The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s Best One-Day Hike

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Shortly after I arrived in New Zealand, a number of people who knew of my passion for hiking and mountaineering told me it was worth my while to hike the 19km Tongariro Alpine Crossing – one of the best day hikes in New Zealand.
Yup. They were right.

This post was originally published in 2010, and has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

Here's why the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand's best day hike, what it's like, and tips for doing it. #NewZealand #Taupo #TongariroCrossing #TongariroAlpineCrossing #MountDoom #Mordor #TheProfessionalHobo #NoraDunn #traveltips

The Tongariro crossing has been described as the best one-day hike in New Zealand for ages, but has gained a whole new pilgrimage since Lord of the Rings came out. The reason? This hike takes you through the heart of “Mordor”, passing by “Mount Doom” (and climbing up it, if you’re feeling energetic enough to add 2-3 hours to your day for the side track to the summit). And no, it’s not called Mount Doom in real life.

Although there was a certain appeal for me to see the desolate landscapes of “Mordor” in person, I’m not enough of a Lord of the Rings fan to have gone out of my way to do this hike for that reason alone. Instead it was the volcanic mountainous landscape, the long trek, and the promise of epic views that lured me in. Tongariro National Park wasn’t on the way to anywhere for me – I made it a dedicated trip and prayed that the weather would cooperate for the one day window I had available.

Volcanic Hazards to be heeded! Check the Tongariro National Park Weather

The Tongariro weather wasn’t looking too good leading up to the trek either. The park had been closed all week due to high winds and snow (yes, snow) in some parts. Because of the steep exposure on some parts of the hike, as well as the high altitude, weather plays a big part in how the day goes. As with any mountainous environment, a sunny day can turn into a blizzard at any time of year, and hikers must be prepared.

Make sure to check the weather reports before you make your arrangements!

So despite a week of foul weather leading up to my trip, I persevered in the hopes that the weather would break in time for my only available hiking day.

Where to Start Your Tongariro Alpine Crossing Adventure

The major launching point for the Tongariro Crossing is Taupo, a pretty town on a huge lake bearing the same name in the centre of the North Island of New Zealand. Even so, Taupo isn’t all that close to the start of the hike (which is located in Tongariro National Park). To get there, you catch a bus at the crack of dawn (before dawn, actually), and spend the next hour and a half waking up and considering your fate with a host of other travelers in the same boat (er…bus).

Alternatively, you can stay in Turangi the night prior, which is only 20 minutes from Tongariro park, but also has fewer amenities. 

Check out these accommodation deals near the Tongariro Crossing here!
making friends on the Tongariro Crossing

The evening prior, I befriended a girl from Holland who was staying at the same hostel as I. I discovered we were destined for the same fate when I overheard her wondering aloud if she would hear her alarm and awake in time to catch the bus. We vowed to wake each other up if we weren’t both up and eating breakfast by 5:45am.

But that wasn’t necessary; come the next morning we found each other in the dark kitchen with a few other travelers who were up for the trek, bleary-eyed and stumbling around. Needless to say the bus ride wasn’t exactly an uproarious one, despite it being packed with travelers from around town who were all committing their day to this hike.

Despite numerous warnings to have ample clothing, food, and water available, many of the hikers I saw on the bus had little more than what they were wearing (which in some cases was shorts and t-shirts) and a small bag with water and (maybe) a lunch. By comparison my bag stuffed with provisions and extra layers looked out of place, but with my experience in the mountains, I know to play it safe.

The Start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

After being dropped off with about a million other hikers, my new friend (Sam) and I began the trek. Initially it felt less like the vast expanses of Mordor and more like a donkey trail given the stream of hikers in front of and behind us. People periodically stepped aside to get the perfect shot of the beautiful sunrise over the mountains, trying hard to ensure that nobody was in the shot, ironically, as if this place was their own secret. (And yes, I am guilty as charged – evidence below).

flora and lanscapes at Tongariro New Zealand
Our first glimpse of Mount Doom on the Tongariro crossing, with people walking along the trail in the distance
Signpost for the Tongariro Summit

We later learned that April is the shoulder season for the trek, and that it actually wasn’t as busy as it could be. Tongariro Expeditions – the company that shuttled us to and from the park – takes 100,000 people each year into Tongariro National Park for this hike, and they’re not even the only operator in the region.

