On the Slopes
Skiing is the activity in season (June-Oct), when the weather and Mount Ruapehu permit. The 1996 eruption closed the two main fields -- Whakapapa and Turoa -- for 2 years, and a mild winter in 1999 didn't improve things, but the situation appears to have recovered. Combined, these two fields offer over 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of patrolled, skiable terrain (and almost the same amount off-trail), with facilities and geographical variety to satisfy any skier. Whakapapa and Turoa will always be the names of the two ski areas, but since 2001, they've been united under one brand, Mount Ruapehu -- New Zealand's largest ski area. You can get seamless lift passes to ski on either field; the company operates bus service between the two.
The Whakapapa Ski Area (tel. 07/892-3738; www.mtruapehu.com), above the Grand Chateau, is heavily populated compared to South Island fields, which is its biggest disadvantage. There's something for everyone in terms of skiing, but be careful that you don't sail over bluffs. A lot of skiers stay in the club huts on the field. Whakapapa's sister resort is Copper Mountain, in Colorado, with which it shares some reciprocal privileges. Ski lifts operate daily from 8:30am to 3:45pm and cost NZ$83 for adults, NZ$48 for children ages 5 to 18; for the lower mountain (beginners' area), they cost NZ$63 adults, NZ$36 for children. Packages including lift passes, rental, and lessons start at NZ$85 for adults, NZ$60 for children.
The Whakapapa summer operation (Dec-Apr, daily 9am-4pm) includes guided Crater Lake walks from NZ$85 adults, NZ$55 children ages 5 to 15; and scenic chairlift rides for NZ$25 adults, NZ$15 children.
Whakapapa Shuttle (tel. 07/892-3716) offers the best transport to the mountain, which costs NZ$25 round-trip from National Park Village.
Many prefer Turoa Ski Resort (tel. 06/385-8456; www.mtruapehu.com), above Ohakune, because it draws fewer people. It boasts the longest vertical drop of any ski area in Australasia, plus an abundance of gullies for snowboarders. Ski lifts operate daily from 9am to 3:45pm and cost the same as at Whakapapa (above). Turoa is open only in winter (late June to early Nov). Snow Express (tel. 06/385-9280) offers the best transport, which departs from Ohakune's Junction Ski Shop every half-hour and costs NZ$20 round-trip.
For the latest snow conditions and ski information, call Snowphone (tel. 083/222-180 in Turoa, or 083-222-182 in Whakapapa).
On the Tracks: A Tramper's Paradise
Walking in Tongariro National Park is spectacular, to say the least, and there are plenty of possible routes. Pick up the Department of Conservation's brochure Whakapapa Walks for an introduction to some of the best. Taranaki Fallsis a 2-hour, 6km (4-mile) circular track that starts above Whakapapa Village and takes in both native bush and stark tussock vegetation. Taranaki Falls plunges 20m (66 ft.) over the edge of a large lava flow, which erupted from Ruapehu 15,000 years ago. Silica Rapids Walk is a 2- to 3-hour loop track that also starts above Whakapapa Village. It takes you through a beech forest, past streams and rapids, and through subalpine plants and swamp as it returns to Bruce Road, 2km (1 mile) above the starting point.
The best walk of all is also the toughest -- the famous Tongariro Crossing. Regarded as New Zealand's greatest 1-day walk, it takes you between Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, over the most stunning volcanic landscapes in the country. It involves an 800m (2,600-ft.) altitude gain and a couple of very sharp but short stretches. People of all fitness levels can generally cope, but many underestimate the climate at altitude and almost every year visitors, who think they know better than the local experts, have to be rescued. Forget the fact that it is summer and take plenty of warm woolen clothing (cotton is useless), as conditions change fast and furiously. The walking season is usually November to May. If you plan a winter walk take a guide, crampons, and an ice axe. It is important to organize transport at both ends of the walk. Contact the Tongariro Track Transport (tel. 07/892-3716; www.tongarirotrack.co.nz), or Howard's Lodge Transport, Carroll Street, National Park Village (tel. 07/892-2827; www.howardslodge.co.nz).
On Your Bike
An essential information source for mountain bikers in this area is the pocket-size publication Volcanic Plateau Mountain Bike Rides, written and published by Kennett Brothers in association with the Department of Conservation and printed on waterproof paper. It details a host of rides in the area, including the highly regarded 42nd Traverse. The booklet is for sale at visitor centers and bike stores in the area.
The 42nd Traverseis one of the most popular bike rides on the North Island. It covers old logging tracks through remote native bush and has an overall descent of 570m (1,870 ft.) through spectacular scenery. Depending on your enthusiasm for the task, it takes anywhere from 3 to 7 hours to complete. You'll need to organize transport to and from your vehicle; Howard's Lodge, Carroll Street, National Park Village (tel./fax 07/892-2827; www.howardslodge.co.nz), or Ski Haus, Carroll Street, National Park Village (tel. 07/892-2854; www.skihaus.co.nz), can arrange that for you. Howard's Lodge also offers guided rides, but the best mountain bike company in this area is Tongariro Mountain Bikes, the Rafting Centre, Atirau Road, Turangi (tel. 0800/101-024 in NZ or 07/386-6445; www.trr.co.nz). They have exclusive access to 3,800 hectares (9,400 acres) of backcountry trails and they offer a shuttle and hire service.