The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is said to be New Zealand’s best day hike. On this alpine hike you will trek across volcanic valleys and a dramatic change of landscapes from alpine vegetarian, ancient lava flows and incredible crater lakes.
This was a hike I was greatly looking forward to on my New Zealand Road trip, however, I was one of the unfortunate ones that did not have this hike go to plan. As disappointing as this was, this is the realities to hiking in alpine conditions. I did not get any of the impressive views you usually would get along this hike and had a pretty awful hiking experience. Despite this, I would 100% do this hike again, as it was still incredible despite the hiking conditions. You can skip to read about my experience here.
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About the Track
This hike is 19.4km one way, located in the Tongariro National Park on the North Island. This national park is a UNESCO dual World Heritage Park, recognised for its spiritual and culture significance, as well as its volcanic features.
This hike begins at 1120m above sea level, climbing through the Mangatepopo valley to the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. Hiking through south crater, before ascending to the Red Crater, which is the highest point at 1886m.
You then descent on volcanic rock scree to the vivid Emerad Lakes, known as Ngarotopounamu. The track then follows around the northern slope of Mt Tongariro, before descending past the Ketetahi Shelter and down to the road end.
How to get there?
There are few ways you can get to the track, either via shuttle bus or car. I would recommend the shuttle bus, which leaves from Taupo or National Park. Personally, I recommend leaving from National Park, as it’s a much shorter drive.
There are multiple shuttle bus services which will drop you off at the Mangatepopo Trail head and pick you up from the Ketetahi road end. Although this is the most popular direction to hike the track, you can opt to do it the other way. Although this is not recommended as it means you will have to climb up steeper ascents.
You can find the list of approved shuttle services from DOC here. I went with Tongariro Crossing Shuttles, as it has the best schedule. You will only need to book a pick up time, you can jump on any bus for your return time.
You can park for free at the Park n Ride in National Park, this is also a freedom camping site.
You can opt to drive to the trail head and hike the track without the use of the shuttle, although you are only allowed to leave your car in the car park for a maximum time of 4hrs. This wouldn’t be nearly enough time to complete the hike, and also means you would have to back track.
Another popular option is to drive your car to the Ketehai road end and take the shuttle bus to National Park. Here you will spend a night in National Park, before taking the shuttle bus to the Mangatepopo trailhead and walking to your car at the Ketehai road head the following day. To make things easier I would just take the return shuttle bus on the day.
How long is it?
The whole hike is 19.4km (12miles). It takes your from one side of the volcano, over the top and to the other side. So you will need to book a shuttle service or organise a lift.
You can walk the route by either way, however it is recommended that you start at the Mangatepopo Road trailhead and end at Ketetahi Road. This way will decrease the amount of incline you will have to walk, making it a bit easier. Also this means that you won’t have to walk uphill from the lakes to the red crater (which I do not recommend you do).
You can also choose to walk to the half way point, and back to the car park. If you choose to do this. I recommend you start at Mangatepopo Road , walk to the top of the red crater and turn back.
As this is an alpine walk, never underestimate the track as it can be quite dangerous in severe weather conditions. Also check the weather conditions and track information before completing the hike. Most shuttle bus’s won’t take you to the trail head if bad weather is predicated.
- You can find out all the information you need for this track and other walks in Tongariro National Park on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing website.
- A reasonable level of fitness is required to complete this walk. It has steep ascents and descents, unstable footing and is 19.4km long.
- This hike will take between 5-8hrs to complete. It can be challenging for some.
- Wear good footwear and take warm, waterproof clothing with you.
- Take plenty of water and food.
- If you are hiking in winter, it is recommended to hike with a guide. The track conditions drastically change in winter.
- Use the toilets provided on the trail, there are toilets every 1.5hrs along the track.
- Drones are not permitted in the Tongariro National Park
Hiking in Winter
The trail changes drastically in winter. You can expect snow, ice, avalanche risks and sub-zero temperatures. You need special skills and preparation to complete this hike in winter.
Proper gear such as ice axes and crampons are essential. I wouldn’t recommend you complete this hike in winter unless you are a competent winter alpine hiker. If you aren’t competent but would still like to complete this hike in winter, its highly advised that you book a guide.
What to pack?