The hike itself started fairly easily while we all got used to the terrain, before we tackled the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase”. This separated the fit from the not-so-fit, as some people literally sprinted up the never-ending switchbacks and rocky stairs, while others took breaks every few minutes. Hacking away in the thin cool air and laughing at our own breathlessness, Sam and I made it to the top with only a few short breaks.

Devil's Staircase

This is where the suckers for punishment could tackle the side-track to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe (pronounced nah-ruh-ho-ee), aka “Mount Doom”. Although I’m sure the views from the top were splendid, we were already above the clouds, and had surpassed the designated time to begin the ascent (and still make it down and finish the hike in time to catch the last bus out of the park).

Nora Dunn In front of the famous Mount Doom New Zealand

So instead we persevered on the Tongariro Crossing itself, walking clear across massive volcanic craters, past Mount Tongariro (another side track that takes about an hour and a half to summit and return), around volcanic cones, and between peaks and lakes. The grade was ever-upwards, and at times required some hands-on scrambling with steep exposure on both sides.

About three hours into the trek (after the worst of the climb was over and we had descended into and out of the “Red Crater”), we were hit in the face by an invisible brick wall; one that reeked of rotten eggs. Taking only shallow breaths to avoid the overpowering smell, I recognized it from other geothermic sites (including White Island), and knew that there was some serious geothermic activity taking place just below our feet. This smell stayed with us through much of the afternoon.

Emerald Lakes

After a lunch stop at the aptly named (and beautiful) “Emerald Lakes”, we continued on the rest of our hike, enjoying the rolling terrain. We passed steamy sulphur springs, and watched as the landscape gradually became greener and lusher, until we finally descended into the humid forest.

On the way down from the highest part of the Tongariro Alpine Trek, with a lake in the distance
Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, feeling pretty good about Tongariro

We emerged the other side of this 19km hike a little worse for wear but generally pleased with our time of six hours (minus an hour for lunch and a number of breaks along the way).

The Professional Hobo in the dense foliage at the end of the Tongariro hike

When we got back on the bus, our egos were more than a little bit deflated when we learned that the record Tongariro crossing time (including an extra few kilometers to/from a lower parking lot) is an hour and forty-five minutes. It was surely accomplished by the likes of one of the people we saw running – literally running – past us with nothing but spandex and camelbacks on.

How Difficult is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?

Tongariro Alpine Crossing difficulty: For us regular folk, the Tongariro Crossing is a long day, but not an overly strenuous trek. It requires endurance, a solid stomach (for some of the steeper drops on an especially windy day), and a few extra layers, as it can get cold at altitude. And although you can do the walk in running shoes, I was grateful for my hiking boots, which made some of the scree-filled descents into various craters much easier to accomplish while remaining upright.

Best Time of Year for the Tongariro Crossing

You can hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at any time of year, but you can’t do it without a guide (and crampons and ice axes) in the wintertime, and you can’t do it without massive crowds in the summertime. Hence my recommendation is to attempt the Crossing in the spring and autumn seasons; my stamp of approval for this idea was sealed by the increased number of locals who were there as well – avoiding both the summer crowds and winter chills.

Have a look at this video that tells so much more than what 1,400 or so words can!

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21 thoughts on “The Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s Best One-Day Hike”

  1. Looks like a great hike. Would love to do it, but I have a feeling that the trail would be a bit too busy for my likings. I really wish that New Zealand had more long day hike trails–in good condition– that aren’t super crowded. Maybe it does, but we didn’t find them on our recent trip to the South Island. Your description of your back made me chuckle. I always feel like I am carrying a monster pack on the trail, but I like to be prepared.

  2. @Leigh – despite the crowds, it was great!

