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Crossing the Tongariro: Take a day or a little longer

NZ Herald
By: Kate Webster

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is heralded as one of New Zealand's greatest day hikes and ranks among the top 10 single-day treks in the world. With such a reputation, you can expect to be blown away by the spectacular dramatics of this alpine landscape.

The 19.4km challenging journey takes you across a remarkable volcanic landscape, with its lava flows, an active crater, steam vents, emerald-coloured lakes and magnificent views combined to make it an unforgettable journey. Complete it in a day, or take your time and stay on the mountain for a multi-day hike. Either way, you won't be disappointed.

Don't be fooled by the beauty as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is no walk in the park. It can be dangerous if you are not fully prepared to enter an alpine environment, with extreme weather, terrain and distance presenting a very challenging hike.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is heralded as one of New Zealand's greatest day hikes and ranks among the top ten single-day treks in the world. Photo / Martin Davies
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is heralded as one of New Zealand's greatest day hikes and ranks among the top ten single-day treks in the world. Photo / Martin Davies

Adrift Tongariro owner Stewart (Stew) Barclay knows the crossing well, so much so that he is affectionately known as "The Mountain Man".  He's completed the Tongariro Crossing over 1500 times – that is equivalent to 1500 half-marathons above sea level.

An explorer at heart who has a reputation for "going down 'no exit' roads to see what's around the corner", Stew happily admits he is addicted to the adventuring lifestyle. This passion oozes out when guiding trekkers over the crossing with his company Adrift Tongariro.

While most hikers do the crossing in summer, Stew says he loves the shoulder and winter seasons because there are fewer people on the mountain and people get to enjoy the mountains with another dimension, the snow.

"I can't imagine ever tiring of walking the Crossing and see it through new eyes every time we guide a group of trekkers."

The youngest people to complete the walk are toddlers in their parents' backpacks. The oldest so far, an 84-year-old Japanese man, who – the following day – climbed Mt Ruapehu (height 2797m), "although he had to be piggy-backed for the last few hundred metres."

The shoulder and winter seasons offer fewer people on the mountain and plenty of snow. Photo / Adrift Tongariro
The shoulder and winter seasons offer fewer people on the mountain and plenty of snow. Photo / Adrift Tongariro

The Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the Tongariro National Park - New Zealand's oldest national park and a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area is rich in both cultural identity and dramatic, awe-inspiring natural scenery. The unique landforms, including the volcanic peaks of Ngāuruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu ensure the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered a world-renowned trek.

The crossing spans the length of Mt Tongariro (19.4Ks) and takes around eight hours to complete. You can tackle the track walking in either direction, but the more popular option begins at Mangatepopo Valley (1100m) and terminates at Ketetahi (750m). The highest point on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is Red Crater (1886m). There are also several side trips, which allows the one-day hike to become a multi-day option for those without time constraints.

This first section of the track is fairly flat and easy. It follows a stream and the edge of old lava flows, towards the valley head. As you climb in altitude, you can see varying patches of vegetation that reveal the age of the surrounding lava rock. Soda Springs is the last toilet stop until you reach the Ketetahi Hut.

Soda Springs to South Crater is slightly harder as the trail becomes steeper, climbing from 1400 metres up to 1600 metres above sea level in the valley to Mangatepopo Saddle between the mountains of Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro. The climb is rewarded with stunning panoramic views over the volcanic terrain. On a clear day, you can see as far as Mount Taranaki.

The 19.4km Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a challenging journey that takes you across a remarkable volcanic landscape. Photo / Martin Grafetsberger
The 19.4km Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a challenging journey that takes you across a remarkable volcanic landscape. Photo / Martin Grafetsberger

Making your way up the South Crater towards Red Crater is graded as difficult. It is the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and it is here you can make the decision to summit Tongariro. The main track continues around Red Crater and you have spectacular views over the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges and down to the Emerald Lakes. The smell of sulphur is a reminder that this crater is still active.

It is all downhill from here (the track descending – not the experience) as you trek past the stunning Emerald Lakes. Care is required with the descent from Red Crater, as this part of the track is steep and you are on loose scoria which can move underfoot. The Tongariro Crossing track follows around the edge of Central Crater then climbs up to Blue Lake (A cold acidic lake). The lake is tapu (sacred) and it is disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores. To the right are the Emerald Lakes. For most, this is the highlight of the track and a great place to pause for photos. The brilliant colour that gives them their name is caused by minerals leeching from the surrounding thermal environment.

On the homeward stretch, there is a short easy climb to the edge of North Crater, which was once filled with molten lava, which then cooled and solidified giving a level surface more than 1000m wide. In good weather, there are spectacular views out over Mount Pīhanga and Lake Rotoaira to Lake Taupō. Continuing to zigzag your way down to the Ketetahi Hut through the natural alpine garden, the track crosses the stream that flows down from Keteahi Hot Springs.

The last part of the track leads through open tussock land before it takes a steep decline to the Mangatetipua Stream, finishing through native forest for about an hour and a half. There is a short sidetrack leading to a waterfall a few minutes before reaching the end of the crossing at the Ketetahi car park.

The nitty-gritty

Weather conditions in this area can change rapidly, so it is paramount that you are properly prepared before setting out. This is a volcanic area so you will need to stay up to date on the Volcanic Alerts.

Surfaces vary from boardwalks, soil, rocky, loose scoria, steep in places. Streams are bridged. The track is generally well-formed. Toilets are available along the track and there are huts for those taking the multi-day hike option.

The Department of Conservation recommends that visitors access the track via a shuttle from Whakapapa, National Park Village, Turangi,Taupō or Ōhakune.

Book your Tongariro Alpine Crossing with Adrift Tongariro - www.adriftnz.co.nz

Extend your hike with the 3 day Northern Circuit - www.adriftnz.co.nz/guided-walks/northern-circuit/

Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz