Trail Guide to Colchuck Lake

Colchuck Lake used to be a hidden gem but is now quickly gaining in popularity. It’s a pristine alpine lake with soaring, jagged mountains above you, turquoise clear water below, and the added plus: water warm enough you can stomach swimming in. This lake is a real butt-kicker hike but an oh so worth-it destination. If your travels bring you near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area, I can’t recommend a hike here enough. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 9 miles
Elevation gain: 2300 feet
Difficulty: Hard
Time: 6 hours
Fees: $5 (cash only) forest service fee. Free with a displayed NPW forest pass or National Parks Pass.

Red tape:

This trail is getting notoriously busy. Get there early especially on weekend to park in the lot. The road has plenty of no parking signs yet people seemed to park there anyway. It seems it is hit or miss whether you will get ticketed or not. We drove in and got to the trailhead at 6:30 AM on a Sunday morning to find an already full lot. The bathroom facilities were out of TP and one of the outhouses was pretty gross. Bring your own supplies and make sure to take care of business before starting this hike. LNT and that includes poop! 

Trailhead directions:

From state hwy 2, take Icicle Road 8.4 miles until taking a left onto forest road NF-7600. Then take a slight right onto NF-7601 and follow this road 3.5 miles to Stuart Lake Trail’s TH. This is where you will park. The 3.5 miles on 7601 are rough and filled with large potholes. Drive slowly and carefully. A passenger car can make it although not very comfortably.

Trail Description:

We got there bright and early but still got a place in a pull out just outside the park lot that was full. As we drove an hour from our airbnb, we actually made breakfast at the car once we secured our parking spot so started hiking more around 7:30AM.

The first 2 miles are fairly easy going and follow a picturesque stream. You’ll reach a fork in the road with the right going down to the “horse ford” and the left to the bridge. Take the left fork to a very scenic bridge and prepare yourself now for the grueling climb. 

Almost all of the elevation gain is in the last 2.5 miles with a never ending uphill feel. It’s steep with few switchbacks and lots of roots/ rocks. You’ll pass a couple waterfalls visible just off trail and then reach a signed fork in the trail. Stay left for Colchuck Lake. 

From this fork it is another 1.5 miles. The trail almost immediately crosses another bridge into a boulder field and then continues its uphill onslaught to the end. There are plenty of great break spots however with one that faces incredible views of the valley you’ve been climbing out of and nearby peaks. Take your time and enjoy the journey. 

Eventually the trail will level out and you’ll catch glimpses of the lake but it takes some meandering to find a spot to get down to the shoreline. Even if the lake is busy, do some exploring and you’ll likely find some quiet shoreline to hang out and enjoy the views.

A note on crowds

The trail didn’t feel busy at all to us on the way up and even right around the lake where we were closest to the trail didn’t feel all that busy. On our way down however it was packed and we past constant groups of ill prepared hikers and families making their way up. Start your hike early if you’d like to enjoy the peace and beauty of this spot.

A note on swimming

Pack a swimsuit as well. We spent around 1.5-2 hours eating lunch, taking photos, and swimming. The water was the warmest of any alpine lake I’ve felt. I even had no problems sitting up to my waist for 30 minutes in the sun and when I hopped in to swim, there was little of that tell tale “take your breath away” cold. I paddled around some time enjoying the perfect swimming conditions before drying off and starting our hike down. 
*That being said, the water was definitely still COLD. Just not AS COLD as other alpine lakes. It still might not be your cup of tea. 

In summary

Colchuck Lake was one of my top favorite hikes we did. While it was a butt kicker, the scenery along the trail was beautiful and adventurous and the lake at the end was easily the coolest lake I’ve hiked into. Let me know in the comments what you think of this incredible lake and hike! 

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Trail Guide to Heybrook Lookout

If you are driving to the Enchantments area or heading out to chill around the charming town Leavenworth, this little hike to Heybrook lookout is a very worthy stop. It’s short (albeit pretty steep), has incredible views along with a historic lookout to explore, and will break up the drive from Seattle nicely. Bonus is how close it is to river fun so you can hike in the morning and tube or soak by the river in the warmer afternoon. 

Trail Details:

Distance: 2.5 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 900 feet
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate
Time: 1-2 hours
Fees: FREE
Facilities: None at the TH. There is a pit toilet down the ridge from the lookout at the end of the hike. Bring your own TP. Bring your own water.

Trail head directions:

The trail head is right highway 2 just past the small town Gold Bar,WA. If you are heading East, the parking area will be on your left and is a small gravel area just wide enough for cars to park directly in (vs parallel parking on the shoulder). The actual trail start is on the West side of the parking area and is marked with a small trail sign a few feet back into the trees. There are NO facilities at this trail head so plan your pit stop prior. 

About Heybrook lookout

The lookout is one of the last lookouts in WA, (106 remain) and one of the few that can both be entered and reserved for sleeping in! It’s situated on a scenic ridge with outstanding views of the surrounding valleys and nearby Mount Persis and Mount Index. There have actually been a number of lookouts in this location prior to the current Heybrook lookout. Each time the lookouts were built a little taller with the current lookout finished with construction in 1965. The present lookout is around 67 feet tall and is open to the public up to the observation deck- 89 steps up. 

Spend the night in the lookout:

Heybrook lookout is one of the few Washington lookouts you can actually reserve for the night! It was unfortunately booked out for our trip but it looks beautifully renovated and is quite private as the rest of the public hikers can only hike to the deck below the lookout’s rooms. (You get a key from the forest service before you start hiking) The lookout reserves quickly and is released on a rolling 6 month basis. Check here for more information or to check for availability. 

We wish we could’be spent the night or “hungout” longer at the lookout

About our hike:

We started our hike in the late afternoon on a Saturday in August. There were only 5-6 cars parked in the parking area and for a weekend and easy hike, we didn’t think the trail was very busy at all. It parallels the the road for a brief moment before turning sharply and heading up the hill in a series of switchbacks. While you can hear the road for the first 10-15 minutes or so you eventually leave it all behind and find yourself in a mossy forest with little bits of sunlight trickling through.

I learned quick on this, our first hike in WA, the sunscreen I bought was going to go to waste or just coming home with us. (foreshadowing: almost all the hikes we did were in the trees 80% of the way) 

The trail is made up of a couple long switchbacks and overall very well graded. It’s a good workout, but never felt too challenging like you might lose your footing and slip. We had bonus origami cranes to amuse us as well on the climb as someone had hung strands of them every 0.25 mile or so. 

It isn’t too long before you reach your first big break in the trees and get a reward of a nice open view. BUT if you turn and look up you’ll actually see the lookout right above you at that same moment- you made it! While it may have felt challenging on the climb up, you realize just how quick a hike it is and excitement replaces tiredness for up 89 steps you’ll be ready to go. 

At the top

When we got there we waited a couple minutes for a group to come down as the stairs and landings are pretty narrow and small. (Thanks Covid for making it even harder) Once we started climbing, we went straight to the observatory deck in case anyone else was waiting to come up or go down. 
The view from the top is just breath taking and I bet it is even better at sunset or sunrise. As it was in the afternoon, our views were pretty hazy and backlit but I can still appreciate the incredible mountains all around and a unique (tall!!) wooden structure bearing the brunt of weather and time since 1965. It is seriously impressive to stand up there and think about. 

After a couple minutes we actually got the lookout to ourselves for 30+ minutes as the previous occupants all headed out. On our way down we passed another 3 or 4 groups heading up, but again… really not that busy for a Saturday afternoon! 

Stop in Leavenworth for victory meal!

After finishing our hike we carried on our way to the adorable Bavarian modeled town of Leavenworth. This is a great stop for exploring the nearby Alpine Lakes Wilderness, continuing onto other destinations in the Cascades, or enjoying some fine Bavarian cuisine and beer. I highly recommend a stop in Leavenworth (short or long) after your excursion to Heybrook lookout.

