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The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s most memorable multi-day walks. Located in Tongariro National Park, this 45 km loop walk has become one of New Zealand’s most popular trails.
And for good reason – there aren’t many hiking trails in the world that take you past active volcanoes, vividly turquoise lakes, AND include iconic sights from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Home to three active volcanoes, Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest National Park and a must for any traveler visiting New Zealand’s North Island.
What is the Tongariro Northern Circuit?
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 45 km loop walk located in Tongariro National Park on the North Island of New Zealand. It’s considered one of nine Great Walks, named by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as some of New Zealand’s most beautiful walks.
Tongariro Northern Circuit is usually done as a 4-day, 3-night hike where hikers stay at various huts or campsites along the trail.
Tongariro Northern Circuit vs Tongariro Alpine Crossing
For travelers who don’t have time for a 3-4 day hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a great alternative. This 19.4 km one-way hike is a subset of the Tongariro Northern Circuit and is considered one of New Zealand’s best day hikes.
Choosing between these hikes comes down to how much time you have and whether you enjoy multi-day hikes.
Having done both, I’d recommend the Tongariro Northern Circuit if you are a keen hiker, love taking things slowly, and have the time. But if you’re short on time, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an incredible day hike.
Tongariro Northern Circuit Difficulty
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is considered a track of intermediate difficulty. If hiked over the recommended 3-4 days during the Great Walks season (October – May), the Tongariro Northern Circuit can be a manageable hike.
While the overall elevation gain doesn’t seem too painful, the section of the trail on Day 2 (between Mangatepopo and Otuere Huts) is challenging and can be steep, slippery, and exposes you to alpine environments.
Weather in this environment can impact difficulty, so make sure to check the Department of Conservation website before heading out and plenty of layers (even during the warmer months!)
How to get to the Tongariro Northern Circuit?
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is located in Tongariro National Park, which is a 1.5 hr drive from the town of Taupo. Taupo is the nearest tourist town and the best place to base yourself and / or stock up on supplies for your trip.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit walk starts at Whakapapa Village, where there the DOC run Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre is located.
Tongariro Northern Circuit Parking
If you’re hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit and traveling New Zealand by car or camper van, the best place to park is at Whakapapa Village.
Before beginning the Tongariro Northern Circuit, you will need to check-in at the DOC information center at Whakapapa Village. Here, you’ll get a permit for your car which will allow you to park it at Whakapapa Village for the duration of your hike.
Psst: there are been reports of theft from cars, so make sure you don’t store any valuables in your car. The visitor’s centre has luggage storage available, and we used this to store things instead of in our car ($5 for our large suitcase)
How many days to complete the Tongariro Northern Circuit
The recommended number of days to complete the Tongariro Northern Circuit is 4-days, 3-nights.
But if you are short on time and a keen hiker, you can definitely shorten this to 3-days, 2 nights via one of 2 ways:
(1) Start the hike from Mangatepopo Hut instead of Whakapapa Village
Instead of starting your hike at Whakapapa Village, you can get a shuttle to Mangatepopo Hut skipping one day of 4hr hiking.
Skipping this part of the circuit would miss the more “boring” part of the hike. It would bring down your hike to 2-nights instead of 3, but this also means you technically don’t walk the full circuit.
(2) Skip Waihohonu Hut
If you want to walk the full circuit, you can skip spending a night in one of the huts. I’d recommend skipping the night at the Waihohonu Hut. In my opinion, this is the best hut to skip from a walking perspective.
Skipping any of the other huts would mean that you would make one of the hardest walking days (between Mangatepopo Hut and Outrere Hut) even harder for yourself.
If you don’t spend a night at Waihohonu Hut, you’ll have 8 hrs of hiking in one day (23.5 km), but this leg of the hike has much less incline and therefore is “easier” than skipping any other huts.
How do I make a reservation for the Tongariro Northern Circuit?
All bookings for the Tongariro Northern Circuit can be made via the Department of Conservation website.
