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Tongariro Alpine Crossing: What To Expect On This Best Day Walk

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tongariro alpine crossing

Most of you must have heard of Tongariro Alpine Crossing in North Island of New Zealand before. In fact, many of you have already learned that this is one of the most popular day walk in New Zealand! Not only that, it is actually part of New Zealand’s Great Walk, Tongariro Northern Circuit! Nestled in World-heritage Tongariro National Park, this walk has got to be on the top of your New Zealand Must-dos bucket list! If it isn’t already!

There are a few reasons why this walk is so renowned. First of all, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is entirely free! Secondly, you are literally tramping on volcanic landscape—one that is active too! Thirdly, the views change so drastically that everywhere makes for a photogenic stop!

Although the walk costs zero to nothing, you still need to cover fees for the shuttle. Even so, it’s so worth the money. That’s something we’ll cover toward the end! So make sure you read until the end!

In this post, we’ll bring you on a journey to Tongariro Alpine Crossing. So, strap your hiking boots, and let’s go! 

A look ahead sign to determine weather on Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Things To Take Note On The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Hikers on top of a mountain with Mt. Ngauruhoe behind them

1. How long does the entire walk take?

  • Roughly 6 to 8 hours. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is half a marathon’s long. However, the steep climb and constant resting will take up a lot of your time! We recommend that you take it slow and soak in the views.

2. Is the walk difficult?

  • We’ve seen really young children and extremely old people doing the walk, so you should be fine. An average fit person can take on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with no issues at all. If you have knee problems, take note that there are ascends and parts where you come sliding down.

3. Will the Tongariro Alpine Crossing be worth it?

  • Definitely! This might just be the best walk you’ll ever have in your entire life! Well, the walk itself brings you to a waterfall, around active volcanoes, past snow, emerald lakes, sulphur steam vents, and bird’s eye view of Tongariro. What else could you wish for? 

4. How safe is the walk?

  • It is, after all, a walk that brings you through active volcanoes. Always obey the signs and observe the weather. Weather can change drastically on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Remember to always stay vigilant!

5. Is the walk free?

  • Completely free! All you need to pay for is the shuttle that will bring you to the start of the walk! That’s another reason why this walk is so popular. 

6. Where does the Tongariro Alpine Crossing start and finish?

  • It starts at Mangatepopo and ends at Ketetahi. Walk another 1 kilometer after the walk to where you park your car.

7. What do I need to bring for the walk?

  • Bring enough water to last you for 6-8 hours
  • Food and snacks
  • A sun hat 
  • Sunscreen
  • Waterproof and windproof raincoat, jackets and trousers
  • Warm layers preferably fleece and polypropylene
  • First Aid Kit

8. How do I book a shuttle?

Book a shuttle

There are a few ways to do it. But first, you need to know where the walk starts and ends, though it can also go the other way around:

  • Start of the track: Mangatepopo Car Park
  • End of the track: Ketetahi Car Park/State Highway 46
  1. Park at the end of the walk, take a shuttle to the start of the walk, finish the walk at your own pace and walk back to your car at the end of the day. (A great option for a cheapskate like me)
    • Shuttle fare: Around $18-25 pp

  2. Stay somewhere else, book a shuttle to bring you to and fro.
    • Shuttle fare: Around $50 pp

  3. Get two cars – park at start and end so you don’t have to book a shuttle.
    • Shuttle fare: $0 (but you need two cars, obviously)

  4. Park in a paid secure car park and take a shuttle.

Note: It used to be that people could park freely at the secure carpark at the end of the track (Ketetahi), but the government has imposed a parking restriction of only (4hours) of parking. Therefore, everyone opted to park along SH46, which is free. Just follow the instructions and signs. Also, there will be lots of staff along the highway to make sure you don’t park where you might obstruct traffic flow.

The start of the walk

Huge mountain in the distant with hikers walking toward it
Congestion at the start of the walk.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing started off flat and easy for us. Even at the beginning, the landscape looked glorious and the sky clear. After some time, you will find yourself on a gradual incline. However, the climb isn’t something major, so that’s nothing to worry about. The start of the walk is also when you will see most hikers! If you need to use the toilet, there will be one at the start of the track, albeit always a long queue!

Hikers lining up waiting for toilets on Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Devil's Staircase

A man with backpack walking up on scoria ground
Going up the Devil's Staircase. There were rocks everywhere! Apparently, the rocks were all from the volcanic deposits.

The long-winded gravel path will eventually lead you to Soda Springs. Then, the steep climb upward will be your indication that you are now going up the Devil’s Staircase. In fact, this is the section at the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing where many suffered. Well, it’s really just climbing up, up, and up all the way. If you’re finding it hard to catch your breath, stop and take a look behind you as the views unfold the further you go. It will be beautiful, I promise.

