Although the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular day hikes for tourists in New Zealand, it’s not an easy trek. The walk is a 19.4km linear journey that passes over a multi-cratered, active volcanic field.
The pass used to be known as the “Tongariro Crossing.” In 2007, it was changed to the “Tongariro Alpine Crossing” to emphasize the harsh conditions of the exposed terrain.
Why would anyone want to hike the Tongariro Crossing, you might ask?
Because it is the sight of Mount Doom – the famous volcano from the Lord of The Rings series.
Why would anyone who doesn’t care about Lord of the Rings want to hike 19.4km?
Because the Tongariro National Park is a significant spot in Māori culture and a dual UNESCO World Heritage site. Uniquely, Tongariro National Park has been acknowledged for its cultural and natural value.
Why did I go on this walk?
Because I’m slightly insane and decided I could hike almost 20km without any preparation. I’d jumped out of a plane the day before. Why not climb a mountain?
How Long Does It Take to Hike the Tongariro Crossing?
Walking the Tongariro Crossing takes, on average, 6-8 hours. I have friends who did it in 5 hours. It took me 6 and a half hours, with a lot of “photo stops” (i.e. taking photos as a guise to catch my breath without looking as out of shape as I am).
What to Pack for the Tongariro Crossing
- At least 2L of water. There’s no water available along the hike.
- LOTS of snacks. Try to take a good mix of healthy and snack-y snacks. I took a chocolate bar, apples, granola bars and rice cakes.
- Lunch. Most people bring sandwiches since they’re easy to carry. Make sure to pack more than one if you’re going to bring a sandwich and to try to make them filling. You’re going to get hungry walking the Crossing.
- Toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The toilets at the Tongariro Crossing are “long drops” or outhouses without any amenities like toilet paper or sinks.
- Take some band aids, just in case. Walking a lot can result in bad blisters if you aren’t used to your shoes. They’re also good to have in case you trip and get a cut.
- Take a camera or your phone. If you manage to get a clear day, the photos can be spectacular. If not, you’ll want proof that you completed the Tongariro Crossing.
- Take a good backpack to put everything in. I prefer one with a cup holder on the side for easy access to my water bottle.
- Walking sticks (optional). We saw a lot of people with walking sticks. I’ve never used them personally, but there were 70-year-olds whizzing past me with them.
What to Wear on the Tongariro Crossing
- A lot of layers on the Tongariro Crossing. Layers are necessary, regardless of the forecast. When I did the Crossing, it was a beautifully sunny day, but that didn’t stop it from getting freezing cold. I wore a rain jacket, a sweater, a spring jacket, a thermal shirt and a T-shirt during the walk.
- Comfortable pants. I wore capri leggings because they weren’t heavy. Jeans are a bad idea on the Tongariro Crossing. If it rains, they are heavy and don’t dry quickly. Shorts aren’t recommended, due to how cold it can get at the higher altitude.
- Always bring a rain coat! In New Zealand, you never know if it will rain. It would be awful to get stuck on a mountain without a rain jacket.
- Sturdy walking shoes. I brought my hiking boots to New Zealand, so I wore those. If you don’t have hiking boots, wear sneakers. If the weather is supposed to be wet, take an extra pair of socks.
- Hats and sunglasses are a must in New Zealand. The sun is so strong, even sunglasses aren’t enough to protect you from the sun’s glare. I forgot my hat and regretted it.
- A hair tie. If you have long hair, take a ponytail holder to keep your hair out of your face. It can get very windy at the summit.
How to Get to the Tongariro Crossing
You have to wake up extremely early to get to the Tongariro Crossing before the heat of the day.
I booked a transfer with Tongariro Expeditions. They picked us up from our hostel in Taupo at 5:15 am to make the hour and a half drive to the start of the Crossing. (It feels like I’ve managed to do every activity in New Zealand that requires me waking up obscenely early!)
There are a number of hotels and hostels closer to the Tongariro Crossing if you want to wake up a bit later.
The Tongariro Expeditions bus cost $70 for a roundtrip journey, which I felt was a bit pricey.
