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Hiking Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s best one day hike

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is by far New Zealand’s most iconic hike. Taking you right through the heart of the spectacular Tongariro National Park, you will find yourself in one of the most scenic landscapes you will ever set foot in. From emerald green lakes to boiling craters and a lush green forest, you will not be disappointed in the effort you will have to make for hiking Tongariro Crossing.

In this article I will share my experience on hiking the crossing. I have do this hike twice over the past years and the article has been updated after my most recent visit to New Zealand in 2023. Note that per this year, it’s required to have a booking for the hike. More information can be found on the Department of Conservation website.

Let me first warn you before you continue reading: hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not just a walk in the park. Every year hikers (also called trampers in New Zealand) need to be rescued because they were not well equipped or not fit enough to complete this hike. Before you set off, make sure to answer the following questions with a yes:

  • Do you have the gear to hike the Tongariro Crossing? This means sturdy footwear, water- and windproof clothes (jacket and pants), a decent backpack and a first aid-kit. It does not mean shorts, flipflops and a denim jacket. Trust me.
  • Are you fit enough to hike up to eight hours through alpine terrain, gaining no less than 770 meters and descending 1.150 meters in altitude within a 7 hour walk.
  • Have you checked with Department of Conservation if the track is open and suitable to be walked on the day you plan to hike it.

If all these are a yes, then you are ready to go on this hike.

hiking tongariro alpine crossing
This is not a walk in the park

Shuttle to Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Due to high numbers of trekkers on this hike, it’s currently not possible anymore to hike it with you own car and so you must use a shuttle service to and from the trailhead and trailend. There are many providers but since I stayed overnight in Taupo, I used Tongariro Crossing Shuttles for this. They picked me up at 05.20 am at my hostel Finlay Jacks YHA and brought me back once I finished.

Find rates and availability for your shuttle here.

hiking tongariro alpine crossing
First views of Tongariro National Park
hiking tongariro alpine crossing
On the way

From the trailhead to Central Crater

The first section of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is quite easy. The trail taking you to Soda Springs is not very technical and quite flat. The path is well maintained and you should not have any issues getting here. If you found this hard already, this is the point to turn around and head back to the parking lot. On a clear day, Mount Ngauruhoe is in clear view to your right.

From Soda Springs you will start a steep climb called the Devil’s Staircase. Most of the climb will be steps so it’s not too technical, just a little tiring. Once you’re done climbing, you have arrived in Central Crater and you will be right on the foot of Mount Ngauruhoe. The walk through the crater is flat and easy but you may notice the wind will be much stronger here than when you started. On most days, this is just the beginning…

hiking tongariro alpine crossing
From the bottom of Mt Ngauruhue
hiking tongariro alpine crossing
Mt Ngauruhoe

From Central Crater to Red Crater

At the end of Central Crater you will find a small lake to your right and there are quite a few boulders which are perfect for taking a first break. Soak up the amazing views and make sure you breathe in and out because the views will surely take your breath away.

From Central Crater the most demanding part is about to start, which is the climb up to the Red Crater. This steep trail is not for those with a fear of of heights as dreep drop offs occur on both sides. You will follow a steep trail up, sometimes well marked by footsteps from others, sometimes impossible to see on the loose scree. There are some chains here that may be of help.

Up here the wind can get horrendous and you would not be the first to be blown off the track here, so take extreme caution. Even when I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing a few months ago it was right in the middle of summer, it was an incredibly and sunny day but the wind almost got to me here. Just before the top of Red Crater you can take a peek into the crater, with a bit of luck you will notice some smoke circling up and you may even smell some rotten eggs. The final steps up to the highest point of the hike are easy, some cairns will indicate you have reached the highest point on this hike.

View into Red Crater
View into Red Crater
chains on tongariro crossing
Some of the chains along the way
The last section to the summit of Red Crater
The last section to the summit
hiking tongariro alpine crossing
Looking back on Mt Ngauruhoe

From the Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing to Ketetahi

Then you may begin your descent down towards the Emerald Lakes that have appeared below you. Take good care when descending because there is no real trail and going down on loose scree will need a bit of balance. Take it slowly and bend the knees well and you will be just fine. Once down at the Emerald Lakes, make plenty of photos and have your lunch break, it is by far the most scenic part of the hike, in my humble opinion.

From the Emerald Lakes the trail is flat for another little while, followed by a short uphill portion leading you to Blue Lake. If you don’t fancy joining the crowds for lunch at Emerald Lakes, Blue Lake is another great spot for lunch. Follow the trail up just a little further, before eventually descending all the way down to Ketetahi.

Even though you are already past the half way point by now, for me this part seemed to last the longest. The trail is quite easy but it’s just very, very long. In the far distance you will have great views of Lake Taupo and the surrounding area and you will also see some smoking mountains around you. Be aware that they are on private land though and you will not be able to access them.

looking down on the emerald lakes at the tongariro crossing
View on the Emerald Lakes
hiking tongariro alpine crossing
One of the Emerald Lakes
Trekkers walking down from Red Crater
Trekkers walking down from Red Crater
Emerald Lake on the Tongariro Crossing
Emerald Lake
hiking tongariro alpine crossing
View back to all three volcanoes in a row

The last section to the trail end

Once past Ketetahi (a former hut site) it will be another one hour, maybe a bit longer, before you will reach the car park. You will see the trail drop down below you, eventually leading you into the bush. Here a lot of steps will mark the way and eventually, after some 20 kilometers of hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, you have completed the trail. You may now congratulate yourself as you have just successfully finished one of the most amazing day hikes in New Zealand!

View towards Lake Taupo
View towards Lake Taupo
hiking tongariro alpine crossing
The landscape on the way down

About the Tongariro Crossing

As I mentioned before, hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not for everyone. I’ve seen people of all ages and fitness levels do this, however sometimes they did not always seem to enjoy it. Being well prepared for this hike is essential and with the right mindset and a decent level of fitness, you will be just fine.

However do keep in mind that the weather is the most important factor for being able to complete this hike. The track is closed every now and then due to bad weather and in that case, shuttles will be canceled too. Don’t be foolish to think you can still do it because it will be a stupid thing to do. A few years back I hiked the Tongariro Northern Circuit and I ran into some people who had, against all advice, hiked across Red Crater in foul weather. In fact, they did not hike but they crawled and thought they were going to die. It’s not something you want to experience.

If you are unsure of your fitness and/or doubting to go on your own, you can decide to join a guided hike instead, something I definitely recommend!

hiking tongariro alpine crossing
On the Tongariro Crossing

Where to stay and how to get there

Whakapapa is the main village near Tongariro but I didn’t find it very attracting. Instead, I stayed in Taupo and also at National Park Village, at the National Park Backpackers. There were no real facilities here but the views from the campsite are just stunning. The best way to get to Tongariro National Park is by rental car, however there are various bus companies servicing National Park as well. Book ahead though as it’s a populair destination!

transport to the tongariro crossing
My bus transport

Conclusion and disclaimer

I have hiked th Tongariro Alpine Crossing twice over the past couple of years. It’s an absolutely amazing hike if you are fit and well prepared. If the weather decides to be amazing, it will be an even better experience. In case there’s anything you want to know or ask me, feel free to leave a comment below. For now, enjoy the short movie I made and I hope you will get to enjoy hiking the Tongariro Crossing as much as I did!

Want to read more? Then you may enjoy the following posts as well:

Alternatively, make sure to check my New Zealand homepage for more than 50 blogs about active travel in New Zealand.

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