The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often promoted as New Zealand’s greatest single-day hike – maybe even the world’s. The spectacular 19.4 km track winds its way through the country’s oldest National Park and a dual World Heritage Area. The hike passes through alpine landscape, old lava fields, and even past a steaming volcano that erupted just three years ago. The place was made even more famous by its appearance in the Lord of the Ring movies as the setting for Mount Doom.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Tongariro is a challenging hike for most, and especially difficult for beginners like me. The uneven terrain, long distance, and uphill scrambles all put a strain on the body. The DOC did not exaggerate when they listed the Crossing as “challenging” and you should have a “reasonable level of fitness” in order to attempt. My first recommendation is to honestly assess your level of fitness before jumping in. Make sure you are physically and mentally ready to take on this endurance test.
Once you’ve prepared your mind and body, you’ll need to plan for suitable accommodation in the area, preferably somewhere close to the starting point so you can get an early head start. The bigger towns of Turangi and Taupo will have more accommodation options to fit your budget and needs, but keep in mind that it’ll take from 30 minutes to an hour to get to the Crossing from these locations. Most hotels, hostels, and holiday parks will help you arrange for shuttle pick-up and drop-off to take you to the hike. Even if you have a car, you’ll still need to arrange for transportation because the Crossing starts at one end of the park and finishes at the other. We decided to stay at Tongariro Holiday Park, an easy 10 minute drive to the Torangiro Crossing. We booked our transfer through Mountain Shuttle because they have a secure parking lot where we could leave our campervan for the day. The lot is located near the Ketetahi car park – the ending point of the hike, and they take people to the Mangatepopo Carpark, the starting point of the hike. Even at the exorbitant price of $30 NZD per person, the shuttles are usually fully booked, so make sure you make arrangements ahead of time; we saw many people show up that morning without a reservation and were turned away.
I always have a hard time figuring out what to pack on my hiking trips, balancing between what I need versus what I want to carry. It’s important to remember that New Zealand is the land of extremes, the weather changes from burning hot to dangerously cold in a matter of minutes, especially at the higher altitudes. It’s not uncommon to have four seasons in a day. It’s advisable to have multiple layers that you can easily put on and take off during the hike. Here is a list of a few other essentials that you should bring:
- Hiking shoes are very important because of the uneven terrain
- Sunscreen because there is no shade and the sun is relentless. I had some weird tan lines afterwards
- Camera, this goes without saying because there are so many out of this world photo opportunities on the trail
- Food – make sure you pack a lunch, granola bars, and some other light snacks to keep up your energy
- Water, the most important thing to bring because there is no drinkable water sources on the hike. I would recommend taking more than you need. We brought 2L per person and ran out towards the end and had to ration
- Map of the trail is helpful to keep you informed of the surrounding area and give you an estimated time to the next major marker
- Cell phone in case of an emergency, the reception is surprisingly good throughout the trail
Before you start make sure you check the weather conditions and be prepared. New Zealand weather can change rapidly, so even after you are on your way, it is advised that you turn around should you find yourself in bad weather prior to reaching Red Crater. Also, don’t forget to leave details of your trip with a friend or relative and inform them once you’ve returned from the hike. It’s a long 6 to 8 hours through an amazing volcanic wonderland. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes you past three active volcanoes – Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro – with the latter having erupted as recently as November 2012. If you feel energetic, you can take a few side trips to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe or Mt Tongariro. Each side trip taking an additional 2-3 hours return. The main paths are well marked and maintained. Here is the breakdown of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:
Mangatepopo Valley to Soda Springs (Time: 1 – 1 hr 30 min )
We started at Mangatepopo car park at 8:00 am. It was a chilly morning and everyone had on lots of warm layers but about half an hour into the walk, the sun peaked out through the clouds and the layers were hastily taken off. The first part of the track takes you across a valley alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows. The Mangatepopo Valley was carved out during the last ice age and subsequently filled by lava flows from Ngauruhoe. Even though the water looks refreshing, it’s not suitable for drinking since it contains a significant level of dissolved minerals from volcanic rock.
The path continues on a gentle incline passing by alpine plant life. As we got closer to Soda Springs, the soil got darker and strewn with volcanic boulders across the landscape. Since it was a nice day, there were many people going on the hike, but it’s important to establish your own pace.
Right before Soda Springs, there is a rest stop with a few long drop toilets, one of the few located in the park. It’s a good place to stop before the ascent.
Soda Springs to South Crater (Time: 1 – 1 hr 30 min )
Once we got to Soda Springs, we saw a warning sign alerting hikers that we are about to enter an alpine region and how strenuous the trail was about to become as you climb up the Devil’s staircase. This section is steep and tiring with a 200 metre (656 feet) elevation. The higher we got the better the views became, on a clear day you can see across the valley as far as Mount Taranaki on the West Coast.
The continuous hike uphill really took a toll on my lungs and I had to pause and catch my breath often. Fausto on the other hand was a champion. His 6 mile runs have conditioned him for the hike. Since my pace was too slow for Fausto, we decided to split up so he could go ahead and wait for me at the top.
