Today I´m here to tell you about one of the biggest adventures of my life! Of course, everybody has their own idea of adventure. To me, it is anything you set yourself out to do that is out of the ordinary, also, in a way, challenging – either physically or mentally, but it is very exciting as well. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing checked all of the boxes!
The path is located inside the Tongariro National Park in the center of New Zealand´s Northern Island. This park is a true treasure – it is considered a mixed World Heritage Site, meaning it has an inestimable natural and cultural value. Here you find many Maori sacred places as well as a lot of volcanic activity, since 3 mountains are still active! Aside from all of these amazing features, the national park also has a lot of history: it was the 6th established in the world, being the oldest in New Zealand. I told you this would be an adventure! I felt just like Bilbo Baggins running down the Shire mountain when we planned this trip.
Occupying 796 km2 of land, the park offers an array of easy, moderate and difficult hikes for those looking for contact with Mother Nature and a scenic experience. We chose the Alpine Crossing because it is one of the world´s most famous hikes, and it could be done in a day. If a day hike seems too much of an easy or mild adventure to you (hello, adrenaline junkies!), take a look into the Northern Circuit or the Round the Mountain Track, which take up to 4 and 6 days, respectively. If the Alpine Crossing was already an experience of a lifetime for me, I can only imagine to spend days in this majestic scenery!
Now, for those that, like me, appreciate the comfort of going on an adventure during the day, but sleeping at a good hotel bed at night, the Alpine Crossing is perfect. The hike takes approximately 6 hours to be completed, which was almost exactly the amount of time it took us to arrive at the bottom. It covers an area of 19.4 km, which might not seem much for the runners out there, but, trust me, you won´t be able to run this one up – or down, for that matter.
Let´s start with the basics. The place seems very isolated when you look at it on the map, so….how the heck do you get there? Well, though the area might seem a bit deserted, there are some little towns around the park like the National Park village, Erua village and Raurimu village, where you can book a hotel to stay on the day preceding the hike. I recommend you book for the day before and also for the day of the trek, so a minimum of a 2-night stay. After all, you will need a lot of rest after completing the Crossing.
We stayed at Discovery Hotel , and I can strongly recommend it. It has a type of accommodation for every budget, like camping huts, apartments and romantic chalets. We chose the chalet and it was small but super duper comfy – actually, one of the best beds we ever had in a trip. They also got points from us for sustainability and local products in the toiletry kits and dishes served at the restaurant. Additionally, there´s a killer view to the volcanoes that, depending on your accommodation choice, you can admire from your bed! Even with all of these qualities, what made us finally book it was a gold feature that makes A-L-L of the difference if you are in the area for the Alpine Crossing: they offer the earliest shuttle to the National Park at 4:30am, and they are the closest hotel to the start of the trek.
Since most tourists are in this part of New Zealand for hiking, the majority of the hotels will offer a shuttle service at different times to take you to the park. You definitely should book your preferred slot in advance, especially if you are planning on going early. Though you don´t have to, going on the earliest shuttle of the region made an incredible difference for us: we were alone during most of the Crossing and, therefore, were able to take incredible pictures. Most importantly, we were able to take all of that amazing landscape in without much disturbance. At times, it felt like we were two explorers opening unknown frontiers in this remote land called New Zealand. The reviews I had read before about the path being crowded were completely foreign to us.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing starts at Mangatepopo Road end. Because we started so early, this is a part of the journey we did not manage to enjoy the surroundings much – it was pitch dark! Still, seeing pictures later, I felt like we did not really miss anything. This part was the easiest for us (and I guess for everybody else), since there´s a wooden way which is very flat. We used this part of the trek to really speed up and gain some time. This section normally takes 1 to 1h30 minutes until you reach Soda Springs.
The first “yikes” moment happens at the Devil´s Staircase. I mean, nothing good can come out of a name like this! It is basically a climb of 340 meters until the next point, the South Crater. The good news is that there´s no real climbing in the sense of “hanging”. But there´s a LOT of stairs. Like…a lot. When you think you are done….you find some more stairs. Then when you say “yay, finally…that was harsh…”, you will find more. A tip? Start working on those quads.
This part is considered moderate to difficult, taking about 1 hour to complete. Another good news is that I read the views are amazing, so every time you stop to catch your breath, you will be in good company. Seems like on a clear day, you can even see Mount Taranaki from here! We were not that lucky, though. We climbed the Devil´s Staircase very early, the sun was still nowhere to be seen. So all we had to stare at was the sad dark lava soil, lol. I mean, starting the track early has its advantages and disadvantages – you have to choose what suits you best.
Reaching the South Crater was both a relief and a great reward. The way was flat again! (don´t get too used to it though…) The sun was starting to come up, so we could see the mighty Mount Ngauruhoe, the youngest of the three volcanos of the National Park, on our right side. It was just beautiful!
The best was yet to come though. After the South Crater, you will make your way to the Red Crater, which will take you, again, about one hour. This is the part I was most afraid of, because I had read that it is where people who can´t handle heights struggle the most. I´m not afraid of heights. I´m terrified of it.
