The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit Great Walk, is the most popular (and often also described as the best) one-day trek in New Zealand. Others even say it is amongst the top ten single-day treks in the world. On this track you will journey through a landscape of stark contrasts with amazing views at almost every turn. Winding its way past Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom of LOTR) you will be amazed by the dramatic volcanic landscape. You will cross remnants of lava flows and climb the super steep Devil’s Staircase – all the way up to the still active Red Crater. On top you will also get to see the Emerald and Blue Lakes and finish your 19.4 km hike with a descend through Oturere valley and its landscape of otherwordly lava forms. On a clear day you may even catch a glimpse of Mount Taranaki on the west coast.
How to get there?
Tongariro National Park is located south of Lake Taupo. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts at the Mangatepopo car park and finishes at the Ketetahi car park. Bus shuttles are available.
The whole track can be considered as highlight itself, although we have to admit that we enoyed the first 10 km most, especially the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes. Once you are done climbing the steep Devil’s Staircase, you will reach an area which makes a great spot for a picnic. If you head left you can climb Mount Tongariro and if you go straight and left you will continue to follow the track. But we highly recommend to also head right once you reach the Red Crater to take a walk on the edge of this active volcano. It was amazing! We had the small path all for ourselves, as most people continue walking on the track right away, but although the path looks very narrow at first sight, it is not too bad and we felt very safe. Make sure to go as far as possible and you will be rewarded with great views of the valley, the Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake.
How long to stay?
As the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-day trek, we left our campsite before sunrise and finished the track in the late afternoon. You might want to choose to stay somewhere close for the night before and after the trek, so 2 nights in the area should be fine. Depending on how you reach the track (your own car or a shuttle) and when you finish (early or late afternoon) you could also think about heading to Taupo for the night. And if you want to explore more of Tongariro National Park you could also add some more nights.
Where to stay?
Before we left for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing we stayed at the Mangahuia Campsite – it is a quite peaceful campsite right next to a refreshing stream, but it gets quite crowded from 3 pm on. So make sure to be there in time. The current rate for DOC campsites is at 13 NZD per night and person. After the hike we were desperate to get a shower and so we decided to stay at the Discovery Lodge Tongariro. An unpowered campsite was available for 19 NZD per person including use of the kitchen area and equipment as well as unlimited nice and hot showers. The campsite also has a small motel and some pretty nice chalets. Make sure to book these in advance. They also offer a shuttle service to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Our Recommendations / The Hike
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4 km hike, which can be divided into 6 sections:
Section 1 – Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs
Level: Easy – Allow 1 – 1.5 hours
This section of the track is fairly flat, well formed and you will find lots of board walks in damp areas. About 20 min from the car park a sidetrack leads left towards the Mangatepopo Hut and public toilet facilities. The main track continues through the valley, following the Mangatepopo Stream and around the edge of an old lava flow. You might notice a change in plant species along the track as you gain more height. Note: The last toilet facilities are located at Soda Springs; there are no further facilities until you reach the Ketetahi Hut.
Section 2 – Soda Springs to South Crater
Level: Moderate to Diffcult – Allow 40 min – 1 hour
This part of the track is also known as the Devil’s Staircase as it is a quite steep climb from 1400 to 1600 meters above sea level. But do not be scared because of the name – you can take your time on this section and especially on a clear day this will leave you enough time to admire the amazing views down the valley and out across the surrounding countryside. If you look towards the west you might even be able to spot the perfectly formed volcanic cone of Mount Taranaki.
Section 3 – South Crater To Red Crater
Level: Moderate – Difficult – Allow 1 hour
Make sure to enjoy this flat section as much as possible, as it will not last forever. As soon as you pass South Crater you will head for another short climb. Just follow the track and you will directly be taken to the Red Crater. At this point you can also decide to head towards the summit of Mount Tongariro, just turn left before you finally reach the Red Crater. The main track continues around the Red Crater, giving you spectacular views of the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges and down towards the Emerald Lakes. Walk with caution – it can get very blustery on a windy day.
Section 4 – Red Crater To Blue Lake
Level: Moderate – Allow 30 min
Be careful when descending the Red Crater as loose scoria underfoot can move quickly and easily. While taking care to not fall on your but, make sure to not forget to enjoy the great views. On the left you can spot an old lava flow from Red Crater spreading out across the floor of Central Crater. To the right are the Emerald Lakes and straight ahead you might be able to see the Blue Lake. Minerals leached from the surrounding rock turn the water of the Lakes emerald blue. There also are some steam vents above the lakes, which cause the sulphurous smell. After passing the Emerald Lakes the track of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing follows around the edge of the Central Crater and then climbs up to Blue Lake. A cold acidic lake.
