Most New Zealand travelers can be divided into two groups: the ones that hiked the Tongariro Crossing and the ones that wanted to hike it. The Tongariro Crossing is one of the most beautiful hikes (in the world?) and rightfully part of the 9 Great Walks. Its most famous feature is Mt. Ngauruhoe which is better known as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If it’s not on your must-do list for New Zealand yet, get a pen right now and fix it!
Amid the thrilling scenery are steaming vents and springs, crazy rock formations and peculiar moonscape basins, impossible scree slopes and vast views. Diverse vegetation zones range from alpine scrub and tussock to higher zones with no plant life at all.
Everything you need to know about the Tongariro Crossing
- The Tongariro Crossing is not for everyone. It is an alpine trek and should be treated as one. The entire hike is 19 kilometer (15 miles) long and takes about 7-8 hours. A certain fitness level is a must and shouldn’t be underestimated!
- The hike is not a round-trip. Even if you travel by car, you might want to consider taking one of the shuttle buses unless you want to hike back and forth (which is basically a marathon!).
- Another reason to leave your car at your hotel is for safety reasons. Many cars that park close to the Tongariro Crossing have been broken into or stolen. I mean, with you being gone for 8 hours, it’s like stealing candy from a baby.
- Make sure you have proper equipment. Don’t be one of those “hikers” that need to be rescued because they were wearing flip-flops! If you book through one of the shuttle services, they will check your gear and won’t take you if you’re under-prepared.
- Don’t worry if you didn’t pack your entire hiking gear, though. Most shuttle services offer an additional service where you can hire everything you’re missing. You might want to bring your own shoes, though, unless you like hiking with blisters…
- Book your place on the shuttle the day before.
- Check the weather forecast before you go. The Tongariro Crossing can be extremely dangerous if it’s too windy or if the visibility is too low. Shuttle services will cancel the trip if they deem the conditions to be too dangerous.
- Be prepared for every sort of weather. Whatever the forecast, bring sunscreen, sun glasses, hats, gloves, layers of warm clothes, and a waterproof jacket.
- In the mountains, the weather can change within minutes. If your gut tells you that it’s too dangerous to continue, turn around, call the shuttle service and they will come and pick you up. (If you’re already past the Red Crater, it’s safer to keep on walking!)
- Bring enough water and food to last you for the entire trek. The water in the lakes along the way is way to acidic and not potable.
- Treat this sacred area with respect! Take all your trash with you and keep to the track.
The Tongariro Crossing step by step
National Park Village to the car park
I actually tried to hike the Tongariro Crossing twice. Once on my way down the North Island and a second time on my way back up to Auckland. The first time, our trip had to be cancelled because it was pouring rain and it was simply too dangerous.
To say we were bummed is the understatement of the century. There was nothing I wanted more than to do this trek! You can imagine how excited I was, when I was finally sitting in the shuttle towards the car park. Nothing was gonna stop me now!
On the short drive to the car park, the driver gave us some last advice and a short summary of what we could expect…
The first couple of miles are going to be a comfortable and slow climb (alright, doesn’t sound too bad…). After about 1.5 hours you will get to the Devil’s Staircase (wait… what?). At the end of the Devil’s Staircase awaits a nice flat stretch, the South Crater (sweet, so the worst is over, right? Right?). Brace yourself for what follows next: the hardest climb of the trek leading up to the Red Crater (*Gulp* There is actually something worse than the staircase made by the devil?). After that, the worst is over and you only have about 8 miles left (Oh… Well, only 8 miles… That’s like a walk in the park!).
What on earth did I get myself into?
Car park to Soda Springs (1 – 1.5 hours)
The hike started out in perfect conditions. It was sunny, it was warm and there was a lovely cool breeze.
We started out as a group of about 20 people, but after just a couple of minutes the group split up with the fittest ones racing ahead. My friends and I positioned us at the end because we wanted to take our time (and lots of pictures!) and not be in anyone’s way.
Just as the bus driver described, the trek started out very gentle. It was a slow and steady climb. Perfect to get all your muscles warmed up and ready. I was, however, starting to worry just a little because I was already wheezing. Who would have thought that living off of pizza and pie for 5 weeks could affect your fitness in any negative way?
We were happy about our onion look, though, because we soon started to peel off layer after layer as the sun was warming us up pretty nicely (Yes, the sun! Not my overheating body…).
After about an hour we reached the first highlight of the trek: Mt Ngauruhoe aka Mt. DOOM!
You can climb Mt. Doom if you want to channel your inner Frodo. There is, however, no signed track and you should only try it if you’re an experienced hiker and have sturdy shoes and all the necessary gear (or Samwise Gamgee) with you!
Soda Springs to South Crater (40 mins – 1 hour)
After about 1.5 hours, we reached Soda Springs. This is the last bathroom break for the next 4-5 hours, so, I’d advise you to make good use of it. Without a bush or tree anywhere in sight, the track offers zero shelter or hiding spots.
Next up: the Devil’s Staircase… Bring it on!
Right before we started climbing the stairs, we saw a sign with three simple questions. Is the weather okay? Sure, so far so good. Do you have the right equipment and clothing? Absolutely! Are you fit enough? Well… My body screamed ‘NO’ but my mind agreed to disagree.
If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, the sign urges you to seriously consider turning back.
I was too determined, though, and knew that I would do it even if I ended up crawling the last few miles!