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Guide to Snoqualmie Falls

If you’re looking for an easy walk or place to explore close to Seattle that includes an incredible waterfall- look no further. At only 35 minutes drive from downtown and nestled in the cute community of Snoqualmie- this makes for an excellent half day excursion from the city or a quick stop if you are heading out to some of the nearby national parks. 

About Snoqualmie Falls

The falls are named after the Snoqualmie People, who have lived for centuries in the Snoqualmie Valley. They used the area as a traditional burial site and view the falls as “the place where First Woman and First Man were created by Moon the Transformer” and “where prayers were carried up to the Creator by great mists that rise from the powerful flow.”

In addition to being a powerful and beautiful waterfall at 268 feet, the water serves 2 energy plants below the falls that then serve about 1% of the energy sold by Puget Sound Energy who operates the plants. The first plant built in 1899 at the very base of the falls was the world’s first completely underground power plant and is buried 270 below the bottom.

The falls and surrounding park area belong now to the Snoqualmie tribe who have protected from over development. You’ll find 2 viewing decks, walking trails, gift shops, restrooms, and the Salish Lodge/ Restaurant at the falls. 
*Note: Currently due to COVID-19 the lower deck and trails are closed to the public. Only the upper viewing deck and area are open to visitors. 

Getting there:

From Seattle, follow I-90 E and take exit 25 for Snoqualmie Pkwy. Once you are pulling up to the parking lots, you’ll pull under a small pedestrian bridge and see a small parking lot on the left and a driveway to another parking area on the right. The parking lot on the left charges $7- save your money. Turn right into the large and FREE parking lot where there is usually ample parking. (We visited on a Saturday in August in the afternoon and there were loads of places to park a bit further in the back) 

If you park in the parking lot on the right, you will take the pedestrian foot bridge over to the park. The bridge includes interesting facts about the building of the power plants.

Once off the bridge you’ll see turn offs to go to the Salish lodge but if you continue straight ahead and slightly to the right you will come across the falls. (walking time from the upper parking lot is less than 5 minutes) 

Hiking around the Falls:

The falls were really incredible to see and each time we got to a new view point as we headed lower we unveiled more of a view of them. While I can only imagine the power coming off the falls in times of high rain (some of the photos of the falls look like a completely different waterfall due to volume) the falls in a drier August are still definitely worth the trek out. 

We spent some time wandering around the different viewing decks and meandering down the path that leads to the lower park and deck. Since those were closed however, we did not take the trail the whole way down. If you are interested in hiking from the upper park to the lower or vice versa, the trail stats are:

Trail Info: 

Distance: ~0.75 miles each way

Elevation change: 370 feet

We checked out the gift shop ( I have a magnet addiction) and headed on our way with the whole stop at the falls only taking around 40 minutes. We then headed out to check out the nearby cute towns and outlets as we continued our trek East.

Nearby Attractions:

1. Northwest Railway Museum – There’s also numerous fun little train photo ops in between Snoqualmie and North Bend. 

2. Three Forks Natural Area- more great parks to stretch your legs and get water views

3. Outlets in North Bend – Worth a visit if you want to check out a Pendleton store as part of your PNW bucketlist.

Whether you are just going for a short trip from Seattle, or heading out on a roadtrip to the National Parks, Snoqualmie is an excellent spot for as quick a stop as you want! Let me know in the comments if you’ve been or hope to see these falls someday! 

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Top Lord of the Rings filming locations to visit on your own

One of the many reason I and many other choose to visit New Zealand is due to the incredibly epic franchise “The Lord of the Rings” which was filmed there. Not that New Zealand doesn’t have a million other reasons to visit it (and if you look through many of my love note posts about NZ you’ll see I found many of them) that doesn’t diminish any of the insane filming locations they used around both islands to shoot the movies. By filming all 3 movies (and all the Hobbit movies) in New Zealand, the director Peter Jackson really put New Zealand on a lot of travelers’ maps.

These sites are MUST SEES if you’re a big fan and really amazing sites to visit for hiking/ views even if you aren’t. They are all easy to visit on your own (if you have a car) so no tour needed!

1. The forbidden Pools – Tawhai Falls, Tongariro National Park

Up first is a short easy hike to the pools Gollum is seen swimming/ fishing in in the “The Two Towers”- the forbidden pools.

Directions:

TH adress: Manawatu-Wanganui 4691 in Tongariro National Park

The trail is located in Tongariro National Park however there are no fees for entering or hiking on this trail. The parking area will be on the left as you are heading down and can accomodate several cars. The trail starts opposite the driveway and is a flat leisurely trail until you get to the falls.

You can visit the top of the falls where there is an obvious right split off the trail to a viewing platform. This is also where you can jump from the falls into the pools below. (We saw some doing this but I’m not entirely clear on the logistics of rocks/ depth of water below)

The trail continues on to the bottom of the falls with great views of the pool used for filming. All in all the hike will take you less than an hour and is a fantastic foray into secret filming locations on the North Island. It also introduces you into our next major film star: Mount Doom.

2. Mount Doom – Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park

Our next stop is right down the road from Tawhai Falls however it’s best scene from one of the many hiking tracks in the area, including the world famous- Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Mount Ngauruhoe served as the main inspiration for Mount Doom and appears in many of the background Mordor shots that were filmed all over the area. You yourself can even CLIMB Mt. Doom by accessing it from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing but be warned- it is a tough slippery slope and you’ll want good shoes and gloves to help you with the climb. We chose to simply view it in all it’s glory from the TAC track which you can read more about in my detailed post here.

3. Hobbiton – Matamata New Zealand

This one goes without saying- it’s a MUST DO for any Lord of the Rings fan. Like pilgrims flocking to a MECCA, there’s really nothing that equates a visit to Hobbiton for a lifelong fan. Unfortunately to visit the Hobbit holes you’ll have to book a tour in Matamata, online, or at the site itself, but you don’t have to book one to get yourself there! (Save some money and book yourself!) Our tour lasted 3 hours and included a fantastic Hobbit themed lunch on the site! There are many options for booking and I highly recommend a visit to see the holes with their incredibly detailed doors and learn so much more about the filming of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. You can read more details about visiting and my experience here.

4. Edoras- Mount Sunday

Hands down the COOLEST place on this entire list to visit (apart from Hobbiton of course) is Mount Sunday (aka Edoras in the Kingdom of Rohan). Holy smokes guys, this place is as epic and insanely gorgeous as the film portrays. No CGI, no tricks here. The valley and hill that Edoras is built on is exactly like in the films and it will TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY. They even built the set on top of Mount Sunday so they could film everything exactly as it was in the area. At only 2.5 hours from Christchurch, it isn’t a bad drive. It’s even easier to hit if you’re already driving south to connect to Queenstown.

This spot was so majestic, and so familiar. It was probably my favorite spot in New Zealand and is absolutely worth the bumpy gravel road to get to it. Bonus: It’s FREE, another easy walk/ hike, and you don’t need anyone to tell you what part in the movies it played, you’ll know. For more information on hiking Mt. Sunday and the general area, visit my post here.

5. The River Anduin- The Kawaru River, Queenstown

The scene at the end of the Fellowship where everything is breaking apart but Sam insists on continuing on with Frodo is iconic- between the filming of the boats floating down the Anduin river between the giant Argonath statues to the semi-traumatic death of Sean Bean, the ending scene on the Anduin river is a memorable one. Which makes visiting the filming location for it that much more special.

While the best way to see this film spot is unarguably by boat, you can opt for the free version by doing a gentle walk along the river’s canyon rim. To see it by boat as the fellowship would’ve done, you’ll want to book a rafting trip on the Kawaru River- I recommend this company. Be warned however that it will have sections of white water so make sure you are comfortable with a little extreme sport thrown in there.

