Tongariro Alpine Crossing: one of the best hikes in the world

Among the many highlights of New Zealand, there is one that is absolutely unmissable: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This 19km track via unreal volcanic landscapes, emerald lakes and through solidified lava flows is probably the most beautiful day hike of New Zealand. Unfortunately this place is also victim of its success, especially since one of the volcanoes was used to represent Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies, but even if the track gets really crowded on busy days, it will still be an unforgettable experience. Here’s everything you need to know about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the best hikes in the world.

Click here to see my whole gallery of pictures as well!

Where is it?

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the Tongariro National Park, in the center of the North Island of New Zealand, more or less 350kms south of Auckland and 300kms north of Wellington. It’s part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a 3 to 4 day tramping loop around the Park.

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Map of the Tongariro National Park and its situation in New Zealand, printscreen from the DOC website

Created in 1887, the Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park of New Zealand and the fourth oldest in the world. It’s registered on the World Heritage Sites’ list, both for its cultural and natural importance. 3 volcanoes can be found inside the park, two of them (Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe) overlooking the crossing. All of them are active volcanoes: the last eruption of Mount Tongariro was as recent as 2012, and you’ll see many fumaroles at different places during the hike. Shortly after the beginning of the track, a sign will tell you what you should do if an eruption is happening (basically: run away).

Mount Ngauruhoe and its perfectly conic shape was chosen to represent Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (spoiler alert!): that’s the volcano where Frodo throws the ring to destroy it. Therefore, the already famous park gained a lot of popularity after the movies were released.

Who can do it?

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Anybody in a decent physical condition, and/or without any health issues. The main difficulty of the track is its length (19.4kms). If you’re walking the most common way from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi, there will be 2 main climbs, the second steeper than the first (see the description below) but if you take your time it’s not something out of range for most people.

It’s not especially dangerous either: there’s one tricky bit but if you’re careful everything should be fine. Worst case scenario, if anything happens you won’t probably be alone on the track and there will be people to help you.

The only dangerous and difficult part would be if you add a side trip to the summits of Mount Tongariro or Mount Ngauruhoe, but both of them are sacred in Maori culture so I strongly advise you to respect their wish not to climb them and I won’t mention these tracks further in this article.

When is the best period?

It’s a mountain track so it’s much better to do this hike during summer. Winter tramping is really dependant on the weather conditions and can be very dangerous if ice and snow are present (experience and appropriate equipment are necessary). Follow this link to know more about walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing during winter months.

Even during summer, weather can change very suddenly and is difficult to predict. When I did the hike myself (on the 14th of March 2018, early days of fall), the forecast was excellent for the whole day but it turned out that low clouds were stuck around the mountains with a very poor visibility on the track. And suddenly, around noon, within 5 minutes all the clouds were gone and it was perfect for the rest of the day. Look at the 2 pictures of the Emerald Lakes below: the right one was taken exactly 8 minutes only after the left one! So remember to be prepared for any kind of weather, and even if it’s a warm sunny day temperatures might be very cold on the highest part of the hike so make sure to carry warm clothes with you.

One sure thing: don’t even try the hike if the forecast is bad and/or if the weather is not looking good. It might be dangerous and it will ruin your experience.

DSC_0307As it’s a very popular hike, there will plenty of people doing it every day. If you want to avoid the crowds the best option is to leave as early as possible in the morning. If you start later don’t expect to be on your own and in communion with nature; at some point it will really be walking in line with dozens of other hikers. The landscape is so extraordinary that it didn’t spoil my pleasure but I understand it could really bother some people.

Accessing the track

As its name suggests, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way track: you start from one point and finish at a different one. Because of that, you’ll have to arrange the transportation between the two points.

The most common way to do the hike is to start from Mangatepopo and walk towards Ketetahi, mostly because Mangatepopo is higher in altitude (1,120m against 760m). Parking is free at Ketetahi so the easiest option is leaving your vehicle there and taking a shuttle that brings you to Mangatepopo, from where you simply walk back. The price of a shuttle is around 40$, but by using a website like bookme you can find cheaper deals. If you are a few people travelling together, you can pay just one ticket by having one person of the group dropping the passengers at Mangatepopo, then parking at Ketetahi and being the only one to take the shuttle while the others wait for him (or start walking, assuming that he might be the fastest hiker of the group).

Parking is limited to 4 hours at Mangatepopo which is way too short to do the whole crossing and hitchhike back. It’s still possible to park there, do the first half of the track and walk back: if you’re really fast a return trip to Emerald Lakes is possible within 4 hours (actually the people watching the parking area will tell you to take your time if you decide to do that: they’d rather see someone coming back in 4 hours and a half than someone running back and twisting an ankle, or even worse). But still you would have to rush the whole time, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the hike as much as it deserves and even if the second half after Emerald Lakes is less spectacular it’s still worth seeing it in my opinion, so I don’t think that this is a good alternative to the shuttle.

