Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Tongariro National Park, New Zealand
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Day! Known as one of the best day hikes in the world, this 19.4km (12 mile) trail takes hikers to see Mount Ngauruhoe (known more famously as Mount Doom), craters, two active volcanoes, lakes, sulfur springs, and more. This volcanic alpine landscape is home to very active volcanoes and there are signs on what to do in case of an eruption. Luckily for us, the volcanic activity today was “no volcanic unrest”. While said to be a challenging hike, the views are very rewarding.
We woke up around 5:30AM to get ourselves together. For breakfast, we each tackled two packets of oatmeal (these spoons/forks really did come in handy!) and drank a container of water. On our way to the kitchen to make the oatmeal at 6AM, we had to stop immediately and observe the incredible night sky above us. It was crystal clear this morning and thousands of stars greeted us.
We each had our day bags packed with:
- 2 bottles of water (40oz bottle and 1.5L purchased- recommended to bring 2L per person on the hike)
- A piece of fruit (banana/apple)
- Two granola bars
- A dozen crackers
- Can of chicken in light mayo (make sure there is a pull tab!)
- Two pieces of dark chocolate
- Reusable spoon/fork
- Packet of wet wipes
- Sunscreen (do not forget to apply, regardless of the weather!)
- Ziplock bag for trash (leave nothing on the trail!)
We wore the following:
- 2 Adventure Bands/buffs (head band/scarf/gloves/very versatile)
- Athletic pants/leggings; hiking pants
- Hiking socks
- Xero hiking shoes
- Merino 150 Base shirt
- T- shirt/tank top
- Puff jacket
It was supposed to be a perfect day for the hike. Another weather check showed no chance of rain, low wind, and little clouds. We felt well prepared for the day head!
The shuttle departs promptly at 7AM and we made sure to arrive fifteen minutes early as instructed. Our driver, Dutchy, took the bus of lodge guests on the twenty minute drive out into the park where we learned safety and navigation tips. (Pro Tip: Buses must be booked in advance to reserve a spot!)
Buses pick up every hour on the hour starting at 2PM and the last bus is 5PM. It was imperative to make the 5PM bus. He told us if you can climb 6 flights of stairs without being winded that we would do find on the trail and the difficult parts are just mental. While people liked to climb Mt Doom as I saw done on YouTube, the park has taken down signs indicating where the track is and not endorsing people to pursue climbing it. We were only slightly disappointed to hear this since didn’t have our hearts set on climbing it – was going to be game day decision and it was made for us.
While we can do the hike in either direction, most people start at the higher elevation car park, Mangetapopo, and finish at the Ketetahi car park.
Mangetapopo car park starts at 1120m elevation and climbs to the highest point at 1886m before a long descent down to the Ketetahi car park at 760m. We knew to expect some steep inclines given the peak was in the first 8km of the journey. Here is also a break down of the parts of the trail.
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs (grade: easy; eta: 1 to 1.5 hours)
We started the hike at 7:30AM on a nice and easy with a path through the tall grass.
The sun was just peaking over the hill next to Mt Doom and we were looking forward to it getting higher in the sky.
With each few meters of progress, the view of Mt Doom enhanced. Around 8AM- two hours from our oatmeal- we had our fruit. Having something every two hours and frequent water breaks seemed to be a good plan. We arrived at Soda Springs ahead of schedule. We decided to skip Soda Springs (a five minute detour) and continue our pace.
Soda Springs to South Crater (grade: moderate to difficult; eta: 1 hour)
We came to our first steep incline and it was pretty intense. We knew there was a part named the Devil’s Staircase (Spoiler Alert- this was not Devil’s Staircase! We get there a bit later on) and the way this wrapped around and as high as it went, this definitely seemed to fit the name. Thighs burned and we took breaks to recover. Every time we thought we were at the top, a false peak presented and we still had more to climb.
Finally, we got to a part where the rocks formed a bench and many hikers took a much deserved break. Shortly after this portion was a valley and the most impressive views of Mt Doom.
Happy to reach the top and done the climbing, we celebrated at 10AM with a granola bar. As we progressed through this valley between enormous rock formations, we started to lose track of the people in front of us… where were they disappearing to?
South Crater to Red Crater (grade: difficult; eta: 1 hour)
At first there was an elevated cliff we noticed people in the distance. But then as we followed their outlines, we noticed the trail continued far beyond and must higher up. As we got closer, it became clear the scale and steepness of the climb.
And then we followed up. This incline was far worse than what we just completed. This was Devil’s Staircase. A bit of a jaw drop since I definitely already celebrated being done climbing. It was way bigger than the first incline. No choice here really but to carry on! We enjoyed our final steps of flat ground before ascending up.
This part was intense, the oxygen in the air continued to lower as our elevation climbed, the wind began to pick up and towards the top, using all fours was not uncommon. The lava and rock made each step an unsure one as the ground crumbled underneath our feet.
