New Zealand must-do: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
January 1, 1970
by Edgaras Katinas
So, I have just come back from one of the biggest adventures in my life – a two-week backpacking around New Zealand. This blog post will talk about one of the must-dos while visiting North Island of New Zealand – Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
What is Tongariro?
Tongariro is a national park just south of Taupo Lake and is a place of one of the best one-day hikes in the world. The whole hike takes around 20 km and you will have a chance to get up to 2 km height. Even though some parts of it are very challenging, due to steep surfaces, rocky ground and heights, the walk gives you stunning views and picturesque landscapes. If you have time and are fit enough, you can even hike up to a volcano.
Plan your hike
The hike takes between eight and nine hours, surely it can be longer or shorter, depending on your pace and physical preparations. I went there physically unprepared, meaning that my last gym visit had been months before. You do not need to be a fitness guru to hike up, however, some physical preparation will really benefit. Those who mostly work sedentary work and who exercise very seldom might have some difficulty. However, take your time, stop whenever and wherever you want and enjoy the hike – it is indeed the most important!
On top of this physical preparation, you should do some research regarding the weather conditions for your hike day (you can access the official weather forecast here), also buy some food and water, maybe even a bottle of celebratory sider or beer to celebrate a little on the peak (this is what we did with a friend of mine). Bear in mind that you will be hiking up the mountain and that the climate is very quickly to change. One minute the sun is shinning and you want to take your sweater off, the next one strong and cold wind blows and you zip your jacket up. Some people even take gloves, however, I think this is totally unnecessary, if you hike during the summer or early autumn. Make sure that you were very comfortable shoes!
How does it work?
I would distinguish three options for the hike. Surely, based on different experiences they may differ and are not the only options to consider.
Option A: You start at Mangatepopo village. There is a car park, where you can leave your car and start a hike. The first part of it, up to Soda Springs, is relatively easy and does not require much of physical preparation. This section of the track is fairly flat, well formed and board walked in damp areas to provide stability under foot. Marker poles line the track. It takes around 1,5 hours and following the path you will reach a mountain spring. I am a person who loves water, thus this spring brought lots of excitement to me. Even though the water is unbelievably cold, it is very refreshing to wash your face or even step in and cool down your feed after a long walk. Personally for me, a great place to have a short picnic before the real hike up the hill starts. After Soda Springs, you may continue and hike up the hill or turn back and head to the car park. The first option of continuing is more recommended.
You should spend around four to five hours to reach the Peak of Tongariro Mountain. The section between Soda Springs and South Crater is called “Devil’s staircase” and is indeed relatively challenging: it is a steep climb from 1400 to 1600 metres above the sea level. On a clear day, you will have spectacular views opening up, thus you will actually stop unintentionally to take pictures and simply enjoy the views. This section requires particular attention while hiking, because the surfaces are not stable, since underfoot you will be trekking over layers of ancient and modern lava flows and other volcanic deposits.
If you have more time, and good stamina, you may choose to climb the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe. Head for the old lava flow as this is the easiest route up the peak. Unfortunately, I had no time, thus needed to skip this peak. It looks very challenging, however, I am sure that the views are spectacular. You should be able to look down the crater as well.
Following on, you will have some time to relax, since part of the next section is flat. Enjoy the flat, as it will not last forever. The difficulty of this section increases gradually, and the final part of it, to me, was the most difficult. There were no tracks, only a very rocky and steep surface. You must be extremely caution, because it can get very blustery on a windy day. However, again the risk and efforts to climb up are totally worth it, because the end of this section opens up spectacular views over the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges and the Emerald Lakes.
By reaching this point, you have completed the hardest parts of the whole crossing. The rest will be of moderate difficulty, and you will be mostly walking downhill. Following on, you will pass by the blue lake and even further reach Ketetahi car park. From here you can take a shuttle bus, which will transfer you back to Mangatepopo car park, where you left your car. Bear in mind that it is better to book in advance, since the price will be lower.
Option B: This is the option that I have undertaken. Due to lack of time, I arrived at around 10am to the Mangatepopo village, which is a bit too late. However, if you are running out of time and arrive late, do not stress, you can still do the hike. There are no groups or instructors who you should follow, you can start and finish whenever you wish and wherever is convenient for you. This option is actually longer, however, takes the same amount of time, around seven to nine hours. So, I started in Mangatepopo and climbed up all the way to Red Crater, afterwards I used the same route to head back to Mangatepopo where the car was dropped off. This hike is longer, approximately 25 km, because the biggest part of the hike forward is actually completed, and you need to use the same route for a return.
Option C: If you have time, you can take a tent and actually sleep in the mountains. However, I was not planning on doing it, therefore, I do not have any information about the restrictions regarding it. The best would be to contact Tongariro National Park and enquire specifically. I assume that the might be limits, depending on the weather forecasts and seasons, however, if all seems to be good weather-wise, it is definitely a thing to do!
Things to bear in mind
- You must think about the weather conditions in the mountain. Since it is an alpine crossing, the weather changes very quickly. I hiked in early autumn, so the weather was still okay, not too cold, not too warm, however, I would not hike in the winter or on a rainy day. Moreover, think about the length of the day. When I hiked, it got dark at around 7pm. Remember that you must reach your car before it gets dark, otherwise it might be dangerous.
- Understand that the environment and all ecosystems are very fragile; therefore, be cautious not to leave any rubbish. Litter increases the numbers of insects and pests in the national park, which can have dramatic consequences for the creatures out there.
- Always follow the track where possible. Those tracks are created to protect visitors. Some places may be very dangerous if you do not stick to the track. Think if a crazy picture is worthier your life.
- Apply sunscreen regularly to avoid sunburns, especially on your face.
- Finally, do not be demotivated by the possible difficulty of the crossing. It is challenging, but all types of people manage to accomplish it and reach the end. Nobody forces you to finish it in a couple of hours, you can stop as many times and you want.
I do really hope that if you are going to New Zealand soon, you will definitely choose Tongariro Alpine crossing as one of the activities to do. On top of all spectacular views and amazing time spent there, it is totally free (well, the shuttle from one village to another costs, but the crossing itself is fully free of charge)! If you are not planning on going to New Zealand soon, I still hope that you enjoyed this post.
Until we meet again!