Hiking amongst volcanoes

One of the best day treks in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes you past three active volcanoes, emerald blue lakes and steaming vents.  It’s an once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to be missed.

The 19.4km Tongariro Alpine Crossing is part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. Like many other hikes in New Zealand, it starts off with an unassuming trailhead and a Department of Conservation sign telling you what lies ahead, including warning signs that you’re entering an active volcano zone.  
The walk can be started from either direction (Mangatepopo Valley or Ketatahi Road), although most prefer to begin at Mangatepopo Valley as it is higher.  From here, the walk climbs alongside a stream and around the edges of old lava flows.  Near the head of the valley a short side track leads to Soda Springs that are an oasis for the moisture loving yellow buttercups and white foxgloves. 

The steep climb from the valley to Mangatepopo Saddle, between Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro, is rewarded by panoramic views, which on a clear day reach as far as Mount Taranaki.  For the fit and enthusiastic, Mount Ngauruhoe can be climbed as a three-hour return side trip. 

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing continues east across the South Crater towards the Red Crater, the highest point on this trek.  A distinct sulphur smell between the two regions is a reminder that the Red Crater is still active.  From the summit of the Red Crater, the track descends steeply to the Emerald Lakes and you can see across to the Blue Lake past the Central Crater.  The brilliant colouring is caused by minerals leeching from the adjoining thermal area.   The water is the lakes is cold and acidic, and freezes in winter.  

After a short climb out of the Central Crater, you can see the Blue Lake, from where the track slides around the flanks of the Northern Crater towards Ketetahi Shelter.  On this section you can see evidence from the latest volcanic eruptions in November 2012 with great views of the steaming vents at Te Maari craters. From the Ketetahi Shelter, the track descends through golden tussock-covered slopes and forest towards the Ketetahi carpark; the end to one of the most fabulous walking adventures in the world.  Allow six to eight hours to complete this walk.   

Best time to go
October to April is the best time for this walk.  Between May and September, the walk should be done with an experienced guide and with proper equipment. Regardless of the time of the year, this is an alpine crossing so be prepared for rapidly changing weather. 

Local tips
  • Don’t take the walk lightly; plan and prepare with sturdy boots, multiple layers of clothes, a rain jacket, and ample of water and food.  Observe the warning signs for volcanic activity.  Get a map from the iSITE.  
  • If you’re planning to do the Tongariro Northern Circuit, book huts in advance. 
  • Pay attention to the time when doing the crossing as most shuttles stop running between 4pm and 6pm.
  • Lord of the Rings fans will enjoy climbing Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the movie), although you need to be very fit for this. Also, the track is not marked so climb only on a clear day when you are sure you can find your way back to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track.
  • Panoramic views of the volcanic landscape.
  • Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake.
  • Te Maari Craters that burst into life in August and November 2012 – a reminder that Tongariro can still kick ash.  

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