Tongariro National Park is an otherworldly landscape of towering volcanoes dominating a tussock-covered plateau, so scenic it had a starring role in The Lord of The Rings. Its companion, Whanganui National Park, is a mystical wilderness of deep forest surrounding New Zealand’s third-longest river.
The region’s striking and incredibly diverse landscapes can be explored on unforgettable outdoor adventures such as the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the Whanganui Journey and two Great Ride cycle trails. Winter snows only add to the spectacle, transforming Ruapehu into a premier ski resort.
Charming towns such as Ohakune, Taumarunui and National Park Village make great bases for discovering the region. Add captivating history, excellent visitor services and warm hospitality to the mix, and you’ve got a holiday destination with something for everyone, all year round.
Tongariro National Park’s dual UNESCO World Heritage status recognises the park’s Māori cultural and spiritual associations as well as its volcanic wonders. These cultural connections are anchored by the three sacred mountains – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – gifted to the nation by Ngati Tuwharetoa in 1887.
The Whanganui River is also a place of deep spiritual significance. Guided canoe trips are a great way to hear stories passed down through the generations, many explaining the natural world and illuminating the Māori values of kaitiakitanga (guardianship), manaakitanga (hospitality) and tikanga (customs).
Fascinating natural history and stories of human endeavour are relayed in various ways and places throughout the region.
Outdoor adventures such as the Whanganui Journey, Ohakune Old Coach Road and the Timber Trail preserve stories of pioneer settlement and industry. At Waiouru, on the edge of the aptly named Desert Road, the National Army Museum describes New Zealand’s military history through varied and intriguing exhibits that will appeal to young and old alike.
Nature and wildlife
Ruapehu is home to some remarkable geology and many significant ecosystems. Whakapapa Visitor Centre offers an excellent introduction, with exhibits explaining how the Volcanic Plateau’s unique landscapes were formed. It’s also the starting point for short walks offering a chance to get up close to its strange rock formations and unique plant life.
Whanganui National Park contains one of the North Island’s largest lowland forests, home to various native birds, including brown kiwi and bats - New Zealand’s only native mammals. Native eels, trout and koura (freshwater crayfish) thrive in the Whanganui and many other of the region’s rivers.
Adventure / outdoors
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often touted as one of the world’s finest day hikes, is just one way to survey strange volcanic phenomena such as surreal blue lakes and silica terraces. Others include chairlift rides to a high-altitude café and a hike to Ruapehu’s steamy crater lake.
The classic way to explore Whanganui National Park is on the Whanganui Journey, a kayak trip through deep gorges lined by ancient forest, cascading waterfalls and historic sites such as the lonely Bridge to Nowhere. Jetboat tours and overnight stays in riverside lodges are also deservedly popular.
An enviable network of cross-country trails, complete with awesome scenery and varied terrain, has made Ruapehu one of New Zealand’s best mountain biking destinations. The Mountains to Sea, Timber Trail, 42 Traverse and Fishers Tracks are just some of the region’s essential rides.
Mt Ruapehu is a world-class skiing and snowboarding playground, with high annual snowfall, unique volcanic terrain and eye-popping panoramas. Between them, Whakapapa and Turoa ski-fields offer more than 700 metres (2,300 feet) of vertical descent, while the smaller Tukino club field is perfect for those drawn to the wild side.
Other outdoor activities include enviable trout fishing, white-water rafting, and paddleboarding on a hidden alpine lake.
Eat, drink, shop
Visitors won’t go hungry, with dining options in towns such as Ohakune and Whakapapa ranging from cafes and pizzerias to fish and chip shops. Bars, including Ohakune’s legendary Powderkeg, provide an ideal opportunity to relax and meet the locals.
The hub of Whakapapa Village is the grand Chateau Tongariro Hotel, a remarkable architectural statement from the “roaring 1920s”, best admired while taking high tea. Even higher on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu and accessed by chairlifts, the Knoll Ridge Cafe offers unforgettable views all year round.
As well as all essential traveller services such as supermarkets and petrol stations, there’s plenty of good browsing to be had in boutique shops, with New Zealand-made outdoor gear, art and crafts to take home as souvenirs.
And by the way ...
- Mt Ruapehu is the country’s largest active volcano and the North Island’s highest peak at 2,797 metres (9,176 feet). It’s also home to the North Island’s only glaciers.
- Symmetrical Mt Ngauruhoe (2,291 metres or 7,500 metres) starred as Mt Doom in The Lord of The Rings film trilogy.
- Tongariro National Park was only the fourth national park to be established in the world.
- With hiking, mountain biking and water sports in the summer, snow sports in winter and some spectacular weather in between, Ruapehu is an awesome destination in any season of the year.
- Ohakune’s status as carrot capital of the world is celebrated in a carrot sculpture that stands 7.5 metres (24 feet) high.