May to late October (winter season): Walking the track outside the Great Walks season should only be attempted if you have alpine skills, equipment and experience.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit can be walked either direction.
Most walkers take 4 days/3 nights or 3 days/2 nights. Very fit people can walk it in 2 days/1 night, but each day is at least 8 hours.
Note, climbing Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro breaches Ngāti Tuwharetoa’s tuku of the sacred peaks. It is also discouraged because of its hazards and environment.
Places to stay
There are three huts with campsites nearby along the Tongariro Northern Circuit. These must be booked in advance during the Great Walks season. Note, camping is not allowed within 500 m on this track.
Huts have bunks, mattresses, heating, toilets, basic gas cooking facilities, solar-powered lighting and cold running water. A DOC ranger is present. The huts do not provide food, cooking utensils or showers.
Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut
Time: 3 hr
Distance: 8 km
Begin 100 metres below the Whakapapa Visitor Centre at Ngauruhoe Place and along the lower Taranaki Falls track. After about 20 minutes the Mangatepopo track branches off from the Taranaki Falls track.
Heavily eroded in places the track crosses many stream beds. Ahead and to the right is Pukekaikiore, thought to be one of the older vents of the Tongariro complex. To the left is Pukeonake, a low scoria cone. Both Pukekaikiore and Pukeonake witnessed the last ice age when glaciers from Tongariro carved down through Mangatepopo Valley. The giant cone of Ngauruhoe and the flatter form of Tongariro are visible ahead. Ngauruhoe is a younger ‘parasitic’ cone on the side of Tongariro.
For the last hour the track skirts around Pukekaikiore until it reaches the Mangatepopo Valley track. The Mangatepopo Hut is five minutes off of the main track.
Mangatepopo Hut to Emerald Lakes
Time: 3 hr 30 min
Distance: 8 km
The track follows Mangatepopo stream up the valley, climbing over a succession of old lava flows from Ngauruhoe. The youngest, very black, lava flows were erupted from Ngauruhoe in 1949 and 1954.
A five minute detour at the head of the valley leads to the cold Soda Springs and waterfall, which emerge beneath an old lava flow. In spring and summer moisture loving plants such as white foxgloves and yellow buttercups thrive in the area.
The steep climb required to reach the Mangatepopo Saddle rewards climbers views of the valley and if clear, Mt Taranaki to the west. From the saddle the track crosses South Crater, not a true crater but a drainage basin between the surrounding volcanic landforms.
Ahead more recent lava flows can be seen spilling over from Red Crater. The climb up to Red Crater offers splendid views of Oturere Valley and Kaimanawa Ranges to the east.
The main track continues on past the rim of Red Crater itself. The spectacular formation on the far side of the crater is a dike, an old magma feeding pipe to the vent of the volcano. Harder than the ash and scoria around it erosion has left it exposed on the side of the crater.
North Crater is the large flat topped crater to the north. This vent once contained a lava lake which cooled to infill the crater.
Blue Lake is visible from the top of Red Crater, across the Central Crater - which like South Crater is actually another drainage basin. Blue Lake has formed where cold fresh water fills an old vent.
A loose, rocky ridge leads down to the spectacular Emerald Lakes, which fill old explosion pits. Their brilliant colouring is caused by minerals washed down from the thermal area of Red Crater.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing continues from Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Road.
Emerald Lakes to Oturere Hut
Time: 1 hr 30 min
Distance: 4 km
From Emerald Lakes the track descends steeply into the Oturere Valley with views of the valley, the Kaimanawa Ranges and the Rangipo Desert. The track weaves through an endless variety of unusual jagged lava forms from early eruptions from Red Crater which filled Oturere Valley.
A magical place to visit especially on a misty day. The Oturere Hut is nestled on the eastern edge of these flows. There is a pretty waterfall over the ridge from the hut.
Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut
Time: 3 hr
Distance: 8.1 km
After leaving Oturere Hut the track undulates over a number of stream valleys and open gravel fields. Plant life here has been constantly repressed by volcanic eruptions, altitude and climate. Loose gravel means that recolonisation by plants is a slow process on the open and bare countryside.
The track gradually sidles around the foot hills of Ngauruhoe descending into a valley and crossing one of the branches of the Waihohonu Stream. Continue through a beech clad valley before climbing towards the ridge top. Waihohonu Hut is in the next valley.
Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village
Distance: 15.4 km
Time: 5 hr
The track follows the Waihohonu stream and gradually climbs to Tama Saddle. This area can be windy as it sits between the mountains.
From the saddle there is a very worthwhile side trip to the striking Tama Lakes, two infilled explosion craters. The lower lake is only 10 minutes from the junction, while the upper lake is up a steep ridge, taking 1 hour 30 minutes return.
Whakapapa Village is about two hours from the Tama Lakes junction. After the first hour the track meets the Taranaki Falls loop walk, one of the best short walks in the Park. There are two options to return to the village, both take about an hour. To view the waterfall, follow the lower section of the track down the steps to its base, then follow the Wairere stream through beautiful mountain beech forest back to the village.
Alternatively take the upper section of track through open tussock and shrubland back to the village.
Side trip: Ohinepango Springs
Time: 1 hr return from Waihohonu Hut
Crystal clear cold water bubbles up from beneath the old lava flow and discharges at an enormous rate into the Ohinepango Stream.
The springs are signposted on the Round the Mountain Track heading south towards Rangipo Hut.
Side trip: Historic Waihohonu Hut
Time: 20 min return from Waihohonu Hut; 10 min return from the Tongariro Northern Circuit Track
Built in 1903/04, this was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park. It's the oldest example of a typical early two-room mountain hut in New Zealand. Historic Waihohonu Hut.
Side trip: Tama Lakes
Time: 20 min return to Lower Tama from the junction, 1 hr 30 min return to Upper Tama from the junction.
Access half way between Waihohonu Hut and Whakapapa Village.
Tama Lakes, two infilled explosion craters, are named after Tamatea, the high chief of the Takitimu Canoe, who explored the area six centuries ago.
The lower lake (at 1200 m), is 10 minutes from the junction. Volcanic debris is slowly washing in and filling the crater. The upper lake (at 1314 m) is a further 40 minutes up a steep ridge. This beautiful lake is reputed to be very deep.