- Guidebooks and websites are unanimous: the Tongariro Crossing is New Zealand’s premier day hike;
- It’s located in Tongariro National Park, a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the park’s outstanding volcanic features as well as its important Maori cultural and spiritual associations. And we have a “thing” about visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I made a list earlier today and I think this was #25 for our family as a whole; and
- It’s where Lord of the Rings fans (including our boys) can see Mount Doom without any CGI (aka Mount Ngauruhoe).
Advance Planning Required
As with any full-day hike, advance preparation increases the likelihood of a great experience. Check the weather forecast and volcano report in advance. If needed, change the planned date of your hike.
To tackle the Tongariro Crossing (19.4 km with about 800 meters elevation gain) you need to be at least moderately fit and have the appropriate clothing, boots and supplies. Good information on what to pack can be found on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing website. Since the trail is not a loop (i.e. has different start and end locations) you will also want to arrange transportation to the trailhead at the Mangatepopo parking area and for pickup from the Ketetahi parking area (about a 30 min / 20 km drive).
In the busy late spring, summer and early fall months there are so many people hiking the trail each day that you don’t need a guide to find the route; it’s well established and well marked.
Geology is the Main Attraction
There isn’t much vegetation along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, nor is there much wildlife. So the main attraction is the geology: three volcanoes, various craters (including crater lakes), old lava and lahar flows and steaming fumaroles define the landscape.
From what I’ve been able to learn, the three volcanoes (Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe) are andesitic, which means they sit above a tectonic plate boundary. In this case, they’re along the boundary where the Pacific Plate slides under the Indian-Australian Plate and sinks into the Earth’s mantle (subduction). We were hiking along a section of the Pacific Ring of Fire!
Departing the Mangatepopo parking lot, we started up the Mangatepopo Valley. Some sections are board walked where there are small meandering streams. There’s a bit of vegetation here: lichens and grassy tussocks. Different coloured layers on the valley walls tell the story of sequential lava flows.
The Devil’s Staircase
A couple of groups were stopped at the head of the Mangatepopo Valley, either for a snack break or to use the pit toilets (the last facilities available before reaching the Ketetahi Hut, several hours distant). We simply continued up the so-called Devil’s Staircase, a 200 m climb that actually includes some stairs but otherwise is a steep section over layers of ancient and more recent lava flows. The track is rough in places, but the view down the valley provides a good excuse to stop and catch your breath while taking a photograph or two.
At the top of the Devil’s Staircase, we crossed a bit of a lava rubble field and then found ourselves on the South Crater, a flat stretch along the shoulder of Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom). There’s an informative sign here, describing various forms of volcanic activity and reminding hikers what to do if there are any signs of an eruption.
We haven’t spent much time around volcanoes, so the South Crater made quite an impression on our boys. They described it as an “alien landscape”, what they imagine it must be like on Mars. This stretch of the track is very flat, providing ample recovery time between the Devil’s Staircase and the steep ridge climb to the Red Crater. It’s also where we first formed the impression that this track is so busy that when viewed from above, all the people on the trail look like a line of ants!
The climb to the Red Crater is short and steep. Strong winds meant cooler temperatures and added to the challenge of safely traversing the narrow bits (there are safety chains installed in a couple of places, which helped a lot).
At 1886 meters, the rim of the Red Crater is the highest point on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Keeping a safe distance back from the edge of the plateau, we looked down into the crater for our first glimpse of the classic lava dike which formed when lava flowed out of the crater. This lava flow lost its “mojo” before it cooled, flowed back into the crater and left behind a tube which has been exposed by subsequent eruptions. The striking red and brown/green coloured crater walls were caused by extreme heat sintering and oxidising the iron content of the rocks. We learned all this thanks to an earthcache (one of four earthcaches set up along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing).
The Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake
We stopped just a short distance down from the plateau, at what we consider the most scenic spot on the crossing: the deep red of the crater and lava dike, the various shades of green water in the Emerald Lakes and the bright Blue Lake made for beautiful spots of jewel-toned colour against an otherwise neutral landscape. This is also the spot where we first smelled sulphur, thanks to the steam vents near the most distant of the Emerald Lakes.
We witnessed the results of another geological process along this section of the track. Thanks to erosion, we had a lot of fun on the steep trail descending to the Emerald Lakes. Covered in deep, loose rock, it’s an ideal location for scree running and we had a great time practicing a skill we’d learned back home, on the slopes of Mount Yamnuska.
The Emerald Lakes are at the halfway point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so a lot of people stopped here for lunch. Not us! We were moving at a pretty good clip and carried on for another half hour or so, past the sacred Blue Lake and up to the highest point on the flanks of the North Crater before finding a lunch spot that was fairly sheltered from the wind.
Aside from the spectacular view, looking down on Blue Lake and back towards the Red Crater and Mount Doom, the highlight of lunch was dessert: a big bar of Whittaker’s chocolate, specifically Fairtrade Dark Ghana 72% Cocoa. Since returning to Canada we’ve learned that Whittaker’s is a New Zealand company and it will difficult, if not impossible, to find Whittaker’s chocolate here at home! 🙁
Descent to Ketetahi Parking Lot
The zig-zag descent to Ketetahi Hut is quite gentle. We passed quite a few steam vents and the boys pointed out the beautiful red tussocks and other fragile alpine plants beside the trail. There are occasional views of Lake Taupo to the north.
Several signs exhort trekkers to stick to the trail, keep moving and stay alert for signs of a new eruption. This area was affected by the August 2012 Te Maari eruption and large, active steam vents are easy to spot.
From the hut, the trail incorporates several staircases, some going up and some going down. The golden tussock-covered slopes eventually transition to a podocarp-hardwood forest, where the shade provides welcome relief from the afternoon sun. Damage from 2012 mudflows (lahar) is still visible and signs warn hikers to keep moving.
And move they did! Our boys’ hiking time (excluding lunch) was a blistering 4 hrs 55 minutes. Mr. GeoK and I took about a half hour longer, so it’s a good thing our transport was waiting well in advance of our expected finish time.
For us, the appeal of the trek was in the stark beauty of the landscape. But even in late February (i.e. late summer/early fall), it was quite busy, so if you’re looking for solitude, look elsewhere.
Total hiking distance = 19.4 km (we did not do any of the side trips)
Net elevation gain = approximately 800 m
Total hiking time = approximately 6.5 hours (including several stops for photographs and half an hour for lunch)