South of the beautiful Lake Taupo and more or less in the center of New Zealand's North Island, Tongariro National Park is one of the highlights of any visit to New Zealand. Centered on the country's highest township, Whakapapa, the region is a paradise to lovers of the outdoors all year round. Tongariro is actually the name of one of the 3 volcanoes that dominate the area, the others being Mt Ruapehu – at 2797 meters the highest point on North Island – and Mt Ngauruhoe – Mt Doom to Lord of the Rings fans. The region was made the country's first national park in 1887 after being gifted to the people of New Zealand by Maori Chief Heu Heu Tukino. Tongariro was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990.
Whakapapa is the most central base to explore the area from and it has a good choice of accommodation from the Department of Conservation campsite which is excellent value for money to the opulent Chateau Tongariro Hotel. In winter and spring, New Zealand's largest ski field – Whakapapa Ski Area – is situated literally just up the road and has runs to suit all standards including a decent sized nursery area for those of us yet to perfect their technique.
There is a golf course next to the village by the Chateau Hotel but walking and hiking is the reason many come to Whakapapa. The village is situated on the route of the multi day Tongariro Northern Circuit and a short drive from the start of the well known Tongariro Crossing. There are also many shorter day hikes to be done from Whakapapa including the ascent to the crater of Mt Ruapehu – a route I did on a clear winter's day when the view from the snowy summit seemed to go on forever – as well as local viewpoints such as Taranaki Falls and Tama Lakes. This surrounding area is fascinating volcanic terrain for here the landscape itself is still under construction!
Mountain biking is only allowed on the marked roads within the park itself but from National Park Village which also has plenty of places to stay, there are a number of trails within the National forest areas. These include the 21km Fishers Track which is just outside the village and the 42 Traverse – also called the Tongariro Forest Crossing – a 46km loop a little to the North along Highway 4 in Tongariro Forest Conservation Area.
The largest of the townships surrounding Tongariro is Ohakune to the South which is a market gardening center and host to the annual Ohakune Carrot Carnival to celebrate the towns agricultural history. Ohakune is located at the base of the road leading to the Turoa Ski Area on the southern flanks of Mt Ruapehu and the town offers a large choice of places to stay as well as the facility to hire mountain bikes, canoes and to book onto jetboat trips along the mysterious Whanganui River.
Getting to Tongariro National Park is easy from just about anywhere in North Island. from Turangi in the North, highway 1 (the Wellington road) crosses the eastern part of the region – this section to Waiouru being known as the Desert Road – and Highway 47 crosses the western side of the park from Turangi to National Park Village with a turn off for Whakapapa by the airstrip. The main railway line also crosses the southern half of the area heading north west from Waiouru with stations at Ohakune and National Park Village which are also linked to Turangi by regular bus services.
Whether you want to be active or just chill out and enjoy nature, Tongariro National Park is firmly on the must see list for any trip to New Zealand. One of the most ending memories of my visit is of sitting in a Whakapapa bar after a long day in the mountains with a cool beer, looking out of the window at snow covered volcanoes lit by the setting sun.