Authors: Cole and Sam Johnston - Why should you listen to us? We are a pair of adventure loving kiwi brothers with a lifetime of experience in New Zealand’s outdoors and regularly guide groups on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.4km (12mi) day hike in the Tongariro National Park, New Zealand. It is widely considered one of the best single day hikes in the world and for good reason! Read on below to find out more about the Crossing including the location, terrain, elevation, difficulty, environment, what to see and more.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located within the Tongariro National Park, which is right in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. It takes around five hours to drive there from Auckland, or you can catch a domestic flight to Taupo which is less than an hour’s drive from the Tongariro National Park, most people drive or join a tour from Auckland. The Crossing itself starts at the Mangatepopo Carpark and finishes at the Ketetahi Carpark, the vast majority of people hike in this direction as it gives the best views and you have a much longer climb if you do it in reverse.
As New Zealand’s oldest National Park and also one of the few UNESCO dual world heritage sites, recognising the Māori cultural and spiritual significance of the park along with its ecological incredible volcanic features. The Park was established as the first in New Zealand and fourth in the world in 1984 after the local Ngāti Tuwharetoa people earlier declared the volcanic peaks sacred and protected. The Park is a very active volcanic region with three significant volcanoes (Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro), however in the past the area has been through a number of significant volcanic events that dramatically reshaped the landscape. Even now there a number of steam vents and steaming lakes due to the underlying volcanic activity!
The hiking trail itself is 19.4 kilometers, you start out at an elevation of 1120m before climbing to a maximum altitude of 1886m and then dropping down to 760m as you finish the hike - this makes for a total climb of 766m. The majority of the trail is well formed with a few slippery sections and one downhill scree slope that needs a bit of care (read the full track description below for more detailed info), that being said if you are well prepared and have a reasonable level of fitness the hike is perfectly achievable for most people. If you’re not sure that Tongariro Alpine Crossing is right for you, feel free to chat with us and we can give you a better idea!
The weather on the Tongariro Crossing can be incredibly varied and changes dramatically at different times of year so we’ve written and entire post about it! Read our in-depth post about the weather on the Tongariro and the best time to hike.
As you set out from the Mangatepopo Carpark you hike through rolling tussock hills as you gently wind up the valley, shortly after starting out there are toilets on the left (be sure to bring toilet paper!), before reaching a small stream that the track winds alongside. As you carry on you begin following the stream through a myriad lava flows, some ancient and some quite recent, these stunning formations poke up all around you as you reach a section of boardwalk that crosses a swampy section of the trail. As you get to the base of the cliffs that you’ve been hiking toward you can take a 5-minute side trip to a small waterfall that flows into the stream you’ve been following and is fed from a soda spring not far above the falls (you cannot climb up to the spring). After returning to the main trail there are another set of toilets just around the corner, be sure to use these if need be as they may be the last set of toilets for some time (there are others, but they get removed after the busy season)
This section starts out with an uphill climb known as the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ that winds up the base of Mount Ngauruhoe for a 200m elevation gain, but don’t worry it’s not as bad as it sounds! The trail is well formed with a good number of steps that climb through some of the newer lava flows on the trail. These have less vegetation growing on them and are mostly exposed rock that create some interesting formations. Once you reach the top of the staircase be sure to stop and enjoy the view! On a clear day you may see Mount Taranaki off to the east, with the Tongariro National Park and surrounding country laid out before you. Towering above the right-hand side of the trail is Mount Ngauruhoe, often referred to as Mount Doom due to its prominent role in the Lord of The Rings films. This symmetrical cone shaped peak makes for a stunning backdrop as you continue on across South Crater, an ancient Volcanic crater that has filled in and now provides a nice flat section to the walk for about 10 minutes with towering peaks on either side.
This section is the hardest but also most rewarding part of the Crossing, as you start climbing from Crater up towards the highest point of the walk at Red Crater the trail gets steep, rocky and can be slippery when wet. After ten minutes you reach a stunning lookout stop with views of the dramatic rocky landscape below the cliff in front of you, stretching out to the border of the National park where it reaches Desert Road, whilst also having a view of Mount Ngauruhoe towering up behind you. From this point it is a 20 – 30-minute climb up to the high point, as you near the top the active Red Crater is revealed on your right, made up of bright red rock due to the mineral content in the ground. As you reach the high point there is a spectacular 360-degree view on clear days with the vivid Emerald and Blue Lakes laid out in front of you, along with the incredible surrounding terrain in every direction! The trail turns into a scree slope as it follows the ridge down toward the Emerald Lakes so take it nice and slow as it is easy to slip on this section of the track, and the surrounding drop-offs are quite steep. There are three lakes that make up the Emerald Lakes, two of which are bright green thanks to their sulfur content and the other rich, clear turquoise. Around the border of the lakes there are usually active steam vents that pop up in different locations, providing a dramatic back drop if you decide to stop here for lunch.
From the Emerald Lakes you still have close to half of the trail left, but the good news is that it’s mostly downhill! After a flat section across an ancient crater there is a 10-minute climb to the rim of the larger Blue Lake, formed as water became trapped in one of the many volcanic craters, before the trail begins its long downhill wind. During summer there is usually another toilet here, then you carry on down one side of a valley with amazing views over Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo, on a very clear day you might even see Mount Manganui out on the East Coast if you know where to look. As you clear the valley there is a large steam vent opposite you that bellows a tall cloud out of the Te Maari Craters, you get a fantastic view of this as you zig zag down to the Ketetahi Hut, there are permanent toilets here and it makes a great final rest stop before the end of the trail. Near the hut you can see an impact crater from a large rock hurled from the Te Maari Crater eruption of 2012, another rock actually damaged the hut when it went through the roof during the same eruption. After departing the hut, you have about an hour to go, most of it a gentle downhill slope through tussock and then lush native forest that has an interesting lahar zone through the middle of it where you can still see evidence of the most recent lahar. The all of a sudden you round the last corner and you’ll be finished! The Ketetahi Carpark has toilets and plenty of shade if you need to wait for a ride, but there is no water or food available, often people will have a car parked at the end of the hike so they can head straight off – read our post on how to get to the Tongariro Crossing and where to stay for more info.
Check out our other blog posts about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!
• How to get to the Crossing and where to stay
• What is the weather like on the Crossing and when is the best time to hike it?
• How to prepare for the Crossing and what to pack
• What boots or shoes should I wear for the Crossing?