Often hailed as the “best one-day hike in New Zealand” (if not the world), the Tongariro Crossing is an alpine trek through the active volcanic zone of the central North Island. Past Emerald Lakes and steam vents emitting sulphurous fumes up to Blue Lake and through valleys and past volcanos.
And views! It simply had to be done.
Emerging from our Southern Hemisphere winter hibernation, where, incidentally, I had spent a lot of time working on various aspects of my fitness. Not least the fact that my back was indicating that it had Seen Better Days.
I had not been out in the bush for many months. Well, not properly. I don't really count a 20 kilometer trot round Sydney.
So I dusted off my trusty mountain boots that had seen many successful Kilimanjaro summits - and carried me to Everest Base Camp. It felt good to be loading up my daypack again and heading for the hills.
My research had led me to “take it seriously”. The changeable mountain weather conditions can easily make the hike hazardous, and with exposed ridges and loose scree I had visions of myself hurtling headlong into a bubbling, stinky volcano.
So prepare I certainly did. Taking the Department of Conservation's advice, I duly packed clothing to see me from summer heat to winter blizzard.
And "enough" food.
I should mention that as my fitness routine requires that I eat foods that are "good for me" and "healthy"; there is nothing like a tough day or multi-day hike to encourage me to take along elephantine servings of food not on my daily menu.
New Zealand’s weather is a fickle witch. If the weather forecast is bad, the trail will be closed. However, just because the trail is open doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be safe.
I should note a slight cultural difference here: New Zealanders love doing things that most people would consider “highly dangerous” and “threatening to life and limb”. So when a New Zealander warns that in bad weather, the crossing can be treacherous, it’s worth listening.
What starts out as a crystal clear day can rapidly turn wintry. And Search & Rescue takes a dim view of rescuing people from a mountain who are dressed for the beach.
This is the mountains, after all folks. Not to mention the edgy feeling you get knowing that the volcano last blew in 2012.
So after making the 5 hour drive from Auckland to the leafy streets of the small and insignificant town of Turangi, I was ready to hit my bed ahead of a 6am start.
With a prayer to the weather gods that I wasn't going to get snowed on.
It was a clear morning, cold, with frost on the ground. I was glad I had packed the extra layers. I took a shuttle bus to the trailhead - the same one would pick me up on the other side (it's a "thru-hike").
The advantage of a shuttle service is that if you miss the last bus, they automatically send Search & Rescue to find you. This gives a small element of security, knowing that at least someone knows where you are.
Since your family is likely drinking beer at a BBQ whilst you are slogging up a mountain.
On the half-hour drive to Tongariro National Park we were afforded amazing views of Mt Ruapehu, still snow-covered and the dramatic Mt Ngauruhoe - famously used as inspiration for Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.
Enjoying the wilderness, I was somewhat alarmed to arrive at the trail-head where numerous buses were jostling for position.
The queues for the toilets were long, it suddenly felt as though we’d happened into a theme park or something equally horrible.
Note: I would not advise doing this crossing in the height of summer, as there can be over a thousand people on the trail at the weekends!
Probably thanks, in part, to blogs like this one extolling the virtues of this trail.
So much for "wilderness".
With somewhat dampened enthusiasm, I set off on the trail.
The sun shining bright and the day looking clear, my spirits were quickly lifted. The snowy peak of Mt Ruapehu loomed white and bright, and the trail was mostly flat...
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs (~1-1.5 hours)
The first part of the trail is flat or with a gentle incline. Alpine plants predominate, with tussocky grasses and heathers.
The sun quickly burnt off any residual frost.
The trail is typical of New Zealand - well maintained, with boardwalks across the boggy parts (this helps to protect the fragile environment, it’s not just for the hikers' convenience).
Rounding a corner, we get our first view of Mt Ngauruhoe, looming ominously in the distance. A perfect stratovolcano, with the top still covered in the remnants of snow, it’s easy to see how this sacred mountain was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Mt Doom.
So far, so good. A lovely easy hike through dramatic countryside, and an opportunity to make a big dent in my food supplies… in spite of a hearty breakfast, food was on my mind.
This part of the trek is by far the easiest. We climb out of the valley and after a couple of uphill sections, there is a flat, rather barren-looking plateau.
