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.
- Hike Details
- Shuttle Information
- Top tips for completing the crossing
- Brief history of the National Park
- Volcano Awareness
- Our experience- the uphill
- Our experience- the Emerald lakes
- Our experience- the downhill
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.
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.
*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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.