We finally made it to the first landing where sweeping views of valley. As wonderful as this view was, this wasn’t the view we were waiting for.
Ahead was the steepest portion of the climb and we were hopeful that the Red Crater would be at the top. More and more we were fooled more false peaks.
Finally, after the final push uphill, we made it to the Red Crater just after 10:30AM. It was the beautiful hue of red, dare I saw burnt sienna, and was just massive! We spent several minutes here as the wind began to intensify. One final push to the peak!
Red Crater to Blue Lake (grade: moderate; eta: 30 min)
We finally made it to the peak at 1886m! What a sweeping view from the top. Though my excitement was quickly deflated on the path in front of us to get down. It was the double black diamond I never wanted to ski down ever. The path was not terribly wide so I could just see myself falling off the side of the mountain. What made this so daunting was the dirt, gravel, lava and rocks were not stable ground and everyone was falling. Some people were sliding their feet like a skiing motion. I think I was better off sliding down on my bum. It felt like this part was going to take awhile.
Kevin seemed to get the hang of it quickly as I relied on a shuffled that took me a few inches at a time, never having my feet leave the ground. My fear factor was certainly elevated. At least with climbing, you can use all fours and the fall or slip won’t take you very far. Here on two feet, a fall could last awhile as the ground will not break it. Everyone was passing me while I took my grand old time. I could feel someone behind me so I stopped to let them pass me. Instead she said “No, no I have been following you! Your pace is perfect”! Suddenly my fear subsided slightly and I became the leader of the slow paced crawl down the mountain.
After what felt like an eternity, I made it back on more stable ground. The weight of the world lifted! Now I could properly enjoy the view. The landscape changed as the Emerald Leaks appeared, getting their vibrant color from the minerals on the rocks.
And oh that smell of sulfur! Steam vents around the area were not shy this day. The high winds did not help as it spread the smell more rapidly. Kevin absolutely hated the smell, it was comical!
As we navigated through the lakes, we finally reached a full descent off the mountain side. A clear straightaway ahead would lead to the Blue Lake where we were planning to take our lunch break. Every few meters, we would turn around to see the amazing scenery of Mt Doom and the Red Crater. It is incredible that we were just up there and climbed the entire thing! The hard part was behind us and it was very rewarding.
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter (grade: moderate; eta: 1 hour)
After one more manageable incline, the Blue Lake revealed itself as it reflected the sun, glistening as the wind moved the water in small waves. We made it here just before 12PM so overall, making great time. This was certainly a view!
We found the most comfortable rock we could find to set up of lunch. I was so thankful to have brought a packet of wet wipes with us to clean up. Our hands were dirty from the climb and we had dirty all over our faces from the high winds. These were way handier than just bringing hand cleanser.
For lunch, we each had a can of chicken already mixed with may/mustard and we made wraps with the tortillas. We also had crackers and dark chocolate to round off the meal. This ended up working out very well for our meal!
It is estimated to be a three hour journey from the Blue Lake to the Ketetahi car park and exclusively down hill. We were happy to be at this stage knowing that we would have no problem making the 5PM bus. Dutchy told us not to forget to turn around during this part of the journey and he was certainly right- what an all encompassing view!
We packed up all of our things and began our journey down. Shortly after starting, views of Taupo to the north provided a beautiful vista. We had such a clear day to visualize everything from this elevation. Lava rocks lined the trail but the path was fortunately well defined.
Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Car Park (grade: moderate; eta; 2 hours)
Reaching the Ketetahi Shelter around 1PM marked 13km. It was almost hard to believe we still had 6km left but only 2 hours on the trail. The path descending in a zig zag cutting around the farmland. This part did move very quickly as the incline was steady to drag you down. I can’t imagine doing the crossing the opposite direction- it would be so much uphill! The sun finally felt hot as the wind stopped and the elevation was lower. We were good about reapplying that sun screen! Even through the wind and clouds, people are often left burnt. The sweeping views still left with similes.
With 3km left, the landscape changed into a jungle. We heard once we got to this part, the car park was within reach.
Our pace quicken to escape the jungle. We knew we could crank out 3km within an hour in hopes of making the 3PM bus. At parts we were almost in a run as the down hill stairs were so steep.
As we slapped the tree with the 19km mile marker, we speed only increased to get through the final 0.4km.
We popped out of the forest at 2:30PM giving us a grand total of seven hours on the trail and making the 3PM shuttle. WE DID IT!!!
Overall, this was such an incredible hike and completely understand why it is one of the best day hikes in the world. It is challenging but equally rewarding as you get to see so many different scenes along the way. I also felt we were adequately prepared so definitely do not take that part lightly. I still can’t image being going the opposite way or have included Mt Doom. I must say the YouTubers I watched complete this made it look significantly easier and perhaps it was better I thought it was less challenging going into it. If you have the time to dedicate, definitely try and fit this into your New Zealand adventure!