Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a must-do for New Zealand locals and tourists alike. Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site celebrated for its natural and cultural significance and Tongariro Crossing is lauded as one of the best day hikes in the world.
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Crossing over volcanic terrain including acidic lakes, and up the Devil’s Staircase to startling peaks with vast mountain views, it’s understandable why this is one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand. The pathway winds around the multi-cratered Mount Tongariro volcano, with expansive views of Mount Ngaruhoe – the base of which the hike passes.
This post will begin with some useful facts and questions which you might have about hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, or skip below if you already have the lowdown and want to get on to my own personal experiences of the hike!
How long does it take to hike Tongariro Crossing?
Tongariro Crossing is 19.4km long (or 12.1 miles long).
The hike takes 6-8 hours to complete.
What’s the highest point and elevation gain of Tongariro Crossing?
Highest Point of Tongariro Crossing (peak and elevation gain):
- Highest Point: 1886m (6188ft) – the red crater
- Lowest Point: Ketetahi Carpark, 760m (2490ft)
- Tongariro Crossing elevation gain – 765m (2510ft)
Where does Tongariro Crossing start?
The Tongariro Crossing elevation gain mentioned before is also why it’s recommended to start the hike from the Mangatepopo car park and finish at the Ketetahi car park. Otherwise, the elevation gain increases, making the hike unnecessarily more strenuous.
If you begin the hike at the Ketetahi car park and finish instead at the Mangatepopo car park, there is an 1125m elevation loss. The walk is known to take longer and be more challenging in this direction.
How much does hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing cost?
Hiking the Tongariro Crossing is completely FREE.
Shuttle buses taking you from your accommodation to the beginning and end of the hike are highly recommended. My accommodation was $150NZD for two nights of accommodation AND the shuttle bus.
Many budget recommendations with suggestions on How to do Tongariro Crossing on a budget are now outdated. Last summer, you could NOT park a car for longer than four hours at Mangatepopo car park! This leads to congestion, especially during popular times.
Check the rules beforehand if you’re looking to hike Tongariro Crossing on a budget by avoiding the shuttle bus. The shuttle bus is admittedly a bit pricey (and I say this as someone who’s done some MAJORLY budget backpacking in my time), but at least it supports the locals who run them too.
What views do you see when you hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Spectacular views you can expect to astound you while hiking Tongariro Crossing include:
- Mount Tongariro
- Mount Ngaruhoe (also known as Mt Doom by fans of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’)
- Views from the highest point at 1886m, including the Red Crater
- The Emerald Lakes
- The Blue Lake
- Views down the mountain back over Lake Taupo (on a clear day)
- Active fumeroles – steam rising from the mountain
If you’re also a Lord of the Rings megafan, there are more views in Tongariro National Park, which were used in the movies. To get the lowdown, read my post on The Lord of the Rings Movie Locations in Tongariro National Park.
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What makes the Emerald Lakes so Blue?
Contributing to the colours of the very blue alpine lakes are from the sun reflecting off the volcanic minerals (like calcium carbonate) and diatoms (a form of algae).
The lakes were initially formed inside volcanic craters from melted snow and ice, and the mineral deposits formed from the unique conditions here.
The water is NOT drinkable. Be sure to carry around 1.5 litres of drinking water per person.
How to see Mount Doom in New Zealand? One DOES simply walk to Mordor.
Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing is synonymous with ‘MORDOR’ since Peter Jackson’s film interpretation of JRR Tolkien’s fantasy novel ‘The Lord of the Rings’ used the volcanic landscape for its mythical backdrop. Alongside Hobbiton, it is likely one of the two most iconic Lord of the Rings movie locations on the North Island.
You can see Mount Doom in Winter by driving around Tongariro National Park when you still get pretty close. Mount Doom is looming over you from just a few minutes into the walk. Within an hour, the boardwalk begins crossing around the base – this is about the closest you get to the beautiful mountain.
If you don’t have time to do the complete Tongariro Crossing or need a more accessible version of the hike, you could just do the first hour and hike back. This is the flattest and most accessible part of the hike.
PLEASE NOTE: Climbing Mount Doom is no longer allowed at the request of local iwi, so please bear that in mind. There are plenty of other Tongariro Crossing Lord of the Rings spots to enjoy.
When NOT to hike Tongariro Crossing:
- Outside of the primary hiking season (September to April). The best times are Spring and Autumn.
