Trail Profile: Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
The Tongariro Crossing is said to be one of the best day hikes in the world. The scenery is dramatic and almost alien. The only catch, it is also one of the most popular day hikes in the world! If you’ve visited any popular national parks in the US (especially Yellowstone or Yosemite), then you know what we’re talking about. The difference is that there are fewer cars here (most people arrive by shuttle), and the crowd doesn’t disappear 1/4 mile from the trailhead. People do the entire hike!
It’s popular for good reason. Tongariro Crossing is located in a national park, is a World Heritage Site, and was featured in the Lord of The Rings. People are there because of the amazing landscape. We went mentally prepared for the crowd and that helped a lot.
Distance: 12 miles (19.4 km)
Trail Type: One-way (shuttle)
Trail Rating: Moderate
To optimize your time, it is best to hire a shuttle. They are plentiful but not super cheap. We used Tongariro Expeditions which was $60/person (NZD). Discovery is another outfitter with the same service. They picked us up in the morning and there was a shuttle waiting for us when we finished in the afternoon.
Most of the shuttles run from Taupo, which is a great little town on the nation’s largest lake. We stayed at a freedom camping spot at Reid’s Farm, about a 45 minute walk north of town. Because we had a trek before the shuttle to the trek, we took the 6:30am shuttle (rather than 5:30 or 6:00).
If you have a car you can park it at the trailhead and get a shuttle back. The trailhead is accessed via a crowded gravel road. The latest shuttle bus arrives around 8 am, so either arrive way before or maybe way after. Keep in mind it gets very hot if you go late!
Also to note: Check out Rieds Farm. This is a free RIVERSIDE (with rope swing) campsite and has bathrooms available. It’s one of the few freedom sites in NZ that allows tent campers like us. Most only allow self-contained campervans. It’s worth the walk!
The trail starts by following the Mangatepopo Stream. Boardwalks have been installed to protect the sensitive alpine tundra. The Maori consider the waters in this region to be sacred (‘Tapu”), and hikers are not allowed to touch the water, swim, or drink from the streams.
Soda Springs is the next point of interest. There is a waterfall and bathrooms! Here, we started the Devil’s Staircase up to the South Crater. This is the most difficult part of the trail and the only reason we rated this as a moderate hike. After about one hour of climbing stairs we reached the desolate South Crater. It is at the base of Mt Ngauruahoe (as seen in the picture above).
At this point, you have an option to take a side trail.
Hikers have the option to climb Mt Ngauruahoe, but it is very steep and difficult. If you use a shuttle and wish to climb Mt.Ngauruahoe, you have to be on the 5:30 or 6 am shuttle to allow time for the side trail, which is mostly unmarked and made of scree. Guides recommend getting to the Ngauruahoe side trail before 9:15 am if you plan to summit. While it’s challenging, it’s also Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings, and who do you know who can say they’ve hiked Mt. Doom?
There is another challenging ascent from the South Crater to the base of Red Crater Ridge. The scenery here so stunning that we hardly noticed the climb. The trail follows an exposed ridgeline with sharp descents into the South Crater on one side and solidified lava tubes on the other. Mt Ngauruahoe was at our back and Tongariro was ahead to our left.
At Red Crater Ridge, there is another side trail to summit Mt Tongariro. Since we took the 6:30 shuttle, we didn’t technically have time to go to the top. Little Rhino did some calculating, realized we were ahead of “schedule” and said we could make it, “If we only take 30 minutes for lunch and no more breaks.” Lollygag didn’t like the sound of this! We compromised and used our extra time to go about halfway out the Tongariro summit to escape the crowds for a moment. We found a nice spot for lunch with a view of Blue Lake below.
Red Crater Summit is the highest point on the crossing AND the halfway point. High five! From there we had our first glimpse of the Emerald Lakes, three stunningly gorgeous lakes. The minerals from the volcanos dissolved and magically created this emerald color. In such a rough and dreary landscape, the lakes stand out like… emeralds in a pile of coal! The trail to reach them is straight down and made of scree. We were happy to have trekking poles for this portion. We saw several people fall on their butts.
After a snack at Emerald Lake we headed over to Blue Lake. It is a flat walk, basically across the inside of a crater with a little climb at the end as you go up to the lake.
After leaving Blue Lake, the trail changes dramatically. Views of Mt Ngauruahoe are beyond sight and the trail follows the Rotopaunga Valley down the north face. It’s a wide open, large view of the surrounding area, including Lake Taupo. From here, it is all downhill for about three hours. The grade is gentle and the trail is well marked. Also, by this point the crowds thinned out quite a bit.
Last stop for bathrooms at the unused Ketatahi Shelter. There are plans to turn it into a small Maori educational center. Finally, after 16 km there was shade! The trail enters the “bush” which cooled things off. There are some interesting streams and a short (recommended) side trail to a waterfall as you descend. The first 9+ miles are in direct sunlight without a single tree. Wear sunscreen! And a hat!
This is an epic day hike. Part of the fun was hiking with so many people! It’s like a 12-mile parade across a moonscape. Start early, bring plenty of food and water (we drank 2L per person), and don’t get in a rush trying to pass people going up the stairs. You’ll be stopping to take pictures every 50 feet, so there’s no use passing anyone.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.