99km (61 miles) SW of Taupo; 141km (87 miles) NE of Wanganui

Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's oldest national park and, as of 1990, a World Heritage Area in recognition of its outstanding natural and cultural features. It is a place of extremes and surprises that will make you ponder your own diminutive reality.

The park can be explored from one of two main areas -- National Park and Whakapapa villages on the western side of the mountains, or Turoa Ski Resort and Ohakune township to the south.

The core of the park consists of the sacred peaks Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu, which were presented to the people of New Zealand in 1887 by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, Paramount Chief of the Tuwharetoa tribe. At 2,797m (9,174 ft.), Mount Ruapehu is the highest mountain on the North Island and is the principal skiing spot in the region. Its Crater Lake, filled with acidic tepid water, has a bottom layer of 6m (20 ft.) of sulfur mud, which acts as a barrier between the water and the molten rock below. In June 1996, this active volcano erupted, surprising scientists monitoring its activity. A few days earlier, they had downgraded its danger rating after 8 months of relative inactivity following the spectacular eruptions of September and October 1995. Before that, Ruapehu had been quiet for 8 years. There was a major lahar in 2007 when the crater-lake overflowed. Up-to-date information on Ruapehu is at www.geonet.org.nz or call Eastern Ruapehu Lahar and Warning System (tel. 0508/452-427 in NZ; www.horizons.govt.nz).

Mount Ngauruhoe rises 2,290m (7,513 ft.), smolders constantly, and from time to time (the last in 1975) sends showers of ash and lava from its crater.

Mount Tongariro is the lowest and northernmost of the three, measuring 1,968m (6,455 ft.). It is also the focus of Maori legends. The peaks are at the end of a volcanic chain that extends all the way to the islands of Tonga, 1,610km (1,000 miles) away. Their origin is fairly recent in geological terms, dating back only about 2 million years.

The weather in Tongariro National Park is always changeable and can be savage regardless of the season. Trampers and skiers should always seek the latest track and weather details before venturing into the park.

Movie Mountain -- A digitally altered representation of Mount Ngauruhoe appears as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.