Last updated on September 9th, 2019
The Tongariro region is a dream for many adventurers. It has active volcanoes, New Zealand‘s largest ski fields and famous Lord of the Rings locations. In the heart of it all stand Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Tongariro: the three mighty volcanoes that form part of Tongariro National Park. And all three are very much alive. While Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are dormant, Ruapehu had its last eruption in 1996 and a lahar in 2007. But don’t be afraid, installed warning signs and alarms make it a very safe place to visit. Most popular activities here are hiking and skiing, with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing being the major highlight. Tongariro National Park was New Zealand’s first national park, which was established in 1887. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so you’re guaranteed of pure beauty!
During our travels to New Zealand, we visited this area many times and in different seasons. The first time, in summer 2014, we hiked the Tongariro Crossing, which is still, even though it was a super hard hike, one of the best experiences we had in our lives. During our year in New Zealand on our Working Holiday Visa, in 2017-2018, we explored the rest of the national park twice during autumn and winter and were surprised with how much you actually could do over there without walking the Tongariro Crossing! We are really astonished by the beauty of this area and it now is actually one of our favorite areas in the whole of New Zealand! If you’re looking for raw beauty and great adventures, then you’re at the right place in this magical part of the country!
In this travel guide, we’ll go over the most awesome things to do in Tongariro National Park and we’ll provide you with lots of practical tips, the best places to stay and what you definitely need to bring.
needed to see it all
Things to know
There are different types of visa available when you want to visit New Zealand, but the most common is the regular tourist visa, which you’ll get when you arrive. At least, that’s the case if you meet one of the following requirements:
- You are a New Zealand or Australian citizen or resident
- You are a UK citizen and/or passport holder (you can stay up to six months)
- You are a citizen of a country which has a visa waiver agreement with New Zealand (you can stay up to three months). Most European countries and other western countries are Visa Waiver countries.
Another common visa option is the Working Holiday Visa, which we also got our second time, which allows young people (aged 18-30 years) to work and stay in New Zealand for 12 or 23 months in order to fund their travels.
You can see all New Zealand visa options here.
Tongariro National Park has a highly unpredictable climate. Rain and snow can literally fall at any time of the year. The vulcanoes are very exposed to winds, which often brings heavy rainfall to all sides of the summits. It is therefore that the vulcanoes are often hiding behind clouds. But, there are also enough sunny days in the national park and if you catch a day like that, the area is just gorgeous! Temperatures vary greatly during the year. Frost can occur all year round, but temperatures range from around 25℃ in summer to -10℃ in winter. In winter, the snow level extends down to an average of 1500 meters, and often lower. We experienced every season in Tongariro and really loved them all! For more information about the climate, click here.
Best time to visit
We think Tongariro National Park is great to visit year-round. If you’re going to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we recommend visiting in summer though, as this is the easiest time to do it. But do you prefer to go skiing and playing in the snow? Then you should definitely visit in winter! With Ruapehu being the biggest ski area of New Zealand, you will be guaranteed of snow fun. Another advantage of visiting in winter: the volcanoes are at its most beautiful covered in snow! But honestly, every season has its charm in Tongariro National Park.
The currency of New Zealand is New Zealand Dollar (NZD).
At the time of writing (July 2018) 1 NZD is: 0,58 euro or 0,68 USD.
Like the rest of New Zealand, Tongariro National Park is pretty expensive. A night in a normal hotel will cost you around 80-100 NZD per night. Of course, you can also stay in cheaper hostels for around 30 NZD per person per night, or on a campground for around 45 NZD per night. Food isn’t really cheap here as a simple meal or pizza will cost you around 20-25 NZD. But besides this, the nature of Tongariro National Park and hiking is all free! No fancy, expensive activities to pay for here!
Count on a budget of around 60 – 100 NZD per day when staying here on a reasonable budget.
The easiest way to get to Tongariro National Park is by car. There is simply no airport and barely any public transport. Also, you’ll need a car to get around the national park easily. Tongariro National Park is easily accessed by road and is only a 4-5 hour drive from either Auckland or Wellington.
