New Zealand’s greatest day hike – Tongariro

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is heralded as one of New Zealand’s greatest day hikes and ranks among the top ten single-day treks in the world. With such a reputation, you can expect to be blown away by the spectacular dramatics of this alpine landscape.

The challenging journey takes you across a remarkable volcanic landscape, with its lava flows, an active crater, steam vents, emerald-coloured lakes and magnificent views combined to make it an unforgettable journey. Complete it in a day, or take your time and stay on the mountain for a multi-day hike. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Many who complete the 19.4 km (12 mile) journey will tell you the climbs can be steep and the weather unpredictable, though worth it in every aspect. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area is rich in both cultural identity and dramatic, awe-inspiring natural scenery. The unique landforms, including the volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu ensure the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered a world-renowned trek.

Don’t be fooled by the beauty as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is no walk in the park. It can be dangerous if you are not fully prepared to enter an alpine environment, with extreme weather, terrain and distance presenting a very challenging hike.

What to expect

The start of Tongariro Crossing. Photo Credit: Kate Webster

The crossing spans the length of Mt Tongariro (19.4Ks) and takes around eight hours to complete. You can tackle the track walking in either direction, but the more popular option begins at Mangatepopo Valley (1100m) and terminates at Ketetahi (750m). The highest point on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is Red Crater (1886m). There are also several side trips, which makes the multi-day hike a good option for those without time constraints.

This first section of the track is fairly flat and easy. It follows a stream and the edge of old lava flows, towards the valley head. As you climb in altitude, you can see varying patches of vegetation that reveal the age of the surrounding lava rock. Soda Springs is the last toilet stop until you reach the Ketetahi Hut.

Soda Springs to South Crater is slightly harder as the trail becomes steeper, climbing from 1400 metres up to 1600 metres above sea level in the valley to Mangatepopo Saddle between the mountains of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. The climb is rewarded with stunning panoramic views over the volcanic terrain. On a clear day, you can see as far as Mount Taranaki.

Making your way up the South Crater towards Red Crater is graded as difficult. It is the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and it is here you can make the decision to summit Tongariro. The main track continues around Red Crater and you have spectacular views over the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges and down to the Emerald Lakes. The smell of sulphur is a reminder that this crater is still active. 

It is all downhill from here (the track descending – not the experience) as you trek past the stunning Emerald Lakes. Care is required with the descent from Red Crater, as this part of the track is steep and you are on loose scoria which can move underfoot. The Tongariro Crossing track follows around the edge of Central Crater then climbs up to Blue Lake (A cold acidic lake). The lake is tapu (sacred) and it is disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores. To the right are the Emerald Lakes. For most, this is the highlight of the track and a great place to pause for photos. The brilliant colour that gives them their name is caused by minerals leaching from the surrounding thermal environment.

On the homeward stretch, there is a short easy climb to the edge of North Crater, which was once filled with molten lava, which then cooled and solidified giving a level surface more than 1000m wide. In good weather, there are spectacular views out over Mount Pihanga and Lake Rotoaira to Lake Taupo. Continuing to zigzag your way down to the Ketetahi Hut through the natural alpine garden, the track crosses the stream that flows down from Keteahi Hot Springs.

The last part of the track leads through open tussock land before it takes a steep decline to the Mangatetipua Stream, finishing through native forest for about an hour and a half. There is a short sidetrack leading to a waterfall a few minutes before reaching the end of the crossing at the Ketetahi carpark.

The nitty-gritty

Photo Credit: Adrift Tongariro

Weather conditions in this area can change rapidly, so it is paramount that you are properly prepared before setting out. This is a volcanic area so you will need to stay up to date on the Volcanic Alerts. Surfaces vary from boardwalks, soil, rocky, loose scoria, steep in places. Streams are bridged. The track is generally well-formed. Toilets are available along the track and there are huts for those taking the multi-day hike option. The Department of Conservation recommends that visitors access the track via a shuttle from Whakapapa, National Park Village, Turangi, Taupo or Ohakune.

Where to book

A winter crossing. Photo Credit: Adrift Tongariro

Book your Tongariro Alpine Crossing with Adrift Tongariro. Adrift are an outdoor adventure guiding company, based out of Taupo and Ruapehu located in the centre of the North Island. They specialise in trekking, hiking and canoeing adventures throughout the Whanganui and Tongariro National Parks, including New Zealand’s best day one-day walk, The Tongariro Alpine Crossing and the famous Whanganui River 1 or 3-day Canoe tour. They operate all year, summer and winter and whether you’re a novice or keen adventurer, there is a tour to suit. You can find out more about Adrift in our business directory and read about owner, Stew Barclay with our One on One interview.

As a way of honouring the lasting legacy of Sir Ed and make a difference, you can contribute to ‘A Fiver for Ed’ and support educational, health and environmental programmes in Nepal through the ongoing efforts of the Himalayan Trust. Add ‘A Fiver for Ed’ when you book your next adventure with us and Adrift match with a contribution to the trust.

Main Photo Credit: Adrift Tongariro

Kate Webster is a world traveller, ocean lover and conservation warrior who is determined to make every moment count for not only herself, but the world around her. An editor and travel journalist, Kate travels the globe in search of vivid imagery and compelling stories that capture the essence of the people and places she visits. She is a passionate conservation advocate, sustainable traveller and always travels with reason and cause.

kate@capturedtravel.com