Completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was a dream come true, right from the top of my bucket list! Not only did I see sweeping views that took my breath away, I also learned some valuable lessons about myself in the process. I couldn’t wait to embark on this solo adventure.
Rated as the most popular day hike in New Zealand, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located on the North Island in the Tongariro National Park, a World Heritage site. This unique and at times difficult 12-mile hike passes between two active volcanoes, Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe (otherwise known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings) and takes between 6-9hrs to traverse.
To prepare for this hike, I immersed myself in research about the area and the best gear to take with me. I planned my trip for the Fall, so the temperature would be on the cool side especially in the alpine climates at the higher elevations. I’m a sucker for organization so I compiled a very detailed list of what to wear and bring for the hike:
WHAT TO WEAR
- Convertible waterproof hiking pants
- Wool or Polypropylene base layers (leggings & long sleeved top)
- Waterproof fleece jacket
- Wicking T-Shirt
- Waterproof outer jacket
- Bandana/Winter Hat
- Wool socks
- Hiking boots
WHAT TO BRING
- Camelbak Day Pack
- 2L of water
- Lots of snacks (peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, trail mix, protein bars)
I scheduled the hike for the end of my 8-day New Zealand trip. Unfortunately, the hike was cancelled due to bad weather and rain on the Tuesday I was supposed to go! This was the type of weather I had hoped to avoid by going in the Fall, but you can’t control Mother Nature! Luckily the forecast for Wednesday was good, so I juggled my itinerary so I’d have another shot to do the hike.
The next morning I took the shuttle for the 20-minute ride from the hostel to the starting point at the Mangatepopo Car Park. Other shuttles were dropping off passengers so it was quite crowded as I got out. It was only this crowded for the first 20-30 minutes along the trail because the throngs of people eventually spread out as each group found their own pace. The weather was still cloudy but visibility was better than the day before and the rain was more of a mist so I fell in behind a group of hikers and started the trek. I had many sights to look forward to including the Devil’s Staircase, Mt. Ngauruhoe, South Crater, Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes.
The first thing I noticed was how volcanic the terrain was from the beginning. The trail starts out easy with a gentle uphill grade over a man-made wooden pathway that spares this section of dried lava flows from the footsteps of the thousands of hikers who visit each year. Mt. Ngauruhoe was visible off to my right but low clouds and fog covered much of the surrounding mountains. The weather continued misting for the first hour of hiking but right before the big climb up the Devil’s Staircase the rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun came out revealing an amazing view of Mt. Ngauruhoe. I had to shed a few layers because of the suddenly warmer temps and physical sweat I was working up. When I reached the top of the staircase I was greeted with magnificent views of the valley and beyond where I had just hiked. At this point there was an option to climb to the Mt. Ngauruhoe summit on a side trail, which would add 2-3 hours to the hike. I opted to take a picture instead and kept on the main path that would take me to South Crater.
Walking through the South Crater was like being on an alien planet. The ground was bathed in rich shades of red, orange, yellow and brown with a diverse terrain. The trails were well marked and easy to follow with colored poles so as not to disturb the landscape or take away from the majesty of the surroundings. The path through South Crater took me even further around Mt. Ngauruhoe and I was able to see the red rim at the peak from the last eruption. Did I mention that all the volcanoes in this area are still active? Continuing ahead led me past another side trail, this time to the top of Mt. Tongariro. I chose to continue trekking on until I came to another steep climb. I reminded myself, that there was no hurry, that there was nothing wrong with going at my own pace. The goal isn’t to get to the end first, but to enjoy the journey and beauty along the way.
Once at the top of the mountain overlooking South Crater, the temperature dropped dramatically and the wind picked up so I had to layer up with my extra jacket and gloves. I wish I had brought a warm winter hat! Coming around the bend in the trail I was treated with the most magnificent view yet: Red Crater. I was mesmerized and kept taking pictures because I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.
After about 3.5hrs of hiking, I was happy the next segment was a descent, but the terrain was very loose and slippery with volcanic scree so I had to walk with extreme care. As I was coming down a steep mountain path on the side of Red Crater I saw a blue lake in the distance. Imagine my surprise as I continued down the path that another lake came into view…and then 2 more! These were the Emerald Lakes, the most awe-inspiring natural formations I had ever seen. The minerals from the volcanoes created the most vibrantly colored water: teal blues, emeralds and sea foam greens. I spent 45 minutes at this vantage point to take photos, eat my lunch and soak up the spectacular view.
As I carefully climbed the rest of the way down to the lakes I got up close and personal views of active geothermal steam vents. I used a steam vent right by the trail to warm up my hands…it’s amazing that this is a natural phenomenon. I was tempted to put a finger into one of the lakes, but I decided that would be a monumentally bad idea! Instead, I made my way between the Emerald Lakes and continued on the trail that was thankfully downhill for the remainder of the hike. The landscape changed again and became less and less volcanic, with more plants and bushes, eventually turning into a rainforest the closer I came to the finish. I enjoyed great views out to Lake Rotorua and Lake Taupo in the distance.
Six and a half hours after starting the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I reached the Ketetahi Car Park, which marked the end of the hike. Other hikers clapped as I came across the ‘finish line’ triumphantly! My feet were sore, my muscles were like jelly, my body was exhausted and a wave of hunger hit me. It was time to take a seat on a bench and relish in my success, eat a snack and wait for the shuttle to return me to the hostel.
Completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing ignited my passion for hiking. Reflecting back on my trip, the journey made me realize just how strong, resilient, flexible and healthy my body is and I respect it for everything it allows me to do. Since returning from my journey I have gone on numerous long haul hikes, spent more time exploring trails in my area, upgraded my hiking gear and connected with local hikers. My next big adventure will be doing the 4-day Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu in Peru.
The beauty of the world is all around us and I intend to get out there and see as much as I can on foot!