Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Geographical Location

Tongariro National Park (38°58'-39°25'S, 175°22-175°48'E) is a World Heritage Site in the Tongariro and Wanganui regions in the middle of North Island, New Zealand, on the central North Island volcanic plateau. Lake Taupo lies a few kilometers (km) to the north-east and the nearest towns are Turangi, Waiouru and Ohakune. Auckland is some 330 km to the north-east and Wellington is about 320 km to the south-west, by road, respectively. The boundary encircles the Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro mountain massif at an altitude of 500-1,550 meters (m). The north island main trunk railway to the east and the National Park-Rangipo road to the north and north-east delimit the park. An outlier, 3 km north of the main park area and separated from it by Lake Rotoaira, includes Lake Rotopounamu, Mount Pihanga and Mount Kakaramea.

Date and History of Establishment

Established on 23 September 1887 by deed of gift when the Paramount Chief Te Heuheu Tukino of the Ngati Tuwharetoa people gave 2,630 hectares (ha) of the central volcano area to the government. The summits of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu were constituted as the nation's first National Park in October 1894 and gazetted in 1907 with an area of 25,213 ha. By 1922, when the Tongariro National Park Act was passed, additional land had increased the area to 58,680 ha. In 1975 the outlying Pihanga Scenic Reserve (5,129 ha) was added, and several other additions from 1925 to 1980 have increased the extent of the park. The current enabling legislation is the National Park Act 1980.

Tongariro National Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1988 for its natural landscape values, and under a criteria change in 1993 was also recognized for its cultural values.


caption Landsat 7 (Pseudo Color) satellite picture of Tongariro National Park showing (from top to bottom) a part of Lake Taupo, Lake Rotopounamu, snow-covered mountains Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.. (Source: NASA World Wind)

79,596 ha.

Land Tenure



The park rises from 500 m to the summit of Mount Ruapehu, at 2,797 m, the highest mountain in North Island.

Physical Features

The park lies at the southern end of a discontinuous 2,500 km chain of volcanoes which extends north-east into the Pacific Ocean. This chain corresponds with the destructive, oreganos subduction of the Pacific Oceanic plate beneath the Indian-Australian continental plate. The volcanoes in the park, which are predominantly andesitic in composition, fall into two groups on the basis of location, activity and size. Kakaramea, Tihia and Pihanga volcanoes and their associated vents, domes, cones and craters form the northern group. These lie on a 10 km north-west to south-east axis and have not been active for between 20,000 and 230,000 years. Glacial activity 100,000-14,000 years ago has rounded the profiles of this group. The active group extends about 20 km along a south-west to north-east axis, with a width of some 10 km and comprises Tongariro (1,968 m), Ngauruhoe (2,290 m) and Ruapehu (2,797 m) volcanoes, the three great volcanic mountains of central North Island. The Tongariro complex comprises recent cones, craters, explosion pits, lava flows and lakes superimposed on older volcanic features. Two kilometers to the south lies Mount Ngauruhoe, a 2,290 m composite andesite cone of interleaved pyroclastic material and lava. Fumaroles in the summit crater frequently discharge hot gas and steam, and the cone, which may be as little as 2,500 years old, is still building. Violent ash eruptions usually occur at nine year intervals whilst more progressive 'strombolian' lava fountaining occurred in 1954, creating a 60 m high cone on the western side of the original 400 m-diameter multiple crater. Seven explosion craters, formed by violent contact between rising magma and groundwater, lie directly between Mount Ngauruhoe and the southern Mount Ruapehu massif. The largest two now constitute the Upper and Lower Tama lakes. The south-east of the park is dominated by Mount Ruapehu, which rises to a 350 ha complex of ridges, peaks, cones and active and inactive vents. Volcanic activity commenced approximately 500,000 years ago and tephra deposits indicate a peak of activity 10,000-14,000 years ago. The current active vent lies beneath Crater Lake at an elevation of 2,550 m on Mount Ruapehu. This has a diameter of 500 m, a depth of more than 180 m and a temperature of 20-40°C. The water has a pH of 0.8-1.5 and is rich in dissolved minerals; consequently the upper reaches of the Whangaehu outflow are devoid of fish and most invertebrates. Minor hydrothermal eruptions in the lake are not uncommon, whilst more major events such as those in June 1969 and April 1975, may lead to destructive mudflows.

