The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I’ve been talking up the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for a while, hoping and waiting for a perfect mix of weather and time to do it properly. The forecast and my location was finally right to give the Crossing a go on November 15th.

The hike itself is 19.4km one way, and is only really done as a one-way trip. Most people travel from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi – it is the easier direction since the drop off spot at Mangatepopo is at higher elevation than at Ketatahi. So less uphill walking required going M->K direction. So that was where I, and numerous others, were dropped off at 730am on a beautiful sunny Tuesday morning.

The starting point was simple enough, with a small shelter with information and a map, and this little sign post.

From here, it’s 6hr+ of hiking to go. I had a good night’s sleep last night in nearby Turangi, so I was ready to go. And the weather being as outstanding looking as it was, I set off quickly to make the most of it. Right away you get good views of Mt. Ruapehu, better than I had during my month in Ohakune.

The views of Mt. Ruapehu wouldn’t last once I got into the heart of the Tongariro, it would be obscured by other peaks, so I enjoyed it while it lasted. The first part of the walk was still through the low-lying grasslands, heading directly towards the sun, Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe.

The first hour is a fairly steady but small incline. Nothing tiring by any stretch, but it’s just the beginning.

It was such a clear day I could see the other major peak on the North Island, Mt. Taranaki, clearly. It’s about 125km straight line distance from where I was standing, so it’s a rare sight. Much like Mt. Ngauruhoe, Taranaki is a nearly perfect conical volcano.

As the path continued upwards, Mt. Ngauruhoe got closer and closer. I was excited – the Tongariro has 2 optional detours – to the peaks of Mt. Ngauruhoe (2.5hr return) or Mt. Tongariro (1.5hr return). Mt. Ngauruhoe is the much more difficult, higher, and cloud covered of the two. With the weather though, it was going to be a perfect day to attempt a climb.

After the first hour of hiking there is a bathroom spot (the last one for 4+hours for most people), and a warning sign. This is the turnaround spot if weather isn’t looking very good by now. It’s also where the patch gets much steeper very quickly. The next hour is a steady uphill ascent.

As soon as making it to the top of this part of the hike, I began the climb of Mt. Ngauruhoe. And I wasn’t the only one making the attempt.

What you can’t tell from the pictures was just how difficult and steep this hike was. The angle of incline was nearly 45 degrees for the entire climb. Being an active volcano, the sides of Mt. Ngauruhoe are covered in what is called ‘scree’, which is volcanic dirt and rock pretty much. But nothing solid – it all gives way when you step on it. So for every 2 steps you take you generally lose a step due to sinking in and sliding on the dirt. In other words, a very difficult hike up. The largest danger comes from 2 things – slipping and falling downwards, and rocks avalanching down on you. Because of the angle, a slip and fall the wrong way can lead to severe injury – you will roll for quite some distance over hard and sharp rocks. The falling rocks were a bigger concern though. If someone is ahead of you, they may be dislodging rocks the size of your fist, or larger, which can come rolling down and picking up speed. It didn’t happen often, but during my climb I probably saw a dozen rocks go rolling on by, the largest about the size of a watermelon. It came down about 10 meters away. There is no set route to the peak so you can go anywhere and try to avoid people. Compounding all of this, the higher you go the stronger and colder the wind gets. It was below zero by the time I reached the peak, to this sight.

As you can imagine, after 90 minutes of very difficult climbing this was truly disappointing. I wasn’t the only one up at the top to be disappointed though, I met Nick, from San Francisco, on the shuttle bus ride. We hiked around the same pace so quite often hiked together.

I waited at the peak for around 15 minutes and had a snack, waiting just in case the clouds decided to clear. They didn’t. But the crater did clear briefly.

The crater is massive, in the top left corner of the picture you can just make out a person up there. You wouldn’t want to fall in.

After waiting in vain, I began my way back down. The first 1/3 of the descent back to the main path was the hardest part of the entire day. The scree up near the top is shallow, with hard rock beneath. So you have loose dirt/pebbles as a layer on top of hard rock, angled around 45 degrees. In other words, incredibly slippery and dangerous. It was slow going. The bottom 2/3rds though, were a lot of fun. The scree deepens considerably, so it’s like walking down a huge pile of sand. You can make good time on that, and some people actually run it. I was quite content simply moving fast. Eventually, I got back below the cloud line.

