Tongariro National Park, North Island of New Zealand

Tongariro became New Zealand’s first national park in 1887. A little over 100 years later, the park was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site both for its cultural significance to the Māori and for its outstanding natural features. It is one of only three World Heritage sites in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and was the first in the world to receive this dual recognition.

The park, covering 80,000 hectares, is a clear example of the mighty work of nature and features volcanic wonders such as emerald lakes, ancient lava flows, steaming craters, colorful silica terraces, and unique alpine gardens. It is an environment of incredible beauty and diversity.

History of Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park

The mountains hold great significance for the local Māori. In 1886, to prevent them from being sold to European settlers, the local Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe presented a case to the Native Land Court and reserved them (whakatapua) in the name of certain leaders, including Te Heuheu Tūkino IV (Horonuku), the paramount chief of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa Māori. Later, the peaks of Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and parts of Mount Ruapehu were handed over to the Crown on September 23, 1887, on the condition that a protected area be established there.

Initially, this 26.4 km² area was considered too small to be a national park in the style of the great world national parks, covering less area than the famous Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand, which led to the acquisition of more land. The Tongariro National Park Act was passed by the New Zealand Parliament in October 1894, covering approximately 252.13 km², but it was not until 1907 that the land acquisition was completed. In the 1922 renewal of the act, the park area expanded to 586.8 km². Subsequent expansions, such as the Pihanga Scenic Reserve in 1975, increased the park’s size to its current 786.23 km². The last amendment to the act was passed in 1980. Since its establishment in 1987, Tongariro National Park has been administered by the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

Expansion of the national park

Early activities following the establishment of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park included the construction of tourist huts in the early 20th century. However, tourism began to flourish with the opening of the railway in 1908, leading to the construction of roads in the region in the 1930s, making it easier for a significant number of people to visit the park’s protected area.

Although the second Tongariro National Park Act in 1922 marked the beginning of some conservation efforts, it wasn’t until 1931 that the first permanent park ranger was appointed. The construction of a road to the Whakapapa valley was already underway in the 1920s. The first ski hut was erected in 1923 at an altitude of 1770 meters, followed by a road and, in 1938, the installation of a ski lift in the area.

This early tourist development explains the rather unusual existence of a permanently inhabited village and a fully developed ski area within a national park. The Chateau Tongariro hotel, which remains the heart of Whakapapa today, was established in 1929.

Recent history of the national park

In the early 20th century, park administrator John Cullen, along with other administrators, decided to introduce heather into the park to promote grouse hunting. However, the grouse were never actually introduced to the area, leaving the heather to spread unchecked, posing a threat to the local ecosystem by occupying space taken up by the park’s endemic plants. Although efforts are being made to control the spread of this plant, it seems unlikely that it will be completely eradicated.

Location and size

Tongariro National Park covers 786 km² and is situated between 175° 22′ and 175° 48′ East and 38° 58′ and 39° 25′ South, in the center of New Zealand’s North Island. It lies a few kilometers west-southwest of Lake Taupō. In terms of distance, it is 330 km south of Auckland by road and 320 km north of Wellington. The park encompasses a significant part of the North Island Volcanic Plateau. To the east, it borders the hills of the Kaimanawa Range. Additionally, the Whanganui River originates within the park and flows westward, passing through Whanganui National Park.

Most of the park is within the Ruapehu District (Manawatū-Whanganui region), although its northeastern part extends into the Taupō District (Waikato region or Hawke’s Bay region to the north).

Boundaries of the park’s protected area

Tongariro National Park expands around the group of three active volcanoes: Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Tongariro. Although the Pihanga Scenic Reserve, which includes Lake Rotopounamu, Mount Pihanga, and the Kakaramea-Tihia massif, is separated from the main park area, it is still considered part of it.

On the park’s boundaries are the communities of Tūrangi, National Park Village, and Ohakune. Beyond these are Waiouru and Raetihi. Within the park, the only inhabited places are the tourist village of Whakapapa Village, primarily intended for skiers, and two Māori settlements, Papakai and Otukou, located on the shores of Lake Rotoaira, between the Pihanga Scenic Reserve and the main park area.