In addition to these major features, the park contains other extinct volcanoes, lava and glacial deposits and a variety of springs. Freeze-thaw and freeze-heave action and major radial drainage systems feeding the Tongariro, Wanganui and Whangaehu rivers has led to rapid erosion of the unconsolidated ash and rock of Tongariro and Ruapehu mountains. Extensive glaciation up to 14,700 years ago eroded both Tongariro and Ruapehu and glacial valleys with terminal and lateral moraine formations are present. Glaciers are currently restricted to Mount Ruapehu and after several decades of retreat all are less than 1 km in length. The steep upper slopes of the major volcanoes comprise lava flows interbedded with ash and coarser volcanic debris, whilst on gentler slopes both lava and mudflows are covered by ash. Marine mudstone and sandstone of Miocene-Pliocene origin form two hilly areas in the west. Rhyolitic pumice deposits, a legacy of the massive Taupo eruption about 1,800 years ago, occur in the northern and eastern two-thirds of the park at depths frequently in excess of 30 centimeters (cm). The eruption destroyed much of the forest cover in the park. Desiccating westerly and southerly winds have inhibited vegetation development to the east of Mount Ruapehu and a largely barren desert-like environment of dark reddish-brown sand and ash has formed. Soils are generally weathered andesitic ash, being dark sandy loams and loamy sands to the west; drainage is frequently poor. Above 1,100 m ash, gravel and unconsolidated stonefields are predominant. With the exception of some recent alluvial flats, soil fertility throughout the park is low.


The north-east to south-west orientation of the mountains results in most precipitation from the prevailing westerly winds falling on the windward side of the park. The north and west has 1,800-3,500 millimeters (mm) annual rainfall, whilst in the south and east there may only be 1,100 mm per annum. Above 1,200 m altitude annual precipitation probably exceeds 3,500 mm. The 1931-1960 mean annual temperature at 600m was 9.6°C-10.1°C and 7.1°C at 1,100 m. Absolute minimum and maximum temperatures recorded are -10°C and 25°C, respectively. Ground frosts occur throughout the year, particularly in winter, and above 2,000 m there are permanent snowfields and ice.


caption Mount Tongariro, New Zealand from the north. Note the fumarole to the lower left of the slope. Photograph taken in February 2000 by James Dignan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Vegetation in the park is influenced by altitude, occurrence of Taupo pumice, burning, drainage and erosion as well as substrate instability, grazing by herbivores and [[precipitation and fog|rainfall distribution. Habitats are diverse ranging from remnants of rain forest to nearly barren icefields. From the lowest altitudes to 1,000 m in the west and north, about 3,000 ha of once nation-wide mixed Podocarp-broadleaf rain forest occurs. This is dominated by Podocarpus hallii, P. dacrydioides, Weinmannia racemosa, Libocedrus bidwillii and there are numerous epiphytic ferns, orchids and fungi. At higher altitudes, beech forest occurs with red beech Nothofagus fusca, silver beech N.menziesii and mountain beech N. solandri var cliffortioides in pure stands totalling over 5,000 ha, or with L. bidwillii from 750 m to 1,530 m and covering 12,730 ha. Widespread death of mature beech has occurred on Ruapehu, possibly due to the pathogenic fungus Sporothrix sp., spread by the pinhole beetle Platypus sp. but regeneration is occurring. Scrublands featuring Leptospermum ericoides, L.scroparium, Phyllocladus aspleniifolius, Dracophyllum longifolium, Rhacomitrium lanuginosum introduced heather Calluna vulgaris, dwarf beech, podocarps and others, in a variety of associations, cover some 9,500 ha. Tussock shrubland and tussockland cover extensive areas in the north-west and around the Mount Ruapehu massif at about 1,200-1,500 m. Dominant species include Chionochloa rubra, inaka Dracophyllum longifolium, D. recurvum, Empodisma minus, Schoenus pauciflorus, heather and the grasses Festuca novaezelandiae and Poa coloensoi. These formations cover some 15,000 ha and are generally the highest communities with complete ground cover. The highest levels in the park are dominated by gravelfields and stonefields which are very unstable and characterized by cycles of vegetation build-up and breakdown. Typical species, covering about 16,500 ha are D. recurvum, Podocarpus nivalis, Gaultheria colensoi, Rytidosperma setifolium, P. colensoi and Raoulia albosericea, some of which occur in the Rangipo desert. An additional 10,350 ha, from 1,700 m to 2,020 m, supports isolated individuals of parahebes Parahebe sp., gentian Gentiana gellidifolia, buttercup and others, although above 2,000 m the only obvious plants are crustose lichens. A number of other formations exist, although often limited in area, including shrub, grass, bracken, sedge, rush and moss communities. A species list and vegetation map is given in Atkinson (1981).


