1. Tongariro Northern Circuit
Active volcanoes, craters and a small desert crossing (yes, there’s a desert in NZ) are highlights of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. In the centre of the North Island, this walk is like entering a primeval world, with the volcanic, lunar landscape offering a dramatic contrast to the lush terrain of other Great Walks.
The Northern Circuit starts in the skiing village of Whakapapa, below the slopes of Mt Ruapehu. Walkers head north along the Mangatepopo Track, east of Mt Ngauruhoe. You will cross a number of creek beds and volcano vents, travelling through the Mangatepopo
Valley to the hut of the same name for the first night on the track.
Next morning, walkers climb to Mangatepopo Saddle, then traverse the South Crater’s lava flows (from nearby Mt Ngauruhoe). It is hard going – especially if it’s windy. However, once you reach the top of the Red Crater (which, funnily enough, contains plenty of red lava), the vista below – the craters, Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake – is awesome.
The track then descends to the Emerald Lakes and veers right, heading towards Oturere Hut. Descending into Oturere Valley, walkers travel through a lunar landscape, with ragged lava formations surrounding them, before reaching the Rangipo Desert and, after that, Oturere Hut. Walkers can stay here overnight or walk two more hours to Waihohonu Hut.
From Waihohonu Hut, there’s more contrasting scenery as the track leads through patches of beech forest and more volcanic terrain. Taranaki Falls is the next stop-off, before the track joins the Falls loop track (one hour) back to Whakapapa Village and track’s end.
2. Routeburn Track
The 32 km Routeburn is a must-do. Straddling Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks, it involves three days of ascents and descents, plenty of creek crossings (bridged) and a full day walking above the tree line. The Routeburn can be walked in either direction and there are four huts and two designated camping areas.
Starting from the east, at Routeburn Shelter in Mt Aspiring NP, the track leads through beech forest and crosses numerous creeks and rivers before reaching the Routeburn Flats Hut and camp site turn-off. The preferred option is to continue ahead, starting the hour-long, very steep climb to Routeburn Falls Hut, perched just above the tree line with awesome views across to Mt Somnus and the valley below.
The second day is brilliant – a full day above the tree line. On the way to Mackenzie Hut, walkers pass Routeburn Falls, then continue climbing over alpine terrain before reaching Harris Saddle (1255m, the track’s high point). From Harris Saddle, you descend along the spine of the Serpentine Range (with the Hollyford River below) for three hours before a short descent to Mackenzie Hut, at the foot of Lake Mackenzie.
Day three starts with a gradual climb through forest before reaching The Orchard, a natural clearing. An hour later, you arrive at Earland Falls, before descending to Lake Howden Hut. Stay the night here or continue 1.5 hours to The Divide, the track’s finish. Don’t miss the Key Summit side-trip (one hour) at the top of the climb from Lake Howden Hut. The views are spectacular.