If you’re wanting to save money or not up to white rafting though, check out my detailed post here on walking the trail for some of the ultra-special views of the magical river Anduin.

6. Isengard- Paradise, Glenorchy

Like Mount Sunday, the surrounding valley of Isengard is incredible. Tall snowcapped peaks almost completely surround the area and braided turquoise rivers float right down the middle of it. The best way to experience this area is by horseback on a tour specifically designed to get you close to the movie film location give you the inside scoop of filming in that area. (Not to mention does anything feel more “Lord of the Rings” than riding horses?)

Unfortunately our tour was cancelled due to flooding of the riding tracks so instead we drove out to Glenorchy and Paradise to view from afar. The views are so beautiful along the drive that it’s a worthy half day adventure for sure. Just fill up with gas in Queenstown (it’s MUCH cheaper) and head down to Glenorchy.

Bonus: Weta Workshop- Wellington

While we didn’t have time on our trip to make it to Wellington, for the complete picture of filming of the trilogy in New Zealand, head to Wellington for a tour of the movie workshop where you’ll learn all about the special effects and see some of the crazy make up/ molds they made for the movies. See more details for visiting the Weta Worshop here.

Links to other related posts:

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Backpack to Red Castle Lakes

While almost everyone knows Kings Peak is “the” backpacking trip to do in the Uintas, Red Castle isn’t quite as largely known (though that continues to change with each passing year) I first heard about it and had a trip planned in 2016 but the trip was cancelled due to weather. Each year after I’ve tossed around the idea of going but something always came up! So this year was the year and all the hype from the last 4 years did NOT disapoint. 

Red Castle, which just happens to be one major drainage over from Henry Fork (trail to Kings Peak), is not just an incredible destination but a stunningly beautiful hike as well. Now that I’ve hiked both Kings Peak and Red Castle, I’d say the trail to Red Castle is more graded and overall more enjoyable. (could be my PTSD from Kings though, that was a bit of a rough trip) So with that here’s the deets:

Trail Information:

Total Distance: 26 miles RT to Red Castle Lake
Distance to camps: 20-24 miles RT depending on where you want to setup
Elevation: ~2,000 feet
Time:~5 hours to Lower Red Castle Lake (camp) each way
Fees: The parking lot is $5/day and recreation passes are NOT accepted. If you have more than 1 vehicle you can pay “additional vehicle” charges which is +$4/ car/ day so if you have 2 cars it would be $9/day instead of $10. This fee is CASH ONLY. Come prepared so you aren’t ticketed while out in the backcountry.

Trailhead:

While all trails connect and there are various ways to actually hike into Red Castle, China Meadows is the most popular route. The trail starts from the trailhead campground at the far end of all the campground loops. To get there, take exit 34 off I-80 and follow WY-410 E as it become Co Rd 283 and FR072 to FR125. Most of the roads are unpaved but still decent with only the last couple miles being a little more rough. As you pass China Meadows Campground and start the far loop, keep an eye out for a large parking lot.

Camping spot options:

Red Castle is not a terribly difficult hike but it is a LONG hike. It can done as an overnight but would be much more enjoyable with 2 nights. We actually worked most of the day Friday, drove to the trail head, and started hiking in at 6:30 PM. Just getting halfway in made our 2nd day that much more enjoyable. Once near Red Castle, the camping options abound:

Option 1- Camp at Lower Red Castle Lake

If you want that classic reflection of Red Castle on the lake and want the shortest hike with a pack possible, than camping around the lower lake is for you. (and for us) There are loads of places to setup all around the lake depending on the shore access and views you want. We got there Saturday afternoon and while it was busy we managed to still snag a great spot with some measure of privacy. (Just remember to camp 200 feet from water sources)

Option 2- Camp between lakes

As you head up from the lower lake there’s lots of beautiful forested areas to camp in near streams for water filtering and with Red Castle peaking out through the trees. If you have hammock sleepers, finding a spot in this stretch would be your best bet. This area will also provide more options for privacy and getting away from other campers however we did still see a lot of people camping along this stretch of trail. So while this may be the least crowded option, they area all pretty comparable.

Option 3- Camp at the pond just below Red Castle Lake

So, the main Red Castle Lake is huge and barren. It has no trees around it to break wind, hang water filters, or offer any privacy. (so I don’t recommend camping there). However there is a small lake un-named just below the basin for Red Castle Lake that offers plenty of shelter, water for filtering, and pretty gorgeous views to boot. This would mean you carry your pack 12.5 miles each way with about 1700 feet of gain so a longer harder hike, but definitely another worthy location to look for camp. 

All 3 options are great options with superb views and about equal levels of crowds. Just know if you don’t find a spot where you had your heart set on, you very well could find an even more brilliant spot just down the trail.
*It took us about 30 minutes of wandering along the side of Lower Red Castle lake to find our spot. We passed several already snagged spots that looked AWESOME but we were just as happy with where end ended up. Don’t lose hope

Packing list:

Gear:

  • Lightweight Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad + pillow
  • Jetboil or light stove
  • Long spoon and coffee cup
  • water filter
  • Solid backpack with rain cover
  • String for hanging packs when out hiking or at night
  • GOOD bugspray and sunscreen
  • luxury item: lightweight chair

Clothes

  • Puffy coat
  • Rain jacket
  • 1x shorts
  • 1 leggings/ light sweats
  • 1x fleece/ sweater
  • Socks and other underthings

*The weather can be super bipolar in the Uintas meaning you’ll want a full summer wardrobe during the day when it is hot, and warm winter gear for at night. In August we had a high of 70 (felt at least 75 in the sun) and low of 40 at night. Afternoon thunderstorms are common as well so rain gear is always a must.  

Food- For a 2 night trip here is what we packed per person:

  • 2x dehydrated meals (backpacker’s pantry) + 1 dehydrated dessert
  • 2x oatmeal cups (no dishes needed, just cook in the cup and pack out trash)
  • 3x flavored tuna packets + several handfuls of crackers for lunch
  • 3x larabars
  • several handfuls of goldfish for snacking
  • 2x hot chocolate packets for colder evenings

Trail Description: 

As previously noted we started in the evening on a Friday and just planned on hiking in as far as we could make it (which was several miles) The start of the trail is really easy, with the first almost 7 miles having little to no noticeable elevation gain. It wasn’t too rocky and was pretty easy going with our 2 dogs. Bonus- starting later we had the trail to ourselves.

There’s a beautiful bridge 2 miles in and a random fence that you have to move logs out of the way about 3 miles in. After that you may notice some trail splits but they are all signed making the trail very easy to follow. You’ll just keep on the trail to Red Castle lakes.

Around 8:30 we found a great little camp spot that even already had a fire ring so we called it a night and waited for our friends who started hiking even later than us. We were right near a stunning section of creek which made amazing sunset and sunrise photos and provided a very convenient spot to filter water from. 

Day 2

Starting in the morning we got a later start (around 9:30) and already noticed several groups hiking by as we cleaned up our camp. (so note Saturday a lot of people start hiking in) The trail again was pretty nice starting out moving between open meadows and trees (usually the climbs in elevation happen in the trees)

At about 8 miles in you get your first look of Red Castle as you cross your 2nd solid bridge of the hike. Then you’ll reach the switchbacks – which normally would strike fear in the hearts of people not wanting to go uphill- fear not, these are pretty mild. 

After finishing the switchbacks the trail opens back up with really nice views of Red Castle as you hike towards it. We were enjoying beautiful weather however it was HOT. The water along the way was very tempting to hop into.