One option of public transport is to travel by bus but this is way more inconvenient. There are daily national bus services to and from Ohakune, Taumarunui, National Park, Whakapapa Village and Turangi. Coming from further away? Then it’s a good idea to check out the Intercity bus, which can bring you to Turangi. From Turangi you can then take another bus or shuttle to Tongariro National Park. But, as said, this is pretty cumbersome and will cost you quite some money.
Another option would be to go with a bus tour, like Kiwi Experience.
Alternatively, you could fly to Taupo with Sounds Air and from there rent a car or take a bus to Tongariro National Park.
The best way to get around at Tongariro National Park is with your own car. This way you can see everything the national park has to offer and it’s the best way to cover the bigger distances. Also, state highways surround the whole park and lead to all the key access points.
Of course, another great way to get around is by foot. With many walking tracks to choose from, you’ll definitely see the most beautiful nature and get the best views when you’re walking!
Tongariro National Park consists of three main villages: Whakapapa, National Park Village & Ohakune. Whakapapa village sits right in the middle of all the action: it’s right on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu with very easy access to the ski field. It’s also the highest township in New Zealand at 825m, which is pretty cool! National Park Village is the northern gateway to the national park and is just a simple village with a number of cheap accommodation. Ohakune is the southern gateway of the national park and provides good nature activities, like skiing at the Turoa ski field and mountain biking.
There’s something to do in all three villages and, of course, in the national park itself and we’ll tell you which are the absolute must sees:
Mount Ngauruhoe is the most iconic volcano of the whole Tongariro National Park, also known as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. The best way to see this perfectly-formed volcano is on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing but seriously, you can see the gorgeous cone from almost everywhere. Whether you’ll drive on the highway next to it, or you’ll get up close and even climb the volcano, it is an impressive sight to see from every way. For some great photo opportunities of the mountain, we recommend the grass field in Whakapapa just in front of the Chateau Tongariro and Skotel Alpine Resort and the road just past Whakapapa on the way to National Park Village.
Tawhai Falls – 20 minutes return
The Tawhai Falls are also more commonly known as Gollum’s Pool from Lord of the Rings. It’s only a short walk to this beautiful place, where you’ll find the waterfall tumbling over the edge of an ancient lava flow.
Taranaki Falls – 2 hours return
An easy loop walk takes you to these impressive waterfalls. It is surrounded with beautiful rocks and amazing views of the volcanoes. It’s a great walk through beech forest and takes you first to the top of the falls, then continues to the waterfall’s base. In winter, the rocks are even covered in ice, which gives it an even more mystical feeling.
Meads Wall – 30 minutes return
Meads Wall is a spectacular rocky outcrop that seals the head of Happy Valley in the Whakapapa ski field. It was one of the filming locations for Lord of the Rings. Just a short walk from the Whakapapa ski field will take you there, from where you have spectacular views over the valley and to Mount Ngauruhoe. Meads Wall drops off steeply, so take care when you’re standing at the edge.
Ridge Track – 40 minutes return
The Ridge Track is only a short track, but it takes you past some amazing views on the volcanoes! Before you reach this alpine shrubland you pass some beautiful beech forest. This walk gives you great, quick taste of what Tongariro National Park has to offer.
Already an adventure to get there on the unsealed, bumpy road, the caves itself are even more adventurous! When we got there, we didn’t even know where the entrance was of the caves. At the end of the short walk, you just end up at a river with lots of rocks and caves. It requires some searching, but take a small entrance through the rocks somewhere and you’ll find yourself in an amazing and massive cave system! Make sure you’re wearing waterproof shoes and a torch and just go explore the cave network. Due to the fact there’s a river flowing in the caves, you will find plenty of glowworms hanging above your head! But: be careful in these caves! There is no path or whatsoever, which means you have to clamber over rocks and crawl through small rock passages. Also, make sure you know the way a bit in these caves or you might seriously get lost! We only went in at the beginning of the caves, but if you’re up for some serious exploring, then please go with a guide or someone who knows their way in the caves.
