When winter rolls around, you have one of two choices – bunker down until the temperature starts climbing again or pull out your warmest gears and hit the great outdoors.
As the North Island’s self-proclaimed place for all things adventure, you’ll be entertained right from the moment you arrive until the moment you realise you don’t want to leave. Plus, getting there has never been easier. With the Northern Explorer train, you can depart Auckland or Wellington and be there by lunch. So with that sorted, it’s time to read up on activities to get stuck into.
Hit the Slopes
Pro on the slopes? Maybe you’ve always wanted to give it a crack? Either way, Ohakune’s Mount Ruapehu snow season is not to be missed. As New Zealand’s largest ski field, you can ski or board until you drop (that’s not to say you’ll want to stop). There are two different ski fields to choose from, those being Turoa on the southern side and Whakapapa on the northern. Both boast a number of trails, which range from complete beginner right through to ‘at your own risk’. You decide.
Worried about driving on ice? You don’t have to. Catching the Northern Explorer means you can get there safe and sound. Plus, there’s plenty of room for ski gear. Just hop off at the National Park stop for the Whakapapa Ski Area or the Ohakune stop for the Turoa side.
Tip: Shuttles to the mountain (from both the Whakapapa Village and Ohakune Village) run frequently.
Not just a summer sport, mountain biking is alive year-round in Ohakune. And with stacks of cycle trails to choose from, there’s something for everyone. Here are a few;
The Ohakune Old Coach Road is a crowd favourite. With an easy grade two level trail, you can spend just as much time cycling as you can soaking up the scenery, which includes lush forestry and historical sites. The distance is 15km and takes roughly 2-3 hours.
Famous for its ‘Bridge to Nowhere’, the Mangapurua track is a grade three level trail covering 36 km of native bush, and sheer bluffs and ending with a one-hour jet boat ride back to base – because, we weren’t joking when we said the bridge goes nowhere. Give yourself 4-6 hours to complete this track (this includes the jet boat ride).
If you want to hit the tracks for a couple of days, The Timber Trail won’t disappoint. Starting in Pureroa and ending in Ongarue, you’ll experience 85kms of native bush, a backdrop of incredible views – and peddle across eight suspension bridges. The track is mostly grade two, with a few steeper sections coming in at grade three.
Note: For just $20, you can bring two bikes on the Northern Explorer. Just let us know in your booking. Bikes are also available to hire, just a 5-minute walk from Ohakune station.
If free activities are your thing, we can’t think of a better one than spending some quality time with mother nature. From waterfalls to wild sheer cliffs, to volcanic sightings, here are some of the best Department of Conversation walks to explore.
Waterfalls are abundant in the Tongariro National Park – so if you’ve been itching to visit one, you’re in luck. Waitonga falls is the National park’s highest waterfall, with a 39-metre drop and incredible views of Mt Ruapehu. Then there’s Magawhero falls, the national park’s most popular. Although a short drive from the main village, most can be reached with a shuttle, car rental or bike hire.
It’s not every day you get to walk alongside ancient lava, as well as gawk at a stunning waterfall, so if you’re near Whakapapa, set off on the Tawhai Falls track. Just twenty minutes return, it could be the perfect start or end to a day on the slopes.
If you’ve got a little more time on your hands – and want to test your fitness levels, Lake Surprise has the perfect recipe. With five hours of backcountry plains, volcanic terrain, cascading waterfalls and wild tussock to venture across, you’ll be transported into a world not too dissimilar from Lord of the Rings.
Note: Winter often means icy conditions, so quality hiking gear is recommended.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
If you’re a true mountaineer and skipping to a waterfall just doesn’t cut the mustard, the Tongariro Crossing is one of the best things to do in the National Park.
Timings wise, the track takes roughly nine hours and covers 19.4km. And although it can be completed in both summer and winter seasons, there’s something special about emerald lakes, volcanic ruins and wild tussocks being surrounded by icy peaks.
Of course, it’s not the kind of walk to take lightly. Solid hiking gear and a moderate level of fitness is required. There’s also the option of hiring a guide, which can include transport there and back, hiking gear and expert advice.
Ohakune's Iconic Carrot
Looking to kill time before your train journey home? Try the Ohakune Carrot. Besides being known as the North Island’s thrill seeker capital, Ohakune’s also known for growing a large chunk of the North Island’s carrot crop. And although the carrot’s not one of the most exhilarating things to do in Ohakune, it’s worth pulling the camera out for. What’s more, it’s near impossible to miss, being at the entrance of the township.
If you’re into that ‘ski-in-ski-out’ kind of lifestyle, the Chateau Tongariro hotel is probably the place for you. Located beneath the Whakapapa ski field (7 kms from it to be exact), it offers plush accommodation, hypnotising views, in-house wellness rooms and restaurants galore. And while you’d be forgiven for thinking the name ‘Chateau’ suggests skyrocket prices, we can confirm a night or two won’t break the bank.
Tip: For just $15, a shuttle can take you straight from the National Park train station to the Chateau. Just let the hotel know when you’re arriving (at least 24 hours before), and they’ll be there to greet you.
Whether you’ve tackled the slopes, peddled bike trails, traversed volcanic rocks, or just need an excuse to ‘treat yourself’, head to one of the following:
After a day of tearing up Turoa’s slopes, the Powderhorn Chateau’s heated indoor pool could be a great way to unwind. Being just at the bottom of Turoa’s entry point, you could slip in for an hour of relaxation – and grab a bite from the Powderkeg (their delicious in-house restaurant).
Tip: Outsider entry is dependent on hotel guest use.
If you need to replenish your energy, pizza’s always the answer. And Ohakune’s home to one of the best – La Pizzeria. The casual vibe, great service and perfectly crusted pizza might be the remedy you’re after. Just to leave a taste in your mouth, the menu boasts everything from classics like Margherita, to old and new favourites, like supreme (salami, bacon, smokey sauce), mushroom blue cheese and veggie heaven.
If you’re on the Whakapapa side of Mount Ruapehu, calling in at architecturally award-winning Knoll Ridge Café is an absolute must. Being 2020 meters above sea level, it’s New Zealand’s highest café right now. Expect pristine mountain views, fresh food and quality barista coffee. Better still, you don’t have to be a skier or boarder to pay a visit, there’s also a scenic chairlift ride on hand.
Get here on the Northern Explorer
Of course, reaching the snow is half the fun. And journeying on the Northern Explorer ticks every scenic box. From start to finish, you’ll cover some of the North Island’s most incredible landscapes: think volcanic sightings, rolling hills, native forestry and, best of all, the famous Raurimu Spiral track – an ‘engineering masterpiece’ that can only be experienced on the Northern Explorer.
So what are you waiting for? Forget icy roads and gridlock traffic, just throw your adventure gear on board, grab something from the fully licensed café (bubbles anyone?) and kick back in your comfortable, spacious seat for a few hours of complete bliss. To make a train booking, check out our fares and the Northern Explorer timetable.