New Zealand

Tramper

Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit circles around Ngauruhoe's cone with chances to climb either Ngauruhoe or Tongariro. The entire circuit takes 3-4 days, however the first day follows the famous Tongariro Crossing - the "best one day hike in New Zealand" - so it can be shortened to one day. There are 4 Great Walk huts along the hike each with an adjacent campsite for 5-8 tents.

Introduction

Across the middle of the North Island of New Zealand, there is a line of volcanoes ranging from Mt. Taranaki (Egmont) in the west out to the steamy White Island off the East Coast. This line reaches its summit in more ways than one in the center of the North Island. Here a high plateau forms the base for the mountains of Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. Ruapehu is the highest mountain in the North Island at 2797 metres. Each mountain has its own personality. Tongariro is the old man of the bunch - resting on his laurels with only the Red Crater steaming away (its last eruption was in 1926). Ngauruhoe is the young upstart building up on the shoulders of Tongariro. Traditionally the mountain erupts every 9 years or so but it has been quiet since 1975 except for some occasional smoke. Ruapehu is in his prime and produces assorted, sometimes deadly, fireworks. Ruapehu was noted for the Crater Lake - the result of glacier water melting into the summit crater - but this vanished in the latest series of eruptions (1995-6) and is only slowly refilling. The lake was the cause of New Zealand's greatest railway disaster. The usual outlet from the lake is through an underground ice cave but this was blocked sometime in 1953. On Christmas Eve 1953, a rail bridge was swept away at Tangiwai by a lahar (volcanic debris mud flow) from the lake when the blockage collapsed, moments before the Wellington-Auckland train was to cross - claiming 151 lives.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit circles around Ngauruhoe's cone with chances to climb either Ngauruhoe or Tongariro. The entire circuit takes 3-4 days, however the first day follows the famous Tongariro Crossing - the "best one day hike in New Zealand" - so it can be shortened to one day. There are 4 Great Walk huts along the hike each with an adjacent campsite for 5-8 tents.

Remember that you are going to be spending time at high altitudes that are exposed to the weather. Take the appropriate gear.

Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut

The track from the Whakapapa Village to the Mangatepopo valley is known locally as "The Ditch". This is because some serious erosion has cut the track deep into the sandy volcanic soil, especially where it dips down to cross streams. The usual advice to keep to the track to minimise erosion cannot be followed here since the track often dives into bog filled trenches with no exits. The signs at the start of the track are serious when they state that the time to traverse the track is 5 hours in bad weather (only 3 hours in good weather). My suggestion for bad weather is to grab the shuttle to the Mangatepopo road-end and have a nice and easy 30 minute hike to the hut.

Remember to collect your Great Walk hut tickets from the DOC Visitor Centre (a little bit up the road from the Grand Chateau hotel). These allow you to spend a given number of nights in the huts from the date of issue - if you need more nights, the hut wardens sell tickets (at an extra cost) and if you don't use a night then you can get a refund. These are also available in some places at National Park and on the shuttle services.

The track begins about 200 metres along Ngauruhoe Place, a little side street from the main drag between the Chateau and the Visitor Centre. This is the lower of the 2 tracks that head off to Taranaki Falls - the upper track departs from the end of the street, just past the Skotel. The easiest way to have a look at the falls on the first day of the circuit is to follow the upper track but I took the lower one since I would be returning via the falls on the last day.

The broad, well-formed, tourist track contours along the slopes for about 40 minutes. It passes well above what looks like the sewage treatment pond for the village before crossing a bush-clad stream. The next patch of bush contains the Wairere Stream with a bridge and a junction. An easy and dry path heads up the stream to the magnificent waterfall (about an hour return) which plummets over a high cliff into a scenic ravine. Across the bridge, our route mutates into a well-padded, muddy and overgrown path through some fine mountain beech forest. Enjoy the bush because it will be the last you see for the next couple of days.

The landscape becomes fairly barren once you leave the forest (about 15 minutes from the junction). The views ahead include 3 elegant volcanic cones ranging from the "tiny" Pukeoanake (1225m) on the track's left to the towering Pukekaikiore (1692m) and Ngauruhoe (2247m) on your right. What the rolling landscape conceals are the many deep creek beds to cross, often with a slippery clay gutter on each side.

