Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing - Tongariro National Park, New Zealand
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
There are fourteen national parks in New Zealand and the first of several national parks we visited there was Tongariro National Park. It is the largest park in the region, located at the southwestern end of the Taupō Volcanic Zone, in the North Island of New Zealand. This is one of the most visited national parks, and is most famous for the Alpine Crossing, widely known as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. It is the oldest national park in the country, established in 1887, and the fourth national park established anywhere in the world. This park is a World Heritage site with dual status for its natural and cultural significance - listed for scientific reasons in 1990, and for its cultural significance in 1993.
There are three magnificent active volcanoes located in the center of the park - Mt. Tongariro, Mount Ruapehu (New Zealand's largest ski area and the highest mountain on the North Island) and Mt. Ngauruhoe (known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films, also the most active volcano). These volcanoes are sacred to the Māori people and there are a number of religious sites within the park.
We planned on hiking the Tongariro Alpine crossing even before we left on our trip to New Zealand. Although Tongariro is much lower than the mountains of Colorado, this is not an easy hike. So, we sort of did a little training, doing tougher hikes than we usually do. I'm sure glad we did since this was the most strenuous hike I ever did.
On the western side of Mount Ruapehu is Whakapapa Village, the gateway to Whakapapa ski filed, Tongariro National Park and other short walking tracks in the park
It is strange to see a fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere, but the Chateau Tongariro (the only hotel in the Whakapapa Village), was built to encourage tourists to visit the national park. We stayed in the village but we did not stay in this hotel, staying instead in our rented camper, which was much cheaper, in one of the campsites in the village. Also from the village is a spectacular view of all three volcanoes.
The hotel was established in 1929, but didn’t do well as a hotel. Later it was used as an asylum when an earthquake damaged a hospital in Wellington. Then it served as a recuperation center for wounded Air Force personnel during World War II. A private company acquired it in 1990 and enlarged it to a five-level building.
TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING - 12 Miles one way
There are two trailheads for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. One is in the Mangatepopo Valley, at the southwestern end of the track/trail, and the other at the Ketetahi car park. The hike is just over 12 miles and will take about eight hours to complete, probably less for some. Some take it only halfway, just to the Emerald Lakes and then back, but we went all the way.
From Whakapapa Village to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing trailhead is about ten miles. Hermann arranged a ride for us from the Holiday Park at Whakapapa Village to Mangatepopo trailhead. Also for the return trip back to the Holiday Park.
Some people spend days waiting for a good weather to hike here. Some go home disappointed. Coming back is easy for the locals if they missed a chance, but we didn't have that option, we only had the one day. We were lucky we had chosen that day, when the sky was clear and sunny.
Although the day started chilly, it got warm as soon as we started the hike. A little too warm actually since we like hiking when it's cool - even chilly is preferable. But we can't complain, mother nature gave us an opportunity and we took it.
The trail (or track as the Kiwis call it) started on level terrain. The valley, which was carved out during the last ice age, was partially filled by lava flows from Mount Ngauruhoe. Then it was covered with bushes, tussock grasses, lichens and moss. The track was well maintained, with boardwalks in boggy areas to protect the plants and fragile terrain.
Near the head of the Mangatepopo Valley is a short side trail that leads to the cold water Soda Springs. At this point, the hike starts to get serious as the track starts to climb to the saddle above the Mangatepopo Valley. This seemingly endless series of stairs is known as the Devil’s Staircase. The continuous uphill climb is broken up by wide stairs, which are tough for a short-legged person like me.
At one viewpoint, we were lucky to see Mt. Taranaki (another volcanic sentinel, 85 miles away on the western horizon) without a cloud covering the top. In fact it's extremely rare to see it in its entirety, especially from so far away.
After reaching the saddle, the trail levels out along the South Crater (a basin carved out by ancient glaciers), at the northern base of Mount Ngauruhoe. Then after an easy and level track, the trail goes uphill again to the rim of Red Crater, the highest point on this trail. But you will be rewarded as you reach the top.
VIEW FROM RED CRATER
The 360 degree view on top of Red Crater is really magnificent! To the south there's the magnificent Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings film. To the northeast are the colorful Emerald Lakes and farther on the horizon is the Blue Lake. You still have ways to go from Red Crater, some people turn around from here.
Look down at Red Crater’s unusual color. Its reddish and brownish color, with hues of black, chocolate brown, rusty red and yellow, was caused by the high - temperature oxidation of iron in the rock.
The Emerald Lakes are surrounded by a barren and gray landscape which makes their color appear so vibrant. They're like jewels! Despite the lakes being surrounded by fumaroles (openings in the earth's surface that emit steam and volcanic gases, such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide), the water is cold and freezes over in winter. The water is acidic with a pH of around 3 to 5. The Emerald Lakes’ vibrant colors are due to sulfur leaching from the adjoining thermal areas. The Māori name for the lakes is Ngarotopounamu which means greenstone-hued lakes.
To get down to the Emerald Lakes below, there is a steep descent. The hike down is very slippery due to the loose scoria. It's like stepping on pebbles, so you have to be careful. I'm glad we brought along our hiking sticks, they were a big help.
While at the Emerald Lakes eating our lunch, our curiosity took over as we saw the steam vents. Of course we made a detour, just to see them up close - we were not the only ones. We didn't find any open steam vents but we sure could hear them, and the smell and the heat of the steam could be felt through the soles of our boots. This area is alive, no doubt about it.
To go back to the main trail, we followed part of the Northern Circuit Trail. There's about half a mile of level ground before it goes uphill, then suddenly the Blue Lake is in front of you. This lake must be the bluest lake we have ever seen, it deserves the name. It didn't seem that far when viewing it from the ridge at the Red Crater, but it is, believe me.
Blue Lake, which is about 55 feet deep, was formed in an old volcanic lava vent. Like the Emerald Lakes, the water is cold and acidic with a pH of around 5. Dissolved minerals are responsible for its distinctive blue color.
Blue Lake’s Māori name is, Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa which means Rangihiroa’s mirror. Te Rangihiroa was the son of a local chief, Pakaurangi, and is believed to have explored the Tongariro volcanoes about 1750 AD. This lake is tapu (sacred). Swimming or even eating around the lake is not permitted.
You think from here it will be easier? The hardest part was yet to come. There's still a long way to go. There's a short easy climb to the edge of North Crater, then you will pass diverse native plants and an active volcanic hazard zone. The last leg of the track is a never ending downhill. It was the hardest part of the track, at least for me. There is no reprieve until you reach the forested area.
You can rest a while at the Ketetahi Hut - some did. We just stopped briefly to use the loo then continued on. We were concerned about our pick up time at the end of the trail.
On this trail, you will see Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupō on the horizon. This view helped break the monotony of a long hike downhill. Looking down at the meandering trail (photo below), it looks like there is no end to it. Whew! Just keep moving, you will reach the end of the trail eventually.