Hiking the Tongariro Crossing – New Zealand

The Tongariro Crossing, in the central north island in New Zealand, is arguably the world’s greatest day walk. The walk is a strenuous one-way trail that crosses alpine tussock, weaves between two volcanoes and descends through lush beech forest.

Situation and history

The Tongariro Crossing is located within Tongariro National Park in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand. Due to its alpine nature the route is only navigable by walkers in summer.

The route is administered by the New Zealand Department of Conservation or DOC who maintain the National Park. Much of the park was gifted to the people of New Zealand by a Maori chief who had the foresight to preserve the area.

Trail Notes

UPDATE:  Due to the volcanic eruption on the 21 Nov 2012 the Tongariro Crossing is only open to the Red Crater. Refer to DOC office for further information.

Mangatepopo valley carpark (1,120m) to saddle (1,670m) 5km (2hrs): Leaving the carpark the trail weaves up a valley between the flanks of Ngauruhoe (on your right) and Mt Tongariro (on your left). The trail includes stretches of boardwalk across marshy ground. There is a brief detour here to the a small waterfall known as the Soda Springs. After 4km you arrive at the incline to the saddle. The path here used to be something of a goat track but has now been much improved. After about 1km of walking you will arrive at the saddle, which is an excellent spot for a break. At this point it is possible to detour up to the peak of Ngauruhoe – walking up the scree is tiring and sometimes hazardous (hint: dig your heels in when walking down).

Saddle to Red Crater (1,850m) 2km (1hrs), 7km total: Cross the flat old crater and ascend the volcano rim. The trail curls around to the left as it climbs to the highest point on the crossing. Caution is needed here due to the steep sides of the trail. At the highest point it is possible to take a relatively manageable detour around the trim of Tongariro – this is pleasant but not really worth the effort..

Red Crater to Ketetahi Hut (1,050m) 7.5 km (3hrs), 14.5km total: The trail drops steeply on sandy soil along the fringe of the Red Crater before cutting left briefly and descending to the Emerald Lakes. From the Emerald Lakes continue to the valley floor before ascending briefly to the rim of the Blue Lake. The trail continues towards Ketetahi Hut and looses altitude at a painfully slow pace – you will see many people have cut across the tussock to shorten this unnecessarily long section of the walk. The Ketetahi hot springs are located near the hut and the thermal waters used to provide a welcome respite for weary travellers – the local Maori have now blocked access to this feature after too many people either used the scared place as a washing up facility or burnt themselves.

Ketetahi Hutt to Carpark (760m) 2km (1hr), 16.5km total: The trail ascents gently but directly towards the bush-line from the hut. Once entering the forest the trail drops more steeply and winds through beach forest. This section of the walk is deceptively long and it is a real test of endurance to enjoy this later section.

Planning your trip

The Tongariro Crossing is typically undertaken as a one day walk. It is possible to extend your stay by staying at a hut near the Mangatepopo carpark, or at the more scenic Ketetahi Hut. Practically everyone starts walking at the Magatepopo end of the trail because walking in this direction requires less ascent.

The weather is very changeable on the central plateau and caution is needed even in summer. Views are spectacular on fine days.

Starting elevation: 1,120m
Summit elevation: 1,850m
Total ascent: 730m
Trail distance: 15.5km
Average gradient: Moderate

Trail Grading

Mixture of well-maintained boardwalks and gravel trails together with scree slopes and goat tracks on the upper sections.

Gear

Even on clear days you need a jacket to deal with possible wind and rain. Hat, sunscreen etc. are worthwhile since there is very little shelter. Sturdy footwear will help. Kiwis often wear shorts over thermal leggings since this is breathable and caters for a range of temperatures.

Access to and from the hike

The trail is linear so you will need to either drop a car at each end (if you have two vehicles) or there are several tourist shuttles from surrounding towns and local transport operators that provide drop-off and pick-up services.

Carparks at both ends of the trail are known for theft so leave your valuables at home.

Navigation & Facilities

The trail is marked with posts that are theoretically visible in snow or poor weather however navigation under these conditions is not recommended unless traveling with someone who has undertaken the route before. In summer dozens of people complete the walk every day and thus identifying the route is straightforward.

Further details of the route are available here:

http://www.doc.govt.nz/documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/tongariro-taupo/tongariro-alpine-crossing-factsheet.pdf

Safety

The weather is the major risk, snowstorms can hit even during summer so be prepared for adverse conditions and carry cold weather gear. The trail would be extremely difficult to navigate in poor visibility as there is no signage en-route.

Flora and fauna

Beach forest in the lower sections.  Tussock on the flanks of the volcano and arid moonscapes at higher elevations

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