Two hours of slogging brings you into the Mangatepopo valley with a glimpse of the hut from the ridge just before the valley. In my case, it was the lights in the hut that caught my eye since a 4 pm start meant that dusk had arrived. There was a nice sunset to look at before roaming into the looming darkness. The junction with the wide track up the valley is about fifteen minutes from the ridge and the hut is a further 5 minutes gently uphill.

Mangatepopo to the Oturere Valley

The description of this day's hike is actually a combination of the 2 days that I spent at Mangatepopo Hut. The idea for the first day was to have a chance to climb Ngauruhoe without hauling a heavy pack up to the Mangatepopo Saddle and then even higher over Red Crater. The first day did not look like it would be good when I walked out of the hut into thick clouds and a stiff, cold breeze blowing up the valley. I didn't see anything on the way up to the saddle and decided to hike on past the turn-off up to Ngauruhoe. However by the time I climbed up to Red Crater, the clouds had descended enough to allow great views of the mountains. Beyond the mountains was a solid layer of white clouds stretching out to the horizon. It was this and the strong cold wind that convinced me not to spend the afternoon climbing Ngauruhoe when I got just as good views by walking up to Tongariro.

The popularity of the Tongariro Crossing and this walk means that you will hardly ever hike alone. I had the bad luck to arrive back at the hut to find a school group had arrived - about 30 people (5 teachers and 25 students). It did not turn out as bad as it could have been since about 10 of them camped out and the rest were surprisingly well-behaved. The biggest hassle was arranging for a stint at the cookers for my evening meal. I had the kids for company in the next two huts.

Note that there is no potable water on the route between Soda Springs and the Oturere Valley. The striking colours of the Emerald Lakes is due to minerals from the Red Crater - making the water undrinkable. There is also no shelter or toilets between the two huts.

When leaving the hut, pause to look at the grand panorama down the valley. On a fine day you can see the shapely form of Mt. Taranaki with its almost perfect symmetry only enhanced by Fantham's peak (the little vent (bulge) to the left). The main track up the valley is rejoined a minute from the hut. This is a broad, groomed and gently rising track for the next 300 metres or so until it meets the Mangatepopo Stream at a nice gorge containing some small waterfalls. Mangatepopo cheeringly translates to "the stream of death"! The track becomes rougher as it clambers along the side of the gorge and emerges on a flatter section above. The stream is followed closely for the next 45 minutes with a couple of crossings through ankle deep water, a couple of tiny gorges and one section where it is easiest to walk in the stream. Finally you come to a wide sandy plain and walk up it to the junction with the route to Soda Springs. Soda Spring is a small spring sparkling with dissolved volcanic gases forming a waterfall over a mossy wall on the left side of the valley - 2-3 minutes walking along a poled route. On the way up from the hut, be sure to keep an eye on the changing views of Ngauruhoe to your right and look out for climbers on the fine cliffs below Pukekaikiore.

The next section is the steep clamber up the lava flow in front of you. Take your time going up - I stopped often to allow hordes of day-trippers doing the Tongariro Crossing to pass. There are plenty of poles to show the route (which is well-padded) until you reach the very top. Here the poles seem to vanish at the base of two gullies. If you head steeply straight up then you will discover more poles which lead up onto the saddle. On the other hand, the gully to your left is easier to climb and brings you up to a flat walk that arcs around back to the poled route.

The signposted junction with the route to Ngauruhoe is right on the saddle with a great view back down the Mangatepopo valley and an intimidating view up the slopes of Ngauruhoe. The path up the mountain starts as a poled route climbing off to the left of the saddle over fairly rough ground. The poles come to an end at the foot of a broad ridge on the mountain's northern slopes. A padded route consisting of a mixture of gravel, scree and volcanic ash then makes its way up the steep slopes. It heads for a line of rocky spurs. The spurs make the safest path to follow but make sure that any dislodged rocks do not endanger the trampers below you (this applies to the whole ascent and descent). Alternately you can continue to slog up the scree slopes. Entering a band of red rocks marks the final steep pitch up to the edge of the summit's inner crater. Avoid entering the crater where volcanic fumeroles may emit overpowering gases.

