The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 43 km (26.5 mile) loop track which passes around the Northern section of the Tongariro National Park. The track passes through active volcanoes, glacial valleys and vast meadows. The landscape is often surreal and other worldly. Many times I felt like I must be on another planet rather then Earth.
It is recommended to hike this in 4 days and 3 nights. This is a Great Walk, and there are huts spaced out along the track. Great Walk huts are super nice and include gas for cooking, gas heat and mattresses to sleep on. There is a rainwater collection and pit toilets. This allows you to basically just take along a sleeping bag, food, clothing and water.
Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (8 km)
As you know Alison has been hurt and at this point was questionable. We arrived at Whakapapa Village, and after consulting the map more carefully, I discovered Mangatepopo Road led nearly to the first hut. We quickly planned to drop her off there so that she had a short 40 minute walk to the hut. It was raining lightly and fairly unpleasant to be honest. The kids debated if they should just take this shortcut, but decided they wanted to walk the whole thing so they came with me back to the village.
There were a few interesting things, but mostly the trek was honestly crap. The trail was heavily eroded 4 feet deep in places. The cold rain was bad, but worse was the scrub brush and grasses, which seem to soak up all the drizzle and then deposit onto your shoes and pants as you inevitably brushed by. We were soon completely soaked. Since Walden was a toddler, he didn’t like uncomfortable clothes or to get his clothes wet. At one point he freaked out and just started walking as fast as he could to make it stop sooner. To make it worse, there was really nothing to see. The volcano, which we had spotted earlier, was now completely socked in behind the clouds. We might as well be walking through a muddy scrub grass field anywhere than walking a “Great Walk.”
Soon we gradually started climbing and the base of the volcano was at least a reminder that we were indeed in an amazing place. The hut was a welcome site. We came in and met our new friends, and Alison was safely there and did great. The next day would be the true test as we were to enter another world.
Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (12.8 km)
The weather was a worry. If the volcanoes were socked in, the trip would be nearly pointless. Fortune was with us and the skies had cleared. We were pumped for the main attractions. Alison left at 7 AM to get a head start, and we left at 7:15.
The trip starts out up what is known as the Devil’s Staircase. We soon found out why it was called that. Stair after stair led steeply into an alpine world above tree line. Winds were whipping around everywhere. This is a harsh and unforgiving environment. Any signs of life appeared to be struggling and stunted. Lava flows within the last 50 years were evident. After only a few minutes walking, the elevation gained was apparent. The legs burned, but we were to see the main attractions today–Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, Blue Lake and the volcanoes.
Alison had started early because this was a serious day of walking. The funny thing is we kept looking for her and didn’t catch up to her until the Red Crater, which was nearly the zenith of our walk for the day. She was killing it. We arrived just in time as the weather was again changing. We quickly had time to see the best sights, but the clouds were moving in rapidly.
Sadly a few folks who left only minutes behind us didn’t get to see much at all because of the cloud coverage. The place is amazing and really makes you think about the forces within and above the Earth. I pondered the millions of years that this environment has been destroyed by lava flows, only to struggle to sustain life for a bit before the cycle was continued. The lava adding to the peaks of the mountain, only to be washed back into black sands and rubble due to erosion. It was creepy and other worldly, but beautiful.
Oturere Hut to Whakapapa Village (21.8 km)
We were supposed to go only so far as Waihohonu Hut, but we made it there at 10:30 am and decided to push on back to the Village and our car. This would soon be acknowledged as a questionable decision. We were making great time, but the trek after Waihohonu Hut was unpleasant. The rain returned, but much more heavy this time. We were soon soaked and back to trudging through a meadow. Our legs were turning to jelly. Except for Ella. She took off ahead of everyone, and we never saw her again. The trails are incredibly well marked and immaculately created. I’ve never seen trails this nice over such long distances. I can’t believe how much work has been put into building stairs, boardwalks and crafting the trail. We finally made it out and made good time, despite it seeming like we were moving at a snail’s pace.
Tongariro Northern Crossing
There is another option to completing the Great Walk, which is the circuit route. This option is the Northern Crossing. This actually sees the main highlights. In retrospect this would have probably been a good option, but it involves arranging transport, as it it only one way. We got to see the sights up high, but if the weather was bad you would basically see nothing. By doing the Great Walk, we had a bit of flexibility. If the weather was perfect, the Circuit would be amazing too, because you would be in the shadow of the volcanoes the whole time providing a bit of back drop.
We were actually really excited to complete the trek and break in our gear. When you travel as a family with kids, you have a elevated sense of fear, because you are responsible for other lives. You must make good decisions with safety in mind. Yes, we were traveling in a volcano zone. Eruptions were possible with no warning. Yes, earthquakes were also possible. There are other dangers in an alpine environment. It was great to successfully complete the circuit and gain some experience with tramping in New Zealand. The weather was not great, but you have to book Great Walks well in advance to even do them. You really just have to hope for the best. Hopefully the weather would start to improve for our time in New Zealand.