Most of Tongariro National Park is surrounded by well-maintained roads that roughly follow its boundaries, making it easily accessible. To the west, State Highway 4 passes through National Park Village, while to the east, State Highway 1, known as Desert Road in that section, follows the course of the Tongariro River. State Highway 47 connects these two highways to the north, although it divides the Pihanga Scenic Reserve. State Highway 49 is the southern link. Additionally, the main North Island railway line, running from Auckland to Wellington, passes through National Park Village.

Climate of Tongariro

Tongariro National Park is located in a temperate climate region, like much of New Zealand. The prevailing westerly winds carry moisture from the Tasman Sea. Since the park’s volcanoes are the first significant elevations these winds encounter in the North Island, apart from Mount Taranaki, rain is recorded almost daily. Although the differences in precipitation from east to west are not as marked as in the Southern Alps, because the three volcanoes are not part of a more extensive mountain range, a notable rain shadow effect is still observed: the Rangipo Desert, on the eastern and leeward side, receives about 1000 mm of annual precipitation.

In Whakapapa Village, at an altitude of 1119 m, the average annual precipitation is approximately 2200 mm, while in Ohakune, at 610 m, it is around 1250 mm. At higher altitudes, such as Iwikau Village, at 1770 m, the annual precipitation reaches 4900 mm. During winter, snow can fall to around 1500 m. Temperatures can vary drastically, even within the same day. In Whakapapa, temperatures can drop below freezing year-round. The average temperature is 13 °C, with summer highs of 25 °C and winter lows of -10 °C. In some summers, the peaks of the three volcanoes are snow-covered; indeed, on the summit of Mount Ruapehu, snowfields can be found every summer, with the summit covered in ice.

Best Time to Visit Tongariro National Park

The best time to visit Tongariro National Park is during the summer months, from December to February. During this season, temperatures are warmer, with highs that can reach 25 °C, making it more comfortable to explore the trails and enjoy the panoramic views. Additionally, it is less likely to encounter extreme weather conditions, such as freezing temperatures and snowfalls, which facilitates outdoor activities.

However, if you are interested in winter sports such as skiing or snowboarding, then winter can also be a good time to visit the park. During the colder months, from June to August, the volcano summits are covered in snow, creating a spectacular landscape for snow sports enthusiasts.

Recommended Excursions and Activities

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What to See and Do in Tongariro National Park

In Tongariro, you can have diverse experiences and excursions, from hikes with incredible panoramic views to snow adventures and fascinating cultural tours. In this iconic region of New Zealand, there are activities for all tastes.

Skiing on Mount Ruapehu: Active Volcano

On New Zealand’s largest volcano, you will find the country’s most extensive ski slopes with 1500 hectares.

Skiing on Mount Ruapehu: Active Volcano

During the winter months, Mount Ruapehu transforms into a hub of skiing and snowboarding activities, with two large ski fields and a smaller club field on the mountain. What makes it even more exciting is that Mount Ruapehu is an active volcano, giving you the opportunity to check "skiing on an active volcano" off your bucket list.

The ski slopes on Mount Ruapehu include Whakapapa, with access from Whakapapa Village, Turoa from Ohakune, and Tukino from Tukino Road.

Tama Lakes Hiking Route

Tama Lakes Hiking Route, New Zealand

One of the must-do hikes is the Tama Lakes trail. This hiking route offers spectacular views that rival those of the Tongariro Crossing, but with the advantage of being doable in winter. The round trip takes about 5 to 6 hours and requires much less logistical planning in terms of transport, as you simply follow the same path back.

During the hike, you will traverse lands covered with tussocks until you reach vibrant lakes, with the majestic Mount Ngauruhoe (also known as Mount Doom) and Mount Ruapehu as a backdrop.

To start this adventure, head to the Taranaki Falls track, which is accessible from Whakapapa Village. You will see a clearly signposted side trail just above the Taranaki Falls, from where you can begin your journey to the Tama Lakes.

