Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Everything You Need To Know About New Zealand’s Best Day Hike
Labeled as the best day hike in New Zealand and one of the best day hikes in the world, hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing is something you must do if you are visiting New Zealand. This blog tells you everything you need to know to hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the best day hikes in the world.
Located in Tongariro National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, this iconic hike offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the rugged beauty of the North Island. With its otherworldly terrain, dramatic volcanic peaks, and vibrant emerald lakes, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a must-do adventure for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.
It traverses a diverse range of environments, including active volcanic zones, ancient lava flows, alpine meadows, and dense beech forests. As you make your way along the trail, you’ll be treated to awe-inspiring panoramic vistas that showcase the raw power and tranquility of New Zealand’s volcanic landscapes.
Tongariro National Park is also famous among Lord of the Rings fans, Mount Doom is based on one of the volcanoes in Tongariro National Park.
In this hiking guide I will show you everything you need to know to hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing, including how to get there, transportation options, what it’s like to hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing and many other tips.
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Where is Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand? Where is Mount Doom in New Zealand?
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the Tongariro National Park on the North Island of New Zealand, about an hour drive from the town of Taupo.
Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park in New Zealand and is a dual world heritage site. There are 3 active volcanoes inside the park, these are Mt. Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu.
Mount Doom is actually inspired by Mt. Ngauruhoe, one of the active volcanoes inside the park.
What is Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Tongariro is an one way challenging day hike located in Tongariro National Park. It is hailed as one of the best day hikes in the world.
It traverses between the peak of Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom). Because of its altitude, it is considered an alpine hike so only experienced and well prepared hikers are recommended to try as weather conditions can change drastically and rapidly during the hike.
How Long is Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way hike that is about 19.4km (12 miles) long.
How Long Does it Take to Hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
On average it takes between 7 to 9 hours to finish the one way hike at Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
How Difficult is Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a moderately challenging hike if you are not very experienced or fit. There are steep inclines and slippery downhills. If you are scared of heights, you may find the hike mentally challenging.
If you are moderately fit then you should be fine hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing as long as you are prepared with water, food and potential weather change.
How to Get to Tongariro National Park to Hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
The closest airport to Tongariro National Park is in Taupo, with direct flights from major cities in New Zealand.
It takes slightly over an hour to drive from Taupo to Tongariro National Park.
You are also able to drive from Auckland or Wellington to Tongariro National Park, but it will take quite a while:
- 4 hours drive from Auckland to Tongariro National Park
- 3.5-4 hours drive from Wellington to Tongariro National Park
- 2 hours drive from Rotorua to Tongariro National Park
What is the Best Time to Hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is open all year round so you can hike Tongariro in the summer and winter.
New Zealand is in the Southern hemisphere so the seasons are reversed. Winter is end of June to end of September.
Late spring, early summer and early fall are the best months to hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing when the trail is mostly snow free and the weather is not too cold or too hot.
There is no shades on Tongariro Alpine Crossing so hiking in the peak of summer on a sunny day would be very hot.
Even though you can hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the winter, it is best done with a local guide since the trails are covered in snow, making it dangerous for anyone not familiar with the hike to do it alone.
Parking, Picking Up and One Way Shuttle Logistics for Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Unlike most day hikes in New Zealand, Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an one way hike, that means the starting point and the ending point are different!
One good thing about the one way hike is that you don’t need to retrace your steps to see the same thing twice. The bad thing about the one way Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike is that you need to arrange transportation to take you back to your car after the hike.
There are two parking lots for those who are hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Mangatepopo Car Park is the car park at the start of the hike and Ketetahi Car Park is the parking lot at the end of the hike.
HOWEVER, you CANNOT leave your car in these parking lots during the summer month of October to April.
Due to the popularity of this hike, restriction has been implemented that you can only park your car in either parking lot for a max of 4 hours during the summer months.
Fortunately many shuttle services have public parking across from the Ketetahi Car Park so you can leave your car there. Many people park on the side of State Highway 46 for free before getting on the shuttle.
These shuttles will pick you up from Ketetahi Car Park (the ending point of the hike), take you to Mangatepopo Car Park (the beginning point of the hike) so you can start your one way hike.
Most hikers start the hike from Mangatepopo Car Park but you don’t have to. You can certainly do the reverse and start your hike from Ketatahi Car Park, but it is a much harder hike to do in reverse. You will also have issues finding shuttles if you do the hike in reverse.
