In Hiking,Mountains

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s Premier Day-Trek

Continuing the New Zealand Great Walks theme, here’s a guest post from Clare, an avid hiker who’s just completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand’s north island. She covers practically everything you’d need to know about the journey. Check it..

By Clare Groom, editor & blogger at Altitude Treks

Where: Tongariro National Park, North Island New Zealand

How long: 19.4Km, 12 miles (I took 7hr 15 minutes, but allow 7-9 hours)

Elevation gain: Start: 1100 m, Red Crater 1886 m, End 800 m

Often hailed as the “best one-day hike in New Zealand” (if not the world), the Tongariro Crossing is an alpine trek through the active volcanic zone of the central North Island. Past Emerald Lakes and steam vents emitting sulphurous fumes up to Blue Lake and through valleys and past volcanos. And views!

It simply had to be done.

My research had led me to “take it seriously”. The changeable mountain weather conditions can easily make the journey hazardous, and with exposed ridges and loose scree I had visions of myself hurtling headlong into a bubbling, stinky volcano.

So prepare I did. Taking the Department of Conservation’s advice, I duly packed clothing to see me from summer heat to winter blizzard. And “enough” food. I should mention here that “enough” food for me tends to mean elephantine servings of deliciousness that don’t feature in my daily eating habits!

Emerging from our winter hibernation, I had not been out in the bush for many months. So I dusted off my trusty hiking boots that had seen many successful Kilimanjaro summits – and carried me to Everest Base Camp. It felt good to be loading up my daypack again and heading for the hills.

New Zealand’s weather is a fickle witch. If the weather forecast is bad, the trail will be closed. However, just because the trail is open doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be safe. What starts out as a crystal clear day can rapidly turn wintry. And Search & Rescue takes a dim view of rescuing people from a mountain who are dressed for the beach.

At 6am on the 23rd October, we waited by the roadside in a small town called Turangi, for a bus to take us to the trailhead. It was a clear morning, cold, with frost on the ground. I was glad I had packed the extra layers. On the half-hour drive to Tongariro National Park we were afforded amazing views of Mt Ruapehu, still snow-covered and the dramatic Mt Ngauruhoe – famously Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.

Revelling in the wilderness, we were slightly taken aback at the trail-head where numerous buses were jostling for position. The queues for the toilets were long, it suddenly felt as though we’d happened into a theme park or something. Note: I would not advise doing this crossing in the height of summer, as there can be over a thousand people on the trail at the weekends!

Undeterred, we set off on the trail, the sun shining bright and the day promising to be clear. Mt Ruapehu loomed bright and white to our right, and the trail mostly flat…

Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs (~1-1.5 hours)

The first part of the trail is flat or with a gentle incline. Alpine plants predominate, with tussocky grasses and heathers. The sun quickly burnt off any residual frost. The trail is typical of New Zealand – well maintained, with boardwalks across the boggy parts (this helps to protect the fragile environment, it’s not just for the trekkers convenience).

Tongariro Alpine CrossingRounding a corner, we get our first view of Mt Ngauruhoe, looming ominously in the distance. A perfect stratovolcano, with the top still covered in the remnants of snow, it’s easy to see how this sacred mountain was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Mt Doom.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

So far, so good. A lovely easy hike through dramatic countryside, and an opportunity to make a big dent in my food supplies… in spite of a hearty breakfast, food was on my mind.

This part of the trek is by far the easiest. We climb out of the valley and after a couple of uphill sections, there is a flat, rather barren-looking plateau. The heather at the start of the trail gradually recedes, leaving only the tussocky grasses and rough alpine plants in the moorland zone. Rocks underfoot and scree remind us that we are in a volcanic region.

Soda Springs is a 15-30 minute diversion off the main track – and the toilets mark the end of this section.

Rounding a corner, it’s clear that the easy part is over…

Soda Springs to South Crater (~1 hour)

Through the volcanic rock and scree, we are greeted by this signpost:

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Undeterred, we pressed on. Up the Devil’s Staircase. This section is steep, from 1400-1600m, hiking across lava flows, both ancient and modern. The track is rough, it’s hard-going and I was out of breath quite quickly. After about an hour of this – with fantastic views down the valley and a peek of Mt Taranaki in the distance, we got to the top.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

A quick rest to get my breath back was a perfect opportunity for a bit more food. I was enjoying this “eat as much as you like, when you like”.

The Devil’s Staircase is a tough hike. But taking it slowly, enjoying the views and resting when needed – it’s easy. The views are spectacular, how lucky we were to have such a clear day!

South Crater to Red Crater (~1 hour)

A chance to catch our breath, the flat plateau is partially covered with snow. The dramatic Mt Doom towers over us. We had wanted to climb to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe but the previous day two people had been badly injured in a rock slide and it was out of bounds. Onwards we went, enjoying the bleak and inhospitable land, but well aware of the steep ridge ahead of us that we would need to scale.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

As we reached the ridge, the combination of compacted snow and scree made the trail slippery and I almost fell on my backside a couple of times. I was glad I’d brought my hiking pole! Much more rugged than the Devil’s Staircase, the trail climbs up slippery, exposed tracks, climbing over rocks with a rather precipitous drop to one side.

