Having trekked and climbed on seven continents I feel privileged to live next to what many regard as the best one day walk in New Zealand. The dramatic landscape you experience throughout the 19.4km trek is simply second to none.
The Park – The Tongariro National Park is not only the oldest National park in New Zealand but in fact was the fourth National Park established in the world. Now days the Tongariro National Park is a UNESCO dual World Heritage Park, listed for its cultural and geological significance.
The mountains, the rivers, the peaks all have strong ties to the local iwi. You do not really appreciate this area to you begin to understand theses ties and the amazing foresight of Horonuku Te Heuheu, the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa. It was his foresight in 1887 which is formed “The Gift”.
The Crossing has long been one of NZ’s “Great Walks” and pre Covid saw numbers peaking at over 140,000 a summer. It has been regarded as one of the top ten things for international backpackers to do. Yes, it is popular and at 8am at the start of the track at Mangatepopo you were overwhelmed with trekkers.
But don’t be put off by these numbers as now in the Covid time we live in the track won’t be reach these numbers again for sometime. But even on during these busy days you can still find peace and solitude to enjoy the magic by starting early or later than the masses. Nothing can beat standing on the summit of Red Crater as the sun appears over the Kaimanawa range and there are just you and the mountains.
For most people who trek over the Crossing it will the hardest and furthest they have ever walked and probably ever will. The day encompasses two significant climbs and ends with a relentless descent.
But for what you see in one day is it worth it?…The answer…HELL YES..!
While traditionally “Kiwi’s” prefer to freedom walk our Great Walks for those who opt for guided experience there comes a massive satisfaction and sense of security. To be able to understand the fascinating geology and gain a great understanding of the cultural significance while trekking across an active volcanic landscape lets you really enjoy the magic of Tongariro on another level. It is only on a guided walk will you understand why the alpine lakes and peaks of the mountains are sacred to the local Māori tribe Ngāti Hikairo ki Tongariro and why now they ask respectfully, that peaks are not climbed and waterways are not to be touched. Hearing how Maori legends like how Ngatoroirangi brought volcanic activity to the Aotearoa.
While you can walk the track in either direction, the majority of people walk it Mangatepopo to Ketetahi, minimizing the ascent. There is now a 4 hour parking restriction at Mangatepopo road end to allow for those doing short walks. However, if you are intending on hiking the entire Tongariro Crossing, there are many shuttle options available who can accommodate a range of drop off times and pick up times.
The dramatic landscape changes throughout the day which makes this walk so special. The track begins at the Mangatepopo carpark and for the first 1.5hrs you wander up the valley towards Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. Following the Mangatepopo Stream (note – this is not suitable for drinking) and walking over old lava flows that have spilled out of Mt Ngauruhoe. Soda Springs is a great place refuel adjust layers and prepare for the first ascent of the day.
From Soda Springs at the head of the valley the climb up the Devil’s Staircase (approx. 45min) zig zags up to South Crater allowing for stunning views out to the west towards Mt Taranaki. The climb up to South Crater takes you over the lava flow from 1954 out of Mt Ngauruhoe which is considered to be the most continuously active of the volcanoes in New Zealand. Having erupted more than 70 times since 1839.
The walk across South Crater is to enjoyed is to be enjoyed as not only are the views magical but this is one of the only flat pieces of track you will encounter all day.
The last major climb for the day is up Red Crater ridge past Cathedral rock and Shelter rock. This section is a lot more exposed and provides no shelter from the elements. It is here you get panoramic views down to the Rangipo Desert and across the Kaimanawa Range, the rewards for a hard climb are well worth it.
Red Crater (1886m) the high point of the journey simply put is breath taking. The smell of Sulphur and steaming vents reminds you are on an active volcano while looking into Red Crater it is easy to see where lava spewed out in 1850’s pouring into the Outere Valley, South and Central Craters. The spectacular red colour due to the presence of oxidised iron in the rock makes for dramatic viewing. For the unprepared and inexperienced trekkers this can be at times totally unpleasant. As a rule of thumb Red Crater on a calm day is 10c colder than National Park Village or Taupo and if you happen to have a 50km/hr wind it will be 20c colder. This spot holds a massive sense of beauty but must be respected as it can as hostile as it is majestic.
The descent down off Red Crater is via a scree slope to Emerald Lakes known as Ngā Rotopounamu (greenstone – hued lakes) which are in fact old explosion pits and ever changing brilliant colours are formed the minerals from the surrounding environment. Some days these lakes are green in colour and some days blue. Emerald Lakes marks the halfway point in the trek and ideal place to refuel as it is often sheltered.
From Emerald Lakes there is a short trek over to Central Crater to Blue Lake The lake is Tapu (sacred) and it is disrespectful to touch, enter, eat or drink around its shores. before the track heads north to the flanks of Mt Tongariro. The track finishes 350m lower than the start at Mangatepopo so expect a long descent zig zaging down past massive alpine tussocks. But the views across Lake Rotoaira and further north east to Lake Taupo make up for long descent ascent ahead. The last 1hr of the day is spent descending through Native Beech forest, a vast contrast from the lava flows, lakes and craters from earlier.
Length 19.4km – allow 6-8hr
Ascent: 776m – Descent: 1126M
The Weather on the Crossing can be incredible unpredictable and relentless as you are exposed to elements for long periods. In 2007 the crossing was called the “Tongariro Crossing”, but this was changed to the “Tongariro Alpine Crossing” to emphasize the extreme weather on the exposed terrain.
While the Crossing can be walked anytime of the year a winter journey requires alpine travel experience and being competent with ice axe and crampons at a minimum and is best done with a guide.
The Outdoor Safety Code
- Plan your trip
- Tell someone
- Be aware of the weather
- Know your limits
- Take sufficient supplies