Covering a total of 78,651 ha, includes within its boundaries the three major active volcanoes in the centre of the North Island - Ruhapehu, Ngaruhoe and Tongariro - as well as much broken country, tussock land, desert areas and forests. It was the first of NZ's national parks.
Most of the land, including the three mountains, was donated to the government and people in 1887 by Te Heuheu Tukino IV and other chiefs of the Tuwharetoa tribe from the Tokaanu district. The original size was 2,600 ha. The park is used by large numbers of people for skiing, mainly on the slopes of Mt Ruhapehu, and for tramping and hunting.
Mt Tongariro itself has a number of craters, some of them still active, and there are fumaroles, mud pools and hot springs on the northern slopes, at Ketetahi Springs. Tongariro at 1,968 m is the lowest of the three mountains. The first recorded ascent by an European was in 1867 when geologist James Hector made the climb.
The park is a huge catchment area and this had led to the design of the Tongariro hydro-electric power scheme, a complex project which takes the water through tunnels, along canals, using its driving power on the way to Lake Taupo (see Tokaanu).
Tongariro is also the name given to a settlement about 30 km north-east of National Park.