Where: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Turangi
Distance & Time: Eight hours
Take: Lots of water, food, clothing for an alpine environment, sunscreen, walking poles
Amenities on route: .Bathrooms along the route, shuttle transport and start and end of walk
Cost of the walk: Free, but shuttle services to and from walk range in prices depending on where you are picked up/dropped off.
This is by far the most popular walk in the New Zealand. Every international visitor seems to know about it and want to do it. I’d first done it 10 years ago and was keen to see it during good weather as the last time I’d done it the weather was shocking and we saw pretty much nothing. I also wanted to see if it lived up to it’s moniker as the best day walk in New Zealand, as this is the walk that many international visitors to New Zealand do in their limited time that they have here, due to the relative ease of access, the interesting terrain, and that it only takes a day!
The first thing to know is that if you do this walk in summer, it is almost guaranteed that you are going to be walking it with a few thousand of your closest mates. Because we drove up from Wellington the morning we were walking, we didn’t start until 7.30ish, which was the peak starting time! We’d initially planned to start walking around 6am, and this would have given us a slight head start on the pack.
Due to a whole heap of changes made by DOC, Iwi, councils and others, the easiest option is to park your car somewhere and take a shuttle to the start of the walk, and have them pick you up at the other end to bring you back to your car. It’s so much easier, and hassle free rather than trying to worry about getting back to your car after 7+ hours of walking! We used Backyard Tours who are absolutely amazing – you park their car at their private car park, or they can pick you up from your accommodation and they shuttle you to the start, pick you up when you finish and provide you with a cold drink at the finish!
Starting the walk is fairly flat but that’s just to warm up before the upwards trek begins. Just before the hike up starts there is a short side walk you can do to a waterfall – while we hadn’t really been walking long enough to justify a food break, it was a good wee place to stop and take in some shade, as once you start climbing up, there is no shade again until you’re back below the bush line near the finish.
Because we started relatively late in the morning (7.30ish), we could easily look ahead on the track and see how high we had to climb. I’m not normally a fan of this as I prefer to be surprised by how far I actually have to climb rather than looking at the outlines of people far above me and wondering how in the world my legs are going to get me up there!
There’s a fair amount of zigzag walking to get up, which means you get to take in your surroundings (and there’s a lot to see – with no trees you can see a huge distance on a fine day).
Amy’s Advice – Be prepared for all weather. I alternated from wearing a tshirt, to wearing a long sleeve marino, vest, jacket and hat, even though the sun was shining. Also, bring more water than you think you’ll need – climbing a volcano is thirsty work!
And it’s probably around this section of the track that you’ll start to wonder if some of the other walkers know what they are about to embark upon. On the day that we walked, we saw hikers in jeans, jandals, casual sneakers you’d wear around town – all totally inappropriate for hiking 19km on a volcano!
When we reached the top of the first peak, it was the perfect opportunity to stop, have a morning snack, and take in the view of Mt Ngauruhoe. The slight cloud cover lifted as soon as we were there, so we had the most stunning view of the mountain. While there is a walk you can do up Ngauruhoe, time was not on our side so we were’t able to do the trip this time around – next time though!
The terrain up here is slightly surreal – volcanic rocks tossed about the landscape. Some of them definitely looked as though they’d only arrived there recently, cast out in the eruptions of the past decade. Further down the crossing we came across a DOC hut that has been closed for the past few years due to damage from a volanco – a huge rock came through the ceiling during an eruption tearing an enormous hole in the roof. Thankfully there was no one staying in the hut at the time!
Then it’s time to give the uphill walking a rest for a little bit as we walk straight across the South Crater before starting the climb up to the highest point on the Crossing, the Red Crater.
When you’re in the South Crater it is a bizarre feeling as even though you know you’re on a mountain and the terrain should be very uneven, it’s just a huge expanse of flatness! I’d also recommend that before you cross the crater you stop and reapply sunscreen, as it’s likely you would have sweated most of it off walking up there and there isn’t going to be any shade for a while! Even though I reapplied a couple of times, I still ended the walk with a wee bit of redness on my nose and forehead from the intensity of the sun, and the lack of shade during the hottest part of the day.
Once the crater is crossed it’s time for another uphill mission. When I first did this walk 10 years ago you couldn’t see anything at this point on the hike at it was so rainy, windy and foggy. Now I could see what I missed out on the first time around!
This is the highest point of the walk, after this, it’s pretty much all downhill! And even though that may seem as though the walk gets easier, if I had to choose between going up stairs on a mountain, and staying upright while going down a scree slope on a mountain, I’d choose the former every time!
The only thing about this walk being so popular is that it feels as though you can’t really take a moment or two to take it all in. We’ve all been told to not go off the trails (advice I especially want to adhere to on a volcano) but because there are so many people doing the walk, it feels rude to just stop on the track for a few moments in case it results in a people traffic jam!
Heading down the scree slope is where I was incredibly thankful I had my walking pole with me and is the one thing I highly recommend you consider bringing with you on this hike, just for the sole purpose of using it on this section. People were falling over all around me yet I remained upright the whole time – success!
At the bottom of the scree slope are the Emerald Lakes, and the unofficial place where hikers stop and have their lunch – all that climbing up and down a mountain is hungry work.
Once we left our lunch spot there was a bit of flat walking before we had a bit more uphill work to do, but nowhere near what we had just done! Make sure you turn around here to look back at where you’ve come from, as you’ll be able to see all three mountains together and it’s a pretty spectacular sight. It’s also here that the Tongariro Crossing intersects with the multi-day Northern Circuit hike – one I definitely want to come back and do at another time.
And then the track becomes the final downward stretch! It’s also here that you’re going to want to reapply your sunscreen that you’ve sweated off in the last few hours and perhaps strip off a layer of two as it gets HOT. And there is no shade until the last 10 minutes or so. It’s also here that you’ll start to see signs again that you’re on an active volcano as you see steam rising from vents.
It almost feels as though you’ve excited one world and entered another here as you go from a barren volcanic landscape to one that is full with greenery and the sound of birds!
When we got to the Hut, we had to text our shuttle that we were 45 minutes to the end (yes this is also where if you absolutely cannot wait, you can post those envy-inducing photos online!) The Hut hasn’t been in use for a few years as in the last eruption, a rock came flying in through the roof! Thankfully no one was staying there at the time but it’s a sobering reminder of the force of Mother Nature.
And then just like that we’re back below the treeline – and there’s some much needed shade! It’s an easy stroll following the river to the carpark, and quite possibly the most refreshing beer and slices of watermelon that I’ve ever had in my life (thank goodness for shuttles that provide you with a cold drink at the finish, it’s absolutely glorious). If I was to do this walk for the third time, I’d try to time it for a weekday when there hopefully wouldn’t be as many people on the mountain, but this is definitely a walk that deserves its reputation as one of the best one day walks in New Zealand.
The photos of me were taken by Paul, and I took the others!
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