The heather at the start of the trail gradually recedes, leaving only the tussocky grasses and rough alpine plants in the moorland zone. Rocks underfoot and scree remind us that we are in a volcanic region.
Soda Springs is a 15-30 minute diversion off the main track - and the toilets mark the end of this section.
Rounding a corner, it’s clear that the easy part is over…
Soda Springs to South Crater (~1 hour)
Through the volcanic rock and scree, we are greeted by this signpost:
“STOP. Are you really prepared to continue your Alpine crossing trek? Is the weather okay? Do you have the right equipment & clothing? Are you fit enough? If you have answered no to any of these questions, seriously consider turning back”.
Undeterred, we pressed on. Up the Devil’s Staircase. This section is steep, from 1400-1600m, hiking across lava flows, both ancient and modern.
The track is rough, it’s hard-going and I was out of breath quite quickly. After about an hour of this - with fantastic views down the valley and a peek of Mt Taranaki in the distance, we got to the top.
At this point, I was very glad that there is no "altitude" involved in this hike!
A quick rest to get my breath back was a perfect opportunity for a bit more food. I was enjoying this “eat as much as you like, when you like”.
The Devil’s Staircase is a tough hike. By taking it slowly, enjoying the views and resting when needed - it’s perfectly manageable.
The views are spectacular, how lucky we were to have such a clear day!
South Crater to Red Crater (~1 hour)
Ah, a nice flat plateau, partially covered with snow. A chance to catch my breath and pretend that the Devil's Staircase was "easy".
The dramatic Mt Doom towers over us.
We had wanted to climb to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe but the previous day two people had been badly injured in a rock slide and it was out of bounds.
Carrying on, enjoying the bleak and inhospitable land, I was feeling well aware of the steep ridge I could see in the distance that would require scaling.
Reaching the ridge, the combination of compacted snow and scree made the trail slippery and I almost fell on my backside a couple of times.
I was glad I’d brought my hiking pole!
Much more rugged than the Devil’s Staircase, the trail climbs up slippery, exposed tracks, climbing over rocks with a rather precipitous drop to one side.
Did I mention that I don't like heights? Well, I don't. Which is strange, considering I spend a lot of my time scrambling around at high altitude.
Sections of this path have chains - and with the frost on the ground we were quite literally hauling ourselves up with our arms, unable to get a proper foothold.
I won’t lie, it was exhausting and only a little bit terrifying at times!
At the top of the ridge we were starting to heave a big sigh of relief that the worst was over.
But.. oh dear, what’s this?
It’s Exposed. Very exposed. A scree slope littered with large rocks, with a steep drop on either side. I hate heights. There I’ve said it. And here I am, preparing to hike along a narrow ridge, one side dropping down into a stinky volcano, and the other… well that side seems to go on forever.
Abandoning my reputation, I decided to proceed through the steeper parts on my hands and knees. I was fully aware of what an idiot I must have looked.
Arriving at Red Crater - I could smell it before I could see it - and finally looking up from my study of the track ahead I was greeted by vistas that have to be seen to be believed.
Photographs don’t show the half of it. Over the Otuere Valley, the Rangipo Desert, out over the Kaimanawa Ranges. How lucky we were to have such a clear day!
The Red Crater - it really is red, from the iron deposits - drops away steeply, deep into the volcano, steam wafts from the fumaroles, it’s like another planet.
Mt Doom watches over, close-by now.
Next stop, those glorious Emerald Lakes.
But first… downhill.
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes (~15-20 minutes)
I’ll say it. I hate downhill.
It always seems preferable to the relentlessness of uphill - but loose scree on a slippery slope and I do not get along. As I cling to a rock, easing myself off the lip of the Red Crater, I immediately start to slip.
The descent is exposed, and the only way to remain upright was to crab-step and go very, very slowly.
I know, on Kilimanjaro I “skied” down the scree, fast and furious, crashing frequently.
The steep drops on either side meant this was not an option, and after several hard-landings on my backside, I arrived at the Emerald Lakes.
They really are an Emerald color. Their colour comes from leached minerals. Sulphur deposits can be seen on the slopes, and the scent of rotten eggs pervades from the surrounding steam vents.
