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tongariro alpine crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s Epic Volcano Hike

Hiking In Middle Earth

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as the countries best day hike. Ask any active kiwi if they’ve done it and most will tell you that they either have done it, or it’s on their list! They’ll also refer to it as a ‘tramp’, which is the local word for hike. Tramping is one of the top things to do in this amazing country. Having grown up a couple of hours north of the Tongariro National Park, this terrain brings many happy memories of skiing as a kid. It was a surreal experience that I will remember for years.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

On the trail, whether you’re alone or with others you will hear conversation about Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings movie. Most foreigners refer to Mt. Ngaurauhoe as  Mt. Doom now as it’s understandably easier to pronounce! I was told that catching the sunrise is really worth it, and it was. I really felt like I was in Middle Earth when the sun came up and I was under the quite fearful looking volcano about to cross the desert. I recommend having base fitness level at least able to walk 5 miles comfortably before signing up for this adventure!

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Debris from the most recent eruption (6 August, 2012) is scattered over the immense crater, which makes for quite spectacular viewing. You’ll walk across it in amazement and even better if you read up about sulphuric rocks before you go. Towering at 1886 meters, it’s what I imagine being Mars to be like with the surrounding red rocks!

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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Tongariro Alpine Crossing 

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Lots of people on the trail – this is the uphill grind from beautiful Emerald Lakes

The beginning part of the trail starts at Mangatepopo and heads to Soda Springs. This takes about an hour, and is through relatively flat bush. On the day that I went, there are a million people on my toes. I had to set a good pace to get ahead, as most people walked pretty fast. Mt. Doom towers above you for the first hour, which is on well-maintained raised wooden platforms.

Hiking up to the Red Crater from Soda Springs is about 90 minutes of pure grind, and probably the hardest part of the day. You’ll be grateful to have worn hiking boots – the footing is slippery and wind can get strong as summer turns to winter quickly in the mountains.

From the summit, you’ll walk down to the Emerald Lakes, which are truly magnificent. This is about 15 minutes, and pretty easy. Lots of people have their lunch here, it’s the perfect spot because the crater is active so it’s lovely and warm! Be careful walking down on the scree, as it is really unstable but if you’re wearing hiking boots it is much easier.

Earning My Latte

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The walk from Emerald Lakes to Blue Lakes is 20 minutes of absolute epicness. This trail will lead you into Central Crater. Be sure to take lots of photos! This is the best part of the trail, yet be warned. Lots of people found walking down the rocks quite tricky. For me, being a skier, this was my champion moment. I ran it! Is there anything more insanely exhilarating than running down the ridge of a crater while smoke is blowing from the live volcano? Surrounded by panoramic vistas of bright blue and green sulphur lakes, was out of this world. 

Once you arrive at Blue Lake, you’ll have about 3 hours of fun switchbacks going downhill for most of the way to Ketetahi Car Park. You’ll pass the Ketetahi shelter (used for scientists) but don’t rest too long as your legs will stiffen and you’ll probably get cold. Enjoy the views of Lake Taupo. I took big strides and found it much easier.

It was a huge accomplishment to arrive at the car park! And to have Dad there was amazing. I’m in New Zealand visiting family, and it was him that made this amazing day happen. He had cold pomegranate juice for me and a ride home. What a guy.

There were about 100 tourists who had nobody, and were waiting for their bus. If that’s you, save some water or fresh fruit treat. You’ll love it, and even more awesome is if you get to stop off on the way back to Taupo to one of the great kiwi coffee trucks! Best day ever 🙂

What To Wear If You Go In Summer

Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Long Pants are best, because you’ll fall into the rocks and will want to have your legs covered. Athletic tights or track pants are best. Good Socks that go over the ankle will protect your bones from getting bruised up, when walking down volcano rock. Hiking Boots should be mandatory. So many people wear running shoes, which they had to take off every hour to empty the stones. You’ll also need the ankle support walking down steep hills.

Suggested Gear List For Whistler Fitness Vacations

Performance Top that can handle four seasons in one day. Wear an Icebreaker, Under Armor, or some name brand that will wick your sweat and save you from rashes, or losing heat unnecessarily. Backpack that carries the clothing in your pack (wind jacket, extra layer, hat and gloves) and fits comfortably on your back. Other items to pack: at least 2 liters of water, sunblock, first aid kit, cell phone and camera. Also bring an extra sandwich – even if you don’t eat it, you never know if you’ll get stuck in the mountains for longer than you anticipated.

Top 4 Things To Know Before Heading Out

1. Sunblock! Put it on now!

You’re on a volcano, in the desert. If you don’t slather on a generous amount of sunblock, and wear a ball or sun cap, you’re playing with fire…literally. The sun out here in kiwi land is no joke.

2. There are lots of people.

There are maybe one thousand people on the trail at the same time as you. Change your mindset and get ready to enjoy the energy of happy, excited tourists. It’s kind of like a concert, only under live, blowing volcanoes. 

3. Weather can change in an instant

Beautiful summer sunshine may only last until the next water break. Be prepared for rain, hail, shine, sunburn, frost-bite (and everything in between). The people that were hiking in jeans were lucky that the storm blew over!

4. Pace Your Hydration

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a gigantic hike that tests mental and physical strength. This day will be challenging all the way back to the day lot – many fellow hikers were overhead saying that they run out of water. Unlike day hikes in North America, there are no safe streams or lakes to filter your water.

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Cat Smiley

Cat Smiley

Fitness Director at Whistler Fitness Vacations
Cat Smiley is a certified Life Coach, Master Trainer, Wilderness Guide and Sports Nutritionist (author of The Planet Friendly Diet). She has been named 3-time Canadian Trainer of the Year by the International Sports Science Association and is a former professional athlete. Follow her on Linkedin or Facebook - and of course, sign up for a fitness program with us to work with her in Whistler!
Cat Smiley
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