Sections of this path have chains – and with the frost on the ground we were quite literally hauling ourselves up with our arms, unable to get a proper foothold. I won’t lie, it was exhausting and only a little bit terrifying at times!

At the top of the ridge we were starting to heave a big sigh of relief that the worst was over. How wrong we were! The last part of the ridge, around the Red Crater, is a slippery, narrow track, exposed on both sides. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a windy day. Abandoning my reputation, I decided to proceed through the steeper parts on my hands and knees. I was fully aware of what an idiot I must have looked.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Arriving at Red Crater – I could smell it before I could see it – and finally looking up from my study of the track ahead I was greeted by vistas that have to be seen to be believed. Photographs don’t show the half of it. Over the Otuere Valley, the Rangipo Desert, out over the Kaimanawa Ranges. How lucky we were to have such a clear day!  

The Red Crater – it really is red, from the iron deposits – drops away steeply, deep into the volcano, steam wafts from the fumaroles, it’s like another planet. Mt Doom watches over, close-by now.

Next stop, those glorious Emerald Lakes.

But first… downhill.

Red Crater to Emerald Lakes (~15-20 minutes)

I’ll say it. I hate downhill. It always seems preferable to the relentlessness of uphill – but loose scree on a slippery slope and I do not get along. As I cling to a rock, easing myself off the lip of the Red Crater, I immediately start to slip. The descent is exposed, and the only way to remain upright was to crab-step and go very, very slowly.

I know, on Kilimanjaro I “skied” down the scree, fast and furious, crashing frequently. The steep drops on either side meant this was not an option, and after several hard-landings on my backside, I arrived at the Emerald Lakes.

They really are an Emerald color. Their colour comes from leached minerals. Sulphur deposits can be seen on the slopes, and the scent of rotten eggs pervades from the surrounding steam vents.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I had a celebratory sandwich, and worried that I was getting low on food.

Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake (~30 minutes)

Another short descent, a muddy and snow-slushy hike across a crater and it’s uphill again to the Blue Lake. This uphill section is short, and after what I’d been through climbing to Red Crater, nice and easy.

It really is Blue! A cold acidic lake, sacred in Maori tradition, apparently it is disrespectful to eat or drink on her shores. A blue lake with a bright white “beach” of snow. By this time we were feeling exhilarated. Knowing the worst of the climbing was behind us, we just revelled in the beauty of the pristine environment. Reflecting on how lucky we were to have a cloudless day with little wind. Feeling strong, we moved on, thinking ahead to that nice glass of wine back in town.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut (~1 hr)

Leaving the Blue lake, we climb to the edge of the North Crater then descend into the gorge. The landscape becomes less bleak and the heath and moorland plants are in evidence again. A few more ups-and-downs and we get a view of our destination in the distance. And then it starts… the relentless downhill.

Relentless it certainly was. I mentioned I hadn’t worn my hiking boots in several months. My toenails were crying out in pain, threatening to go black and leave me. My creaking knees were complaining and it went on. And on. The track is well-maintained and the alpine zone is fascinating, with wonderful views over Lake Taupo.

After the first hour, I’d had enough. I was tired and grumpy. Even eating yet another sandwich didn’t help. My feet hurt and my knees hurt and it was down down down.

Arriving at Ketetahi Hut for a short rest stop, the end felt nigh.

Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car Park (~2 hours)

Oh no, more of the same. The moorland gave way to thicker, heather-type bush and the temperature was warmer, with no icy mountain winds. The path continues downhill for what feels like hours. Then the forest appears. A dense, montane forest, with a roaring stream through it.

And an ominous sign “if you hear a noise from upstream, do not enter” – it’s a live volcanic area and the Department of Conservation advises you to move quickly and not delay!

By this point, my spirits started to lift. The forest was beautiful and the path flattened out and my toes and knees allowed me to enjoy the hike once again. Winding through the forest and over a little bridge, eventually the hustle and bustle of the car park appears.

I did it! Very happy to have made good time, I could now look forward to getting out of my hiking boots and sipping the inevitable glass of wine.

Closing Thoughts

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, in good weather is a fantastic experience. In poor weather, it could be pretty miserable, if not dangerous. Whilst the climb to Red Crater is hard, there is a great sense of achievement on getting to the top and seeing the incredible views that this part of New Zealand has to offer. The walk out can get a bit boring as it feels you have done what you came to do – and still the hike goes on. I may have felt differently about the last few hours if my feet weren’t hurting.

Overall – well worth it for an amazing day out!

Recommendations

  • Check the weather with MetService before you go and remember that it’s a mountain region, and it’s volcanic. The weather can change quickly, so be prepared.
  • Wear sturdy hiking boots as the terrain is uneven and rocky.
  • Take rain gear and layers in case the weather changes suddenly. Don’t underestimate the cold mountain winds.
  • Take plenty of food and water. It’s a strenuous hike at times and you need to stay hydrated.
  • If you are in doubt, do not climb to Red Crater, turn back and try again some other time!
  • Sunscreen & sunglasses – the New Zealand sun can be brutal.
  • Take a bus from your accommodation, as your start point is different from your end point. The bus also provides a layer of security as they know when you are due to come down from the mountain. If you don’t meet the last bus, they will call Search & Rescue.

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