The Ultimate Guide to Tongariro Alpine Crossing National Park New Zealand
Hello! So, I have been getting lots of questions after sharing pictures and videos of our travels on Instagram both on my grid and in my stories (A LOT more there actually!). So over the last couple of months, we were traveling in Australia, Thailand, China, Samoa, Hong Kong and of course New Zealand where we currently live. The pictures and video that got the most engagement were our alpine adventures in Tongariro National Park. It's New Zealand's first national oark established in 1894. It is also the 4th national park in the world and became in 1993 a UNESCO world heritage cultural landscape.
I figured out, I will put together a blog post with plenty of pictures, answer all your questions and share my experience hiking the alpine crossing, As a bonus, I am also sharing some of our favorite other tracks in the National Park, including Tongariro river trail, Taranaki Falls Track and Tama Lakes.
WHAT IS THE TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING?
It's arguably New Zealand's best one day great walk. I have done my fair share of hiking trips in many countries spanning 6 continents, and I can confidently say it's one the very best one day walk in the world. It's a spectacular 19.4 km. In just few hours, you will climb mountains, wander among volcano, encounter jewel colored lakes, do a real alpine crossing, see waterfalls and a bush walk. The park was made also famous by Peter Jackson's Lord of Rings movie and its sequel The Hobbit based on J.R.R Tolkien books.
Mount Ngauruhoe was used for Mount Doom – the place where the one ring was forged and then destroyed by the hobbits. This perfectly conical 2000 year old mountain peak is actually quite impressive.
HOW TO GET THERE & WHERE TO STAY?
Best way is to drive there, and base yourself in one of the hotels at Whakapapa Village or Turangi which is a bit further away but also cheaper.
We stayed at Chateau Tongariro right next to the visitor center of Whakapapa Village. It was very central to all activities, including walking distance to the visitor information center. Even if you are not staying there, the High Tea with mountain views I shared on Instagram is very nice.
You can do the crossing from any of its ending. We started at Mangatepopo hut and finished at Ketetahi car park. We used a shuttle which costs us 35 $ per person. We were picked us up from our hotel and dropped us back there. The shuttles basically drop you at one end of the track and get you from the other one. You have to book the shuttle the day before from your hotel reception or at the visitor center. You can only do it the day before as the go or no go is decided only then based on the weather and volcanic activity. There are shuttles at 7:00 am, 8:00 am and 9:00 am from Whakapapa village. We took the earliest one and enjoyed the amazing morning light. You also get fewer people on the tracks. The pick up times at the other end are 2h30 pm, 3:30 & 5:00 PM. We were in advance as we made it to the carpark a solid hour before the scheduled time and the driver was already there. She said they are always people who finish early. We ended up waiting for other people and leaving around 2:15 PM or so.
You can choose to use your own wheels and the carpark. We were told theft is a huge problem and you eventually have to find your way back to pick up your car, as the crossing does not loop back, and overnight camping is not allowed in the crossing for many reasons, including volcanic eruption hazards.
There is a shop at Whakapapa village right next to the visitor center, but it has hardly anything and everything is overpriced. So, if you can, get your food, water and other necessities in advance before you get to the park if you can.
WHEN TO GO?
You can go anytime of the year. Highest season is Summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The busiest month seems to be January when schools are closed. Bear in mind that there is lots of snow in Winter so you have to be prepared for this. You will need specific gear such as ice crampons and be an experienced hiker. We were there end of October, so in Spring. It is still technically considered Winter (the very end) for the alpine crossing. We found a bit of snow when we went up, and the temperature dropped under 0°C for part of our hike.
They are are guided tours but we did it on ourselves with the help of a map. The track is overall well marked and the are also plenty of signs as well as other hikers, so no need to worry about getting lost if you stay on marked tracks.
You can also take a helicopter and fly over the National Park.
1/Stay on track. There are active volcanic hazard zones, and streams that may rise and become hazards.
2/Mount Ngauruhoe is sacred to the local Marori people and it's highly discouraged to climb it. It is also subject to volcanic hazards and its alpine environment makes it particularly challenging to hike.
3/Be prepared for all conditions. Those include unpredictable weather and volcanic eruptions which are possible without warning.
4/There are very strong winds. Hypothermia and heat exhaustion risks are real.
