The Tongariro Crossing is consistently voted as the best one-day hike in New Zealand, and having just completed it, I can 100% see why. It has a little of everything – high, deserted plateaus, volcanic ash slides, steaming vents, emerald coloured lakes and beautiful forests, and that’s just for starters!
Each and every corner reveals a new landscape, and just when you think it can’t get any more breathtaking, it surprises you yet again. It’s one of the most varied and intensely beautiful walks you can do, but there’s no doubt about it: It is physically demanding.
It’s nearly 20km long, with a few heavy-going sections so you need to be fairly fit and ready to take on a challenge. It took me about 7 and a half hours to complete the hike including stopping for a few breaks and pausing A LOT to take pictures.
After you’re finished you can expect to feel wiped out and ready to hit the hay. But despite the blisters on my feet and the ache in my thighs, I would scale this track 100 times over to see those incredible views again.
Here’s exactly what you can expect from hiking the Tongariro Crossing, including walking times, where to start and finish, what to pack and how to pace yourself for a comfortable hike.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing one-day hike is part of the larger Tongariro Northern Circuit, usually completed in four days and regarded as one of the nine ‘Great Walks’ in New Zealand. The one day route cuts through Tongariro National Park and takes you through the territory of two active volcanoes: Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as ‘Mount Doom’ of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame.
The 19.4km track is one way, so you’ll need to either have two cars (leaving one at the start and the finish points) or arrange transportation between the start and finish points. I used Adrift Outdoors, who were recommended to me by Stray, the bus company I travelled the North Island with. They are based in nearby ‘National Park’, which is the name of the town… Confusing, right?
The cost was $35 for a return bus journey (including a well-deserved ice-cold beer on the return leg!), and they also hire any gear you might be missing such as thermal clothing, hiking socks, hiking boots etc. See the ‘packing’ section of this post for a full list of what you’ll need. There is no cost to do the hike itself.
The easiest direction is to follow the track from the Mangatepopo car park to the Ketetahi car park. This way you’ll get all of the horrible steps out of the way at the beginning of the hike and have a nice gently sloping track to take you to the bottom on the way down. You’ll also only have to hike a gain of around 750 metres rather than 1,125 metres in the opposite direction, as Mangatepopo is at a higher elevation than Ketetahi.
The track is extremely well marked out, so don’t worry about getting lost! It’s a mixture of steps, pathways and scree hills, and should be no problem for anyone wearing good hiking boots.
There are also three side tracks for those who want to stretch it a little more. One of the girls on my Stray Bus was crazy fit and did all three of them, and still beat me to the finish line, so it just shows how slow I am!
The first add-on is a hike to the Summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom). This is an unmarked track although you’re likely to see the path left by others before you. It’s a 3 hour return trip and is mainly up a steep ash and scree mountainside.
The second ‘extra’ is a summit of Mt. Tongariro. This one is a well-marked track and will add another 1 hour 20 minutes to your journey, but gives you amazing views back across the valley towards Ngauruhoe.
If you have any energy left, you can walk the flat track around Blue Lake, which will take about 30 minutes. This walk will give you a new view of the volcanoes and take you past a cool waterfall, so I hear. I didn’t do this one myself!
What will you see?
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing isn’t voted the best one-day hike in New Zealand for laughs. It’s a seriously stunning walk with absolutely loads to see along the way.
You’ll walk through the valley with Mt Ngauruhoe to your right, eventually walking so close that you can almost touch it (up a killer set of stairs known delightfully as Devil’s Staircase).
You’ll cross a high plateau as you pass the conical volcano, and scale another relatively steep section before hitting the South Crater.
Another climb will bring you to the Red Crater, which I thought was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The red hue is seriously mesmerising and the crater is marked with a huge blow hole in the side, reminding you of the force that this mountain must have given out on its eruption!
The Red Crater is the high point of your hike at 1,886 metres, so you can have a little lunch here and celebrate the fact that the hard work is over and it’s all (mostly) downhill from here. Don’t underestimate the amount of energy you’ll need for the climb down though, so make sure you eat enough!
If you want to summit Mt. Tongariro then this is where you can take the 1 hour 20 minute track up and back.
After lunch, navigate the ashy slope down to the Emerald Lakes, stopping pretty much all the time to take pictures as they are ridiculously photogenic! You’ll probably fall over a little bit here but the ground is so soft that it won’t hurt anything but your pride…
You’ll cross a wide, flat plain and climb a little over a pass to reveal the Blue Lake. I would have been blown away by this if it hadn’t been preceded by the almost impossibly coloured Emerald Lakes. Still, it’s extremely pretty and you’ll probably want to stop here for pictures too.
Soon after, the landscape will open up to reveal a huge green valley, which is a lovely contrast to the arid volcanic craters you’ve just walked through. You’ll start to hear birds cheeping and bugs buzzing again as streams and vegetation once again come into view.
Round a corner and on a clear day you’ll be able to see Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo in the distance, with a gorgeous forest in the foreground. You’ll also see a couple of steaming vents on the mountainside.
A long zig zag path will take you down the other side of the mountain and into the forest, where you’ll see signs for a 700m Lahar zone. Lahar is a fast-flowing mud slide, and the spongy floor reminds you that you’re not out of the danger zone just yet!
You’ll walk through the forest for seemingly forever, but keep with it, as out of nowhere you’ll suddenly be in the car park, and finished your 19km journey!
Someone of reasonable fitness walking at an average pace should complete the hike in about 7 hours, not accounting for breaks. Allowing for a short stop every two hours for something to eat and a little rest, you should get it done well within 8 hours.
There are some ‘check points’ to look out for along the way. Here are the recommended pacing times from Adrift Outdoors:
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs (toilet stop) – 1h 10mins
Soda Springs to South Crater – 1h
South Crater to Red Crater – 1h
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes – 20mins
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Shelter (toilet stop) – 1h 45mins
Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Car Park – 1h 45mins
Those of you with a keen eye will notice that there’s no toilet stop between Soda Springs and Ketetahi Shelter, roughly a 4 hour walk. There really isn’t any opportunity to relieve yourself between these points as it’s a busy track and it’s all out in the open (meaning you can see the path for miles) so anyone squatting and dropping WILL be noticed! My advice? Use all of the toilet stops even if you don’t feel you need it!
So you may be wondering what you’ll need to pack for such an undertaking. Here are my recommendations, and all of the below is on the list for a reason – weather is highly unpredictable and it can change with a moment’s notice. You need to be prepared for every eventuality.
Comfortable (worn in) hiking boots, preferably with a high ankle (will stop ash and rocks getting in)
Hiking trousers, waterproof
Breathable long sleeved base layer (Merino Wool is perfect) – NO cotton as it just holds onto your sweat!
Good quality sweater
Plasters for blisters
Lunch and high-calorie snacks such as fruit loaf, chocolate etc
2 litres of water
Gloves (if it’s cold or rainy)
Extra water if you usually drink a lot (I took 2.25 litres and drank it all)
Camera (you’ll want to take pictures!)
Toilet paper and hand sanitiser
Walking pole/s (if you have problems with your knees or ankles)
What do you think, pretty spectacular, isn’t it? Let me know if you have any more questions about hiking the Tongariro Crossing in the comments below.
Disclaimer: I travelled as a guest of Stray to the Tongariro Crossing – Thanks to them for taking me to such an awesome place. As always, all opinions are my own.
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