    @Maya – There are other hikes in Tongariro National Park that are less popular; hence less crowded – and still afford a great experience. (I don’t know this first-hand; only from people I’ve spoken to). I’ve also chatted with people who have had great (solitary) experiences on the Abel-Tasman trail on the South Island…but I think you have to commit to multi-day hikes to get away from some of the crowds. Going during the shoulder season also pays if you’re wanting to escape the crowds.

  3. @Aaron – Thanks, buddy! Speaking of wanting more video….can’t wait to see our NZ adventures in action! See you soon….

  4. This makes me miss Tongariro and want to go back there! LAst February Ryan and I visited Tongariro in our way north. We only had a week to drive between Wellington and Auckland, so our time was unfortunately limited, couldn’t do a long hike. We went to Ruapehu. Got up with the ski lift, and did a little hike. We loved the view. It was just very different. Rocks everywhere, no vegetation. They also used this mountain as shooting location for LOTR (I heard), so we were fooling around making some Gollum, Frodo and Sam poses climbing up the volcano 🙂 We had a great time there. We wished to go to Ngauruhoe, but there were still so much to see to the north. Love this post, Nora, love the video clip. Brings me back good memory of Tongariro!

  5. Great post – I love that you’re so enthusiastic about everything on your travels. And can’t believe that people did it less than 2 hours, mountain runners are nuts!

  6. @Dina – I like going to places like Ruapehu that do skiing in winter….they’re almost always set up for great hikes in the summer!

    @Niamh – Thanks! I generally try to write about positive stuff..if it’s a negative experience – unless I can turn it into a funny story – I don’t write about it! 🙂

  7. @Chenay – Like I said in the post, spring and autumn are the best seasons; and I would wager the best months in particular (to get the best of reduced crowds and still good weather) would be March and October.

  8. I’m going to New Zealand for the second time in January and think I’d like to try the Alpine Track. I’m not very fit, but my friend said I should be able to do it just fine.

    Where and who did you contact to get on the bus that transports you to the “starting line”? I’m trying to find a company webpage, but not having the most luck with it…

    Thanks for sharing and thanks for including a video! Gives me more of a feel of what to expect 🙂

    • Hi Bakoyma,
      I know the feeling! I remember trying to research and book my crossing arrangements online in advance, without much definitive information or success.
      However once you get to Taupo I believe you’ll have no trouble booking the bus – which services all the hotels and hostels – and you can book directly through your hotel/hostel. The weather is dodgy enough that you can’t really plan it too far in advance in case the park is closed, so this is a travel plan best left for the “last minute” (or at least, the day prior!).

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience Nora. We’re camped in Turangi at the moment and are heading out to hike the route tomorrow! I’ve been debating how much food and how many layers to take but I see that we’re hiking it at around the same time of year as you did so I’m going to play it safe and follow your example. I’m looking forward to the climb it’s the steep descents that are making me a little anxious, I’m really not great with heights!!

    • Hey Charli,
      You’ll have a blast! The girl I was hiking with had a fear of heights, and she managed it pretty well, so I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Enjoy!

  10. Hi, we are supposed to do it last week but Tongariro closed due to a cyclone! So disappointed and rescheduling is quite tricky. What time of the year did you go? We are thinking of trying it on the last week of April, the only time we could do.

    • Hi Iska – That’s about the same time of year that I did the hike; the weather is unpredictable at that time of year, but I got lucky – the park was closed (due to snow!) the week before and the week after, but I got perfect weather.
      Here’s hoping the weather is just as perfect for you!

  11. One hour 45 minutes?!? My ghod, the level of fitness – and risk-taking down the scree – that must involve…

    Took me eight hours, but that involved going wow at the scenery and taking loads of photos ( I spent 50 minutes at the Emerald Lakes alone and would happily have spent more.

    If only they could end it at Blue Lake instead of having the long, long, long walk down with the endless, endless stairs that involves. I’ve seen one suggestion that they should build a luge track, like the ones at Skyline Rotorua. That would be about the only thing that would make the route more amazing…

    • Hi Ian,
      Indeed, the last chunk of the hike was a bit tedious, and a luge would be right up NZ’s alley! Though that would surely attract even more hikers, and I’m not honestly sure the park/terrain can sustain it….

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