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Guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Cecilia Lindqvist

Simply walk into Mordor…

The forces of the earth can be seen at work at the surface: this is what the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is all about, as well as one hell of a workout. You could almost be mistaken for walking on another planet go across a landscape of craters, active volcanoes, scattered pumice, mountain springs, lava flows, scoria and mounds of volcanic rock looking like they have been carved into statues. Then you have a contrast of colours with the perfectly blue and emerald lakes to the fiery red crater. No wonder the Tongariro Crossing is often described as one of New Zealand’s best one-day hikes. The area is also famous for its run-in with Mt Ngauruhoe, or to the Lord of the Rings fans, Mt Doom of Mordor.

The 19.4km hike high into a volcanic alpine environment is a must-do in New Zealand but does require a bit of preparation, from packing the right equipment to booking your transport. You don’t have to be incredibly fit for this walk, just prepared and determined!

TONGARIRO CROSSING CHECKLIST: WHAT TO TAKE

It is essential that you are prepared for all conditions, no matter what time of year you go.

  • Food: pack some lunch and snacks to keep you going.
  • Plenty of water: 1.5-3 litres should be enough. Take about 3 litres if you are going to do side tracks and summits.
  • Waterproof coat: not only to protect you against the rain but will keep you warmer from the wind.
  • Layers: whether it be thermals, walking pants/leggings, overtrousers, etc.
  • Hiking shoes or boots
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat in summer/beanie in winter
  • Personal first aid kit
  • Map and cellphone
  • In winter, you may need crampons and an ice axe (and know how to use them). It is safer to go with a guide in these conditions.
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Terrain and Track Description

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way 19.4km track. At a comfortable speed with plenty of stops for photos (or resting – we are not judging), it takes between 7-8 hours to complete. You should start walking the crossing between 8-9am. The Tongariro Crossing transport services aim to get you to the track for this time.

One end of the Tongariro Crossing is at the Mangatepopo car park on the west side of the mountains and the other end is at Ketetahi car park, north of the mountains. For less time climbing, start from the Mangatepopo car park and end at Ketetahi. Get to Mangatepopo car park take Mangatepopo Road of State Highway 47 for 7km to car park.

Now, begin the Tongariro Crossing! From the Mangatepopo car park follow the well-marked track of gravel and boardwalks up a steady gradient to the Soda Springs turn off and some toilet facilities. Then prepare for the steepest climb of the hike, known as the Devils Staircase, up to the Mangatepopo Saddle. You can either take the side trip up to Mt Ngauruhoe and back then continue on the Manatepopo Saddle between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. Follow the pole markers across the South Crater to the Crossing’s highest point, the Red Crater (1,886 metres). Descend past the Emerald Lakes and take another quick climb skirting Te Wai-Whakaata-o-te Rangihiroa (Blue Lake). The rest is downhill from here to the Ketetahi Shelter – a good place to stop for lunch – then the final descent is about 2 hours of walking though native forest to the Ketetahi car park.

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Side Trips

Extend your trip in the volcanic plateau!

Soda Springs (15 minutes return)

A dainty waterfall that emerges in a boggy area perfect for moisture-loving vegetation. Start the 15-minute track near the head of the Mangatepopo Valley before ascending up the Devil’s Staircase.

Mt Ngauruhoe Summit (3 hour return)

This is it, Lord of the Rings fans, time to climb Mt Doom! Start from the signed crossing at the South Crater. The route up is steep with no markers so climb directly up the Mt Ngauruhoe’s crater. The easiest way up is by the rocky ridge to the left of the scree slopes. Be careful of loose rocks and do not attempt in winter without the appropriate equipment.

Mt Tongariro Summit (1h30min-2 hours)

Start from the signed crossing at the Red Crater and follow the poled route to the summit where you can get awesome views over the Crossing track and see Mt Ruapehu in the distance.

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Transport to the Tongariro Crossing

Because the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way track, you will need some sort of transport to either pick you up at the end of track and take you back to your car at the starting point, or transport you from your accommodation to the start then pick you up at the end and drop you back at your accommodation. Luckily, there are services to do just that!

If you are parking at one car park and need picking up from the other end, you can book a shuttle service to take you back to your starting point.

For those who would prefer to be picked up and dropped off at their accommodation, there are a number of Tongariro Alpine Crossing shuttle services operating from Taupo, Turangi, National Park Village, Whakapapa Village and Ohakune. If you are staying somewhere in between, the shuttle services can usually pick you up on the way too. Either make the booking yourself or book the service with your hostel. Your hostel can usually give you weather updates too to see if it is safe to do the Crossing.

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The Tongariro Crossing: summer vs. winter

Never has a place looked so contrasting between seasons. You’ll get an array of colours created by volcanic activity during the summer months then all this is blanketed in a snow like icing sugar on a 2287 metre cake! All seasons can be extremely rewarding as long as you keep safe. The weather can be brutal and what is going on in the car park at the start of the Crossing can be completely different to what is going on 1000 metres higher. Be prepared by following the “What to Take” section above.

The track is well marked with poles and signs to follow, as well as formed tracks. If the visibility gets too poor to see the next marker, stay where you are until you can see the next marker again.

Summer

All the fiery red and orange of a volcanic plateau teamed with the Emerald and Blue Lakes are best seen in summer going into the first half of autumn (November-April). Summer is often the preferred time to tackle Tongariro, with the weather conditions more often being clearer and calmer. You are more easily able to do side trips to places that would otherwise be too covered in snow and ice during winter.

Winter

Winter in New Zealand runs from June to August, which is a great time to see the Tongariro Crossing in a completely different way. The landscape is completely covered in snow, which particularly makes Mt Ngauruhoe look unreal. Saying that, winter is when the Crossing experiences its most extreme weather with snow and blistering winds. It’s best to wait for a calm and clear winter’s day to make the most of it. Even then, you’ll need specialist equipment like crampons and an ice axe and know how to use them. If you are not experienced at hiking in winter alpine conditions, hire a guide for your own safety.

If you want to get a taste of that winter experience, we recommend taking on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing during the first half of spring (September-October), as some of the snow may still be lingering on the highest points like Mt Ngauruhoe, Mangatepopo Saddle and the outskirts of the Blue Lake, while the lakes may only just be visible from under the ice. However, it is usually still not safe to climb Mt Ngauruhoe when it still has snow on it. Nevertheless, the sight is one to remember!

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Facilities on the Tongariro Crossing

Toilets

There are long drop toilets at Mangatepopo hut and car park, at the Ketetahi shelter and car park, and at the signed area for the Soda Springs before taking the Devil’s Staircase.

Huts

The huts are for overnight users (for those doing the Tongariro Circuit Great Walk). If you need to use them for shelter, leave wet boots and jackets outside.

Water

Make sure you take enough drinking water with your for the whole trip. There is water supply at the huts from rainwater. Do not drink water from the streams due to high mineral content.

Rubbish

There are no bins on the hike, so take the rubbish out of the park with you including cigarette butts.

More totally awesome things to do in the Tongariro National Park

Check out these articles to see what else you could be doing in the Tongariro National Park.

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