But, honestly? It was no problem at all. The thing is that I was so marveled by the views from the mountain, which made a great combo with the sunrise, that the adrenaline just carried me. Besides, the part that you have to hold on to a rope is really short. When you start stressing about it, it´s already over (I guess it can be trickier later in the day when the Crossing is full though)
The views around the Red Crater are just unreal (1886 m). It´s the kind of place you have to pinch yourself to believe you are there. I felt like I was seeing live what, until then, I had only seen in magazines like Nat Geo, and I thought was only accessible for athletes or incredible fit people….those that wake up at 4 am to jog before work. I am the person that wakes up 15 minutes before the time I have to be leaving the house.
From the Red Crater you can see the Oturere Valley, the Rangipo Desert and the Kaimanawa Forest Park. The reddish color of the soil comes from the high temperature oxidation of iron. The next stop is the breathtaking Emerald Lakes – in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the whole hike.
The way from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes was easily the part I struggled the most – which was very unexpected. Before arriving in New Zealand, I was so worried about the ridge part with the ropes, that I didn´t read much about other tricky parts of the Crossing. The descent to the lakes is extremely steep and the terrain is very loose, so for you to step and feel secure enough to put the next foot in the air is very, very hard. One thing that helped us a lot was the walking poles. I can´t imagine how people can pass by this part without them.
The Emerald Lakes are amazing though – totally worth all the struggle! The color of the water – a fascinating turquoise blue – actually comes from the minerals washed away from the surrounding soil, a very active thermal area. We loved it so much, we chose this spot to sit down and have our breakfast. You can never get tired of this view! But if you are struggling to leave this sight, don´t worry, there are more beautiful views coming your way!
From the Emerald Lakes, you will pass the Central Crater until the Blue Lake – another Tongariro wonder. Might be very appealing to touch the water, but you shouldn´t for two reasons: first, it is Maori sacred, second, it´s extremely acid. By the way, you are not supposed to stop here to eat or drink either – it is considered disrespectful, like in every place sacred to the Maori.
It will take you about an hour to go from the Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter. From the Blue Lake on, I was struggling, I´m not going to lie. Every time I saw a new climb I felt very discouraged. The good news is that the way to the hut is basically a descent. I thought this part would be the easiest, but since we started the track full gas, at this point I was starting to feel I couldn´t stop, or else I wouldn´t be able to get up anymore. Going down actually takes a lot of braking effort from your legs – I wasn´t counting on that. Luckily, Mathias was still feeling good enough to take my backpack too.
The views of this section are breathtaking! You are still high enough to feel like you are walking towards clouds! You will also notice the steaming vents around you – these are consequences of the 2012 eruptions. Little by little, you can see the finish point very little and very down from you. It will still take a few hours, my friend!
The Ketetahi Shelter is the perfect stop for a rest though. It was quite full when we arrived, since many people were going up from this side of the mountain – the hut being their first break. From the shelter, you will go down until the end of the track, which takes up to 2 hours. The cool thing is that the scenery will change completely into a forest – I bet you were not expecting that! So, basically, in a morning, we have gone from lava terrain and volcano mountains to a dense green filled-with-birds forest.
The road ends at a not-so-charming bus stop – but, hey! I bet many things won´t look as beautiful as before after what you have seen throughout the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We managed to take the first bus back to the hotel, at 12:30pm. The last pick-up time was 4:30 pm.
Our goal was never to make it in time for the first shuttle. We were actually aiming at the second, at 1:30pm. But when we realized we were finishing the track with enough time to catch the first one, we speeded up indeed, since there wasn´t much to see at the forest anyways (unless you wanna check out the waterfall, on a side track). What I would advise you is to go for the earliest shuttle possible, and just take your time at the Crossing. It doesn´t matter if it takes you 5, 6, 7 hours….the important thing is that you don´t rush this experience, where you will possibly see the most beautiful views of your life.
Can everybody pull through? Well, that´s hard to answer. If you are relatively fit, I say this won´t be easy all the way, but yes, you will pull through, no doubt. But “everybody”…I have my doubts. Still, our hotel group was very mixed, some of us weren´t fit at all and I worried for them…but we all survived.
Now, whatever your fitness level is, you should pack accordingly to a moderate/difficult hike that involves long hours and different temperatures. So…
. Use good trekking shoes and layers of clothes, gloves and bonnet included – at the top of the mountain it can get ice-cold windy, whereas at other points you will feel the heat.
. It would strongly recommend waterproof clothes and shoes.
. Pack a meal and plenty of snacks – we ordered a breakfast box at the hotel, but, of course, you can arrange your own. We also took many protein bars.
. Just as important as food is water! Take A LOT of water – believe me, you will need it. Some people from out hotel that we met at the bottom of the track told us that one of the couples got into real trouble: they ran out of water in the first 3 hours of the hike.
. Don´t forget the sunscreen and a hat.
. Walking Poles really help at some parts
. If you start hiking early, definitely take a headlamp
. Tissues – there is no toilet paper in the few toilets along the Crossing
New Zealand is a very special place and I think I lived a few of the best experiences of my life there. But, of all of them, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the one I want to repeat. You will want too!