You need someone to drive you to the hike unless you want to add to your walk, since the Tongariro Crossing is a one-way journey. Getting back to your car would mean extra kilometres you definitely don’t want to walk.
Do You Need a Map for the Tongariro Crossing?
Tongariro Expeditions dropped us off at the starting point with a map. Each section of the walk was labelled as an incline or decline, with emoji faces indicating how steep they were.
The emojis weren’t accurate.
I found most of the easy sections to be impossible, and the challenging sections to be quite easy.
Honestly, you don’t need a map. The path is marked with posts that point you in the right direction. It’s basically impossible to get lost on the Tongariro Crossing if you follow the path. The continuous flow of hikers also helps.
For more tips on the Tongariro Crossing, check out Bearly Here’s post on the Tongariro Crossing.
What Is It Like to Hike the Tongariro Crossing?
Beginning the Tongariro Crossing
The start of the Tongariro Crossing is a mix of gravel paths and a raised boardwalk that leads through brush and stone. The morning fog hadn’t fully lifted when we began walking at 7am, casting the mountains in fantastic silhouettes.
A few kilometres into the Crossing, there are two optional paths. One takes you to a waterfall where they filmed Golem in the Hobbit. The other leads to a small town where you can stay overnight. Both add time to your walk, so most people skip them.
Climbing the Stairs
Soon, you reach the dreaded stairs. This was probably the worst part of the hike. Stairs carved into the mountain seem to lead up forever. After a flight of stairs, there is usually a landing where people like me could catch their breath and groan at the stairs to come.
I still maintain that there must have been a million steps, though my pedometer app says otherwise. Every time we thought we’d reached the peak, another set of stairs rose before us.
At one point, the stairs are eroding. They’ve built a chain into the rock so you can pull yourself up the crumbling steps. It felt more like rock climbing than a beginner’s hike.
The Summit and Mount Doom
About 9km in (according to my Apple Health app), you reach the summit. By then, I’d stripped and redonned my layers at least a dozen times. My legs were heavy and slow. I could barely catch my breath.
We had climbed above most of the clouds. What were left parted to give us the perfect view of Mount Doom.
Honestly, I didn’t even realize it was Mount Doom. Although, maybe the guy taking a photo of his “one ring” in front of the mountain should have been a sign.
Instead of taking a LOTR themed photo, I posed like the adventurer I felt I was. I had come and I had conquered! I felt strong and powerful and so damn tired.
Moments later, the clouds drifted in front of the mountain, completely covering the view. Apparently, this is a common occurrence. Many hikers, like my step-sister, don’t get to see anything after all their hard work.
We took our lunch break with a view of Mount Doom. It was only 10am, but when you’ve been up since 5, that’s lunchtime.
Taking breaks is key on the Tongariro Crossing. You need to give yourself a chance to drink, eat and breathe before continuing. Don’t sit down too long, or you may trouble getting back up!
Sliding Down the Tongariro Crossing
The sharp decline after the mountain top was basically a gravel hill that you had to skid down, without crashing into forty people or falling in one of the spectacular emerald lakes. Even trying to pull over to the side to snap a quick photo felt perilous.
I skidded onto my butt halfway down the decline and considered just butt-scooting the rest of the way down. If a man who looked to be in his 80s hadn’t basically run past me, I probably would have. But my competitive nature had me rising to my feet to prove that I was no less fit than him. (I am definitely less fit than him.)
The emerald lakes on the Tongariro Crossing have a distinct green color from the minerals they get from the volcanic soil. Tongariro National Park is an active volcanic field, with smoking hot spots studding the area around the lakes.
You aren’t allowed to swim in the lakes, because the area is culturally sacred. Besides, having thousands of sweaty tourists dunking their dirty bodies in it would definitely ruin the natural beauty.
When we reached the bottom of the gravel hill, somehow, we found ourselves walking through snow, which I was extremely unhappy about. As I basically shouted to everyone on the mountain, “I came from Canada to get away from this!”
