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Ultimate guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Described as one of the best day hikes in New Zealand and the world, this track takes you across a volcanic alpine landscape allowing you to witness steaming vents, vast glacial valleys, ancient lava flows and vivid crater lakes, all while taking in stunning views of the Tongariro National Park.

Key Facts

Tongariro National Park is a dual World Heritage area due to its outstanding natural features and cultural significance.

Elevation: 1866m

Distance: 19.4km

Time: 6-8 hours

Track: You will start this track at the Mangatepopo Valley, which sits at 1120m. You will climb through the valley and on to the saddle between Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe through the South Crater before making the climb to the highest point on the crossing, the Red Crater sits at 1886m.

From here enjoy panoramic views of the national park and catch your first glimpse of the Emerald Lakes. You will descend from the Red Crater down loose volcanic scree and pass the Emerald Lakes making your way towards the Blue Lake.

After passing the blue lake the track will take you around the northern slope of Tongariro and then descends through a zigzagged track to the end where you will meet your organised transport.

Track breakdown:

Mangatrpopo Road end -> Soda Springs - Allow 1 hour

Soda Springs -> South Crater - Allow 1 hour

South Crater -> Red Crater - Allow 1 hour

Red Crater -> Blue Lake allow 1 hour

Blue -> Ketetahi Shelter - Allow 1 hour

Ketetahi Shelter -> Ketetahi car park - Allow 2 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate - This track is suitable for moderately fit, experienced and well-equipped hikers who can make good judgements about alpine terrain and volcanic hazards.

Weather: This alpine environment is known for extremely changeable weather. It is recommended that you only attempt this hike on a day with good weather reports and light winds. If you find yourself on the mountain during an unexpected weather change make your way back to safety, don’t take any unnecessary risks.

Facilities: There are composting toilets at several points along the track. Water along the track is not suitable for drinking.

There is a large Four Square shop on the corner of the turn into National Park that makes for a good stop to stock up on supplies. They also sell hiking and skiing clothing and gear.

When to go: This track is best attempted between Nov to April when the snow has cleared. Only experienced hikers with the correct equipment should attempt this climb outside of these months.

Trail Start: Mangatepopo Valley

Getting there: The drive from Wellington takes approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes.

The drive from Auckland takes approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes...

Parking: There is very limited parking near the access points to the track. From the beginning of Labour weekend at the end of October until the end April 4 hour parking restrictions will be in place at road-ends. Excellent shuttle services run from all local towns

Organising a shuttle: Visit any iSite when in New Zealand to help organise transport or a quick google will provide you with the details of many different companies offering services.

What to wear: Whip out your hiking gear and bring extra layers for when you are at the summit.

Other gear: Hiking shoes, hiking poles. Always remember to bring sunscreen.

Food & Water: Eat a large breakfast before leaving and bring enough food and snacks to keep you fuelled for the day. Bring plenty of water with you as there is nowhere to fill up along the way.

Safety note: Please beware that while hiking the Tongariro alpine crossing on a summer's day in the right conditions and with the right gear is generally safe, always prepare for the worst. This alpine environment is known for extremely changeable weather and your safety should not be taken lightly. Turn back if the weather conditions are poor in the valley or if conditions get worse as you go higher up the mountain. Always prepare for the worst, let someone know your plans, bring emergency food and water, extra layers of clothes and check the weather before leaving.

My experience

While planning a weekend trip to Hawke’s Bay with a work buddy we decided we’d like a little bit of adventure along the way. The Tongariro National Park was an easy detour and an obvious choice. Due to limited time, we weren’t able to organise buses so decided to park in the national park and take a short hike.

We left Wellington very early in the morning and headed towards National Park, it was a beautiful sunny day in late November and this my first time leaving Wellington, needless to say, I was very excited. We planned to take advantage of the 4 hours free parking at Mangatepopo Valley and try to make it to the top of the Red Crater to see the Emerald Lakes and return to the car and continue our drive to Hawke’s Bay.

Our plan was ambitious at best but as they say, dream big! We arrived at the car park late morning, the car park was almost full but we managed to get a spot. Two stewards were looking after the car park who on entry asked for our plans and made us aware that the maximum parking was four hours.

We jumped out of our car and started to get ready, grabbing a box of Pringles from the back of the car I walked over to the two guys who were looking after the car park. I offered them some Pringles (not a bribe) and asked them about which route to take. They told me that our plan to get to the lakes and back in four hours was somewhat unrealistic but they could make an exception for me and not to worry about the four-hour parking limit. Maybe it was the Pringles or maybe it was the Irish accent but we had just scored an extra couple of hours parking!

We set off on our hike with a backpack filled with sandwiches, water and snacks. The first part of the hike from the car park to the Soda Springs was pretty easy going, the track of well-formed and super easy to navigate. We decided to make a quick detour and headed to the left to check out the Soda Springs Waterfall which was beautiful but I imagine to be a lot more impressive after heavy periods of rain. After returning from the waterfall we progressed onto the Devil’s Staircase heading towards the South Crater. As the name suggests the staircase is pretty steep, and we definitely worked up a sweat climbing it. As were ascended I was mesmerised by views of Mt. Ruapehu and Mt. Taranaki.

After making it to the top of the staircase we enjoyed some flat ground and views of Mt. Ngauruhoe to our right. All good things come to end and before we knew it we started climbing again, this time towards the Red Crater. About halfway up we stopped and enjoyed lunch with a view. We gobbled down our sandwiches and continued to the Red Crater. It was hot and the climb was pretty steep but it wasn’t too unbearable.

We reached the spectacular and most unusual Red Crater. Within the crater, you can see the walls of a volcanic tube which was formed unground but has been exposed by later eruptions. The crater itself is made up of deep red and browny green crater walls and scattered red rock debris. After spending some time taking in the views and getting a couple of snaps we poked our heads over the top of the hill and were greeted by vast views of the colourful Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake in the distance. We scurried down the mountain to the viewpoint and got ourselves some new profile pictures for Facebook!

After taking in these breathtaking views for some time we made a complete 180 and retraced our footsteps back to the car park pretty stoked that we had made it to the lakes. The hike back was just as enjoyable as the hike there and the weather stayed fine for the entire journey.

We made it back to the car (around 5 and a half hours after leaving) and continued our journey to Hawke’s Bay via Lake Taupo.

This hike is a must-do for any adventure seekers that are passing through New Zealand’s north island. If you are planning on doing this hike allow yourself a couple of days either side to make sure you catch some good weather while you’re in the areas.


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