Another gorgeous and perfectly-formed waterfall, accessible right next to the road to the Turoa Ski Field in Ohakune. This waterfall is also known as Gollum’s Pool as it is the second location which is used for the fishing scene of Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
There are some unique activities to do in Tongariro National Park, which you can’t do in any other parts of the world:
Ski down an active volcano at Whakapapa Ski Field (or one of the other ski resorts)
Mount Ruapehu has the largest ski fields in New Zealand and one of them is the Whakapapa Ski Field. This one is the most accessible of all three ski fields on Mount Ruapehu, as it is located right next to Whakapapa Village. The gorgeous Bruce Road takes you to the parking and chairlift of the ski field where you already can have a taste of what this ski field has to offer. The ski field has a huge variety of terrain ranging from the country’s premier beginner facility as well as 30 intermediate and 24 black trails. It has snow filled basins, lift-accessed backcountry, steep chutes, drops and bumps and secret powder stashes. There really is something for everyone over here! You can even go for a night ski or learn the skills at the Happy Valley. And the coolest thing of all: this is all on an active volcano!
If you’re not skiing, there are also small hills where you can go for a sleigh or just enjoy the field in one of the cafés. You can also take the scenic chairlift ride for some amazing views over the valley and to get to New Zealand’s highest café, the Knoll Ridge café.
Due to Whakapapa’s snowmaking machines, it has one of NZ’s longest ski season. Normally, the ski field opens at the beginning of June and closes at the end of October.
Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most famous hike in the park and the reason why most visitors come to Tongariro. Doing this tough, 19.4 km hike feels like you’re walking on another planet. It’s an incredible volcano landscape: you’ll pass craters, active volcanoes, lava flows, volcanic rocks and sand and the famous Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. But that’s not all: the highest point of the hike is the Red Crater, which has an impressive red colour and looks more like it belongs on Mars. Right after that you’ll come past the perfectly emerald lakes and blue lake, just when you thought the landscape couldn’t get any more beautiful. It’s no wonder that the Tongariro Crossing in one of New Zealand’s best day hikes! For us, this has definitely been one of the highlights of all our trips to New Zealand. Although it’s not an easy walk, we recommend it to everybody! Keep in mind, however, that there’s a lot of climbing involved, especially at the beginning at the Devil’s staircase, so a reasonably level of fitness and preparation is required!
As said, the walk is 19.4 km long and, at a comfortable speed, takes about 7-8 hours to complete. It’s best to start the walk as early as possible, around 8-9 am. The start of the walk is at the Mangatepopo car park and the end of the walk is at Ketetahi. The whole track is very well-marked and there are plenty of stops with little shelters and toilets.
Note: the weather can change rapidly on the crossing. Therefore, it is important to always wear different layers of clothing and take a hat and waterproof jacket. In summer, you’ll have to wear enough sunscreen, because you might not notice it with the cooler temperatures on the mountain, but the sun is still very strong! It goes without saying that you should be wearing good hiking shoes. We recommend doing the crossing in summer because then you’ll have the most chance on good weather and there should be no snow on the tracks.
Also: be sure to book a shuttle to and from the crossing in advance (more on that later)!
Find the Lord of the Rings movie locations
The whole area of Tongariro National Park is also known as Mordor in Lord of the Rings. When you first lay eyes on this amazing landscape, it is no wonder that most of it is used as filming locations for the movies. We’ll give you a list of all the film locations in the Tongariro region:
- Mount Ngauruhoe / Mount Doom: the most obvious feature of the movies.
- Meads Wall: this is the location where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum sat watching the Black Gates of Mordor open. It is located at Whakapapa ski field.
- Tawhai Falls / Gollum’s Pool: famous for the scenes of Gollum catching a fish.
- Mangawhero Falls: this place is also used for the scenes of Gollum catching a fish.
- Tukino Ski Area: the setting of Hidden Bay, which was the entrance of the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit.
- Rangipo Desert: this provided the backdrop for the storming of the Black Gate.
Drive the Bruce Road and enjoy the stunning views
We think the Bruce Road that goes up to Whakapapa ski field is an attraction in itself! It offers some of the best views over the whole Tongariro National Park and the closer to winter, the more snow you’ll find next to the road, which makes it even more beautiful. The road passes impressive volcano landscape, complete with volcanic rocks, sand, and alpine shrubs. On the road, there are a few stops and we definitely recommend getting out of the car and explore the area a bit!
