Tongariro Alpine Crossing
After nearly two weeks driving the circumference of the South Island (again), Emmett and I had taken our car on the ferry to Wellington. We drove around a bit on the North Island before making our way back up to Auckland to reunite with C.J. But it wasn't just a reunion we had planned - after a little over 24 hours in Auckland, the three of us headed down to the lakeside town of Taupo so that we could hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing together.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is arguably one of New Zealand's most popular hikes. The Crossing is a 19.4 kilometer (12.1 mile) walk through active volcanic terrain in World Heritage-listed Tonagriro National Park. According to a NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) worker who we spoke to later that day, the track is most popular in the summertime when there can be upwards of hundreds of hikers attempting the crossing each day. I was stunned to hear it because the Alpine Crossing was not an easy hike by any means. In fact, it was not only very long for a "day hike" but it was also quite strenuous - but more on that later.
There was a biting chill to the air that morning in Taupo. That fact, that it was cold, was one of the only thoughts that the three of us could verbalize after waking up at 5:30 A.M. As we started our hour and a half drive to the track's start at Mangatepopo Car Park, there was a low-hanging spooky fog on the trees outside. We had picked that particular day to do the Crossing solely because the forecast had called for clear skies - for once. I have said it before and I will say it even one more time, to access any of New Zealand's native abundance of fantastic scenery, you are at the mercy of some very fickle weather patterns. Something to do with being an island over 4,000 km from the nearest land mass... Anyway, this was actually the second time that Emmett and I had been to Taupo. We had visited for a few days last September shortly after first arriving in New Zealand and had been interested in Tongariro but had, of course, been thwarted by the weather. Anyway, the initial fog made us concerned that our visibility on the mountain would be similar.
Luckily, as we approached Mangatepopo, the weather cleared and then (even better!) stayed that way for the rest of the day. The sun came over the horizon and we started the Crossing. The first part was deceptively easy and consisted of a well-maintained gravel trail and then boardwalk-style path as we got closer and closer to Mount Ngauruhoe. Also, if Mt. Ngauruhoe seems familiar to you, it's because you may recognize it as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings film series.
We crunched through the icy gravel and up a small incline before we found ourselves at the foot of Mount Ngauruhoe. It was an impressive volcanic cone topped with oxidized iron rocks that gave it a reddish hue. We could see a few miniscule figures loaded with gear making their way up the scree-covered mountainside to the crater. In the summertime, apparently it is possible to make the summit and return as part of a sidetrip from the actual Crossing. Since it was the end of June, aka the shortest days of the year, we reckoned we would not have enough daylight hours to try and do it all. But we certainly enjoyed seeing such a beautiful and dramatic volcano from all the angles below, as we walked on to the South Crater. Also, we were really delighted to find that the sky was clear enough that we could spot Mount Taranaki all the way over on the East Coast, halfway across the country from Ngauruhoe.
The path from Soda Springs to South Crater was one of the more treacherous bits of the Crossing. We had to climb up icy steps with hand chains pegged into the side of the adjacent rock. CJ later told us she had heard that bit was called "The Devils Staircase." If it had been any icier or the visibility had been any worse, I can imagine that it would be incredibly challenging. Fortunately for us, it ultimately wasn't even the most difficult part of the track.
The next bit of the journey took us up to the edge of the Red Crater, the very aptly named still-steaming crater that was one of many parts of Mount Tongariro. In fact, technically Mt. Ngauruhoe is part of the larger Mount Tongariro: it's a parasitic cone. At the top of the Red Crater summit, a friendly DOC sign let us know that we were "halfway" through our hike. I say halfway because I think there estimates are for legitimate hikers because the next half of the crossing took us much longer than the projected time.
After a brief jaunt up the Red Crater's edge (see above) we found ourselves facing an incredibly steep downhill slope covered in ash and tephra. This was definitely the hardest part of the Crossing, since it was impossible to get solid ground underfoot as you scooted down to the Central Crater of Mount Tongariro. Of the three of us, I in particular kept getting vertigo-like sensations because of the imposing nature of the descent. Have I mentioned before that I grew up somewhere incredibly flat? It's not in my Florida-girl nature to feel comfortable on steep descents. So I just took my time trying to be as sure-footed as possible - potentially to the chagrin of mountain-siblings Emmett and CJ, though they graciously never mentioned it.
When I finally made my way to the bottom, I was rewarded with a fantastic view of the turquoise Emerald Lakes just off of Central Crater. Apparently, the lakes get their brilliant hue from minerals leeching out of the rocks below Red Crater. Whatever the case may be, they are pretty dang photogenic. I mean, just look at 'em:
After exploring the area around the ice-coated Emerald Lakes, we made the delightfully easy trek across Central Crater. This path was one of my favorite parts of the entire Crossing because the views (which had already been awesome) were the best of all. From across the Central Crater looking back, we could see not only each iconic peak of Tongariro National Park, but also an old lava flow from the Red Crater's explosion.
From the end of Central Crater, we got one last alpine view: that of the acidic Blue Lake. Quick aside but - is it just me or does it seem like Kiwis love giving things obvious names? North Island, South Island, Blue Lake...? Anyway, it was a lovely light blue that paled (haha...ha) in comparison to the Emerald Lakes but was lovely nonetheless.
