New Zealand is my favourite country in the world when it comes to hiking. The trails are great, well maintained and almost all of them completely free to use. Every time I try to pick my favourite hiking experience in New Zealand, one particular trail stands out: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. I’ll talk about it in this post.
About the Crossing
Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and in fact the 4th oldest in the world! It was officially established as a national park in 1894 after the most significant mountainous areas in the park were transferred to the Crown in 1887 by local Māori. The park’s area has significantly increased since then.
The Tongariro Crossing is a 19.4 km point-to-point trail and is part of the larger Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of the Great Walks of New Zealand. Access to the trail is completely free, though you’ll need to arrange transport (which I’ll talk about later). Depending on your level of fitness, you’ll need 5-8 hours to complete the track. Each year, well over 100 000 walkers complete the Crossing.
When to go
The best weather conditions to hike the Tongariro Crossing occur from November to April. Outside these months, the walk should only be attempted by experienced hikers, as sub-zero temperatures and alpine conditions can create dangerous situations. I’d say that November is the best month to go; you’ll avoid peak season and depending on conditions, you’ll still get to see snowy mountain tops.
Weather generally is unpredictable; chances of clear skies are about as good as the chances of rain. Rain is often encountered because moisture forms rain clouds as it rises over the mountain slopes.
Where to stay
You will have to stay in a town or city close to the Crossing and book a shuttle service from there. Parking at either trail head is unpractical as 4-hour time limits are enforced.
- Whakapapa (pronounce: fa·kuh·pa·puh) is closest to the track. It’s a small town with several lodging options. There are some other beautiful walks that start around this town, so a multi-day stay is highly recommended. Whakapapa Holiday Park is a great budget-friendly place to stay (and has great Wi-Fi for some odd reason!).
- National Park is a another small-ish town outside the actual national park that can be reached by public transport. It’s much closer to the park than Taupo and is a bit busier; there are several hostels, bars, restaurants and cafe’s to choose from.
- Taupo is a bit further away but the largest city in the area. It’s nice, but I would not prefer staying here for the Crossing. The distance from Taupo to the Tongariro Crossing is over 80 km, so shuttles leave early.
Hiking the Tongariro Crossing
I will assume you start walking from the Mangetopopo road end, as all shuttles arrive here. Shortly after you start walking, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe appear on your right. A few kilometers down the track, you’ll come across a small side trail that leads to Soda Springs. It’s a good place to relax for a few minutes and have a snack before you start your first major ascent.
Start your ascent towards the saddle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe on the so-called Devil’s Staircase. Once you get to the saddle, you’ll probably want to catch a breather. The magnificent view of Mount Ngauruhoe is a good reason to do so! On a good day, skies are so clear that you can see Mount Taranaki in the distance – wow! Keep an eye out for the odd wildflower – they’re quite rare in this rough environment.
After you pass the saddle and leave the Mangetopopo Valley behind, you’ll enter South Crater. Walking through this vast crater, Mount Tongariro starts revealing itself. Red Crater will soon appear on your right, and the magnificent views of Mount Ngauruhoe only get better. After you get to the other side of South Crater, another ascent awaits.
The ascent towards Central Crater is the last one before you reach the trail’s summit. You’ll pass a relatively flat section before you actually get there. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning panoramic views that stretch throughout the park.
The descent from the top to the coloured crater lakes is quite interesting as the surface is quite loose. If you go too quickly, you’ll feel like you’re surfing your way down the slope. Once you reach the bottom, explore the various crater lakes and their magnificent colours before heading on to Blue Lake. It’ll be lunchtime by the time you reach it, so this is a great place to take a rest and have some food on the lakeside.
Making your way past Blue Lake, the descent continues. I considered this part of the trail quite boring. The trail is rather narrow, so it’s hard to pass slower walkers. The views don’t change much at all until you move into the forest. From here, it’s only a few kilometers to the end of the trail where your arranged transportation will be waiting for you.
Enjoy your hike and remember to prepare well. Conditions can change at any time, so wear layered clothes and lace up your favourite hiking boots to make the best of your day!