Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage Site.
A complex geographical history and unique landforms within the park, including the volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu, contribute to the impressive views from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The name Tongariro is derived from the Māori words ‘tonga’ meaning ‘south wind’ and ‘riro’ meaning ‘carried away’. Until 2007, the route was simply called the Tongariro Crossing, but the name was officially changed to reflect the more challenging conditions on the trail – particularly during winter.
Considered a world-renowned trek, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing spans the length of Mount Tongariro and runs from Mangatepopo at 1,100 metres, to Ketetahi at 750 metres, via the high point of Red Crater (1,886 metres).
This trek gained notoriety a few years back as it takes walkers through the area where they filmed Mordor in Lord of the Rings – making it extremely popular with both locals and tourists. Although equipped to handle around 600 walkers a day, in the busy spring and summer periods, it gets as many as 3000 visitors – something that is worth bearing in mind when planning your visit.
There is some controversy around climbing the peaks of Mount Ngauruhoe (which was used as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) or Mount Tongariro.
Although not illegal to do so, The Department of Conservation has marked them as sacred places and put rangers in place to keep people away. This is because the mountain is sacred to the Māori people and is a culturally significant area.
- Lauded as New Zealand’s best one-day hike
- Also regarded as one of the best day hikes in the world
- Rich in both cultural identity and dramatic, awe-inspiring natural scenery
- Out-of-this world scenery combining volcanic formations with crystal blue lakes
International visitors arrive in New Zealand via Auckland and then travel by road to reach the Tongariro National Park.
You can either join a tour from Auckland, hire a car, rent a campervan or get on a bus heading south. Another option is to fly into Wellington and travel north from there.
For those who are driving, it takes around four hours to reach the Tongariro National Park from either Auckland or Wellington.
If you are planning to catch a bus, the most direct is catching the Auckland to Palmerston North bus which passes through National Park Village and Ohakune, and everything can be booked on the InterCity website.
Once you’ve sorted out how to get to your accommodation in the National Park, you will also need to book a shuttle. Shuttles run throughout the day, starting at 6am and ending at 4:30pm, running between different hotels and hostels and the start/end of the crossing.
Be sure to book your shuttle in advance to secure a spot as it can get busy in the summer and expect to pay around $40NZD for a return ticket.
If you have a car and are driving to the start point, note that parking is restricted to four hours at both the Mangatepopo start and the Ketetahi finish.
However, you can pay a company to drive it to the end of the trail for you so you can just hop in your own car when you’re done, costing around $35NZD.
This treks spans the length of Mount Tongariro – 19.4 kilometres – and takes the average visitor about seven or so hours to complete.
Allowing eight hours to hike the trail, including photo and food stops, will ensure you make it back to the shuttle on time.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
It is a relatively easy walk, but there are a few places where the ascent and descent are steep.
Whilst some people find the hike difficult, others (with more experience and higher fitness levels) will find it easy but it’s very achievable for everyone.
It is not a technical trail and though hiking shoes or boots are recommended, sturdy trainers are definitely sufficient.
The highest point on the track at Red Crater and happens in two big climbs. The first starts at Soda Springs and is well formed with hundreds of steps.
The second is from South Crater up to the Red Crater, and this is not only steep but loose underfoot with no steps.
The descent from Red Crater down to the Emerald Lakes is quite steep and again, loose underfoot so take care on this section.
For anyone with dodgy knees, walking poles are recommended.
If the weather is good and you’ve got all the right gear it will be both easy and enjoyable for the most part. While you don’t need special skills or to be a hiking pro, you will need heart and lung power for both of the steep climbs.
Ensure you take plenty of drinking water as water along the track is not suitable for drinking and layers for protection from the sun, wind and rain – as whether on the crossing changes regularly.
Regardless of your hiking experience, it is not safe to take to the trail in poor visibility, heavy rain or snow, or strong wind. Heavy rain can cause flash flooding and people die every year on the crossing, so the route is not to be underestimated.