I’ll be honest here, the staircase almost killed me (who’d have thought?).
For about an hour, all you see is stairs, more stairs and even more stairs. Whenever you think you’ve finally reached the end, you turn a corner and there they are… Countless more steps!
I had to take a break every couple of steps and would have been cursing like a sailor if I had any breath to spare.
When we finally reached the top, however, the view made up a thousand times for all the sweat and tears.
South Crater to Red Crater (1 hour)
After a short break to regain some strength (and stop my leg muscles from shaking uncontrollably…), we continued to walk through what turned out to be the South Crater.
Although the weather was perfect lower down, up here we started to get more and more fog and clouds. You might wonder why we didn’t turn around for safety reasons. To be honest, it did cross our minds but as visibility was still pretty good and there was barely any wind at all (which is probably why the fog stuck around), we decided to keep going.
I actually loved the fog. Whenever you see pictures from the Tongariro Crossing, they are always taken on perfect, sunny days with no clouds in sight. True, those pictures are stunning and the colors are breath-taking but I prefered our experience.
This is where Lord of the Rings was filmed. This is Mordor. And Mordor doesn’t have blue skies… It’s eerie, mysterious and dark. Dreary and desolate. The longer we hiked, the more we felt part of that world. We weren’t in New Zealand anymore, we were in Middle Earth, in Mordor, on our way to destroy the ring!
After a nice little relaxing walk across the South Crater, we reached the next part of the trek. The one we were warned about. The hike up to the highest point of the hike: Red Crater.
The terrain looked rough, almost impassable. Only a few other hikers ahead of us gave us some indications as to where we were supposed to go. So we started climbing. Up and up, deeper and deeper into the sea of clouds.
The surroundings were surreal. Is this still Earth? It looked more like the moon or Mars or some other uninhabitable planet.
And I couldn’t stop wondering whether some orcs (or maybe Gollum?) were lurking behind those rocks. waiting for me. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen that let my imagination run wild…
This last part was the hardest of all. There were moments where I didn’t think I could make it.
It was extremely steep and the ground was so soft and sand-like that it felt like walking up a huge rocky sand dune. As this wasn’t my first hike (honestly!), I knew that steep slopes were easier to conquer with smaller steps. So, I basically crept my way forwards and upwards, moving my feet a couple of inches with each step. Where is Samwise Gamgee when you need him?!?
I hated and loved every second of it. The feeling I felt when I finally reached the top with trembling legs and not a smidgen of energy left was pure euphoria.
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes (10 – 20 mins)
At Red Crater, there’s the option to add an extra loop to your hike by walking up to the Tongariro Summit. I’ll keep you guessing whether I went up there or not…
Red Crater is the most dangerous part of the hike in terms of wind and bad weather conditions. Just one very strong gust of wind could make you fall of the ridge and there is absolutely nothing to stop your fall.
That’s why this is your point of no return if the weather deteriorates. If you’re past this point, it’s safer to continue.
As Red Crater is the highest point of the trek, it was only down-hill from there. And even though going down sounds easier than going up, it was just as strenuous. The slope on the other side was just as steep and the ground was just as slippery. With weak, trembling legs, it took everything I had left not to slip and tumble down the slope.
Finally, we reached the Emerald Lakes, which unfortunately didn’t appear very emerald to us…
Nevertheless, I’m sure you can tell that I was ecstatic to have reached this mile stone!
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Shelter (1 – 1.5 hours)
The next stretch was a lot easier which was very lucky as the weather continued to deteriorate.
It was freezing cold, we had to cross big patches of snow and the fog grew denser and denser. The blue sky was definitely a thing of the past.
Can you guess what’s behind this white wall of fog? If you guessed ‘a blue lake’ you’re seeing more than we could see.
On a sunny day, Blue Lake is a lovely sight to see. But no matter how inviting the view is, you shouldn’t pick it as a lunch stop. The lake is taupo (sacred) and it’s disrespectful to eat or drink around it!
Suddenly, the space opened up and we were treated to a stunning view over Lake Taupo.
Steaming vents along the mountain side are proof of the area’s geothermal activity. Mt Tongariro is still a very active volcano and last erupted in 2012!
Although I saw the steaming vents before, this sign sent shivers down my spine. I have hiked volcanos before, but never an active one!
Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi carpark (2 hours)
Gentle serpentines lead us down to Ketetahi Shelter. This hut doesn’t offer much more than bathroom facilities and a couple of benches but at this point, that’s all you need.
As we had some time to spare, we decided to take our last break, gather some energy for the home stretch and enjoy the view a little longer.
After walking through a desolate wasteland for hours, we suddenly found ourselves walking through a lush rain forest. Talk about contrasts!
Despite walking the entire trek rather slowly and taking long breaks (and thousands of pictures), we reached the car park about half an hour before our pick-up time. If, for any reason, you can’t make it on time and miss your shuttle, give them a call! They never leave anyone behind and will come and pick you up. You will have to pay an extra fee, though.
The bus took us straight back to National Park Village. I could leave the gloves that I borrowed with the bus driver and we headed back to the youth hostel.
Extra tip! If you’re too tired to cook in the evening, head on over to the Schnapps bar. They have the most delicious spare ribs I’ve ever had the pleasure to stick my face into. And what could be a better finish to such a day than a big plate of messy, juicy and tender spare ribs…
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