Past the snow is mirror lake. It’s such a rich blue that it looks fake. Unfortunately, you have to walk a bit uphill to get to it.
The map never mentioned that.
The Final Kilometres of the Tongariro Crossing
The end of the walk is the worst part. By then, you’ve already seen the mountain that you came to see. You’ve eaten most of your snacks. And your feet hurt.
Eventually, the terrain changes and you reach a grassy hill. It seems like you must be almost done.
That optimism allowed me to enjoy the view for a moment. The fluffy clouds hung suspended over the flowing landscape. The blue of Lake Taupo was visible in the distance. I could just make out a road (civilization!).
That view may have been worth walking 19km.
However, we hadn’t yet walked 19km. It turned out, we still had more to go. What looked at first like a straight path down, wove around the mountain side for literal hours.
The Actual Final Kilometres of the Tongariro Crossing
Eventually, you end up in a forest. Again, we thought we were done, but we weren’t. My phone showed that we had walked 24km at that point. (When does this damn hike end?!)
I don’t think I’ve complained that much since I was an angsty 13-year-old. It must have been fueling me; every time I complained I gained the strength to take another step.
Then, suddenly, it was over. A sharp left turn broke through the dense trees to reveal a hundred people strewn about a wooden platform waiting for buses.
I’d done it! I had hiked 19.4km (or 25km, if my phone can be believed) and walked over 30,000 steps.
Most importantly, I had completed the Tongariro Crossing!
Looking back, the Tongariro Crossing is one of my top ten adventures in New Zealand.
I hated almost every moment while I was doing it, but that’s basically my mentality towards physical activity.
It was challenging, but I think that made it more fulfilling.
This isn’t one of New Zealand’s many half hour, picture perfect mountain tops. This is a proper Alpine Crossing. It requires some preparation (even if that just means a trip to the grocery store for snacks).
I’d recommend this hike to anyone. But I’d be honest, and tell them that it is a lot of work and that I complained my way through the entire thing.
10 Tips for Hiking the Tongariro Crossing
- Look up which mountain is Mount Doom (if that matters to you).
- Actually put on the sunscreen you bring so you don’t end up with a horrible calf tan from your capri pants.
- Bring more food than you think you need. I ate half of my snacks in the first quarter of the walk.
- Pack lots of layers. My five layers were so helpful. I was able to regulate my body temperature so I didn’t get too hot or too cold, which would have affected my ability to complete the Crossing.
- If you can, hike with a friend. It’s a lot nicer to have someone to talk to during the hike. I hiked with my friend Sarah after the rest of our friends motored on ahead. Complaining through the hike definitely bonded us. She also challenged me to keep pace (even sick she had more stamina than me!).
- Take your time. There’s no need to rush through it. I took tons of snack breaks and photo stops, and still finished in 6.5 hours.
- Take lots of photos during the Tongariro Crossing. It’s a long day and you’ll want something to look back on. I barely remembered the beginning until I looked back at my photos.
- Plan to wash your clothes immediately after the hike. I had to wear my smelly sweater for two more days afterwards. Not fun.
- Keep walking after finishing the Tongariro Crossing. Do some stretches, too, to help prevent aches. Go for a long walk the next day, too, to help get rid of muscle pain.
- Do the Tongariro Crossing while you’re in New Zealand. It’s an accomplishment; almost a rite of passage. Even if you’re sore after, that temporary pain is nothing compared to the knowledge that you walked an active volcanic field, saw Mount Doom and lived to tell the tale.
Why I Recommend the Tongariro Crossing
Finding adventures that challenge you is a great way to make the most of your holiday. It’s moments like these that help you realize the most about yourself. While it might not be the instant adrenaline rush of skydiving or bungee jumping, the slow crescendo of pride that comes from an accomplishment like this is just as intense.
Sure, you may complain the whole time and have some sore muscles the next day. But the feeling of accomplishment is worth a few aches and groans.
Take the time to do something that pushes you – be it mentally or physically. And, if you’re in New Zealand, try the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!
What was an adventure that challenged you?