New Zealand,  Oceania

Tongariro Crossing Hike – Guide to NZ’s Best Day Trek

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 hike should absolutely be a priority in your plans! This was easily one of the best things Tim and I did during our 6 weeks road tripping through both the North and South Islands of New Zealand. 

Of course, the trail can be challenging and you might be wondering what to expect on the Tongariro Crossing hike. Never fear, this guide is here! I’ve got you covered, detailing how you should prepare for the trek, what each section of the trail is like, and plenty of photos that will get you lacing up your boots pronto. 

Volcano Tongariro Crossing hike New Zealand
Volcanic views on the Tongariro Crossing

Why Hike Togariro Alpine Crossing

Ok, first things first, why should you want to sweat your butt off in a dry, windy, desolate place all day anyway? And did I mention it’s among VOLCANOS? Bare with me. The Tongariro Crossing hike is everything, and even if you are a novice hiker, you can have an amazing experience. 

Here are just a few reasons you should add this to your New Zealand North Island itinerary.

  • The Tongariro Crossing hike 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
  • This is one of the few places in the world where you can hike among volcanos on a relatively short and low altitude day hike
  • It’s fun!
Three lakes Tongariro Crossing New Zealand
The Emerald Lakes, one of the most iconic views along the Tongariro Crossing trail

Preparing for the Tongariro Crossing Hike

Fitness Guidelines

While this isn’t the most strenuous hike in New Zealand, you do 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 (12 miles). It 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. That said, you don’t need to be a hiking pro. Plenty of non-hikers do this trek every day.

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. The views are still very beautiful even along this porting!

What to Bring

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.

Additionally, you should bring sturdy hiking shoes with a good grip (though I did see people in sneakers managing fine), layers for cold and hot weather (more on this below), and a backpack to carry your gear. 

Transportation To/From the Trailheads

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.

Weather

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. This will 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.

Tongariro Crossing Hike Trail Notes

Let’s get into the nitty gritty! I’m about to break down each section of the Tongariro Crossing hike and describe what the trail is like and how long it should take the average person. I really wish I had had this information before the hike, so you’re welcome. 

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.

start of the Tongariro Crossing hike New Zealand
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!

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!

Volcanic steam and sulfur on the Tongariro Crossing New zealand
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.

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.

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 volcanic topography you tackled!

 
Lava lake Tongariro Crossing New Zealand
The black expanse in the middle of the photo is hardened lava

More New Zealand Travel Tips

Don’t miss my other New Zealand travel guides!

Have you traveled to Cape Reinga from Paihia? What did you think? Any advice I missed that would be good for others to know? I always love to hear from my readers! Drop me a comment or contact me!

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Hey, I'm Sarah! I'm a Virginia-born girl living in Wisconsin. I'm obsessed with organization, planning, and adventurous travel. I am a cat-person with a love for all dogs, and I can never decide whether I want a sweet or a savory meal for brunch. Most of my travels (and my brunches) are with my best friend/soul mate/husband, Tim.

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