I had a celebratory sandwich, and worried slightly that I was getting low on food.
Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake (~30 minutes)
Another short descent, a muddy and snow-slushy hike across a crater and it’s uphill again to the Blue Lake.
This uphill section is short, and after what I’d been through climbing to Red Crater, nice and easy.
It really is Blue!
A cold acidic lake, sacred in Maori tradition, apparently it is disrespectful to eat or drink on her shores. A blue lake with a bright white “beach” of snow.
By this time we were feeling exhilarated. Knowing the worst of the climbing was behind us, we just revelled in the beauty of the pristine environment.
Feeling strong, we moved on, thinking ahead to that nice glass of wine back in town.
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut (~1 hr)
Leaving the Blue lake, we climb to the edge of the North Crater then descend into the gorge.
The landscape becomes less bleak and the heath and moorland plants are in evidence again.
A few more ups-and-downs and we get a view of our destination in the distance. And then it starts… the relentless downhill.
Relentless it certainly was. I mentioned I hadn’t worn my hiking boots in several months.
My toenails were crying out in pain, threatening to go black and leave me.
My creaking knees were complaining and it went on.
The track is well-maintained and the alpine zone is fascinating, with wonderful views over Lake Taupo. That still didn't make up for the horror of the downhill slog.
After the first hour, I’d had enough. I was tired and grumpy. Even eating yet another sandwich didn’t help. My feet hurt and my knees hurt and it was down down down.
Arriving at Ketetahi Hut for a short rest stop, the end felt nigh.
Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car Park (~2 hours)
Oh no, more of the same.
It has to be said, the end of this hike is a beast. The downhill is tedious, it goes on for what seems like hours and is more than a bit tiresome.
The moorland gave way to thicker, heather-type bush and the temperature was warmer, with no icy mountain winds.
The path continues downhill for what feels like hours. Then the forest appears. A dense, montane forest, with a roaring stream through it.
And an ominous sign “if you hear a noise from upstream, do not enter” - it’s a live volcanic area and the Department of Conservation advises you to move quickly and not delay! Oh, great.
Shortly after this point, my spirits started to lift. The forest was beautiful and the path flattened out and my toes and knees allowed me to enjoy the hike once again.
Winding through the forest and over a little bridge, eventually the hustle and bustle of the car park appears.
I did it! Very happy to have made good time, I could now look forward to getting out of my hiking boots and sipping the inevitable glass of wine.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, in good weather is a fantastic experience. In poor weather, it could be pretty miserable, if not dangerous.
Whilst the climb to Red Crater is hard, there is a great sense of achievement on getting to the top and seeing the incredible views that this part of New Zealand has to offer.
The walk out can get a bit boring as it feels you have done what you came to do - and still the hike goes on. I may have felt differently about the last few hours if my feet weren’t hurting.
Overall - well worth it for an amazing day out!
The next couple of weeks were interesting. One of my toenails did indeed take flight, and for about four days my body hurt. Clearly, I was not in as good shape as I usually am when I tackle the Summits.
Note to self: don't underestimate a day hike, just because you've been on many multi-day hikes.
Quick Facts about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
- Length: 12 mile through-hike, allow 6-9 hours
- Location: Tongariro National Park, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand.
- No permits required, and it’s free! You can hike alone or choose to take a guide.
- Starting Elevation (Mangatepopo car park): 1100 m
- Highest Point (Red Crater) Elevation: 1886 m
- Ending Elevation (Ketetahi car park): 800 m
- Side hikes: Soda Springs (15 minutes), Mt Ngauruhoe (3 hours), Mt Tongariro (2 hours)
- Getting there: book a shuttle bus to transport you from your accommodation to the trail head.
Best Time to Hike
The Tongariro Alpine crossing can be completed year-round.
In winter, when it is covered in a blanket of snow, you’ll need to be proficient with ice-axe and crampons and go with an experienced guide.
(Note: you cannot climb Mt Ngauruhoe in winter).
Spring and Autumn are arguably the best times to tackle the crossing.
You’ll avoid the summer crowds, although the weather can be very unpredictable, so be prepared!
Early spring sees the mountains still with their snowy mantle and the track may have some remnants of snow underfoot.
Summer is busy. Very busy.
