DESTINATIONS

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

North Island, New Zealand

WHERE: Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

WHEN: Jan. 7-8, 2017

Highlights and tips: 

  • The park hosts three active volcanic mountains: Mt. Ruapehu, at 9,177 feet with year-round snow; Mt. Ngauruhoe aka Mt. Doom at 7,516 feet, and Mt. Tongariro at 6,490 feet. Mt. Doom is reportedly a crater of Mt. Tongariro.

  • Take the short drive up to the ski area of Mt. Ruapehu for views and fun scrambling hikes.

  • The famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing is spectacular on a nice day and relatively easy for fit hikers.

    • Check the weather!

    • Give yourself more than one day to do the crossing in case the weather is miserable.

    • Beware the crowded cars and buses loading and unloading hikers

    • A walking stick would be useful

    • Hiking boots for sure

    • Layers, layers, layers

    • There are now three toilet stops along the route

    • Most people follow the northeast route from Mangatepopo, but I did pass hikers going the other way

​​Accommodations: Tongariro Chateau, a classic lodge at the base of Mount Ruapehu with OK food unless you go to the pricey dining room.

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Start of the 12-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing on Jan. 8, 2017, North Island, New Zealand

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Start of the 12-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing on Jan. 8, 2017, North Island, New Zealand

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Stop! Are you sure you are prepared for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?

soda springs 1.8.17

Last toilets for a while at Soda Springs, on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Tongariro hike to south crater

Looking up to the south crater via the "devil's staircase," the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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A little help from chains up to the south crater via the "devil's staircase," the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Mt. Doom is "right behind you" I was told. But alas I did not know the way. Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Mt. Doom summit sign. Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Top of the Red Crater Summit, highest point of Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Top of the Red Crater Summit, highest point of Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Tongariro hike slip sliding down looking down from red crater

Descending the Red Crater Summit, highest point of Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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First hint of emerald lakes, a reward after 3 1/2 hours of miserable conditions on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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What a treat! The sun emerges just as I'm at the emerald lakes below the Red Crater on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Looking up the Red Crater summit from the emerald lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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What a treat! The sun emerges just as I'm at the emerald lakes below the Red Crater on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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What a treat! The sun emerges just as I'm at the emerald lakes below the Red Crater on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Crystal waters of the emerald lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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What a treat! The sun emerges just as I'm at the emerald lakes below the Red Crater on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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What a treat! The sun emerges just as I'm at the emerald lakes below the Red Crater on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Mt. Ruapehu is peeking through with its glaciers.

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Nearly halfway on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Tongariro's Red Crater, with a hint of Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapehu behind on thenTongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Tongariro's Red Crater, with a hint of Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapehu behind on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Tongariro's Central Crater, on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Tongariro's Red Crater, with a hint of Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapehu behind on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Blue Lake on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Te Maari Crater, which erupted Aug. 6, 2012, along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.   Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo, the largest in New Zealand.

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Te Maari Crater, which erupted Aug. 6, 2012, along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Ketetahi Hut below, marking 8 of 12 miles on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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The Ketetahi Hut, marking 8 of 12 miles on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo, the largest in New Zealand, along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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The last steps upward near the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (whassup with that!?)

Tongariro hike victory half km from end 8 hours total with long break at emerald lakes 2017-01-07

Victorious near the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Mt. Doom at Tongariro National Park the day before I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Tongariro National Park, the day before I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Mt. Ruapeho, part of Tongariro National Park, towering over the Tongariro Chateau, the day before I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

2009 New Zealand Regan Mordor hike

View of Tongariro's Red Crater, Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapeho taken by my daughter (on a clear day) in 2009 along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Tongariro park from air

Aerial view of emerald lakes, Tongariro, Red Crater, Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapeho. Unknown source.

Report and tips for hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Summary headline: This was an adventurous accomplishment for a fit 57-year-old despite horrid weather for the first three hours and virtually NO VIEWS of Mt. Doom throughout! 

The 12-mile hike between Mt. Doom (aka Ngauruhoe) and Tongariro would be relatively easy for strong hikers on a nice day, even with the steep grades and slippery slopes. The route is a mix of steps, walkways, ash, rocky dirt up and down with signposts throughout although not always a clear “path.” 

But on Jan. 8, 2017, severe winds, fog and drizzle made it a grueling and unenjoyable trek to get to the peak of Red Crater. I was bundled in layers, raincoat, winter hat and gloves,
buffeted by wind and  blinded by the spray on my glasses. 

 

The first leg to Soda Springs, 2.7 miles, was on flat grasslands mostly on a boardwalk, with visibility at maybe 60 yards or so. There sit the two last toilet stalls for 5.3 miles.

 

Already, I met people who were turning around, including some locals who said you can't see a thing today. I wondered, what if it's all fogged in the whole hike? Would I feel it had been worthwhile?

 

Stubborn and optimistic, I pushed on toward the South Crater, 4 miles in. The unrelenting squalls made it challenging to keep steady on the steep path, nicknamed the "devil's staircase." There is one short portion that requires you to hold onto chains as you make your way up.

 

Once over the crater, I was told, "That's where Mt. Doom would be, right behind you, if you could see it." I had contemplated hiking to its summit, as a loyal Lord of the Rings fan, but today I truly would not have known the way.

 

About 2 1/2 hours in, I reached Tongariro's Red Crater Summit, 6,188 feet. It's not quite the halfway mark at 5.2 miles but it's the highest point of the hike.

Huddled among a stack of rocks was a sobbing woman being comforted by her companion. Elsewhere I had passed people being dragged along, depleted, trying to find some shelter from the wind.

 

While there should have been great views, all I could see in the fog was the cliff edge and the tricky descending slope with ash and rocks. I was slowly side-stepping my way when a guided group came by. The leader told them to dig in your heels and just slip slide in the dirt, with no harm even if you fall. So I followed suit, relatively successfully.

Moments later, I'm thrilled to see through the mist a hint of blue for the emerald lakes. Such a treat after three and a half hours. But wait! It gets clearer and clearer and the sun is finally edging in and out, and I was rewarded with sparkling emerald lakes and my first views of anything! 

 

I spent a good hour and half snacking, exploring and enjoying the lakes and the craters of Tongariro before continuing. 

 

The rest of the hike was still cold (I didn't start shedding layers until mid-afternoon) but sunny. From the vivid Red Crater, you walk through Central Crater, then start going down toward the Ketetahi Hut, passing the steaming vents of Te Maari Crater, which erupted Aug. 6, 2012.  

 

Leaving the barren volcanic earth, you're back on grasslands with valleys that frame Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo, the largest in New Zealand.  There are additional toilets about two miles from the end though they are unmarked on any map I can find. I thought I was right at the car park, and was dismayed to realize I still had about two miles to  go.

I was perturbed to face a set of stairs going up, but delighted to be greeted around the bend by my husband, who took my pack and accompanied me for the last 3/4 of the miles or so.

Fatigued, but triumphant! What an adventure.


Here are my time milestones:

  • 8:25 a.m. start from Mangatepopo car park

  • 11 a.m. at the Red Crater

  • 12:45 left the Emerald Lakes

  • 2:45 arrived at Blue Lake

  • 3:30 arrived at the 17 km marker

  • 3:44 climbed the final stairs

  • 4:14 end at the Ketetahi car park 

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© 2015 by Mei-Mei Chan Kirk