Tawhai Falls

Tawhai Falls, New Zealand

If you are looking for something more relaxed and less challenging, Tawhai Falls is an excellent option. They are the most accessible falls in Tongariro, as they are only a 20-minute walk round trip from the road. It is definitely worth stopping to take photos and enjoy their beauty.

To discover even more hikes in Tongariro National Park, you can explore the 13 best hikes from National Park Village and Whakapapa Village, as well as the 12 best hikes in Turangi.

Tawhai Falls are located on State Highway 48, 4 km (2 miles) from Whakapapa Village.

Biking Trails

Ohakune Old Coach Road

In Tongariro, there are a variety of bike trails that allow you to explore the area in a unique way. One of these trails, which you shouldn’t miss, is the Ohakune Old Coach Road. It is a historic trail that takes you through diverse landscapes, including forests, railway relics, and views of rural countryside.

The trail is 15 km (9 miles) long and takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes to complete by bike, or about 4 hours and 30 minutes on foot. You can start your journey from Matapuna Road in Horopito or from the Ohakune train station, where you will find signage indicating the start of Old Coach Road. For added convenience, you can use the shuttle service offered by TCB in Ohakune, which will take you to one end of the trail, from where you can begin your adventure back to Ohakune.

Visit the Old Tea House at Chateau Tongariro

Chateau Tongariro

It’s a pity that Chateau Tongariro is closed. However, for those seeking an alternative in New Zealand’s hiking and mountain biking mecca, a visit to Chateau Tongariro remains a charming experience. You can contemplate Mount Ngauruhoe from the comfort of a lounge chair while enjoying elegant pastries and tea. Sounds like a relaxing and pleasant experience, doesn’t it?

You can find the grand yellow building at the entrance of Whakapapa Village.

Tongariro Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 42 km (26 miles) hike for the more adventurous, being one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

Tongariro Circuit

The Tongariro Circuit traverses some of the best volcanic landscapes in the national park. This circuit includes the famous Tongariro Crossing and the Tama Lakes we mentioned, but it also takes you to more remote sections of the park, so you can experience the true volcanic nature of the region.

The most popular access to the Tongariro Northern Circuit is from Whakapapa Village. However, you can also access it from Mangatepopo Road, Ketetahi Road, and Desert Road (State Highway 1).

Taranaki Falls

Taranaki Falls

Another wonderful activity is the Taranaki Falls circuit, approximately a 2-hour loop accessible from Whakapapa Village.

These falls are impressive, with a height of 20 meters (66 feet), offering a spectacular view year-round. You can enjoy views both from the base and the top if you feel adventurous enough.

Taranaki Falls is located in Ngauruhoe Terrace, in Whakapapa Village.

Round the Mountain Track: Multi-day Hike

Another exciting option for a multi-day hike, and a great alternative to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, is the Round the Mountain Track. This 66 km (41 miles) trek around Mount Ruapehu generally takes between 4 and 6 days to complete. During this adventure, you will immerse yourself in a variety of landscapes, including forests, waterfalls, tussock lands, and volcanic scenery, enjoying the serenity away from the busier routes of Tongariro National Park.

To access the Round the Mountain Track, the popular starting point is from Whakapapa Village. However, you can also start from Desert Road (State Highway 1), Ohakune Mountain Road, Tukino Road, and even from the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Visit the Lord of the Rings Landscapes

Mangawhero Falls

If you are a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, this excursion will delight you as the Mangawhero Falls appear in the film.

To reach Mangawhero Falls, follow Ohakune Mountain Road, and you will find signage guiding you. This waterfall, with a height of 28 meters (92 feet), is just a 20-minute walk from the roadside. You can enjoy views from a couple of nearby lookouts.

Mangawhero Falls is located 16 km (10 miles) along Ohakune Mountain Road.

Opotaka Historic Site, Birthplace of the Haka

Opotaka, the birthplace of the haka performed by the All Blacks rugby team, is a historic site that definitely deserves a visit when entering or leaving Tongariro National Park. As you wander through its grounds, you can enjoy stunning views of Mount Tongariro across Lake Rotoaira, and you will also have the opportunity to discover ancient kumara (sweet potato) pits where Māori villagers used to store food. For more information on the Māori haka that originated here, I recommend checking out "The Maori Haka: Its Meaning & History."

