There are so many things to do in Tongariro National Park, but it is definitely best known for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It’s the most popular day hike in New Zealand and should be on everyone’s New Zealand North Island bucket list.
But the oldest national park in New Zealand and a UNESCO World Heritage site has so much more to offer and if you have some time on your hands, you should consider staying a few days extra.
Things to do in Tongariro National Park
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Crossing is a 20km tramp (as the Kiwis call it) and takes about 6 - 7 hours. In case you wonder where to start Tongariro Crossing, you usually begin at the Mangatepopo car park and finish at the Ketetahi car park.
The hike takes you through the beautiful rugged wilderness of Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, better known to some as Mount Doom of Lord of the Rings.
The first kilometres take you through a lava field, steadily uphills but at a nice pace. From Soda Springs, it’s getting steep. The Devil’s Staircase has its name for a purpose. The stairs will make your heart race and your legs burn for the first time (of many to come).
Once this first challenge lies behind you, you are rewarded with a beautiful view of Mt. Doom (because who can pronounce Ngauruhoe?). If you like, there is a sidetrack to Mount Tongariro from here. I heard it’s beautiful and challenging but never tried it myself (20km and 6 hours are plenty for me). Once you’re back at the intersection, you walk through a moon-like flat. Right to where the next steep bit starts.
This section can be a little tricky for those who are afraid of heights. But in the last years, the Department of Conservation attached ropes to the wall to hold on, so it’s slightly less scary than it used to be.
Once at the top, you’ve reached the highest point of the crossing. You are rewarded with amazing views over Red Crater and the famous Emerald Lakes. If it’s not too windy, this is a great spot for your lunch break. Most people eat at the lakes and it can get pretty crowded there.
From the summit, you descend to the Emerald Lakes. It’s quite steep and can be challenging (and fun) as you walk over volcanic sand. Latest here you’ll be glad you’re wearing the high ankle boots.
After the lakes, it’s still a bit further down and crossing a valley. Looking back, you’ll see the impressive volcano standing tall and you can see the people descending from the mountain like tiny ants.
There’s one last ascent to Blue Lake. Once you reach the lake, it’s mostly flat or downhill for the rest of the way. But don’t be fooled, the hike is still far from over. You can imagine the finishing point in the distance and probably wouldn’t mind having reached it already. It’s still gonna take you an hour or 2, though.
The path winds down through bushland, past Ketetahi Hut, and later on through a forest. And then, after a beautiful 6 hours (approximately), you step out to Ketetahi car park, where your shuttle is already waiting for you and brings you back to your accommodation.
Toilets on the Tongariro Crossing
For a long time, there were only two toilets apart from the start and finishing points. But the ever-increasing interest in the crossing has forced the DOC to add more. You’re now able to stop every hour or two.
Best time to do Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing can be walked in all seasons. It’s a lot more challenging in winter, though, as you might need crampons for the snow and ice. Personally, I like both spring and fall best as there are slightly fewer people on the track than in summer.
Very important to know!
Although thousands of people walk the crossing every day, this is a serious hike and not a walk in the park. It’s important to wear proper hiking clothes, a rain jacket and boots, and bring enough warm clothes along, even if the weather looks nice. It’s an alpine walk and the weather can change quickly.
Your shuttle company and accommodation will have the weather forecasts for the next days and if the weather is bad and they have to cancel, don’t try and go for the walk anyway. It’s dangerous!
Other things to do in Tongariro National Park
Bike (or walk) the Old Coach Road
The Old Coach Road is a beautiful mountain biking ride through the National Park. It takes you deep into the history of New Zealand’s North Island as you ride along the track.
Back in the early 1900s, the cobblestone road was used the workers who built the first railway track that was going to travel through the North Island a lot easier. Before the railway, the only way to travel was either on foot or horseback.
Once the railway was built, there was obviously no need for the cobblestone road anymore and it got overgrown and forgotten.
Only in 2002, the road has been re-discovered brought back to its former glory, and after 2005 the Old Coach Road bike trail opened.
It’s now a 15km bike ride from its start in Horopito back to Ohakune. A shuttle bus will bring you to the start as it’s a one-way ride. The trail is a grade 2, which means it’s easy and not very technical. It still has some quite steep bits up and a sweet downhill ride. The Old Coach Road trail should take you about 2.5 hours, but better calculate some more time if you like to stop and take pictures, like us.
You will need a shuttle bus to bring you to the start of the Old Coach Road. MountainBike Station in Ohakune will bring you there for a very reasonable price. They also rent out mountain bikes and gear, if you don’t have them with you.