From the public parking lot across from the Ketetahi Car Park, Tongariro Expedition have shuttles at 6:30am, 7:30am, and 8:30am and you need to call them the day before by 4pm to choose a time slot.
Other Tongariro shuttle pick up points include Taupo (a town 1 hour away), Turangi and Base Camp. I didn’t really know where Turangi or Base Camp was and I also did not want to risk missing the bus back after I finish the hike (I hike slow).
Once the shuttle pick you up, they will all drive about 20 minutes to Mangatepopo Car Park, the starting point of your Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike Details
Length of Hike: 19.4km from start to finish (one way hike only)
Time on the Hike: 7-9 hours
Elevation: 766m (2545ft) incline during hike to summit of 1886m (~6200ft)
Difficulty Level: Moderate – Difficult (depending on how fit you are)
Starting Point: Mangatepopo car park
Ending Point: Ketetahi car park (Start and End can switch)
I will break down the hike section by section so you know exactly what to expect on the epic Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike.
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs
Time Suggested: 1 hour to 1.5 hours (took me about 1.5 hours)
Terrain: Flat, Easy
Ready to start the best day hike in New Zealand? From the Mangatepopo Car Park you will start hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a flat and wide trail.
There is a toilet about 20 minutes in. There are actually 3 toilets from the car park (one at the car park) to Soda springs so you don’t need to worry about that. However the toilets on the Tongariro Crossing hike have no toilet paper so make sure to bring your own.
As you walk towards Soda Springs, you will be in the shadow of Mount Doom (if you go early enough and the sun is still behind Mt Ngauruhoe). It could be chilly in the morning so make sure you layer up.
The landscape of this part of the Tongariro hike is wide and open with grass on your side and Mount Doom almost directly in front you. Definitely enjoy this part of the hike since it’s literally one of the easiest part.
I would be lying if I say this part of the hike is 100% flat because it’s not. There is still a gradual ascend during this hour with occasional stairs but it’s really nothing to worry about.
Time Suggested: 15 minutes (but optional)
Terrain: Uneven, slightly uphill
After about an hour walk into your Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike, you will notice a small waterfall a bit far on your left. This is the famed Soda Springs, the most visited waterfalls on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike (the most visited as this might be the only one lol).
You have the option to hike closer to the waterfall and it takes about 10-15 min each way. I didn’t find Soda Springs to be particularly exciting or nice, so I skipped and decided to continue.
Soda Springs to South Crater
Time Suggested: 1 hour
Terrain: Difficult Ascent with Stairs
You may have heard that the Tongariro Crossing hike is difficult and the stretch between Soda Springs to South Crater is considered one of the most difficult part of the hike.
There is actually a sign before the stairs that asks you to check your physical condition as there is a lot of steep uphill from this point on and you still have 13km to go.
The reason this part of the Tongariro hike is difficult is due to the steep ascent plus stairs to the South Crater. People have named this part of the hike “Devil’s Staircase” but honestly, I didn’t even realize this was the Devil’s Staircase.
Somehow in my mind I had thought that Devil’s Staircase is later on during the hike so I thought this was just some “preliminary” stairs. Even during the first flat part of the hike, there were some stairs occasionally!
You will most likely work up a good sweat but because the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike has become SO popular, there is literally a line of people ascending with you, very slowly… So yes this part of the hike is pretty steep but because there are so many people, you will be moving very slowly and most likely won’t be that tired.
Even during the first flat part of the hike, there were some stairs occasionally! You will most likely work up a good sweat but because the Tongariro Crossing hike has become SO popular, there is literally a line of people ascending with you, very slowly…
So yes this part of the hike is pretty steep but because there are so many people, you will be moving very slowly and most likely won’t be that tired.
I highly suggest that you bring hiking poles with you because they made Devil’s Staircase so much easier.
South Crater to base of Red Crater Ridge
Time Suggested: 15 minutes
Terrain: Flat and easy
After you have reached the top of Devil’s Staircase, you will come to a nice and flat area. There is really nothing worthy of mentioning regarding the South Crater itself. However during this part of the walk, you will see Mount Doom on your right hand side and it’s the perfect time to get some photos of it.
Since Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way hike, you can only turn back to the starting point before you reach the base of Red Crater Ridge. If the weather is really bad or you feel unwell or unfit, this is the last part of the hike that you can actually turn around and go back!!
