HIKING NEW ZEALAND'S TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING

Everything you need to know before hiking the Tongariro crossing
How to plan your trip, where to stay, how to get there, the route, when to hike, how much it costs and everything else you need to know

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What is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?

The Tongariro crossing is New Zealand's best one day hike.

A 19 km walk over volcanic peaks, across craters and around emerald lakes in New Zealand's oldest national park. A highlight for any trip to New Zealand, the walk is one of the few dual World Heritage sites, combining cultural and natural importance. Made famous for doubling as the mountain range of Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings films, the three volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu offer a dramatic backdrop. We couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack as we scaled the sides of craters, and wound down through alpine meadows.

Where is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?

The Tongariro national park is in the heartland of New Zealand's north island, south west of Lake Taupo. The famous alpine crossing hike spans from Mangatepopo on the west of the mountain range to Ketetahi on the north side of the park. It is not a circuit trek, which means no scene or view is the same. It does also mean that you have to ensure you have transport organised for drop off & pick up.

Although it is possible to walk the route in either direction, it is strongly recommended that you start at Mangatepopo and head North to Ketetahi. Going the other way will add an additional hour & 800m ascent to your day - tempting…but nope.

History

The mountains in the Tongariro park are all sacred peaks and were named by the ancestor of the Ngati Tuwharetoa people; a man called Ngatoroirangi. He declared the area for his family and descendents and bestowed upon them the responsibility to protect the mountainous area. As New Zealand life changed forever when the first europeans arrived the Ngati Tuwharetoa people realised that they need to work with the colonial government to ensure the peaks remained pristine. In 1887, the Tongariro range was made "untouchable" by the British Crown, and led to the establishment in 1894 of New Zealand's first national park, the 4th in the world at the time. In 1993, the World Heritage listed Tongariro as the the world's first cultural landscape due to it's importance as a cultural and spiritual centre for the Ngati Tuwharetoa people, it's ecological importance and it's place in New Zealand's environmental history.

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Where to stay?

As the hike is considered a full-day route, it makes sense to stay as close to the start as you can, or ensure you have a working alarm clock to get you up in good times to start.

There are a number of options to consider, and each of the towns below will have an established shuttle set-up to provide an easy journey to and from the national park.

  1. Taupo; 1hr20 from the start. The furthest from the hike but with the most accomodation, restaurants, bars and the most alternate activities in the area.

  2. Turangi; 40mins from the start. The closest town to the hike with a range of outdoor activities also available.

  3. National Park Village; 20mins from the start. Closest village to the start, but limited accomodation and facilities.

How do you get to the start of the hike? (and how do you get home at the end?)

Remember, the hike has different start and end points, so you'll need to ensure any shuttle you book to get you to the start of the hike is also able to pick you up at the other end.

There are plenty of shuttle companies in each town who will pick you up in the morning, drop you at the start, pick you up at the end and return you to your accommodation.

Morning pick up tends to be quite early (circa 5am) especially if you are staying in Taupo, but will mean you can set off in the relative cool & hopefully catch a sunrise.

If you’re worried about missing your shuttle pick-up at the other end, don’t be. As far as we can tell, all the shuttle companies offer multiple pick up times for hikers finishing the trek from 2pm through to 4pm, giving you plenty of time to complete it at your own pace.

If you are staying in a hostel in any one of the towns above, they should be able to organise a shuttle for you.

If you’re at a homestay or DIY-ing, each of the below companies will be able to come and pick you up (and return you) from your hotel/Airbnb/homestay in town:

Ensure you book ahead as sameday travel is difficult due to the early start required.

The Route

A 19.4km hike from Mangatepopo carpark to Ketetahi carpark, plan for an 8 hour journey.

  1. Mangatepopo to Soda Springs: 1hr / 3.5km

    A flat walk along the stream with views of Mt. Ngaruahoe

  2. Soda Springs to South Crater: 1hr / 2km

    A steep climb up the devil's staircase with views of the national park behind you.

  3. South Crater to base of Red Crater Ridge: 15min / 1km

    A flat walk to the start of the next crater ascent.