My Kiwi Adventures offers the shuttle ride from National Park Village and back.
Things to do in Tongariro National Park in Winter
Skiing Mt Ruapehu
Did you know that skiing North Island is a thing? And did you also know, that you will be skiing on an active volcano?
In winter, Mount Ruapehu turns into the biggest ski area in New Zealand! In total over 1000ha (or 2600 acres) are rideable in the two ski fields Whakapapa and Turoa. Ski season in Ruapehu is usually from mid-June to late October.
Whakapapa ski field can be reached best from National Park Village and Turoa ski field from Ohakune. The cool part is that they’re one company, so with one ski pass, you can ride both ski fields. This is especially great when one area is closed but the other open and you got a multi-day ski pass.
The weather in the mountains can change quickly and clouds can come and go. If you’re not sure where to ride, keep an eye on the webcams in the morning before leaving your accommodation. Overall, Turoa is said to be the calmer of the two ski fields.
For beginners, the better ski field is Whakapapa. It has a beginner area called Happy Valley, where new skiers or snowboarders have the choice of 2 magic carpets and even a chairlift. Turoa has a beginners area, too, but it’s not as easily accessible and smaller.
The ski runs are generally not too hard for the average skier, but there are some challenging black ones, too.
Go snowshoe walking on Mt Ruapehu
Now this is a special treat if you’re in Taupo or National Park in Winter! This newly created tour by Chris Jolly Outdoors is a great thing to do in National Park if the mountain is closed, you don’t like or can’t ski/snowboard, or you simply love to explore a volcanic winter wonderland walking.
You either get picked up in Turangi or Taupo. Once on the volcanic plateau, your driver follows an awesome 4x4 road to the private Tukino skifield. The skifield only allows 120 people per day, which makes for an intimate experience. The tours are all about the slow-down experience in the snow, which means it’s great for everyone from young to old, even if you’ve never seen a snowshoe before. Your guide explains how to wear and walk in showshoes and will take you on an easy walk. The walking route varies depending on people’s abilities and the amount of snow on the mountain. If there’s enough snow, the CAT will take you on a ride to the top of the mountain.
If you are an experienced hiker who expects a proper hiking tour, I suggest you better look into booking the Tongariro Crossing Winter hike over the snowshoe tour. Everyone else will have the time of their lives.
What to do in Tongariro National Park in bad weather?
It often happens that Ruapehu is “closed” due to bad weather. There won’t be any shuttles or tours running over the Tongariro Crossing and in winter, the ski fields close if it’s too yucky. If this happens, there are definitely places with more all-weather activities, like Taupo, but there are still a few things to do in Tongariro when it rains:
Reach new heights at wall climbing
Challenge yourself and your friends who’ll reach the ceiling fastest. Both National Park Village and Ohakune have an indoor climbing wall.
In National Park Village, the climbing wall can be found inside the National Park Backpackers. The wall is open for everyone. The harness is included in the entry fee and if you like, you can hire climbing shoes. You are secured by top rope.
A less traditional climbing hall can be found in Ohakune. At Vertigo, they installed a Clip’n’Climb wall. This is a sort of climbing route where you have to fulfil certain challenges and gain points depending on how well you mastered them.
Play a round of Minigolf
So this is still an outdoor activity, but just because the weather on the mountain is bad doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rainy down in the valley. The 18-hole Minigolf course is located at National Park Village, between National Park Backpackers and Schnapps Bar. The course belongs to the bar and you can play for your round inside. The course is a nice one and well visited at times.
Drink a coffee in one of the many cafes
Ohakune is blessed with heaps of cafes and coffee trucks, so why not sit down and relax with a cup of coffee or tea while watching the raindrops running down the window. Two lovely places are for example Utopia Cafe and The Mountain Rocks.
Go for a walk anyway
If the weather is just grey with the occasional shower it might still be nice to go outside and go for a walk. There are many beautiful walks from Whakapapa Village and Ohakune that won’t take you hours and are still close enough to your car to run back if it’s getting really bad. National Park’s nature still looks stunning with some clouds and rain.
White water rafting on Tongariro River
If it’s raining already some more water won’t be doing any harm. So why not head to Turangi (approx 40mins from National Park Village) for some Tongariro River rafting? A sweet grade 3 river is just waiting to be conquered. And you can even go whitewater rafting in winter! The guys from Tongariro River Rafting will fit you out with layers of warm clothes and a drysuit neoprene to keep you snug as a bug.
