The Tongariro crossing is arguably one of the best day walks in the world, with high accolades from many well-respected guide books. If you have time to fit it in to an itinerary you will not be disappointed by this incredibly scenic, otherworldly hike.
The 19.4km route (which we will cover in more depth shortly) takes you through valleys, up volcanoes, and across craters in a challenging but rewarding hike. Roughly speaking the first half includes an increase in elevation from the start level of 1120m, peaking at the summit of Red Crater at 1886m above sea level. Following this it is almost all downhill, for a descent to your end point at an elevation of 760m. Along the way you are treated to the bright colours of volcanic rock, lakes and valleys, steaming fumaroles of sulphur, and the infamous Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings (also known as Mt. Ngauruhoe).
In total, the walk is advised to take between 6 and 8 hours on average which is very doable if you have a good general level of fitness. The path is marked with helpful signposts indicating the time it should take to get to the next checkpoint, a great way to see if you are up to pace. As we found though the time it takes can vary greatly on fitness, weather, and how many stops you take, it’s the sort of place you want to savour so don’t rush it if you have time.
The crossing is an alpine crossing and therefore easily effected by the weather. The best time of the year to attempt it is between November and April. Winter crossings are possible for the harder core among us, but require a guide, crampons, ice axe etc. Keep an eye on the weather in the run up to your trip and ideally have spare time either side in case it is not possible on your planned day. Also note that this is an active volcanic area, make sure you know what to do if there is an eruption and check geonet or the visitor information centre for up to date monitoring.
There are plenty of options for accommodation with the best and nearest being in National Park, Whakapapa Village or Ohakune. We opted for The Park Hotel because of its excellent restaurant, and hot tub for aching legs! The hotels, motels or hostels will also assist you with booking a shuttle transfer, an essential inclusion as it is a one-way hike. Pick up is usually early with a few return times dependent on how long you take to complete the crossing.
What to take:
It is advisable that everyone doing the crossing has their own day pack with supplies. It is important to note that there is no drinkable water on the route to refill bottles, there are limited (well signposted) toilets but with no loo roll. We recommend including the following on your kit list:
- Layers, thin, waterproof, windproof
- Hat and gloves (it can be warm at the base but with the exposure and altitude things can cool down quickly)
- Enough food and water for 8hrs (ideally 1.5-2L water per person)
- Sunscreen, basic first aid kit and head torch
- Toilet roll and hand sanitiser
- Sturdy footwear, ideally hiking boots or trainers with good tread
- Mobile phone (signal is limited)
Arriving by shuttle to the Mangatepopo car park marks the slightly unglamorous start of the crossing. From here the walk begins along gravel track surrounded by alpine scrubland and flowering blankets of purple heather. A mellow stretch up the valley over boardwalks, past streams, and on to the first checkpoint, Soda Springs.
A small detour from the main path takes you up a stream to the Soda Springs waterfall, a small but welcome side attraction to the main walk, a mossy cascade in the rocky landscape. The climb begins with the devil’s staircase, a winding steep path alternating between stairs and rocky paths. As you ascend the views back valley reach out below, all the way to Mt Taranaki on the west coast, and above Mt Ngauruhoe looms ever larger as you climb.
Reaching the South Crater following the climb, flat landscape allows the legs a little respite with fantastic views to the Red Crater summit and peak of Mt Ngauruhoe, coloured with mineral deposits of red, white and yellow. At the edge of the crater the steep climb begins up the crater walls. Note that here is a good point to turn around if you are struggling, or the weather closes in. As the climb gets steeper still there is a chain to use as a handrail, signalling the start point for the final push to the Red Crater summit of 1886m. From the summit the panoramic views are breath taking down into the ethereal crater and with the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges below.
From the summit begins the descent, a steep scree slope calls for some careful footwork and balance, and if possible is best taken at a bit of pace, digging the heels in as you go. Half sliding your way down to the stunning turquoise waters of the Emerald Lakes below, this is an excellent stop for lunch after the exertions of the climb. The lakes are quite beautiful with their bright acidic waters and crusted yellow sulphur deposits around the edge. Beyond the lakes the smoking fumaroles make the air pungent.
Leaving the lakes behind the route travels across the flat central crater, the remnants of a volcanic flow halted in time. Over a small ridge the larger Blue Lake reveals itself marking the end of the craters and the main part of the long descent. Looking back across the central crater the views to Red Crater, Mt Ngauruhoe and the Emerald Lakes are both awesome and otherworldly.
Skirting the Blue Lake the path takes a rocky turn before descending through an increasingly green valley. With a stream flowing far below the track is gentle but uneven to begin with, levelling out as it arrives at the edge of the valley.
Further from the volcanoes the zig-zag of the track reveals huge steaming vents on the side of the hill, natural hot springs, and views of the enormous Lake Taupo. The scrubland turns back to heather as you reach the Ketetahi Shelter, a final checkpoint before the home straight.
It is quite a long home straight as the path narrows through the heather, meandering over streams, winding its way to the bush line. The lush forest envelopes the final part of the route to the Ketetahi Car Park. Finally, after a long day of walking, fresh air and spectacular views, you have a moment to revel in your achievement as you take the shuttle back and see the entirety of the crossing stretched out across the landscape.
Spectacular hiking, enjoy!