Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park. It is also a World Heritage Area, and that for two reasons: its natural volcanic landscape and its importance in Maori culture. No surprise then that there are plenty of things to do in Tongariro National Park!
Back in 1887, Tongariro National Park was declared New Zealand’s first national park. It is home to three volcanos: Tongariro, Ngaruhoe and Ruapehu. You might also know Mount Ngaruhoe as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With its variety of landscapes, from desert to volcanic rocks, craters, snow fields and beech forests, Tongariro National Park won’t disappoint – but will certainly distract you very easily; everywhere you look is different and even more interesting than the bit you’ve just seen.
There’s a good chance you’ll pass through Tongariro National Park on a North Island road trip. The park is located in the centre of the North Island, and SH 1 leads right through it.
There are plenty of things to do in Tongariro National Park, right in the centre of the North Island. Best to start with one of the best known attractions: a spectacular hike through volcanic landscapes.
1. The best one-day hike in New Zealand: the Tongariro Crossing
Lonely Planet rates the Tongariro Crossing as the best one-day hike in New Zealand, and it certainly isn’t the only travel institution coming to this conclusion. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is roughly 20km long and takes about 7-8 hours to complete. If you base yourself out of Taupo, the North Island’s adventure capital (the northern equivalent of Queenstown, in some ways), you have access to a few tour operators offering this hike as guided tours, including transportation to and from the mountain.
The Tongariro Crossing is not a circular track, meaning you will be dropped off on one side of the mountain and picked up at the other. The hike leads through varied terrain, including springs, lava flows, lots and lots of volcanic rock and the spectacular turquoise lakes.
2. Visit the Army Museum
The Army Museum is something I stumbled upon while driving the Desert Road. Not exactly what you’d expect when all you see is either desert or the three mountains (Ruapehu, Ngaruhoe and Tongariro).
With all the distractions nature provides in New Zealand, I can understand that one may crave a museum visit after a while! Even here Tongariro National Park doesn’t disappoint. The Army Museum couldn’t be in a better place from a traveller’s perspective – right en route from the north to the south, and right on SH1.
The museum provides insight into the history of the New Zealand Army, its development and the stories of New Zealand soldiers.
3. Drive the Desert Road through Tongariro National Park
If you start your roadtrip in Auckland you will be quite surprised by this area in the centre of the North Island. After the sub-tropical north and the rolling green hills, the spectacular geothermal area around Rotorua with its bubbling mud pits and beautiful Lake Taupo, there’s this: flat, sandy, dry nothingness, with the exception of the three mountains to your right. You wouldn’t expect to find such wide flat open spaces right there in the middle of the North Island… but then again, you’ve just seen a few very different sets of landscapes that you didn’t expect either.
4. Explore the landscapes of Mordor in Tongariro National Park
Lord of the Rings fans will love the North Island for one of its most important filming locations: Mount Ngaruhoe, aka Mount Doom. Driving up to Whakapapa Village you’ll see quite a few campervans parked on the side, with a few die-hard fans re-enacting a few Mordor scenes: “Mr. Frodo, I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”
5. Snowboard on Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano
There are two ski fields on Mount Ruapehu, Whakapapa and Turoa. It’s a great day-trip from Taupo if you’re bored and need a bit of an adrenaline rush in the middle of Mordor.
The ski season on Ruapehu runs from end of June to the end of October. All essential equipment can be rented on the mountain, so you don’t need to bring anything from abroad if you just want to board or ski for a day. From boots to jackets, pants, helmets and skis and boards, it’s all waiting up on the mountain for you already!