Tongariro Alpine Crossing: The Complete Guide

The famous emerald lake in the Tongariro Alpine crossing in New Zealand
@ Didier Marti / Getty Images

The Tongariro National Park, in the center of New Zealand’s North Island, is the oldest national park in the country, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which traverses part of the park, is one of the most popular day hikes in the country. It’s challenging yet manageable for travelers with reasonable fitness; remote yet quite easy to arrange; and it offers everything from barren volcanic plateaus to bright sulfurous lakes to dense, damp native bush.

Keen hikers and outdoor enthusiasts won’t want to miss the challenge while traveling in New Zealand. 

Essential Information

  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Time commitment: One day (roughly 6 to 8 hours)
  • Maximum altitude: 6,233 feet
  • Increase in altitude: 2,624 feet
  • Start and end point: Start at the trailhead at the end of Mangatepopo Road. End at the Ketetahi Car Park. It can be done in reverse, but this involves more climbing.
  • Best time to hike the trail: November to April

What to Expect

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, as the name suggests, crosses the Alpine terrain of the multi-cratered Mount Tongariro, an active volcano. Although the elevation isn't extreme, the landscape is exposed and can be hazardous when there's wind, rain, cloud, and snow. On a clear, sunny day, it's a near-perfect day hike.

The walk includes some steep uphills, flat sections, slippery scree, steep descents, and long descents. In short, it has a bit of everything! While the challenging Devil’s Staircase near the beginning can be difficult, the strain of the final descent on the trail through the forest also shouldn’t be underestimated. Long stretches of downhill walking can be hard on the toes and knees.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is popular, and it’s estimated that in the summer, up to 2000 people hike it every day. If the weather’s good, you’re very unlikely to have it all to yourself. It’s less busy in winter, but conditions can be hostile, especially when there’s snow. In the winter, it’s highly recommended to take a guide for safety’s sake, though this isn’t necessary most of the year. You’ll need crampons and ice axes in winter.

How to Hike the Trail

Even if you’re self-driving around New Zealand, it’s highly recommended that you make use of shuttle services from National Park Village or Whakapapa. The Tongariro Crossing is not a circuit, so you’ll start at one point and end at another. Unless you have someone to drop you off and pick you up again the other end, you’ll need to use a shuttle service.

Whatever the weather looks like at the start of the day, it’s important to prepare for all eventualities. The weather can change very quickly in the mountains, and though you may start off wearing just a T-shirt, conditions may deteriorate en route. Always be prepared for wet weather, strong winds, and even unseasonal snowfall. In short, don’t underestimate this hike.

Also make sure to bring plenty of water. There’s nowhere to get it on the way. You’ll need at least two liters of water per person, more in summer.

Various side-trails branch off at certain points, but stay on the main Tongariro Alpine Crossing route, which is well marked. Leaving the trail at times can lead you to private land that you’re not allowed to cross, so stick to the track.

Don’t touch the water of the crater lakes. This is tapu (sacred) to Maori people, and touching it is offensive. Similarly, out of cultural respect, don’t climb to the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe, one of the volcanic peaks you’ll pass along the way. This was promoted in the past as a challenging side-trip, with special appeal because it appeared as Mount Doom in "The Lord of the Rings" films. However, the Department of Conservation now actively discourages people from climbing it as it’s a sacred mountain. Be a respectful traveler.

What You’ll See Along the Trail

There aren't really any "boring" parts of this hike, as far as views are concerned, as it’s considered one of New Zealand’s best hikes for good reason. But the higher-altitude sections after you’ve ascended the Devil’s Staircase are the most visually spectacular. You’ll walk beneath the perfect volcanic peak of Mount Ngauruhoe (don’t climb!), the gorgeous Emerald Lakes (don’t touch!), and along the edge of the Blue Lake. Cool volcanic features include solidified lava flows, loose tephra, and solidified volcanic lava bombs. You’ll also enjoy views as far as the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges, and Mount Taranaki on a clear day.

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