Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guide: New Zealand's Best Day Hike
We've put together all the information you need to know about Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a track rated as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. Trek across a volcanic alpine landscape fully prepared - weather, profile, shuttle bus, and reservations - we've got you covered.
New Zealand is known as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and when you come across a one-day hike which is supposed to be the best one in this country, we can assure you that you are going to see something exceptional, and you shouldn't skip it by no means.
New Zealand can boast with an unimaginable number of hikes, and although we spent more than a year here (and traveled more than six months), we still have seen and done only a fraction of all treks, but for sure, Tongariro National Park was among our favorite places we've visited in New Zealand so far.
We completely understand that when arriving for a holiday, people usually want to see the best of the country but don't have time for multi-day treks, when it takes day or two to see the highlights and then to get back.
That's why Tongariro Alpine Crossing enjoys its popularity. In less than eight hours, you can walk through a dramatic and awe-inspiring volcanic scenery. Add an aura of the star-movie Lord of the Rings and you'll get the world-class walk.
WHERE IS TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK
Although some people say that South Island of New Zealand is more spectacular than the North Island, we cannot agree with this opinion.
Tongariro National Park lies in the middle of North Island and if there's only one reason why not to visit only South Island it is undoubtedly Tongariro Alpine Crossing. New Zealand's oldest national park lies near the town Taupo, and it takes less than five hours to get there from Auckland or less than four hours from Wellington.
WHEN TO GO AND WEATHER
Weather conditions in this area can change quickly. Be prepared for all types of weather from hot sunny day to a cold, rainy and foggy one.
The summer season in New Zealand is from December to March, and during those months the climate should be the most stable, but always check the weather forecast and dress accordingly.
You can complete Tongariro Alpine Crossing in winter as well, but you will need special skills (and if not experienced enough, you should consider hiring a guide). An ice ax and crampons are a must because the trail can be covered with snow.
To avoid crowds and to have a chance of nice weather, you can try to do the hike in the shoulder season - April, May and October, November.
In case you have time, it is really worth it to wait for the good weather forecast. We did the trek in November and paused for four days until the forecast looked promising, and it was the best decision we could've made.
WHAT IS THE DISTANCE AND ELEVATION GAIN AT TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
The length of Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.4 km, and it takes anywhere from 5 to 8 hours so be prepared for a full challenging day out. You will gain 765 meters elevation and lose 1125 meters if you hike from Mangatepopo car park to Ketetahi car park.
You can also extend your hike and consider a side trip to Mount Ngauruhoe or Mount Tongariro - each side trip takes an additional 3 hours.
We did a side trip to Mount Ngauruhoe alias Mount Doom. It is a challenging but rewarding climb with beautiful views from the top overlooking the national park's area.
We left our bags behind one big stone off the main trail and carried on only with a waterproof jacket around the waist and one bottle of water. The hardest part of the side trip is the last scree section.
For every step we made we slid a half step back and also, we had to look above us all the time because of falling rocks. Don't underestimate this climb as there are many injuries throughout the year.
From 2017 rangers discourage people to climb Mount Ngauruhoe, because firstly, it is sacred land for iwi people and secondly, there were many accidents in the past few years. All access signs to the peak have been removed.
The climb is not forbidden though so it is the decision of every traveler.
WHERE TO START
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way hike you can either start at Mongatepopo road end, or at Ketetahi road end. The more common way is to walk from Mongatepopo, if doing the trek in reverse from Ketetahi, add an extra hour because it is harder.
Sometimes, people think it is better to do the less common path, but here, we recommend you to go with the flow unless you want to avoid all the time people going from opposite direction.
HOW TO GET TO THE STARTING POINT OF THE TRAIL
As parking near the access points to this track is limited and also there are parking restrictions in the main season (the maximum is 4 hours), basically your the only (and the most comfortable and carefree) option to get to the start and from the end of Tongariro Alpine Crossing is to take a shuttle bus.
Department of Conservation runs shuttle service from nearby towns: Whakapapa, Turangi, Ohakune, Taumarunui or Taupo.
You can also arrange a shuttle with one of many private travel agencies. The cost varies, but the average is NZD 40 for a return ticket. Book your shuttle ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN HIKING TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
Without exaggerating, be prepared to see one of the most stunning sceneries in your life. The hike climbs up through volcanic terrain with old lava fields, and the dramatic landscape is emphasized by towering volcanoes and colorful lakes.
In case you want to enjoy trekking in Tongariro National Park longer, you can opt for three to four-day hike Tongariro Northern Circuit.
THE TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING DESCRIPTION
The well-marked trail gradually climbs from Mangatepopo Car Park through grassland - this is a harsh environment for plants.
The gravel trail takes you to a junction where is Mangatepopo Hut, a hut where travelers doing the whole loop can spend a night. From now, carry on on boardwalks and wooden steps. The trail now climbs up a bit steeper as you are getting out of Mangatepopo Valley. The views of Mount Ngauruhoe are incredible in this section.
The section between Soda Springs and South Crater is known as Devil's Staircase because you will gain 200 meters in elevation. Staircase ends at Mangatepopo Saddle where is a junction and you can decide whether you want to take a side trip to Mount Ngauruhoe.
Follow the pole markers to South Crater, and gradually you will get to Red Crater, the highest point on this trail in 1886 meters.
The eye-catching red color of this crater is from the high-temperature oxidation of iron in the rock. Now you will descend rapidly past the well-known Emerald Lakes (this would be the hardest section if walking the opposite direction).
The lakes were formed in old craters because they lie in a volcanic area. Water in lakes comes from melted snow, and dissolved minerals give to lakes the incredible greenish color.
Right behind the last lake is a junction where Tongariro Northern Circuit separates from Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Stay to the left and take another quick climb to the Blue Lake. The rest of the trail to the Ketetahi Car Park is downhill again through grasslands and tussock-covered slopes, very similar to the beginning of the trail.
The last section walks through a dense forest, a landscape completely different from what you could have seen along the trail. Descend via wooden steps down to the car park and enjoy the well-deserved rest.
There are three active volcanoes along the trail, and eruptions are possible anytime without warning. Know the risk and always check the latest volcanic activity information before you go.
WHAT TO PACK
You should always carry plenty of water as water along the trail is not suitable for drinking. We recommend having at least 2 liters per person.
Do not forget sunscreen as the sun can be harsh. Pack a windproof jacket, waterproof jacket, trousers, shorts, sturdy hiking shoes, warm hat and sun hat, sunglasses, gloves, headtorch, phone and wear warm layer clothing so you can always undress.
We've heard that now drivers in the shuttle buses must check if you are well-equipped for the hike, so do not underestimate it as weather can change within a second.
Are you looking for accommodation in New Zealand? By clicking and making a reservation via our affiliate link you support us as we will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you, and it helps us keep our blog running.