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