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Hiking New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Published 19 August 2016

Round the World Experts blogger Helen Winter

Helen Winter

Daring to tug my thick gloves off, I struggled against the wind to open my rucksack and pull out a lunch box. I returned to the rock I had been perched on and balanced the box on my knee, pulling the lid off to gather the pre-made ham sandwiches for me and my boyfriend, Christopher. We barely noticed the slightly stale bread, too distracted by the otherworldly landscape ahead of us; two turquoise sulphuric lakes, a bright blue crater lake, volcanic steam vents and the Desert Road, a.k.a Mordor. We were currently three hours into the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and having the best lunch break ever.

Helen at the Three Lakes

Image: Christopher Atkinson

On English soil I spend most of my time up mountains and hills, so when I went to New Zealand hiking was a must on the agenda. I was in the North Island’s Tongariro National Park, made famous by the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies which were filmed here. Other than an army of orcs and the film crews that were once here, Tongariro National Park is famous for the Tongariro Northern Circuit trek. This takes four days to complete, but as we were going into New Zealand’s winter, I fancied something a bit shorter. Enter the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I previously didn’t know anything about this hike but after talking to the helpful staff at the information centre in Whakapapa Village – can we just take a moment to appreciate that name please – my boyfriend and I signed up for a 6 – 8 hour guided hike. We had to be at the office for 7am. Yawn.

Starting the hike, Tongariro National Park

Image: Christopher Atkinson

Preparing for the hike

The next morning, all kitted up yet reluctant to leave the warm office, Christopher, myself, three guides and an impressive turnout of other hikers, were bundled into a bus to drive to the start of the hike. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is possible to do without a guide, but as the weather can be unpredictable up a mountain, especially in the winter, we chose to have a guide to show us the way and to be on hand in case anything went wrong. Plus the transport was extremely handy, dropping us off at the start of the trek and picking us up at the other end.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is just that, a hike that crosses through Tongariro’s volcanic landscape. It goes over three active volcanoes: Mt Ngaurhoe (yes, Mount Doom), although not all the way to the summit, with Mt Tongariro and Mt Rupeahu on either side. As you can imagine the views are spectacular, especially in the snow.

Cloud clearing over Blue Lake

Image: Christopher Atkinson

Hiking the ‘easy’ part

Once we arrived at the start of the hike we were divided into three groups. I was put with a guide named Shaun whose hobbies included hiking glaciers, hunting and caring for his pet goat, Paul. The hike started off fairly flat on a low wooden platform that protects the land, a ‘breeze’ I believe was the word I used, but I soon changed my tune. After our leisurely walk, taking in the surroundings of looming mountains and volcanoes in the near distance, we came to what is known as the Devils Staircase, leading led up the side of the Mt Ngaurhoe. I actually surprised myself at the speed I clambered up the stairs, going at a steady enough speed to join the group who left before us. It doesn’t really matter how fit you are though, everyone goes at their own pace and I was more than happy to catch my breath at the top and take in the almost post-apocalyptic view of alpine plants and lava-covered land.

Once everyone was up, we came onto a track heading into thick cloud. This created an eerie atmosphere, it felt as though I was walking on the moon, with nothing but flat volcanic land stretching out and disappearing into a dense fog. It was this cloud that hid the next ambitious stage of our hike, the ascent up to a ridge where we’d find the jewels of the crossing: the Emerald Lakes, Blue Lake, and the Red Crater.

Thick cloud on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Image: Christopher Atkinson

Feeling that mountain chill

After looking through some photos of Shaun’s pet goat, I drank some water and prepared myself for the upward scramble ahead. We did have ice picks and crampons with us, which the guides would have shown us how to use if needed, but fortunately (and unfortunately because I was excited to learn how to use an ice pick) a downpour of rain in the recent days had washed away the snow and ice, so it was all footwork from here.

Ascending upwards the temperature fell to zero degrees, and with no mountains blocking their path the icy winds picked up speed. I tightened my scarf around my face and pulled it across my numb nose, tugging my hood around me to shelter from the wind. Boots slipping on the volcanic ash, which was layered when Mt Tongariro last erupted in 2012, I came across a chain to hold on to for the next scramble up. This hike was definitely no ‘breeze’.

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Image: Helen Winter

Finding the mountain lakes

Reaching the top of the mountain, with the cold wind chipping at my enthusiasm, I was disappointed to see another impenetrable cloud covering what were meant to be the stars of the hike, the lakes and Red Crater.

The Blue Lake, Tongariro National Park

Image: Christopher Atkinson

Standing at the edge of the crater with the rest of the group, another guide called Andrea optimistically said ‘give it a second and I’m sure we’ll see the crater, it’s amazingly red!’ but the minutes passed and we were still looking into a soup of grey mist. Giving up we carried on, but as though the mountains knew we were near, the clouds all of a sudden cleared, giving us a peek at the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen – cheesy but true. Like a grand revealing, Blue Lake, which really is bright blue, flitted between the thinning cloud, and the Emerald Lakes glowed a turquoise blue, standing out against the Red Crater which really was a red as Andrea had promised. The moment when the clouds clear is the reason I love hiking, nothing else can quite compare to that feeling.

Helen and Christopher hiking in Tongariro National Park

Image: Helen Winter

Reaching the end

Digging our heels into the ash, as instructed by our guides, we headed down to the lakes for lunch. I stopped mid-slide as I noticed hot air coming out of the hillside, ‘Come here! It’s so warm!’ I called over to Christopher and we both took a moment to warm our hands up in front the volcanic vent as if we were sitting by a fire. After our ham sandwiches, Christopher and I took our fill of photos and selfies, poking fun at each other every time the unpleasant rotten-egg smell of sulphur occasionally caught in the wind.

After nearly an hour’s stop at the lakes, time we had gained from not having to use our ice picks and crampons, we started to make our way downwards on a seemingly endless zig-zag path before reaching a thick forest. It felt strange trudging through trees and ferns when we had not long been on terrain that was so hostile it seemed nothing could possibly survive there. But that’s the charm of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park: you can explore the volcanoes and the forest within a matter of minutes.

Legs beginning to ache, the forest opened up to a car park signalling the end of the trail, and in New Zealand style, we were greeted with a beer. Christopher and I settled on the grass, taking a well-earned rest whilst we excitedly reviewed the hike with new friends, and simultaneously agreed that this was the best hike we’ve ever done. I’d definitely do it again, but maybe in the summer next time. 


If you fancy hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, then take a look at Round the World Experts' Active New Zealand Journey, a fantastic itinerary for outdoors lovers that includes the hike and much more besides.


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