Renowned for being New Zealand’s single greatest day hike – and one of the best hikes in the entire world, in fact – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was on our must-do list from Day One.
The 19.4km track is situated in Tongariro National Park, which is located in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, just southwest of Lake Taupo. Originally we had hoped to walk the full three day Tongariro Northern Circuit, however time and money constraints forced us to reconsider, so we chose to walk the Alpine Crossing instead, and man, it did not disappoint!
Made famous by the Lord of the Rings films, the track is home to the mighty Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom). You’ll be walking dangerously close to two very active volcanoes, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, the latter of which last erupted in November 2012. You’ll trek through volcanic craters, teeter along alpine ridges and marvel at the beauty of the Emerald Lakes. This really is the perfect New Zealand day hike: the views are simply spectacular, the weather is predictably unpredictable, and the walk itself is pretty strenuous; you have to earn those awe-inspiring photos.
I’m not normally the type to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do on a trip as I believe it’s all a matter of personal choice – but you 100% HAVE to do this walk while you’re in New Zealand. You’ll thank me for it, I promise!
Beginning the track
If you were not already aware, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way track, not a loop track – and therefore a little organisation is required. You’ll need to arrange transport at either the start or the end of your walk to get you from one end to another. We chose to walk from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi. We left our car at Ketetahi car park and organised a bus to Mangatepopo car park for 7am. This is probably the most popular direction in which to walk the track, but that’s understandable considering the beauty of it!
The first part of the track ascends the stark landscape that is the Mangatepopo Valley. The green tufts of grass surrender to black and grey rocks which are in fact many layers of lava. Already Mount Doom dominates the vista.
After a quick loo-stop, we took the five minute side walk to the foot of Soda Springs, a small but charming waterfall.
Next we began the tiring ascent up the seemingly endless sets of stairs to the South Crater. It was tough in the morning sun, but the views behind us were pretty spectacular.
At this point, we had reached the turn-off for the ascent of Mount Ngarauhoe A.K.A. Mount Doom. We decided against climbing it because a) I wasn’t sure whether I was physically fit enough, and b) James forgot his waterproof coat and rain was predicted for the afternoon. The track is unmarked, and, according to others we overheard later who had done it, it was basically a scramble over the rocks up the face of the mountain. We thought it better to be safe than sorry.
The South Crater
We continued walking – the track continues towards the Red Crater, but you have to go through the South Crater first. That’s right, you have to walk through the crater of a volcano! I think it was at this point of the hike that I truly appreciated just how incredible the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is; I was completely awestruck!
Another short climb brought us to the turn-off for the climb to the summit of Mount Tongariro, which was marked with poles and seemed a lot more popular than the ascent to Mount Doom. Again we chose not to attempt the summit. We ate our lunch sitting on a couple of rocks while admiring the view and had to put our jumpers on as it was pretty cold up there!
We continued along the ridge in complete awe of the scenery around us… Was this real life?
The Emerald Lakes
Leaving the Red Crater, we were at the highest point of the walk, and the panoramic views of the Emerald Lakes, and in the distance the Blue Lake, are simply breathtaking. You have to do a kind of ski/slide down the gravel on the track (or walk VERY carefully) to get to the Emerald Lakes.
Walking around the Emerald Lakes, we noticed the unpleasant smell of sulphur – similar to what we smelt in Rotorua… a tell-tale sign of geothermal activity!
The Blue Lake
Continuing through the Central Crater, after a short climb we reached the sacred Blue Lake. You must not eat or smoke near it. And don’t forget to look back at the view behind you!
From here, the track begins to descend towards the bush. We passed Ketetahi Hut which was out of service but the toilets were open.
On our descent to the forest, we saw the Te Maari craters on the northern side of Mount Tongariro. This section of the track passes through the Active Volcanic Hazard Zone, so walk quickly and keep your stops to a minimum. These craters last erupted in November 2012. We also noticed impact craters, which are caused by flying rocks from previous eruptions. The steam rising from Ketetahi Springs was also noticeable, however these Springs are located on private land and are not accessible to trampers.
Into the Bush
The final part of the track descends through Manuka trees and into the bush, passing through a Lahar hazard zone, which basically means the area is prone to wash-outs from the river in bad weather. Not much further along, we (sadly) reached Ketetahi car park.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Top Tips and Useful Information
Length: 19.4km one way
Duration: 5 – 8 hours one way, add an extra 1.5 hours each for the climbs to the summits of Mount Ngarauhoe and Mount Tongariro.
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
Book your transport: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is NOT a loop-track; you must book transport from one end to the other! We booked with Adventure Headquarters and paid $30pp (expensive, but all the companies offer a similar price.)
What to wear & bring: wet weather gear, warm clothing, sun cream, hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes, lots of water (there is none available on the track), food, first aid kit, sun hat, toilet roll & your camera!
Where to stay
Since we travelled New Zealand in a campervan, we chose to camp in Department of Conservation campgrounds close by. Most in the area are completely free to use but have very limited facilities (normally just a long-drop toilet and tap.) Use the booking widget below to look for suitable accommodation in Tongariro National Park.
Walking this track is undoubtedly one of the best things I’ve done in New Zealand – if not in my whole life! It’s popular with everybody – from local kiwis to tourists visiting from abroad, from teenagers to older generations. Whilst it’s by no means an easy track, you can’t deny that the scenery is pretty spectacular. I would vote it my #1 day walk in NZ.
Have you hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? What did you think of it?
Thanks for reading & happy travels!
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