It was a cold, dark, autumnal morning in New Zealand’s central North Island. We had woken early to make our way to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, our mission for the day.
Into the car went the hiking boots, the backpack, the water bladder, the raincoat and lunch. And of course a camera!
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s most famous day hike – and rightly so. It’s a hike full of spectacular volcanic scenery, quite unlike anything else you’re likely to see in New Zealand, or perhaps anywhere else in the world.
The Crossing is 19.4 km long, and takes about 6-7 hours. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. Being high up on a mountain, the weather conditions can change very quickly and the trail can get snow even in mid-summer. So it pays to be prepared with warm clothes and good shoes.
Fortunately on the day we did it, the weather was perfect. Wispy clouds far above, cool air perfect for hiking, and no bone-chilling wind. Lucky us!
We were astonished by the amount of people doing the hike with us. There would have been at least 500 or so others around, but what shocked us even more was the people carrying their small babies along the track, and others walking the track in Converse street shoes – seriously! What would happen to them if it suddenly started to snow?
Glad we didn’t have to find out.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, you’ll already know that the movies were filmed in New Zealand. And the most famous volcano of them all, Mt Doom, is our very own Mt Ngauruhoe – the symmetrical cone that you hike past on the Crossing. You can even climb up to the summit of Ngauruhoe, but that takes an extra couple of hours – we’ll save that for another trip.
The hike actually goes right over another volcano, Mt Tongariro. You hike up a steep slope called the ‘Devil’s Staircase’ (yup, it’s steep and devilish!) and through two of Tongariro’s craters. These volcanoes are still relatively active. Although Tongariro itself hasn’t erupted in many years, Ngauruhoe last erupted in the 1970s and Ruapehu (the volcano on the other side of Ngauruhoe) last erupted in 2007. A vent on the side of Tongariro, called the Te Maari Crater, erupted in 2012, destroying part of the Crossing track and damaging a hut nearby – you can still see the holes in the ceiling of the Ketetahi Hut near the end of the track!
My favourite part of the track was after climbing up out of the Red Crater. The view over the Emerald Lakes, the Central Crater, and way in the distance to Lake Taupo was just stunning. And after climbing up to the lip of the Red Crater, the only way down is on a slope covered in scree, or loose rocks (you can see the scree slope on the left of the photo below). It was so much fun making our way down the slippery slope towards our lunch stop at the gorgeous Emerald Lakes.
There’s lots of geothermal activity on the second half of the track, especially around the Emerald Lakes – see the steam in the photo above? It smells a bit like sulphur but it’s not overwhelming. On the final downhill stretch of the track, you can see over to the Te Maari Crater which blew up only a few years ago.
In the photo above you can see the steam coming out of the Te Maari Crater, and the lahar deposits in the valley on the right side (brown stuff in between the green). Part of the track was wiped out by the lahar caused by the Te Maari eruption, and you go through part of the track surrounded by debris that has all these danger signs warning you not to stop, and run if you hear something coming from upstream. Eek!
The last part of the track descends through some nice forest, but at that point all we wanted to do was to get to the car. The forest bit seemed to go on forever, even though it was only about half an hour long! Finally, after bang on six hours, we reached the end of the trail. Woohoo! What a fantastic hike.
Because the track isn’t a loop, you’ll need to organise transport at one end. We parked at the Ketetahi carpark (the end of the hike) and caught a bus operated by Tongariro Alpine Adventures to the trailhead at Mangatepopo, costing us $25 each. We think this is the best way to do it because once you finish the hike you can just drive away in your car, rather than waiting for a bus to come and take you back to the carpark at the beginning of the track (30 minutes drive away).
Have you ever hiked over a volcano? What’s your favourite day hike? Let us know in the comments below!