If you’re after one of the best single day hikes of New Zealand, look no further! Hiking the Tongariro Crossing feels like you are on another planet. Or in this case in “Middle Earth”. Walk along volcanic features, bright colored lakes, old lava fields and ancient rock formations. You will not be dissapointed!
It won’t surprise you that Tongariro is a World Heritage area and New Zealand’s oldest national park. The Alpine Crossing is a 19.4 km hike, from one point to another and takes about 6 to 8 hours to complete. Because it’s not a returntrack, you need to arrange transportation to either the start or finish of the hike.
Most people start from Magatepopo car park to Ketetahi car park, but you can do the hike in either direction. We did the first and feel like this is definately the best way because the climb up is more interesting through volcanic scenery. Also, Mangatepopo sits at a higher elevation than Ketetahi, starting here eliminates nearly 200 meters of climbing. You don’t have to be incredibly fit for this walk, just prepared and determined. We have seen elderly people, families and even couples with a baby doing this hike!
What to bring
The weather conditions at Tongariro National Park can change real quick so it’s important to be well prepared. Take a hat or beanie and a waterproof coat as there is almost zero shelter along the track. Make sure you have plenty of layers of clothing, especially in the morning it can be freezing. We had the first shuttle at 06.00 am and it was only 3 degrees! When the sun comes up it warms up fast and you will get hot from the climbing.
Bring enough water, food and sunscreen. Ohh and toilet paper can be handy. There are basic drop toilets at both car parks and along the route but we found that sometimes there is no toilet paper. A daypack is ideal for this hike. And last but not least your camera! (how could you ever forget this though). Please note that drones are not allowed in the National Park which is unfortunate because we would have loved to have aerial views of the volcano’s.
When you have decided which day you want to hike, it’s time to book transportation. Some people walk from other car parks where they can park their car for free. The Tongariro Crossing is already a intense hike so just spend the money on transportation, you gonna thank us later. We booked the first shuttle (06.00 am) with Tongariro Crossing Shuttles which cost $40 per person return. At this time in April it was still dark and it was hard getting out of bed but arriving at the park before sunrise is just magical.
You can choose between departures of 6am, 7am, 8am, 9am, 10am and returns at 1:30pm, 2:30pm, 3:30pm, 4:30pm, 5:30pm. Just so you know, we completed the hike in about 8,5 hours with many photo/food stops and took the return shuttle at 3.30 pm. If you want to take your time, you should go for one of the earliest departures or you will not make it in time to be back for the last shuttlebus. It’s not a race, enjoy the surroundings!
The hike starts pretty easy with a gravel path on flat terrain, over marshlands and wooden boards. Within the hour the sun rises over the mountains and it’s getting warmer. We were so lucky to have a clear blue sky and almost no wind, the perfect day! After an hour, the hike has a steady gradual incline and you will see Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe) which is really impressive. The further you go up, the more you see a change in the landscape. Black soil, volcanic boulders and strange rock formations will pass.
Did you know a couple of years there was a volcanic eruption? Don’t worry, the volcanic activity of the park is constantly being monitored, with warning signs along the trail alerting hikers what to do if an eruption should occur. It’s makes it a bit exciting too! The hike to the top seems to take forever but when you are there it’s stunning. From the highest point there are 360° views of Tongariro National Park. Besides Mount Ngauruhoe we could also see Mount Ruapehu, turquoise lakes, the Red Crater and Lake Taupo.
Lord of the Rings
Tongariro National Park got more famous because of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, like so many places in New Zealand. Didn’t see the movie? Tongariro is still something you should see. The alpine surrounding and volcano’s played a big part in the movie, also known as the evil location of Mordor and Mount Doom. The barren landscapes and volcanic rock formations are a great location for creating Mordor’s wasteland. Mount Ngauruhoe is digitally transformed to Mount Doom, the centre of Frodo’s quest to save Middle-Earth. Walking trough the area makes us realize how much they add digitally as you almost don’t recogize a thing!
From the highest point of the hike (over 1800 meter), there is only one way to go and that’s down! You would think that’s easier but think again. This part is tricky because the path to the thermal lakes is steep and with a lot of loose gravel with a drop off on either side. The best way is to walk sideways and not to fast. Along the way down there are awesome viewpoints of the lakes. From here, it’s still a 3 – 4 hour walk back to the Ketetahi Carpark.
In the old craters near the summit of Mount Tongariro lies the bright green Emerald Lakes. Their bright colors are caused by minerals in the water and seem to change during the year. They can be dark green, light green or more turquoise depending on the time of the year and time of the day. Colors are best seen on a sunny day.
The last kilometers
When you are past the lakes, the scenery keeps on changing. Your are getting tired, your legs and feet are sore and you know you still have so walk for at least 3 more hours. This is where you have to walk on will power, or at least we did. Good thing is, that you walk mainly down and the path is well maintained. Halfway you come across the Te Maari Crater, sending plumes of white steam into the sky. On a clear day, the view from here is amazing. The last part of the hike wanders through a forest with little streams. By the time you get to the car park you will be tired, have sore legs but also very excited that you finished the crossing. It didn’t take long before our shuttle arrived and we were happy to just sit hahaha.
We have done a lot of day hikes in New Zealand and the Tongariro Crossing really stands out for us. The views are fantastic, the majestic volcano’s, and the surreal landscape make this a must-do. Ofcourse we were very fortunate to have such a good day but even on a lesser day it would be worth it. Just go!
Where to stay:
Plateau Lodge in Plateau Lodge is located 15 minutes drive from UNESCO World Heritage listed Tongariro National Park and a great place to stay. This lodge is newly build with rooms, dorms, group accommodation and also a few camping spots. Free parking is available. Visit the reception to book your transportation or other activities. Their communal area with fully equipped kitchen is great and so comfy it feels like home. The Plateau Lodge offers a guest laundry, breakfast trays, lunch packs, WiFi access and free use of the spa pool. Make sure you book in the spa pool for after your hike. It’s the best feeling to jump in a warm bath with sore muscles and besides that it’s free!
Best time to visit:
Hiking The Tongariro Alpine Crossing can be done all year round but summer is the most populair time due to the calm and warmer weather. This is also the busiest season and runs from November through to the end of April. If you have the time, try to pick a week day rather then a weekend as it will be less crowded. Outside the summer season there are usually lesser people. In winter, it is safer to go with a guide. It can be dangerous with the snow and ice, cold winds and rain. You need to be better prepared with an ice axe and crampons.
The trail is closed in very poor weather conditions. We did the hike end of March and had a perfect day for it, but a few days before the track was still closed due to bad weather. Try to look ahead in the weather forecast and pick the best day to minimalise the chance of a closed track. On our day it started with 3 degrees in the morning and went up to 20 degrees in the afternoon. It was quite busy because a lot of people were waiting for the hike to be opened again. Luckily with the shuttles departing at different times, it’s spread out a bit and didn’t feel overcrowded at all.
The weather around Tongariro National Park is quite unpredictable and you just have to be lucky, (and a bit of planning) and enough time to get a good day for this hike. If you have the time to wait around when the weather is bad, you should do it. Hiking this trail will be the experience of a lifetime!