Often described as one of the best day hikes in New Zealand, Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a must for avid hikers.
It is a long, challenging hike through a dramatic volcanic landscape and it takes around 7-8 hours to complete.
The track is 19.4km long, which doesn’t seem too difficult at first glance. But with steep climbs up to 1886m above sea level it is certainly a challenge.
Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park, dating back to 1894, and belongs to a local iwi (Māori tribe).
All waterways on Tongariro are considered tapu (sacred), so please do not touch or enter any of the lakes or streams.
I have completed the alpine crossing twice, almost exactly a year apart and in wildly different weather conditions.
The weather plays a huge part in determining how safe your hike will be, so make sure you check the conditions before you start.
Weather makes a difference
The first time we hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we woke up to a dark and foggy landscape.
We were told by our shuttle driver that the fog usually disappears once the sun comes up, so we went ahead and started the hike.
Apart from the fog, the weather seemed alright; there was little to no wind and it wasn’t too cold. We trusted the words from our driver and hoped the fog would clear soon.
But it wasn’t to be. The fog remained thick throughout the hike, meaning that we couldn’t see further than a couple of feet around us.
The wind on the steep climbs became strong and it was quite scary not being able to see where the land dropped away beside the path.
The second time we hiked the crossing, the day started fine and clear.
As we approached the start of the hike on our shuttle bus, we noticed some clouds coming in and covering up the mountain.
Disappointed, we feared that we would have the same experience again.
As we started the trek, everything looked rather grey, but it didn’t seem as bad as the year before.
Sure enough, around 15-20 minutes into the hike, the clouds lifted and we could see everything!
And once the clouds had gone, they stayed away for the whole day, making for perfect hiking conditions.
In the days leading up to your hike, keep an eye on the MetService website for a detailed forecast. The iSites and visitor centres in the area will also have this information, so go and talk to someone if you’re unsure.
On bad weather days the Department of Conservation (DOC) will apply advisory notices at each end of the track stating ‘Not Recommended Today’.
What to bring
As always, I recommend bringing plenty of food and water for a full day of hiking.
As this is a long trek of over 6 hours, bring at least 3L of water per person and enough food to sustain you for the day.
Even in the height of summer, you will need to bring plenty of warm clothing and water/windproof layers, as most of the hike is at alpine levels.
Sturdy footwear is essential as the ground is extremely uneven and unstable in places.
Sunscreen, a headtorch and a mobile phone are also very important.
Finally, make sure you tell someone where you are going before you set off.
Book a shuttle
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing route is not a loop or a return track; you’re literally walking from point A to Point B.
This means that you’ll need a shuttle to get you from one end to the other if you’re planning to park your car there.
Alternatively, a shuttle can take you from your accommodation to the start and pick you up from the end if you’re not planning on driving at all.
We booked a shuttle to take us from the car park at the end of the track to the start of the track between 6.00 and 6.30am.
This meant that our car was there when we finished the hike and we could just drive away.
It also meant that we could take our time as we weren’t expected to be picked up at a certain time.
There are a couple of different shuttle companies; we just booked one the day before at the iSite in Taupō.
Tip: Start hiking early! It’s a long way and you want to give yourself as much daylight as possible. We started between 6am and 6.30am, which worked well for us, but make sure you start by 8.30am at the absolute latest!
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Mangatepopo Car Park to South Crater
1.5 – 2.5 hours
The trail starts off fairly easily through a grassy hill area.
If the weather is clear you’ll soon see Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom for my Lord of the Rings fans) up on your right.
There is a gradual incline up the valley and you’ll pass by the edges of a lava field before crossing a marshy area on a boardwalk.
Crossing the marshes in thick fog on our first hike made it very easy to imagine being in Mordor!
After about an hour of walking you’ll come across a sign pointing to your left, and a 5 minute detour trail leading away to Soda Springs.
After this point, the going gets tougher as you approach the section known as the Devil’s Staircase.
This is a climb that reaches up to 1600m above sea level, and is very rocky with loose stones and lava pieces.
Take your time while ascending this part – I know I did!
Finally, once you’ve reached the top, you’ll be walking over the edge of South Crater.
There are toilets situated at this point, and the next ones aren’t for another 1-2 hours, so be sure to plan ahead.