Opotaka is signposted along State Highway 47, approximately 12.8 km (8 miles) from Turangi.

Climbing in New Zealand’s Mountains

Climbing activities are thrilling and allow you to be outdoors. Rocky summits with interior walls sheltering from the wet weather.

Tongariro is famous among climbers, offering a variety of options for climbing enthusiasts. One of the most established routes is Meads Wall on Mount Ruapehu. If you are an experienced climber, you can rent equipment at some ski rental shops in National Park Village. For beginners, there are also climbing walls available in National Park Village, Ohakune, and Turangi.

To reach Meads Wall, from the base of the Whakapapa ski area, turn left in front of Lorenzo’s Cafe and pass Sky Waka and the chairlifts. Follow the trails until you reach a rock wall ready to challenge you!

Silica Rapids Track: Rapids and White Waters

One of the most underrated short hikes in Tongariro National Park is the first part of the Silica Rapids Track. This route follows a stream through a beech forest before opening up to an exposed tussock land. Midway, you’ll find the creamy silica terraces, visible from a viewing platform. You can choose to return the same way to enjoy the views again, or head back via Bruce Road along the highway. However, we recommend returning via the same trail to continue enjoying the picturesque landscape.

The hike starts 250 meters (273 yards) from the Whakapapa Village Visitor Center.

Ruapehu Forest and Mangawhero Forest Walk

From Ohakune, one of the most scenic and easily accessible walks is the Mangawhero Forest Walk. At the end of Ohakune Mountain Road, this one-hour loop trail guides you through an impressive native forest alongside the Mangawhero River. Additionally, there is a short nature walk connected to the main trail, with informative panels about the trees found in the forest.

To begin this adventure, head to the lower end of Ohakune Mountain Road, right opposite the Department of Conservation Visitor Center.

Sea Cycle Trail

The top of Ohakune Mountain Road, on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, marks the official start of the Sea Cycle Trail.

This bike path is a 3- to 6-day challenge covering 217 km (135 miles), from Mount Ruapehu to the end of the Whanganui River. Along the way, you will enjoy the stunning volcanic landscapes of Tongariro National Park, the extraordinary forest of Whanganui National Park, and the famous Bridge to Nowhere. Mountain bike rental operators and shuttle services in Ohakune and National Park Village can help you plan this exciting adventure.

To start your journey, head to the base of Turoa Ski Field at the top of Ohakune Mountain Road.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is renowned as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. It takes you through a volcanic alpine landscape marked by dramatic contrasts: steaming vents, glacial valleys, ancient lava flows, alpine vegetation, and vibrantly colored crater lakes, all accompanied by stunning views.

This challenging trek begins at an altitude of 1120 meters above sea level, ascending through the Mangatepōpō Valley to the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, passing through the South Crater before reaching the highest point of the crossing at the Red Crater, at 1886 meters.

After this, you will descend along a trail of volcanic scree to the vivid Emerald Lakes, also known as Ngarotopounamu, which showcase green hues. You will continue past the Blue Lake, or Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa, named for being Rangihiroa’s mirror. The route then skirts the northern slope of Tongariro and zigzags down past Ketetahi Shelter, finally descending to the road end at an altitude of 760 meters.

The route is 19.4 kilometers long and takes between 7 and 8 hours to complete, so it is recommended to dedicate a full day. It starts at the end of Mangatepōpō Road and ends at the end of Ketetahi Road. The best way to get to the trailhead is by bus. If you opt to drive, note that there are parking restrictions at both road ends, with a four-hour limit on Mangatepōpō Road and restricted parking at the Ketetahi Road end.

In winter, snow and ice are likely, with frequent avalanche risks and common sub-zero temperatures, so precautions must be taken, or the route should be attempted in better weather conditions.

