Hiking the Tongariro Crossing

Hiking the Tongariro Crossing

Beautiful, remote, and otherworldly, the famous Tongariro Crossing is known for being part of the oldest National Park in New Zealand and the fourth oldest National Park in the world. The park is also known as the setting for one of the most famous movie trilogies, The Lord of the Rings.

However, neither of those was what drew me to the park. I was in my second week in New Zealand, and had very quickly realized that the only way to get around was by car. This was undeniably frustrating for me as I could see the mountains, could almost feel them underneath my hiking boots. They were just far enough away I couldn’t reach them. I did my research and found that the Crossing was an easily accessed hike. A longer hike of about 12 miles, or 19.4 kilometers, one way was easy. The shuttle runs back and forth between the two trail heads, making it so I wouldn’t need to camp.

I booked my tour through the Finlay Jack’s hostel. It was a comfortable and cozy one in Taupo. I arrived to the hostel extremely sick, with a sore throat, fever, cough, and a non-stop runny nose. When I heard they just decided to shuttle people over to the Crossing for the next day, I decided to book anyway. New Zealand’s weather in early October is still finicky and spring conditions were in full effect. The Tongariro  Crossing shuttle had not been running the past few days as the weather forecast had called for blizzards. The next few days were also supposed to have inclement weather as well. Seeing that might be my only chance, I took it.

A view from the section above the crater.

In the morning, I waited outside the hostel with three others for the shuttle. I felt very weird to not even be at the mountain at this time as I am usually starting my approach at four or earlier in the morning. My backpack was crammed full. I took with me a roll of toilet paper, two packages of sore throat lozenges, and a ridiculous amount of warm weather gear as my fever was still high that morning.

The ride took a while and we finally got to the trail head of the Tongariro Crossing around eight in the morning. Much to my dismay, I was greeted with an enormous crowd. It was something I hoped to avoid by going in the early season. The guide on the shuttle gave a short spiel on gear we should all have. At this point it really was too late, though they rented out gear for those unprepared.  She then warned us if we weren’t at the other lot by five that evening, we would have to be finding our own ways home. It gave nine hours for anyone to hike, and it was an average time of six to eight hours to hike the Tongariro Crossing.

My love for hiking in solidarity took over however, and I sped hiked through this section of the trail. I had a goal to get to the crater passing tour group after tour group, hoping I would eventually get rid of the crowds.

Some of the lava towers while hiking the Crossing
Heading through the start of the trail.

I am quite sure I looked crazed, my face red from sickness and wind and my eyes wide. During the entirety of the Tongariro Crossing, I held a wad of tissues up to my nose as I half walked, half ran the trail.

The Tongaririo Crossing was beautiful enough to distract me from my cold. It was a  rocky landscape with golden grass that hadn’t yet started to turn with spring. The lava beds created towers of light stone and turned the dirt red. I still managed to get some incredible photos though, despite rushing this section. With my camera clipped to my hip and my phone in my pocket, I was prepared to document the journey.

Mt. Ruapehu, with its summit obscured by clouds at the sunniest part of my hike.

I passed the mountain Ruapehu, Mt. Doom for my Lord of the Rings fans out there, on the way, wishing I could climb it. The Moari asks people to not climb their sacred mountain though out of respect for their beliefs. I recommend all trekkers to respect their culture and not summit the mountain. There are plenty of other hikes and mountains to climb in New Zealand. Many have just as amazing views as the Tongariro Crossing. 

Another view of 'Mt. Doom' of Lord of the Rings.

The trail then led from the gentle incline to a steep, rocky section as I began to hike up to the crater. Here the clouds moved in as I hiked up to the crater, obstructing the surrounding views.

While I heard some tourists complain as I passed them, I enjoyed the weather. The already martian landscape of the Tongariro Crossing transformed into something else entirely. I truly felt there was no where and no one else left in the world. Well, besides the other couple hundred tourists on the trail.

I loved hiking through the crater of a volcano that is known to be active. While I knew I was safe then, I still got the thrill of knowing that it still could erupt. 

The trail ahead through the crater. Finally some solitude.
In the crater after climbing up the steep side.

