Called the best one-day trek in New Zealand and by some one of the top-ten in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing located roughly in the center of the North Island is a 19.4-kilometer (12 mile) one-way hike across high alpine volcanic terrain. So we had to check it out.
Tongariro National Park was New Zealand’s first national park, being established in 1887, and is also designated a dual World Heritage Site. These sites found throughout the world (currently there are about 1000) are chosen by a branch of the United Nations for their outstanding universal natural or cultural significance. Tongariro was chosen both for its outstanding natural volcanic terrain and for its spiritual and cultural significance to the indigenous Maori people.
Most people arrange for shuttle transportation and walk the crossing in a one-way direction starting at the Mangatepopo trailhead (elevation 3,670 feet) since by starting at this end there is less total elevation gain. The trail, which is well-constructed and maintained by the DOC (Department of Conservation), climbs through a gentle valley for the first few kilometers, then climbs steeply to the South Crater, levels out briefly, then climbs again to the highpoint of the trek to Red Crater at about 6,200 feet. From here it gradually descends passing several high alpine volcanic lakes and volcanic craters, then climbs again to Blue Lake before beginning a long gradual descent through the bush to the Ketetahi carpark (2,490 feet). The trip generally takes 6-8 hours depending on a person’s fitness and weather conditions.
Most of the trip is through volcanic landscape including old lava flows, volcanic debris and some active thermal vents. The top of the track crosses the multi-cratered Mt. Tongariro (consisting of twelve different volcanic cones) and passes the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe (7,516 feet) which can be climbed separately or as a side trip.
For Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans, the alpine terrain in Tongariro Park was used in the movies, and Mt. Ngauruhoe was the basis for Mount Doom.
There are a large number of warning signs on the track—warning of the length of the trek, avalanches, preparedness, weather—but primarily warning of the risk of volcanic eruption since this is an active volcanic zone and can potentially erupt at any time.
Lest you think this is all idle threat, Mount Tongariro did erupt just two years ago. Fortunately the eruption was what’s considered a small eruption of 10,000 cubic meters of ash which showered down on the track (trail) along with rock projectiles of up to 1 meter in diameter, several of which damaged one of the huts.
On a lighter note, for those of you in Colorado, I did find this on one website:
You will be climbing nearly 800m in altitude to 1900m above sea level and as a result you may feel the effects of oxygen deficiency (hard to breathe, slight dizziness).
Hmmm, let’s see, 1900 meters (6,230 feet)—roughly the elevation of our house in Colorado Springs where we came from.
On our visit to Tongariro National Park, we stayed in a small cabin in the park itself. The weather forecast for the next day, when we planned to at least hike part of the trail: gale force winds, rain and snow, minus 7 degrees Celsius, and little or no visibility. We also heard that the shuttles that commonly dropped off hikers at the trailhead had cancelled any transportation for the day because of the conditions.
But since this was our one day here, we wanted to see what it was like, and—well—sometimes things are more interesting (and exciting) in bad weather, aren’t they? In any case, we hadn’t arranged shuttle transportation and had only planned to climb as far as we could, then turn around and come back. And also, no matter what the initial weather there was always a remote chance that the weather could change, that the sky would clear and we would be alone at the top of volcanic New Zealand rewarded with panoramic vista views in all directions.
So the next morning despite a dull slate-grey sky and steady cold rain at lower elevations when we awoke, we packed up and drove to the trailhead.
Now one of the drawbacks about such world-renowned popularity is that tens of thousands of people make the Tongariro Alpine Crossing each year and on a busy summer day there can be upwards of 500 people on the trail at one time. When we arrived in the parking lot on our cold, overcast day, there were three other cars parked there. We saw one couple at the trailhead bundling up and considering whether to go or not. Later we would see a handful of people on the trail but that was it for now.
What happened? Well, rather than tell you, here is an abbreviated, somewhat overly dramatic video I made of our attempt. I apologize for the lack of photos and actual film clips but the visibility was so poor that there was nothing to see and besides, as they say here, it was so bloody cold! We made it as far as South Crater before turning back (some 13 kilometers round trip). The views and scenery—well, it was like walking in a cold, wet cloud all day. We’ll be back!