The superb sights from the summit (2291m) include the north peak of Ruapehu (Te Heu Heu) pointed to by the notched Pinnacle Ridge, and the western mountains of Taranaki, Pihanga and Edgecombe. There are a series of lakes visible to the north with the colourful Blue Lake closest, Lake Rotoaira in the middle and then the enormous Lake Taupo filling the northern horizon. In the east there are the rolling, green hillsides of the Kaimanawa country. The route for the next few days can be clearly seen with the sharp-eyed being able to pick out the various huts.

The descent from Ngauruhoe is much faster - scree running back down to Mangatepopo Saddle. Allow 2 hours for the climb (580 metres scaled over 1.5 kilometres) and less than 1 hour for the return. Follow the poled route to the north and onto the level floor of South Crater - thought to be an filled-in glacial cirque (the basin at the head of a glacier) rather than the crater formed by a volcanic vent.

Poles guide you across the crater for nearly a kilometre with the clay ground underfoot either dusty or muddy depending on the weather. The ridge on the other side looks daunting but is easily climbed on a rising traverse up onto the crest and a tremendous rock turret. There are great views over the crest to the east (roughly the direction of today's destination - Oturere Hut). A narrow path follows the craggy crest and then zigzags up sandy slopes to the high ridge next to Red Crater.

If you want to head off to Tongariro then there is a signposted junction here. The obvious route climbs along a ridge onto a small peak to the NW and then over a small saddle. The track then climbs west across gravel and ash slopes with a final stony ascent to a beaconed trig point at a height of 1961 metres. A rocky prow SW along the summit ridge conceals the real summit (1967 metres) - marked only by a peg in a earth patch on top of the rocks. The summit provides a classic view of Ngauruhoe's cone with the bulky Ruapehu peeking around the southern skirts. Return by the same route.

Take a short detour to the ridge at the head of Red Crater - the view down the crater's guts is worth the time. Then follow the rim back to the track and climb up to the tiny top that marks the last ascent for today. The fact that Red Crater is still active is shown by the frequent whiff of rotten eggs and puffs of steam. By now it should be about lunchtime and what a wonderful place for a break! Views abound. Ngauruhoe is behind you, looking into Red Crater reveals the large lava dike or tube on the other side of the crater and below you is the dirty-brown floor of Central Crater. The Emerald Lakes are best seen from about 100 metres below the brow where their green-blue colour contrasts nicely with the reddish soil. Blue Lake is across Central Crater with the route up to its shore and over to Ketetahi Hut clearly visible and a glimpse of Lake Taupo beyond. The classic crater shape to the west is North Crater whose lava filled interior sports an interesting collection of tors. Behind your left back, the ridge to Tongariro hides the mountain's summit.

The descent from Red Crater is over some of the most treacherous ground I have ever been on. It is a mixture of black volcanic sand and gravel with the occasional bigger stone to provide variety. The best thing to do is to think of it as black, lumpy snow and treat it accordingly. Take special care over the first half of the descent where the crater rim is closely followed.

At the bottom of the descent, you reach the first lake with another nearby pond. Drop your pack and have a wander along the shore to admire the great view back up the ridge. At the base of Red Crater is a broad band of sulphur stained rocks with steam rising from them and on the summit of the ridge you may see more steam that is blown up from the bowels of the crater.

A few hundred metres further over level ground, there is the junction that can be seen in the descent from Red Crater. The left fork heads over the barren floor of Central Crater, has a final climb up to the shores of Blue Lake and then zigzags down to Ketetahi Hut. This route will be often crowded with day-walkers doing the Tongariro Crossing. The right fork brings us down to the shores of the far Emerald Lake. A break here before starting the steep descent into the Oturere valley will be appreciated by your knees.

Continue on over a small hump to drop steeply down a ridge (probably yet another old lava flow). The 200 metres descended over the next kilometre give plenty of excuses to stop and have a look over the green Kaimanawa Ranges in front of you and the bleak Rangipo Desert to your right. There are lots of zigzags down to the flatter area in the middle of this section. Remember to look back up the ridge to the spouting steam from the walls of Red Crater and then drop on even more zigzags down to the valley floor. This originally glacial valley has been covered by many jagged lava flows from the Red Crater eruptions of between 2500 and 870000 years ago. Luckily, the track is mostly on level sandy soil but the many crossings of the ends of lava flows gives you plenty of chances to admire their stark andesite pillars. The surreal nature of this level 3 kilometre walk to the hut is wonderful.