Geography and Geology of Tongariro

The volcanoes of Tongariro National Park are the southern end of a 2500 km long volcanic chain, where the Australian Plate meets the Pacific Plate. These volcanoes were formed due to internal tectonic processes: the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the Australian Plate and melts into the asthenosphere, generating less dense magma that rises and penetrates weak areas of the Earth’s crust, such as faults, triggering volcanic activity.

For over two million years, these volcanic processes have been sculpting the mountains of Tongariro National Park. Of the three active volcanoes (Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu), the two northernmost (Pihanga and the Kakaramea-Tihia massif) last erupted more than 20,000 years ago, although they have still generated significant mudflows in history.

Besides volcanic activity, erosion and deposition caused by mountain glaciers have had a significant impact on shaping Tongariro and Ruapehu volcanoes. Although there are currently only small glaciers on the summit of Mount Ruapehu, geomorphological evidence suggests a much greater extent of glaciation in the recent past. Glaciers were last present on Tongariro during the Last Glacial Maximum.

Flora of Tongariro

Tongariro National Park features rugged and partly unstable terrain. To the north and west of the park, there is a broadleaf podocarp rainforest near Lake Taupō, covering about 30 km² and reaching heights of up to 1000 m. This ecosystem is home to species such as Hall’s tōtara (Podocarpus laetus), kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), kāmahi (Weinmannia racemosa), pāhautea (Libocedrus bidwillii), along with numerous ferns, orchids, and epiphytic fungi. Pāhautea trees extend up to 1530 m, covering an area of 127.3 km². At this altitude, there is also a beech forest of approximately 50 km², composed of red beech (Nothofagus fusca), silver beech (Nothofagus menziesii), and mountain beech (Nothofagus solandri var cliffortioides). The understory includes ferns like the crown fern (Blechnum discolor) and various shrub species.

To the northwest, around Mount Ruapehu, at altitudes between 1200 and 1500 m, extensive shrublands and tussock grasslands predominate, covering about 150 km². These areas are primarily composed of red tussock grass (Chionochloa rubra), curled-leaf inaka, neinei (Dracophyllum recurvum), wire rush (Empodisma minus), and swamp rush (Schoenus pauciflorus), along with heathers and grasses like hard tussocks (Festuca novaezelandiae) and bluegrass (Poa colensoi). Above 1500 m, the terrain becomes more unstable, consisting of gravel and stone fields, where some plants occasionally find their habitat, such as the curled-leaf neinei, snow tōtara (Podocarpus nivalis), mountain blueberry (Gaultheria colensoi), bristle tussock (Rytidosperma setifolium), bluegrass, and Raoulia albosericea, covering an area of 165 km². Between 1700 and 2020 m, isolated species of Parahebe, Gentiana bellidifolia, and buttercups can be found. Above 2200 m, only crustose lichens are present.

Fauna of Tongariro

Tongariro National Park is home to a rich variety of birds, with 56 important species. Among them are rare endemic species like the North Island brown kiwi, kākā, blue duck, and double-banded plover. More common birds such as the tūī, New Zealand bellbird, morepork/ruru, grey warbler/riroriro, fantail, whitehead/pōpokotea, and silvereye also inhabit the park.

Regarding mammals, the park is home to New Zealand’s only two native mammals: the short-tailed bat and the long-tailed bat. Additionally, there is a variety of insects like moths and wētā.

However, the park also hosts animals introduced by Europeans, such as black rats, stoats, cats, rabbits, hares, possums, and deer. These non-native species can have a negative impact on the delicate balance of the park’s native ecosystem.

The National Park in Popular Culture

Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe have gained worldwide fame for their appearance in the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson. These stunning New Zealand landscapes were used as settings to represent Middle-earth on the big screen. As a result, tour operators and lodges often organize tours for fans of the movie to visit these locations and relive the epic adventures of J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga.

How to Get to Tongariro

Tongariro National Park is easily accessible from Taupo and Turangi, thanks to regular guide and shuttle services for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

The journey from Taupo to the national park takes about an hour, while from Turangi, it is only 20 minutes.


Remember, you can also visit and follow the guides of other New Zealand national parks.