Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Tongariro National Park is located in the middle of the North Island, New Zealand. Covering over 80, 000 kilometres, the park is easily accessible from a number of neighbouring towns. The park is centred on three active volcanoes, Tongariro (1967 m), Ngauruhoe (2287 m) and Ruapehu (2797 m), and also contains the Pihanga Scenic Reserve, which is home to Lake Rotopounamu, Mount Pihanga and the Kakaramea-Tihia Massif.

Geologically, the park was built by volcanic processes lasting for over two million years. The three volcanoes are the southern-most point of a 2500 km line of volcanoes, where the Australian plate meets the Pacific plate. The Pacific Plate subducts under the Australian plate and melts due to the high temperatures of the aesthenosphere – causing magma to rise through the weak parts of the Earth’s crusts. These volcanic processes built the mountains of the park, along with two inactive volcanoes to the north of the park, Pihanga and the Kakaramea-Tihia Massif. Glacial processes have also shaped the striking landforms of the park.

Mount Ngauruhoe
Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park.

Tongariro National Park was established in 1887, making it the oldest national park in New Zealand, and the sixth-oldest in the world. The park was first established thanks to members of the Ngati Tuwharetoa iwi (tribe), who wanted to restrict European settlement in a landscape that they considered sacred. The iwi had the lands surveyed by the Native Land Court, with the result that they were set aside for certain chiefs. The following year the land was conveyed to the Crown, on the condition that the three volcanic peaks remain protected.

In 1990, it was awarded dual UNESCO World Heritage Status, recognising the unique volcanic lifeforms and the spiritual importance of the mountains to local Maori people. The summits of Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu are tapu (sacred) to the Maori, while the park is dotted with Maori religious sites. Recognising this, in 1993 Tongariro was the first UNESCO World Heritage area to be inscribed on the list under revised criteria describing cultural landscapes, due to the spiritual links between the Maori community and their environment.

Even if you’ve never been to New Zealand before, you may find that you recognise parts of Tongariro National Park. In the early 2000s, the park was used as a shooting location for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, with the eerie volcanic wastelands of Tongariro proving ideal for Mordor, the lair of Dark Lord Sauron. Mount Ngauruhoe was digitally enhanced to stand in as firey Mount Doom – the end point of Frodo Baggins’s journey from Hobbiton. The film’s producers worked closely with the New Zealand Department of Conservation to ensure that the unique ecosystems of the park were protected during filming.

Tongariro National Park offers a number of activities. In winter, Ruapehu is a major ski field, regarded as one of the best in the world. Despite this, Tongariro receives more summer than winter visitors, thanks to the iconic hiking opportunities.

Hiking the Tongariro Crossing for mature and senior travellers:

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely regarded as New Zealand’s greatest day hike and one of the world’s greatest walks. Though the hike is challenging, it is suitable for senior and mature travellers who are fit and active, and more than worth it for the panoramic alpine views!

Emerald Lakes
Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Crossing.

The walk is 19.4 kilometres long and generally takes most hikers 7-8 hours. The major challenge is posed by the steep alpine inclines encountered on the way. Though the hike can be achieved going both ways, most travellers choose to begin their journey from Mangatepopo carpark and finish at the Ketetahi carpark. The hike begins by passing through lava fields, before the steep climb up the Devil’s Staircase. This is followed by a flat stretch, and then comes the climb up the Red Crater, the highest and most exposed part of the Tongariro Crossing, offering sweeping views in every direction. After the Red Crater, the trail heads around the Blue Lake, an icy-cold, acidic lake, followed by the larger Emerald Lake, where you will be able to smell the sulphurous odor coming from the lake. A short climb takes you to the North Crater – with more stunning views – before returning to Ketetahi Hut, for the mostly flat journey back to the carpark.

The main challenges of the walk are the uphill climbs, finding footing on soft sand on the climb down from the Red Crater, and dealing with the changeable alpine weather – with cold conditions, strong wind and heavy rainfall posing difficulties, even in summer.