Bookings are necessary during the Great Walks season (from late October to May) when gas cookers are available in huts and there are resident wardens. Fees are $36 NZD per person/ night to stay in the huts and $15 NZD per person/night for campsites.
Psst: if you’re traveling New Zealand on a budget, the campsites are a cheaper hut alternative. You still get access to use the gas cookers in the hut and can use the communal areas!
Fees are reduced outside of the Great Walks season ($15 NZD for huts and $5 NZD for campsites), but only experienced and equipped walkers should hike Tongariro Northern Circuit during this time.
In which direction should I do the Tongariro Northern Circuit walk in?
If you aren’t restricted by availability or weather, it’s best to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit Walk in the clockwise direction.
The route between Mangatepopo Hut and Outere Hut (this is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing) is the most difficult day and you will want to do this part of the hike at the beginning of the hike with fresh legs.
Tongariro northern circuit review (my experience!)
Day 1: Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut
The first day is a 9.4 km / 3 hr hike to Mangatepopo Hut. This is one of the easier days where you’re treated with views of Ngauruhoe (seen as a giant “cone”) and the “flatter” form of Tongariro. The trail in this section is well maintained and reasonably flat.
This is one of the best days to take a side trip to Taranaki Falls (the DOC map recommends you do this on your last day, but I guarantee you’ll be too tired on your last day of the hike to do this!)
Psst: the earlier you get to the hut, you can reserve your choice in bunk beds (first come, first serve!)
Day 2: Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (The Tongariro Alpine Crossing!)
This is the part of the hike which is where you’ll undertake the ever-so-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. With the crossing comes crowds of day-hikers, so expect crowds – this is after all one of the busiest day hikes in the world.
The trail continues upwards to an alpine environment (have your warm layers easily accessible!) and past turquoise-colored lakes known as the Emerald Lakes.
Excuse my language, but this part of the hike is bloody cold, so I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have your warm layers ready!
The track then continues into the Oturere Valley, which feels like a desert on another planet, with rock formations and chocolate-colored sand.
On a sunny day, you’ll also want to make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen, as this alpine environment is very exposed.
This part of the trail is one of the most difficult, mainly because there are sections that can be very steep and slippery.
Day 3: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut
The third day is an 8.1 km, 3 hr walk where you’ll pass a couple of streams and gradually see a bit more vegetation.
When visiting in 2020, the Waihohonu Hut is the newest out of all the huts on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. The facilities are newer and there is much more space for hikers to spread out and enjoy the hut.
Psst: As mentioned previously, if you are shortening the circuit walk to 3-days, 2-nights, this is the hut I recommend to skip.
Day 4: Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village
This leg of the track (15.4 km) continues towards Whakapapa Village and takes approximately 5 – 6 hrs. The track takes you up to the Tama Saddle and then along the Wairere Stream before continuing back to the village.
As mentioned previously, if you didn’t take the side trip to Taranaki Falls on day 1, you can take the side trip here.
Packing for the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Weather can be really variable along the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Even if you look up the forecast beforehand it’s important to be prepared for all conditions.
The track between Mangatepopo and Otuere Huts (which is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing) can be particularly cold, especially when passing the South Crater and Red Craters (this is an alpine environment!)
When packing for the Tongariro Northern Circuit: dress in layers, bring plenty of food, and be prepared for cold weather, even in the warmer months.
Some essentials I recommend:
- Waterproof rain jacket
- Waterproof pants
- Dry bag for electronics
- Pack liner
- Lightweight pots / pans for cooking
- Large drink bottle / bladder
- Water filter
Even on sunny days, it’s important to pack warm layers. The Tongariro Northern Circuit goes through alpine environment which can get really cold if you’re unprepared.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s most incredible multi-day hikes.
It’s mind-boggling how a trail like this takes you past grand volcanoes, epic-sized craters, and alpine lakes.
Regardless of how many nights you spend hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit, like many once-in-a-life-time experiences in New Zealand, you’ll remember this hike for years to come.