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What it’s really like to… hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand - the Emerald Lakes

Prepare yourself, for today you are going on a journey more epic than the entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit‘ films combined; and all without leaving the comfort of your bed/work desk. Comprised of 19.4 kilometers of old lava flows, beautiful water-filled explosion craters, steaming vents,  hot springs, and stunning views of the iconic Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt. Doom for my Lord of the Rings fans out there) – I can safely say that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the toughest yet most rewarding hikes that my body has traversed to date. I will be the first to admit that I am not the most fit person, with the longest hike before this being at most 10km. I will also be the first to admit that I am not very good friends with heights, so the idea of trekking across a very rocky, very windy and just wide enough to fit my body on trail along a volcano rim with a drop further than my brain will allow me to comprehend is definitely not my cup of tea. That said, I completed the hike in the average time (6 hours), managed to not get any sore muscles from the experience AND most importantly smiled (at least on the inside) the entire way. Whether you are planning to take on the crossing yourself in the future or just want to take on the hike virtually from the comfort of your own home, read on and repeat after me and the infamous Bilbo Baggins ‘I’m going on an adventure!’

Your Hotel to Mangatepopo Valley

Hiking to Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Mt Ruapehu

Even if you do have a car on hand, the easiest and safest way to get to and from the hiking trail is by taking advantage of shuttle service offered by the friendly Kiwi’s of Roam Aotearoa. This service will pick you up from your door and drop you to the beginning of the hiking trail (i.e. Mangatepopo Carpark) and later pick you up from the other end of the trail (i.e. Ketetahi Carpark) at one of a number of scheduled times and drop you back to your door. What’s more, is Roam Aotearoa keeps a list of all the hikers signed up and will do their absolute best to make sure you return – even if that means taking on the hike themselves at sundown to find you.

Oh and check out the view of neighboring volcano, Mt Ruapehu from the van!

Mangatepopo Carpark to Soda Springs 

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Alike the Evil Queen tricking Snow White to take a bite of the poison apple, the crossing begins with a misleadingly gentle gradient track that leads from the Mangatepopo carpark up the Mangatepopo Valley. The track follows alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows, which are believed to be the result of the valley being glacially carved out during the last ice age and subsequently partially filled by lava flows from Mt. Ngauruhoe. After approximately 1 hour, you should see a sign for a short 15 minute return side trip to a small waterfall called Soda Springs. As the path is relatively flat it’s definitely worth burning a few of your soon-to-be-precious kilojoules of energy on. Most importantly though at the end of this part of the track you’ll find the last bathroom stop for the next 4 or so hours!

Time taken: 1 hour

Elevation: 1100 -> 1350 metres

Soda Springs to South Crater 

Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Soda Springs to South Crater Trail

Here the Evil Queen unveils from behind her innocent disguise, and throws you into an ascent that is best described via it’s nickname as the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. As the name suggests the track climbs steadily, gaining 300 meters from Soda Springs to South Crater. On the plus side, the trail which crosses two lava flows (from the 1870 eruptions) and two pyroclastic flows (from the more recent 1975 eruptions) is paved with boards and mesh the whole way. When you reach the top, you will be rewarded with what is – in my opinion – the best view of Mt. Nguaruhoe and the perfect spot for a picnic break!

There is the option for keen and fit walkers to take a side hike to the summit of Ngauruhoe. This added hike is in itself a 3 hour/6 kilometer return trip from the South Crater and is very challenging as the volcano is steep, and the surface is mainly loose rock and stones. Moreover, the summit climb is not marked or formed – let’s just say rescue helicopters frequent this area.

Time taken: 1 hour

Elevation: 1350 -> 1650 metres

South Crater to Red Crater

Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing - South Crater to Red Crater trail

So, you’ve made it past the point of no return. From the South Crater things only get easier and more beautiful (although much windier!*). Watch your balance as you follow the narrow poled but not paved ridge route leading from South Crater up to the Red Crater. Witnessing the Red Crater up close will re-modulate the red cones in your eye and have you on the look out for the devil rising from the still active crater. The red colour is the result of high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock.

Nearby to the Red Crater, there is another optional side hike along a poled route to the summit of Mount Tongariro. Although a safer and easier option to hiking to the summit of Mt. Ngauruhoe, clear visibility and no strong wind is required to safely complete this climb. The side hike follows a smooth rocky ridge, involving a gain in elevation of no more than 100 m and taking only 1-2 hours for the return trip from the Red Crater.

Time taken: 1 hour

Elevation: 1650 -> 1886 metres

*Do not forget that windproof jacket – let’s just say that this hike taught me that wind burn is an actual thing that happens!

Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

Hiking to Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

It’s all downhill from here – literally. From the summit of the Red Crater, the track descents steeply to the otherworldly Emerald Lakes*. The brilliant blue/green colour of the lakes is the result of minerals leaching from the adjoining thermal area. Now before you go jumping into the mystical pools – wondering if they are portals to another world – they aren’t; they are purely evidence of the beauty of Mother Nature. As the mid-point in the hike (time-wise) and the most magical point along the hike, you’ll be well advised to set up for lunch here.

Time taken: 20 minutes (you’ll want to go slow down here as the track is very steep and very sandy – falling onto your backside is basically guaranteed)

Elevation: 1886 -> 1730 metres

*The Maori name for the lakes is Ngarotopounamu meaning greenstone-hued lakes.

Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut

Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand - Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut

There’s a good chance it’s about now that your bladder is kicking in and you’ll want to run to the next stop at Ketetahi Hut where finally a bathroom is located. Luckily, there’s plenty of landscapes that will transport you to Iceland and have you forgetting all about the needs of your physical body. As you follow the marked path to the Blue Lake, don’t forget to look behind you and note the GIGANTIC crater you just hiked across and the ant-sized humans attempting the crossing that will make you wonder if this is all a scene from ‘Honey I shrunk the kids’. From the Blue Lake*, the track descends via a seemingly infinite series of paved switchbacks to Ketetahi shelter. As you follow the trail, your knees sighing with every step, be sure to distract yourself with the evidence from the 2012 eruption that surrounds you, such as the new steaming vents at Te Maari craters, impact craters near the track, and damage to the Ketetahi hut.

Time taken: 1 hour

Elevation: 1730 – 1456 metres

*The Blue Lake is sacred – do not swim in or eat food around the lake.

Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Carpark

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand - Ketetahi Hut

Do you dream of visiting the rainforests of Hawaii or the fjords of Norway? Well lucky for you, this side of the track is the next best thing, changing gradually from an undulating valley shaped by glaciers to a dense forest filled with cicadas. And then… you’re done! Now all you have to do is high-five yourself (and all the strangers around you too!) and wait for your pick up.

Time Taken: 2 hours

Elevation: 1456 -> 800 metres

Ketetahi to HOME!

View of Mt Nguaruhoe (Mt Doom) from Skotel Alpine Resort

Now it’s time to kick your feet up and reflect upon the ridiculous day that you just experienced! As I visited as part of Topdeck’s ‘Sweet as North’ tour, we stayed at this great little place called Skotel Alpine Resort. This was the view from our cabin porch – let’s just say if it wasn’t for the chilly Summer nights I would have slept out there and reflected all night.

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