- If you’re dead set on hiking Tongariro Crossing in Winter, you should absolutely visit with a local guide. You also should have experience trekking in snowy conditions.
- If the weather is terrible, the hike will be cancelled. Check conditions in advance if you can. You may even begin the trek and, upon assessing the conditions, particularly underfoot and visibility, have to turn back.
- If you begin the hike and within the first hour are feeling tired, there are signs advising you to turn back.
- If there’s volcanic activity! Tongariro Alpine Crossing was last closed because of volcanic activity in 2012.
HIKING TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
1. THE EASY PART: BOARDWALKS, GRASSLANDS, AND THE INFAMOUS MOUNT DOOM
This section is usually referred to as ‘Mangatepopo car park to Soda Spring.’
I began the Tongariro Crossing hike at 07:30 am after a shuttle bus picked me up from my hostel at around 07:50 am.
My first thought was that I was glad I’d borrowed ski gloves from a friend. It was freezing and, despite turning out to be perfect weather, both before the sun had fully risen AND after, during bursts of cold wind later on in the day, the air could be biting.
Gloves mean you can still use your hands to balance, too (rather than needing to stuff your hands in your pockets)! I also borrowed a light ski jacket with a warm hood; otherwise, I’d have required a hat too.
Right from the offset, the views are incredible! Since I always dreamed of doing this hike with my best friend and the borders are sadly closed to all my mates right now, my first sight of Mt Doom wasn’t as wonderful as I’d dreamt of.
It is beautiful and unique, and a towering peak starkly stands out from the white sky beyond it. Despite my immense gratitude, I felt a sense of loss at not being with my mate.
I adored the beautiful boardwalk skirting around the mountain’s base, though. (I love how well-maintained so many hikes in New Zealand are!) I joked that since Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of The Rings had a three billion dollar budget, could he not at least have built Sam and Frodo a boardwalk right to the top of the volcano? Seems a bit harsh, Peter, tbh.
At the end of each section are toilets – definitely worth using if you need to. Remember to bring your own hand sanitiser and toilet roll! Also – it’s very disrespectful to pee off-track elsewhere because this is sacred land. Use the bog or hold it in!
2. THE INCLINE BEGINS: DEVIL’S STAIRCASE, COLD WINDS, AND EXPANSIVE CRATER WALKS
‘Soda Spring to South Crater’
(Technically, the second section of the hike begins at Soda Springs, though I didn’t take the short detour to see it.)
I’d heard the Devil’s Staircase Tongariro Crossing was the most challenging part of the hike.
Although the devil’s staircase was easier than I expected (phew), I definitely began warming up! Although the wind was still biting when the path veered around a section of the less sheltered slopes!
How many stairs does The Devil’s Staircase – the Tongariro Crossing?
The Devil’s Staircase has 370 steps. It has a 200m elevation gain, climbing from 1400m to 1600m above sea level. The Tongariro Crossing Devil’s Staircase covers a relatively short distance, but it IS steep.
The steps thankfully have easy footing because they have been well-made and maintained. So despite being steep, it’s easy to have sound footing.
The views here stretch far into the distance – you can even see Mt Taranaki on a clear day. (I did – it looked tiny on the distant horizon!)
After completing the staircase, the track levels out for a while as you cross a HUGE crater. This takes some time but was one of my favourite moments of the hike because the landscape looks so alien and otherworldly. Tongariro National Park is definitely a unique part of the world!
3. THE UPHILL HIKE TO THE PEAK AND ASTONISHING EMERALD LAKES
‘South Crater to Red Crater’
After enjoying the expansive volcanic crater walk, the climb began once again! The climb here goes up to the red crater and then onto views over the fantastic blue lakes…
While the most elevated part of this section is likely shorter than the Devil’s Staircase, I actually admittedly found it more tricky. I didn’t find it strenuous, but it was gritty and a little frosty. For this reason, I found it quite slippy. Because I’m dyspraxic, my brain struggles to know where to put my feet when there isn’t a distinct pathway.
Thankfully, I had my good hiking boots with me and the support of a kiwi friend who even held my hand when I was unsure, just for peace of mind.
After this small, slippy-ish section, we followed the path right up to the peak. This is gritty but less rocky, and I found it easy to follow. The red crater is now on your right-hand side, and you can’t miss it!
