Julie New Zealand 28 Comments

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.

Spoiler alert…this trail is amazing!!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Hiking Stats

Distance: 20 km (12.4 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
Difficulty: Strenuous
Length of Time: 6 to 8 hours
Location: Tongariro National Park, North Island of New Zealand

Tongariro Elevation Profile

Elevation profile

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 you will need 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 Crossing Sign

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.

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

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!

Tongariro with Kids tongariro alpine crossing

Hiking to Mt Doom tongariro alpine crossing

After forty-five minutes of hiking up a steady, gradual incline through alpine vegetation, 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.

Stop Warning Sign tongariro alpine crossing

Hiking up Mt Doom

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

Earth Trekkers Mt Doom

Tim Tongariro

Tongariro Hike Sign

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.

Hiking New Zealand

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!

Tongariro Crossing Hike

Tongariro Mt Doom

Tongariro Hike New Zealand

Tim Rivenbark New Zealand

Tongariro Hike tongariro alpine crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing 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 trail down tongariro alpine crossing

Tyler and Kara

Earth Trekkers Tongariro

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.

Hiking Tongariro

Volcano Warning Tongariro

Active Volcano Zone

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 this is the same volcano that erupted seven years ago.

Active Volcano Tongariro

Tongariro in April

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 and Tongariro Crossing Shuttles. Or you can check out this shuttle service on Get Your Guide.

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!

Are you planning to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? Comment below if you have any questions or if you want to share your experience. 

Planning a trip to New Zealand? Read all of our articles in our New Zealand Travel Guide.

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Comments 28

    1. Post

      We are not a tour company but you can reach out to the companies that provide the shuttle service to see if they also offer a guided hike. Cheers, Julie

  1. Hi Julie
    Thankyou so much for this great information about the Alpine Tongariro, its one of my dream spot to visit. I m planning to hike this mountain in first week of June and its winter season, Season for snow, Is u recommend June month is suitable for Tongariro alpine crossing


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  2. Hi Julie,

    Just read your blog post and it’s very informative – love the pics! I’m an Australian about to move to New Zealand and am keen to travel to a few places before I start my job. I’m moderately fit so think I can manage this however I don’t really do many hikes so am a bit nervous I would maybe get lost.

    Is the trail really clear to follow? I noticed there were some boardwalks in your pictures which is comforting but I’m a bit distressed I’d get lost and not know my way if there isn’t a clear path. Maybe you can clear my anxiety with this info! 🙁

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      Hello Kaytie. Not to worry, the trail is very easy to follow. Every trail junction is marked with a sign. There is a very good chance that you will be doing this hike along with many other hikers, so, when in doubt, you can just follow them. It’s a spectacular hike!! I’m jealous that you are moving to New Zealand…our kids still talk about Australia and New Zealand and they would love to live here someday. Cheers, Julie

  3. Thanks for all your info!!! is there a way to see or visit Mount Doom with out having to do the full 12 mile hike…like is there a 6 -8 mile circuit? or able to view from somewhere else that you know of. I am concerned about our ability to finish the whole thing in one piece lol. hope all is well 🙂

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      You can see Mt Doom early on in the hike, starting at Mangetepopo. With just a half hour of walking, you can see Mt Doom from the base. To get closer, you would then hike uphill to a better viewpoint, but once you get there, you are approaching the halfway point, so even if you turned around here, it would still be close to a 12 mile hike. So, you can do a very short hike to the base of Mt Doom (the photo with Tyler and Kara with their arms up) or do the whole thing. Cheers, Julie

  4. Hi Juile – thank you for a great blog post, looks like an amazing hike. Though I know Tongariro is a much longer hike than visiting Mt. Cook, if time permitted you to do either one or the other, not both, which would you choose?

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      We loved Tongariro, so this is the one I recommend. It’s a fun hike, you get to see a very unique landscape, and many people say that it is the best day hike in the world. I wouldn’t say it’s our favorite day hike in the world, but it is our top 10 list, and we have done a lot of hiking. Cheers, Julie

      1. Hi Earth Trekkers,

        I’m so thrilled to stumble across your blog! I just wish that I had discovered it before I went to NZ. It took me SO MUCH TIME and effort to plan the trip by myself, and also adjusting the itinerary as I decided to take my mom with me last minute (literally 1.5 days before the flight! Haha).

        I never knew about Tongariro until a few days into the trip (and we only had 8 days in total, while I tried to squeeze in as many places as I could in both North and South Islands!). I’m so glad that I made up my mind to go there, because like you wrote, it’s one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on! Although I would add that many parts of the trek we didn’t enjoy that much and found quite monotonous, as we were busy catching our breaths. The views were absolutely worth every effort though.