Oturere Hut is quite a surprise when you suddenly see it through the piles of rock on the final crest. This is a great hut in a very scenic location. Just before you get to it, there is a marvellous vista of Ruapehu to the south and there is a first-rate vision of Ngauruhoe poking up over the hut from the campsites. If water is very low at the hut then you may have to get it from the nearby Oturere Stream. This features a fine 20 metre waterfall just up from the hut providing a bracing (i.e. freezing cold) shower. I arrived just before 3 pm (taking about 7.5 hours from Mangatepopo Hut), which made walking onto Waihohonu Hut a bit tempting. However I decided that rushing to the next hut just to avoid the crowd at this one was silly when there was all this unique landscape to enjoy. Most of the school party turned up about half an hour later with a group of them that had climbed Ngauruhoe coming in about 6 pm (just as night fell). They had found the climb and views "way cool" but were fairly knackered on reaching the hut.

Oturere Valley to Waihohonu Hut

The trail from Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut takes only 3 hours over easy terrain. Thus it is viable to make an early start and end up at Whakapapa Village 8 hours later (9 hours if you divert to the Tama Lakes). I decided to make the last 2 days easy by splitting the long day up. In hindsight, I would have preferred to drop down to Ketetahi Hut on the previous day and and have a longer walk over to Waihohonu Hut today.

I started out later than normal (about 9 am), leaving the school party still getting ready behind me and taking my time along the poled route. The weather was perfect for tramping - bright sunshine with a cooling breeze. The route heads south at first along flat sandy ground and among more stone sculptures. Within 30 minutes, you come to the first of many valleys that the route crosses. A steep descent takes you 40 metres down to the valley bottom with a corresponding climb up the other side onto wind shaped gravel ridges.

Over the next 4 kilometres, the track crosses 4 more valleys each containing its own (sometimes dry) stream. In between there are sandy ridges covered with clumps of tussock and other alpine plants. On each ridge top there are good views forward to Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe is a constant presence to your right. Ahead there is the ever closer vision of the final obstacle on the way to the hut - a rare green-clad ridge.

Soon you gain the ridge that overlooks a branch of the Waihohonu Stream with mountain beech forest covering the slopes downstream and on the next ridge. The bridge that is marked on the current map has been moved downstream so there is a longer than expected walk down the ridge crest until just before the start of the bush. On the way, I noticed that DOC had covered some of the tussock clumps with black netting where they had relocated plants from the new track - the netting should be gone by now. There is a short, sharp drop off the side of the ridge down to the welcome shade of the forest and a nice, narrow track down to the stream. The bridge is a little bit upstream and provides a wonderful spot for lunch.

A benefit from the bridge relocation is the long, rising traverse through great mountain beech forest that the track now takes. I took about 50 minutes to stroll up to the top of the ridge - no need to hurry in such idyllic surroundings. You climb out of the forest onto the clear ridge crest for more marvellous views. A good idea is to drop your pack and take your camera up the slopes to the east for a higher and clearer viewpoint. The track now descends the other side of the ridge with a glimpse (I think) of the hut roof appearing in the forest ahead. It takes about 10 minutes to enter the forest again and then 15 minutes more to Waihohonu Hut.

This hut is the best one on the Northern Tongariro Circuit with 3 separate sleeping areas, a nice central living area and new flush toilets! The bushes in front of the hut prevent a clear view over the Waihohonu Stream but Ruapehu still pops its head up. The rest of the day can be filled in with visits to the local beauty spots:
The Ohinepango Springs.
These massive cold-water springs are about 20 minutes away from the hut on the track heading to Rangipo Hut. The walk in itself is quite interesting with a tiny bit through scrub and an interesting descent down a clay bank (at first on steps and then on the clay with a rope to help). The clear waters of Ohinepango Stream are crossed on a sturdy bridge giving good views deep into the weedy waters. About 20 metres upstream is the wide pool from which the stream starts with the actual spring issuing forth from a shady, bush covered fissure. If you are lucky then you may see a pair of blue duck with their distinctive white bills and steel-blue plumage.
Old Waihohonu Hut.
On the way back from the springs, divert up the signposted track to Tama Saddle. This is the next day's route. About 10 minutes up the broad and sometimes eroded track, there is a fork with the left hand branch going to the Old Waihohonu Hut. The hut's deep red colour contrasts strongly with the surrounding green beech forest. Built in 1901, this hut is no longer used for accommodation but was one of the first tourist centres in the park. The "Grand Tour" brought passengers to Pipiriki on the Whanganui River by paddle steamer and then up to the original Ketetahi Hut by horse-drawn coaches. I believe that the tourists then walked over to this hut to pick more coaches to Tokaanu (a thermal area on the shores of Lake Taupo).
Waihohonu Stream.
This engaging stream is right next to the hut. It provides a good opportunity to wash the journey's grime away before meeting civilisation again. The water is very cold though!