Time to pick a camp spot

After the switchbacks you’ll reach a fork in the trail. This is where you decide where you are going to try to setup camp. If you want to camp by the lower lake, take the left fork which will go a couple yards and then at the unsigned fork you’ll go right. The trail crosses several streams but eventually leads you right to the lower lake where you can start scouting a good spot. This will be about 10 miles in. 

Otherwise take the right fork to climb up a hill that will take you around (and quite above) the lower lake. You can pick you way through some unmarked areas to this trail from the lower lake at later points- but it can be very muddy and overgrown. If you take the right fork, you will look down on the lower lake and hike on by where you’ll then come to some beautiful wooded meadows with creeks to filter water from. (camping option 2 about 11-12 miles in)

Continuing on past the lower lake you will start to notice quite a bit more elevation gain through the trees until you reach a beautiful unnamed lake with a waterfall and nice reflections of the side of Red Castle about 12.5 miles in. (camping option 3) This lake is the LAST viable camping option as from here on out you will be above tree line and subject to wind/ lack of privacy.

My experience

We dropped our stuff at the lower lake, had lunch and a dip in the lake, followed by a little nap and were ready to hike to main Red Castle lake. We started up about 4:30 PM and it took about an hour each way. (It was SO nice being free of our packs) We noticed as we hiked up that almost all the camping options felt about the same level of crowded… so really it just comes down to what kind of a view you want.

Again we had pretty incredible weather (if a little hot) After taking photos at the upper lakes, we headed back down for our dinner and sunset views from our own campsite (which were pretty unparalleled in my opinion) 
We collected fallen dead wood again (do NOT collect wood from live trees) for a small fire and had a nice evening before hitting the tents under a nice full moon. 

*Be aware of fire restrictions in the areas you are camping. Some don’t allow fires close to the water and some don’t allow fires at all. It may also be seasonal- be fire aware.

*The bugs were AWFUL- since we had such nice weather without wind, they were all over for several hours in the evening. Make sure you bring GOOD bugspray (100% deet) 

The hike out:

We had an easy going morning again, leaving camp around 10. It took us about 4.5 hours hiking back with about a 30 minute break. The hike back was nice as we noticed a lot of the groups left earlier so we had the trail to ourselves again. One of the great things about how long this trail is that people really get spread out along it. There may be a lot of people recreating in the area, but it never really felt all that crowded. Which is awesome for a weekend around here! 

Wrap up:

This backpacking trip is a total MUST DO. It is so incredibly scenic all along the trail with a breathtaking destination. Plan at least 2 nights so you can really enjoy the area and come prepared! Leave no trace as well so everyone can continue to enjoy the spot for years to come. 

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Trail Guide – Peekaboo & Spooky Slot Canyon

These 2 slots are not only some of the most photogenic non-technical slots you can hike to, but they are also the first slot canyons I ever explored (and my first hikes in Escalante to boot!) While once upon a time they were relatively unknown and less accessible due to the dirt road from hell, now you’ll find a full parking lot by late morning on any weekend. They are a MUST do for anyone wanting to experience scenic slot canyons and visiting the Escalante area.

Trail details:

Distance: 6 miles RT
Elevation Gain: 700 feet throughout the hike (you only really notice it on your hike out to your car)
Time: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: Easy- Moderate
Pets?: Allowed but NOT recommended especially for big dogs
Fees: Free

Trailhead Directions:

From HWY 12, turn onto Hole in the Rock Road and drive for 26 miles where you’ll see a left turn onto BLM Rd 252. Drive another mile to where the road ends in a loop parking area with pit toilets and a trail sign.

While this road is definitely not pleasant (read washboard bumps and large gravel for over an hour) any car can make it as long as the road conditions are dry. Just drive slow and take your time if you have lower clearance and DO NOT attempt to drive down Hole in the Rock road if rain is in the forecast or if the road is wet/ snowy.

Tips for the best hiking experience

  1. Start as early as you can- preferably by 8 AM. Not only will this allow you to miss most if not all the crowds but it will help you beat the heat. It gets VERY hot out there.
  2. Pack lots of water… but in as small a bag as you can. These canyons are tight and you don’t want to lug a big pack through them.
  3. Don’t wear your nicest hiking clothes or bring your brand new hiking pack. The sandstone walls are TOUGH on gear and clothes.
  4. Hike up Peekaboo and down Spooky. Not only does this help with the flow of traffic (it is very difficult to pass people in these canyons) but the climbing sections are easiest this direction.
  5. Pre-load the trail map in all trails or download it if you have pro. The loop can be challenging between the 2 canyons so it helps to have the trail map to ensure you are on the right path.

Where to stay nearby:

Primitive camping/ boondocking is allowed anywhere off Hole in the Rock Road and is free. The most popular spot is about 0.5 miles from HWY 12 where there is a lot of flat space to bring trailers/ RVs/ other rigs out to park. There’s also a dumpster for trash at this lot but no restrooms. Otherwise you can camp anywhere there is a pullout big enough for you to get off the road without trampling plants. We camped at the overflow parking for the TH which is a huge area only 0.25 miles from the TH. (You can’t camp AT the TH) Remember pack out what you pack in including all trash, ESPECIALLY TP.

If camping isn’t your thing, there’s a Motel and excellent RV park in Escalante that has cabins at a great price called Canyons of Escalante RV park. I’ve stayed there many times and have always had a fantastic stay.

Our experience on the hike

Since we camped nearby we were on the trail by 8 AM and were the 3rd car/ group to start. (This was on a Saturday morning so timing was important) The beginning of the trail is about 1 mile of flat hiking following the rim below the parking area. The views are expansive of MANY canyons in the area and is beautiful but exposed with no shade. (this is one place I’d hate to hike in the late afternoon)

The steep slickrock climbs in and out. This only shows maybe 1/4 of the total elevation. It gets VERY hot on this section.

After about 1 mile we descended the steep slickrock down to the canyons base. Be careful in your route finding down the slick rock and watch for cairns to guide you.

Once down, we saw the trail to the Dry Fork Narrows on the left but decided to skip for now as our goal was to beat the crowds. Once we passed the dry fork narrows, we immediately saw the 10 ft. climb up into Peekaboo. We found it to be pretty easy with the small steps ground into the climb but it could be challenging for little kids who can’t reach each step.

Peekaboo Canyon

Once up the climb into Peekaboo is the most iconic section of this whole trail with the double arch. We only saw 1 trail runner in this section who passed us otherwise we took our time taking lots of photos in this section.

The Peekaboo slot is very short so after the iconic arches, the trail slots up into a skinny shallow canyon, widens, then slots again for another 10 minute stretch before ending at a tree where the canyon is gone and you’ll see a large wash. We initially missed the turn off to go on the loop here and headed up the wash 5 minutes before I checked the map and realized we’d missed our turn. Back at the tree, there’s come cairns that lead you up and over the hill and cut across sandy dunes. This is the other miserable section in the sun since the sand is soft and hot.

Spooky Canyon

After about 20 minutes we were down and at the top of Spooky ready to descend. Spooky is at least twice the length of Peekaboo and MUCH skinnier with little curvy down climbs where you’ll need to watch your step. For most of Spooky you’ll have to have your pack slung over one shoulder or off to the side.

A couple minutes in there’s another little arch great for taking pictures under and then about 5 minutes later the major obstacle in Spooky. The top makes it look like a series of boulders, but the boulders are all about 10 feet above the canyon floor. Aim left to a 4 foot hop down or chimney down climb. From the top of that boulder, turn around to face “up” canyon and you’ll see a small, dark tunnel cut into the boulders. This is a smaller step down and crawl through that will get you to the canyon bottom the safest.

Sometimes there’s a rope to help people down, but I wouldn’t count on it being there. If you aren’t comfortable with what I just described, bring some webbing or a rope just in case- or skip this hike.

