The Tongariro National Park is formed by 3 impressive active volcanoes whose eruptions have determined the morphology of the place. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is one of the most visited natural attractions the North Island of New Zealand. If this prestigious title was not enough, the Tongariro National Park was featured in Lord of the Rings as the region of Mordor.
As with almost all attractions in New Zealand, there are endless ways to enjoy the Tongariro National Park. Probably the most popular is a one-day hike that crosses a part of the park next to 2 of the volcanoes. Instead, I opted for a 3-day, 45-kilometer trail called North Circuit. In this way, not only I could know other parts of the park, but I also slept in the middle of nature in the wonderful refuges of the place.
Day 1: From Whakapapa Village to the Oturere refuge
A van took me along with another backpacker from my lodge to the visitor center in Whakapapa Village. This is the place from where the trail starts. The first part of the route ran through a forest, although the trees soon gave way to shrubs and flowers. They later disappeared in a marshy area where you could only walk on wooden walkways. It wasn’t a pleasant beginning as the clouds occupied the sky and soaked me with a gentle drizzle.
After a three-hour walk, I stopped at one of the park’s shelters. There I dried my clothes on the stove and had lunch. I was going to need the energy because from there the climb to the mountain pass began. From that moment on, time only grew worse. The cloud that had accompanied me all morning became denser and sometimes I could not see beyond 5 meters. In addition, a hurricane wind began to blow that made it difficult to walk in a straight line.
The 600 meters of rugged surface to reach the mountain pass seemed endless. Due to the weather, I couldn’t enjoy anything about this part of the park.
On the other side of the mountain pass, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake when a gust of wind momentarily took the cloud that covered them. And best of all was that from there, the road was almost all downhill.
Completely exhausted, I reached the Oturere refuge. After 21 kilometers and 8 hours of hiking in terrible weather conditions, I was only thinking about sitting down and taking off my mountain boots. Luckily, the shelter was wonderful. It was on the slope of the mountain and with incredible views of the boundaries of the park and Lake Taupo.
On the other hand, a gas stove kept the site relatively warm. A deck of cards kept us occupied for much of the afternoon, while all the walkers shared their experiences. At night, the sky cleared and I could see one of the starriest skies I’ve ever seen. Just for these few minutes under the stars, it was worth all the effort of the day.
The wind did not stop blowing all night. Even inside the shelter, it seemed like we were going to be blown away. In the morning it was cloudy. It seemed useless to wait for the weather to improve. So with the wind echoing in my ears and threatening clouds above my head, I set out for the next refuge.
Day 2: From the Oturere al Waihohonu refuge
My second day of trekking in the Tongariro National Park was a lot better than the first. Surprisingly, the clouds parted away and I could finally see the sunlight. How wonderful it is to walk in the sun! The landscape seemed something else with the clear sky. In addition, it was the shortest day of the Circuit. It was an easy hike. In just 3 and half hours, I covered the 8 kilometers that separated the Waihohonu refuge from Oturere.
The path began by traversing an area of volcanic rocks known as the Red Crater. But it could equally well have been called “Welcome to another planet”! The landscape resembled of no place on earth that I have ever seen. I imagined that I was walking in a barren land on Mars. The place offered spectacular panoramic views of the park, especially the Ngauruhoe volcano that stood imposing in the distance.
Behind this rocky area was a small forest of lush greenery. The forest did not last long. But while leaving the vegetation, I could see a spectacular view of Ruapehu volcano. In other words, the volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park accompanied me during the day’s walk.
And finally, after crossing another small wooded area appeared Waihohonu refuge, where I slept that night. Enjoying the sunset from the huge windows of the cottage was one of the best moments of the day.
Day 3: From the Waihohonu refuge to Whakapapa Village
The next day was the last stage of the 45 kilometers Northern Circuit in Tongariro National Park. The weather was again bad in my farewell to the park, because it did not stop raining all day.
Fortunately, the rain was not torrential, but it did not invite calm enjoyment of the new landscapes. Even so, I diverted from the main road to visit Lower Tama Lake which took another hour of hiking.
The day ended up in the hostel with a long hot water shower and a few hours lying on the couch watching movies on TV. But that was not before having celebrated the challenging journey on the mountains with a giant burger and a beer. I can’t think of a better ending for my visit to the Tongariro National Park.
In short, hiking through the Tongariro National Park is one of the most spectacular experiences you can have in the North Island of New Zealand. It is a completely different place from the rest of the country with its volcanic landscapes that seem to be drawn from another world. Of course, if you wish to visit, do not do as I did. Make sure you check the weather forecast. Wait for them to predict some days of good weather to launch you to the volcanoes, lakes, forests and waterfalls that form this impressive national park.