The Great Walks are eight multi-day hikes (and one multi day canoe trip) in New Zealand, with backcountry huts and camping grounds linking each day’s adventure. They are well-maintained and a fantastic way to experience New Zealand’s great outdoors.
The fact that they are called Great Walks rather than Great Hikes represents quite well the Kiwi proneness to under-exaggeration. These ‘Great Walks’ are not walks at all, but rather strenuous hikes through rugged terrain.
For a while now, it has been my goal to do all nine great walks. I did my first, the Kepler Track, in 2015, and I just attempted my third, the Routeburn Track, last month (unfortunately we had to turn back due to heavy late season snow.)
But this post is about my second Great Walk: The Tongariro Northern Circuit.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of only two of the Great Walks that are in the North Island of New Zealand, and the only one that passes over an active volcanic field – pretty cool right? It is located in Tongariro National Park, the oldest National Park in New Zealand, and the fifth oldest in the world.
After reading a number of accounts from people that had done all nine Great Walks saying that the Tongariro Circuit was their favorite, I knew I had to do it.
Luckily when I went online to see if there was any availability over Easter weekend in the huts, there was one bed in each – it seemed like it was meant to be. I would have to miss one of the short days of the hike due to time constraints, the section between Whakapapa Village and Mangatepopo Hut, but I was OK with that.
After nearly having to cancel the trip due to a major Cyclone warning – luckily it ended up missing Auckland – I hit the road from Auckland to Tongariro National Park.
With rain the night before I was due to start the trail, I didn’t know if the river levels would be low enough for me to start the Circuit. But even though it was raining in the morning, I got the OK from the D.O.C. rangers at the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre to give it a go, with a warning to head back if the river was too swollen when I got to it.
And so the adventure began!
Day One of the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Visitor Centre to Waihohonu Hut – 14.3 km
I was in high spirits when I set off in the light rain from the Tongariro Visitor Centre, kitted out in my no longer waterproof jacket and my cheap plastic poncho.
The weather was pretty miserable and and there was a cutting chill in the air, but I was just so excited to be doing my second Great Walk that I didn’t care.
The first part of the hike was through a barren landscape of tussock, flax and low shrubs. I put my head down, trudging along in the constant rain. The rain actually kind of added to the windswept and beautiful scenery but it didn’t make for great photos.
I took the short detour down a lot of steep stairs to see Taranaki Falls, which reminded me a lot of Skaftafell waterfall in Iceland, dropping from the sharp-edged granite cliff into a small pool surrounded by smooth, round boulders. It was very impressive, even backed by a dull grey sky.
Back on the main trail, the path slowly rose before hitting the fast flowing river, following its tumultuous waters for a while. The trail started to get rougher and less defined. Ahead there was a group of hikers coming towards me in the rain, and when I looked behind me I noticed that there was a path on the other side of the river.
After asking the hikers once they reached me if I was on the right trail, I found out that I needed to cross the river. Not ideal in its fast moving state.
I did hesitate for a minute but after seeing them cross it with no issues, I got in too. The water was really cold and reached my knees, I stumbled a bit on the rocks at the bottom but managed to cross without falling in – definitely a win despite now having freezing cold and soaking feet and shoes.
The trail rose for a while longer. I stopped for a quick lunch by a small lake I reached. It was too cold and blustery to stop for long, just enough time to shove a sandwich down my throat.
A short time later after following wooden boardwalks past small streams, I got to the highest point of day one, the Tama Saddle, and was rewarded with stunning views over the rocky and desolate landscape that stretched out below. And there were so many rainbows as I slowly descended.
My favorite part of day one was the last hour or so, following the Waihohonu Stream through a the valley with the formidable Mount Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mount Doom) on one side and Mount Ruapehu on the other. Pockets of sunshine began to break through the clouds and I was finally out of the cold winds and intermittent showers that had been hanging around all day.
Life was good again, not that it had been so horrible – there is something to hiking in inclement weather that makes you feel exhilarated and so alive.
Before reaching my cosy home for the night, the Waihohonu Hut, I did a quick detour to see the original historic Waihohonu Hut, a tiny little wooden building built in 1904 – it’s the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand! – and housing lots of old photos and memorabilia from earlier days in the park.
The new Waihohonu hut was a lot roomier and modern, and I enjoyed my night there chatting to the Ranger, reading my book and sipping hot chocolate – a tradition for me on multi day hikes.