The Tongariro Crossing trail soon headed up the crater. It was a little steeper  than the previous trail and some sections had a chain to pull up. The trail was also covered in a plastic sort of mat, something I found very curious. I saw a lot of the trail covered in the mat, which I supposed was the help those without shoes that had decent traction.

The steep incline slowed many people down and the crater itself was not as crowded as the trail had been before. At this point, I had a trail friend from my hostel catch up to me. 

Looking back at the lake after passing through the crater.

How, I wasn’t really sure as I raced up the mountain, but we chatted (mostly him as my voice was pretty much gone) and hiked the trail together for a bit.

We continued higher and higher until we arrived at the highest point on the trail, overlooking the famous Emerald lakes of the Crossing. The colors were not the same as most pictures show them as the ice hadn’t melted then. Surrounding mountains were colored with a burnt red and the views not only overlooked to the lakes but the some of the snow capped peaks.

Over looking the beautiful blue water of the Emerald lakes. It looks refreshing but don't drink the water here as it is undrinkable due to the volcanic properties of the soil.

The steep incline up to the summit was nothing compared to the way down. The slippery volcanic soil moved with every step. I ended up sliding half of the way down the mountains. Others took it more cautiously but I found it easier to slightly jog down the hill rather than work against it. As I passed the lakes, I admired the colors, wondering if they smelled or if I was just sick.

Standing right ext to the first two lakes, their blue milky color unchanging from the top.

Then I descended into a massive snow field. By this point, I lost my trail friend, and miraculously all the tourists, and I was finally alone. The wind picked up leaving me chilled, but happy as I finally had my trail isolation.

Crossing through the snow field. To proceed a few week previously, you needed ice tools and avalanche gear.

Used to trekking across snow, I moved quickly through this section. Despite the wind whistling in my ears, this section was peaceful. To get out of this last crater required another,  shorter, ascent up the side. This time it was slippery though as it was still snow packed on this side.

After this point, the walk down was mellow, and I slowed my pace down. The snow and rain quickly moved in. It proceed to switch between the two for the next two hours leaving me drenched. I had packed well though and wasn’t freezing, despite my worsening cold. My pockets were stuffed with used tissue and my throat lozenges had long run out. Soon my trail friend caught up after I had carried on with out him at the lake. He then passed me, much to my dismay at getting passed by on the trail. 

I soon met another bus buddy of mine, who came running off the side of the mountain looking haggard. In a quick breath, he asked if this was trail, explaining he had somehow gotten off trail. He had been running around on the side of the mountain, unable to see past the thick clouds for the last hour. After confirming, yes, this was indeed the right trail, he ran off further down the mountain and I was alone again. I trudged along the winding corners of the trail,  through a sea of golden grasses, and finally dipped from the barren alpine into the wild jungle.

Walking through the last few miles of the Crossing.

I always say the last mile is the worst, and this was no exception. Five hours after starting on the Tongariro Crossing, I finally got to the other trail head. Third in the bus group to arrive, I was rather happy though, to note my relatively quick time. Even with being incredibly sick and stopping to take an insane amount of pictures at the lakes I managed to hike at a relatively fast pace.

By the time the bus showed up, I was completely miserable and soaked, and finally sat in the back of the bus. As there was very few of us there, I got a whole seat to myself and slept, waking up in Taupo. From there, I drug myself to the reception, extended my stay for another day and proceeded to stay in bed for the next 36 hours, happy at having hiked my new favorite hike in the world.

The golden, grass sea overlooking the valley below.

Would you hike the Tongariro Crossing? What have been some of your favorite hikes around the world? Let us know in the comment section below!

Happy Travels!


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Danielle an avid adventurer and traveler. She graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder with a degree in anthropology and classical archaeology. She has worked most recently as a ski and snowboard instructor in her native state of Colorado. When she doesn't have skis or a board strapped to her feet, she enjoy hiking, mountaineering, trail running, climbing, and backpacking. She loves to read and is currently working on her first novel. She also dabbles in photography and plays the piano and the drums in her free time.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. The pictures are amazing and it looks absolutely beautiful. Reminds me a bit of the lava beds in Northern California. Otherworldly!

    1. Thank you! It was a very beautiful hike!

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