There is no cost to complete the Tongariro Crossing self guided, but you will need to book onto one of the local buses for a transfer.
Guided or Self-Guided
One of the easiest ways to experience the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, particularly if you’re coming in from overseas, is by joining a tour from Auckland.
Many tours provide your transfers to the National Park and also take you to the the Waitomo Caves, Taupo, Huka Falls and Hot pools along the way.
If you are planning to do a winter hike, you will need to go with a guide as it turns from a manageable day hike into a mountaineering expedition.
If you plan on booking a guide for a winter hike, expect to pay around $165NZD per person for the day.
For everyone else, the route is very straightforward and can be done self-guided, particularly because you’ll likely be walking in someone’s footsteps most of the time. If you’re not 100% confident, bring a map and cellphone – as it’s better to be safe than sorry!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing can be hiked all year round – in both summer and winter.
Summer is the most popular time to enjoy the hike for obvious reasons and runs from November through to the end of April.
During this window, the weather is clearer, days are longer and the hiking is easier but there’s around 1,000 people hiking the track each day.
During the shoulder months of May, June and October, snow and ice can often be found on the route.
If you are experienced in hiking with crampons and ice axe and in alpine terrain, you can trek the Tongariro Alpine Crossing during the winter months, just be prepared for snow, ice and strong winds.
The one-day hike is straightforwards but below is an overview of what your itinerary may look like:
- Shuttle from accommodation to start point (at Mangatepopo) at 6/6.30am
- Mangatepopo Valley to Soda Springs – 1-1.5 hours
- Soda Springs to South Crater – 1 hour
- South Crater to Red Crater – 1 hour
- Red Crater to Emerald Lakes – 20 minutes
- Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Shelter – 1-1.5 hours
- Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Bus Park – 1.5-2 hours
- Catch shuttle from Bus Park back to accommodation no later than 4.30pm
Within the National Park there are four main areas that people choose to stay in – all of which are served by the shuttles to and from the crossing.
The first is Whakapapa Village, around four and a half hours from Auckland and 20 minutes from the start of the Crossing. The Village is near the base of Mount Ruapehu, surrounded by forests and offers short scenic walks as well as being a gateway to Whakapapa ski field.
It has a mix of options in terms of budget, from The Iconic Chateau Tongariro or Skotel (a mid-range and backpacker option), to the Whakapapa Holiday Park with tent sites, camper vans, and cabin accommodation.
The National Park Village is also close by and the most popular option. Just 25 minutes from the start of the Crossing, off state highway 4, it is easily accessible by bus and train. Several accommodation options here range from the more swish Skotel Alpine Resort and Park Hotel to the budget-friendly YHA Hostel.
Turangi is closer to Auckland (under four hours’ drive) but is one of the furthest from the Crossing’s start – taking around 40 minutes. It is situated between the National Park and Lake Taupo so anyone doing multiple activities in the area may choose this as their staging point.
Okahune is the furthest out, located on the southern edge of the National Park and 45 minutes from the Crossing. However, it is a bustling tourist town and set up well for visitors planning to stay a little longer.
Although you’ve probably seen the incredible photos of the Tongariro lakes, both the Emerald and Blue Lakes are not suitable for swimming – each for a different reason. The Emerald Lakes are very cold and highly acidic. Often there is thermal steaming around the lakes which is also the cause of the sulphuric smell.
If you’re staying in Tongariro National Park Village, tag on an extra day to hang out in this small town surrounded by native bush and tussock. Thanks to its outdoor vibe, there is plenty on offer in the way of mountain biking, an indoor climbing wall and a small supermarket for anyone wanting to picnic.
If you’re an avid hiker and you’re making the pilgrimage to New Zealand, then consider taking on another of its many great trails.
If you’re looking for a real challenge, why not consider Te Araroa Trail, which runs the length of the country?
|Starts at||Mangatepopo car park|
|Finishes at||Ketetahi car park|
|Length of route||19.4 Km|
|Average time to complete||6 - 8 Hours|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||No|
|Highest point||1886 metres|
|Countries visited||New Zealand|