hiking tongariro alpine crossing
New Zealand,  We12hike

Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit in New Zealand

This blogpost originally dates back to 2014, just after we hiked the Tongariro Northern Circuit. It’s a story of how we experienced it and includes the old routing, which was changed a couple of years ago. At the bottom of this post, you will find recent updates and current additional information, which I added after my most recent visit to New Zealand in 2023.

When planning our stay in Tongariro National Park, we were extremely thrilled to find out there’s a four day tramping track which is called the Tongariro Northern Circuit. While on this track, you will of course do the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing but luckily, the Tongariro Northern Circuit goes much further than that. It leads you to places no other tourists will go to. Due to the weather circumstances, we had to reroute our hike.

Eventually we chose to do the walk in the counter direction, luckily all huts had availability for rebooking our trip and the staff at the DOC office in Whakapapa Village helped us with that. This turned out to be a great decision as we didn’t have to follow the crowds doing the Alpine Crossing on day two. Here’s our experience of the Tongariro Northern Circuit hike.

tongariro nothern circuit
View of Tongariro National Park

Day 1: Whakapapa Village to Waihohonu Hut – 14.3 km

We remember this walk as desolate. It’s a walk through a wide valley between the mountains so it was quite windy. The sky was dark and that made for an eerie track as well. It seemed to be just us on the track, we didn’t see a lot of other trampers. Mount Ngauruhoe (which featured as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) was within sight most of the time, as well as the major Mount Ruapehu.

This part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit is relatively easy and you should definitely take time to make the side trips to the Taranaki Falls and Tama Lakes. Those latter ones are explosion craters that make up for a spectacular landscape. As the wind was blowing too hard, we decided not to climb the ridge to upper Tama Lake (and it’s a 1.5 hr return track) but Lower Tama was well worth it. That night we stayed at Waihohonu Hut, one of the most beautiful and modern huts we stayed at. This night on the Tongariro Northern Circuit was our first night on a multi-day trek in New Zealand which made it extra special!

tongariro northern circuit
Mt Ngauruhoe
lower-tama-lake tongariro national park
Lower Tama Lake
tongariro northern circuit waihohonu hut
At Waihohonu Hut

Day 2: Waihohonu Hut to Ketetahi Hut – 16.5 km

This day we copied from “Lonely Planet – tramping New Zealand”, but on the DOC website it’s described differently, however this was the hike of our choice In the morning it was pretty much a clear sky yet very windy and we decided to make a 20 minute walk to Ohinepango Springs, at the edge of the Rangipo Desert. This desert is know as where parts of the Black Gate of Mordor from LOTR were filmed.

After picking up our packs back at the hut, we decided to head to Oututere Hut, our half way point. Here we would decide if the wind would allow us to continue onto the ridge of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The first part of the hike was easy and led us through a forest. After Oututere Hut things got quite rough. The wind was blowing like crazy and at one time we regretted going up, although going back down would mean the end of our dream to do Tongariro Northern Circuit as we wouldn’t have enough time to still hike all the way tomorrow.

We decided to continue and were rewarded with the most lonely views of the famous Emerald Lakes upon reaching the ridge. No other tourists there, just us and a lot of pure beauty. Being inside Central Crater all on our own was magic. After crossing some snowfields we descended to Ketetahi Hut for the night. Here we met some hikers who had dared to get up to Red Crater (from the Alpine Crossing) and nearly got blown away. One of the girls told us they had been crawling and thought they were going to die… Ketetahi Hut is the one hut on the Tongariro Northern Circuit with the best views, if it’s clear you can see Lake Taupo in the distance. It’s also very cosy as you sleep, eat and cook in the same space, we made some great friends this evening!

The springs along the way
ketetahi hut tongariro northern circuit
Waking up to a white world the next morning
tongariro northern circuit

Day 3: Ketetahi Hut to Mangatepopo Hut – 9 km

This part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit is the actual Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but in reverse. We got up early and were amazed to find… snow! As in all around us! A thin layer had fallen during the night and made the landscape even more special. After a two hour hike back up, we reached Central Crater again, now with much more people.

