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Tongariro Alpine Crossing: The world's greatest day hike?

Updated: Apr 28

Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, located on New Zealand's North Island, is known as the "world's greatest day hike." With an active volcano, majestic alpine lakes, and otherworldly rock features, it's obvious how this trail got its nickname, and it's no wonder Peter Jackson used this place to provide some scenery for Middle Earth.


 

Trail Info


Tongariro Alpine Crossing trail stats in New Zealand


Know before you go

  • You need to book a shuttle in advance to get to the trailhead. There are other lots in the area for shorter day hikes, but for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing you must park in the long term lot at the end of the trail and shuttle to the start. A quick google search will show plenty of options.

  • The best time of year do this trail is November through April. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere that may sound backwards, but those are the warmer months in New Zealand. While the trail is accessible year round, you will need more technical gear to attempt it in winter.

  • The climate can vary quite a bit on this hike. While it may be warm when you begin, the temperature can change dramatically as you get higher up. This tends to be particularly noticeable near Red Crater. Make sure you pack a wind-breaking jacket.

  • Many scenes from The Lord of the Rings were filmed in this area. Mt. Ngauruhoe, the active volcano, inspired Mount Doom, and some of the other landscape helped create the barren wasteland of Mordor.


Side Trails

There are a few side trails you can add on to Tongariro if you give yourself plenty of time in the day.

  • Summiting Mount Tongariro adds an additional 2 miles / 3.6km to your journey

  • Summiting Mt. Ngauruhoe adds slightly less than 3 miles / 4.8 km to your journey, but is an extremely steep ascent, and Mt. Ngauruhoe is considered culturally significant to the local Maori. It is not illegal to summit, but they have asked visitors to refrain from climbing it out of respect.


 


The Trail


Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

After parking your car and catching your ride to the trailhead, you will begin the trail. It's hard to get lost, although there are a few junctions in the area that lead to toilets or other trails. This first section of the trail goes through Soda Springs, which is home to some interesting rocks and plant life as a result of old lava flow.


Devil's Staircase on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Soon you will begin a steeper section of trail, known as the Devil's Staircase. Relative to the overall length of the trail, there isn't a crazy amount of elevation gain on the crossing. However, there are some periodic steep sections, such as this one.


South Crater of Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

The trail then enters a short flat section, known as South Crater. Enjoy this flat section as soon you will have to climb again.


Mount Ngauruhoe on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Looking to your right, you will see Mount Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings). You can take a side trail in this area to hike this active volcano. However, it is an extremely steep and tough climb and summiting this mountain is considered insensitive to the local Maori.


Mount Ngauruhoe on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

On the other side of South Crater, you will begin the ascent to Red Crater. This is where the trail gets quite a bit colder. You are much more exposed to the winds on this ridge.


Red Crater on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Once you reach the crest, the trail wraps around Red Crater. This was the section where I could really imagine myself in Mordor.


Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Now the most magical part of this trail: the descent to Emerald Lakes. These lakes were formed from the many volcanic eruptions that shaped this area. It is a combination of the volcanic material and sunlight that give the lakes their glow. The different colors are truly mesmerizing.


Note, the trail down to Emerald Lakes is a bit slippery. The grade is decently steep and some of the rock is loose. Take your time and use trekking poles if you have them.



Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

And every so often take a break and soak in those views. It won't get old.


Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

There are trails that loop around each of the lakes, providing a more intimate perspective.


Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

And if you smell something stinky, don't worry it isn't your hiking buddy. Steam vents above the lakes give off a Sulphur smell.


Emerald Lakes on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

I particularly liked the third lake, which felt more vibrant than the others and had a nice mountain backdrop.


Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

After enjoying the Emerald Lakes, it's time to continue to Blue Lake. This involves another mostly flat crossing.


Blue Lake on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Blue Lake, unlike Emerald Lakes, is a cold, acidic lake. Note this lake is considered sacred, so you can look but don't touch.


Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

From here, you begin the slow descent back to the car park. While it's hard to beat the visual stimulation you just got, this section is also plenty beautiful.


Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Soak in what you can before you drop below "bush" line.


Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

And raise those arms in triumph because you're just about done with "the world's greatest day hike."


 


SS Hot Takes

Claiming to be the world’s greatest day hike is bold. But I’ll admit that Tongariro is magnificent enough to make the claim. With a diverse landscape, killer views, and a difficulty level that doesn’t preclude a large percentage of people attempting it, it’s a fantastic hike. And, of course, the LOTR fans among us will enjoy identifying the landscape in each movie. If it wasn’t for the tricky logistics, I may agree with it being the greatest. But, also, there are so many more hikes on my life bucket list that I’m not ready to deem any hike “the best” just yet. Let me revisit this in 50 years.



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