Recognized as not just one of the best day-hikes in New Zealand but in the world, Tongariro Alpine Crossing is 19.4 kilometers of jaw-dropping and heart-racing terrain. Remember Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings? Peter Jackson’s inspiration for the fiery volcano was none other than Mount Ngauruhoe—one of the three highly active volcanoes that reside in New Zealand’s UNESCO World Heritage, Tongariro National Park…and it’s very real. It has erupted 45 times in the 20th century alone and can cause up to 80 earthquakes a day! Even during our visit in New Zealand part of the trail was closed due to recent eruptions that narrowly missed some thru-hikers. But you think this scared us off? Heck no! We hiked for ten hours exploring its ridges, valleys, craters, lakes, and springs.
The trail starts in Mangatepopo Valley, full of alpine foliage, traces of lava flow, and craggy mountains. It’s a softball of a trail, perfectly groomed and flat, but this doesn’t last for long…
As the elevation gets higher, the landscape becomes more barren with only the heartiest of plants surviving in this volcanic environment. Without the protection of the valley walls and trees, the sun beat down and wind whipped all around us.
We reached the plateau of the South Crater and were faced with LOTR’s Mount Doom! Made from layers of lava and tephra, Mount Ngauruhoe’s perfect cone does feel straight out of the movies. It’s possible to summit and see the steaming crater up close, but we opted to go farther down the trail instead…maybe next time, Sir Edmund Hillary!
The diversity of the landscapes is what makes this hiking trail (or “tramping track”, as the Kiwis call it) so fascinating. This chunky rock section, which we deemed the “Giants Doorway” seemed to emerge straight out of the shale and sand.
We reach the Red Crater and its views to the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert, Kaimanawa Ranges, and Emerald Lakes were so spectacular we could have ended the hike there. The crater itself is no slouch either. We ate lunch here and marveled at the rainbow of minerals and the black char left on the volcanic chimney from recent activity.
From the Red Crater there are two ways to get to the Emerald Lakes, the main path or this tight-rope line, which you can see trailing off in the distance with scree dropping hundreds of feet on either side. We opted for the latter…ever so slowly and carefully.
Don’t look down!
If we’d seen the “WARNING: Flying volcanic rock” sign BEFORE we took the tight-rope trail, we may have opted for a faster route.
We made it to the Emerald Lakes and the vibrant color of triplets is stunning, not to mention the sulfurous steam vents billowing from the majestic mountains.
The last stretch of open trail brought us to the sacred Maori Blue Lake. Cold and acidic…all you can do is it back and admire it and the wild landscape.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is all it’s cracked up to be and more. A truly legendary hike that anyone who comes to New Zealand should do. Just remember to bring clothes for four seasons, the sturdiest boots you’ve got, and a massive memory card for your inevitable snap-happy state…see our slideshow below for more unbelievable photos.