What caused the red crater on the Tongariro Crossing? Well, as molten magma once moved to the surface through a vertical channel, it solidified as it reached the surface. This caused a unique-looking dike left partially hollow as the magma drained out from below. The red colour is formed by the oxidation of iron in the rock.
After reaching the peak of your hike… what goes up must come back down! Watch your step as you shuffle down the gritty slope. Walk slow or join the many hikers who’ve historically done this section by shuffling down it on their arses!
Best of all about this section? Well, by now, you’ve had your first otherwordly view of the emerald lakes! This view over the three lakes is possibly the most unique part of the hike, especially if you’ve not visited many other volcanic landscapes. I’ve been on many mountain paths in my birth country of the UK and beyond, but this definitely makes New Zealand’s offerings extra memorable!
After following the path around the three lakes, I stopped for lunch at the final lake. Wrapped up in my jacket and eating burgers I’d cooked up in my hostel the night before, it was a good rest before taking on the final section.
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4. THE SLOW WALK DOWN – A WINDING PATH AND DISTANT VIEWS
‘Blue Lakes to the car park’
The last section is more accessible again in terms of height – no more climbing, and it’s pretty much down from here. That said, it’s definitely tough on your knees!
Many people say this is their least favourite part of the hike because the most memorable views have been passed, and it kind of feels like the winding pathway goes on forever! That said, I hiked on a clear day and really enjoyed the views. I could see steam escaping from the distant mountainside and even Lake Taupo in the distance!
After taking the super loopy trail along the hillside for a while, you eventually enter a forest. This is the last part of the hike – once you enter the woods, you know you only have 45-minutes left of the walk!
Although this final stretch is a bit samey as you follow the walkway through the trees, you’ll be glad of the shade. But seriously, it really does knacker your knees, haha!
IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT HIKING TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
- Don’t piss outside of the toilets (it’s sacred land, and they will come for you)
- There are toilets in between each of the four sections listed above and at the beginning and end.
- Take your own loo roll and hand sanitiser.
- Do not leave litter! Only take what you’re going to bring back
HOW TO PREPARE FOR TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
Anyone with moderate fitness will do good on this hike! But working on walking inclines and strengthening your core and balance will also help.
Stretches that protect your knees (strengthening hamstrings/glutes to put less pressure on your knees) are essential for frequent hikers:
I love the AloMoves Yoga for Hiking course! There are different classes for strengthening individual body parts specifically for hiking, as well as full-body stretch AND restorative classes for in-between hikes or after a hike. (I had never used a gym or exercised beyond walking to work before using alomoves yoga classes, haha.) I just use my blankie as a yoga mat in-between my single bed and the door pahaha. Use the 30-day free trial to learn all the best hiking stretches before your next hike. (Please note – This is the regular refer-a-friend link everyone gets when signing up!)
Eat well the morning of the hike and the day before!
Walking on inclines is always an excellent way to go before a long hike and one of the best exercises – walking to work up the hill rather than taking the bus or taking the stairs in your flat or office.
And make sure you wear in your hiking shoes! (Never wear new shoes for the first time on a hike!)
FITNESS REQUIREMENTS (HIKING GRADE)
The hike is usually listed as a ‘moderate-difficult’ hike.
Anyone with moderate-good fitness should be fine to do this hike. If you don’t have hiking experience, you may find it challenging. Try walking some hills or staircases two or three times a week before you go!
If you struggle with the first section of the hike, you may be best to turn back as this is the most straightforward section of the walk.
And if you have bad knees, take trekking poles!
WHAT TO BRING – TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING
- Packed lunch such as sandwiches
- Snacks (trail mix)
- 1.5 litres of water (this is what they officially recommend – take more if you think you’ll need it)
- gloves and hat (or well-fitted hood on your jacket). Gloves are vital if you need to steady yourself
- Toilet roll and hand sanitiser
- sun protection
- Hiking boots
- Hiking clothes (leggings or shorts and a t-shirt plus extra layers – I had three layers, including my ski jacket
- a light-weighted and comfortable backpack
- Trekking poles (optional)
- First aid kit (plasters, blister plasters, ibuprofen or allergy tablets etc)
No need to take a map as the path is obvious, especially if you’re doing it at a popular time when there are plenty of other humans to follow!
Making it a weekend trip? See my list of amazing things to do in Taupo!