Waihohonu Stream to Whakapapa

A change in the weather had been signalled by the high "mare's tail" clouds and brisk breeze during the previous day. Today, the promise was delivered - the morning was overcast with clouds creeping around the hut and a constant wet drizzle. My original plan was to stay late, stroll over to Whakapapa and stay the night (allowing a bit of sightseeing the next morning before heading to the train). However, the crowded hut and the weather encouraged an early start at 7:10 am.

The track heads down the stream to a bridge and then up the river bank on the other side through a nice patch of beech forest. The camp sites for the hut are on flats just upstream of the bridge crossing. A junction is reached 5 minutes from the hut. Ahead is the Round the Mountain Track (3-4 days around Ruapehu to Whakapapa) while the Desert Road can be reached down the track to the east. We turn to the west where the broad, eroded track shows its origins as a coach road.

There is a fork about 10 minutes up the track with the Old Waihohonu Hut to the left (well worth the short detour) and the Tama Saddle track to the right. From now on the track usually parallels the Waihohonu Stream and you have to endure the ups-and-downs as the track crosses its many side-streams. A good spot for a morning break comes about an hour up the track where there is a rare excursion along the stream bank. By now the rain had stopped but the clouds still swirled around the base of the mountains. I changed my plans here due to the damp weather and lack of views. I decided to go into top gear and try to make the 12:15 shuttle into National Park railway station.

The track turns a little to the south over more undulating terrain. A ridge can be seen in the distance at the base of the slopes leading up to Ruapehu. For another hour you inch your way towards the ridge before turning west again for the moderate climb up to the exposed saddle (expect the wind to be strong here). The landscape is slightly flatter on the saddle as you pass to the south of Lower Tama Lake. I do not think that it is visible from the saddle even if there are no clouds. The saddle ends with a sharp drop down to a stream that feeds the lake and then a little climb up the other side. Another 20 minutes brings the junction with the track up to the Tama Lakes. A view over the lower lake is about 10 minutes away while the upper lake is up a steep ridge (about 30 minutes from the junction).

More sidling across stream ditches awaits on the hour long traverse across and down to Taranaki Falls. The final descent down to the falls on Wairere Stream is over some of the most eroded track so far. The old track has been eaten away so deeply that the new track actually has bridges over it! To view the falls drop down a flight of stairs and look back at the rushing waters dropping over the black cliffs into the green ravine. The lower track can be followed back to Whakapapa or you can climb back up the steps to cross the bridge at the head of the falls and follow the upper track. I found the upper track to be more interesting than the lower with slightly better views, more intriguing terrain (including another small waterfall) and a cute patch of beech forest. Either way takes about an hour.

I arrived in the village at about 11:40 with plenty of time to rest before the shuttle departed. I had a quick look around the DOC Visitor Centre before deciding that it needed a lot longer than 30 minutes to do it justice. The cafe across the road provided a couple of drinks for the journey home. The shuttle got me and a few other trampers down to the railway station at about 12:30, leaving an hour and a half to wait for the train. This actually turned into 2 hours since the train was late.

Map

Comments

  • Dan-E Ian, a superb and very detailed article, thank you. I did a part of the circuit earlier this year from Ketetahi road end over to Oturere for the night, and then out to SH1 via Waihohonu hut the next day - magnificent tramping, and views to match! Will do the rest when time permits.
    9 November 2005
  • Taranaki Wow what an amazing report - well done but probably a bit long.
    25 October 2005
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Added 18 October 200518 October 2005 by ianfisk. 6 revisions, most recently 9 January 20069 January 2006 by MatthewMatthew.
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