The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s Top 10 Walks. A three to four-day tramp in Tongariro National Park it circumnavigates an active volcano in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone.
Near Taupo, North Island, New Zealand
4 days (43.1kms)
The hike includes the popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike but as soon as the two paths split you will leave behind the crowds and will be able to enjoy the volcanic landscape in solitude.
The hike walks through the remains of volcanic eruption and is mostly bereft of vegetation. Grasslands and native forest do return on the final descents, but you are mainly walking on rocky, black soiled volcanic terrain.
The wow factor are the Emerald and Blue Lakes. The Emerald Lakes are strikingly green, and the Blue Lake is the colour of the sky on a clear summer’s day. The intensity of the colour will leave you wondering how the lakes got their bright hues.
The Maori name for the Emerald Lakes is I Ngarotopounamu, meaning greenstone-hued lakes. It’s the magical combination of volcanic minerals and sunlight that gives the Emerald Lakes their beautiful green glow. The colour is created when sunlight reflects off a layer of calcium carbonate (marl) settled on the lake bed. Read more about it here.
Who walked with me?
I did this walk with a group of girls from my local hiking group. They are all experienced, adventurous souls that love exploring new terrain.
The starting point of the Tongariro Northern Circuit is in the Whakapapa Village located roughly 100km (or 1.5 hours) south west of Taupo, the biggest nearby city. Taupo is a four-hour drive from Auckland or a five hour drive from Wellington, the major airports on the North Island. Stock up on food supplies in Taupo. Daily shuttles run from Taupo and bring hikers to the start of the trail. We hired a people mover and left it in the Whakapapa village car park.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation provide excellent huts along the way, so we left the tents at home and just brought our backcountry hiking provisions. There are three huts along the Northern Circuit: Mangatepopo, Oturere and Waihohonu. There is space to camp if you wish but it can get quite cold overnight, even in summer. The hut facilities include bunks or sleeping platforms with mattresses, communal lounge areas, kitchens with gas, water and basic utensils, and outdoor eco-friendly toilets.
Bookings for campsites and huts are required and can be done online via the DOC website. The reservation system for the upcoming seasons usually opens around June and the spots are gone within the first few days. While campsites are cheaper, it worth paying a little extra to secure a spot in the huts and take advantage of their facilities. Campers are really only permitted access to the toilets and are expected to bring their own cooking stove and gas.
We found the campers did use the facilities but were very mindful of hut-booked residents’ first access to amenities. One wonderful aspect of these huts is that they provide private ranger accommodation. During our walk we were fortunate to have a different ranger stay with us each night. Around 7pm they would give us an informative talk on what we could expect each day. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the area in this way.
Where there is elevation there is always effort and we did huff and puff up a few sections.
Descending the volcanic areas of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day walk was challenging with extremely loose scree. To avoid losing my footing I just ran down it for a bit of fun, but I enjoy descents.
If you have bad knees and hips take it carefully on these sections and use trekking poles. Although there are sharp drop-offs, the path is wide so I did not see it as a huge risk. Worst case scenario is you will fall over into soft moving scree and get a dirty bottom. But always err on the side of caution if you are unfamiliar with terrain conditions. I was also fortunate to have good visibility.
What did I learn?
Some of my hiking buddies walk at a fast pace, others not so. It is important to go at the pace you are most comfortable with, preferably with a buddy. With a large group, it is best to let the dynamics work themselves out without early interference. If someone is stalling the group, for whatever reason, offer to change his/her buddy for another hiker who is happy to go at a slower pace for a period of time. This enables the buddy to join other members of the group and possibly walk at a faster pace without feeling the loss of hiker enjoyment. It is wonderful to see people work as a group and consider each walker’s preferences in terms of the speed they like to walk and what they want to see. And it is very fulfilling to help other hikers as they build their skill level.