WHAT TO PACK? CHECKLIST
So what you should pack really depends on when you are going. You should stop by the information and get the weather forecast that is updated daily for each part of the track. Please also leave your information with someone you trust behind before going to the hike, so they know where to look for you in case anything happens to you.
But here is checklist to get you started.
1/Sturdy hiking boots
I have had mine for few years now and they have taken to many places around the world, from mountains, to bushes, forest, savannah... I even climbed waterfalls and crossed rapids with them, like this one time in Colombia during the 5 days return trek to Ciudad Perdida. It is very much worth investing in a good pair, the very best you can afford.
I got rid of my waterproof hiking pants during my epic wardrobe detox operation and never bothered to get a new one. I went up with my jeans- not a very good idea as they are not exactly suitable for alpine environment. I saw quite a few people with running leggings as well. f you have those waterproof pants that breathable, then take them. Jeans are OK but hiking pants are certainly way better, especially if it rains or snows. I should probably get a new pair as I am outdoor all the time walking, hiking and running!
4/Warm layers- check the weather with the information office, but in our experience, because you climb up as high as 1900 metres in altitude you need at least three different layers (i.e. light summery layer -that if you are going in Summer wollen clothes and a jacket). Avoid cotton and denim if you can. I am almost always cold, so I also packed an extra cachemire sweater, tied it around my waist at the beginning of the hike as well as a warm wool scarf. I was so glad to have those up there.
5-A jacket that is wind and waterproof: the weather can change very rapidly and unexpectedly. It also get very windy amidst the mountain. So a good waterproof jacket is an absolute must. I personally recycle my good old school jacket. Otherwise, lots of brands sell affordable rainproof jackets nowadays.
8-Food & water (2L per person is recommended).
9-Blister protection- I did not and wish I did as I had a blister in my left little toe, it was quite painful, and I was glad I did not have any serious hiking the next day. It was fine for running and doing bush walks, even biking the next few days, but still uncomfortable.
10-A waterproof hat to protect both from the sun and the cold. It is also handy if it rains.
11- Personal medication- I suffer from a chronic illness so that was a must for me. You may also consider a mini first aid kit if you wish.
12-Cell phone- recommend for emergencies. Register beforehand the number of the shuttle company you are using as well as the hotel you are staying.
14- A lightweight waterproof bag to carry of your belongings. Remember you will be carrying it in your back for the whole day, so the lighter, the better.
We did not use any walking polls but quite few fellow hikers had them, They certainly can be helpful as the terrain is uneven, especially if you have got knees issues.
You should also take your own rubbish home (including organic waste such as fruits peels) as there no rubbish facilities on the track.
IS IT DIFFICULT?
Some of you asked me if I prepared specifically for the hike. I did not, but I am also overall very active. I bike, swim, do bush walks and other hikes regularly. I also practice yoga and barre method exercises. The hike was really not difficult (we finished ahead of schedule), and some parts were easier than others. I would be lying if I say that I didn't have moments, when I wondered why I was doing that to myself. But it was so worth it that I will go back in a heart beat!
At any rate, you have to be reasonably fit to undertake it. I also had an injured tendon that was still healing as we did the hike. So if you have time to prepare for it, by all means do it, especially if you are not an experienced hiker. Most importantly, listen to your body. And if you are a slow walker, take the earliest shuttle for some buffer.
WHAT DISTANCES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? (APPROXIMATELY 19.4 kms)
The trail can be broken in 5 steps
1/Car Park (Mangatepopo Hut) to Soda Springs 4.4 Kms
2/Soda Springs to South Crater 2.0 km
3/South Crater to Emerald Lkes 2.6 km
4/Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut 4.0 km
5/Ketetahi Hut to Car Park 6.4 km
HOW MUCH TIME WILL IT TAKE ? (6-8 hours)
So depending on your level of fitness, how fast you walk, the weather and how much breaks and pictures you take, the walking time be anywhere between 6 to 8 hours. We did it in under slightly less than 6 hours, at what was a fairly leisury pace I thought, with frequent breaks and we took plenty of pictures.