- Water bottle (2-3 litres)
- Good hiking/walking shoes – I saw too many people doing it in sneakers
- Walking stick (highly recommend for the section red crater -> emerald lakes)
- Snacks (but don’t eat on the volcano)
- Camera (and plenty of batteries)
- Hat and sunscreen
- Warm clothes – I cannot stress this enough, it is an alpine area. The weather changes rapidly, it was freezing up top. I am happy I had warm clothes, but I saw people in shorts and a t shirt.
- Rain jacket
- Rubbish bag, take everything out that you took in
As I mentioned before, my experience didn’t exactly go to plan. When I checked the weather the morning prior to completing my hike, it was meant to be sunny and a beautiful day. The morning of my hike I checked the weather, and it had changed to windy and cloudy.
I started my hike by parking at the Park n Ride in National Park and getting on the 5.45am shuttle bus. The whole bus trip to the trail head took about 15mins. I then commenced the hike. The weather at this point wasn’t looking too bad, there were a few low-lying clouds in the sky, but nothing I was overally worried about.
The first section
The hike starts off by walking through volcanic valleys, which is a flattish section with a few stairs here and there. This part of the track took me about 1hr. It is worth stopping and reading the information plaques along this stretch to find out how these valleys were made.
After this section, you will reach a sign which asks to check the weather conditions and tells you it essentially only gets steeper from here. That was the easy section. You then reach a section which is all stairs, and quite a steep ascent. This section will take you anywhere between 1-2hrs depending on your fitness level. Once you’ve reached the top of these stairs, you will see some bathrooms to your left.
Hiking to Red Crater
While I was completing this section the wind had started to pick up, and it became freezing cold the higher I got. It also did start to rain, not heavy rain but that annoying drizzle type of rain. Once I got to the bathrooms, there was a flat section which is where the wind had stopped, and I could finally hear myself again.
After walking on this flat section for about 20mins, you will reach another sign which informs you, you are about to complete the hardest part of this hike. From here it is steep and can be slippery. During this section the wind came back, and it started pissing down with rain. This was the section where I was getting over this hike. I was cold, wet, miserable. I could barely feel my hands or my nose. The visibility was shocking when I got to the Red Crater. Not to mention how strong the wind was. There was no hiding from the elements in this section. I stopped and took a few pictures with my GoPro before quickly getting off that peak.
Hiking to Emerald Lakes
The next section is a steep descent down to the Emerald Lakes, this section is crossing volcanic scree which is incredibly slippery. If you do not have poles or good hiking shoes, take your time going down here. I need slipped down several times and had to go ass to grass a few times, so I didn’t fall face first down the hill.
I then saw the Emerald Lakes to the right of the trail, of course the visibility was not there at all. In fact, I could barely see the Lakes. This is also the part you see all over social media of those beautiful vivid lakes. Even though I didn’t get those incredible views, I still thought they were very beautiful.
After I reached the Emerald Lakes, the trail essentially just descends. I won’t lie, I didn’t really care much at this point as I was very cold and wet, just wanting to get out of the alpine conditions. I got into a bit of a zone here, where my mind shut off and I honestly can’t remember what this part of the hike was like. On the descend you do pass some hot springs and I was fortunate to get some views on this hike, where I got to see this beautiful lake.
You eventually come into forest terrain, passing waterfalls and creeks along the way. I was done by this moment and just wanted to get back to my accommodation to get dry and warm. It took me 5.5hrs to complete this hike. I got on the first shuttle bus back, got dry and warm then treated myself to an incredible burger at the pub across the road from the backpackers.
Although I didn’t have a great experience with this hike, I still enjoyed parts of it. I would love to go back and complete this hike in the correct weather conditions, and hopefully get those incredible views one day. For this reason, I recommend giving yourself a few days in the national park for wiggle room, to make up for bad weather.
Where to Stay
If you want cheap or free camping options, one option is to stay at the Park n Ride car park. There are bathrooms here, however there is a lot of lights. Another cheap option is to stay at the Mangahuia DOC campsite. I stayed here the day before my shuttle bus was booked, as it was only a 10min drive to National Park. This campsite will cost you $15 pp/pn.
National Park Backpackers is another cheap/mid range option. This is where I spent the night after completing the hike. It has very good facilities and the rooms are clean. I booked a private room with a private ensuite which was very spacious. This cost me $90AUD for the night, bunk rooms will cost you $30AUD per night.
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