The vertebrate fauna is restricted mainly to birds although native mammals are represented by short-tailed bat Mystacina tuberculata and long-tailed bat Chalinolobus tuberculatus. More than 56 bird species have been recorded in the park including brown kiwi Apteryx australis, kaka Nestor meridionalis, blue duck Hymenolaimus malacorhynchus and North Island fern bird Bowdleria punctata vealeae. All the above species are considered by New Zealand authorities to be within IUCN's vulnerable category. Banded dotterel Charadrius bicinctus and New Zealand falcon Falco novaezeelandiaeare also present. The native fauna, however, has been seriously depleted by species introduced prior to 1922. These include rat Rattus rattus, stoat Mustela erminea and cat Felis catus as predators, and herbivores such as rabbit Oryctalagus cuniculus, hare Lepus sp., brush-tailed possum Trichosurus vulpecula, and red deer Cervus elaphus. Although much effort has been devoted to eradicating exotics, they continue to pose a threat to native flora and fauna.

Cultural Heritage

The area has been occupied by Maoris since they first arrived from Polynesia and ethnic mythology identifies the mountains in the park with 'tupuna' or god-like ancestors. Until the land was given to the nation in 1887, the area was occupied by the Tuwharetoa tribe. Early European attempts to settle in the area and introduce sheep farming commenced in 1856. However, due to economic and agricultural difficulties, these activities ceased by the 1920s.

Local Human Population

With the exception of Whakapapa village, which largely comprises tourist facilities, there are no permanent settlements within the park. The village is the subject of Volume Three of the current management plan.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

caption Sheep Moutains, New Zealand. (Source: New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology)

The annual number of visits to the park increased from an estimated 90,000 in 1960 to over 500,000 in 1975 and 800,000 more recently. Overseas visitors contribute only 3% to the number of visitors, and there are two distinct peak seasons: skiing from July to late October and a mid-December to mid-February summer vacation period. Accommodation is available at Whakapapa, Iwikau and Turoa villages and at camp sites in the park. Rural highways entirely surround the park and a number of roads and tracks enter it. Foot trails give access to several areas, including the Mount Tongariro complex, and encircle both Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu massifs. Major recreational activities include walking, climbing, hunting, fishing, and skiing, for which more than a dozen chair lifts and a number of mountain huts are provided. In excess of 300,000 people per annum use the Whakapapa skifield. Visitors to the Whakapapa ski-field spent $7.7 million within the region during the 11 week 1985 ski season, and the park in general is a significant contribution to the local economy. The park headquarters at Whakapapa has an information center and guided walks are given.

Scientific Research and Facilities

The first comprehensive botanical survey was carried out in 1908. A more recent survey was conducted between 1960 and 1966 and a popular account of the plant ecology of the park has been published. Research has also been undertaken on climate, fauna, ecology, landscape development and the role of pathogenic fungi in the dieback of beech Nothofagus spp. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which has an observatory at Whakapapa Village, conducts regular geophysical, deformational and chemical studies on the volcanoes. In addition, seismic and magnetic activity and atmospheric shock waves are monitored continuously for eruption prediction. A summary of volcanic observations is compiled annually by the New Zealand Geological Survey and published in the New Zealand Volcanological Record. Bibliographies are given in Debreceny, (1981), Atkinson (1981), TNPB (1986), Williams (1985) and more comprehensively in Turnbull (1979).

