Three adults and one eager 12-year-old got up before the sun Saturday morning awaiting the adventure of the day. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was on the agenda. Bags packed ready, our breath catching in the crisp dawn air we all piled into the car. The 20-minute drive from Turangi was filled with excitement and anticipation. When we arrived the car park was already nearly full at 6.30am, we claimed one of the last spaces. The last few were taken by the time we got our boots on.
Access You need to arrange transport to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing as there is a 4-hour limit on the Mangatepopo carpark at the beginning of the walk. You can either get a shuttle to and from the Crossing in the various towns around the National Park. You can also do what we did which was park the car at Ketetahi carpark (where there are no parking restrictions) at the end of the walk and get a one-way shuttle to the start.
Difficulty This is an alpine crossing which means steady climbs, changeable weather and high altitudes. The crossing is 19.4 kilometres so make sure you are up for the distance.
Time It is supposed to take between 6 and 8 hours, depending on how often you stop and what pace you walk at. It took us a little longer than that but we had multiple photo stops, snack stops and rest stops.
Fitness You need to be relatively fit to do the Crossing due to the distance and climbs. Although, I am not at my fittest and didn't do as badly as I thought I would.
What to pack
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is first and foremost an alpine walk (the name kind of gives it away). This is important to keep in mind when you are packing. Even if the weather looks as though it is going to be fine, up on the mountain it is several degrees colder and the wind chill and strength need to be factored in.
- Layers. Wear lots of layers. We went up and down layers throughout the day depending on what position we were on the mountain and how hard we were hiking. Start with a singlet, long-sleeve quick dry layer, fleece and windproof jacket for the top half. A scarf and hat for your head and comfortable hiking trousers, hiking socks and hiking boots for the bottom half. In your pack chuck in an extra fleece, gloves and waterproof trousers. Plus pop in a comfortable pair of shoes (or slippers) and a dry pair of socks in the car for afterwards. Trust me, you will want to get those hiking boots off as soon as you see the car.
- Snacks. Take lots of snacks and a decent lunch. You are burning lots of energy trekking up the hills (and the Devils Staircase), you will need to renew that energy along the way.
- A head torch. We finished as the night fell even though we left early. Dusk settles early this time of year so make sure you pack a head torch in your pack just in case. You may take longer than you think. There are plenty of places to stop and take photos and if you add up all the photo stops.....
- A first aid kit. We dove into our first aid kit a few times for blisters, painkillers and bandages. Make sure you pack a small first aid kit that is properly stocked.
- An extra battery for the camera. I went through my first battery rather quickly. Luckily I had charged my spare one and chucked it in my pack.
- For a more in-depth guide to what to pack in your hiking backpack check out this post.
An important thing to note when tackling the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is that there are parking restrictions in place in the Mangatepopo carpark where you start the trek. If you don't want your vehicle clamped (and you probably don't after spending the day hiking up and down the mountain) it pays to arrange transport. You can either book a shuttle through the many tour operators in the area or if you know someone that can pick you up and drop you off, call in a favour for a box of beer (it's the Kiwi way).
We booked a one-way shuttle through Tongariro Crossing Shuttles (book here) for $30 each. Our car was parked at the Ketetahi carpark and our shuttle delivered us to the Mangatepopo carpark. We chose to do it this way so that we didn't have to hurry back for a shuttle, we could take our time without pressure.
Make sure you arrive early (at least half an hour early) for your shuttle, the carpark is limited and you may miss out on a space. We hadn't even put our boots on before the carpark was full. I would suggest booking the earliest shuttle to ensure you get a carpark if you are going to do it this way.
Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Depending on the time of year you decide to tackle this hike, it could be busy. We chose to cross Tongariro off-season so there weren't many crowds but other people I know that have done it have followed seas of other hikers. The first part of the hike was relatively easy. The boardwalk makes for easy footing and it was fairly flat for the most part. We veered off to look at Soda Springs, a waterfall about 300m off the track. I think Joe (my 12-year-old) wanted to do it so that he could say that he hiked further than the 19.4 kilometres that was on the sign at the beginning of the hike.