Drive the Desert Road and take side roads into the Rangipo Desert
The Desert Road is one of the most scenic drives in the country in our opinion. The scenery is just fantastic as you drive past Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe. A lot of photos we took were actually made along this road! The road hugs the east side of the national park and goes from Waiouru to Rangipo. The whole area surrounding this side of the volcanoes is actually called the Rangipo Desert and is called like that because it is a barren desert-like landscape, complete with low tussock and snow grasses. You’ll see what we mean when you first lay eyes on the area!
It is worth stopping along the road and to take some side roads to explore. One side road we definitely recommend is the road to the Tukino Skifield. Although this road is unsealed and pretty pot-holey at some places, it is still accessible with a 2WD to a certain point. The road is incredibly scenic and goes right through the Tongariro National Park.
Care needs to be taken on these roads during the winter months, as there can fall a lot of snow and the Desert Road can sometimes even be closed for short periods with barrier arms due to severe snow storms and icy road conditions.
Tours in Tongariro National Park
The best thing is to do everything by yourself in Tongariro National Park. However, if you’re going to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing you will need to organize a shuttle to drop you off at the start of the track and pick you up at the end. For this, we recommend Tongariro Crossing Shuttles because they have many locations from where they can pick and drop you off.
If you prefer to do the crossing guided, then we definitely recommend the company Adventure Outdoors. In winter, it is even essential to book a guided tour because with all the snow and ice it is too hard and dangerous to do it alone. Moreover, you need an ice axe & crampons during winter and a guided tour will provide you with that.
Where to stay
A place to sleep will be very easy to find around Tongariro National Park. You will have plenty of accommodation options in either of the three main villages or even outside of these villages. We can really recommend staying in Whakapapa because this village is super cozy and has a great atmosphere. It’s also the closest town to all the action, right next to the biggest ski area and with most walks starting from town. In summer it’s a nice, relaxed village, but in winter it is buzzing with people. However, National Park Village and Ohakune are also great places to stay, with the last being a bigger town.
Campgrounds/hostels in Tongariro:
A hostel with volcano views right on the doorstep, how cool is that?! It’s the closest hostel to the national park and the coolest feature would be the 8 meter high indoor climbing wall!
From NZD 26 per night
Closest campground to all the action. Great atmosphere and a toasty warm kitchen area, which is definitely needed in the colder winter months! All the facilities you need + free wi-fi.
From NZD 44 per night
Hotels in Tongariro:
We stayed in this hotel the third time we were here and absolutely loved it! The interior gives that real winter and apres ski feeling and the facilities are superb. And their views on Mount Ngauruhoe are just the best.
From NZD 150 per night
Resorts in Tongariro:
The most iconic hotel in the whole area! The chateau will immediately catch your eye when you drive into Whakapapa village, with its stunning mountain backdrop. Rooms here are very luxurious and they even have 2 restaurants, one where you can have a high tea experience with stunning views over the mountains.
From NZD 195 per night
Gorgeous boutique accommodation with a cozy interior. Rooms have everything you need and the hotel even has an indoor heated swimming pool and also 2 restaurants.
From NZD 249 per night
Where to eat / drink
- Tussock in Whakapapa: the pizzas here are just delicious! It has a great atmosphere and is also a really good place for a drink
- Terrace Restaurant & Bar in Whakapapa: this restaurant is located inside Skotel and we really loved the food. It also has an amazing view of Mount Ngauruhoe!
- Knoll Ridge Cafe on Mount Ruapehu: the highest cafe in New Zealand, how cool is that?! You have to take the chairlift to get there, but then you have stunning views over the whole Tongariro area.
- Schnapps Bar in National Park Village: great bar to have some apres-ski drinks.
- The Blind Finch in Ohakune: the perfect place for burgers and craft beers after an active day on the slopes.
What to bring
- Good hiking boots.
- Water/windproof jacket: the weather in Tongariro National Park can change rapidly, so it’s always good to be prepared when it starts raining.
- Sunscreen & sunglasses: essential in summer.
- Warm clothing layers: since it’s always chilly in this area it’s good to wear different layers of clothing.
- In winter: warm clothes, a hat and gloves and maybe ski clothes!
- Map: although most of the walks in Tongariro are well marked, it is always good to have some sort of map with you to know where you are going.
- First aid kit: when hiking a lot, it is always good to carry a first aid kit with you.
- Water: when you’re going on a hike and especially if you’re doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, then take plenty of water with you.
- Your camera: for obvious reasons!
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