Arriving at the South Crater

A girl with a yellow backpack looking at Mt Ngauruhoe ahead of her

After a strenuous climb, you will arrive at the South Crater. This giant mountain you see here is called Mt. Ngauruhoe. Otherwise known as Mt. Doom in the Lord of The Rings. Mt. Ngauruhoe stands at 2,287 meters high. It is actually considered a young volcano, having formed only 2,500 years ago! Even so, its last eruption happened in 1977. Basically, walkers are taking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with no idea when the mountain will erupt. Maybe that’s what they call YOLO?

Hikers used to climb Mt. Ngauruhoe (now forbidden)

Mt Ngauruhoe with clouds gathering on top

It used to be that people could climb Mt. Ngauruhoe by taking another 2-hour detour from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing route, but the government has been telling and advising people to not do it because the mountain is considered sacred. Unfortunately, not everyone listens. Hence, there were lots of search and rescues carried out to help these daredevils. 

proceed to Red Crater Summit (summit 1,886m)

After Mt. Ngauruhoe, there was more climbing to Red Crater Summit. Red Crater is another active cone in Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Over here, loose scoria (volcanic rocks) will start to make the hike slippery. Not only that, temperature will start to drop tremendously, turning icy cold. In fact, it’s so cold that it snows there! For that reason, it is better for you to pack enough layers to keep yourself warm here! Expect a lot of clothes-changing throughout the walk!

Sliding down to the Emerald Lakes

Famous emerald lakes on tongariro alpine crossing

From the Red Crater to Emerald and Blue lakes, walkers had to literally slide down from the mountain to descend. Many of them were injured along this part of the track because of the loose scoria along the way. It was like sliding down sand dunes. Although dangerous, the views are really to die for. For this part of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, expect yourself to spend a lot of time taking pictures and resting here! Expand the picture above to see how many hikers were down there!

A couple posing with the famous emerald lakes on tongariro alpine crossing

the surreal color of the emerald lakes

A man carrying a backpack back-facing the camera in front of a crystal blue lake

Then, we started smelling boiled eggs. Apparently, no one was eating boiled eggs. It was actually the sulphurous smell that came from the steam vents around the lakes. Their lakes are considered sacred, so it is extremely disrespectful to even touch them. Of course, if you need to drink water, the crystal blue and turquoise-colored lakes should be the last option on your list. No. I mean no.

A lady carrying a yellow backpack standing on a rock in front of an emerald lake

dramatic landscapes

A woman crossing a barren land with sulphur gas
Let's play "Finding Anna". Can you find Anna from the picture?

Wait—let me get this right.

So, you’re saying, Tongariro Alpine Crossing has a spring, snow fields, lakes, steam vents… I can’t get my head around this epicness.

Yet, this is only a part of the multi-day walk of Tongariro Northern Circuit. Sure, the land may look barren, but the views that you can see throughout this walk are nothing you will ever see else where.

A sacred blue lake

A girl with yellow backpack both hands raised on top looking at a blue lake

Located much further away from the three emerald lakes is the blue lake. Although the lake did not have an emerald color, the blue of the lake looked equally magical. Hence, it is called a sacred lake. Unfortunately, hardly any hikers spend time here. In fact, many people started speed-walking after the emerald lakes because there really isn’t anything as spectacular as the views in front anymore. Well, not until later.

Winding our way down to the end of the track

a winding mountain road down on a brown landscape
Though dull and boring, this route does offer some pretty sick views don't you think?

Toward the end of the walk, hikers have to zigzag their way down. Even though it can be tedious and boring, the views all the way down are stunning and breathtaking. Additionally, the pathway is quite narrow, so it doesn’t really encourage side-by-side walking. If you need to overtake others, do remember to be polite about it. Also, if you notice others are approaching you fast, do have the courtesy to let them pass. 

The final leg

When we thought we were finally at the end of the walk, we came to an entirely different landscape—this time not a barren one. There were trees, plants, ferns, and all shades of green. Finally, we could hear birds singing and felt humid air around us. During the final leg, we crossed a short part of the forest with streams along the way toward the end of the track. Unfortunately, that was not the end. We had to walk another 1KM to our cars and thus, completed half a marathon for the day! 

*Pats on our backs*

The entire Tongariro Alpine Crossing saw us spending approximately 8 hours, walking 34,000 steps!

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Final Words

Adventurers, explorers, and avid hikers should definitely give Tongariro a go! I would most certainly recommend that you space out at least one day in your north island itinerary for Tongariro Alpine Crossing! Well, I mean, how often do you get to hike a volcanic mountain with alpine views? As often as never?

Also, remember to bring a sun hat, lather sun screen, and bring a thick jacket when you reach the peak! If you are taking medicine, bring them along too, as you won’t know what will happen during the walk! Honestly, take your time and don’t rush things. Even though it was supposed to be a 6-hour walk, we took our time and finished in 8 hours instead.

Hopefully my experience has helped you one way or another. I hope you have an exciting journey ahead! Happy walking!

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