This is very important as many people think they are fit enough to continue and actually end up needing to be rescued by helicopter (I saw someone get rescued). I saw a few people turning around so make sure to re-evaluate how you feel before continuing to the next part of the hike.
Red Crater Ridge to Red Crater Summit
Time Suggested: 30 minutes
Terrain: Uneven, Narrow, Rocky, and Steep
As you continue on the trail, you will start to see people climbing up a steep trail and a line of people literally on the ridge of the mountain.
The ground gets slightly slippery as it is now all gravels. Apparently on a windy day, it can get very scary as the trail is not that wide and there are drops on both sides of the trail. However we got very lucky that it was a calm day and even then there was a teenage girl crying and wanting to go home during this part of the hike.
I found this part very steep but because there were so many people hiking up, we were moving very slowly. I also think that hiking poles really helped to make this part of the ascent much easier.
Once you are on the ridge, it’s a 5 minute ascent to the Red Crater Summit and this part was pretty wide and safe. At the Red Crater Summit you will have a really nice view of the red crater and Mt Ngauruhoe on your right.
The red color of Red Crater is from high temperature oxidation of iron in the rock and you can start to smell the sulfur in the air. Take care to not stand at the edge as it would be easy to fall down into the Red Crater.
The Red Crater Summit is also the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike so after this it’s all descent. But before you begin to celebrate, prepare to the next part of the hike, my least favorite part!
Red Crater Summit to Emerald Lakes
Time Suggested: 15 minutes (took me an hour)
Terrain: Extremely steep and slippery
What goes up must come down. It’s time to say goodbye to the Red Crater and Mount Doom as you are leaving them both behind to descent to the famous Emerald Lakes.
The descent from Red Crater Summit is perhaps the scariest part of the hike (for me that is) as it is very steep and slippery with volcano rocks and gravel. I did not see a single person who did not slip while descending and even with poles I had a hard time coming down.
However you do start to see the famous Emerald Lakes as you descent so grab some photos of the lakes as you come down. The brilliant color of the Emerald Lakes is from the dissolved volcanic minerals and minerals from the surrounding thermal areas. You can actually see the steam coming out of the ground in those thermal areas (and the color is gray).
Once you are down to Emerald Lakes, it would be a good time to eat some lunch and relax as the next part of the hike is pretty easy (and long).
You can actually see the steam coming out of the ground in those thermal areas (and the color is gray). Once you are down to Emerald Lakes, it would be a good time to eat some lunch and relax as the next part of the hike is pretty easy (and long).
While we were eating lunch by the lake and looking back at the red crater and Mt Ngauruhoe, it suddenly hit me why Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the best day hike in New Zealand.
Most of the hikes we have done in New Zealand during our 2 week stay were either exposed on the side of a mountain or in the lush beech forests. We had never done a hike by a famous volcano! Furthermore, the landscape changes so much while hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing that no wonder it’s considered one of the best day hike in the world.
Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake
Time Suggested: 20 minutes
Terrain: Flat, Wide, Easy
After stopping by the Emerald Lakes for lunch you will walk on a really wide and flat land with a small climb to the Blue Lakes. The Blue Lake is not actually blue, but more of a green/turquoise color. Apparently the Blue Lake is sacred so you cannot eat there.
As we were walking towards Blue Lake, we heard a helicopter coming our way. In the beginning I thought it may be a sightseeing helicopter but it started landing on the descent to Emerald Lakes.
It turned out to be a rescue helicopter and it took them a good 30 minutes before flying out again so I assume someone either fell or got injured. Again, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not a walk in the park and extreme caution is needed.
I later read on the news that a 50 year old woman broke her leg on this hike and had to be helicoptered out. BE CAREFUL!
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter
Time Suggested: 1 hour
Terrain: Flat, Gradual Downhill
From Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter is a nice and easy descent following the Rotopaunga Valley. From the top of the descent you start to get an amazing view of Tongariro National Park and it looks completely different from what you have been seeing during the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike. There is a toilet just as you start to descent and there is another toilet at the Ketetahi Shelter.
Ketetahi Shelter to Car Park
Time Suggested: 1.5 hours to 2 hours
The descent continues and even though it’s pretty easy and nice, it actually is my second least favorite part of the entire day hike.
The view is still the same and the descent is never ending and boring. The only slightly interesting part is that once you are low enough to be under the tree line, the hike suddenly becomes a rain forest hike.
During the last 15 minutes of the Tongariro Aline Crossing hike you will see streams in a “lahar hazard zone”. Lahar is pretty much flash flood made from water and volcanic materials/debris and can be extremely violent and dangerous.