The ascend up to Red Crater took a while, as the path is just loose scree and every two steps up makes you slide one down again. When reaching the highest point we noticed hundreds of walkers coming up (yikes!), so it was about time to get down and get away from the crowds again. But not without looking back once more with Emerald Lakes from high above this time…

The way down wasn’t too hard, just lots of steps. We stayed at Mangatepopo Hut, not the prettiest hut but well known for its stunning sunsets. My travel partner decided to push on to Whakapapa to pick up the car and drive it to the car park so we could head out early the next morning. An excellent idea as this part of the trail proved to be quite boring.

hiking tongariro alpine crossing
The Emerald Lakes

The Tongariro Northern Circuit in three days

So eventually we did the Tongariro Northern Circuit in three days and one hour on day four. It was by far one of the most memorable hikes we ever did! What made is so special were the desolation of the landscape and the big difference to New Zealand’s other nature. Everyone who goes to New Zealand should at least do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing but if you’re an avid hiker, please consider the Northern Circuit as well. Tongariro is a stunning place and if we ever decided to had back to New Zealand again, we will definitely put in another stop here as the park has many other parts to be explored on foot.

Chains on the Tongariro Crossing
Chains on the Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Northern Circuit nowadays

Since 2012 the Ketetahi Hut has no longer been in service as a hut. In 2019, the hut got damaged during a volcanic eruption and more recently, all remains have been removed. The current advised hiking schedule Department of Conservation advises is:

  • Day 1: Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (9,4 km)
  • Day 2: Mangatepopu Hut to Emerald Lakes to Oturere Hut (12 km)
  • Day 3: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (8,1 km)
  • Day 4: Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village (15,2 km)

If you are a fit and experienced hiker, I think you could combine several days, however you’d definitely need to have a good shape and experience in alpine regions.

hiking tongariro alpine crossing
Near Soda Springs

Things to consider when hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit

All huts need to be pre-booked via Department of Conservation. Note that the popularity of this track has increased over the past few years and you should book well ahead if possible. For a packing list, where to park and reservations I suggest you check the Department of Conservation website.

Also note that the alpine section (the actual Tongariro Alpine Crossing) is harsh environment and that alpine experience may be required. We hiked in November and there was still plenty of snow on the trail, which made it quite an experience.

If you’re looking for a nice place to stay before and after your trekking, I can advise National Park backpackers. Alternatively, find all other accommodations here.

tongariro northern circuit
At the start of the circuit

Great Walks of New Zealand packing list

Below you will find my packing list for the Great Walks of New Zealand. I have done all of them over the past decade and below is my personal selection of items that you should carry:

  • A 35-50 liter backpack, I have the Osprey Aura AG 50.
  • A sleeping bag for the huts, I have this one.
  • A liner if you wish, I carry a silk one that almost weighs nothing but adds warmth.
  • An inflatable pillow.
  • Cooking gear. I brought my own stove (to avoid waiting) but stoves and gas are at the huts.
  • A lightweight mug, pocket knife, spork and pan.
  • Dry bags for my clothes and valuables.
  • Water filter. I have the Sawyer Squeeze.
  • Food and at least two liters of water per day.
  • A powerbank.
  • My Kobo Clara for evening reading.
  • Headlight.
  • Quick dry towel.
  • Clothes: hiking shoes (I hiked on the HOKA Challenger), hiking pants, a woolen shirt, long johns, socks, underwear, hat, mittens, a buff.
  • Raingear: I have a Fjällräven rain jacket plus a rainpants.
  • Hut shoes, I usually bring my Crocs.
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen, sunglasses.
  • Emergency blanket.
  • Ziplocks for waste.
  • Toilet paper.
  • Garmin inReach Mini 2 (there is no mobile coverage on most of the track)
  • Insect repellent and a Bite Away.

Booking your trip

If you’ve found this article useful, I hope you make use of the following links to book your trip to New Zealand:

Conclusion and disclaimer

I have been to New Zealand five times over the past years and hope to return in 2024. It’s definitely one of my favorite hiking destinations in the world.

Want to read more? You may also enjoy the following posts:

Alternatively, make sure to check my New Zealand homepage for more than 50 blogs about active travel in New Zealand.

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    Hi, thanks for posting your story. We are doing the Northern Circuit in January 2018. What time of year were you there … it looked cold. We are thinking of bringing a 2 person tent rather than sleep with the crowd in the hut … do all the huts have a mattress? Many thanks.

    • anto

      Hi Craig, you’re welcome! I was there end of November. It was cold indeed but quite early in the season. I went back to do Tongariro Crossing this January (also check out the short video that I made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i87pmG3uNww) and then there was no snow left and much warmer. Yes, the huts have mattresses and I found the hut on this trek not too crowded, however not sure about what it’s like in high season. Just remember to check if you are allowed to camp at the huts (you must book in advance) or if there are separate campsites. Good luck and enjoy!

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