Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro National Park NZ

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes you through an otherworldly volcanic landscape, and is New Zealand’s most famous day-walk.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

We finally did NZ’s most famous day-walk, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is on almost all lists of the best day-hikes in the world. It passes through an otherworldly volcanic landscape used for the Mordor scenes in Lord of the Rings.

With some flexibility in our timetable we picked a fine weather day to do the walk. Nevertheless, a rogue weather system brought in unforecasted low cloud just as we arrived at the most spectacular section. Bloody mountain weather! I still got good shots however, if not the very best possible.

Track notes at the end. Unless you start before daylight or walk it in winter you’ll be joined by hundreds of others, so it’s not a wilderness experience. Just set your expectations accordingly and you’ll still enjoy this very unique and spectacular walk.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: The Scenery

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Pukekaikiore (1692m), with volcanic rock in the foreground.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
I took a few of Ngauruhoe as we walked up the valley.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Cliffs as we approached the climb into South Crater.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
I took a photo of Mt Taranaki, 130km away (steady hand required!). You can see there’s snow on the top, which we could only just see when we drove past the day before, due to the summit being clouded in.

Ascending to the Craters

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Looking back into the valley.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
In South Crater.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Ngauhuroe again, viewed from South Crater, now with its distinctive red bits showing.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Ngauruhoe looking magnificent.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Ngauruhoe (2287m) viewed from just above South Crater.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Oturere Valley
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
South Crater
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This should have been my Ngauruhoe money shot, taken near the walk’s high point of 1868m, however that cloud wouldn’t budge and so this was the best I could get. Not too bad.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Red Crater
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Red Crater looked like it was the gateway to hell. If you search Google Images for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 90% of your results will be photos of the Emerald Lakes, but I’ve seen plenty of spectacular coloured tarns before. Red Crater was the highlight for me.
But don’t get me started on what that lava tube looks like.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This shot was to showcase the colours. With all that red and gold I half expected a Chinese dragon to emerge from somewhere. It is the year for it.
And subsequent to posting this on Facebook a friend pointed out this looks very much like a dragon, with the head, long snout and eye on the right, wings and haunches in the middle, and leg bent on the left. Pretty cool.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Blue Lake and Rotopaunga (1856m). That’s frost on the mountain side. I had to defrost our car windscreen in the morning. Not what I expected form the North Island in early autumn!
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Transitioning from the red of Red Crater to the mustards and greens of Emerald Lakes.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Sophia backed by the Emerald Lakes. This was with cloud cover, so they are a milky green.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Emerald Lakes. More emerald coloured when sunny.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This is not cloud, but the sulphurous gas being emitted from vents in the mountainside. It smelled like Rotorua.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
One of the money shots, packing in as much colour, shape, and volcanic emissions as possible.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Looking back from the ridge between Central Crater and Blue Lake. Ruapehu, the North Island’s tallest mountain, is now showing on the far left.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Blue Lake
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Central Crater

Beginning the Descent

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
On our way down. Lake Rotoaira in the mid ground, and Lake Taupo, NZ’s largest, in the distance. Lake Taupō is the caldera of a volcano – that would have been a spectacular explosion! We actually heard three very loud booming sounds a bit before this photo was taken, and wondered if one of the mountains was about to blow! I later learned it was the military exploding bombs. Surprisingly powerful.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
After quite a long descent through heath vegetation we finished the walk in pleasant bush.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Possibly kidney fern on the right.


Track Notes

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
On a marked track/route the whole way. You’ll need to organise transport at both ends.

There’s plenty of information online about this walk, including on the DOC site. I won’t reproduce that information here, but here’s a very short summary of the walk.

The vast majority of it is fairly easy terrain. The start is easygoing before a couple of climbs. The first is to enter South Crater, and the second to visit Red Crater, a fabulous landform that looks like the gates to hell. This is the high point of the walk, at 1868m. There is then a short but steep descent to the Emerald Tarns on loose scree. After that you cross the wide expanse of Central Crater, pass by Blue Lake, and exit from the volcanic terrain. The descent through heath vegetation is long and less interesting, but finishes in pleasant forest.

Depending on your transport arrangements you will either wait for your shuttle bus at the track end, or else walk down the road for 10 minutes to the private car park owned by one of the shuttle bus companies.

Challenges

So many people do this walk that it can feel a bit tame, but but don’t underestimate it. The main bit that gets people into trouble is the short descent from Red Crater to the Emerald Tarns, which is a very loose and almost powdery scree. I’m very used to walking on scree – it’s all over Canterbury where I had been living for four years – and I was pretty blasé about it. Perhaps because of this I did slip at one point and aggravated an injury I had picked up a few walks earlier, but had forgotten about. It was fine but a reminder not to lose concentration on this sort of terrain, even if you are experienced. (In fact, a few weeks after we did the walk a man fell and died near Red Crater, so the worst can happen.)

Also beware of the weather. It’s a proper alpine environment and the wind can blow cold and strong even on a nice sunny day.

Author: Edward Hathway

I'm a clinical psychologist and keen hiker.

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