New Zealand is known for its remarkable and varied natural wonders, from lush fjords to volcanic hot springs, and Tongariro Crossing gives you a cross-section of some of the best scenery the island nation has to offer. It has been called one of the best day hikes in the world, and for good reason: This 12-mile track winds through an ever-changing landscape of old lava flows, sulphurous craters, emerald-colored lakes, and lush beech forest.
Located in Tongariro National Park, a dual World Heritage Site and New Zealand’s oldest national park, the Tongariro Crossing is challenging enough to be an adventure, but achievable for hikers with a moderate level of fitness. The reward? Access to a remarkable environment and views you won’t forget in a hurry.
Beginning in the Mangatepopo Valley, hikers ease into their six- to eight-hour journey wandering through old lava fields on a well-formed track that becomes an elevated boardwalk in places.
From Soda Springs, a mineral spring (not suitable for drinking) and buttercup oasis, the track takes an abrupt turn up the Devil’s Staircase, a steep climb of 656 feet in elevation, to 5,250 feet above sea level. This hard slog levels out in a barren, lunar-like landscape, a lonely saddle tucked in between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro. (For the truly gung-ho, there is the option for a three-hour side-trip up Mount Ngauruhoe before returning to the track.)
Now that your legs have enjoyed a reprieve, prepare for a short push up an exposed ridge to the blood-colored Red Crater, the wafts of sulphur an eerie reminder it’s still active. (Note: hiking the Tongariro Crossing when winds are above 37 miles per hour is not recommended due to this section of exposed ridgeline.)
Here’s the payoff: from the summit of the Red Crater, you’ll have views over the aptly named Emerald Lakes, that gleam all the brighter in their scorched-earth setting, as well as the Kaimanawa Ranges and Oturere Valley.
The descent leads past the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake, all of which are acidic. The Blue Lake is tapu (scared) to Maori, the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, and you should not swim in or eat food near the lake.
Now you’ll see the landscape starts to change, as tussocks and other hardy plants flank the track that leads to Ketetahi hut.
From Ketetahi hut, it’s downhill all the way through lush beech forest to the Mangatetipua Stream and down to the Ketetahi car park where you can arrange to be picked up.
When to Go:
The Tongariro Crossing is accessible all year. Summer is the busiest time, while the shoulder seasons of spring and fall tend to be less crowded. A winter (May through October) crossing should only be undertaken by people familiar with extreme alpine environments, and you will need to carry crampons, ice axes, and be avalanche aware. (Guided trips with an experienced winter guide are available.)
What to Wear:
It is important to start out with good basics: strong, sturdy hiking boots (not sneakers) and moisture-wicking clothing like Royal Robbins’ Wick-ed Cool™ short-sleeved shirts, hats, and long-sleeved shirts. The Wick-ed Cool™ line, with temperature-activated technology that reacts to your body heat to provide optimal comfort, is designed for terrain like the Devil’s Staircase, where you heat up quickly during the climb, and can easily become sweat-chilled at the top if your clothes don’t keep you cool.
Be sure to pack layers for quick-changing conditions, including a fleece, warm jacket, long underwear, a hat and gloves, and a waterproof jacket and pants.
What to Pack:
- Minimum two liters of water per person (3+ on a hot summer’s day). There is no water available on the track
- High energy food and snacks
- Sunscreen and sunglasses
- Map and mobile phone
- Emergency essentials in case of an unexpected overnight on the track.
Transport and Accommodation:
Hikers are advised to park and ride with licensed operators from nearby townships. These operators provide timely drop-offs and pick-ups from either end of the track, as well as being an excellent source of local expertise. Booking with a transport company also means that someone knows you’re on the Crossing and when you are due out.
Know Before You Go:
The Tongariro Crossing is a beautiful, but wild and unpredictable environment. Check the weather and volcanic activity before you go, and make sure others not making the trek are aware of your plans. If you have any questions, licensed operators approved by the Department of Conversation can provide advice and safety knowledge. If there is any doubt, save your trek for another day and be prepared to turn back. Keep to the marked tracks as plants and lichens take a long time to grow in this environment, and take your trash out with you.
What is your most memorable day hike? Tell us in the comments!
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