The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been labeled as the world’s greatest single day hike. Hearing this gave us high expectations for the day. Honestly, New Zealand has left us feeling a little disappointed with its hikes. The trails have been too manicured, too pristine, almost too safe, if that makes any sense. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery has been amazing. It will be hard to beat those views over Wanaka from Roy’s Peak and the views of Mt Cook from the Hooker Valley Track.
For us, hiking is more than just the views. We want a little drama, with ever-changing views and sections that are technically difficult. We have been a little surprised that we have not experienced this yet while in New Zealand. Needless to say, we had high hopes that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing would change our perception of New Zealand hiking.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Facts About the Hike:
Distance: 19.4 km (12 miles) point-to-point
Elevation Gain: 765 meters elevation gain and 1125 meters elevation loss if you hike from Mangatepopo car park to Ketetahi car park
Length of Time: 6 to 8 hours
Location: Tongariro National Park, North Island of New Zealand
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4 km hike, estimated to take between six and eight hours. It is a point to point hike so a little effort is needed to arrange transportation to either the start or finish of the hike.
The hike climbs up through volcanic terrain, with old lava fields, walks through giant calderas, and even past a smoking, steaming volcano that erupted just six years ago. The volcanic activity of the park is constantly being monitored, with warning signs at various points along the trail alerting hikers what to do if an eruption should occur. Already we have a little of that danger that we have been so desiring! This should prove to be a very interesting day.
Tongariro National Park was made more famous by its star appearance in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, like so many places in New Zealand. The alpine, volcanic scenery is the setting of Mordor, in which stands Mt Doom, aka Mt Ngauruhoe. For the entire trilogy, Frodo and Sam are trying to get to Mt Doom in order to destroy the infamous ring. Tyler and Kara were thrilled not only to be hiking around a volcano but to also be hiking around a volcano featured in one of their favorite movies.
The Start of the Hike
Our hike started at the Mangatepopo car park at 8:30 am. It was a very chilly morning, only 45 degrees Fahrenheit or 7 degrees Celsius, and we were standing under a thick blanket of clouds. At first we were cold and wearing hats and gloves, but all of this would quickly change. A half hour into the hike the clouds melted away and we were all taking off layers. We were thrilled to have clear skies! And there is Mt Doom!
After forty-five minutes of hiking up a steady, gradual incline through alpine plant life, the scenery began to change. The ground became darker, the soil was almost black, and there were volcanic boulders strewn across the landscape. Awesome!
After a warning sign alerting hikers as to how strenuous the trail was about to become, we began the real climb up the mountain. It was steep and tiring and had us pausing to catch our breath occasionally, but the higher we got the better the views became.
With Mt Doom looming over us we took some family photos and ate a snack of apples and granola bars. The view from here was awesome and it was about to get even better.
In the Shadow of Mt. Doom
We hiked across a caldera, over flat, squishy, wet volcanic soil and then it was time for one more push to the top. The final climb was steep, strenuous, and almost a little dangerous. The ground was covered with loose gravel and it was icy, making us slip and slide at times. Not far off the trail was a drop off back down to the caldera.
The Best Views of Tongariro National Park
From the highest point of the hike we had 360° views of Tongariro National Park. We could see Mt Doom, the largest mountain Mt Ruapehu, the Red Crater, small green lakes, and even Lake Taupo off to the north.
The skies were crystal clear and the temperatures were still on the chilly side but they were perfect for hiking. What a perfect day.
The ever changing scenery and the difficulty of the trail combined with a little danger here and there kept things fun and interesting. This really is a fantastic hike!
From this viewpoint we paused to enjoy the view we worked so hard to get to. It’s times like these that make me thankful that we are fit and healthy enough to do things like this, especially as a family. It is a gift to be able to travel like we do but it is moments like these that really make us appreciate what we are doing.
Sliding Down the Mountain
Now comes the fun part. It was a steep descent down to the thermal pools. The path was covered with thick dirt and gravel with a drop off on either side. We figured out how to slide down through the gravel, almost like skiing, getting to the bottom in almost no time at all.
The air smelled of sulfur so there would be no picnic stops here, even though the views were amazing.
The Final Kilometers of the Hike
Now it was time for the walk towards the car park. For the most part, the most dramatic scenery was behind us, except for a few small surprises here and there. We found a sulfur free viewpoint overlooking a large lake and it was here that we ate a picnic lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches.
From this point it was a downhill walk back to the Ketetahi car park. Tyler and Kara were now determined to get back to our car as quickly as possible, so they really increased our speed. For part of the way, Tim and I were almost jogging to keep up with them.
On the way down from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing we could see the Te Maari Crater, sending plumes of white steam into the sky. There were multiple warnings that we were in active volcano territory and to not leave the trail. There was no threat of eruption today, but it was this same volcano that erupted just six years ago.
It took us about two hours to get from our picnic spot to the car park. By the time we got to the car park all of us were tired, our legs were sore, and our toes were bruised from bumping on the fronts of our shoes during the long descent. We did the entire hike in six hours and ten minutes, including our breaks for food and photos. These two kiddos are amazing hikers.
Our family thoroughly enjoyed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. By far it was our favorite hike in New Zealand and now one of our favorites in the world. The views are fantastic, the ever-changing views kept us from getting bored, the trails are rugged, and this hike is downright fun. If you do one hike when going to New Zealand, it should be this one!
Things to Know About the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
It is a 19.4 km hike from start to finish. We started at the Mangatepopo car park and ended at the Ketetahi car park. Since it is a point to point hike, transportation to the start or the finish of the hike will need to be arranged. We parked at the Ketetahi car park and had a shuttle take us to the start of the hike at Mangatepopo. That way, once we arrived at Ketetahi, our car was waiting for us and we could leave when we were ready. There are several companies that provide this service, such as the Mountain Shuttle. Or you can check out the Great Lake Taupo site which provides various transport and tour options.
You can do the hike in either direction, but most people go from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi. Mangatepopo sits at a higher elevation than Ketetahi, so starting here eliminates almost 200 meters of climbing. It is also much more interesting to climb up through the volcanic scenery in the shadow of Mt Doom than to climb up through the monotonous scenery near Ketetahi.
There are toilets at both car parks. There are also toilet facilities an hour into the hike right before the strenuous climb starts, as well as toilet facilities just before the long walk back down to the Ketetahi car park.
Weather conditions can change abruptly so make sure you have plenty of layers with you. It can get very cool at the summit. Also make sure you bring along plenty of water and sunblock. There is very little cover on the trails.
Try to avoid weekends. We did the hike on a Sunday and there were a lot of people on the trail. I am assuming that on weekdays the trail would be less crowded.
And finally, have fun and enjoy it! It is a fabulous hike, one of our favorites!
Want to learn more about traveling in New Zealand? Check out our New Zealand Travel Guide.
This post was updated February 2018.
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