Conservation Value

The park is of significance to the central North Island as an ecological, geological, recreational and economic resource. At the national level, ecological and recreational values are very important, while the economic values are of significance in the region and the Tongariro locality. This is the first World Heritage Site to be inscribed under the revised cultural criteria which now includes cultural landscapes. The mountains at the heart of the park are of great cultural and religious significance to the Maori people, symbolizing the spiritual links between the community and the environment. The park also contains active and extinct volcanoes, and a diverse range of ecosystems.

Conservation Management

The 1977 management plan, which has been revised, was prepared by the Tongariro National Parks and Reserves Board (now the Tongariro/Taupo Conservation Board) and approved by the National Parks and Reserves Authority (now the New Zealand Conservation Authority). The revised management plan, comprising three volumes, states the following two goals: to preserve and protect for present and future generations the outstanding natural scenery, the scientifically important features and the indigenous natural resources which all contribute to make Tongariro National Park a place of national and international significance; and to promote an understanding of and appreciation for nature and natural evolutionary processes and the cultural and historic values of Tongariro National Park, as well as providing opportunities for visitors to enjoy the park in a manner consistent with national park principles. Six subsidiary objectives are stated. First, to manage the park so that the present comprehensive range of indigenous ecosystems and natural processes continues. Second, to recognize and maintain the cultural, spiritual and inspirational heritage of the mountains in the park, and to recognize the spiritual and cultural significance of the park to the Maori people and to consult with and give full consideration to the views of the appropriate authorities. Third, to encourage such public use and enjoyment of the park as is consistent with the preservation of the natural features and historic values of the park. Fourth, to enhance, through the provision of facilities and services for the benefit of park visitors, an appreciation and awareness of park values and of environmental and historical conservation and cultural values. Fifth, to ensure that conflicts between competing uses of the natural features and facilities of the park are minimized and to concentrate development as far as possible either outside the park or in the proposed amenity areas. Sixth, to provide opportunities to meet recreational needs by carefully controlled development consistent with national park principles. Detailed management policies cover a wide range of topics in the broad categories of preservation, management, public use and development. Volume Two of the management plan covers ski-field management and Volume Three covers the management of Whakapapa village. Tongariro National Park management plan is due for review in 1999. In 1994, the Department of Conservation prepared a draft Tongariro/Taupo Conservation Management Strategy (CMS), a requirement of the Conservation Act 1987. This document sets the direction for the Tongariro/Taupo Conservancy, including Tongariro National Park, for the next ten years. The CMS does not replace the Tongariro National Park Management Plan, but will give recognition to it.

The 1980 National Parks Act provides much of the protective, legal and administrative mechanisms for the park, although other statutes, and therefore a number of agencies, totaling 23, have an impact on the park. Maori interests are represented by the Paramount Chief of the Tuwharetoa tribe who has a permanent seat on the Tongariro/Taupo Conservation Board. The Department of Conservation is the agency responsible for the management of natural and historic resources. Management decisions are made according to statutory responsibilities, with input from the New Zealand Conservation Authority and the Tongariro-Taupo Conservation Board. Overall administration of the park is the responsibility of the Regional Conservator, Department of Conservation, Turangi.

The park is zoned into natural environment, two wilderness zones, three service areas and some 18 sites of unique biological or geological interest. Ski-field development has been restricted by zoning the alpine regions of Mount Ruapehu and the summits of Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe as 'pristine areas'. Developments are prohibited above 1,500 m in the Tongariro and Ngauruhoe area, and generally above 2,250 m on Ruhapehu. The boundaries of the Whakapapa and Turoa ski-fields currently attain 2,325 m and 2,280 m, respectively. An increase in the upper limit of the Whakapapa fields to 2,365 m may be permitted if a full and favorable environmental impact assessment is carried out. However, in general, the pristine areas will be managed to avoid development and to conserve natural, cultural and historic values. Licensed sports hunting of deer and possums is permitted and programs to eradicate lodge pole pine are undertaken.