After Blue Lake, we got yet another lake view. We rounded a bend on the trail and found ourselves face-to-lake with Lake Taupo. Taupo is itself an old caldera from a supervolcano that erupted just this side of 30,000 years ago. In fact, the area underneath Taupo is still geothermically active as evidenced by fumaroles spewing steam around and across the lake.
The rest of the path is a hangry, frustrated blur, if I'm being honest. We took a zig-zag path down the hillside into native rain forest, which was quite unexpected. By then we'd seen all the different sights there were to see and kept thinking each turn might be the end but it never was. We still had at least an hour's walk in the forest until we finally reached Ketetahi Car Park at the Crossing's end. Add that to the fact that I had only had half a granola bar and a carrot to eat and you get a real grumpy gal. I think we were all pretty demolished by the hike by then because the three of us barely spoke. I just kept thinking that if I saw another set of gravel steps in the woods instead of a carpark, I would cry. I nearly did when the steps continued on... and on... and ON. Finally, we did make it.
My frustration was not relieved by finishing, though. I'm sure that Emmett and CJ would say the same. All day, we'd felt pressure to finish the Crossing by 4 PM when it began to get dark (that my friends, is one of the reasons we had an inadequate lunch). Not only that, but we also didn't have a transportation plan. Our car was parked at the Mangatepopo Car Park nearly 30 kilometers away. Yes, you read that right: further away by road than the hike through the mountains that we'd just done. Emmett and I had previously had a lot of luck hitch-hiking in New Zealand so when we planned our Tongariro Alpine Crossing experience, we figured we could catch a ride with someone back to our car. When we got to the car park, though, we realized that this was not nearly as feasible an option as we had first supposed. First of all, hardly anyone else had a car parked at Ketetahi, as most people aren't big cheapskates like we are and had splurged for a transport van from one of the many companies in the region offering such a service. Secondly, though we had finished with an hour till sunset, walking out from the car park to the main highway was going to take half an hour minimum. And then we'd be left to take our chances on a wintry remote highway in the dark. Yikes. We were all feelin' a bit stressed until a very congenial dude with a truck gave the three of us a ride back to our car. Bullet dodged. Thank you hitching karma.
What to Know If You're Considering Doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing...
Be prepared for changes in weather!!!!
A) Consider adding a buffer of a few extra days in the area to your plan if you really want to do this track. I've heard of so many people who had to wait a bad patch of weather out until the Crossing is safe to undertake. It's one of the reasons Emmett and I didn't do it on our first visit to Taupo last year. We only stayed two days and the weather was abysmal.
B) The track is 19.4 kilometers across alpine terrain. As you can see from my post above, we were incredibly fortunate to have excellent, clear weather on our hike. Also, if you can tell from our pictures: we really layered up on clothes. I personally started the day with a rain jacket, sweater, a hat, mittens, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, and sturdy boots. While I shed various items of clothing throughout the hike, I also ended up putting some back on as the sun began to lower in the sky. At a minimum bring a rain jacket, a hat, a warm base layer, and sturdy shoes (even in the summertime).
Check the DOC Tongariro page for updates on weather and volcanic activity.
Often if it's deep into the winter months of July, August, or even early September, DOC will recommend that you not even attempt to do the Crossing without a hired guide (approximately $195 NZD per person). Oh yeah, they also recommend CRAMPONS and ICE AXES. And there could be AVALANCHES. Yes, true winter on Tongariro is a whole 'nother ballgame. Please, though, no matter what season you go, check out the DOC website to see if there are any warnings that apply to your hike. They also have even more practical recommendations on what to bring with you.
The track is definitely doable but Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not easy if you're not particularly athletic. Emmett, CJ, and I are all in pretty good physical health but are not in shape. We all felt sore for nearly a week after the hike. And the next day? Phew. I definitely had shin splints and Emmett busted up his knee somehow. The DOC website says they estimate that the track will take between 5.5 or 7.5 hours. It took us about eight hours exactly, with lots of stops for picture-taking. But no lunch break.
Bring plenty of food and water. We had enough water but not enough snacks/lunch, which was foolish and led to unnecessary hanger. Plus, if for some reason you get stuck and have to wait for a rescue 'copter - you would probably want food & water in that scenario.
Tell someone where you're going!! Whether it's a friend or family member back home or the staff at your accommodation, let someone know you're attempting the Crossing so that they can call the rescue service if you don't make it down the mountain before nightfall.
I highly recommend doing the track in early winter, like we did. We were able to do the Crossing before any significant snowfall (so no paying for a guide or rental gear) but it was also low season so we didn't have any of the insane crowds like I've seen in friends' pictures.
You should probably go ahead and pay for transport back to your vehicle with one of the numerous adventure companies around Taupo & the National Park. Unless, of course, you have friends who also have a car and you want to leave one at Ketetahi and take the other to Mangatepopo to start.
If you want to experience all the stunning sights but don't want to bother with figuring out the whole vehicle debacle, you could definitely hike to the Red Crater or even the Emerald Lakes and back to Mangatepopo and not feel as though you missed much. Nobody told me that the last hour (two in our case) is repetitive forest views. If I had a chance to go back, I'd also love to have enough time to summit Mount Ngauruhoe, so consider planning that into your Crossing.
If you're feeling especially adventurous, you could stay in either of the huts on the Crossing. Be sure to book ahead online as they can fill up fast. OR you could do the longer, multi-day Tongariro Northern Circuit trek and have a chance to see more of Mount Ruapehu and the National Park.