Mountain springs, active volcanoes, fiery lava flows and emerald lakes: New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park looks like another planet. But its popularity among tourists is putting this natural wonder at risk.
Located at the center of New Zealand’s North Island, Tongariro National Park is home to three active volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Their peaks and the rivers that flow through the park are highly significant to local Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian people.
In fact, the national park’s cultural as well as natural importance has led to Unesco awarding it World Heritage status twice over.
The bright green Emerald Lakes lie in old craters near the summit of Mount Tongariro; their bright colors caused by minerals in the water. In stark contrast, the stunning Red Crater at the mountain's peak is one of several craters which are still active — its deep red color is the result of extreme heat oxidizing the iron content of the rocks.
The park's spectacular landscapes have made it a top destination for tourists — in fact, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km (12 miles) hiking trail widely considered as the best day hike in the country — and among the best day hikes in the world. While that may not sound like far, the walk is a challenging high altitude trek. Over winter, hikers need to be especially well prepared for adverse conditions — from snow and ice to avalanches. For many though, the tough climb is worth it for breathtaking views.
An increasing number of people are visiting the national park every year. And the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing is under growing pressure: thousands of people hike the trail each day at peak times. Conservationists and locals are growing concerned about the impact of tourism on the local environment. Authorities have taken some measures to restrict the number of visitors to the park, for example encouraging people to pay for a shuttle bus service to the park, with only a limited number of shuttles per day. But some say that’s not enough: the hoards of tourists on the track mean that not only the environment is suffering, but the park is no longer as enjoyable for those visiting it.