Management Constraints

Extermination of introduced flora and fauna is a requirement of the National Parks Act 1980 (Section 4(2)(b)). However, given limited resources, control rather than eradication is the current management approach. The relative paucity of vertebrates stems from the nation-wide problem of introduced species. Furthermore, native flora have been reduced or eliminated by exotic herbivores such as red deer and possum. Invasive lodge pole pine Pinus contorta threatened to convert native communities into forest and was a particular problem in the eastern Rangipo desert area, but management measures have controlled and in some areas eradicated the pine. Nevertheless, the presence of seed sources in neighboring commercial lodge pole pine plantations continues to pose a threat to the park. Exotic heather has also become established in the park and is a potential threat presently under study. Volcanic activity, and especially mudslides, can endanger both wildlife and visitors and the park has witnessed major natural disasters. Concern over the impact of ski-field development and associated infrastructure have been addressed in the management plan which constrains ski fields within specific zones and has detailed policies covering their operation.


Twelve rangers, 50 waged workers and five administrative staff, supplemented by seasonal workers and other departmental staff, with a total of more than 110 during peak seasons.


The park accounts for about 80% of the Department of Conservation's Turangi district budget. In 1987/88 the district had a Government grant of NZ$2.3 million and also recovered NZ$800,000 in fees etc. from users. In 1995/96 the district received a grant of only NZ$940,000 and was expected to recover NZ$1.672 million from fees etc.

IUCN Management Category

  • II (National Park)
  • Natural/Cultural World Heritage Site - Natural Criteria ii and iii/Cultural Criterion iv

Further Reading

  • Atkinson, I.A.E. (1981). Vegetation map of Tongariro National Park, North Island, New Zealand. Scale 1:50,000. Wellington, New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Government Printer. 27 pp.
  • Cockayne, L. (1908) Report on a botanical survey of the Tongariro National Park. In: Department of Lands Botanical Reports. Wellington. New Zealand. (Unseen)
  • Debreceny, P. (Ed.). (1981). The restless land: the story of Tongariro National Park. Tongariro National Park Board. Wellington. 112 pp. ISBN: 0477061036.
  • Department of Lands and Survey (1986). Tongariro National Park. World Heritage Nomination. Department of Lands & Survey, Wellington, New Zealand. 22 pp.
  • DoC (1990a). Tongariro National Park management plan. Volume One. Objectives and policies. Department of Conservation, Turangi, New Zealand. 126 pp.
  • DoC (1990b). Tongariro National Park management plan. Volume Two. Skifield management. Department of Conservation, Turangi, New Zealand. 55 pp.
  • DoC (1990c). Tongariro National Park management plan. Volume Three. Whakapapa Village. Department of Conservation, Turangi, New Zealand. 31 pp.
  • Forbes, S. (1993). Tongariro National Park World Heritage Cultural List "He Koha Tapu -A Sacred Gift" Government of New Zealand. 24 pp.
  • Gabites, I. (1986). Roots of fire: a guide to the plant ecology of Tongariro National Park. Tongariro Natural History Society, Wellington, New Zealand. 112 pp
  • Innes, J.G., Heather, B.D. and Davies, L.J. (1982). Bird distribution in Tongariro Naitonal Park and Environs, New Zealand. Notornis 29(2): 93-99.
  • Johnson G.W. (1976). Tongariro National Park. Bascands Limited, Christchurch, New Zealand. 32 pp.
  • Tongariro National Park Board (1979). Tongariro National Park: management plan. 96 pp.
  • Turnbull. L.H. (1979). Bibliography for Tongariro National Park. Department of Lands and Survey. Wellington, New Zealand. (Unseen).
  • Williams, K. (1985). Volcanoes of the south wind. A field guide to the volcanoes and landscape of the Tongariro National Park. Tongariro Natural History Society, Wellington. 128 pp.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme- World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme- World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



M, U. (2008). Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. Retrieved from


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