Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

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Last updated Feb 24, 2024

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most beautiful day hikes in New Zealand. Because of its diverse beauty, it is also a very popular hike. The trail is long, the climbs steep and the weather very unpredictable making this journey challenging but worth it in every aspect.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a point-to-point 19.4 km (12 miles) trail that requires a shuttle ride or some other means of transportation from the parking lot (car park) to the trailhead. The trail is well-marked and maintained and restrooms are available along the way. A parking lot to leave your vehicle is available at either starting point.

Where is Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park is on the North Island in New Zealand, south of Lake Tekapo. Most people stay in Lake Tekapo or Turangi to access the national park or the day hike.



Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Emerald Lakes | Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

General Information About Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is point to point-to-point hike that starts with a shuttle ride to the trailhead. We used Tongariro Crossing Shuttle to book our shuttle transportation. You can choose the shuttle pick-up at 6 am, 7 am, 8 am or 9 am. The pick-up is at the Ketetahi car park where you can park for free. Right off Road 46 there is a sign for “Tongariro Shuttle Car Park”. This is also where the hike will end.

The shuttle ride is approximately 30 minutes to Mangatepopo car park – the start of the hike.

This hike can be completed in the opposite direction, starting at Ketetahi car park but it adds to the ascent and you will be going in the opposite direction of the majority of hikes, which can make it more difficult.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing length is 19.4 km (12 miles) but there are side trails and a walk to the parking lot, not included in that 19.4 km hike. It turned out to be a 22.2 km (13.8 miles) hike for us. It takes between 6 to 8 hours to complete, it took us 7 hours exactly.

This is a very popular and very crowded hike. Its length is what makes it difficult, but it is a very doable hike. Bring plenty of water, snacks, and sun and rain protection.

There are bathroom facilities at the car parks as well as throughout the hike. Bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper with you as they can run out.

The trail is very well marked plus there are so many people hiking that you could never get lost.



Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike Stats

Length: 19.4 km (12 miles) trail length – not including additional side trails and a walk to the parking lot
Elevation: 2870 ft ascent; 4320 ft descent
Duration: 6 to 8 hours
Facilities: Bathroom facilities are available at the start and along the hike
Water: No drinking water is available
Parking: Available

Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike

Once dropped off by the shuttle, you will notice snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu to your right. Its stunning beauty is only visible for a short part of the hike. Mt. Ruapehu is one of the more popular skiing destinations on the North Island.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand
Mt. Ruapehu | Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

The first 5 km (3.1 miles) of the hike through the Mangatepopo Valley is very crowded. The trail is well groomed and maintained with lots of boardwalks and man-made stairs to make sure hikers stay on the trail.

The ascent is gradual up until the 5 km (2.5 miles) mark, after that, it picks up. On a clear day, the volcano Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings Triology) will be towering over you, to your right.

At the 5 km (3.1 miles) mark there is a park sign advising that the conditions are about to get harder and to turn back if you’ve thought the hike’s been too hard or if the weather is unfavorable. And they are not lying, the climb is no joke.

After this climb, you will get a short break walking the flats of the volcanic plateau with the views of what is coming next. Yes, more climbing! But with that come the most amazing views of this hike – the South Crater, the Red Crater, Mt. Ngauruhoe, thermal vents and Blue and Emerald Lakes. In whichever direction you look, you will be in awe.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Red Crater | Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

Take your time here. We took a picnic break by the Red Crater with the tip of Mt. Ngauruhoe hiding behind the clouds. Then did our final ascent and saw the Blue and Emerald Lakes for the first time. The view takes your breath away.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom) Hiding Behind Clouds | Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

The descent to the lakes is tricky. Very steep in the deep volcanic sand/ash. Hikers were falling and sliding left and right. Hiking poles are very handy for this part of the hike. Once at the lakes, we walked around enjoying the views, but not the smell. The sulfur smell is very strong in this area.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Emerald Lakes and Steam Vents | Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

From the Emerald Lakes, you will walk through another flat volcanic plateau before the next short climb to Blue Lake. As you continue the hike, almost out of nowhere Lake Rotoaira will pop up in front of you and will follow you on your right for the entire descent. On the clear day, you can also see Lake Taupo.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo | Tongariro Alpine Crossing | The Best Day Hike in New Zealand

The venting Te Maari Crater will be in your proximity as you are walking down from Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The white smoke is very visible and serves as a reminder that it erupted not that long ago – 2012.

The descent snakes down on a gradual groomed trail. It is pretty long and tiring but not very steep. The last 3.1 km (1.9 miles) are through the forested area, providing much-needed shade. This part of the trail has a quiet bit of stairs. Or maybe we just noticed them more since we were so tired by this point.

Once out of the park, the walk to the car park is on the side of the road. In the parking lot, there was a food truck offering refreshments and food which was a welcoming site for a lot of hikers.



What to Pack for Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This is a day hike, and a day pack would be sufficient. Any size you may have available between 20L and 26L.

The most important thing is that you bring enough water, there is nowhere to refill along the trail. We brought our 3L hydration packs with us. We froze half of it overnight and added water in the morning. That way the water stays cold for the majority of the hike.

Bring enough food and snacks to maintain your energy. Breakfast bars, nuts, fruits, chips, sandwiches and whatever else you like but be conscious of the weight.

Dress in layers. The mornings may still be cold and throughout the day it may get hotter, colder and/or wetter. The day before the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we received an email from the shuttle company advising of the expected weather the next day and what to bring.

Since there was a chance of rain in the afternoon we brought a waterproof jacket and pants, as well as rain cover for the daypack. Luckily we didn’t have to use any of it.

During our hike the sun was brutal. Bring plenty of sunscreen, even though it’s hard to keep it on as you may be constantly sweating and wiping it off. A light long-sleeved sun protection shirt, hiking pants, sunglasses, a sun hat and a buff are the best way to protect your skin.

For shoes, we usually wear our hiking boots but we did see many people with trail runners or regular sneakers. Brand-new shoes would be a mistake to try to break in on this hike. Wool mid or heavy socks will help with providing additional padding.

Hiking poles yes or no? Once again that’s a personal preference. I used one pole hiking up, and both sliding down volcanic sand/ash. For the final descent, they are not needed as the descent is gradual.



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