The Rangitikei Valley is the principal route for the majority of travellers between Auckland and Wellington, and along the route all the major features of the hill country are to be seen. The area is underlain by sedimentary rocks composed of shales, sandstones, and clays gently dipping towards the south-west. The summits of the hills are all approximately of the same altitude and the characteristic and recurrent relief of the area has been created by the down-cutting of rivers and streams on soft and relatively uniform materials which have undergone uplift. From these summits, which appear as fairly narrow, slightly serrated ridges, the land falls away to a series of higher and lower, sometimes extensive, terraces, which are utilised wherever possible by the road between Marton and Taihape and which provide the best farming land in the area. Spectacular descents occur near Porewa and Mangaweka, where the road is forced to drop from a higher to a lower terrace. In the upper reaches of the Oroua, around Apiti and Rangawahia, the dissection is more intense and the real difficulties of road construction in an area where slips so easily occur are most apparent. The hill country was originally bush covered, which made it most inaccessible, and settlements, like Taihape and the smaller villages of Hunterville, Mangaweka, and Ohingaiti, owe their origins largely to the construction of the Main Trunk railway. The area is given over principally to store sheep and cattle raising, although dairying is carried out around Rata and, surprisingly, in the vicinity of Rangawahia.
Near Utiku the main road swings away from the valley of the Rangitikei and follows the Hautapu, but before following its course the traveller has a superb view across the upper Rangitikei towards the Ruahines, which form the eastern boundary of the region. The settlement of this upper part of the Rangitikei was earlier than that of the middle part, because the land was unforested, and the graziers of Hawke's Bay spread on to the low tussock lands around Moawhango as early as the 1870s. The wool was exported at that time through Napier.
Beyond Taihape the road commences a steady climb towards the southern limit of the Central Plateau and ash deposits and volcanic boulders become more frequent in the road cuttings. The great interest of this area lies in the recency of its settlement, about 1900, so that remnants of the original bush are still to be seen at the extreme limits of some farms. In the winter months the climate is quite harsh and snowfalls are common, though the snow never lies for long. Nevertheless, skilful pasture management and the selection of suitable grass mixtures have encouraged profitable farming.
At Waiouru the main highway forks and the westward route curves around the southern slopes of Ruapehu to Ohakune and Raetihi. These are the only towns of any size in the northern part of the region. They act as servicing centres for the surrounding farming and timber-milling population, and Raetihi is fortunate in possessing a group of volcanic soils which makes it an important centre for vegetable growing. In 1960, 741 acres of market gardens were reported for Waimarino County, that is, the Raetihi-Ohakune district. Although these towns are not very old settlements, of all those at the 1956 census they had the highest percentage of people under 15 years of age (Ohakune, 42 per cent; Raetihi, 38 per cent), and their slow rates of growth in the period 1951–61 (Raetihi, 16·56 per cent; Ohakune, minus 4·84 per cent) reveal the limited economic potentialities of this isolated northern sector. Furthermore, the very high figure for average area of holding in Waimarino County, 1,142 acres, a size exceeded only in four other North Island counties, gives one some idea of the rough character of the land and the extensive type of farming pursued.
Raetihi is connected to Wanganui by a second and important route, the Parapara road, a very fine sealed road traversed by a daily bus service. The route of the Wanganui River is no longer important, except for some tourist trips and recreational purposes. The Parapara road passes through sheep-farming country and the slight but real distinctions of landscape between this area and that of the Rangitikei Valley almost defy description. Two things, however, stand out. First, terracing is far less conspicuous, though not absent, along the course of the Mangawhero River; the Raukawa Falls are quite impressive. Secondly, in contrast to the Rangitikei route, the road occasionally climbs to and, for a while, stays on the summits so that their general accordance is immediately apparent. The country consists of a large number of steep-sided ridges, displaying, in the more distant parts, virgin bush, considerable reversion, and second growth. The river valleys are deep, narrow, and winding. The lasting impression is of a terrain inhibiting to movement. It is possible to reach Raetihi and Ohakune by following country roads which take the line of the rivers Whangaehu and Turakina, but these are poor and unsealed roads used mostly by the local farming or timber-felling population. As a whole the hill country is a lightly populated district held in extensive sheep farms and, until the past decade, it has been a very inaccessible area; thus inch to the mile topographical maps (1:63360) for the area are as yet unpublished.