The Devil's Staircase
We were led into a false sense of security. Above us loomed the Devil's Staircase. Aptly named. A steep staircase climbing from 1200m to 1400m in a short distance. Luckily the views are amazing, they provide genuine excuses to pause for a photo (and a breather). Joe had to stop a few times so we could plaster up his feet as blisters were starting. Sitting on the wall looking over the plains we had just come from with the wind whipping and sweat pouring down our faces was magic.
When we got to the top of the Devil's Staircase Joe was thrilled to find that we were inside a cloud. "Woah, I've never been inside a cloud before! I wonder what it tastes like?" This marred our view slightly but as the cloud passed it revealed the scope of how far we had come.
The flat walk across south crater was a welcome relief after the Devil's Staircase. It gave time for our legs to recover and our breathing to return to normal. The cloud followed behind us as we made our way to the other side of the crater. I tried not to look too far ahead, I could see another steep incline looming. We were getting a bit peckish by then so the hill did end up turning into a giant ham and cheese bun which made it more appealing.
To the left of us, Mt Nguruhoe stood over us, it's bright red rocks spilling a contrast against the dull grey of the mountain. Views like this pop up all over the walk unexpectedly. Like finding a $20 note you forgot about in your pocket.
As this is a one-way walk, keep looking back. The views behind are just as stunning as those in front. Often we are so focused on looking forward we forget to admire the views behind us.
After we climbed the short incline of the other side of the south crater it was time to stop for lunch. We found relative shelter from the blustering wind behind a rock and settled down with our buns. A serene sense of peace washed over me. Here I was on a mountain, surrounded by people I love, eating the best bun ever and looking out over the landscape (well, cloud). There was no other place I would have rather been.
Joe was nestled so far into the rock, he practically made a dent in it. The winds were a bit worrying for him. I was immensely proud of him right then. There he was, just 12 and managing to mostly keep up with the adults. This was the highest he had ever climbed and even though he was scared, he never let it show to anyone but me. He was equally proud of himself too. The wonder of being above the cloud now was still buzzing through him.
The Red Crater was our next stop on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We had a short, steep incline to reach it. The footing here is unstable so make sure to take your time and be sure where you are placing your feet. Rocks are fairly loose and the wind is often high.
Turn around when you are about halfway up and you will catch a stunning view of Mt Nguruhoe. The cloud covered the lowest part when we turned around and just the cone was peering over. The contrast of the white cloud, blue sky, red rocks and grey mountain made us stop in our tracks.
At the top of the incline is a sign that lets you know you are at the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Unless you take the extra track to the summit. We gave that a miss as we were already going fairly slowly with the many photo, snack and rest stops.
From here you can see down into the Red Crater. The vibrant colour popped against the landscape. You can see where the old lava flow had settled with ribbons of layers and colours dripping into the crater. We had to take group selfies here. Obvs.
Ah, this was the reason why I wanted to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the first place. The clamber down to the Emerald Lakes was one of Joe's favourite parts of the hike. It was Ronna's (one of our other hiking buddies from fivefootronna.com read her version of Tongariro and awe at her beautiful photos here) least favourite part. The shingle is loose so you ski down the slope. Joe went down on his bum, Ronna very carefully, I slid and Kenny (our other hiking bud) was a mixture of Ronna and I.
Watching other people tackle the slope was interesting. You could see how people chose to attack the slope, how confident they were. You had adults sliding on their bums, graceful seasoned hikers whizzing down using their trekking poles as cross-country skiers would and those that very carefully placed each foot gingerly in front of the other.
The lakes let off a sulphuric smell due to the vents above the lakes. Coming over the ridge and seeing the Emerald Lakes tucked away was a beautiful sight. The colour of the lakes is vibrant and eye-catching. Mother Nature outdid herself here.