After the boulders it’s a series of shimmying, crawling, and skimming through the rest of the canyon. My absolute favorite parts of Spooky are the ultra textured walls and how sinewy (canyon talk for curvy) the walls are. Other slots like the narrows or Little wild Horse are narrow channels of straight walking- where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel most of the time. In Spooky- you can see maybe 5 feet ahead before the canyon dramatically twists and curves so there’s no end in sight.

*As a side note, this isn’t a good trail for the claustrophobic.

After an hour or so we were out of Spooky. We followed the trail along the wash easily back to where we passed the entrance to Peekaboo completing the loop. From there you hike back up the same trail you hiked in on.

Should you bring your dogs?

*The entrance to Peekaboo around 10:30 AM on that Saturday was INSANE. At least 20 people were waiting to make the climb up and it seemed to mostly be blocked with families bringing very small kids and dogs with them. PLEASE be considerate of other hikers and your furry friends. This trail is NOT good for dogs. The sand is very hot and will burn their paws unless you start at 6AM. Also consider the canyon is NARROWEST at your feet where dogs will be hiking through. Not only will you have to lower/ hoist your dog up these 10+ foot drops but you will have to help your dog over narrow sections of canyon where they WONT fit.

We were back at our car around 11 to find a completely full parking lot but had one of the best mornings we could ask for.

Definitely start early.

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Guide to House on Fire

Memorial day 2020 we decided to make the most of our 3 day weekend and head to a new (to me) explored are of Utah- Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears. With how busy most outdoor spaces have become in the wake of Covid-19, we hoped going a little further from any cities would put some distance between us and the crowds and we were right. We started the trail to House on Fire around 2 in the afternoon and had the trail and ruins mostly to ourselves.

Hiking details:

Distance: 2 miles RT to the House on Fire ruins but continue down canyon as far as 8 miles RT and you’ll spot 6 more ruins along the way.
Elevation: flat, albeit sandy
Time: 1 hour (more if you want to see more ruins in this area)
Fees: Bears Ears day use fees are $5pp/ day or pay $10pp for a week. (increased from $2 Jan 1,2020) Self-serve pay stations, bring cash. (Day hiking fees in this area are not covered by the National Park Pass)
Dogs?: Dog friendly, but on leash

Trailhead Directions: If travelling from hwy 191 through Blanding, take hwy 95 for 25 miles when you’ll see a road marked for Texas Flat Road. Drive down this road 0.3 miles to where a canyon appears on your left. This is the trail.

*Note: the fee box is at the beginning of the right turn off and you’ll want to display the receipt for paying your dues on your dash before hiking. A couple cars along the road had fee reminder notes/ tickets on them.

Park along this road and head down canyon to your left. At the bottom of the small hill you’ll find the trail sign and register.

About the House on Fire:

The House on Fire like the other cliff dwellings in the area were built between 700-2500 years ago by ancestral Puebloan tribes. The House on Fire isn’t actually a house at all and instead consists of five granaries built into Cedar Mesa sandstone. The granaries were used to store mostly corn which was a major food source then. The overhang that forms the ceiling has a unique, streaked pattern that resembles flames. The best time of day to photograph is around 10-11 when the sun is just over the canyon walls and bounces up to reflect off the ceiling.

Our experience with the hike:

We started about 2 and unlike our previous short hike where we didn’t bring water, we learned it was better to bring it as the dogs were getting very hot. While the trailhead was lined with cars, the only people we saw the entire time was an older couple right at the beginning and then a family at the ruins.

The hike only took us 25 minutes to get to the ruins which are on the right side marked by a small trail arrow. It would be easy to miss so I recommend downloading the all trails map or making frequent looks behind you once you’ve gone a mile.

The family that was there before us finished their photos quickly and left us with the ruins all to ourselves. There are many signs indicating not to try to enter the ruins (please listen to these) I put my phone through one of the windows to capture a photo inside instead.

A photo inside one of the granaries taken by putting my phone through the opening. Reminder: It is illegal to enter these dwellings or even touch them.

The area around the ruins is also a bit fun to explore as there is a cave like boulder area and spots where you can scramble up on top. We spent about 15 minutes exploring around and then walked back in another 25 minutes.

All in all this was a great little hike and I imagine there’s many fun ruins further down Mule canyon. If you are worried about finding your way, I recommend alltrails. It lead us straight and true on this one.

What to see nearby:

The Butler Wash Ruins

These are an easy stop on your way to or from Blanding and are only 1 mile RT. They lead to a scenic overlook so you cant get as close as with House on Fire but it is very cool to see the differences in architecture employed between the higher cliff dwellings and the boxier sites like House on Fire.

The Valley of the Gods

While not home to very many hiking adventures the Valley of the Gods is a beautiful scenic drive with lots of little spaces to explore and best of all- to camp. There are so many beautiful pullouts with expansive views that would make amazing camp spots. Just remember to pack out what you pack in (including human waste please) Combine with the Moqui Dugway for one hell of a driving experience. Don’t worry- the roads are gravel/ dirt but any car can make it.

Goosenecks State Park

I visited here way back in 2016 and have always wanted to revisit. It’s a wild place with beauty that rivals views in Canyonlands and beyond and for a very moderate price. Pack your camping gear if you want to sleep in front of the most incredible view but be warned- the winds NEVER die down out there and you WILL have to put rocks in your tent so you dont lose it to the winds and canyon.

Fees: $5/ car day use. $10/ campsite. Likely self-self pay, make sure to have cash

Natural Bridges National Monument

Bonus 1: I haven’t been able to visit yet (although plans are in the works) but within Natural Bridges there are many more ruins to explore alongside 3 huge natural bridges (arches) which combined make for a really fun day. The trails weren’t very dog friendly so I’ve decided to visit here on a trip without my boys.

Fees: $20/ car day pass. Entrance included with an America the Beautiful National Park Pass OR South-Eastern Utah Pass that covers Arches, Canyonlands, and Hovenweep NM.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

This is another bonus as I haven’t been able to stop here yet (not a dog friendly museum) but if you’re interested in seeing how the ancestral Puebloans lived with a fantastic recreation of the dwellings and villages this is for you. They even have a full scale kiva you can climb down in and the largest pottery on display in the Four Corners Region.

Fees: $5/adult. $3/ child. Children 5 and under are free.

Hours: Open Mon-Sat/ 10AM-4 PM. Closed on Sundays and most major holidays.

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Walk along the Kawaru River

If you’re looking for a leisurely afternoon walk, a middle earth fan whose not up to white water rafting, or simply rained out of a white water trip like we were, fear not as I have a solution for you. Enter the Kawaru River pathway (aka Gibbston River Trail) which starts with views of people jumping off a bridge, passes through more than a couple wineries, and stops along several scenic picnic spots on the river rim. It’s a great shorter walk/ hike to get outside and admire the Kawaru river… without partaking in the rough house activity of rafting it.

Where to park for the Kawaru River trail:

Google maps AJ Hackett Bungy Kawarau Bungy Centre and park in the same lot as the bungy bridge.

The parking lot is just 20 minutes outside of Queenstown along hwy 6 (toward Wanaka). The turn off for the parking lot will be on your left just after passing over the kawaru river bridge. (~23 km along hwy 6)

Trail info:

Distance: 2.25 miles/ 3.6 km 1 way. Go as long as you like though

Difficulty: Easy, little to no hills

Time: Allow at least 1.5 hours

Kawaru River Trail Directions:

Once you park, go ahead and wander down to check out any jumpers from the bridge as they leap from the historic suspension bridge, get caught up by their ankles on the bungy, and rafted back to the river side. Sign yourself up if you’re feeling daring and make use of the facilities around the bungy center.