South Crater to Red Crater
If you’ve got good weather, you will have been able to see Mt Ngauruhoe as you were climbing.
But once you reach the top of the rise, the view is magnificent and well worth a stop for a photo.
Next, you’ll descend into the South Crater and enjoy a nice flat walk for a while.
Make the most of this easier terrain to get your energy back; the hardest climb is still to come!
At the other side of the crater is a high ridge, which leads up to the highest point of the trek: the Red Crater at 1886m.
The first stage of this climb is to get out of the crater onto the ridge.
This stage is much shorter than the Devil’s Staircase, and once you’ve reached the ridge top you’ll have incredible views out over Kaimanawa Forest Park and beyond.
Once you’ve admired the views, it’s time to turn to your left and start the steep climb along the ridge top to the Red Crater.
It’ll probably be quite windy by this stage so watch your footing and be careful.
Red Crater to Blue Lake
You’ll pass by Red Crater just before the top of the climb, and you’ll see why it has its name.
The rocks are red and steaming in places, and it’s quite stunning to look at.
Once you’ve finished the climb, you can give yourself a pat on the back for reaching the highest point!
But don’t relax just yet; the descent to the Emerald Lakes is very tricky and requires your full concentration.
This section is a loose scoria slope. Each step will see you sliding down further than a normal step would carry you, and it’s easy to lose balance.
Take it slow and dig your heels in.
The Emerald Lakes are just as obviously named as the Red Crater.
Minerals from the rocks around them give them their beautiful colour, and a lot of people tend to stop here for a break while taking in the view.
The track passes the lakes on the left, but there is an option to walk around the right side and rejoin the track at the bottom.
Make sure you don’t start following the Tongariro Northern Circuit route by mistake, as this leads off down to the right from here!
There are a lot of steam vents around the lake, which are responsible for the sulphurous smell.
Do not get too close to the vents as they are extremely hot!
When you’re done admiring the lakes, continue across the Central Crater towards Blue Lake.
There is a short climb up to the lake, which marks the halfway point of the trail (in terms of distance).
Don’t worry though, the hardest parts are over and the second half is all downhill!
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Car Park
After the Blue Lake, the path curves around a hill and comes out at another set of toilets.
From this point, the descent begins.
By now, you’ll probably be pretty tired and happy for some downhill walking.
The trail heads down the northern slope of Tongariro, passing some hot springs and steam vents.
Keep to the formed track here as the alpine environment is very sensitive and the hot springs are on private land.
This is a very long descent and, if you’re anything like me, your relief at being able to walk downhill will be short-lived.
The view north towards Taupō is wonderful, but when you’re staring at it constantly while stomping downhill in zig-zags on tired legs, you’ll probably wish you could be looking at something else.
The bottom of a beer glass, for example.
After an hour of descent, you’ll reach some toilets and the space where Ketetahi Shelter used to be before it was removed in 2019.
Keep going down for another hour and you’ll reach the last set of toilets before the end.
After that, you’ll head down into forest, and keep descending until you reach Ketetahi Car Park and the end of the track!
If you parked your car in the shuttle car park at the end, you’ve got a bit further to walk down a dirt road until you reach the highway. The car park is just on the other side.
Be prepared and enjoy your hike
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is definitely not a trail to be taken lightly; it can be extremely challenging and people have actually lost their lives due to not understanding the conditions or underestimating the track.
However, if you have checked the conditions and you are prepared for what’s to come, it is a hugely rewarding hike and a great achievement to complete it!
There are two seasons for this hike:
November to April – best season to hike. It is still essential to check the weather conditions as they can change very quickly.
May to October – dangerous season. Alpine skills and experience essential due to heavy snow and ice. It is sometimes possible to hike with a guide in this time.
I hiked in January both times, in the height of summer, and the fact that each experience was so different is mind-blowing!
Take the alpine conditions seriously and don’t hike if you don’t feel safe.
Are you ready to take on the challenge? Have you completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing before? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- Mount Taranaki Summit Track
- Aoraki/Mount Cook: Hooker Valley Track
- Rocky Mountain: Wanaka’s short but rewarding hike
All images in this post are the property of lastminutewanders.com
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