Not to be confused with the one day Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of the eight Great Walks, a 43km, 3-4 day circuit from Whakapapa through some of the strangest landscapes you’ll see. Walk across (and climb) volcanoes, pass the aptly named Emerald Lakes, cross strangely coloured streams, see bizarrely shaped rocks, and skirt the edge of a desert. I’ve done this walk twice, and parts of it (on the Alpine Crossing and Tongaririo Around The Mountain) another couple of times, and I’d happily do it again soon.
As a circuit from Whakapapa it can be walked in either direction, but is generally walked clockwise to tackle the harder sections first, plus beat the day trippers doing the Alpine Crossing if you set off from Mangatepopo Hut early enough.
The first section to Mangatepopo Hut is a nice warm up, heading toward the distinctive Mt Ngauruhoe.
The track is then shared for the most famous part of the the Alpine Crossing, up the appropriately named Devil’s staircase, across a volcanic crater, with optional side trips up Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, and down past the Emerald Lakes.
The Northern Circuit then heads off further down the hillside to the right, leaving the hoards of day trippers behind, to even stranger lands before reaching the Oturere Hut.
My favourite part of the track lies ahead, filled with unexpected sights at every turn, from desert like conditions that abruptly turn into thick bush, to strange plants, and a general sense of being the only person alive. Don’t think I’ve ever come across another tramper on this section.
The relatively new Waihononu Hut is a great place to stay before returning to Whakapapa, weaving between the bushes before boardwalk and well graded track from the Tama Lakes onwards.
Highlights: Crossing the Red Crater, descending past the Emerald Lakes, heading along the Oturere Valley, relatively few sand flies
Lowlights: The day two section shared with the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing can be very busy
Route taken: Two nights, Mangatepopo and Waihohonu Huts, the later being a new and rather nice hut – long second day (21km) but definitely doable. I’ve also done it in one night staying at Oturere Hut but that was a little full on…
Tips: Don’t drink the stream water! but hut water is fine, get going early from Mangatepopo Hut to beat the masses doing the crossing on day 2
14 thoughts on “Tongariro Northern Circuit”
Great report and great photos. A quick question: what is the air quality like given the volcanoes and sulphur? Does it impact air quality?
Thanks Daniel. I’ve been in the area walking four times now and never had any issues. The smell of sulphur is much stronger in Rotorua. Do check the DOC website before walking though for any track warnings as there have been eruptions there relatively recently.
Thank you Jonty.
Thoughts on the northern circuit vs Round the Mountain?
Depends on how much time and experience you have. Northern Circuit is typically 3 days, Round the Mountain 4-5 days. Both are well sign posted and have good huts, though Northern Circuit huts must be booked in advance. Round the Mountain you just need to book the Waihohonu Hut, which gives more flexibility but you’re not guaranteed a bunk. I did it over Easter a couple of years ago and the huts were pretty full, worth taking an inflatable mattress in case you need to sleep on the floor.
Round the Mountain is a significantly harder walk, both technically (definitely take poles) and physically (far more ascent / descent). It gives a better sense of wilderness though with fewer people around, particularly as it avoids the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which is covered on the Northern Circuit.
They’re both amazing walks, if you’re feeling particularly keen they can be combined. Hope this helps, let me know if you have any questions.
Thanks for the reply! I am good with long or hard backpacking trips, happy with 25km days, mostly interested in which would be the prettiest. Tongariro crossing does appear to be particularly popular for a reason; debating whether to do the full circuit or just the crossing as a there-and-back and perhaps then the Round the Mountain circuit.
I’m a firm believer in hiking poles!
The crossing is the most spectacular part, could go all the way round if you’ve time. Round the Mountain isn’t so much the distance as the up and down terrain and loose rock track which takes time. They’re all good though!
Great post! I love all the photos and am even more excited for my trip.
Do all of the huts have drinkable water? Specifically Oturere hut?
Thank you Aida. They should all have drinkable rainwater. Could check with the local DOC office before you go but I’ve never had any issues. Definitely don’t drink from any of the streams in the park though!