The lake marks what is known as the South Crater. Once I got to the bottom and got back on the track, I cursed Mt. Ngauruhoe, which was starting to see clear skies again.

Thankfully, it didn’t bother me too much as the scenery was again, spectacular. After the hour hike up from Soda springs, you cross a dead flat plain between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. It makes for a good break, and a fantastic view during the 30 minutes of walking it takes to cross.

After that break, it was time for the 2nd steep climb of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – from the South Crater to the Red Crater, the highest point of the hike (if you don’t do either detour). This was just as tiring as the climb from Soda Springs, but shorter, only about 30-40 minutes in length. About half way up is a good spot for a break, where you can see a large canyon made by the lava flows, heading out towards the Rangipo Desert.

At around noon, I had made it to the top of the Red Crater.

From here, you get great views looking back to where you had come:

And what is still to be crossed.

In the distance you can make out the Blue Lake.

This was also the starting point for the hike to Mt. Tongariro’s peak, but I opted for lunch instead. The clouds were obscuring that peak as well and I wasn’t keen on standing in clouds twice in a single day. Plus, I was quite content to enjoy the spectacular view I had during lunch.

After enjoying my tuna sandwich, apple and power bar, I headed down the slope towards the Emerald Lakes.

An absolutely stunning sight, and much bigger than you might guess by the pictures. The tiny dots in the distance around the lake are people milling about. The lakes, while not large by any stretch, are still a reasonable size. And full of sulphur.

After enjoying the dazzling sights of the Emerald lakes, it was time for another flat walk along the valley floor, crossing snow this time. Mt. Tongariro is opposite and a little to the left from me in the picture, but obscured by clouds.

Looking back at the Red Crater, it looked considerably more violent and jagged than before. It’s active in the sense that it has vapours still escaping, but it hasn’t erupted in nearly 100 years.

Then it was time for the final climb of the hike, up from the valley floor to the Blue Lake. This was the view looking back towards Mt. Tongariro.

And here was Blue Lake. Considered sacred, it’s also highly acidic. It’s also much larger than the Emerald lakes.

After Blue Lake I gave one final view to the mountains behind me. Mt. Ngauruhoe can be seen with it’s peak hidden by clouds in the middle left, and Mt. Tongariro (the double triangular peaks) just right of center, this time the peaks in the clear.

At this point you walk between slopes and start coming out the far side of the mountains. I wasn’t expecting much after all the views in the interior passes, but the outside view was still outstanding. You could easily see Lake Taupo, the larger of the two lakes, and even Taupo itself in the distance.

From here, it was a steady 2 hours of gentle descent, a very easy hike after the tougher sections earlier, down to the far carpark. I gave one last look back to the mountains, but from this angle you can’t see past the initial rises, which hide the majestic views seen inside.

At 330pm, 8 hours of hiking after I had started, I arrived at the car park. Tired but incredibly happy. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing had more than lived up to it’s claim as one of the best single day hikes in New Zealand, if not the world. It wasn’t perfect, from the weather going from outstanding to mediocre to pretty good during the course of the day, to the relative throngs of people. Hundreds made the hike on Tuesday, and on a good weather day in January several thousand will make the crossing. But those are very minor quibbles. The hike is outstanding in every sense of the word. The path itself, the views, the optional detours and the accessibility are all world class. I can say without a doubt that of my 4 months here in New Zealand this is easily my favourite hike so far and probably the BEST experience all round I’ve had here. That may be surpassed by things in the South Island (some of the multi-day hikes perhaps), but for now, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing will be an incredibly fond memory of mine. If I had just one day in New Zealand, never to return again, THIS is how I would spend it.

One thought on “The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

  1. This definitely looks like an amazing place to hike.

    On an unrelated note, two things occurred to me:
    1. you and Nick look like twins, and
    2. what would happen if you mixed the contents of Blue Lake and Emerald Lake?