        Too bad Mt Doom was closed for maintenance (or for good? I can’t remember…) when we went, so we didn’t get to actually follow Frodo and Sam’s footsteps there and experience the muddy road like you guys did. An American youngster who was on the same shuttle bus back to the hotel as us though, was bragging about his hike there and how he took amazing pics there… I asked him wasn’t the trail closed, he just shrugged and said “who cares.” I wish more tourists would stop exhibiting disrespectful behaviors to the places they visit and become true travelers who enjoy the experience, instead of just for the pictures!

        Anyways, I’ve really enjoyed your blogposts and how informative and true they have been. Keep up the good work! I know it must’ve been lots of work.

        Love from Taiwan

        1. Post

          Hello! Thank you for writing in to us!! I agree, it can be very frustrating when other travels are selfish and single minded, hiking where the shouldn’t or being disrespectful of other travelers, locals, or the places they are visiting. We have seen this a lot, too. I hope, with our website, we can help you plan out your future travels. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy. Cheers, Julie

  5. Thankyou so much for this article! My brother and I are hoping to do this hike early December while holidaying from Australia.
    A quick question about the shuttle. How did you organise this? We are thinking of leaving our camper van at the Ketetahi carpark and catching a shuttle back to the beginning of the hike. Did you have to book this shuttle and how much did it cost?
    Thankyou so much!

    1. Post

      Hello Phoebe. We parked at Ketetahi. In the morning, we took the shuttle to Mangetepopo and hiked back to our car. Take a look at the end of this article for links to the shuttle services so you can get updated pricing. I recommend booking the shuttle in advance to make sure you have a seat. Have a great hike! Cheers, Julie

  6. Thanks so much for this post! I had a chance to read it before our NZ trip, and it was a great way to prepare for the hike with our kids. We had a great time! For those who haven’t done it, it’s A LOT of up and down, with the most beautiful scenery (assuming you get a sunny day like we did!). That downhill trek for the final kilometers gives your knees and hips a beating (even the kids). Our family took closer to the 8 hours due to more frequent breaks and jet lag exhaustion with the kids. Warning that some others we passed were taking MUCH longer than 8 hours and did not anticipate the physical shape needed to finish the hike. Have a cell phone on you in case you need to communicate with your shuttle to let them know if you’re going to be late! We drank every drop of the 2-3 liters EACH we carried, so bring enough water as you can’t get water on the trail. Would I do this hike again? In a heartbeat! We met people from all around the world, and we found the hike to have so many cool geological wonders to keep each portion interesting (ok, ok, except maybe for the final 5k when we just wanted to be done with the downhill zig zags…LOL!) Was it a workout? You bet. Was I sore the next day? You bet. Do we now have boasting rights for finishing this hike? You bet. 🙂

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  7. During my 13 years stay in NZ, I completed the walk at least 5 times. During this process I did Mt. Ngauruhoe climb thrice. I totally loved it and each time I did it, I found its different beauty. It’s so beautiful and so satisfying that any tourist in NZ must be mandated to do this or else their “Tourism certificate” should be revoked!!!

    Seriously, it’s something everyone should do – unless the person is a codger!!!

    Cheers and good luck to you all.

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  8. I have just moved to Taupo 3 weeks ago and decided to do Tongariro crossing last week. Amazing from the time we got picked up from Adventure HQ from outside our house (this company does door to door pick up and drop off for the same cost as the larger companies amazing service. I have never done a walk as spectacular as this. It has everything from craters to streams to views. You name it it has it.
    Would thoroughly recommend this walk and would use Adventure HQ as my transport again.

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  9. 4 of us did the crossing in February 2018 and really enjoyed it. The scree hill was a big surprise but we all had hiking poles which kept us from falling like so many others on the trail. While we were there people were falling and sliding, one woman broke a finger and another young lady wrenched her knee and was evacuated by helicopter at the bottom of the hill.

    We wouldn’t do it without hiking poles and about 2-2.5 litres of water per person. Amazing experience!

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  10. Hi Tim and Julie,

    I enjoyed reading your experience in Tongariro. It was very informative. I plan to do this hike in January 2017. My question to you is will it help if I use exercise poles for support and balance as i see that there is a lot of scree on the track. These poles may help prevent sliding on the way down.

    I am a moderate hiker.

    1. Post

      Hello Jasbir. Exercise poles are not necessary, however, if you feel more comfortable using them, then bring them. Yes, there is a lot of scree on the trail. In particular, there is one downhill section of thick dirt and gravel. We slid/ran down this section in our shoes, which was a lot of fun, but the poles would help you here. We never hike with poles and we didn’t feel like we needed them on this hike. However, you should do what you feel comfortable with. Enjoy Tongariro, it’s a great day! – Julie

  11. I’ve yet to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but I’m planning on visiting Mt Doom within the next 12 months. I’m currently in the process of finalising my itinerary which is why I really appreciated reading your article. Thank you Tim and Julie for your insights 🙂

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  12. Incredible scenery, Julie! I loved looking at the craters. I’m glad that you enjoyed this hike. I got tired just reading about it, ha ha.

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