At the start of December 2017, we had the chance to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the best hikes New Zealand has to offer. While it’s not an easy one, it can be done by anyone of moderate fitness, as long as the weather allows.
The most important thing is to be well prepared. We did quite a bit of research into the topic, but there were no guides that were detailed and had all the information we wanted.
As a result, we want to give you all the information we can possibly think of, so you start and finish the trek as prepared as you can get! This blog post covers everything from FAQ’s, checklists to the hike itself. So, if you’re about to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, travelling around the area or planning on in the future then keep reading!
So here it is, our hiking guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, let’s get started!
- How long is the hike? 19.4 kilometres or 12 miles
- How long does it take? Anywhere between 5 and 10 hours, but usually between 7 and 8 depending on your photo stops and fitness level.
- How high is it? The summit of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike (Red Crater) lies at 1,886 metres. The start of the hike (Mangatepopo Carpark) lies at 1,120 metres and the end (Ketetahi Carpark) at an altitude of 760 metres.
- One-way or Round-trip? The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one-way hike. Shuttles will drop you at the start and collect you at the end.
- Does it cost any money? While the National Park and the hike is accessible free of charge, the shuttle companies charge NZ$35 (subject to change) per person for the service. That includes the bus from the carpark to the start and bringing you back to your car once you’re done.
- Are bookings essential? You have to pre-book the shuttle either by calling one of the companies, by booking through your hotel front desk, or through any tourist information in the area. We walked into Taupos tourist office and they greatly advised us and booked the shuttle for us.
- Is it possible to go the “wrong” way? While 99% of people do it the easier way, starting at Mangatepopo carpark and ending at Ketetahi carpark (8 kilometres up, 12 down), it certainly is possible to do it the other way. Major problem: You’ll need your own transport, since shuttle companies don’t service the trek the other way round. We saw about 10 people hiking the other way and hundreds going our way.
- Why can’t I just park at one of those two car parks? Due to congestion, the National Park has implemented a maximum of 4 hours at each carpark. Thus anyone attempting the full Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not allowed to park here. The carparks are very small anyways, so even with this limit in place, there will be cars parked up all along the road.
- Is it easy to follow the path? It’s super easy in good weather conditions, but when it goes foggy, look out for the wooden posts along the trek. For most of the hike you’ll see the people in front or behind you anyways.
- How busy does it get? Very busy, to say the least. We went on a summer Sunday and it was the first sunny day in over a week, meaning it was literally a line of people for the first couple of hours. That was the only thing that spoilt the experience a bit. On bad days and in winter, it’ll be a lot less busy, but you’ll still see quite a few people up there. If you’d like to hike with fewer people around, you might wish to organise your own transport in order to hike the more difficult way.
- Can it be done in winter? You should only attempt the crossing between May and September, if you’ve got proper alpine hiking equipment for icy conditions with you. It’s best to have some experience in similar conditions. If you’re new to alpine hiking, definitely go between November and March.
Walking this trek can be challenging and you must come well prepared, as most of it takes place in alpine conditions. The weather is known to change within minutes and multiple times throughout the day. Felt temperatures can rise or fall by 20 or even 30° Celsius in no time.
One important question to ask yourself is, whether you’re mentally prepared and fit enough to complete the trek. Your attitude and mindset is very important. If you start out thinking it’ll be horrible and you won’t make it, chances are you actually won’t. If you start out thinking it’ll be a fantastic experience, an amazing challenge and a great achievement to complete the hike, that will carry you right through.
You must check the weather forecast the day before on MetService. They do the best, most detailed and accurate forecast for the national park, but you must understand it might still change while you’re already out there. At the time of writing this (high season end of December), the forecasted felt temperatures for the next three days range between -13 and 11ºC (which is 8 to 52ºF), just so you know there’s absolutely no guarantee of good weather in summer.
If you’re doing the hike mainly for the views, make sure to go on a day where MetService says “fine” for at least some part of the day. If you’re just after the challenge with a views as a bonus, don’t worry too much as long as you’ve got good clothing.