On a bright day the sun can be brutal and temperatures can stretch into the 30’s (centigrade). The weather is more reliable in the summer, although being New Zealand there will be plenty of rainy days!
Around 4 hours drive south of Auckland, the Tongariro National Park is near to some of the best of New Zealand’s central North Island destinations.
Turangi is the closest town to the Tongariro National Park, and is a lovely place to stay with bars, restaurants and quaint motels.
Next to the Tongariro river, it is popular with fly-fishermen. The nearby hot pools are a great way to relax those sore muscles after a day’s hiking.
A little further afield is Taupo. On the shores of Lake Taupo there are numerous accommodation options, as well as plenty of activities both land and water-based.
This is a great choice if you’ve got a few days as you won’t be stuck for what to do if the weather is poor on the Tongariro Crossing.
Since the crossing is one-way, you’ll need transport to get you from your accommodation to the trailhead.
There are several bus companies that can pick you up from your hotel/hostel in Taupo, Turangi or nearby villages.
Alternatively, you can leave your car at the end-point of the hike and have a one-way shuttle from there to take you to the trailhead - which is cheaper.
The advantage of taking an organized bus service is that they will keep a checklist of who is on the mountain, and if you don’t meet your last bus back - they’ll call search and rescue for you.
Some good options:
Good to Know
- Assess your fitness: you don’t need to be an athlete to complete this trek, but it’s a 7-8 hour hike over sometimes difficult terrain. The uphill sections are steep and taxing, the downhill sections relentless. A reasonably active person with no medical conditions or injuries should be able to complete the hike.
- Be prepared to change your plans at the last minute. If the weather is poor, you’ll have a miserable (and potentially dangerous) time. Don’t underestimate how quickly weather conditions in the mountains can change.
- Take the right gear! (See packing list below) If you don’t have all the gear you need, it is possible to rent it from the shuttle-bus companies.
- If you plan to climb Mt Ngauruhoe or Mt Tongariro, it’s best to leave on the “early” bus service (departs Turangi at 6am) to ensure you’ve got enough time and are not in a hurry.
- Check weather with MetService
- Check volcanic activity with GeoNet - yes, it’s a volcanic region and the last eruption was in 2012! (And then be alarmed when you see just how much earthquake activity happens daily in NZ)
- Respect this fragile environmental zone. Take out any and all trash (there are no trash cans). Do not veer off the trail, and trample plant-life.
- Sturdy hiking boots, preferably with ankle support - the terrain is rocky, the volcanic scree can be slippery. Please leave your flip-flops at home.
- Layers - whilst the start may be warm (t-shirt) it can be bitterly cold as you gain elevation. I recommend a base layer, a fleece and a jacket in addition to your waterproofs.
- For winter hiking, you’ll need full winter gear, down jacket etc in addition to ice axe and crampons.
- Zip-off “convertible” hiking pants. Whilst on a hot day you can hike in shorts, if the weather changes, you’ll be glad of the option to wear full-length pants.
- In winter, you’ll need a pair of winter pants and a base layer.
- Waterproofs - absolutely essential. Weather in the mountains can change rapidly, and being cold as well as wet can quickly become dangerous.
- Hat - a brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face, and a beanie to keep you warm on the exposed areas where the mountain wind is icy.
- Trekking pole(s) - optional, but I relied on mine to stay balanced on some of the steeper sections (both up and down)
- Gaiters - optional, but good for protecting your legs from the dusty volcanic scree.
- Sunscreen - New Zealand’s sun can be brutal, with “burn-time” of less than 3 minutes in summer.
- Cell phone for dialing 111 (the emergency service number in New Zealand).
- Personal first-aid kit - for minor scrapes and blisters.
- Map - free from the bus service. The trail is well signposted with poles to mark the way.
- Water - it might be heavy, but there is nowhere to fill your water bottle on the trail. The water from the lakes and streams is not drinkable thanks to volcanic mineral deposits. (2-4 liters recommended)
- Food - all the high-energy snacks you wouldn’t normally eat at home, you’ll need the calories!
- Bug spray (summer only)
- Toilet paper. There are toilets at Soda Springs Hut and then none until Ketetahi Hut.
- Ziplock bags for any garbage - leave no trace people!!