Day One may have rained on and off but I got to see beautiful Taranaki Falls, the historic Waihohonu Hut, and more rainbows than I could keep track of. Overall, it was a great day.
Day Two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Waihohonu Hut to Oturere Hut – 8.1km
I slept well in the hut as it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be, and I was clearly exhausted after a full day of hiking in bad weather.
After breakfast in the hut, I decided to leave while the rain was holding off – it didn’t look as if it would for long.
Day Two was the shortest day of the three days I was hiking at only a little over 8 km, and I managed to time it so that on my hike I had lots of sun and only a small amount of light rain – winning.
From Waihohonu Hut, the trail immediately rose through the forest, ascending a ridgeline with views over the valley I had hiked through the previous day. And the sun came out. It was glorious.
Because I had so much time, I sat in the sun and enjoyed the fresh air and beautiful views for a good half hour. Sunshine is so much more sweet when you haven’t seen it for a few days.
The trail descended the ridgeline on the other side into a steep and narrow valley that was thick with beech trees. I could hear tūī and grey warblers calling out, but nothing else.
Out of the forest, I hiked up a steep bank and along undulating black volcanic gravel fields, the foothills of mighty Ngauruhoe, which towered over me to the left. It finally felt like I was hiking over volcanoes.
After hiking in then out of another steep river valley, I was back to a tussock covered landscape, and then suddenly, Oturere hut was in front of me.
I got to Oturere hut just before lunch time and had it to myself for half an hour. The view from the hut was spellbinding, looking out over a river valley and surrounded by mountains. There was a gorgeous waterfall near the hut that fell into the valley below.
I chose my bunk then sat at a picnic table out the front of the hut, in the sun. Bliss.
Oturere Hut was much smaller than Waihohonu Hut, and felt well worn and lived in, like it had a lot of stories to tell. The living area and kitchen were way too small for the number of people the hut sleeps but I loved the historic feel of the hut, even if it wasn’t super practical.
Another two hikes who had been at the Waihohonu Hut, a couple from Sydney, joined me soon after. And then the rain started coming down, hard.
We got the fire going and a few more people trickled into the hut, soaking wet. The windows fogged as the rain beat down outside and the hut warmed.
A while later a group of twenty showed up, including too many kids, and the silence was well and truly shattered. It was actually ridiculous how squished we all were in that tiny hut. Wet and dripping clothing covered every available surface, the owners trying in vain to dry everything overnight.
Three German girls showed up at the booked out hut who had somehow gotten lost doing the one day Tongariro Crossing hike, it was too late in the day to send them back up so the Ranger gave them some of his food and they slept in two beds that luckily had been no-shows.
After cooking dinner and chatting to the couple from Sydney, a guy from Hamilton that was hiking by himself and a very keen Auckland girl who was hiking the whole four day trail in just two days, I escaped the oppressive crush of people and retired to my bunk, where the others joined me.
At least with so many people in the hut it was cosy and warm, and I slept like the dead.
Day Three of the Tongariro Northern Circuit: Oturere Hut to Mangatepopo Carpark – 14.6km
Day three of the Tongariro Northern Circuit was my favorite day, and the most challenging.
After the tough hike out of the Oturere Valley, the trail would join the very popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike for the rest of the way to Mangatepopo Carpark.
After a night of heavy rain, and snow at higher altitudes, I was worried that we would have trouble hiking over the highest section of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, the Red Crater.
Luckily after a little bit of a sleep in I awoke to clear skies, and I got to see Mount Ngauruhoe for the first time without its skirt of cloud covering the summit. It really is a striking volcano and it felt pretty special seeing it in the morning light from a remote hut.
I set off hiking with the guy from Hamilton that I had befriended the night before. It was nice to have a hiking partner after two days of going it alone, although I enjoy that too.
There was a definite chill in the air as we hiked through the Oturere Valley, weaving our way past jagged lava rock formations from a past eruption. The hut became smaller and smaller behind us until we couldn’t make it out at all. Steep switchbacks took us up to the Emerald Lakes, with snow making its first appearance, coating the hardy shrubs on the side of the trail before we had even reached the lakes.
Finally at the top of the switchbacks after many stops to catch our breath and admire the views of the valley, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu in the distance, we were suddenly enclosed by a thick mist.
The Emerald Lakes looked dull in the poor visibility, we couldn’t see the bright turquoise and teal colors that the lakes are famous for. But it was eerily peaceful in the soupy fog.
