Emerald Lakes, Tongariro National Park. © Visit Ruapehu

Tongariro National Park: volcanoes of the south wind

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Tongariro is New Zealand’s oldest national park and approximately one million people visit the stunning area each year.

Despite the excellent skiing to be had on the Mount Ruapehu in the winter season, more visitors actually come in summer, to take advantage of one of the world’s best mountain-hiking trails.

The park includes the three volcanoes: Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. All three are very much alive, but a monitoring system allowing early warning of eruptions means it’s safe to visit. Tongariro is 1978m high and its huge massif stretches over 18 square kilometres. Ngāuruhoe, at 2291m, is actually one of Tongariro’s vents. Its classical cone shape, of course, saw it stand in for Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Ruapehu, the tallest at 2797m, also stood in as the backdrop for Mordor in the films.

For Tangata Whenua, the mountains are a vital part of their history. Their whakapapa and legends are venerated accordingly. The park is also a World Heritage area, recognising its important Māori cultural and spiritual associations, as well as its outstanding volcanic features.

The name Tongariro is derived from the Māori words ‘tonga’ meaning ‘south wind’ and ‘riro’ meaning ‘carried away’.

Tongariro National Park was the first national park in the world to be 'gifted' by a country’s indigenous people. In 1887 Te Heuheu Tūkino IV (Horonuku), then the paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, intended for the sacred peaks of Tongariro and Ngāuruhoe, and part of Ruapehu, to protected by a partnership between iwi and the New Zealand Government. This was to prevent the land being divided up and preserved the mana (prestige) of the Tūwharetoa people. When established, the park was just 2640ha, but it has gradually increased to its present size of 79,596ha.

The volcanoes in this region are still very active and are closely monitored. While Mount Tongariro’s active Red Crater last emitted ash in 1926, the Te Maari craters on its northern slopes erupted twice in 2012. Historically, Ngāuruhoe has erupted at least every nine years, although the last eruption was in 1975. Ruapehu’s last eruption was in 2007, with large eruptions prior, in 1995 and 1996.

Natural life

There is a wide diversity of alpine plants in the park, some of which live at high altitudes. In the summer months, many have colourful flowers, including purple parahebe, various mountain daisies, mountain buttercups, little white foxgloves and eyebrights, and the beautiful and hardy gentian, which flowers later in the summer and sometimes as late as May.

Large areas of the park are cloaked with beautiful golden and red tussocks and with introduced, invasive heather.

Much of the forest around the park, above around 1000m altitude, is mountain beech. Below that the forest consists more of podocarp trees. Other alpine trees include kaikawaka mountain cedar with its twisted trunk, and mountain cabbage trees – alpine versions of the lowland tī kōuka.

In terms of birdlife, the endangered whio or blue duck lives on fast-flowing rivers and streams in and around the park. North Island brown kiwi live in forests in the park and the adjacent Tongariro Forest Conservation Area, where there is a kiwi sanctuary, and a population monitored by Department of Conservation rangers.

In the forest areas of the park, you may see tomtit, robin, tūī, grey warbler, rifleman titipounamu, bellbird korimako, fantail pīwakawaka, or wood pigeon kererū. In open areas, you can often see native pipit puhoihoi. Sometimes they can be seen at altitudes over 1600m. 

Crossing Tongariro

The most popular activity at the park is the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a one-day trek that covers a stunningly diverse landscape of steaming craters, old lava flows and thermal lakes. Among its highlights are steaming vents and hot springs, old lava flows, beautiful water-filled explosion craters and stunning views. It's totally magincal in all weather, but make sure you are prepared for alpine conditions and dress appropriately. 

On clear days you can see Mount Taranaki in the west, Mount Ngāuruhoe, the Kaimanawa Ranges, Lake Taupō and beyond.

Mount Ruapehu is the spectacular location of New Zealand’s two largest ski areas, Whakapapa and Turoa.

Whakapapa village is the main entrance to the Tongariro National Park. Many beautiful short and longer walking tracks begin here. At the base of the Bruce Road to the Whakapapa ski area sits the iconic Chateau hotel, which was built in 1929, and is the centrepiece for many a stunning photo with the mountains behind it. 

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