By Telma | 28 March 2016 | New Zealand | Adventure Travel

Hiking the famous Tongariro Crossing is not for the faint hearted! Period. It’s tough, demanding and will test anyone’s fitness and determination. If you have any doubts whether you can do it or not, we can reassure you that thousands of people are doing it everyday. All you need is a positive attitude, enough time and good hiking boots! So if you are preparing to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing you will be pleased to read our article where we show you the route, suggest useful tips and write about our own experience on New Zealand’s best day hike. Just go and you will not regret.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a World Heritage site that will take you through the raw volcanic terrain. The crossing passes of the multi-cratered active volcano Mount Tongariro and the option to climb Mount Ngauruhoe as a side trip. Which we chose not to climb because we didn’t have the time to do it.
The Crossing is one of the reasons people flock to the North Island with the aim of finishing one of the most demanding hikes of New Zealand.

What we were not aware of, is that this unique track is full of unexpected surprises. These paths take fierce ascents and descents into and back out of two different craters, passing Emerald Lakes and along the edge of the Blue Lake.

a day hike out tongariro alpine crossing

Preparing to Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

tongariro alpine crossing checklist

The hike is brutal but worth it! This is something that we would like to do again, for sure. What people need to realise is that the hike is very demanding and if, like us you have a bus waiting at the end of the track, it’s more likely that you will be running in those last few miles. Why? Because you will lose track of time and by the end of it, you will most probably be late!

Tongariro Alpine Crossing Route – The total distance is 19.4 km /12.05 miles
Starting at Mangatepopo Hut and ending at Ketetahi Road, the route takes roughly seven – eight hours of walking. Since it starts and finishes at different ends, we had to arrange transportation for the drop-off and pick-up.

The trek will take you through some spectacular sites, so in a nutshell,  below are the highlights of the crossing:

  • Coloured Lava
  • Soda Springs
  • Devil‘ Staircase
  • Mt Ngauruhoe “Mt Doom“
  • South Crater
  • Red Crater (Half Way)
  • Emerald Lakes
  • Blue Lake
  • Long descent
  • Ketetahi hot springs

Distances (approximetly 19.4km)

Car Park to Soda Springs
= 4.4km
Soda Springs to South Crater
= 2.0 km
South Crater to Emerald Lakes
= 2.6 km
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut
= 4.0 km
Ketetahi Hut to Car Park
= 6.4km

Walking Times (6-8 hours)

Car Park to Soda Springs
= 1-1.5 hours
Soda Springs to South Crater
= 1 hour
South Crater to Emerald Lakes
= 1.5 hours
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut
= 1-2 hours
Ketetahi Hut to Car Park
= 1.5-2 hours

Altitudes (approximetely)

Mangatepopo = 1100m
South Crater = 1660m
Red Crater = 1900m
Emerald Lakes = 1700m
Central Crater = 1710m
Ketetahi = 700m

*Source from Roam

what do you see during tongariro hike

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Known as one of the most challenging hikes, how do two humble average backpackers who are keen to complete the track but have no experience, survive hiking this humongous alpine crossing? 
Exactly, I don’t know either.

The day before we checked in at Whakapapa Village, they allow leaving the car parked inside the grounds during the hike and before we knew it we had booked the shuttle for the following day.

Not really knowing what to expect apart from walking through mountains and volcanos, when we originally started planning the trek, we had both assumed it would be just a hike. How wrong we were!

starting point at the tongariro crossingAnd so it begins!

Soon after the journey had begun, we got an idea of what the weather, and views were likely to be.
Tongariro Crossing can be so hit and miss; one minute it’s hot, the next you are freezing cold but we were up for the jackpot as the skies were semi-clear and there was no wind at all.

From the car park to the beginning of the crossing takes up to half an hour so we chatted, took pictures and walked slowly. The following hour there was a slight incline until we arrived at Soda Springs.
 Little did we know what was coming next…

what tongariro crossing looks like

And then the first ascent came. 
From Soda Springs to the South Crater we were walking uphill, but it was so steep that NOW I understand why it’s called Devil’s Staircase. It’s a steep, sweaty climb ascending around 300m up the rough volcanic path. The stairs, made of wood built into the mountain side, were endless, and stretches between them were high and difficult to climb. From a distance, it looked rather easy but doing it was indeed hell.