The Gibbston River trail goes both ways along the Kawaru river actually crossing over the historic suspension bridge- and both directions make for a scenic walk. HOWEVER if you want the specific views in this post and/ or Lord of the Rings filming locations, you’ll want to skip crossing the bridge and actually walk up the parking lot from where you parked, to the East side where you’ll see a drive way for the Winehouse and then signs for the Gibbston River Trail.

The start of the trail

At first the trail is pretty close to the road but after a few minutes, it will turn off and cut down to the river’s rim. There it will meander along occasionally cutting away from the river before returning back to it. There’s a couple wineries you can stop at if interested, or even better do the wine & bike tour to see more of the river trail and more of the wines. Otherwise you’ll come across the first awesome view point (probably the best one) about 1 mile/1.7km in. There’s even a bench to mark the spot of a great view.

It was standing here that we were definitely able to see the scene at the end of the Fellowship where the party is rowing down the river Anduin and passes between the giant Argonath statues. (We were still disappointed as to not be able to raft ourselves down through the narrow canyon)

You can continue on for more views of the narrow river canyon with the next best view point being about mile 1.93/3km. Make sure to take the left trail junction (the one that says for advanced bikers only) to get to this view point. This section of trail is definitely the most interesting with a few little bridges here and there, loads of bunnies hopping about, and being some of the closest to the cliffs down to the river.

You can follow this trail for as long as you like, although we turned around once the canyon opened up about 2.25 miles into the trail. Overall it’s a flat easy trail with nice river and canyon views. We didn’t get a change to check out any of the wineries, but if I went back to Queenstown I’d definitely consider a biking trip down this river trail to see more of it and almost certainly be re-booking myself for the Kawaru white water rafting tour.

Unless you have a ride sorted out for getting back, return on the trail from whence you came to the bungy bridge carpark.

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Guide to Hobbiton

Something most people cannot miss when visiting New Zealand is Hobbiton, the movie set. It’s known worldwide so no matter where you go- when you tell people you visited New Zealand, you will get asked “Did you visit those Hobbit Holes?” by both fans and not fans alike. That being said, you should plan on whether a stop at Hobbiton is right for you or not. You SHOULD visit it you are

  1. A fan of the books or movies
  2. Interested in set design and/or the making of movies
  3. Interested in a good beer and some likely photo ops.

You should NOT plan a trip here unless you at least fit the bill with 1 of those options. People who DON’T like crowds or on a strict budget may find it busy, touristy, and an expensive expenditure. *

*Just saying how it is.

Contents

About the Hobbiton movie set:

“In 1998, Sir Peter Jackson’s team of location scouts were searching for the iconic rolling hills and lush green pastures of Hobbiton™. An aerial search led them to the Alexander farm, a stunning 1,250 acre sheep farm in the heart of the Waikato. They noted the area’s striking similarity to The Shire™, and quickly realized that the Hobbits™ had found a home.

In one particular part of the farm, there is a magnificent pine tree towering over a nearby lake, adjacent to a rising hill. Bag End now sits atop that hill, overlooking the Party Tree, as that pine would later be known. The surrounding areas were untouched; no power lines, no buildings and no roads in sight. This meant that Sir Peter Jackson could leave the 20th century behind, and fully submerge himself in the fantasy world of Middle-earth™.

In March 1999 the crew began the nine month quest to bring the ideas for Hobbiton to fruition; help was provided by the New Zealand Army, and soon 39 temporary Hobbit Holes™ were scattered across the 12 acre plot used for the set. Secrecy was key, and strict security measures were put in place by the production company throughout construction and filming. Filming commenced in December 1999, and it took around three months to get a wrap on The Shire.

In 2009, Sir Peter Jackson returned to film The Hobbit trilogy, and he left behind the beautiful movie set you’ll see today; 44 permanently reconstructed Hobbit Holes, in the same fantastic detail seen in the movies. In 2012 The Green Dragon™ Inn was opened as the finale to the journey. Guests now finish their Hobbiton Movie Set experience with a refreshing beverage from the Hobbit™ Southfarthing™ Range. There’s an abundance of movie magic nestled inside the fully operational farm.”

Options for getting to Hobbiton:

  1. Private car- Simplest option in my mind- the tour departures are cheapest if you can drive yourself to Hobbiton. It is just over a 2 hour drive from Auckland and very close to other popular destinations in Rotorua.
  2. Take a bus from Auckland to Matamata where there are Hobbiton tour departures that can be booked as a combo with your Hobbiton entrance. (Bus fares are around $40- book in Intercity.com)  
  3. Book a tour within Auckalnd to transport you to your Hobbiton tour. (most expensive- least flexible option)

Since the absolute best way to get around New Zealand is driving yourself, this is the method I’d recommend. Once you get to Hobbiton you have still more options:

Hobbiton Set Tour booking options

  1. A 2 hour movie set tour Adults (17years+) : $84/ Youth: $42 *
  2. The 2 hour movie set tour+ lunch Adults: 120/ Youth: 78 *
  3. The 2 hour movie set tour+ dinner+ lantern lit walk second tour (only offered select nights during the week) Adult: $192 Youth: 152.50 Child: $100

*All tours come with a complimentary drink and free time at the Green Dragon after your walk. There is also a café at Shire’s Rest where you park and where all the Hobbiton tours depart from.

*Children 8 and younger are free but must be accompanied by a paying adult and have a ticket

*You CANNOT see the Hobbit holes without booking a tour.

About our experience:

I did the simple 2 hour tour on my last visit 5 years ago so this time we spiced it up by booking the set tour+lunch combo. (I would’ve booked dinner but it was only available certain days of the week and didn’t align with our schedule)

We drove from Tongariro in the morning and got to the Shire’s Rest about 45 minutes before our departure. We checked in at one of the many kiosk desks to exchange our online vouchers for the physical tickets and then spent some time milling around the gift shop. About 10 minutes before our tour departure (1 PM) we lined up in our designated queue to be first on the bus and waited for our departure.

The lunch portion

Once you board the bus, it’s a quick 10 minute drive along a beautiful road to Hobbiton. For the lunch tour, they lead us down to their party tent (which is right near the Green Dragon Inn) and we were seated at our specific group tables. We had about 45 minutes to eat once seated and they designated an order to lining up to go down the buffet line which was all rather efficient. Once  everyone was seated with their food, you were more than welcome to go back for seconds and there was plenty of food. The options were NUMEROUS but my favorite things were the roasted potatoes/ veggies with herbs, slow roasted beef, tomato and vegetable curry, and marinated chicken. They also had a selection of deserts, tea, and coffee available after the main courses. The only other beverage available during lunch is water.

Delicious options pictured here include roasted veggies with herbs, slow roasted beef, tomato and vegetable curry, marinated chicken, salad, and fresh hearty bread

All in all, I’m a slow eater and so only having 45 minutes to eat semi stressed me out and once we had food, both Braden and I were 100% business at consuming as much food as quickly as possible. I am happy to report that everything was absolutely delicious and we have no regrets about spending a little more on lunch that day.

The touring portion

After everyone was finished and we had all gathered outside, we began our walking tour! The tours seemed to be spaced about every 10-15 minutes and each tour group is easily around 30 people which makes for A LOT of people milling about. The guides are all very good at getting people to move along while still stopping at all the “must get the shot” spots. In general, we would stop and learn a few facts, take a few photos, and the guide would start slowly walking on. Then people would trickle after getting their own shots and we’d all be stopped where the guide stopped next.

The red door Hobbit hole is the only one you can open and look inside of. They are just empty or used for storage anyways at this site.

It was actually quiet impressive how efficient the tours ran and all the guides seemed to be excellent at communicating and directing. There were 2 spots along the route that EVERYONE who wanted one got a photo (the guide offered to take the photos). These were at the red door (where you can actually open the door and peak inside) and Bag end. The rest of the walking tour the guides ask you to move along and not try to get a photo with every single Hobbit hole. (there are a LOT).

