The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4km hike. It typically takes between 6-8 hours to complete and is one of the best day hikes you can do in New Zealand. That’s not just my opinion either, everyone says it. Google it and see if you don’t believe me. Anyway, this is the one hike I was adamant to do whilst on the North Island. I wanted to do it whilst summer was still here because the weather conditions make it much more difficult to hike in the winter. More specialist gear is needed and the weather conditions mean there is a higher chance of having to turn back. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I was up to doing the hike in the winter. I was nervous that my physical fitness level would not be good enough for such a long hike with steep uphill sections, but I was going to do it anyway.
My Orginal Plan:
You don’t have to do the hike with a guided tour and many people do it without. However, since I was on my own and haven’t done a hike like this before I felt more comfortable going with a guided group. I originally chose Adrift Tongariro because I wanted to do their sunrise hike. It was recommended in the Lonely Planet New Zealand book I have. I thought it would be an even more amazing way to see the views over the mountains. However, I found out the day before my hike that it was cancelled due to staffing issues.I had the choice to either switch to the day hike or receive a full refund. Well, I had already paid for my accommodation in the National Park and thought it would be a shame to be in the area and not do it. So, I switched to the day hike. Now, I think it was actually a blessing in disguise.
Sometimes unexpected things happen and they turn out better than your original plan. That morning was a cloudy day and I would have hiked to the top in the dark and not got a very good sunrise in return for my hard work. I was told at the Adrift Tongariro office in the morning, that a good sunrise will actually only happen about twice a month. Something which was not communicated before I booked the hike, but made me all the more thankful I was on the day hike instead.
Transport To/ from the Hike:
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way day hike. If you are not doing it with a guide then you will need to arrange transport to and from the hike. During the summer there is a 4 hour car park limit at both car parks. Booking the shuttle transport is necessary if you are planning to do the whole hike. However, if you book with a guided tour like I did then you don’t need to worry about this. They provided transport to and from their office in National Park where you can leave your car all day.
You will likely stop off at a few popular viewing areas during the walk and it’s useful to know how far you’ll be walking in between these scenic areas. You can do the crossing whichever way you wish. Most people start at the Mangatepopo Car park and finish at the Ketetahi Car park. The reason is if you start at the Ketetahi car park you are adding an extra 370m incline to your walk. It is much easier to do that as downhill on your return journey. So if you start the crossing from the Mangatepopo car park as most do then this will be a rough guide to your day:
Mangatepopo Car park to Soda Springs: 1 hour 10 minutes
Soda Springs to South Crater: 1 hour
South Crater to Red Crater: 1 hour
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes: 20 minutes
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Shelter: 1 hour 45 minutes
Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Car park: 1 hour 45 minutes
My group had 3 guides in total. Two were also hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for the first time and were in training as guides but were still fantastic. Casey was the leading guide for my hike and he was great. Not only did he give us background information about the sights on the way but practical help for the more technical parts of the hike. The guides mostly split themselves up between the group. One guide at the front leading the group, one in the middle and another at the back. This also allowed everyone to walk at the pace which suited them best.
I started off the hike somewhere near the middle and moved between the front and middle hikers. My tactic was that if I’m near the front then if I find a particular part of the hike more difficult then I can take a breather and move back a bit whilst still not being at the back. This seemed to work fairly well for me.
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs
The first section of the walk will be the easiest. Our guides started this section at a fairly fast pace so they could see where everyone’s fitness level was at. We slowed the pace down after this as we reached steeper inclines on the walk. One of my favourite pictures from this hike was taken during this section though. The combination of the flowers and views of the hike we are commencing was truly beautiful.
Soda Springs to South Crater
This section of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is also known as the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. So, as the name suggests there will be a lot of steps and it won’t be pleasant. You will climb from 1,400 meters to 1,600 meters above sea level. We were warned that this was one of the more difficult sections of the hike and to take our time. Frequent stops and drinks of water are better than pushing ahead and then stopping for longer. Honestly, I only half listened to this. I pushed myself ahead and climbed higher and as they said needed longer to bring my breathing back to normal again.
This section was the most difficult in terms of physical fitness for me and many others. I didn’t seem to take a picture of this section of the hike, probably because I was focusing more on actually getting through it. So, instead here is a picture of the next section. You can look forward to that flat bit of walking next and the incredible views.
South Crater to Red Crater
Red Crater in my opinion was one of the most beautiful sections of the hike. The track starts off flat and then climbs higher. At the top you will be rewarded with views of a Red Crater. Exactly as its described, but better than you would have imagined. Be careful with some parts of this climb. You will be scrambling up the side of a mountain without a designated footpath. I smartly followed behind a couple of experienced hikers. I walked exactly the way they walked because I thought they probably knew best. Also, the guy was a real gentlemen and offered his help where it was quite difficult to climb. I nearly fell over a few times on the way up but it was reassuring knowing he was looking out for us if we needed assistance.
Red Crater to Emerald Lakes
The beginning of your descent is also one of the most technical parts of the hike. By this point you have managed to hike up the mountain on some very questionable terrain. As I said, I managed to escape falling over on the way up but I wasn’t so lucky on the descent. One wrong move and you’ll be down. However, if you stay on the left side of the path then you’ll still be alright even if you fall over.
Our guides were really great during this section. They briefed us on how best to handle this section of the walk. The lead guide positioned himself at the trickier parts to guide us all on which path to follow. This is when I realised that nearly everyone else in my group had walking poles and I did not. They definitely would have been useful here for a bit of extra stability. They were available to hire at the office before we began the hike but I thought it was a bit unnecessary. Well, how wrong I was. Nevertheless, I made it down, with just a few more tumbles over than the others. We stopped for lunch here and what stunning views to enjoy with a well earned lunch.
Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Shelter
This is a fairly easy section of the hike on the way down. Enjoy the views over Mount Pihanga, Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo. In the picture below Lake Taupo is the bigger lake at the back, often said to be the same size as Singapore.
Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Car Park
This is the last section of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is quite a steep walk down but you will also have expansive views of the national park to enjoy. A few minutes before you reach the end you will see a funny looking sign that leads you to a small waterfall. By this point myself and a few others were in front of the guides, and not knowing what the sign meant we went to investigate. You can take the small detour to see it yourself if you wish. There are many prettier waterfalls in New Zealand and this close to the end of the hike I would advise you to carry on.
Be sure to get your mandatory ‘I finished the hike picture’ at the sign. Okay, it’s not actually mandatory and I might have been the only one doing it. But you can be sure if I’ve just done a 19.4km hike I’m going to get the photo to prove it. Also, don’t ask what my hand is doing. I’m not sure either.
Overall, this hike does have some fairly tricky sections and the Devil’s staircase was certainly tiring. I am so proud of myself for completing this hike and being one of the first in my group to arrive at the bottom. I am glad I did it with a guided tour because it’s not a hike I would want to do on my own. You will need the support and encouragement of others to make it to the end. I was the only solo traveller in my group but everyone was friendly and welcoming to talk to. If you also want to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a guide then I can highly recommend Adrift Tongariro.