Now let’s talk about some essentials for the walk. Highlighted in bold are essentials that you definitely shouldn’t miss out on:
- Toilet paper/Tissue paper – no toilets on the hike have any.
- At least 2 to 3 litres of water – we drank close to 3 litres each and highly recommend a Camelback.
- Sun-cream – yes, you will get roasted up there, so bring at least 30 SPF.
- Comfortable walking shoes – either hiking boots or good trainers.
- Sandals (Tevas) for the hike down.
- Snacks: energy bars, nuts, sandwiches etc. – a smoothie is a great refreshment once you reach the top.
- Hat – warm during winter and a cap during summer.
- Hiking trousers – highly recommend ones like these.
- Thermal top.
- Rain jacket.
- T-shirt or strappy top under thermal top for when it gets hot.
- Hiking socks.
- Walking poles – we hired these for free with the shuttle company.
- Comfortable rucksack for all necessities.
- GoPro / Camera – We used the GoPro Hero 6 and a Sony A7Rii + a 24-70mm Zeiss Lens.
- A sense of adventure!
Drink plenty (water, not junk!) and before you feel the desire to. Also eat food before you get hungry, because then your body will always have plenty of energy resources and you’ll be less exhausted. A good breakfast in the morning is key. Sugary snacks are best to have near the end of the hike because of how they affect your body.
If you know your feet are likely to get blisters, put some blister plasters on before you start the hike and possibly take some to renew along the way.
Getting to The Tongariro Alpine Crossing / Where to stay?
The closest place to the National Park is a village called Turangi. There are a few options to stay in Turangi, as well as a Holiday Park between Turangi and the National Park (which is where we parked our car and got picked up by our shuttle company).
The closest large town is Taupo, a nice lakeside town about an hour from the shuttle departures.
If you’re based even further away, you should definitely arrive in Taupo or Turangi the day before, and then stay the night in one of these two places.
Also consider that you’ll most likely be very exhausted by the time you get back in the afternoon. You might not want to go on a long drive, so Turangi and Taupo are the best options once again.
If you want to attempt the hike only in good weather, be sure to have a flexible schedule. It might not be nice on the day you’re planning to go!
As pre-booking a shuttle bus is essential, we recommend booking it no later than the day before you depart, keep checking the weather as conditions can change quick up on the mountain. Trust us when we say the weather conditions will either make or break your Tongariro Alpine Crossing experience, if it’s the views that you’re after.
There are numerous companies you can book through, all are roughly the same price and charge NZ$35 per person for a shuttle to the start and back to your car at the end of the day.
We highly recommend Tongariro Expeditions, and couldn’t fault them. They were on time picking us up in the morning, driving us safely to the start point and when we finished we only waited 5 minutes before they scooped us up and dropped us back at the car. Excellent service and really friendly knowledgeable drivers, as well as free walking poles for hire.
If you have your own car, or you’re hiring one, then you’ll need to drive to their carpark (“base camp”, check here on Google Maps). From here they have three different shuttle services departing for the crossing. One leaves at 5:40am, which is best if you’re wanting to take the walk easy and consider yourself not an experienced hiker, as this one allows you the most time to complete the crossing. Although if you’re not staying in Turangi or in the Holiday Park itself, it’s going to be a very early wake-up call. Then there is the 6:40am bus (we took this one as we were staying in Taupo, we took the trek nice and easy with lots of photo stops on the way and arrived at the finish an hour before the last scheduled bus was to depart, we took 8 hours). The third bus is at 7:40am, we suggest only to take this one if you’re arriving from a destination further away or you’re wanting to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing quickly with not many stops. It’s common for the weather to deteriorate in the afternoon and visibility can quickly decline, so unless this is the only option, we suggest taking one of the previous two buses.
