Otherworldly: that’s the only word that even comes close to describing this landscape. Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing makes you feel like you’ve stepped foot in to another world. One where volcanoes dominate the scenery. If you listen carefully you might be able to hear the volcano roar!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular day hikes and after 3 days of waiting for the ideal conditions I finally managed to hike the Crossing. This was without a doubt one of the most challenging, rewarding and spectacular hikes I’ve done so far. 19.4km of mind-blowingly beautiful landscapes that are bound to leave you speechless.
How to get to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way hike, which means you start the hike at Mangatepopo Car Park and finish at Ketetahi Car Park.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Shuttle
There are plenty of shuttle services available that will drop you off at the starting point of the hike in the morning and pick you up at a set time in the afternoon. This cost for this service starts at around $30 return if you’re staying close to the starting point (i.e. National Park village). Pick up from Taupo is possible, but will cost you considerably more ($40 one way). The fee for this service is the only money you will spend for the hike as there are no National Park fees. The only downside to choosing this option is that it puts a time frame on your hike. The shuttle has set drop off and pick up times which cannot be negotiated.
My shuttle was provided by the National Park Backpackers for $35 return. We left the hostel just after 7am, getting us to the start of the hike for 7:45am. Our pick up time was 4pm giving us 8h 15mins to complete the hike. This was $35 well-spent in my case as the hostel staff checked the weather conditions of the trail each day and provided information on which parts of the hike to avoid on the day. They did a great job at making sure everyone is prepared and ready for the adventure.
If you miss the shuttle or you’ve only booked a one-way option, you can call a taxi to get you back to your accommodation. I imagine that you would be charged a fair bit, so this is definitely not a budget option.
There are however other options. If you’re travelling with a group where more than one person has a car, maybe consider dropping one car at the finishing point and use the other one to get you to Mangatepopo Car Park in the morning. While this might sound like hassle, it definitely gives you more freedom and time during the hike. Be sure not to leave any valuables in the car though as these are nature car parks with no security.
Mangatepopo Car Park – Soda Springs
The first section of the Tongariro Crossing is the easiest one. The ground is relatively flat so you cover quite a lot of distance in just one hour. I did the hike in mid-May, which is just 2 weeks before the winter season in Tongariro National Park starts. The ground was covered with a fine layer of frost and temperature was just above freezing. It was a clear day but the weather in Tongariro National Park can change quickly so a hat, gloves and scarf are a must at this time of year.
Soda Springs – South Crater
Just a few minutes walk from the Soda Springs are some toilet facilities. Go, even if you don’t think you need to. The next toilet is hours away. The trail doesn’t offer a lot of protection and can get really busy, so crouching behind a bush is not going to happen. Be prepared to stand in line, bring toilet paper and don’t expect running water.
After that, the easy part of the hike is over. It is uphill from here my friends. This section of the track is known as Devil’s Staircase. I’m sure once you made your way to the top, you will agree that the name could not be more suitable. You will be climbing stairs and two historic lava flows from 1870 as you make your way from 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level. Turn around once you’ve reached the top. On a clear day you can see Mount Taranaki in the distance, a more than welcome reward.
Once you’ve reached the top simply follow the signs to continue on the Alpine Crossing. There is a second track to Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom for all the Lord of the Rings fans) summit. Be aware that this is an unmarked and difficult track, which will add at least 3 hours on to your hike. We were advised not attempt this part as it was extremely icy at the top and the limited daylight would make it difficult to finish the Tongariro Alpine Crossing before dark.
South Crater – Red Crater
South Crater might not be a real crater, but that doesn’t take away from the experience. Your surrounded by volcanic landscape telling the story of a thousands of years of volcanic history in the area. Plus you get to relax for just a few minutes on flat ground during the crossing before starting the second steep climb of the day.
Red Crater – Blue Lake
The Red Crater Summit (1886 m) is the ideal spot for a lunch break to re-fuel on energy. Epic views everywhere you look. Let’s be honest, how incredible does a picnic lunch by the edge of a crater sound? Certainly not something you do every day.
I packed lots of high-energy food like muesli bars, nuts and peanut butter sandwiches to keep me going. Unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy the lunch as much as I would have liked to thanks to a very persistent tooth ache that seems to creep up on me on every time I least expect it. It had started up again the previous day so I came prepared with painkillers and a numbing gel that helps ease the pain. I knew there was a good chance I would have to deal with it during the hike, but there was no way I wouldn’t have done the Crossing because of it. After all I had waited days for this opportunity.
If you’re not doing any of side tracks, the Red Crater will be the highest point of your hike. On a clear day you can see Mount Ngauruhoe, the Emerald Lakes and catch a glimpse of the inside of the Red Crater.
The estimated times suggest that it takes approximately 30 minutes from the Red Crater to the Blue Lake. Keep in mind that this is based on constant movement. If you like to capture your surroundings like me and are planning to have lunch here, I’d suggest planning at least one hour. Just make sure you don’t get too distracted by all this natural beauty. You still have three hours of walking ahead of you after this part.
Blue Lake – Ketetahi Hut
You are now passing through the active volcano zone. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the risks and potential hazards before embarking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing so you know what to do in case of an emergency.
The Blue Lake is a sacred area. Please do not swim in it and avoid eating & drinking near the lake, as that’s considered disrespectful. After a short climb you will get to the North Crater. Follow the zig zag through the volcanic landscape, but don’t forget to look up. This section of the hike has got some fantastic views of the nearby Lake Rotoaira. If you’re lucky enough you might even be able to see Lake Taupo from up there.
Do you ever feel like your hikes are taking twice as long because of the amount of pictures you’re taking?
Towards the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing I was hoping the landscape would get a little less scenic so that I wouldn’t feel so tempted to make as many photo stops and be back in time to make the shuttle. Guess what? There was so much beauty behind every twist and turn, that I ended up having to power walk the last 2 hours.
Ketetahi Hut – Ketetahi Car Park
Difficulty: Moderate (2 hours)
The shuttle driver gave me a very valuable piece of advice that I would like to pass on to you. Once you get to Ketetahi Hut, you will see a sign saying 1.5h to Ketetahi Car Park. Usually the estimated times on New Zealand’s sign posts are pretty accurate, but this one is not. It will take you 2 hours to finish the hike from here.
Ketetahi Hut has toilet facilities and is a good spot for one last re-fuel to give you the final boost of energy that your body will be craving by this point. Be sure to keep an eye on the time, especially if you have a return shuttle booked. They will not wait for you.
The last section takes you through some bushland and a nice cooling forest. By this point I had to move quite fast to make up the time that I spent around the Emerald Lakes. My two litre bottle of water was empty and my body started to feel tired. The lack of concentration resulted in a collision between a wooden plank and my foot. Bye, bye toe nail, it was nice knowing you.
After eight hours, 19.4km distance, six painkillers, two litres of water and one lost toe nail I made it to the end of Tongariro Alpine Crossing with just 15 minutes to spare until the shuttle pick-up time.
Things you should know about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
- Part of the Crossing is an active volcano zone. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the risks.
- You will need good fitness & the appropriate clothing for this hike.
- Check the weather forecast & track conditions before you go!
- Take enough food & water for the day.
- Toilet facilities are limited.
Looking for more day hikes in the Tongariro National Park? Read about the less challenging, but equally scenic Tama Lakes Hike.
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