Probably the single coolest thing we’ve done in New Zealand was the one-day, 19.4-kilometer Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This tremendous “day walk” weaves its way between two active volcanoes, past jewel-colored lakes made famous by their mineral deposits, to a summit of over 1800 meters from which you descend through patches of snow and reddish-tinged alpine plants with steam vents billowing all around you. It was inspiring, very tiring, and one of our top three recommendations for what to do in New Zealand.
We drove to Tongariro National Park from our AirBnb place in Taupo, which took just over an hour. The road winds around the Lake and the little towns scattered along its shores, then through deep, dramatic pine forest. We parked our car in the Ketetahi Car Park, then paid for a shuttle (at $30 each! sheesh) to drive us to Mangetepopo Car Park, where the start of the track is located. Since it’s a one-way track, unfortunately there’s no way to avoid the shuttle fee. I would, however, highly recommend booking the shuttle at the start of the day, and not the end; we passed several tourists who were panicked about not finishing the crossing quickly enough and being stranded. And this is not a walk that can be rushed.
As I mentioned, the shuttle dropped us off at the Mangetepopo Car Park, where we encountered a hilarious (and slightly nerve-wracking) “Volcanic Risk” sign. The volcanic risk was normal – excellent! Snow-capped Mount Ngauruhoe, famously known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, loomed in the background.
The first part of the track is quite easy: it’s a flat boardwalk that winds its way from the car park to Soda Springs, and can be completed in a little as one hour. When you get to Soda Springs (which don’t look like much), then be sure to use the restroom – there isn’t another one for a good long while.
Once you pass Soda Springs, you start gaining elevation. Getting to the next big landmark, the South Crater, involves climbing the Devil’s Staircase and going from approximately 1200 to 1600meters above sea level. It takes from 40 minutes to 1 hour, but surprisingly isn’t as difficult as it sounds (we felt that the hike to The Pinnacles was more vertically challenging). Besides, you can turn around and look down upon the spectacular Wasteland you just hiked through.
See those clouds in the distance? I was worried that they were going to catch up with us. Sure enough, they did.
We made it to the South Crater without any hiccups, passing a group of very discouraged tourists on our way up (and in turn being passed by a French couple wearing shorts). The South Crater is enormous. It may seem deceptively small, but in fact is over 1 kilometer across and takes a significant amount of time to walk through.
To your right is the magnificent Mount Ngauruhoe, and to your left lie the snow-infused ridges of Mount Tongariro.
A ranger spotted us and warned us about the gale force winds tearing across the exposed ridge leading to the summit. She insisted that we put on our windproof jackets, hats, and gloves immediately. We did so without question, and pretty soon those 45 mph winds had pushed the clouds I’d spotted looming over the valley into the hollow of the crater. Within minutes, our visibility had been substantially reduced.
The walk from the start of the South Crater to the summit at Red Crater is only supposed to take an hour, but I suspect that it took us significantly longer due to the poor weather conditions. As soon as we hit the exposed ridge, the force of the wind was intense. We kept our sides to the wind and bent over in an attempt to maintain our balance (and to avoid being blown over). We only realized that we reached the summit because of the posted sign telling us so; otherwise, we were clueless and surrounded by cloud. Though we only got a few glimpses of the spectacular views surrounding us, we still managed to take a few pictures that captured the grandiosity of the terrain we were traversing.
I only got one clear photo of astonishingly pigmented Red Crater, but one photo is all you need, I suppose. The Red Crater is the remnant of a 1926 eruption of Mount Tongariro, its imposing colored derived from oxidized iron.
Lying below us was a trio of spectacularly colored pools, appropriately called the Emerald Lakes. Their icy aqua surfaces were eerily still; a high concentration of partially dissolved minerals means that touching the acidic water is highly inadvisable.
When the clouds intermittently cleared, we were able to catches glimpses of the staggering and mountainous view to the Southeast.
The next part involved sliding down the summit to the base of the Emerald Lakes, a section made technically tricky by the loose volcanic rock lying underneath. We fell a few times and buttcheeks were injured.
It’s no surprise that we were sliding down the slope — the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks, and tens of thousands of people make the crossing each year. You can get an idea of just how unstable the terrain was in the photo above — and it’s growing increasingly unstable as time goes on.
We paused to take some photos at the base of the Emerald Lakes, where, of all things, we spotted a seagull struggling to keep itself alight — we figured it must have been carried in by the same winds that blew in the clouds. Seagulls manage to find themselves in the most unlikely of places, and this one wasn’t getting out of Tongariro anytime soon! Next was a short walk across the Central Crater. Unfortunately, our visibility was severely limited by the low-lying clouds, and we didn’t see any more of Mt. Doom. On the other hand, the barren, rocky landscape combined with the thick mist made us feel like we were crossing the surface of the moon.
Once we started the gradual ascent to Blue Lake, we were lucky to get about 2 minutes of clarity during which we managed to snap a few photos of Central Crater and the snow-patterned lava flow that covers a substantial portion of its base. It was slightly surreal, as we didn’t even realize what the ground we’d just walked through really looked like.
Blue Lake was also icy, acidic, and sharply pretty, and the path just beyond contained several patches of snow left over from the winter months.
Some careful navigation was required.
Not long after, the track more or less leveled out and a well-formed gravel path replaced the subtle route we’d been following. We walked for a bit, expecting to reach Ketetahi Hut, but soon got too hungry and had to stop for lunch.
It was for the best — even though we reached the Hut only about 20 minutes afterward, the overworked toilets made eating in the area less than ideal. Ketetahi Hut sustained severe damage during the last eruption of Mount Tongariro in November 2012. We peered through the window of the closed section and saw that the bunk beds were in disarray, with rafters having fallen to the floor. Trampers are no longer allowed to sleep in the hut because it lies within the active volcanic zone. Ample signage throughout the area reminds hikers to move quickly, as Tongariro can theoretically erupt again at any time.
After the spectacular topography and varied terrains of the past few hours, we were surprised to find that the extended descent was quite serene and easy in comparison. We finished the walk more or less shrouded in cloud, surrounded by tufts of tussock grass and red-tinged alpine vegetation, with the shimmering Lake Rotoaira below us.
Lest we be lulled into complacency, the geothermically active region reminded us of its dangerous potential by belching out huge plumes of steam that melded with the low-lying fog. It took over two hours to walk from Ketetahi Hut back to the lot where our car was parked — a very long two hours indeed. After leaving the tussock behind, we walked through a semi-tropical forest that doubled as a lahar hazard zone.
At long last, we made it back to the car, several hours, many kilometers, and hundreds of pictures later. Along with the Abel Tasman Great Walk, a somewhat unwise foray into Nelson Lakes National Park, and the enchanting visit to Hobbiton, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best experiences we’ve had in New Zealand, worth every bruised butt and squished toe!