Car Park (Mangatepopo Hut) to Soda Springs 1-1.5 hours
Soda Springs to South Crater 1 hour
South Crater to Emerald Lkes 1.5 hours
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut 1-2 hours
Ketetahi Hut to Car Park 1.5.2 hours
WHAT ARE THE ALTITUDES? (approx. 700m-1900m)
Mangetepopo Road 1100 m
South Crater 1660 m
1900 m (the highest) 1900 m
Emerald Lakes 1700 m
Central Crater 1710 m
Ketetahi Road (the lowest) 700 m
ITINERARY STEP BY STEP & WHAT TO EXPECT
Car park to Soda Springs - 4.4 kms 1.1-5 hours
There are toilets at the Mangetopopo hut car park, so make use of them if you need to as the next toilet will be for another hour or so at Soda Springs. We were told that it's also the only one which has toilet paper. It is also advisable to pack up some of your own toilet paper or take some from Magetepopo as they are no toilet paper from now on.
This is the easiest part of the track, flat and then you get to the stream. Don't forget to look back at the valley when you get to the Springs. This where you find the next toilets. If you must go them as the next one is few hours away.
Soda Springs to South Crater 2 km - 1 hour
The track follows Magatapopo stream up to the valley and then up to the alpine environnement. It is fairly easy despite being steep at certain times. They are amazing successions of lava flows that are quite impressive. The very black ones as the youngest from Ngauruhoe's eruption in 1949 and 1959.
South Crater to Emerald Lakes 2.6 km - 1.5 hours
A word go warning about the trail from South Crater to Red Crater- it is very steep and for much of the way, they are lots of loose materials such as rocks. You have to exercise extra care when like at the time we were there, it was sometimes quite icy. The track itself was clean.
We also had lots of clouds and it was very VERY windy.
But then when you get to the top of red crater, the highest point of the whole track, you have fantastic views if you are lucky to have a clear day. Then you have yet another steep slop that will reward you with the gorgeous Emerald Lakes.
It is the perfect spot to take a break. You are now a little over half way. It is also the coldest of all in my experience. This is where all your layers becomes handy, as well as that warm mug of tea!
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut 1-2 hours
You first go up a bit through Central Crater and you will pass by the blue lake. We did not see much of it, because of all the clouds. We were actually above the clouds! It was quite magical. There were still plenty of snow left up there and we even walked over one snow patch.
Then things iterally literally go down hill from the blue lake. I found it one of easiest and really fun part but I can imagine it can hurt if you have got bad knees. The views are stunning as you walk through the alpine environnement.
Ketetahi Hut is the last stop before the Car Park. There also toilets there, and you can take a break at the hut, drink and eat. It is also where you should call your shuttle bus driver in case you won't make it to the last shuttle as there are another two hours or so of walking.
Ketetahi Hut to Car Park 6.4 km-2 hours
This keeps going down hill. It also gets warmer as you come down. The scenery along the way is views absolutely stunning as you walk through the alpine environnement. I loved the lush bush walk at the end. It is quite surreal because just few hours before, we were walking on snow!
IDE TRIPS TO THE TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
Both Niels, my husband and I avid hikers. So, we did a few more walks while in Tongariro National Park. Here are some of our favorites.
Taranaki Falls 2h return 6 Km Loop
They start steps from the Whakapapa Visitor Centre.The is an upper and lower tracks that form a loop with the waterfall around the half-way. It is a spectacular 20 metres high over the edge of a large lava flow, which erupted from Ruapehu 15,000 years ago.
I absolutely loved being able to literally seat on top of the Falls and then loop back and look at the roaring falls at awe from below, and feeling VERY small.
Tama Lake 5-6 hours return. 17 m return
They are an extension of the Taranaki Falls Walk at the upper level. The track then goes undulating through native alpine herbfields. Further on, the track branches to the left to two Tama Lakes. They are named after Tamatea, the Mayor High Chief who explored the area six centuries ago. There is a view of the lower lake (1240 metres), then the track climbs very steeply- be prepared! to a viewpoint (1440 metres) of the upper lakes. There are no formed tracks down to the lakes, the descent to both is via VERY steep gullies.
The upper lake Taman has a reputation of being very deep.
They are also very strong wind as the Tama Saddle is a funnel for winds coming form the west. So, windproof clothing is a must.
Tongariro River Trail
The total distance is 14 kms that will take around 4 hours. It can be broken into two nd you can choose to do any one or both.,
Turangi I-site to the Major Bridge and then back. 5 kms. 1.5 hours. That's the part we did.
You can also go from Turangi-i site to Major Jones Bridges, to Red hut and back too i-site, 9 kms. 3 hours.
I hope this is helpful if you are planning to travel to Tongariro and if not I hope you enjoyed reading about it. Do not hesitate to leave me a comment if you have any question.