Tongariro Crossing: An Alpine Adventure
A small patch of relatively flat ground appears just beyond the next rise, and I pause to catch my breath and stretch my irritable calf muscles. We’ve been climbing vertically (no joke) for two hours up the infamous Devil’s Staircase, and my legs are not particularly pleased to be included in today’s shenanigans. Especially since I did relatively no activity in Tonga except drink Kava and gaze at pretty flowers. Furthermore, the three inches of steel strapped to my hiking boots aren’t helping matters much. Though I now have a better grip on the fresh layer of snow, the crampons are awkward and I end up walking like a newborn giraffe. Oh…what one will do to experience this magnificent snowy scenery.
I can only think that this must be what Tenzing Norgay and Hillary felt like! (on a much larger scale…but still).
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4 km hike in the north island of New Zealand, is often hailed as one of the best day hikes in the world, and is most definitely one of New Zealand’s most spectacular tramping tracks. The crossing is a one-way journey through Tongariro National Park, beginning on the west die of Mount Tongariro and finishing on the north side. The hike usually takes a full 7 – 8 hours for average hikers (me), or about 5 hours for full-on experienced trampers (not me). Keep in mind that these are winter weather hiking estimates. Summer hikes may be a few hours shorter.
Trampers of any fitness category must arrange transportation to and from the Park. Take note: this is a priority! Otherwise, you may be waiting 19.4 km from where you began, staring wide-eyed at your hiking buddy, and wondering how those leaves will taste since you’re pretty much stuck…without a plan…in the wilderness. (You can potentially hitchhike, but don’t rely on this possibility). To prevent the ensuing fight between you and your hiking buddy, I’ve outlined a few transportation options below.
Option 1: If you have a car, leave your car at one trail head, hike the trail, and then catch a shuttle back to your car. Trust me, you don’t want to, nor do you have the time, to walk both ways in one day. Unless you’re superwoman. In that case, more power to you and your incredibly fit body.
Option 2: A number of bus and shuttle companies offer full transport services. For about $20 NW, they collect trampers from hotels/hostels in the surrounding towns and drop them at the Mangatepopo trail head in the early morning. The same vehicles will then meet walkers in the late afternoon at the Ketetahi trail head to transport them back to their accommodation. Taupo is usually the home base for the Tongaririo Crossing, though shuttles will also pick up at tiny towns along the way. Be prepared to wake at the crack of dawn (before dawn, actually), and expect a 90 minute shuttle ride to the trail head. Then, you are left to your own devices and tramping schedule until you descend the mountain and get picked up at the end of the trail.
Option 3: Take an organized tour. It’s not really a tour so much as a more educated “village elder” who ensures you don’t loose your way and perhaps suggests a scenic picnic spot for lunch. Tours are the best option and sometimes the only option in the winter months, and they provide full on tramping gear: a coat, hat, gloves, pants, boots, crampons, and hiking picks. If you’re like me and have just gotten off a plane from a South Pacific Island, you will have nothing to protect you from the outer elements and could possibly still be wearing a bikini top instead of a bra. Short of visiting an op shop for cold weather gear, take the tour and have all the necessities thrust into your hands. It’s that simple.
**Hiking the Tongariro Crossing in the summer months is relatively self-explanatory. Organizing a shuttle from Taupo or a surrounding town is the best bet if you are comfortable walking with just a buddy (not a guide), and if you have a clear day. The trail is well-marked and, as long as you carry plenty of supplies, you will be fine tramping with a friend or following a group you meet on the shuttle. Don’t go alone for goodness sake! Now, winter hiking is another story.
Hiking the Tongariro Crossing in Winter – During the winter months (May- August), trampers are advised to trek with one of the many reputable Tongariro Crossing tour companies (see option 3 above). And with good reason. Snow storms create extremely dangerous conditions, and trampers have been injured and lost along the Crossing. The path is only a few “small” meters from a 300 meter drop cliff, so if you don’t know where you are going (or what you’re doing), it can potentially be life-threatening. And we don’t want that!
The walk itself is beautiful. Following the steep incline of the Devil’s Staircase (i.e: some never-ending switchbacks), you will walk across the Red Crater’s treacherous, slippery rim, gaze in awe at the frozen, sulfurous Emerald Lakes, and then traipse down the mountain into the forest where you will be greeted with coniferous bushes and startlingly-red blooming plants. A half dozen climate zones all in one day!
My hiking boots came off as soon as we reached the end of the path as did my backpack and fleece coat. My hiking buddy and I napped on the shuttle ride home and then spent the rest of the evening sitting in the sauna at Rainbow Lodge to sooth our aching muscles. It was the perfect ending to the day.
1) Entrance into the Tongariro National Park is free, but remember that the Tongariro is not a circular track. For about $20 NZ, a shuttle service will drop you off at the beginning of the trail and pick you up at the end. Go with a tour company during the winter months. Not only will they supply winter jackets, boots, socks, and crampons, they will guide you from dropping to your death off a cliff wall. I hope.
3) Watch the weather, and then dress for the weather and all potential weather changes that could occur. Mountain weather is mischievous, and it will change rapidly. DO NOT wear jeans and try to avoid cotton, which both take a long time to dry if they get wet. Rain can come quickly (as well as snow) so waterproof layers are definitely recommended. Bring a hat and sunglasses, as well, as there’s no shade on this hike. And wear sunscreen. Your skin will thank you.
Finally, make sure you have sturdy, comfortable footwear. Hiking boots aren’t absolutely necessary in good weather, and most backpackers don’t make a point to carry hiking boots with them (I sure don’t). Heaven forbid, do not wear flip-flops though! In summer, tennis shoes and thick socks should be fine a long a they have a good grip. In winter, your tour company will provide hiking boots for you.
4) BRING WATER! I cannot stress this enough. There isn’t anywhere to refill water bottles until the end of the Crossing, so be sure to bring enough with you. Actually, bring more water than you think you’ll need. Even in the coldest of winter, you will drink liter after liter of water. Carry plenty of snacks, and some extras to share with those that forgot their own goodies. You won’t be finding any wild berries to munch on out here.
5) Take your sweet time and enjoy the views. Chances are, you won’t be back here so go slow and drink in the gorgeous scenery: Mount Doom in the distance, the incredible out-of-place Emerald Lakes, and the great blue skies. And then brag to your friends.