However, don’t get too discouraged – the walk is certainly doable for hikers of all ages. Odyssey Traveller has ranked our Walking tour of New Zealand as Level 3 – Moderate to Challenging while the New Zealand government has ranked the Tongariro Crossing as Intermediate: Great Walk/Easier tramping track.

We recommend that you build your fitness and hiking skills beforehand by practicing on some shorter walks at home. If you aren’t an experienced hiker, think about visiting your health practitioner, and designing a programme to build fitness. Make sure that you have appropriate walking shoes, and clothing suited to the variable weather you might encounter on the track.

For more advice on preparation take a look at our Tips for Walking Tours and our Preparation Guide for a Walking Holiday. You might also want take a look at some our advice on selecting shoes and socks, and on women’s hiking shoes. And if you’re in need of encouragement, read the inspiring story of Joan, a Welsh tourist in her late 70s who successfully completed the trail, proving that age is no barrier!

Tongariro National Park also offers a number of other trails, both shorter and longer. Shorter walks include the 20 minute Mounds Walk and half hour Ridge Track, with sweeping volcanic views, and slightly more difficult walks to Silica Rapids and  Taranaki Falls. More challenging walks include the 3-4 day, 43.1 km Tongariro Northern Circuit, and the 4-6, 66.2 km Round the Mountain Track. The Tongariro Circuit is considered to be a ‘Great Walk’ of New Zealand, among 8 others, including the Routeburn Track and the Lake Waikaremoana Track.

Tongariro Crossing.
Hiking the Tongariro Crossing.

Odyssey Traveller visits Tongariro National Park as part of our walking tour of New Zealand. Beginning in Auckland, our tour first heads north to the golden beaches and historic sites of the Bay of Islands, before heading to Turangi Forest, stopping for a night’s accommodation in Auckland. After our time in Turangi forest we take on the greatest challenge of this walking tour: hiking the Tongariro Crossing.

After our hiking adventure, we head to Rotorua, in order to fly to Queenstown on the South Island. From Queenstown we head to Wanaka, where we enjoy a scenic flight with views of Aoraki (Mount Cook) and the Southern Alps. The tour then heads to Te Anau, the ‘Gateway to Fjordland’, where we walk part of the famous Milford Track, linking Lake Te Anau with Milford Sound.

The following day, we catch the ferry to remote Stewart Island, to the south of the South Island. New Zealand‘s ‘third island‘ is a natural wilderness barely touched by the modern world. Here, we have the opportunity to see the iconic kiwi on a guided walk. Returning to the South Island, we stay in Queenstown, where we enjoy a short walk in Invercargill, and a trip to the charming Gold Rush village of Arrowtown, before our walking holiday of this beautiful country concludes.

Odyssey Traveller has specialised in bringing Australian travellers to the world since 1983. In recent months, with the current coronavirus outbreak, we are reorienting towards tours of Australia and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand– along with other small countries including South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan – have been successful in containing the number of coronavirus cases through a strong system of testing, tracing, and quarantine, and are starting to lift strict lockdown measures. We anticipate that with further lifting of coronavirus restrictions we will be able to travel by domestic flight later this year, and indications are – given talks between the Australian government/Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern/the New Zealand government – that there may be opportunities for trans-Tasman travel. While the coronavirus pandemic might mean that your cruise ship holiday or trip to the United States will have to be cancelled, there’s no reason to give up on your travel dreams entirely, especially when Australia and New Zealand have so much to offer. 

Every Odyssey Traveller guided tour is designed for mature and senior travellers, who seek an authentic experience of their destinations. While our tours take you to the major tourist attractions – Wellington, Christchurch, Franz Josef Glacier and Milford Sound – we also pride ourselves on getting off the beaten track, taking you to lesser known sites. Our guided walking tour is led by an experienced tour guide, and is joined by local New Zealander guides. The tour price includes accommodation, entrance fees for attractions, and several meals, including breakfasts, lunch, and dinners.

For more information on our New Zealand walking tour, click here. Hiking fans may also be interested in our numerous walking tours.

Panoramic view nature landscape in queen town remarkable and arrowtown south island New Zealand Walking tour
Queenstown, New Zealand

Articles about New Zealand published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to New Zealand:

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