The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand’s North Island
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The Tongariro crossing is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and is quite possibly the best hike in New Zealand. If not the best, it’s almost certainly the most unique one that we found. We spent our trip to New Zealand hiking as much as we could, and this was undoubtedly our favourite adventure on the North Island.
The South Island is full of incredible hikes like Roy’s Peak, Tasman Glacier, Hooker Valley and more, but for me, this one will always be the most memorable.
The Tongariro Crossing is a beast of a hike. It’s a one direction hike, meaning you start at one end and finish at the other. As a result, you need to park at the finish and take a bus to the trailhead.
Elevation change: 1125 meters / 3690 feet (You’ll actually end up lower than where you start)
Distance: 19.4km (one way)
Difficulty: Technically quite easy, although it involves some loose scree sections.
Time required: 6-8 hours (longer if you stop for photos)
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing Route
The Tongariro Crossing can be divided up into several distinct sections, each being completely unique and breathtaking.
1. Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs(4.3km)
This is the easiest part of the hike, and is flat for the most part. The route winds along a raised boardwalk until it starts to climb sharply. You’ll pass the Mangatepopo hut fairly quickly as you pass through the Mangatepopo Valley. This is where Mt. Doom will start to come into view.
We opted to do this section in the dark, as we wanted to beat the crowds and get as high as we could before the sun started to come up.
The last toilets are just after the Soda Springs turnoff. Don’t forget to bring toilet paper!
2. Soda Springs to South Crater (4.3 km/2.65 mi)
This section is very steep and includes a section known as the Devil’s staircase. It’s a grind, but well worth the effort. Eventually you’ll reach a completely flat plateau that looks like Mars. Look up to the right and you’ll find yourself beneath the towering Mount Doom. If you’ve got the energy, you can detour and scramble to the top, but we didn’t think our legs would survive if we tried it.
3. South Crater to Red Crater Summit (8.3km)
After the flat plateau, there’s another grinding climb to the highest point of the hike, where you’ll finally be able to see down into the Red Crater. In front and below you, you’ll see several stunning lakes and billowing steam. In the far distance (if it’s a clear day), you can even see Mt. Tekapo.
4. Red Crater Summit to Emerald Lakes (8.7km)
From the highest point, it’s a long descent down to the Emerald Lakes. This part is almost entirely steep scree, and all of us fell at least once or twice. Make sure you have decent hiking trousers, and poles if possible.
At the bottom of the scree slope, you’ll reach a number of beautiful bright blue lakes, and a billowing steaming sulphur vent. Get too close and you’ll get a lung full of sulphur!
As we were booked into the Mangatepopo hut, we decided to come back the same way instead of heading to the very end of the hike, so had to climb this scree again in reverse. I do not recommend this – it’s absolutely exhausting.
This is also one of New Zealand’s busiest hikes, and as it’s predominantly one way, you’ll have to avoid literally hundreds of scree runners coming in your direction. Probably best to stick to the prescribed route!
5. Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake (9.7km)
From Emerald Lakes, you can detour off to Blue Lake; an acidic lake that is considered sacred. Note; it’s considered disrespectful to swim, drink or even touch the lake.
You’ll see this lake from the top of Red Crater, and to take such a large detour might seem like unnecessary effort. Trust us, it’s worth it when you turn around and look back at Mt. Doom. This was my favourite view of all.
Blue Lake in itself is fairly unexciting, but we wanted to check it off regardless.
From here, you retrace your steps and head back onto the main route. You’re roughly halfway now, and from here on out it’s just a grind to the finish.
6. Blue Lake to Ketetahi Car Park (19.4km)
From Blue Lake, you’ll rapidly lose elevation and head down to the valley. From here you’ll walk through the flat lava flows and scrub until you eventually reach the Ketetahi Car Park and the shuttle bus.
Make it to Ketetahi Car Park and congratulations, you can finally take your shoes off and sit down; you’ve just finished one of New Zealand’s Great Walks!
When to Hike the Tongariro Crossing and what conditions should I expect?
The best time to hike the Tongariro Crossing is October – May, although this will also be the busiest season. Outside of this season, you can still hike the crossing, but it will be snow covered and you’ll need the right equipment.
Check the weather conditions and make sure you pack for all types of weather. We hiked this in March and even though it was quite hot by the end of the day, the wind and the altitude meant it was quite cold for the most part.
How busy is the Tongariro Crossing?
I am not joking when I say this is easily the busiest hike I’ve ever seen. We set off at 6am, and there were easily more than 5 bus loads of tourists dropped before us.
