The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Fans of the Lord of the Rings series will recognise this iconic mountain as Mount Doom but for the Maori people of New Zealand, it’s Mount Ngauruhoe.  It’s one of three main volcanoes that make up the Tongariro National Park, just south of Taupo, on the North Island.

Tongariro National Park is both New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage site.  This duality recognises both the Maori cultural and spiritual associations as well as the stunning scenery and volcanic activity.  Mount Ruapehu is an active volcano and signs around the trails highlight the risks of hiking in the area.  Lahars (volcanic mudflows) can happen at any time.

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Avid hikers can experience the thrill of hiking the eight-hour Tongariro Alpine Crossing or tackle the three- to four-day Tongariro Northern Circuit.  The crossing begins at the Mangatepopo car park, accessible from any nearby town by bus.  The circuit begins and ends at the Whakapapa village.  Any hikers planning to use the huts must reserve them with the DOC and pay per hiker, per night.  Campsites also must be reserved.  Due to volcanic activity, hikers are advised to be aware of their surroundings and any unusual sounds from higher up.  Additionally, hikers should be prepared for all weather, as it can snow at any time of year.

What to Expect

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing begins with a leisurely walk through the Mangatepopo valley.  This was formed during the last ice age and is partially filled in with volcanic rubble from Ngauruhoe.  Much of this path is by boardwalk and streams gurgle along under your feet.  About one hour in to the seven to eight hour hike is Soda Springs and hikers with time can detour off the main path to the waterfall here.

What is popularly known as the Devils Staircase begins at Soda Springs, with steps alternating between man-made wooden boards and volcanic rock.  On clear days, the views back across the valley can include the stunning Mount Taranaki, miles away, and catching your breath is just a bonus.  This uphill stairmaster will take upwards of an hour, even for the most fit.  At the top, the first crater awaits.  It’s a lunar landscape over which Mt Ngauruhoe looms like a menacing sentinel.  Another short uphill walk along a windy ridge brings hikers to the edge of the Red Crater.

Just beyond the crater, down the scree-filled slope, are the Emerald Lakes.  These lakes appear in most brochures about the Park and are a highlight for most hikers.  Minerals leached from the surrounding volcanic rock give them their stunning colour.  Steam vents in the area are responsible for the sulfuric smell they emit.  Drinking this water is *not* advisable!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing photo
Photo by Justgetdancey

The trail crosses another crater, skirts the edge of the sacred Tapu Lake, and begins to wind downhill to the Ketetahi car park, approximately three hours through alpine forest.  The 19.4 km trail is strenuous, but described as New Zealand’s best one-day hike.  It’s definitely worth visiting!

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