Mighty and iconic, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is without a doubt one of the most legendary hikes in New Zealand – if not the world.
It’s no wonder it attracts tens of thousands of adventurers to the Tongariro National Park each year – all looking to tackle its rugged terrain, steep slopes and otherworldly landscapes.
But while it is a must-do activity for many, the Crossing is simply not for everyone – it is after all, an almost 20km trek across a volcano! Most hikers will find completing the Crossing a challenge, and for some, the sheer distance, sharp inclines and uneven conditions underfoot make it a near-impossible feat.
Fortunately, there is a multitude of other excellent walks in and around the Tongariro National Park for those who can’t or don’t want to do the Crossing – offering something for everyone no matter their fitness level. Some are well-trodden, while others are true hidden gems…
Here are just a few of the locals’ favourites:
You don’t have to hike the full-length of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing to experience some of its splendour. Hiking the first section of the Crossing up Mangatepopo Valley – carved out by glaciers and partially in-filled by lava flows from Mt Ngauruhoe – to Soda Springs is well worth a visit in its own right. The walk sets off through fields of yellow tussock before climbing at a gentle gradient alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows. The valley ends at the foot of Mt Ngauruhoe, where you’re treated with up close and personal views of this iconic volcano. From here, a short side track leads to Soda Springs where clear, cold water cascades into a small stream. Allow 3 hours for the return journey, which makes it a perfectly timed with the parking time limit at the Mangatepopo carpark.
Distance: 8km return
Grade: Easy to moderate
This family-friendly 20-minute return walk through mountain toatoa and beech forest leads to the impressive Tawhai falls. The falls tumble over the edge of an ancient lava flow into a deep rock pool – a favourite swimming spot for locals. The walk is accessed off SH48 – 4km from Whakapapa Village.
The Ridge Track offers panoramic views of Mt Ngauruhoe and the surrounding landscape. It leads up a short climb through low beech forest, before emerging into alpine shrublands. The track starts 150m above the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre. Allow 30 to 40 minutes.
Distance: 1.2 km return
It might look like just an ordinary rocky outcrop, but Meads Wall is in fact a sheet of frozen magma that was squeezed up within the oldest part of the volcano that formed Mt Ruapehu. It was one of the filming locations for the Lord of the Rings films and offers magnificent views of the valley below and to Mt Ngauruhoe. Meads Wall is a 30-minute return walk from Whakapapa ski area base on Mt Ruapehu.
A very close rival to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the Tama Lakes track crosses a distinctive undulating landscape of tussock and alpine herbfields. With very few ascents, apart from a steep incline to 1440 metres to the upper lake viewpoint, it’s far less arduous than the Crossing. Flanked by Mt Tongariro and Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu, the views along this walk are truly exceptional. On a clear day, you might even be lucky enough to spot Mt Taranaki on the western horizon. The Tama Lakes occupy several old explosion craters so are well worth the trek to view. The walk starts and ends in Whakapapa Village.
Distance: 17km return
Grade: Moderate, with a steep ascent to the Upper Lake.
A firm favourite for locals and visitors looking for a short, but beautiful, loop walk, the Taranaki Falls track is perfect for families and travellers of all ages and fitness levels. The track offers an excellent glimpse of the varied scenery and landscapes the Tongariro National Park is known for – taking in tussock, bush and ancient lava flows, as it leads to a stunning waterfall. Pack a picnic and enjoy spectacular views of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, surrounded by native plants and birdsong. The track also starts and ends in Whakapapa Village.
Distance: 6km loop
This highly varied walk travels through mountain beech forest and alongside a cascading stream to arrive at the creamy-white terraces of the Silica Rapids. A range of vegetation types, including subalpine plants, amid a mixture of swamp and tussock country, feature around the track. On a clear day, the walk offers spectacular views of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. The track begins 250 metres above Whakapapa Village Visitor Centre and returns along Bruce Road for 2.5km – or return along the same track.
Distance: 7 km return via Bruce Road
One of the lesser discovered hikes in the area, but also one of the more challenging, the Tupapakurua Falls track can be reached from National Park Village. It starts off Fishers Road and begins with an easy 20-minute walk to the Taranaki lookout from where you can view Mt Taranaki on a clear day. From there, it becomes a back-country adventure track suitable for experienced hikers only. The track follows a ridge and then descends steeply to a stream with good stands of native trees, including tawa, mature rimu, miro and totara, along the way. Climbing from the stream, the track winds its way around bluffs to a good lookout point with views of the falls. Allow between 4 to 5 hours for the return trip.
Grade: Moderate to difficult
You will need at least two to three days to explore the natural and cultural wonders of New Zealand’s oldest national park and Dual World Heritage Area. Fortunately, accommodation options abound in and around Tongariro National Park, catering for all budgets.
Located on the boundary of Tongariro National Park just off State Highway 4, National Park Village is an ideal base for your adventures in the area. The village offers a wide range of accommodation from backpackers to boutique lodging – all just a short stroll from a choice of cafes, bars and restaurants. There’s also a petrol station, supermarket and an outdoor gear store.
Whakapapa Village boasts a small number of accommodation options in the heart of the Tongariro National Park, including the historic Chateau Tongariro Hotel.
For those looking to stay in more rural settings, Raurimu and Erua villages are excellent options.
Not a hiker? Try these adventures that don’t include walking!
Hiking is undoubtedly the most popular activity in and around Tongariro National Park. However, it’s by far not the only thing to do in the area. Here are some other adventures in the area that don’t involve walking:
- Ride the hills!
Feel the adrenaline rush of a quad bike adventure and explore the untouched beauty of the Erua Forest with Ruapehu Adventure Rides.
- Take to the skies in a scenic flight
Witness the volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park in all their glory from the air with Mountain Air Volcanic Flights!
- Bike through ancient native forests
Enjoy two family-friendly mountain bike tracks directly from National Park Village – the downhill Fishers Track or Marton Sash & Door loop along a historic bush tramway. Rent bikes and arrange transfers with My Kiwi Adventure.
- Family fun
Enjoy a gentle put on the mini-golf course at Schnapps Bar in National Park Village or reach for new heights at the indoor climbing centre next door at National Park Backpackers. The Roy Turner Memorial Playground on Buddo Street is a treat for kids of all ages with its state-of-the-art playground equipment.
- Refuel with views of majestic mountains
Soak in the spiritual significance & natural splendour of three volcanic peaks at once while enjoying one of the many local eateries with mountain views.
For more information on planning your Tongariro National Park adventure, visit: www.nationalpark.co.nz