Looking back up the slope from the Emerald Lakes was astonishing, and literally hundreds of hikers were pouring over the summit. I counted to 300 hikers passing us as we ate lunch before I gave up. For a 19km hike, that is utterly astonishing.
Do not expect to see this place without crowds unless you’re one of the earliest/last groups to start.
What equipment should I bring with me?
- The ground is often quite loose or sharp, so hard soled shoes are essential. Hiking poles would also be a great idea. Layers for variable temperatures are essential, and a rain coat/windbreaker is also a good idea.Bring plenty of water, food and sunscreen if you burn. A map or GPS would come in handy too, although it’s such a busy hike that the route is extremely obvious.
How to access the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Because the Tongariro crossing has become increasingly busy, the park has restricted parking at the trailhead. It is now necessary to take a shuttle bus to complete the hike, which you can book here.
Shuttle buses will take you to the Mangatepopo trailhead and will pick you up again from the Ketetahi Car Park after you complete the crossing.
Shuttle buses depart from the National Park Village (Whakapapa) every day (October – May) at 6am, 7am, 8am, 9am, 10am, and return at 1.30pm, 2.30pm, 3.30pm, 4.30pm, 5.30pm.
You can also book shuttle buses from Taupo, and various bus companies operate (around $40 round trip pp).
Buses don’t go to the trailhead in the afternoon as the hike is so long.
Here are a few more shuttle options:
- Tongariro Shuttles – www.tongarirocrossingshuttles.co.nz
- Tongariro Expeditions – www.tongariroexpeditions.com
- Alpine Shuttles – www.alpineshuttles.co.nz
- Alpine Shuttles – www.alpineshuttles.co.nz
The easiest place to catch the bus is from the Park and Ride Transport Hub. This is located South of the Station Café, corner of Findlay St and Station Road, National Park Village.
It’s a good idea to check with your service provider for more specific meeting details.
Seeing the sunrise will be a challenge
If you’re a photographer like us, getting anywhere near the top for sunrise or decent light is a challenge now that the buses only start at 6am. Expect not to make it up there in time, unless you’re starting later in the season when the sun rises later.
Where to stay for the Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro Crossing really is in the middle of nowhere, so the nearest big town is Taupo (approximately an hour away). Taupo has plenty of choice for hotels and restaurants, as well as a beautiful natural hot springs by the river. The hot springs are the perfect antidote to achey legs after a long day of hiking.
This is the small village next to the crossing, and you’ll find a couple of expensive options here, including the Chateau Tongariro. There are extremely limited options for food or groceries, and you’ll pay a hefty premium to stay in this area.
Mangatepopo Hut or other backcountry huts
The other alternative is to stay in one of the alpine huts on the hiking trails. The Mangatepopo hut is a 20 bed cabin about an hour’s hike from the Tongariro Crossing trailhead. This would make the most sense if you’re planning to hike the route and needed somewhere to stay overnight.
Reservations are required in the summer months (October – May), but not in the winter.
Fees are $36 per adult per night, and can be booked online or at the last minute in Whakapapa Village at the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre.
Having a spot booked at the Mangatepopo Hut allows you to leave your car at the Mangatepopo Hut, and therefor you can potentially do the Tongariro as a there and back hike. If you’re not staying in a hut, the only option is to park at one of the designated car parks and take a shuttle.
If none of those options work for you, all you’re left with is freedom camping in your camper van. This is easily the cheapest and most convenient option, and you’ll most likely be surrounded by plenty of other vans doing the same thing.
Just as a side note, we used Jucy camper vans and they were awesome (not sponsored).
Don’t park at the Mangatepopo or Ketetahi Car Park in Summer
In hiking season (October – May), there is a 4 hour time limit for parking at the Mangatepopo or Ketetahi trailhead, meaning it’s impossible to do the crossing without getting a ticket (it takes 6-10 hours). That is, unless you’re staying at one of the huts.
In order to complete the hike, you’ll have to leave your car at one of the designated car parks and take the shuttle bus to the trailhead. You’ll then take the bus back afterwards. This adds a significant amount of time to your hike, so bear that in mind if you have anywhere to be.
The Mt. Doom Hike
Does this mountain ring a bell? Have you ever watched the Lord of the Rings?
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the volcano you see on the Tongariro Crossing is the basis for Mt. Doom in the movie! As a result, this hike is an absolute must-do for any LOTR fans, and is where it gets it’s nickname as the “Mt. Doom hike”.