At each stop you learn about specific scenes filmed in that spot, some of the building process that went into the visible props, and some of the Hobbit characters that resided in each particular hole. You learned a little bit about the Hobbit’s lifestyle (as described in the books) which was great and I found everything to be on par (since I had just read the books again before leaving for our trip.)

My favorite details we learned about the site was how meticulously devoted to the tree on Bag End they were- it’s actually the only tree that is fake in the whole area. Each leaf was hand painted and attached to be as authentic as possible.

The finale

The other notable stops are at the bottom of the hill (in the “community”) and by the party tree. From there we walked a short 5 minutes or so through some pretty gardens and woods to the mill and Green Dragon. You’re rewarded then for making it through all that walking with your choice of 4 beverages and anywhere from 20-40 minutes to hang out. We had the latter so plenty of time to drink and admire the details that went into the Green Dragon and mill.

Hobbiton beverage options are:

  1. Nonalcoholic Ginger Beer- tried on my first visit to Hobbiton and remember it being delightful
  2. A traditional English Ale- haven’t tried but sounds good. It’s a roasted chocolatey sort of brew.
  3. A Fine Grain Amber Ale- tried this round and it was QUITE good. The taste is light, malty, and sweet. Very little bitterness or hops.
  4. The Sackville Cider- Excellent- tried this and both Braden and I agreed it was great. It’s a more tart and refreshing cider as opposed to a lot of the overly sweet ones you get at the store.

Note: There are 2 restrooms around the Green Dragon (one of which is IN the Green Dragon) so apart from when you are wandering around the Hobbit Holes (approx. 1.5 hours) you have access to facilities.

At a specified time you meet back up with your same tour guide just outside the Green Dragon and walk back to board the bus for a 10 minute ride back to the car park.

Wrapup

So in review, I would recommend doing the lunch or evening tour as I thought the food was great and it was fun having a little extra time around the site. Just visit without the meals if you are on a budget though and you’ll still have a great experience. If you are a fan of the fantasy and not of the crowds- fear not. While it is busy, they have these tours down to an efficiency that really impressed me and I never had to stress that much about getting the photo I want or having to wait for people to move. All in all- awesome experience, and a must do if you enjoy LOTR, movie making, and cool photos 😀

What do you think, does Hobbiton seem like a must do for your trip to New Zealand?

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Hiking Guide-Tongariro Crossing

Rated New Zealand’s top day hike (and among the top 10 day hikes in the world) the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered a “must do” for any outdoor enthusiasts visiting New Zealand. It’s yet another track I missed on my first trip out there and I was determined not to miss it this time. The track provides incredible views across different kinds of (primarily volcanic) landscapes. From the desolate Mars-like landscape of the western face of mount Tongariro, to the glistening emerald lakes and vast lake views over Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo as you descend, this hike is really unlike any other I’ve experienced.

Contents

Here’s the details:

Distance: 19.4 km/ 12 miles point to point
Elevation change: 2600 feet gain, 3700 feet/1126m loss
Rating: Moderate- Hard (depending on weather conditions)
Time: 6-9 hours
Cost: The trail is free. The shuttles are 40 NZD/ $26.30*
When to hike: Unless you have mountaineering skills with crampons and ice ax, plan on hiking during the late Spring- early Fall (Oct- April) and avoid this hike if any storms are predicted in the area.

Start of the trail

Shuttle information:

During the primary trekking months (mid Oct-April) parking at the main TH on Mangatepopo road is limited to 4 hours so you aren’t able to park your car there if you are doing the crossing. There are shuttle services from National Park village that cost 40 NZD pp or you can arrange your own pickup/ drop off. The shuttles pick up at multiple locations in town and at the Mangahuia Campground. There are a couple shuttle providers but all cost around the same, and TCS (Tongariro Crossing Shuttles) is the most frequent/ popular provider.

*YOU MUST BOOK AHEAD. You must book on their website or by calling their office BEFORE the day you plan to do the trek. Departures are scheduled on the hour from 7AM-10AM and the time slots DO sell out. The shuttle will then pick you up at the end of the trek starting at 1:30 and continuing every hour (2:30,3:30,etc) until 5:30. If you are late for the shuttle, they have a phone you can call that will send a van out to pick you up but you will incur additional charges at that point.

Book here

*The shuttle will also pick you up free of charge at the beginning of the hike any time during the day if you decide to turn around.

Tips for completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:

  1. Be Prepared. People have DIED doing this trail and hikers are rescued at least twice a month, don’t let that be you!
    • Wear good shoes with durable, thick soles. The volcanic terrain is VERY sharp and hard on shoes.
    • Bring SUNSCREEN. The track is 90% exposed with no cover until the last 10% of the track. (We failed in this respect and ended up with horrible sunburns on the 4th day of our 2 week trip)
    • Bring layers! The conditions can and DO change rapidly in the alpine environment. While it can be hot and sunny when you start, clouds and winds blow in quickly making for very extreme conditions. And again with no cover up there, you don’t want to be caught without layers.
    • Bring lots of snacks and water- at least 2.5-3 liters per person.
    • Watch the weather reports. The shuttle services will make sure you are aware and prepared for the weather conditions that day when they pick you up. It’s important to know if bad weather could be rolling in, whether you are prepared with layers or not, and how familiar you are with the route. The route is not always obvious, the rock is VERY loose and crumbly, and there are extreme drop offs, active steam vents, and high acidity pools. You don’t want to be caught up there with no idea which direction to go and no visibility due to weather.
    • Hike with a buddy/ group and do NOT wander off alone. EVER.  
    • Pack Toilet paper! There are many toilets along the route but none of them provide TP. If you want it, make sure you pack it.
View from near Blue Lake looking across the central crater towards Red Crater
  1. Schedule for either the first or second start times with the shuttle. In the summer (even early summer) It got HOT fast. We started at 7AM and wished we’d started at 6. Starting earlier also gives you the opportunity to share the trail with less people as it gets busy quickly.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the route. We thought we were much closer to being done than we actually were. The more you know, the more you can plan and pace yourself.
  3. Use trekking poles and/or do some prep hikes. I discounted this as a fairly easy day as I’ve done far worse hikes than 2600 feet of gain but that gain is RAPID and steep. The loss at times is even worse, with one section that had NO solid footing at all… It was like skiing down loose rock. The trekking poles will help you keep your balance when you slide.

History of the National Park

It was designated Tongariro National Park on the 23 September 1887, due to the importance of the area for its outstanding natural features and the cultural importance that the peaks and rivers represent to local Maori. In 1990 the park was recognized as a World Heritage Site for its nature and in 1993, the park became the first place in the world to be listed as a World Heritage Site for the spiritual and cultural values the landscape possesses for the indigenous people in the area.

Volcanic history of Tongariro

The Tongariro land mass was formed by a multitude of eruptions from at least six different cones which all share the same alignment with the oldest lava flow dated to about 275,000 years ago.

The eruptions continued for the next 200,000 years until the Ice Age. As the ice retreated, it carved out valleys from the mountains. Red Crater and Mt Ngauruhoe are the most recently formed features on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (which makes sense as they are also 2 of the active hazards zone… more on that later)

Red Crater was formed about 3000 years ago. It lies within a scoria cone which rests on top of the older Tongariro lava flows. The most recent confirmed volcanic activity from Red Crater was reported between 1855 and 1890. The dike on the Southern Wall has been exposed by erosion. Lava would have flowed through this dike and poured into the valley below. (pictures of this further down)

Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) is the youngest volcano in the area having begun to form about 2,500 years ago. It is the most active vent in the Tongariro area with its last eruption recorded in 1975 and the flows from that eruption are easily visible at the beginning of your hike when you hike up to the south crater. (the first big uphill move)

Photo of an active steam vent along the track

Volcano Awareness

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing and Tongariro Northern Circuit both pass through hazard zones. Tongariro Volcanic Hazard Zones include: Te Maari, Red Crater and Ngāuruhoe. All of these vents have been active within the last 100 years. The most recent eruptions occurred from Te Maari in 2012 and Ngāuruhoe in 1975. Flying rocks and burning ash clouds are the main volcanic phenomena that can affect the tracks on and around Tongariro.