If you haven’t hired a car, Tongariro Alpine adventures can pick you up in either Taupo (5:20am or 6:20am) or Turangi (6:10am or 7:10am) and drop you off again between 2-4:30pm.
No matter what you do, it’ll be an early start into the day. We woke up at 3:45am in the morning because we were staying in Taupo, an hour drive away from the shuttle departure. Our shuttle departed at 6:40am, and thus we left Taupo at 5:10am. A solid breakfast is what you need on this particular morning, even if it uses up precious time.
We arrived at our shuttle departure point at 6:10am. Be sure to not be late, the shuttle will not wait for you. The bus ride up to the starting point takes a good 20 minutes.
The actual hike is best described as several little sections.
- 1. Easy Walk – Slow ascend along volcanic landscape:
When starting out, you’ve got about an hour to 90 minutes of walking up a gentle slope, mostly following a little stream running through the black lava rock around you.
- 2. Hard Ascent – Devils staircase:
As you might guess, this part is the first one of two long and steep climbs. There are toilets just before the start of the stairs. It should take you about an hour to climb them.
- 3. Easy Walk – Flat part across a basin:
This is the point of no return, if you are having trouble or the weather has closed in, this is the last place to turn around. Once up the stairs, most vegetation will be gone. The path takes you along a basin right besides Mount Ngauruhoe, the most iconic volcano in the National Park. It’s very flat and probably takes about half an hour.
- 4. Difficult Ascent – Steep ascend to the summit:
The most challenging part of the hike. You’ll be walking up a narrow pathway with big rocks on one side and a steep drop on the other. Make use of the handrails. To make it worse, winds can be extremely strong in this area. Once you’re at the top, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic views. Allow 30 to 60 minutes for this part.
Just before going back down, you might witness some steam coming out of the ground right on the trek – natural floor heating!
- 5. Steep Descent – To the Emerald Lakes:
The descent is extremely steep, the gravel is very loose, and the views down to the green and blue Emerald Lakes are just stunning. It took us an hour to get down this bit because we took so many photos, but it can certainly be done in no more than 20 minutes.
- 6. Easy Walk – Flat part to Blue Lake:
If the weather is good, you will have seen the Blue Lake from the Red Crater already. It’ll take another half hour to walk across to it, with a little climb at the end.
- 7. Long Descent – Ketetahi Hut:
Once you’ve passed the lake, the best scenic views are gone but you’re only just halfway. The next ten kilometres will be downhill pretty much nonstop. You’ll reach a little hut and some toilets after about one hour.
- 8. Long Descent:
From the hut, it’s about an hour further down until you reach the only forested bit of the hike. There’s another set of toilets here.
- 9 Long Descent – Forest:
Once you’ve reached the forest, allow another hour until you finish the hike at the carpark.
If you’ve done hikes in mountainous conditions before, you won’t find this one too hard. However, do not set off on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing if you have not checked the weather forecast. If the forecast predicts poor conditions with fog, rain or storms we suggest you reconsider going. The key tip for this hike is being flexible, we stayed two nights and were very lucky with the weather and were able to hike on the morning of the second night.
Make sure to book at least 2 to 3 nights around the area, in case of poor weather conditions, but be aware it can be bad for over a week straight.
If you’re new to this kind of thing, be sure to have a moderate level of fitness. We did see some exhausted people turning back after the first couple of hours, even though the weather was glorious.
Do not attempt the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, if you are an inexperienced hiker and the weather forecast doesn’t look promising.
If you’re prepared beforehand and in the right mindset, then the Tongariro Alpine Crossing will be one of the highlights of your trip to New Zealand. You may be cursing at yourself, but once you’ve completed the hike it’s without a doubt a rewarding experience and one that you will never forget.
Just a little fact: The youngest person to walk the trek was five years old, and the oldest person was 94. So if they can complete the hike you most certainly can!
One last thing, Good Luck!
Do let us know if you’ve hiked it before, any more questions you have or whether you’re considering the Tongariro Alpine Crossing soon!
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