New Zealand is a wild place, filled with ancient forests, active volcanoes, rugged coast lines, soaring mountain ranges and hobbits*. One of the best ways to experience this land of natural wonders is by foot and when you travel here you’ll realise you’re very spoilt for choice by the range of trails and walks available. Arguably one of the best day walks in New Zealand and potentially the world, is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Being in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, it’s roughly a 4 1/2 hour drive from either Auckland or Wellington International airports (to Tongariro National Park where most of the accommodation is based). I stayed at the Tongariro Crossing Lodge who helped us with our shuttle to and from the start and finish of the walk. A lot of the accommodation there will offer pick up/drop off services, or you have the option of driving to one end yourself and getting a shuttle back to your car from the finish. You can book your shuttle here.
I would recommend starting at the Mangatepopo end and finishing at Kitetahi. This route takes you up the steep, windy mountain side, with the craters and lakes at the top of the hard work, followed by a long walk down to the bottom. There are toilets not far in from each end, but if you have a small bladder I’d suggest taking some tissues! You won’t need a guide for this hike if you go through peak season; it was a busy weekend when we went and there were people every few steps.
Over the course of 5-7 hours, depending on your fitness level, the walk will take you across marshes, along a ridge between mountains, through dormant volcanic craters, past geothermal lakes and through native forest. You might recognise one of the peaks on the walk from Lord of the Rings; Mt Doom. In the native language, Te Reo Maori, it is known as Ngauruhoe (nah-roo-hoe-wee), and is one of the highlights of the day hike. You can find more Lord of the Rings tours here.
Another highlight is seeing the stunning “Emerald Lakes” as you shimmy down a steep peak of loose shingle – I would not recommend trying to film as you descend this part! Two of the lakes are an incredible emerald green with the other being a bit more aquamarine, and they look like they’ve been photoshopped into the barren, volcanic landscape. The lakes are incredible, and make for a great place to stop and have lunch…if you don’t mind the smell of sulfur and slightly ominous steam rising from nearby geysers!
The next lake is a little further up, much larger, and a deeper blue, hence its name; “The Blue Lake”. Please be aware that it is tapu (sacred to the Maori people of the region) and you should not eat or drink here. Swimming is definitely a no-go as well, but being volcanic you really wouldn’t want to anyway!
After that, once you’re out the other side it’s a pretty easy downhill walk for a couple of hours. When you start the descent you’re treated to a stunning view of Lake Taupo and the surrounding area. The path zigzags down the mountain and into eventually into lush, native bush. You’ll also see the Te Maari steaming vents billowing off to the right.
The walk itself can be challenging at times, and according to the Department of Conservation is an Advanced Track, but if you have a reasonable level of fitness, a clear day and enough determination, you’ll be fine. I did the walk in about 7 hours with my parents who are in their late 40’s. My mother got very tired but only at the end. I think she’d just had enough at that point. There was a real mix of people on the walk, I saw a woman who must’ve been in her late 60’s, some local lads wearing flip flops, as well several children. Saying that, it can be a little intimidating at some points, particularly near the Red Crater, just before the Emerald Lakes, where there’s a sheer drop on one side of the walk. The walk up Ngauruhoe is particularly dangerous, one of the couples in our van who did the walk up saw a few people nearly get hit by falling rocks.
Make sure you’re prepared and check the weather conditions before you go. This is a reliable website to check if you aren’t sure where to start as it provides a 10 day forecast. It is recommended that you have a couple of days in which to do the walk. The weather here isn’t always too reliable, so if you’ve travelled a long way, you’ll want a rain check day just in case! I went in late summer when the weather is generally pretty good and I wore yoga pants, a light jacket and sturdy sports shoes. I had over 1L of water, some snacks, a light lunch, and of course, my camera. You’d need a lot more in winter as it gets a lot of snow; even in summer it was very brisk in the morning, so be extra prepared if you go in winter.
I can’t say this enough, do not forget to pack sunscreen and other sun protection! The sun in New Zealand is some of the harshest in the world because we are so close to the hole in the ozone layer. If you don’t believe in global warming, you might after spending a couple of weeks here. You could get sunburnt in about 15 minutes on a clear day, even in winter, and don’t let cloud cover trick you. Even if you just use it on your face, you’ll be grateful to have it.
At the end of the walk, when you reach the bush and start to hear the streams rushing past, it’s a wonderful feeling of achievement! Then there’s the excitement of checking all your photos from the trip, there are more than a few Instagram-worthy spots along the way.
*Hobbits are not guaranteed.
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit Tongariro Crossing. If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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