We made our way along the rock-strewn trail to the crossroads where you can do the detour to the Blue Lake from. As I have done the whole Tongariro Crossing before which passes the Blue Lake, and because the weather wasn’t the best, I was happy to give it a miss, but it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it before.
The trail started to ascend to the highest point of the entire Tongariro Northern Circuit – the Red Crater.
The snow was at its deepest on the exposed scree that slopes downwards from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes and it was hard going trekking through it. Cloud swirled around us, revealing sections of the landscape below as we took the steep slope on, one step at a time.
As we got to the top of the slope the cloud suddenly cleared and we had incredible views of the emerald lakes, the valleys on either side of us and the Red Crater, which is very aptly named, before the cloud closed in again a few minutes later. We couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if we tried.
The quiet we had enjoyed on the trail was over by the time we began our descent from Red Crater down to South Crater – the day hikers on the Tongariro Crossing had arrived, and in force.
This section of the trail is definitely the most dangerous, especially coming down it as it is steep and there are a lot of loose rocks and scree. We took our time.
Mount Ngauruhoe loomed large in front of us, it was the closest we had been to this behemoth of a volcano and it was awe-inspiring.
As we were crossing the flat expanse of the South Crater, which is actually not a crater at all but a drainage basin, the rain that we had been expecting all day hit. Luckily it only lasted about 15 minutes although that was enough time to get pretty wet. So it goes for Tongariro National Park hiking.
From the Mangatepopo Saddle on the edge of the South Crater, the infamous Devil’s Staircase zigzagged for what looked like miles, down into the valley below. Like a deranged snake full of sharp angles.
I remember having to climb what felt like millions of stairs when I did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing a few years ago but going down the Devil’s Staircase instead of up was a joy. The rain had stopped and we were afforded brilliant valley views.
Once we were in the valley the sun was out again. In the distance, the beautiful waterfall of Soda Springs cascaded into the valley.
Following a boardwalk through the valley, we reached the Mangatepopo Hut where I had a quick break then said goodbye to my hiking partner. I really wished that I had been staying one more night on the trail, I didn’t want the experience to end.
But I was meeting my Dad at the car park and I had work the next day. Although it sure was tempting to say the hell with it all, and stay.
The last two kilometres was through tussock land and then I reached the Mangatepopo Road End carpark. My adventure on the Tongariro Northern Circuit had come to an end.
And what an adventure it was. One of my favorites to date.
The Nitty Gritty
Getting to the Tongariro Northern Circuit
The Tongariro Northern Circuit starts and finishes at the Tongariro National Park Visitors Centre if you do the full four days. To reach the Visitors Centre, many Tongariro shuttle services are available and can be booked online or through many of the nearby accommodations.
Length of the Trail
The classic Tongariro Northern Circuit is 43.1km/26.8 miles over four days and you can walk it in either direction. I cut off the last day between the Visitor Centre and Mangatepopo Hut (or the first day if you do the walk the other way around) and hiked 37km/23 miles over three days.
Highest Elevation of the Trail
1886 metres/6187 feet at the highest point
Difficulty of the Trail
Overall I would rate it as Intermediate as the distances each day aren’t too long and it is generally not too challenging if you are hiker. But, if you are unlucky enough to have bad weather conditions, it will be more challenging and possibly quite dangerous – particularly when hiking up to Red Crater.
Safety Tips for the Trail
Always check with the D.O.C. Rangers at the Visitors Centre before beginning your hike, to ensure that conditions are safe enough for you to do so.
Tongariro National Park weather is unpredictable so be prepared for all weather conditions and take plenty of food. Water is provided in the huts but is untreated so it is up to you whether you want to risk drinking it – I do and have had no problems.
Tongariro National Park Accommodation
There are many options in regards to Tongariro Accommodation from super budget to high end. If you want some luxury after completing the Tongariro Northern Circuit you should absolutely stay in the Chateau Tongariro or Tongariro Lodge, and a great mid range option is the Plateau Lodge.
There are also loads of budget minded options available in and around Tongariro National Park with many Tongariro Backpackers and Hostels including YHA National Park, The Crossing Backpackers and Ski Haus. For Tongariro Camping check out the Tongariro Holiday Park.
Have you done the Tongariro Northern Circuit or the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? Is it something you would be interested in doing?