Book your rafting experience here:
Visit the Tokaanu Thermal Pools
The closest hot pools to the National Park are the ones in Tokaanu, near Turangi and on the southern end of Lake Taupo. The hot springs are fed by thermal water of the active Taupo Volcanic Zone.
Just next to the pools is the short Tokaanu Thermal Walk. See a mini-Rotorua with steaming hot pools and bubbling mud pots on your 20 minutes walk before or after your swim.
Learn about the Taupo Volcanic Zone
Also in Turangi is this small but interesting interactive museum where you get to discover the fascinating world of vulcanoes, earthquakes and geothermal activity. The earthquake simulator shows the power of a magnitude 6.3 quake and the seismograph tells you if there was any recent earthquake activity in New Zealand.
How to get to Tongariro National Park and Ohakune
A good starting point for hikes in Tongariro National Park is either National Park Village or Ohakune. The two villages are about 30 minutes’ from each other.
Where is Tongariro National Park? Being situated right in the heart of the North Island New Zealand, it’s about a 5 hours drive from both Auckland and Wellington to National Park.
Coming from Auckland, the fastest way is to turn off Highway No 1 just before Hamilton, towards Te Kuiti and Taumarunui. The Waitomo Caves are along this route if you feel like visiting the glow worms.
The first town will be National Park Village New Zealand. Ohakune is another 30 minutes away.
If you’re not travelling by car or motorhome, there’s also the possibility to get to National Park Village or Ohakune by bus. InterCity runs a daily service between Auckland / Wellington and the heart of the North Island.
There is also a train station in both National Park and Ohakune. If you’re not short on time, this is a relaxing way to travel.
Where to stay in Tongariro National Park
National Park Village and Ohakune are both great towns to stay over. Depending on what you like, you might want to choose one over the other.
Tongariro National Park Village accommodation
Tongariro National Park Village is the closest town to the Tongariro Crossing. There is lots of Tongariro accommodation, no matter your budget. Because most people are getting up early for the Tongariro Crossing or other outdoor activities, it’s a mostly quiet place. However, there are a few nice bars in town (see where to go in the evening)
Of the places we stayed so far, there are two hotels I can especially recommend:
Howard’s Mountain Lodge
Howard’s Mountain Lodge is a hostel with great value for money. The double rooms have new windows and are warm and toasty in winter. Especially nice is the big and cosy communal area with a free pool table and fireplace. There’s also a spa pool that can be used for free, all you need is to book your time-slot.
The Park Hotel
The Park Hotel is a 3* accommodation with a good restaurant and, depending on your room rate, included breakfast. The rooms have a comfy bed, all the amenities you need and are heated. There are also two spa pools to soothe your sore muscles after hiking, biking, skiing or whatever you’ve been doing through the day.
All accommodations can book a shuttle bus to and from the crossing.
Find other Tongariro national park accommodation:
Ohakune is a charming little mountain town. Overall it’s a little bit livelier than National Park Village, with lots of cafes and restaurants in the centre. There’s also a New World supermarket to cater for your every need. Ohakune is very close to the Turoa ski field. However, it’s further away from the Tongariro Crossing than National Park Village.
Ohakune Central Accommodation
This Ohakune accommodation lies a 5-minute stroll away from the town centre. It’s a mixture between a motel and hostel. This means it has private rooms with ensuite bathroom but if you’re travelling on a lower budget it also has private rooms with shared bathroom and dorms. The rooms are newly renovated and very clean. In winter you’ll never be cold as they not only have heaters but also electric blankets. They also offer a free spa pool, where you can sign up for a slot and enjoy some private time.
Find other Ohakune accommodation:
Nightlife in Tongariro National Park
To be honest, there isn’t much happening after dark in the National Park. If you feel like going out and partying, your best bet is to stay in Ohakune. There are a few bars at the so-called Ohakune Junction, a couple minutes drive from the town centre.
Ohakune does host some bigger events occasionally like the Ohakune Mardi Gras and some winter events.
National Park Village has a couple of bars that are great for a drink and dinner after your activity, but they usually close at around 10 pm.
The most popular bar in Tongariro National Park is Schnapps Bar. This cosy pub offers great food and drinks. Couches in front of a log fire make it feel like someone’s living room and there is a pool table and some racing games in the corner.
The other bar is the one at the Park Hotel. They also have a lovely log fire in the middle of the room and a charming bar, full of artefacts and newspaper articles from the time where the railway was built.
What is your favourite thing to do in Tongariro National Park? Have I missed a cool activity? Let me know in the comments!
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This post was originally posted in October 2018. I updated it with new cool things to do in Tongariro National Park in August 2019 to give you current and up-to-date information.