A Guided Hike of the Tongariro Crossing

Did you really think we would go 365 Days of 365 Activities without doing the most popular day hike in the country?! The time has finally come to tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!

By now, you have probably heard of a certain day hike alongside “Mt Doom” from The Lord of the Rings. What you may not know, however, is that the 19km one-way track is a bit of a logistical mission where return transport needs to be booked (and made on time). Plus, you have a mountain to cross where alpine conditions are always throwing curve balls. Although we know there are many options for doing the Tongariro Crossing, just look at Guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we have never explored the option of taking a guided hike where all these logistical issues are, well, no longer an issue.

A quick and easy ride into Mordor

We are picked up this morning right outside of our accommodation in Whakapapa Village by Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures. We meet our guide, Bianca, who knows the Tongariro National Park and alpine environments super well from guiding in the summer to ski patrolling in the winter, and get on our way to start of our 19km journey.

Our driver drops the three of us off at the start of the track, on the Mangatepopo side, identified by all kinds of information panels (including all the scary ones that warn people of the alpine environment and demanding climbs). Feeling more at ease with our guide, we start our journey like Frodo, Sam and Gollum (we won’t say who is who) into the fiery depths of Mordor.

A morning stroll through tussock lands

Things start off pretty relaxing at the beginning of the Tongariro Crossing. It’s an even stroll of steady gradients and flat sections through the alpine tussock lands. We couldn’t be more lucky with the weather right now, with the sun shining across the land. But we know that could all change on a dime.

Bianca points out various lava flows and other volcanoes that we would have never even suspected were volcanoes that are revealed from behind tussock hills along the way. Soon enough, we reach a stretch of boardwalk running and the base of the blatantly obvious cone-shaped volcano, Mt Ngauruhoe, or “Mt Doom”. The black and red volcano will make our backdrop for the rest of the hike until we start going down, but that’s a long way to go yet.

Morning stroll through the alpine tussock lands Morning stroll through the alpine tussock lands
A bit of Ngauruhoe action A bit of Ngauruhoe action
Springing over the Soda Springs Springing over the Soda Springs
Made it to the top of the Devil's Staircase! Made it to the top of the Devil's Staircase!

From Soda Springs to the Devil’s Staircase

Meanwhile, we follow the boardwalk which now catches up with a clear stream cascading down rugged volcanic rock. The path suddenly splits where we take a quick side trip to Soda Springs – the most stunning part of this cascading stream. We stand at the bottom of a delicate-looking waterfall, get some quick photos, then make our way back to the main track.

Now, the mission really starts: The Devil’s Staircase. Here, we are making a steep ascent over lava flows on a grueling set of stairs. We take it easy as to not burn ourselves out too quickly, but soon enough the heavy breathing starts and we start getting through our three litres of water quickly. Nevertheless, we don’t stop until we reach the top of the stairs to be on top of a huge pile of old lava flow where we look up from our hiking shoes and out across an awesome view of the alpine tussock lands we crossed earlier this morning.

Scree climb up a volcano

We get plenty of time to catch our breath back as we cross long and flat plateau, however, we can’t get too comfortable with our steepest climb just ahead of us. Without the aid of a staircase, we plod uphill on relatively loose volcanic rock. We do have to stop a couple of times though, purely because some of the shapes that the lava has cooled as are quite hilarious and a well-worth a picture.

The very volcanic Red Crater!

Worth it!

Where some people find the Devil’s Staircase the b*tch to climb, we are really finding the ridge leading to the top of the Red Crater much more of a challenge. Laura looks like she has aged 60 years at the pace she is going up this volcano, but, man, it feels amazing once we get to the top and see those iconic views of the Tongariro Crossing. The Emerald Lakes are revealed – all of which shine with vibrant colours that look more like something from a movie than reality. On the other side of us we have the aptly-named Red Crater of Mt Tongariro.

Skidding to the Emerald Lakes

Weirdly enough, making our way down to the Emerald Lake is harder than the uphill climb we just did! We start slipping and skidding our way down the loose scree rock, our backpacks threatening to pull us over at any moment. Robin gets the knack of it by running all the way down, while Laura and Bianca fall on their asses with being too careful.

It’s all downhill from here (mostly)

After lunch alongside the Emerald Lakes, we get our legs back into gear and continue on our quest. Thankfully, it’s mostly downhill from here on much more stable ground with a few short uphill scrambles along the way. We partly circumvent the vast and beautiful Blue Lake and turn around one last time to get a view of the Red Crater backed by Mt Ngauruhoe, which are now seen between sections of fast-passing clouds.

Determined shrubs! Determined shrubs!
So many photo ops! So many photo ops!
One last waterfall before we end the track One last waterfall before we end the track

the steaming earth

We enjoy the quicker rhythm of marching down Mt Tongariro, as well as a new view to gaze upon of Lake Taupo looking so still and pristine with the reflection of the sun. As we get further down Tongariro, Bianca points out a billowing vent in the distance that was only produced in 2014! As we make our way back into a tussock environment, she points out various orange boulders that have blown out during the eruption. When we get to the Ketetahi Shelter, she also shows us where rocks have actually blown through the roof and through the mattress of a bunk! Gulp! If the clouds of steam didn’t remind us that the earth below us is a living and breathing mechanism, then this sure might.

A march from Tussock hills to the forest

From the shelter, it takes us about an hour to find ourselves marching down the tussock mountainsides and into a deep dark forest. Thin and densely packed trunks covered in moss make up the rest of the views on the way toward our ending point at the Ketetahi car park. Birds can be heard around us, we follow streams, weave between trees, and take a quick sidetrack to another beautiful waterfall – this one much more raging that the Soda Springs seen around six hours ago.

After hiking through tussock lands, up the Devil’s Staircase, along volcanic plateaus, in the shadow of volcanic peaks, along the edges of craters, down to vibrant lakes, in the presence of steaming vents, and down to thick forest, we finally make it to the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing! If that wasn’t enough of a reward itself, Bianca pulls out a couple of beers as we are being driven back to our accommodation. Ahhhh!

Skotel saves us from cooking

That night, we say: “Screw it!” to making food, and treat ourselves to pizza at the Skotel‘s lifesaver of a restaurant. And wouldn’t you know, those pizzas are some of the best we have had in the country: the chunks of blue cheese kept Frenchy Robin certainly happy.

From the Tongariro National Park to the Whanganui National Park, join us tomorrow where we will be taking a jet boat ride up the Whanganui River to the mysterious Bride to Nowhere. See you tomorrow!

Laura and Robin

That famous Tongariro Crossing view!
That famous Tongariro Crossing view! Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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