Tongariro was New Zealand’s first national park. In 1887 Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, signed a deed with the Crown to safeguard the volcanic peaks of Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. More land was added, and the park was established by statute in 1894. In 2019 its total area was 78,618 hectares.
It is New Zealand’s most visited national park, and one of the most visible – on a fine day its snow-covered peaks are an arresting sight for people travelling through the central North Island by road, rail or air. The park’s landscapes are diverse. As well as the volcanic mountains, barren lava flows, snowfields and hot springs exist side by side.
Tongariro National Park is at the south-western end of the Taupō Volcanic Zone. Its volcanoes are all active, and Mt Ruapehu erupted spectacularly in 1995–1996.
Ruapehu is the highest of the three mountains, and its 2,797-metre summit has five craters and six main peaks. Its active vent is the site of the Crater Lake, which changes colour according to the volcanic activity below. In March 2007 a lahar (avalanche of volcanic mud and water) flowed from the lake, but it was carefully monitored and caused little damage.
Mt Tongariro is the largest of the peaks (100 square kilometres), but the least imposing. Mt Ngāuruhoe, with its steep symmetrical cone, is perhaps the most picturesque.
Vegetation and wildlife
Vegetation ranges from alpine herbs to tussock and flax, with beech forest in the mountains and low-growing shrubs in the Rangipō Desert. Wildlife includes long- and short-tailed bats, and many native birds and insects.
The park contains two large skifields, Tūroa and Whakapapa. Climbing and tramping are popular, and there are many walking tracks. The best known is the Tongariro Crossing, which leads through spectacular volcanic terrain and takes about eight hours to traverse. The Tongariro Northern Circuit, which passes over Mt Tongariro and around Mt Ngāuruhoe, is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.