Tackling the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This famed 12-mile hike between Mt. Doom (aka Ngauruhoe) and Tongariro would be relatively easy for strong hikers on a nice day, even with the steep grades and slippery slopes. The route is a mix of steps, walkways, ash, rocky dirt up and down with signposts throughout although not always a clear “path.”

But on Jan. 8, 2017, severe winds, fog and drizzle made it a grueling and unenjoyable trek to get to the peak of Red Crater. I was bundled in layers, raincoat, winter hat and gloves, buffeted by wind and  blinded by the spray on my glasses.

The first leg to Soda Springs, 2.7 miles, was on flat grasslands mostly on a boardwalk, with visibility at maybe 60 yards or so. There sit the two last toilet stalls for 5.3 miles.

Already, I met people who were turning around, including some locals who said you can’t see a thing today. I wondered, what if it’s all fogged in the whole hike? Would I feel it had been worthwhile?

Stubborn and optimistic, I pushed on toward the South Crater, 4 miles in. The unrelenting squalls made it challenging to keep steady on the steep path, nicknamed the “devil’s staircase.” There is one short portion that requires you to hold onto chains as you make your way up.

Once over the crater, I was told, “That’s where Mt. Doom would be, right behind you, if you could see it.” I had contemplated hiking to its summit, as a loyal Lord of the Rings fan, but today I truly would not have known the way.

About 2 1/2 hours in, I reached Tongariro’s Red Crater Summit, 6,188 feet. It’s not quite the halfway mark at 5.2 miles but it’s the highest point of the hike.

Huddled among a stack of rocks was a sobbing woman being comforted by her companion. Elsewhere I had passed people being dragged along, depleted, trying to find some shelter from the wind.

While there should have been great views, all I could see in the fog was the cliff edge and the tricky descending slope with ash and rocks. I was slowly side-stepping my way when a guided group came by. The leader told them to dig in your heels and just slip slide in the dirt, with no harm even if you fall. So I followed suit, relatively successfully.

Moments later, I’m thrilled to see through the mist a hint of blue for the emerald lakes. Such a treat after three and a half hours. But wait! It gets clearer and clearer and the sun is finally edging in and out, and I was rewarded with sparkling emerald lakes and my first views of anything!

I spent a good hour and half snacking, exploring and enjoying the lakes and the craters of Tongariro before continuing.

The rest of the hike was still cold (I didn’t start shedding layers until mid-afternoon) but sunny. From the vivid Red Crater, you walk through Central Crater, then start going down toward the Ketetahi Hut, passing the steaming vents of Te Maari Crater, which erupted Aug. 6, 2012.

Leaving the barren volcanic earth, you’re back on grasslands with valleys that frame Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo, the largest in New Zealand.  There are additional toilets about two miles from the end though they are unmarked on any map I can find. I thought I was right at the car park, and was dismayed to realize I still had about two miles to  go.

I was perturbed to face a set of stairs going up, but delighted to be greeted around the bend by my husband, who took my pack and accompanied me for the last 3/4 of the miles or so.

Fatigued, but triumphant! What an adventure.

Here are my time milestones:

  • 8:25 a.m. start from Mangatepopo car park

  • 11 a.m. at the Red Crater

  • 12:45 left the Emerald Lakes

  • 2:45 arrived at Blue Lake

  • 3:30 arrived at the 17 km marker

  • 3:44 climbed the final stairs

  • 4:14 end at the Ketetahi car park

Click here for more Tongariro details, tips and photos. 


2 thoughts on “Tackling the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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