We had to stop many times, we just couldn’t do it all in one hit.
The fact is our lungs gave in before our legs: Thomas is asthmatic and I just suck at any kind of exercise.
Let’s not talk about it…

our day hike in new zealand

The next stage of the trek is where you can actually choose to hike Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings) as a side trip.
Looking at it from down below, and reading that it would take an extra 2 hours, there was no way we wanted to tackle the beast, specially not yet having reached the Red Crater. The aim was to finish the crossing on that day, not the following week, so we passed on this one!

what mount doom looks like

Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom represents the endpoint of Frodo quest to destroy the Ring which is recounted in The Lord of the Rings. Mt Doom was the volcano in Mordor where the Ring was forged and finally destroyed)

The trekking, that sometimes felt like “rock climbing”, was so steep that in some parts we had to pull ourselves up with a metal chain. Also “reaching the top” became an illusion, because there were so many false summits, that each time reaching the “top” was confronted by another 100 metres up. This was just endless!

But once we reached the top of the Red Crater we were so happy! It felt like the best achievement of our lives! The views at the top were just breathtaking. We were blown away by the 360 degrees’ panoramic view.

Also it was the perfect stop for lunch as we sat in silence just enjoying the moment, we could barely believe it; in front of us a gigantic red crater, to our right three green lakes glistening emerald colours…everywhere we looked there was something incredible to see.

new zealand volcano the red craterOn top of the red crater

And then was time to start the descent…which was no way easier than the ascent! Why couldn’t we just roll down the crater? Surely that would save us nearly two hours!
This part is so hard because you must find your balance, at the same time be careful not to twist your ankles and ultimately cursing yourself for not taking snowboard lessons seriously. That section was probably the most cruelling on the legs and it seemed just to go forever.
Once we “survived” that backdrop we reached the gorgeous Emerald Lakes.

how emerald lakes look like

hiking tongariro crossing and emerald lakesThe arduous walk for 4.5 hour paid off.

But don’t be fooled as you still have another 3-4 hours ahead of you.
From here we passed the Blue Lake and the route descends to Ketetahi Hut and the nearby springs down through native forest to the car park.

the end of tongariro alpine crossing

There is no doubt that it is a challenging walk if you are not used to hiking but as long as the weather is good, it’s do-able by most people.
The Tongariro Crossing was the highlight of our time in New Zealand and we were extremely lucky with the weather. We stopped many times because it was just so hard but overall it was an incredible experience. It took us 8hours and 15 minutes to complete the crossing.

The best time of the year to plan your trip is in the Spring or Autumn, we were there in March. During the winter months you must go with a tour guide and are requested to use crampons and during the summer it’s just incredibly crowed.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing Checklist

  • Bring water, minimum 2 litres
  • Pack a light lunch – nuts, dried fruits, etc
  • Bring tissues/ toilet paper
  • Pack “all weather clothes” – temperatures can change quite dramatically and even at short notice.
  • Waterproof case/cover, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, gloves
  • Take some plasters and antiseptic cream
  • Bring spare batteries
  • If like us, you use the phone to take pictures, make sure you have a chargeable device with you. Your battery will just disappear in no time
  • Know your limits
  • Tell someone your plan
  • Last but not least, do check the weather conditions prior to the crossing. We understand that the last thing you want is to postpone the hike, but do not attempt to do it if there is severe bad weather. It is really not worth your life. Plus, your picture will look bad anyways… ☺

How much does Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Cost?

The hike itself will not cost you anything, although you must book either a drop off or a pick up, or both. We met a couple who chose to leave the car at the starting point (Mangatepopo Hut), walked all the way to the Red Crater and walked back to the car. This is something that we wouldn’t recommend though, because they missed the Emerald Lakes.

The day before we arrived at Whakapapa Village and booked two nights. We left the car in the car park and at 8am a bus picked us up from the village and dropped us at Mangatepopo Hut. Later in the afternoon, the same bus picked us up at the end (Ketetahi Road) and drove us back to the village.

Cost: NZ$70/USD$50/GBP£38 for two people

Further reading: Lonely Planet New Zealand’s North Island (Travel Guide) is a complete and all-inclusive guide for those wanting to experience and explore New Zealand North Island. We strongly recommend reading this guide as it helped us planning our own trip. Happy Travels!

Did you find this article useful? Have you hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?

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We are Thomas and Telma – the writers, photographers, videographers and founders of Blank Canvas Voyage.

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