In 1887 the sacred mountains, Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe were gifted to the people of New Zealand by Ngati Tuwharetoa. What a spectacular gift!
Tongariro became the first national park in New Zealand, and is listed as a dual World Heritage Area, thanks to its Maori cultural significance and its volcanic features.
Ruapehu is New Zealand’s most accessible live volcano. In winter, skiers and snow-boarders flock to Ruapehu’s three ski areas: the north-facing slopes of Whakapapa, Turoa in the south west, or the club field of Tukino on the eastern side. In summer, the mountains are a glorious setting for hikes and biking.
Hike the Tongariro Crossing, and other alpine trails
Photo: Visit Ruapehu, Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Crossing
There are fantastic hiking trails in the area. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes 6-8 hours to complete, and winds through amazing volcanic scenery, past emerald green lakes. It’s about 19kms, though you can take the extra challenge of tackling Mt Ngauruhoe on the way, with a bit of a sliding scramble over scree on the way back down. The trail is easiest to hike between November and May.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of NZ’s Great Walks - with views of craters, brilliant lakes, Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, it takes 3-4 days to walk. The Mount Ruapehu Crater Climb combines volcanic terrain with permanent snow, glaciers, the geothermal crater lake and spectacular views of the central plateau. If you fancy the views without the exertion, in the summer you can take a chairlift from Whakapapa Ski Area to the Knoll Ridge Cafe, which is 2020m above sea level. There are guided walks departing daily from the Whakapapa Ski Area, weather permitting, during the summer season. Adrift offer guided walks, including the Tongariro Crossing, in summer and winter. Lord of the Rings fans can search out the spots where certain scenes in Mordor were filmed. The Department of Conservation website lists numerous walks in the area. We’ve heard good things about the tramp to Lake Surprise, 5 hrs return.
Tongariro by train
Train enthusiasts can admire the Central Plateau from the windows of the Northern Explorer, which stops at Ohakune and National Park. The Main Trunk Line between Auckland and Wellington was finally opened in November 1908 after 23 years of construction through some very rugged bush country in the Ruapehu District. Deep ravines necessitated some remarkable engineering feats including several viaducts, tunnels and the famous Raurimu Spiral, which allows the train to climb 221 metres in less than 6kms. A viewing platform in Raurimu overlooks the Spiral.
While the last section of the line was being built rail passengers would stay the night in Ohakune and were carried to the northern rail head at Raurimu by stage coach. A considerable network of bush tramways fed the Ohakune and National Park Railway Stations which then became centres for massive timber extraction from the native forests.
Bike trails on the Central Plateau
Viaducts on the Ohakune Old Coach Road, Photo: Tiki J
The Ohakune Old Coach Road, which once linked the railheads at Ohakune and Raurimu, was restored and opened in 2010 to walkers and mountainbikers as part of the Mountains to Sea Trail. From Horopito the trail descends 14kms to Ohakune Railway Station. This easy trail features beautiful forest, viaducts and railway remains, with great signs explaining the history and native bush. Mountain Bike Station can drop cyclists off at Horopito, and hire out bikes too. They have packages for other great trails too. Check out Horopito Motors before you set off on your bikes - it’s a huge, jaw-dropping spectacle of ancient cars, with sheep trotting amongst them, and was the setting for the classic Kiwi film “Smash Palace”.
Other brilliant day adventures on a bike include the 42 Traverse, Fishers Track and Bridge to Nowhere. The Bridge to Nowhere/ Mangapurua Track is a fantastic adventure ride, through the Whanganui National Park, ending with an hour’s jetboat ride back out on the Whanganui River. For loads of enjoyment and less of the slog, you can stay near Raetihi or Ohakune, and take transport to the beginning of the Mangapurua Track. From there it’s about an hour uphill gently, then a wonderful undulating trail, with swingbridges and bluffs, past abandoned farms, down to the huge concrete Bridge to Nowhere, set amongst pungas and deep bush. The trail is best done in dry conditions, otherwise heavy clay can wreak havoc on bikes. Don’t forget to book your jetboat out.
National Park Village and beyond
At the junction of SH 47 and SH 4, National Park Village is a popular base for outdoorsy types - it’s close to the Whakapapa Ski Field and is also a base for mountain biking and hiking, kayaking and Whanganui River trips. Transport leaves from National Park Village for those wanting to hike the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. In the area around National Park Village there are great mountain bike tracks, including the famous 42 Traverse, a rugged 46km beauty.
Continuing onwards, the village of Raetihi is a gateway to the mountains, and home to the old Raetihi Royal Theatre, the Waimarino Museum, and a glow worm grotto. Visitors can stroll along the Makotuku River Track, or catch the Raetihi Country Market, on the 3rd Saturday of the month. Ohakune is ten minutes further east, by car, and seems like the big smoke by comparision.
Golf enthusiasts can play a round at Waimarino Golf Club, an 18 hole, par 71 course, with a peaceful feel and mountain views.
A fast-growing ski hub, Ohakune offers easy access to the Turoa ski slopes. In town, there are plenty of vibrant venues to check out after a day spent on the slopes. Ohakune is small enough to walk around, to find your bar or restaurant of choice, with Swiss chalet feel or without. The i-SITE visitor centre in town has local information and weather updates, and a playground next door. The Vertigo Climbing Centre should amuse the children if the weather is not great. Life quietens down in summer, but the Ohakune Mountain Road opens up a range of hikes and a stunning, scenic drive through dense mountain beech forest, bonsai-like dwarf shrubs, and alpine flowers and shrubs. Children and adults can whizz around on bikes at the Te Pepe pump track on Old Station Road.
From Ohakune, SH 49 continues on to the Tangiwai rail disaster memorial. Here, in 1953, a lahar flooded the Whangaehu River and destroyed the Tangiwai Railway Bridge, killing 153 people when the train plunged into the river.
Over the railway line is the desert oasis of Waiouru, home to the NZ Army’s largest training camp and the renowned Army Memorial Museum, where a sensitively curated collection will interest military enthusiasts and civilians alike. Completing the loop around the mountains of the Central Plateau, the stretch of SH 1 that crosses the dry, desolate landscape of the Rangipo Desert is known as the Desert Road. If you’re traveling in rough weather, be sure to check that this road is open, as it is dangerous in freezing conditions.
Where to stay
Department of Conservation - Activities in Tongariro National Park
Snow Guide: Mt Ruapehu
www.visitruapehu.com - Tourist information for Ruapehu area
www.mtruapehu.com - Mt Ruapehu Whakapapa & Turoa Ski Areas
www.tukino.co.nz -Tukino Club Ski Field
www.nzcycletrail.com -The Mountains To Sea Cycle Trail
www.doc.govt.nz - Lord of the Rings film locations on Department of Conservation sites
www.ruapehugolf.com - Ruapehu Golf at Waimarino Golf Club
www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz - The Northern Explorer
www.adriftnz.co.nz - Guided walks, biking and canoeing