Guide to Hiking the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand

The Tongariro Crossing is one of New Zealand’s designated Great Walks, and commonly listed as one of the ‘must-see’ destinations to visit in the North Island. With its volcanic alpine landscape and sulfur lakes, it is little wonder Peter Jackson chose it as the location of Mt Doom for the Lord of the Rings films.

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Tongariro Crossing: The Route

This roughly 20-kilometre trail starts in the Mangatepopo Valley. The environment around this section is barren and black, with small bursts of ivy and gold plants. However the main attraction here is the panoramic view of Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe.

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We chose to start the hike at sunrise. Watching the sun illuminate the burnt orange crater of Mt Tongariro’s summit was stunning, and something shared with only a handful of other hikers on the trail.

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At the base of the saddle between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngaurohue is a short side trip to Soda Springs. This takes on average 10 minutes to walk, and is a pleasant stop point before taking on the steep climb on the next portion of the trail.

The climb up the saddle of the Tongariro Crossing consists of short, lung-bursting ascents up a long, zig-zag route. It was around this point in the route we brought out the sugary snacks for extra motivation.

The saddle levels out at the South Crater, an eerie landscape that resembles Mars far more than Earth. In fact, it felt so out of this world I found myself testing my moon-walking skills:

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Needless to say, they were terrible.

Enjoy this flat section while it lasts, and take the opportunity to throw on some layers, as the Tongariro Crossing climbs 1886 metres to the Red Crater section. Personally, I felt this section was the hardest part of the trail. Hikers are more exposed to the weather, and the steepness of the trail had me clutching the chain rail and scrambling at times. Not only that, but the trail narrows, causing a bottleneck in some sections.

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Yet I also found it the most rewarding, due to the epic landscape behind you:

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The next section of the Tongariro Crossing does not get any easier. Hikers then have to descend sharply done a rocky scree path. People were twisting, turning and falling all over the place. After falling several times, I resigned myself to being a “dirty bum” for the day and slid down the steeper sections.

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The Tongariro Crossing plays a pivotal role as the setting for Maori folklore and important historic moments, and it was interesting learning about these the more we hiked along the trail. The Emerald Lakes is one of the iconic sections of the Tongariro Crossing, and with good reason. The colours of the lake change depending on the concentration of metals the waters, meaning they be different shades of blue and green on any day. This point is a popular lunch spot for hikers – just ignore the burnt-egg smell emanating from the lakes.

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Close to the Emerald Lakes is the Blue Lake. Also known as Rangihiroa’s Mirror, this lake was first explored by Te Rangihiroa, the son of Pakaurangi a local chief. To the Maori people, this lake is tapu, or sacred.

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The Tongariro Crossing then crisscrosses its way down the northern slope of Mt Tongariro. Here the landscape changes to part-volcano, part forest. Boiling sulfur rivers and springs are interspersed with green vegetation along the route. It is easy to forget that the area is an active volcano site, until you reach the Ketetahi Bunk House. An eruption back in 2012 damaged the building, and it has remained closed since.

Closer towards the base of the mountain, forests, boulders and streams enclose the Tongariro Crossing. The end of the route gradually leads to the Ketetahi parking centre, which is where most shuttle buses meet hikers.

Hiking the Tongariro Crossing in a Day: What to Expect

The Tongariro Crossing is a challenging summer day hike, but many hikers of average fitness can complete it, as long as the appropriate clothing, food and water is packed. Also remember to take your time on some of the more challenging terrain, to avoid injuring yourself or others. Anyone wish to train for the hike can do so by completing long day walks with a small rucksack on their backs.

The park is still an active volcanic area, and as a result care should be taken to follow the signs and procedures recommend by the Department of Conservation on the trail.

The area has designated World Heritage status, and holds cultural significance for the Maori there. Avoid stepping in the waterways and keep to the trail as much as possible. Also, avoid climbing the summit of Mt Tongariro or Mt Ngauruhoe, as these are considered sacred to the Maori.

Volcanic alpine environments are highly fragile and sensitive to any changes to it. Therefore it is important to use the designated toilet facilities where possible. Also, carry any trash you bring into the park out of it again. Again, it is also important to keep to the path where possible to avoid damaging any of the ecosystems growing around the mountains.

Tongariro Crossing Summer Pack List

This list of items is for visitors completing the Tongariro Crossing in the day, and during the summer months (January to April).

  • Hiking trousers (avoid wearing jeans and other fabrics that aren’t stretchy or wickable)
  • Top (preferably merino wool or synthetic fabric
  • 1-2 thin layers (it can be chilly in the mornings and high up on the ridge)
  • Waterproof coat (Tongariro is an alpine environment, and the weather can change fast)
  • Hiking boots with some form of ankle support ( this is important – some sections of the trail can be slippery and rocky, particularly the descent to the sulfur pools, and that is the last place you want to fall)
  • Hiking socks (either merino or synthetic material, anything to wick sweat from your feet)
  • Sun hat (the sun can be intense at the top of the ridge)
  • Warm hat (for chilly mornings and times of high winds at the top of the route)
  • Sunscreen (again, the sun can get intense, particularly in the afternoon)
  • 2 litres of water
  • Your phone (in case you run into trouble, or want to take photos without the fuss of carrying a camera)
  • First aid kit (better to be safe than sorry!)
  • Toilet paper (in case there’s none left in the toilet facilities)
  • Day pack (I recommend the Osprey Talon 33L rucksack)
  • A torch (particularly if you are starting the Tongariro Crossing before sunrise)
  • Gloves (some short scrambling sessions are required halfway through the walk)
  • High-energy food (prepare sandwiches and plenty of snacks, such as trail mix, granola bars and fruit, the day before your trek; there’s no opportunity to buy food on the trail)

Other optional items is a map, which most shuttle services provide. Orange marker poles are also stationed regularly along the route. Some hikers prefer to bring walking poles. Personally, I found it easier to use the chain rails and simply slide on my bum on some of the steep sections of the route. However if you feel more confident walking the trail with one, then choose a lightweight type that can condense and be packed away in a daypack.

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Tongariro Crossing Accommodation

Tongariro is a skiing hotspot in the winter months, which means in summer there is an abundance of accommodation available to suit all budgets. Hostels and chalets are available in the Tongariro National Park Village, only a few miles from the start line of the Tongariro Crossing. For hikers looking to blow their budget, then the Chateau Tongariro is something straight out of a Wes Anderson film. I chose the no-frills camping huts at the Discovery Lodge, which averaged to approximately NZD 50 per night. They provide a communal kitchen and sunrise shuttle service to the start of the Tongariro Crossing, which made it a budget-friendly option.

Tongariro Crossing Shuttle Service

Almost all accommodation in the Tongariro area offers a shuttle service. These will vary in times, and in my experience it is best to research a few before booking. Some offer sunrise drop-off, which is best for avoiding afternoon crowds and hiking in the midday heat. When it comes to organising your pick-up time however, be realistic with your abilities and also give yourself time to rest and enjoy the landscape. Generally, most people give themselves between 8 and 10 hours to complete the Tongariro Crossing.

Parking and taxis are also available around the park, but facilities are severely limited and you will be fighting for space with tour/transport buses.

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