from the Red Crater is down a scree slope which is very steep. Even with great hiking boots, it is challenging to stay upright (especially with the overnight pack).I found this to be the most difficult part of the whole tramp, so you might want to consider hiking poles.
Your reward for making it to the bottom is the three mesmerising Emerald Lakes, caused by volcanic minerals washing down from thermal areas. From here, the track descends gently into the Oturere Valley, where you’ll find tonight’s hut.
You can take a side trip to visit the sacred Blue Lake from before you head to the camp. This will add an extra hour of walking.
View from the Red Crater
Day Three: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut
7.5 kilometres, 3-5 hours
As today is another short walk, you could start your day with a wander down to the Oturere Falls before making a move.
Today you’ll cross through a desert-like plain that meanders its way around Mount Ngauruhoe and provides expansive views. After sharing the track with the day-hikers yesterday, today you’ll have this lovely stretch of track all to yourself again.
Eventually, you will drop down into forestland and follow the Waihohonu Stream – the perfect lunch spot.
There is a steep-ish climb up through the beech trees to reach Waihohonu Hut which you will call your home tonight. I was in my tent but I noticed that the sleeping conditions were almost luxurious in this hut!
Day Four: Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village
14.3 kilometres, 5-7 hours
Historic Waihohonu Hut- 1903
It’s the final day of the Great Walk which means that by now your pack should feel a little lighter.
The track gradually ascends its way up the Tama Saddle and has a number of optional add-ons, all of which I recommend.
Your first side trip is to the Ohinepango Springs (1-hour return). This was the freshest, most delicious water I’ve ever tasted! I tried to ration it over the next couple of days to save it as long as I could it was that good…
Up second, you can take the 20-minute return to see the Historic Waihohonu Hut, built in 1903.
Your final side trip will take you to see the Tama Lakes – two crater lakes. From the turn-off, it’s a 20-minute return to visit Lower Tama Lake and a 90-minute return to Upper Tama.
It was drizzly and overcast on my final leg of the tramp, but the vibrant blue really popped out of the landscape.
Shortly before you reach Whakapapa Village, you will pass by the impressive Taranaki Falls – your final sight of the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk!
Photo by Emily Woolerton on Unsplash
What about tramping the route in reverse?
Whilst I took the more traditional clockwise option – you might consider going in reverse.
If you really dislike walking down steep hills – you might prefer to go anti-clockwise instead as it means you can walk up to the Red Crater (and down the Devil’s Staircase).
Ultimately the rest of the track doesn’t vary too drastically in gradient.
My argument for the clockwise route is that, a) the views are ahead of you, and, b) you’ll be hiking with the flow of Tongariro Alpine Crossing trampers rather than against them.
When to hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit
The best time of year to hike the Tongariro Northern Circuit is during the Great Walk season – late October until late April. Conditions are at their most favourable during these months.
Because the peak of summer gets very busy I recommend choosing early summer or autumn. You’ll have fewer day-hikers to contend with on the alpine crossing. I hiked in mid-February and it was perfect. Although the Tongariro crossing was busy, the rest of the time I had the track almost to myself.
Spring does carry the risk of avalanche and snow so check the weather if you plan to tramp between September – November.
During winter, the Tongariro Northern Circuit is recommended only for hikers with experience of extreme tramping. You’ll also need to take some technical gear with you including a personal locator beacon and a snow shovel.
You could hire a guide if you opt to hike during winter.
Accommodation during the hike
Mangatepopo Hut by Dept of Conservation on flickr
There are three huts with adjacent campsites managed by the Department of Conservation:
- Mangatepopo (altitude 1,190 metres, 20 bunk beds)
- Oturere (altitude 1,360m metres, 26 bunk beds)
- Waihohonu (altitude 1,150 metres, 28 bunk beds)
Advance bookings are required for all huts and campsites during high season (late October to late April).
During the off-peak season (May – late October) it is first come first served.
- The huts and campsites have toilets but no shower facilities.
- Huts include mattresses but you must bring your own sleeping bag.
- Cooking stoves and utensils are provided only during high season.
- Water is untreated and you should boil it before you drink it.
- DOC wardens are in residence during the high season only.
Huts and campsites can be booked online here.
Waihohonu Hut by Dept of Conservation on flickr
Packing essentials for the Tongariro Northern Circuit
You’ll need to carry enough food to get you through 43.1 kilometres of tramping! As with all New Zealand Great Walks – you’ll need to carry all empty tins and packaging back to Whakapapa with you. There are no bins on the track or at the huts.
Even during February, nights were very cold so in terms of clothing – pack layers.
Parts of the track are very exposed to the elements which might be anything from blazing sunshine to biting winds and even a dusting of snowfall.
These are my packing essentials for hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit:
- Sturdy, comfortable hiking boots
- Thick socks
- A lightweight waterproof
- Jandals or comfy shoes for resting your feet at the huts
- Suncream, sunglasses and a good sunhat (I also took a beanie to wear at night)
- Sleeping bag
- Deck of cards and/or a light book
- Several refillable water bottles that you can top up with boiled water or at the springs
- Portable battery pack to charge your phone (there are no plugs at the huts)
- Hiking poles (optional)
Final tips for the Tongariro Northern Circuit
And that was my experience of tramping the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk! My parting advice is to take your time and really absorb the scenery. All the side trips are completely worthwhile.
I hope this guide helps you prepare your own Great Walk. If you’re also planning some day hikes in New Zealand, I recommend the Avalanche Peak in the South Island.