We walked around the Emerald Lakes, crossed the central crater and headed towards Blue Lake (I know, us Kiwi's are imaginative when we name things), an acidic lake. Another climb, luckily a short one compared with what we had done and a quick rest beside the lake. Again, the footing is not terribly stable here so be careful and take it slow if you need to. Blue Lake is tapu (sacred), it is disrespectful to touch, enter, eat or drink around its shores. Don't aim your lunch spot here, as tempting as it is.
Next stop was Ketetahi Shelter. The walk is mostly flat or downhill to the Shelter and zigzags down the hill. There are spectacular views across to the lakes. On a clear day, you can see right to Lake Taupo. We didn't have a clear day. Layering up again was necessary here as the walk isn't as hard. Jackets, hats, and scarves were all dragged back out of our packs as we stopped at the camouflaged loos.
Oh, that's another interesting point. The loos were all camouflaged with the landscape. We saw loos decorated in rock, tussock, shingle print. They must have put in some more toilets recently. We got told that there were only toilets at either end and one in the middle but we came across a fair few of them. That would be handy, especially in the summer when it is more crowded as there used to be big long queues. We didn't have to queue once.
Anywho, I have digressed. Back to the hike. We stopped at Ketetahi Shelter for a rest. The Shelter is no longer used for accommodation as it got damaged in the 2012 volcanic eruption at Te Maari craters. You can still see the damage the eruption has done and the shelter has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Through one opening looking into the room, there is a large hole in the ground where a rock went through the roof. Look up at the roof when you stop here to see the impact of the eruption.
The Home Stretch
This was our longest stretch. Ronna's knee took a beating coming down the shingle to the Emerald Lakes and while she tried to be brave, by the home stretch it was taking its toll. She powered through though after we found her a stick and we took our time to the end. Ronna is one tough cookie. It is mainly downhill from Ketetahi Shelter, there is one uphill but it rounds over and veers down again before long.
The home stretch fooled us. Once you get to the tree line you feel like you should be almost at the end. Unfortunately, it is another few kilometres to the Ketetahi carpark. Dusk fell as we made our way through the bush. The trees blocked the little light that was left, our phone torches had to compensate. We followed the stream for a while which provided us with some nice background music. Silence had fallen over our group as we concentrated on stepping over tree roots hidden in the shadows.
Before long we rounded a corner and the carpark emerged from the shadows. A quick sit down in satisfaction and exhaustion then we made our way back to our lonely car, the last left in the carpark. Hiking boots were quickly pulled off and slippers pulled on. The Tokaanu Thermal Pools was waiting for us to soak our weary bodies in.
Things to remember
- Make sure that you check the weather before you go, though keep in mind that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is susceptible to changeable weather. Be prepared for this and pack lots of layers even if it seems warm
- Always tell someone where you are going and your expected time back, allow extra time for all the stops you will probably take.
- Arrange transport well ahead of time, the shuttles fill up quickly
- Arrive at your shuttle pick up at least half an hour before time, we arrived half an hour before we were due to be picked up and only just got a parking space
- This is a long walk, make sure you have plenty of water and food to keep you going
- Wear proper hiking shoes, trainers don't really cut the mustard on this hike
- Take a hiking pole, even if you don't think that you will need it. They strap onto your pack and are lightweight
- Read this post for my top hiking tips
If you are planning to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing during peak season (October to April), it pays to book accommodation well in advance. We were lucky in that one of Ma's friends had a holiday home in Turangi that she kindly lent us for the weekend. It was only a 20-minute drive from Turangi to Ketetahi Village.
The closest towns are:
- Whakapapa (10.4 km)
- National Park (13.5 m)
- Turangi (36.7 km)
- Raetihi (47.6 km)
- Ohakune (48 km)
- Taumaranui (61.5 km)
- Taupo (86.5 km)
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is well worth the hike. The landscape changes several times throughout the hike so it never gets boring. We went through tussocks, bare terrain, bush and rocks. If you want to avoid the crowds, Mid Autumn and Spring are probably the best times to do it even though the weather is cooler than summer.
Though it is a tough hike at times, it is manageable even if you are only moderately fit (like yours truly). Just do it!
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