Once you finish the hike and reach the Ketetahi Car Park, you still need to walk another 1km to the public car park. During the walk there will be buses driving by you kicking up tons of dust (not the most pleasant experience).
What You Should Pack To Hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing
It is very important to be prepared to hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing as it is not an easy hike. You won’t believe how many people I saw on the hike that looked ill prepared. They had no layers, minimal amount of water and no hiking shoes or poles.
Yes you can do the Tongariro hike like that but if you run into bad weather then you are really in big trouble.
Every week there are at least 2 helicopter rescues on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing trail and I even saw one myself. The packing list below will help you prepare to hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Bring Layers: It is extremely important to bring layers as this hike is considered an alpine hike and that means weather conditions can change rapidly and become extreme. Wind could pick up and it could randomly down pour so dress warmly. I had 5 layers (sports tank, long sleeve sports shirt, 2 hoodies and 1 rain jacket). I even brought gloves just for the morning and put it away later during the day.
Re-apply Sunscreen: The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has 0 shade until the last 45 minutes. This means you are exposed to the weather and the sun for at least 6 hours if not more. There is actually an ozone hole above New Zealand so the sun is brutal and deadly. Make sure to bring your cap and re-apply sunscreen every hour or 2 to prevent sun damage.
Bring 1.5L to 2L of Water and Food: It is a long hike so you will need a lot of water, especially on a sunny day. There is no water source on the hike so if you run out of water you are doomed (pun intended).
Bring Toilet Paper: There are 8 toilet locations on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike but there is no toilet paper.
Sunglasses and a Hat Are Important: It was a bit windy when we hiked and having sunglasses really helped. It also prevents your eyes from getting burned as the sun was beaming down on us the entire hike. Definitely bring a hat as it will most likely be very sunny and a hat is needed on every hike!
Enable Cellular Service on Your Phone: This came as a surprise but there is surprisingly good cellular and LTE service while hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It’s important to have your phone so you can call for help/ rescue in case anything happens.
Wide Angle Lens Can Be Useful: I always bring a wide angle lens whenever I’m taking landscape photos and this is the place to do so. You get the panoramic view during the hike so make sure your lens is able to capture it all.
Hiking Shoes and Hiking Poles: People may argue that you don’t need hiking shoes or hiking poles to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike. And yes people can do it but honestly, wouldn’t you want better traction when you walk on those really slippery slopes and make this already hard hike a bit easier? I found having poles really helped and made the entire hike feel much easier and I always and only wear hiking shoes when I’m hiking.
Other Important Information Before Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Where to Stay in Tongariro National Park
I stayed in Tongariro National Park so I didn’t have to get up at an ungodly hour to catch the Tongariro hiking shuttle to take me to the start of the hike. Staying in Tongariro National Park in the Villages meant only a 20-30 minute drive instead of an over one hour drive from Taupo.
Where to Rent Hiking Poles in Tongariro National Park
Things You Should Not Do When Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro National Park is not significant only because of its landscapes but also its cultural and spiritual importance. The national park was formed in 1887 to ensure the mountains are protected as they are sacred to the Ngati Tuwharetoa.
Therefore it is very offensive to do the following on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike: Summit the Peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, touch the water of the lakes, take a poop in the mountain, play loud music or fly a drone.
Please do not leave behind rubbish and always take back what you bring onto the hike.
Is Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike Worth It?
Absolutely! Tongariro Alpine Crossing really is one of the best day hikes in the world since you see so much in such a short period of time.
If you have the opportunity to hike Tongariro you certainly should do it. I think it is a lot nicer than some of the hikes on the South Island since the landscape changes so much. I mean where else can you hike that is next to a volcano especially Mount Doom?
Final Thoughts on Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing
After seeing the diverse landscape during our 8 hour hike at Tongariro Alpine Crossing, it is no wonder this hike is considered one of the best day hikes in the world and the best day hike in New Zealand.
If you are of moderate fitness level and has done your research and and will prepare thoroughly, then I definitely recommend that you do this amazing day hike. This hike is just so differently from all the other day hikes in New Zealand that missing it would be a shame.
However keep in mind that having the title “the best day hike in New Zealand” does mean the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike is extremely crowded with lines of hikers around every corner. Even with all the people, at the end of the day, it is still a beautiful and fun hike and I hope you enjoy it like I did!
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