Hiking The Legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island is considered to be one of the best day hikes in New Zealand, and sometimes even in the world. The ~12 mile trail winds past Mount Ngauruhoe, which acted the part of Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Although it is one of the most crowded and touristy spots we visited on our trip, it was a stunning and diverse hike past volcanic scenery and alpine lakes. If the weather cooperates, you’ll get dramatic views of the mountains and the surrounding countryside as you head up and down the pass.

The Alpine Crossing was my favorite hike in New Zealand and it’s tied with biking to wineries for my favorite adventure of the trip. I especially enjoyed not sweating SE Asia-style and revisiting hiking eats like ham and cheese sandwiches with a side of peanut M&Ms.

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Panoramics make feet funny. Do these trail runners make Adam look fat?

This post has info on: The Park and The Volcanoes, Hike Logistics and Three Annoyances, my thoughts on gear and safety, the tale of our adventure and my final summary recommendations.

The Park and The Volcanoes

The central “attraction” at Tongariro National Park are the mountains: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro, which are all active volcanos. The last eruption was in 1974, and there was some small earthquake action in 2008. The area is currently not showing any signs of potential eruption activity, but we did see steam vents and smell a lot of sulfur.

Here's Dylan checking out the views of Mt and Mt
Here’s Dylan checking out the views of snow-covered Mount Ruapehu behind Mount Ngauruhoe behind heavily cratered Mount Tongariro.

Like Abel Tasman National Park on the South Island, there are no fees to get into the park, but there’s also no central ranger stand to get information. Fortunately, there are tons of great online resources, including the official Department of Conservation’s website. In addition to braving the Alpine Crossing, there are other shorter hikes, you can ski and snowboard on Mt. Ruapehu, and there’s even a golf course, if that’s your thing.

Hike Logistics

The official Tongariro Alpine Crossing trail is almost 12 miles long, typically starting at Mangatepopo Carpark and ending at Ketetahi Carpark.  Fun Fact: the trail used to be called the Tongariro Crossing until the park realized people weren’t taking the terrain seriously enough. “Alpine” was added to the trail’s name in 2006.

Anyway, if you follow the typical route, you gain 2,518 feet (767 meters) of elevation and then lose about 3,695 feet (1,126 meters). I was a little surprised that this is an alpine hike, because the highest point is only about 6,200 feet tall, but you do get above the snow line and there are glaciers. For us, even though we were out of shape from bumming around SE Asia, the hike was moderately challenging but enjoyable for everyone.

As a quick comparison on difficulty, last summer we hiked to the peak of Mount San Jacinto in Southern California.  The peak has an elevation of about 10,800 feet, and we hiked up and down ~5,000 feet of elevation over a total distance of about 14 miles. I would rate that hike “very challenging”.

Of course, we saw plenty of out-of-shape and under-prepared tourists attempting the trek in sneakers, jeans, and even cigarettes in hand. I think most made it.

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Our shuttle guide handed us this elevation chart before the hike.

The full hike took us about 5 hours with limited stops. It was pretty windy, chilly, and crowded on the top of the mountain, so we didn’t linger over our sandwiches.

Three Big Annoyances

Frequent hikers will be annoyed by three things. First, you’ll pay ~$30-35 NZD a person for a shuttle, typically from your hotel to the beginning of the hike and then back from the end of the hike. Those return shuttles have a set schedule, so you might have to hustle a little towards the end of the hike or wait for your shuttle home. Both are annoying because you end up focusing on your watch and the mileage instead of the hike. We even had a rental car, we just couldn’t find someone to shuttle us from one parking lot to the other.

On the plus side, the shuttle operators do take attendance and will ensure no one gets left on the mountain. I believed that claim, though our operator also threatened not to let under-dressed or unprepared people on the hike, and then barely checked our gear.

The second big annoyance is that the hike is crowded. It’s incredibly popular day hike and we saw multiple bus loads of trekkers. I would prefer hiking in more solitude but I still found the hike to be very enjoyable, mostly because I was catching up with Sarah and Dylan.

A third annoyance, especially for female hikers, is the long bathroom lines at the few restrooms along the trail. Since the trail is so highly traveled and doesn’t have much ground cover anyway, hikers are encouraged to use the restrooms.

