The Department of Conservation (DOC) classifies the Tongariro Northern Circuit (50km, 3–4 days) as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It takes in the more spectacular parts of the Tongariro Crossing, including the saddle between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro. Most people start and finish the Northern Circuit at Whakapapa Village, but some people start at Mangatepopo as this ties in nicely with many of the shuttle bus operators who drop off here for hikers doing the Tongariro Crossing.
The Northern Circuit is broken into four main sections, each ending at a hut making it possible to spend four days on the Circuit.
If you’re starting at Whakapapa, the first section goes from Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo Hut (8.5km, 3–5 hours) where it meets up with the Tongariro Crossing. You get a nice view of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro but this stretch can get muddy after wet weather.
The next section goes between Mangatepopo Hut and Oturere Hut (11km, 5½ hours). The stretch between Mangatepopo Hut and Emerald Lake follows the same route as the Tongariro Crossing along the saddle between the two mountains. It is possible to make side trips from here to the summit of both Mount Ngauruhoe (3 hours return) and Mount Tongariro (2 hours return). At Emerald Lake the track splits between the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Northern Circuit, which descends into the Oturere Valley with views of the valley and the Rangipo Desert.
The section between Oturere Hut and Waihohonu Hut (8.5km, 3 hours) is a fairly easy day that passes several streams and open fields of volcanic gravel.
The home stretch from Waihohonu Hut back to Whakapapa Village (15½km, 5½ hours) follows the Waihohonu Stream before climbing the often windswept Tama Saddle. The track passes the lovely Taranaki Falls about an hour before it ends back at Whakapapa Village.