While in New Zealand we really wanted to channel our inner Kiwi and attempt to be fully functional outdoorsman/woman. A little different from our former 9-5 desk jobs where the most outdoor action we got was an hour lunch. This lead us to one of New Zealand’s more challenging Great Walks, The Tongariro Northern Circuit.

To give you some background, The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 4 day, 49.1km (30.5 miles) hike through Mount Ngauruhoe (better known as Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings) and Mount Tongariro. As if these two weren’t enough, there are also amazing views of snowcapped Mount Ruapehu throughout the circuit. There are shorter day hikes you can do within the Northern Circuit, with the most popular being the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but we really wanted to get our hearts pumping so we opted to do the whole thing. Being out of shape Americans this was a decision we would regret at times but in the end it was totally worth it.

Quick geography lesson: Although Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe are regarded as two separate volcanoes, Mount Ngauruhoe is actually just Tongariro’s main vent. The more you know!

Day 1: Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut
Distance: 8.5km (5.3 miles), Estimated time: 3 hours

We’ve always considered ourselves relatively fast-paced walkers, so we figured we could start the hike in the early afternoon and we’d make it to the hut in under the estimated time of 3 hours… boy were we wrong. We were even cocky enough to take the hour and a half long detour to the Taranaki Falls. After all, it’s not an adventure if you go the easy way.

About 30 minutes in we came to a crossing where we had the option to continue onto our day one hut or take the detour to the Taranaki Falls. As we mentioned, we took the detour and it’s something we would recommend to anyone doing the walk. It’s a fairly easy stroll alongside a stream through a not too dense forest. The falls also made for a perfect lunch stop where we enjoyed our 5 star meal: tuna and crackers with a side of canned pineapple. DELICIOUS!

picstitch (16)After our lunch break we headed back to the trail. This consisted mostly of a winding (and us whining) path up and down hills that seemed to never end. We must have said “the hut’s gotta be over this ridge” about 15 times before we were actually right. To be honest, in our opinion the trail the first day really isn’t anything too special, but you do get some great views of the mountains. In hindsight, if we were to do the Circuit again we would cut out the first day and just start at the Mangatepopo Hut. Although, we are happy to have the bragging rights of doing the full Northern Circuit!

After 5+ hours (we know, a little embarrassing) we finally saw our hut. Hallelujah! The huts are bunk style with a shared kitchen. It just so happens that the night we were staying in the Mangatepopo Hut there were also 10 kids under the age of 12 running around. We were lucky enough to have snagged the last two bunks in the side without the kids. Score one for the good guys! Also, if you’re wondering, there are no showers and the toilets are just outhouses. And yes, if you’re also wondering we did go 4 days of hiking up mountains and sweating like pigs without showering.

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Side Note: The Northern Circuit is a full loop so you can also start by heading towards the Waihohonu Hut.

Day 2: Mangatepopo Hut to Oturere Hut (Plus climb up Mount Ngauruhoe)
Distance: 18.8 km (11.7 miles), Estimated time: 8 hours

We did what Frodo couldn’t. We walked through Mordor and climbed all the way to the top of Mount Doom without anyone carrying us… although we wish someone would’ve given us a lift.

The second day of the Northern Circuit is by far the hardest but also by far the most rewarding. An hour after leaving Mangatepopo we were greeted with “The Devils Staircase”. Yes, it’s as scary and difficult to climb as it sounds. It’s a steep, long climb to 1,600 meters above sea level and something our legs were not ready for. We’re not sure if this is normal or not, but it took us about two hours to get from the base to the top of the Staircase. This probably has to with the fact that we stopped about every 10 minutes because we were so out of breath. At some points the elderly were passing us.

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Once we made it to the top we came face to face with Mount Doom. As if two hours of hiking up the side of a mountain wasn’t enough, we decided to treat ourselves to another two hour climb up a loose footed volcano. The hike up Mount Ngauruhoe was easily one of the most physically challenging things we’ve ever done. The side of the mountain consists mostly of small rocks and loose ash, so you never really feel like you have a good footing. We pretty much bear crawled on all fours up the second half… not sure if this is proper technique for mountain climbing but it worked for us! After a grueling climb we finally reached the top and it was all worth it! We were lucky enough to have had perfect weather which allowed us to see for miles in every direction.

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After spending 30 minutes admiring the views and resting at the top it was time for us to begin our decent. The climb, or maybe slide is a more appropriate word, down the volcano is fucking crazy! The one side of the mountain consists of pretty much completely loose rocks, so every step we took ended up being a three foot slide down the hill. It was kind of a combination of walking, skiing, and falling with style.

The climb up Ngauruhoe definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for a challenge and determined enough it’s absolutely worth it! Plus, you get to throw the ring back into Mount Doom and banish evil forever. You could say we’re modern day superheroes ;-).


At this point in the day we were completely exhausted and ready to pass out, but we still had another 3+ hours ahead of us. Dammit! Luckily for us our next stop was the Emerald Lakes. It’s hard to describe how cool these lakes look, so we’ll just let you take a look at the pictures below:


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From here it was a two hour walk across the Rangipo Desert, a Mars like terrain, to the Oturere Hut. Although the total estimated time for this day was only supposed to be 8 hours it took us a solid 10. We no longer consider ourselves fast walkers.


Day 3 and 4: Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut to Whakapapa Village
Distance: 7.5 km (4.6 miles) and 14.3 km (9 miles), Estimated time: 3 hours and 5 hours

The third day of the hike is much, much shorter than the second. From Oturere to Waihohonu only took three hours, which compared to the 10 hours it took us the day before was a walk in the park. Actually, it was a walk across windy gravel fields and then through a forest but it was still much easier than climbing up mountains. One thing we do have to say is that the Waihonhonu Hut is the Mac Daddy of huts. It’s easily twice the size of the other two huts we stayed in, has hot water for washing dishes and a full size dinning area. Outdoor luxury at it’s finest.

Since it only took us 3 hours to get to the Waihonhonu hut we had some time to kill and decided to do a little exploring around the area. Only a 30 minute walk from the hut was the Ohinepango Springs which are filled with the clearest water we’ve ever seen. Also, because it’s a spring so you can drink the water right out of the stream. Absolutely worth the 30 minute walk to fill up our CamelBaks.


By the time the fourth day rolled around we were ready to get back to civilization and take a warm shower. It was hard to tell if it was us or the sulfur that was stinging our nostrils. Fortunately, the fourth day is a relatively easy walk along a mostly gravel road. Our feet were very thankful.

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So to go back to our goal of being more outdoors people, although we’re not quiet up to par with the Kiwi’s, I’d say we’re well on our way… and a few lbs lighter!