Section 5 – Blue Lake To Ketetahi Hut
Level: Moderate – Allow 1 hour
After a short easy climb to the edge of the North Crater, which was once filled with molten lava and then cooled and solidified to give a level surface more than 1000 m wide, you will be rewarded with a dramatic and inspiring outlook over Mount Pihanga and Lake Rotoaira across to Lake Taupo. You then zigzag your way down to the Ketetahi Hut. Make sure to stay on the main track at all times as the ground can be boggy and the base is easily eroded.
Section 6 – Ketetahi Hut To Ketetahi Car Park
Level: Moderate – Allow 2 hours
Now the track crosses the stream that flows down from Ketetahi Springs. If you look carfeully, you might notice that the minerls in the water have stained the rocks. Make sure to not leave the track, as the springs are on private land. At some point the track drops steeply to the Mangatetipua Stream. A short side track leads down to a waterfall, just a few minutes before you reach the Ketetahi car park.
Note: We would recommended to leave from the southern end of the track at the Mangatepopo car park and finish at the northern end at the Ketetahi car park. But of course you can also do it the other way round. If you want to save some money and avoid the shuttle you can either try to find someone to share rides with (we parked one car at the Mangatepopo car park and the second one at the Ketetahi car park) – if you decide to do it this way make sure to rise and leave as early as possible as the parking spaces are limited and they fill up super quick. When we arrived at 7 am the Ketetahi car park was almost full. Or you can just start the track at the Mangatepopo car park, walk the track until the Blue Lake and then turn around and go back to your car. You have seen the best bits of the track by then.
Summit Trips There are two summits to climb along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. 1) Mt Ngauruhoe – 2287 Metres – Allow 1 to 2 hours up and 30 minutes down (from the saddle) (If Mount Ngauruhoe is clear and you have a beautiful day with plenty of time, you may decide to climb to the summit. Make sure to have enough time to climb to the summit and return to the car park safely. From the South Crater a poled route leads over to the base of Mount Ngauruhoe. Look for the old lava flow or the rocky ridge to the left of the scree slopes, and then select your own route up. The summit area can be dangerous and should be avoided if there are any signs of volcanic activity. The descent can be made relatively quickly but it is easy to lose control on the free-flowing scree underfoot.) and 2) Mount Tongariro – 1967 metres – Allow 1.5 to 2 hours return (From Red Crater follow the poled route to the summit of Mt Tongariro. Be aware that this route follows a ridge that can be cold and exposed in poor conditions, so ensure you have plenty of time and a beautiful day to really enjoy this side trip.) Current Volcano Activity Check Geonet for updates on the current volcanic activity. Weather Conditions If you consider walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, be prepared for changes in the weather. The weather along the track can change quickly and unexpectedly, as in any alpine environment. Sometimes conditions can become quite extreme, so make sure to be prepared for every type of weather. During the winter additional gear like crampons and ice axes are required, so make sure to be well prepared before you leave. Check the MetService Website for the weather forecast. Tongariro National Park has a specific forecast. Be prepared to change your plans and turn back especially when visibility is poor or strong winds prevail. Due to the rugged and alpine environment, the weather in the car park at the beginning of the track can differ greatly from conditions 1000 metres higher further up the track. What to bring? Due to the unpredictable weather it is important that all walkers carry some essentials for their journey across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Make sure to bring these items:
Food and plenty of fluid, especially in the summer months
Waterproof and wind-proof raincoat and trousers
Strong boots as you will be trekking over uneven volcanic terrain (although we did the hike in our Nikes)
Warm clothing layers
Hat and maybe even gloves
Sunscreen and sunglasses
First Aid Kit
Mobile phone (reception is good in most parts of the track)
Alpine Life As the air and soil temperatures in Tongariro National Park change dramatically with the seasons, a wide variety of habitats can be seen in the area. Although anything that lives in this National Park must be hardy and well-adapted to life in such an extreme environment. On top of this plant life has to contend with volcanic activity. Beech forests once covered the northern slopes of Mt Tongariro, but the result of multiple eruptions and subsequent fires, means only red tussock and small shrubs survive on the upper slopes while the low level forest is made up of totara trees. In damper areas on the northern slopes of the mountain, above Ketetahi, you can find mountain buttercups and the large mountain daises in summer. A native bird species called pipit nests in the tussocks. They are often seen looking for cicadas and grasshoppers as prey. In the forest, also on the northern slopes of the mountain you may see a north island robin.
Note: It is important to keep to the marked track as plants take a long time to grow on the mountain. The soils are fragile and the balance of life can be easily disturbed.
Lord of the Rings In 2000 Tongariro National Park was home to Mordor, a great volcanic plateau filled with geological wonders known as Gorgoroth and the strong hold of the dark Lord Sauron in the movie Lord of the Rings. Much of Frodo and Sam’s journey into the land of Sauron was filmed on and around the Tongariro National Park. Trekking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing will allow you to fully immerse yourself in Mordor and feel the eerie barren landscape by yourself. Along the track you most probably will spot Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe) and Mordor/Blackgate (Rangipo Desert).