Gear and Safety

The pass is an alpine environment so don’t underestimate it, but also keep in mind that you’ll only be out there for a day. I wore shorts, a t-shirt, a fleece and a sweatshirt and packed a poncho. Adam had shorts, a t-shirt and a poncho as well. Sarah and Dylan were much better prepared with pants and base layers. You’ll almost certainly be cold at the top if the wind is blowing, but I think the most important thing is to bring a rain jacket or poncho to stay dry in the case of rain or snow.

When choosing your tour operator, all should keep count and make sure you make it off the mountain. This is a nice safety feature, especially if you’re hiking alone or aren’t carrying a functional cell phone like we were.

Most shuttles have similar prices so the real decision is what time you want to get on the mountain. We chose a later start time in hopes that it would be warmer and clearer, which it was, but ended up hiking with a lot of traffic. Unsurprisingly, the best part of the hike is the views, so if the weather is really supposed to be cloudy, rainy, or worse, delay the hike if your itinerary permits.

Our Adventure

Our visit to Tongariro was part of a week-long road trip around the North Island. Tongariro is an easy 4 hour drive south of Auckland. The scenery was nice, but the best part was driving and riding on the wrong side of the road. I constantly felt and frequently told Adam that he was way too far over on the shoulder. (He wasn’t.)  New Zealand should also get an award for giving away free and helpful maps all over the place, although there really aren’t all that many roads and navigating is straightforward.

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On the trail!

Getting back to the hiking story, our adventure started with a hearty home cooked cabin breakfast before our 9am shuttle to the park. The bus was full and our guide gave us some basic advice, reminders about the timetable, and lots of info on safety. The driver said he wouldn’t leave anyone on the mountain and offered to return to the start to pick up any hikers who decided not to brave the pass.

The trek from M-parking lot starts up a gravely, rocky terrain. After about 4 miles, you start to reach a steeper trail and eventually ascend a set of switchbacks up the side of the mountain. From there, the terrain gets even more challenging as you get to a muddy, slippery slope. If you are a big Lord of the Rings fan, this is the perfect place to do your Frodo or Gollum impression.

We had a lot of fog rolling in and out as we climbed the pass.
We had a lot of fog rolling in and out as we headed up towards the Red Crater

After the switchbacks, we enjoyed the easy and flat South Crater. At this point, you can take side trips up Mount Tongariro or up Mount Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mount Doom). Our shuttle driver strongly discouraged everyone from attempting Ngauruhoe because the “trail” is covered with loose rocks and small boulders. Many hikers have been seriously injured when rocks are knocked loose from above and crash down into them. I was surprised that the official park website still lists both as potential side trips.

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The aptly named Emerald Lake

After cresting the top and reaching the red crater, we passed by the appropriately named Emerald Lakes and then the Blue Lake as we started the descent.

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Here’s Adam and Dylan enjoying the Emerald Lake as we started the descent.

The trip down was long and quite painful on the knees and legs. Once you pass the blue Lake, you do have some nice views of the countryside but it’s a long switch-back-filled way down, passing from scrubby volcanic terrain through a temperate forest and out to the parking lot. In retrospect, this would’ve been a really good hike to do backwards, starting at Ketetahi Car Park and ending at Mangatepopo.

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Adam is typically waaaaay out in front during the descents.

Once we all made it back to the parking lot, we only had to wait 20 minutes or so for our shuttle back to our cabin. There, we still had some daylight left to enjoy our frosty beers and steak and potato dinner, the perfect reward for a hike well done!

My Overall Recommendation Summary

  • Fantastic day hike, highly recommended if you are in the area and up for a long trek with stunning scenery, just keep in mind it will be crowded
  • If you have bad knees, consider hiking the route “backwards”, from Ketetahi, or bringing a walking stick
  • The shuttle is pricey at ~$30-35 NZD a person, and timing the descent is annoying
  • Be smart about gear and safety, but don’t get psyched out. Bring some snacks, water, and a good way to stay dry. If the weather looks bad, consider bailing because you might not be able to enjoy the views, anyway.

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