What to Expect: Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing

If you are traveling through New Zealand’s North Island, and you enjoy the outdoors and hiking (and honestly what are you doing in NZ if you don’t?), then the Tongariro Alpine Crossing should absolutely be a priority in your plans! This was easily one of the best things my husband and I did during our 6 weeks road tripping through both the North and South.

Read More: The Ultimate 2 Week North Island Road Trip Itinerary

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Looking out from where we came after the first ascent

Why Hike Togariro Alpine Crossing:

  • This is a great physical challenge that will get your heart pumping.
  • The views are unparalleled. Nowhere else have I been able to hike through volcanic craters, across ridges of ash overlooking aqua lakes, all while volcanos loom over you
  • Being outdoors is good for your soul
  • It’s fun!

Preparing for Your Hike:

You absolutely need to be in decent physical condition to tackle this hike. There are many steep, long climbs as well as slippery descents. With no tree coverage the vast majority of the trek, you are exposed to the wind and sun during the entire journey, which is about 20km (about 12 miles) and will take most people between 6 and 7 hours. Be honest with yourself before attempting this hike. If you exercise fairly often and are comfortable with cardiovascular activity, or hike challenging terrain often, you should be well-prepared for this hike. If you have injuries or struggle going up a flight of stairs, you should think twice about doing the full hike. (As an alternative, you could walk the first hour of the hike along the boardwalk through the Mangatepopo Valley and turn around to the same carpark before the ascent).

Be sure to bring plenty of food and water with you. For reference, I ate two PB&J sandwiches, an orange and a granola bar during the hike. I also drank 2.5 liters of water.

Since the hike starts and ends in different spots, you’ll also need to arrange transportation. Many services are available that can drop you off at the trail head and pick you up at the end to bring you back to your accommodation. For $49 NZD you can arrange this through Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures.

The weather in this area is very erratic, so if you have time to give yourself a few days in the area, I highly recommend it, just to optimize your chances of having a good weather day to do your hike. Many have hiked it in subpar conditions only to see fog and clouds the whole way. Given that the weather is so wild, you should also plan to pack layers for when it gets cold and windy on the trail, as well as a rain jacket. Hiking boots with good grip are best, but I saw people in regular sneakers managing fine.

What to Expect:

Mangatepopo Carpark to Soda Springs (1.5 hours)

The hike starts at the Mangatepopo carpark (altitude 1120 meters) on a flat boardwalk, with views of alpine desert wildflowers and Mount Ngauruhoe volcano. This is the part of the trail known as the Mangatepopo Valley Track.

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Volcano views from the valley

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The start of the Tongariro Crossing hike – looks nice and flat, but it’s a trick

Soda Springs to Central Crater (2.5 hours)

From Soda Springs, the trail begins to ascend between Mount Tongariro on your left and Mount Ngaurahoe on your left. The ascent takes about an hour and a half, with intermittent descents and level portions. After the first big climb, the trail descends again into the volcanic crater (the Red Crater). After crossing the crater, it then ascends again to a steep ridge overlooking another crater (Central Crater). The views get bigger and bigger before one last steep climb to the top of another ridge. It’s windy and rocky – and admittedly kind of scary given the height!

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Looking back towards the crater basin we had just crossed as we began the second ascent

Once at the top, this is good place to have your lunch, take photos and stretch your legs. The initial descent on the other side overlooks the crossing’s three iconic lakes (Emerald Lakes), perfectly blue and green against the burnt tan dirt landscape surrounding them. The descent to the lakes is very slippery over loose volcanic ash. Keep your eyes out for the volcanic steam still simmering from the most recent eruption!

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View over the Emerald Lakes

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Volcanic steam

Central Crater to Ketetahi Carpark (2.5 hours)

After leaving this beautiful area, you’ll walk by another large lake (Blue Lake) and around the other side of the Tongariro volcano, where you can see the hardened river of lava spilled out over the valley.

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The black expanse in the middle of the photo is hardened lava

From here the hike is a series of switchbacks descending down for what feels like forever (you’re descending in altitude lower than where you started the trek to end at the Ketetahi carpark, altitude 800 meters). This part of the trek is admittedly boring. Eventually you reach a forest and cross by a stream marked with signs warning of flash floods and to move quickly and not stop.

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Lahar Hazard Zone

You’ll emerge from the woods into a shaded pavilion in front of the carpark. Congratulations! You completed the challenging Tongariro Crossing. Now, stretch, eat, sleep and reminisce about the amazing volcanic topography you tackled!

Read More: New Zealand Department of Conservation trail information

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Unreal landscape (also two Tims)

Read More: Our Stray Adventure on the North Island

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