Hiking across Mordor in Tongariro National Park

There aren’t many places where you feel the urge to wear your wedding ring around your neck and begin dodging fictional forces of evil.

New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park, however, is exactly one of those places.

As anyone who has been to a movie theater in the last ten years probably knows, New Zealand was the setting for the epically popular Lord of the Rings trilogy which introduced us to the adventures of Middle Earth.

Arguably one of the best known movie series of an entire generation, the movie saga has simultaneously done wonders for the New Zealand tourism economy by displaying the country’s enchanting and other worldly scenery to a global audience of millions. While Middle Earth tourism has sculpted out its own niche for diehard fans (my 2012 New Zealand road atlas, for example, points out where each scene was filmed), as a casual viewer there are only a few place names I actually recognize.

One of these, of course, is Mt. Doom, and as I set out from the campervan into the volcanic cinder of the Tongariro Crossing-one of New Zealand’s most heavily trafficked walks-I found myself standing directly beneath it.

So what exactly is Mt. Doom?

Well, to begin, its real name is Mt. Ngauruhoe, it is 7,516 ft. high, and from the best I could tell there aren’t any quivering, flaming black eyes located anywhere near it. While Mt. Ngauruhoe doubled as Mt. Doom, the surrounding bits of Tongariro National Park provided the scenery for Mordor, the fiery and terrifying volcanic wasteland that serves as the home of evil.

As it happens, Tongariro is actually pretty cold, even during the summer months. Lacing up my hiking boots at 6am with about 100 other trekkers, the morning dew had frozen and blanketed the campervan beneath a thin layer of frost.

“Weird”, I thought. “There’s not supposed to be snow in Mordor.”Actually, back here in reality, Tongariro is home to Whakapapa ski field, one of only two areas on the whole North Island of New Zealand which receives enough snowfall to warrant ski lifts and groomed runs. Though Mordor is colder in reality than in the movies, the threat of volcanic eruption is still very real.

Nearby Mt. Ruapehu is an active enough volcano that warning signs scattered around the park advise skiers what actions to take should the mountain decide to go all volcanic and bubbly during their mid-winter ski session. A legitimate concern, the mountain last experienced a major eruption in 1996, and volcanic lahars–essentially boiling rivers of mud–have been known to push their way down to within a few feet of chairlifts which regularly carry resort guests.

And, since Tongariro is still comprised of active volcanoes, it would make sense that there are hot springs, sulfuric lakes, and places where steam rises straight from the Earth.

As I enjoyed a lunch of sweet chili tuna (why don’t we have flavored tuna in the US?) above the turquoise (and toxic) Emerald Lakes, it wasn’t hard at all to see why the Lord of the Rings scouts chose this place. A sea of multicolored cinder, the entire landscape is bathed in that oxymoronic volcanic quality where new earth appears to be old; just because it isn’t covered in grass doesn’t make it old, but, in fact, too young for organisms such as grass to have taken root.

Though Tongariro gets pigeonholed nowadays into Mordor tourism there’s still much more to the park than volcanoes and moonscapes. Many places in the park are actually fairly green and lush, and on the trail out to Tama Lakes it’s possible to be surrounded by volcanic, sub-alpine shrub land and still sunbathe at the base of a cascading waterfall.

Or, if trekking across barren cinder flats isn’t quite classy enough, you can always retire to the historic and ultra-elegant Chateau Tongariro and listen to the tunes of the grand piano played next to a roaring fire. Constructed in 1929, the Chateau was originally a luxury outpost for outdoorsmen and adventure seekers aiming to explore the beauty of the island’s volcanic highlands. Today it’s still possible to book a room at the Chateau or simply call in for a glass of wine, an entrée of lamb, or, of course, a panoramic view of Mordor.

Though the silver screen has made this place famous as of late, Hollywood was far from the first organization to recognize the beauty of Tongariro. Wanting the land beneath these mountains to be preserved and maintained for eternity, it was the Maori chief Horonuku Te Heuheu Tukino who in 1887 first gifted this land to the New Zealand government to preserve and protect the sacred alpine ground for generations to come.

From Maori chiefs to mythical hobbits to active volcanoes to a wayward vagabond touring the country in a campervan, Tongariro National Park is a magical place to find yourself when given the freedom to roam.

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.