If you really don’t want to pay, you can also walk “backwards”: start at Ketetahi and hitchhike back from Mangatepopo. There’s enough traffic on the road that you wouldn’t have to wait for too long before getting picked up but I wouldn’t recommend this option either as the hike will be more difficult (see description below) and even if you’d be away from the crowds at the beginning, once you’ll start running into people walking the usual way it would be a real struggle.

Finally, some accommodation in the villages around the park include their own shuttle service – inquire before booking.

Description of the track

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The profile of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, printscreen from the DOC website

This is a description of the track on its usual way, from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi. It’s 19.4km long, starting at a height of 1,120m and ending at 760m, with a highest point at 1,886m. It usually takes between 6 and 8 hours to complete it. You’ll find a few toilets on the way, but no running water so remember to take plenty with you. There’s no shade at all on most of the track so don’t forget all the necessary sun protection. As already said, weather is unpredictable and can change very quickly: be prepared for any kind of conditions and for cold temperatures at the top, even on a warm sunny day.

My experience: I did the entire track once but as the weather was terrible on the first part with no visibility at all I decided to come back the next day and hike the first half again as a return trip from Mangatepopo. Great decision: I saw so many things I had missed the first day!

The first 4,5kms are relatively easy: it’s a constant but gentle climb on a well maintained track, sometimes on wooden structures. As you’re slowly coming closer to the massive Mount Ngauruhoe/Mount Doom, you’ll start walking through ancient solidified lava flows, with black rocks all around you. You can also spot two small waterfalls on the left.

After this “warm up”, you’ll start the first of the two main climbs of the day, from Soda Springs to South Crater. It’s mostly steps, known as the “Devil’s staircase”. If your legs start to burn, don’t hesitate to take a break on the side of the track and admire the foreboding silhouette of the volcano above your head. Look back at the valley behind you as well: it will be comforting to see that you’ve done so much already!

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The view from South Crater will probably make you say “wow” for the first time of the day. This huge flat plain is actually not a volcano crater: it was created by a glacier millions of years ago. It’s an extraordinary moment to walk across it, not just because it gives you some rest after the previous climb, but also because the landscape is exceptional: Mount Tongariro on your left and Mount Ngauruhoe on your right. Have you ever been that close to two active volcanoes at the same time in your life?

My experience: on my first attempt low clouds were stuck at the end of the valley and Mount Ngauruhoe was completely invisible. When I reached South Crater I was in the middle of a dense fog and it was impossible to see further than 10 meters away! What a disappointment… Luckily the weather was much better the next day and I could really enjoy the sight.

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The next part is in my opinion the most arduous: it’s a steep (but luckily not too long) climb until Red Crater, the highest point of the hike (1,886m). Good news: it’s also the last difficult climb of the day! On the summit you’ll have walked a bit more than 8kms out of the 19.4 of the whole track, but as it’s only going down from there it’s already half way in terms of time. It’s an extremely windy and very cold place, so you might not want to stay for too long even if once again the view is amazing, with the mouth of Red Crater directly below you and the crater of Mount Ngauruhoe in the South.

Going down to Emerald Lakes is the trickiest part of the hike. It’s a very loose soil, almost only gravel, sand and little stones. Just be careful and don’t run down like some people do. If you’re starting to slip, try to fall on your butt, it’s a soft ground so you won’t get injured. It’s also a good spot to stop for a break: it’s sheltered from the wind and you can at the same time admire the extraordinary colour of the Emerald Lakes below and have the entertainment of watching people struggling in their descent.

My experience: while I was going down the first day, upset that I couldn’t see anything because of the fog, the clouds suddenly disappeared and I was able to enjoy the extraordinary scenery. Maybe the most beautiful view of New Zealand! On the second day, I walked half way down from Red Crater which means I had to climb back to return to Mangatepopo; I can tell you that if it’s tricky to go down on this loose soil, it’s an absolute nightmare to climb it. It’s like one step up and two steps down; I was completely out of breath when I reached the summit. A good reason to do the crossing on the usual way and not backwards!

After Emerald Lakes, you’ll cross the flat central crater until you reach Blue Lake: it’s “tapu” (sacred) for Maori people, so don’t enter the water and don’t eat next to it. Look back one last time and admire the perfectly conic shape of Mount Ngauruhoe behind you: once you’ll start the last part of the hike, you won’t see it anymore.

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After following the banks of Blue Lake for a little while, you’ll suddenly stare at a completely different sight: the gravel track winding down the hills via Ketetahi Hut, with Lake Rotoaira below and the huge Lake Taupo a bit further. A more “common” view than the volcanoes you just left behind but still gorgeous! As you’re hiking down the landscape is also slowly changing around you: after the rocks, sand and solidified lava from the craters, you’ll be walking through more and more vegetation, starting with grass, bush and finally the forest and its welcoming coolness and shade. A very short side trip will lead you to a nice waterfall and finally, after almost 20kms, that’s it, the end. Congratulations, you just finished the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!

My experience: after the amazement of the view over the lakes, this last part became a little bit monotonous. My legs started to be quite sore and it got also really hot so I was happy to reach the forest and finally my car. But what a fantastic hike it was!

Now you know everything about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the most beautiful hike of New Zealand. When will you give it a try? Share your own experience in the comments!

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