The South Crater, the only flat part of the entire hike, brought some much needed relief. It was really cold and windy at the top of the crater, but once inside the caldera, it’s nice and warm. Because of the volatility of the weather, it’s important to wear layers that are easy to put on and take off.
Side Trip: From South Crater, you can take a three-hour return side trip to Mount Ngauruhoe Summit, also known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Ring movies. The volcano is steep and the surface mainly consists of loose rock and scree. Clear visibility is required to safely climb this hazardous trail.
South Crater to Red Crater (Time: 45 min – 1 hr 30 min)
The hike continues uphill towards the Red Crater, the highest point of the track at 1886m. The path is steep and difficult and at some parts there are metal chains to help you scramble over the rocky cliffs. Be extra careful on the narrow ridge, especially if the wind is strong. Broken rock litters the unforgiving ground and old lava flows leftover from eruptions long ago decorate the landscape. The strong sulphur smell reminds visitors that this crater is still active. The red color occurs from the high temperature oxidation of iron on the rocks and are probably where the crater got its name.
From the highest point we have panoramic views of Tongariro National Park. In one direction we can see the towering Mount Doom and in the other we can look down to the Emerald Lakes. The intensely colored lakes look like they are from another world. The contrast between the lakes and the surroundings are quite striking. The blue-greenish color is resulted from minerals leaching from the adjoining thermal area.
Side Trip: From Red Crater follow a rocky ridge on a two-hour detour to the summit of Tongariro, gaining another 100 m in altitude.
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes (Time: 10 – 20 min – 40 minutes for me)
From the summit of the Red Crater the track descends steeply to Emerald Lake. At the top you can see all the way across to the Blue Lake past the Central Crater. The combination of vibrant lakes and steaming vents against a desolate mountain backdrop is breathtaking and worth all the effort of getting here. The unique color of the pool is so vivid, it appears as though it has been over-saturated in Photoshop. Appealing as it looks, the water is cold and acidic and not suitable for swimming or drinking!
After absorbing this remarkable view and taking hundreds of photos, I started my descent. That was when I noticed that the steep path is covered in sand and loose gravel making it almost impossible to take a step without sliding. People are slipping and sliding everywhere as they crab-walk down the mountain. Not wanting to fall over, I took my time, digging my feet into the loose metal scree and holding my hands out for balance. Every time someone passed by, they kicked up a thick cloud of dust and kicked loose the rocks and sand at my feet. It’s hard to fully describe how terrified I was as I tried not to fall off the side of the mountain. I found this part more difficult and tiring than going uphill. This section should take about 20 minutes to go down but it took me at least 40.
Once you make it down to the bottom, you can breathe a deep sigh of relief and reward yourself with some lunch by the lake. It’s also a great place to take off your shoes and shake out some loose pebbles from earlier.
Emerald Pool to Blue Lake (Time: 20-30 min)
From the Emerald pools, it’s a short climb out of the Central Crater to get up to the sacred Blue Lake, another nice place for a lunch break. The brightly colored lake looks like it’s perched up high up in the sky. The area is exposed to strong wind that whips across the lake and lowered the temperature considerably.
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut (Time: 1 hr – 1 hr 30 min)
After the Blue Lake we wound our way around the mountainside going downward. After all the uphills earlier, I was looking forward to the descent, mistakenly thinking that it would be easy. The nicely packed trail was well maintained and not too challenging, HOWEVER, the continuous downward motion was painful on my knees and gave me a few blisters on my toes.
The zigzag path around the golden tussock-covered slopes feels like it goes on forever. It was mentally taxing because every time we rounded a bend expecting to reach our destination, we saw more endless trails. The good thing is that we got to enjoy the view of the beautiful Lake Rotoaira and Taupo in the distance. Along the way we were reminded to stay on the track and avoid stepping on the fragile soil and plants.
Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Carpark (Time: 2 hr – 2:30 hour)
After an hour and a half of zig zagging, the vision of the Ketetahi Hut felt like a mirage in a sea of tussock. Unfortunately, the hut is just a pit stop and it will be another 2 hours of hiking to get to the carpark. The path eventually reaches the forest section, signaling the end of the Active Volcanic Hazard Zone. The canopy from the hardwood trees provide much welcome shade from the harsh afternoon sun. We were tired and quite delirious by the end.
We lucked out with a gorgeous sunny day for our hike. The 19.4 km took us 7 hours plus an extra hour and a half for lunch and photo breaks. It’s longer than the recommended 6-8 hours, which made us glad that we choose to start earlier in the day. We are not avid hikers by any means, and in fact, this is probably the second longest hike we’ve ever been on after the Inca trek, and this one felt way more challenging.
By the time we got to the car park at 4:25 pm, our legs were sore and our toes were bruised. I have two blackened toenails as a reminder of the day. We were happy to catch the 4:30 shuttle since we had no more energy to walk that extra 700 meters to the Ketetahi car park. We promptly checked into our AirBnB apartment where we could put our feet up for the rest of the night.