Even when the tracks are open, volcanic risk is present as volcanic eruptions can occur with little or no warning. Volcanic monitoring systems in the Park monitor volcanic activity and mitigate volcanic risk, but won’t ensure your personal safety. Hike at your own risk. To check the alert level of the Tongariro area, visit GEONET the day before/ on the day or your trek.

About our experience:

*If you want an incredibly detailed write up of what this hike will entail along with a few more tips, read on.

The beginning:

Because our Airbnb was 20 minutes North of National Park village, we decided to book the 7AM departure to make it easier on ourselves in the morning. Probably best too since we barely made that time slot. We arranged for pick up at the station/ Park & Ride which as it turns out is the first on the route. (bad because we were a little late, great because the driver waited for us) The bus definitely filled up quickly with the major stops being the ski shop and YHA. It was about 30 minutes drive with additional pickups meaning we started our hike right around 7:40 AM.

A flat couple miles on boardwalks through lava fields to start

The trailhead was BUSY- between our bus load of people, previous 6 AM drop offs, and other shuttle services- it was crowded. We headed out immediately instead of dilly dallying with all the people.

*TIP If you have to use the restroom, just WAIT as literally 20-30 minutes down the trail there are toilets at the Mangatepopo Hut that were empty. There’s toilets every 1-2 hours after that.

After 3 miles (around an hour)  of flat easy hiking, a small track will veer off to the visible Soda Springs Waterfall. It’s maybe a 15 minute detour and a cool little waterfall to see up close.

Soda Springs Waterfall

The uphill through lava fields:

From the waterfall/ Soda Springs toilet area, the trail finally starts to really take off- gaining almost all the elevation over the next 3 miles. We had decided to just pack one bag between the 2 of us and trade off every 3 miles which meant I got to carry the pack up the hills. The track here is made up of more boardwalks and stairs (easier than lose rock) and you get some pretty cool views down the valley and on a clear day even out all the way to Taranaki. (we weren’t so lucky) The immediate slopes are all ancient lava flows which vary between flat to dotted with massive lava rocks. If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you will definitely feel like you are trekking through Mordor here, which is great since this is where it was filmed! Mt. Ngauruhoe even provides a lot of the Mount Doom backdrops.

A short break to take in the view halfway up the first hill

Climbing to the top of Red Crater

After 30-45 minutes of climbing you reach the top of one ridge and are now in what is called the South Crater. Walking through south crater gives you a respite from the climb since it is the flattest part of the whole trek, and it definitely feels a bit like walking on Mars.

The flat walk across South Crater. The highpoint on the left is the the next goal.

Then you’re greeted with another uphill climb (30 minutes) to the rim of red crater. This was the steepest angle of the whole trek and after being pampered with stairs before, this uphill section definitely feels challenging. Luckily you are rewarded at the top of this rim with really cool views of red crater with Mt Ngauruhoe’s red rim directly behind it. You can also start to feel good about being *mostly done with uphill climbs. It’s just 5 minutes more uphill to where you will be able to see down to the emerald pools.

Standing at the rim of Red Crater looking over at Mt Ngauruhoe with views of South Crater. Another 15 minutes up to the next spot.
Another 15 minutes up and you have a cool view of the massive Red Crater Vent that lava actively flowed through

The downhill from Hell

Now begins the MOST CHALLENGING section of this entire hike. The slope down to the emerald pools is along a fairly narrow spine with your only footing- loose scoria. It is STEEP and it is SLIPPERY. We watched many people slip and fall- some multiple times! On this downhill section. The trick is to A. bring hiking poles to help maintain your balance and B. to go down side ways.

Turn to the side, step one foot down letting it slide (which it will) until it settles due to the rocks bunched up under it or a more solid rock underneath. Then move your uphill foot down to join it and continue switching leading sides as needed and moving slightly in a zigzag pattern as you search for better footing. The WORST footing is actually where it looks smoother but is covered in small pebble rocks. Aim for the bigger rocks and you will slide less. I promise.

Rewarding views of the beautiful lakes as you slip and slide your way down.
The hill in question

The Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake

Once down at the emerald lakes breathe a huge sigh of relief at making it down the hill from hell and take in the expansive views. Not only are the lakes a beautiful sight with their varying 3 colors of green/blue, but along one side are multiple cool steam vents that release visible steam clouds. Make your way down along the right side of the lowest lake to get a good view of the vents, but you’ll want to continue to the left at the bottom to meet back up with the track. *The trail that descends down to the right is part of the longer 3-day Tongariro Northern Circuit.  

After the emerald pools, it’s a 15 minute walk across central crater with one last uphill section (easy in comparison) to the massive blue lake. In contrast to the emerald lakes, blue lake is an acidic COLD lake and is considered sacred to Maori culture. Because of this it is considered disrespectful to touch the lake, or eat around its shores. Since we considered the emerald lakes so cool, we snacked there and only paused a moment to admire the views from blue lake.

Now this is the important part, at blue lake we thought we were over halfway done with our distance (because endomondo was wack) but in reality, this is the DISTANCE halfway point which ended up having a big impact on the rest of our hiking pace. There’s toilets just around the corner from blue lake, but otherwise- gear up for some serious descent.

The Descent

The second half of this hike basically descends the same slope in dozens upon dozens of switchbacks so your view won’t change much. However, the view is REALLY something and when you see photos of the rest of the alpine crossing, nobody really mentions just how cool this part of the view is. On a clear day (or even not on a very clear day) you can see for miles. Those miles encompass Lake Rotoaira divided by a small ridge from what only looks like the ocean at first. But is in fact, the largest surface area lake in New Zealand. Extending in the other direction are rolling green hills dotted with stunning yellow flowers that even on a hazy day we could make out.

As you descend you’ll also pass more steam vents, many dotting the hillside bringing “fire on the mountain” to mind. Eventually you’ll get to the last toilet stop of the trek before the end- at Ketetahi Shelter. At this point it really seems like you are nearing the end but in reality, you still have 2 hours at a normal hiking pace to go. At this point we’d noticed just how sun burned we were getting and were ready to be DONE so our aim was to finish in time for the 2:30 shuttle. According to the distance I had on endomondo, it seemed very doable if we moved at a consistent pace.

The yellow flowers were popping everywhere end of November.

Sometime after the Ketetahi Shelter, we came to another sign estimating still 45 minutes (we only had 20 minutes until the shuttle) and at this point if we missed the 2:30 shuttle, we’d have to wait until 3:30 to be picked up…. I’ve never been so tired and yet hiked so fast. We practically ran those last kms through the bush line literally bursting out of the trees into the carpark at 2:32 as the bus was closing its doors. Thankfully, they paused to let us get on a VERY packed bus taking the last available seats.

Luckily the guys around us were friendly and talkative making the 30 minute (HOT) bus ride back to our car a little less painless. Since our Airbnb was so far out of town, we decided on an early dinner so we wouldn’t have to drive back IN to town and we opted for the Station Café where we parked. Then following the a very satisfactory meat pie with chips, we drove back to the Airbnb to nurse my sunburn and get some R&R.

Conclusion

All in all, if you show up prepared and have nice weather, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an amazing and unique hike that you just won’t get anywhere else. It is a busy trail, and it is a long day, but if you’re an outdoor enthusiast visiting the North Island of New Zealand, I’m not sure how you’ll be able to resist it.

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