1YoT: Tongariro National Park

After visiting Rotorua, Inna and I continued to Tongariro, another one of New Zealand’s most beautiful, unique, and famous destinations. Tongariro, the world’s fourth oldest national park and one of few dual World Heritage Sites, is most famous for its use in Lord of the Rings. Specifically, Tongariro features three major mountain peaks, the second tallest of which is Mt Doom.

Speaking of Lord of the Rings, that film is a big deal in this country. Ask locals about it and they gush not about the films quality, but about what it did for their economy. Tourism, infrastructure, jobs, international notability, Lord of the Rings put New Zealand on the map.

Most of Lord of the Rings was shot on New Zealand’s southern island, primarily because it is more beautiful and secluded. That being said, the northern island contains three famous Lord of the Rings’ destinations: the Weta Workshop in Wellington, Hobbiton, and Tongariro. Inna and I skipped the first two; Weta Workshop was too similar to the studios I work at in LA and Hobbiton is touristy and expensive. But Tongariro was a must.

We drove through the center of New Zealand’s North Island to get to Tongariro. And despite us no longer being in the rainforest or along the coast, the drive was still beautiful.


This view, looking north just beyond the border of Tongariro, features New Zealand’s massive Lake Taupo. I will discuss this lake later in this post.


Here is Mt Doom. Mt Doom’s non Middle Earth name is Mt Ngauruhoe; it is an active volcano and it was covered in clouds when we visited. Just like Egmont. Just like Arenal. It seems that someone doesn’t want us seeing volcanos.


Despite the bad weather, we wanted to check out this mountain. Here we are on our way to Whakapapa, a Tongariro ski resort and the highest point reachable by car on the mountain.


Snow! It’s time to play! Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of us play, so just know we had lots of fun.


We weren’t able to see much of Mt Ngauruhoe from Whakapapa, but we did get some stunning views of the park below.

On our way down the mountain, we stopped for a short hike to a waterfall. Little did we know, we were hiking to Gollum’s fishing hole!


We also stopped by Tongariro’s visitor center on the road to Whakapapa. Above is a stuffed kiwi, a bird so associated with New Zealand that the non-natives from this country are known as Kiwis, just like Australians are Aussies and people from the United States/Mexico/Canada are Americans/Mexicans/Canadians.


This fascinating exhibit compares eruption sizes for various volcano eruptions throughout history (the larger the dust cloud, the larger the eruption). Oceania, New Zealand in particular, has featured some of the largest volcanic explosions in history.

For example, the largest cloud in this display represents the Oruanui eruption, the world’s most recent supereruption and the largest eruption in the last 70,000 years. This eruption was so large the ground collapsed under it. Water then drained into the sunken land; the resulting lake, Lake Taupo, is the second largest freshwater lake in Oceania.

Even more amazing, note the zig-zaggy poles that extend from the chart into the ceiling. These poles represent the relative size of the world’s largest volcanic explosion, which occurred 28 million years ago in what is now Colorado. To fully understand how large this explosion was, note the dinky explosion in the display fifth from the right. That little cloud represents Mount Saint Helens’s 1980 eruption.


After leaving Mt Ngauruhoe, we swung by the Raurimu Spiral, a famous railroad section that rises 450 feet rise in only two kilometers. The track is considered an engineering masterpiece, but unfortunately we weren’t able to see much of it, other than this miniature mockup. A pretty disappointing site for something that seems really neat.


Wait a second… The clouds are clearing! The clouds are clearing! We might actually get to see Mt Doom!


The clouds didn’t completely burn away, but they did clear enough for us to see this.


As I mentioned earlier, Mt Ngauruhoe isn’t the only mountain in Tongariro; it is actually one of three significant volcanic peaks. And now that the cloud cover has dissipated we can see one of the others. This one, the shortest of the three, is Mt Tongariro.


And here are Mt Ngauruhow and Mt Tongariro in the same shot. The third and tallest peak, Mt Ruapehu, isn’t as close as these two are to each other.

This pretty much marks the end of our Tongariro visit. But there is so much to do here, we barely scratched the surface. Things we didn’t do: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the most spectacular day hikes in the world (we visited the trailhead, but there wasn’t much there), Maori heritage sites (we already visited Maori sites in Rotorua), nearby Whanganui National Park and its famous Bridge to Nowhere, biking the parks dozens of bike trails, and more. There’s so much to do in Tongariro, we could easily have spent all our time in New Zealand here and not done anything else. Sounds like something we might do on a return visit!

As for this trip, tomorrow we finally get to ride the ferry to the southern island. This is why we didn’t stay at Tongariro longer: we are heading south!


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