  4. Red Crater Ridge: 30mins / 1km

    The steepest part of hike along the edge of the crater with some sharp drops on either side of the track and strong winds. When you reach the top of the crater you have reached the summit and highest part of the hike. Find a spot out of the wind and enjoy lunch overlooking the volcanic peaks and the green lake below. This is a great spot to enjoy views over a wide area of the New Zealand countryside.

  5. Red Crater Summit to Emerald Lake: 15min / 1km

    A descent on loose scree that requires caution, all downhill to the lake and you'll find the smell of sulphur in the air increases as you approach.

  6. Emerald Lake to Blue Lake: 20mins / 1km

    An easy walk on flat ground between the two lakes as you approach the descent out of the range.

  7. Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter: 1hr / 3km

    An easy descent through the shrubland of Rotopaungo valley towards the small Ketetahi shelter. There are toilets but no drinking water here.

  8. Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi car park: 2hr / 7km

    Long easy descent with final views over the park before entering forests, walking alongside streams.

How Long is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?

The walk should take around 8 hours (depending on how often you take breaks & how leisurely you feel on the day) but it is possible in 6hrs at a brisk pace to cover the 19.4km.

Is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing difficult?

As with any long-distance hike, this very much depends on your level of fitness & mental preparation.

However, If this is the first long day-hike you have attempted, you have chosen a good one. The hardest part of the trek is the in the first half, meaning you are carried by your enthusiasm & early energy. It also helps that the most spectacular views are during this bit too - plenty of photo breaks as you ascend offer ideal opportunities to catch your breathe. The path is also exceptionally well managed in most places, meaning plenty of stability under-foot. The second half does include a rather steep descent on quite loose terrain (which is actually quite fun to traverse), but the most challenging part here is actually just about stamina & getting to the finish.

If you are used to multi-day hikes, carrying large packs & all your equipment, this is an easy-to-intermediate day hike over varied terrain, with just one major ascent & long descent.

Things to Remember

  1. The mountain range is sacred; don't go off the paths (or try and climb Mt. Doom), leave rubbish or touch the lake or waterways, use the toilets provided.

  2. Use a high factor sunblock, even if it’s overcast - the New Zealand sun can be ferocious.

  3. Take at least 2 litres of drinking water per person

  4. Bring a phone and take a note of emergency numbers in case of an accident.

  5. Whilst we saw a fair number of people in trainers or train shoes, some level of ankle-support is useful for when you descend from the crater rim - the terrain is loose & uneven.

When to hike the Tongariro Crossing?

December -> February (Summer):
Almost always safe to cross without a guide. Transport fully available.

March -> May (Autumn):
Transport will run when snow allows for a safe crossing.

June -> August (Winter):
The park is cold and snowy & weather conditions become increasingly unpredictable. The crossing is best done with a guide. Transport is limited.

September -> November (Spring):
Transport will run when snow allows for a safe crossing.

How much does the Tongariro Crossing Cost?

The hike is completely free and there is no entrance fee to the park. Consider that the further you are from the park the more expensive your travel costs will be.

Our Verdict

Our decision to do the hike was based on several recommendations from our friends & relatives who both live & have visited the North Island.

However, we did start our trip some-what sceptical as we clambered aboard one of several buses full of 18 year old back-packers. Now, we have nothing against 18 year-old back-packers, we were them not so long ago, but it did suggest a day of busy trails & broken peace. Whilst this was definitely the case for the first half-hour of the hike, the groups we arrived with from Taupo (at around 7am) eventually dispersed along the trail. By the last 2 hours of the hike we were walking entirely alone.

If you’d prefer to hike for longer with fewer people around, we’d suggest staying nearer the trail-head, starting later in the day & catching one of the last shuttles home (at around 8pm). Tongariro Expeditions is the major shuttle service & avoiding their arrival times into the park is a good way to also avoid the crowds.

On a trail as stunning as this, the number of people hiking actually had very little impact on our enjoyment of the day as tourist day-trippers, and we’d suggest that its popularity shouldn’t deter the more ‘wilderness-seeking’ hikers out there either. The varied terrain, the spectacular views, the smell of sulphur as you descend towards emerald lakes, ensures the Tongariro Crossing holds it own in the league tables of the world’s greatest hikes.

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Have you done this hike? What did you think? We’d love to hear from you, leave a comment below