National Park, NZ

Day 4

Hiking: 13.3 mi / 2800 ft. climbing
Home: Alpine Chalets

When you Google “Tongariro Alpine Crossing”, you’ll see it variously described as “one of the ten top day hikes in the world”, or “the best day hike in New Zealand”. Is that all just a load of search-optimized bullshit, or is it legit? As someone who just hiked extensively in Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks, but hadn’t even heard of Tongariro until a month ago, I figured it would be a challenge for this one to even make the list of “top ten day hikes Neil and Rett have done this year.”

Despite my skepticism, we’ve already waited two bad-weather days and now added two more to our stay in National Park in order to learn the truth of the matter, so after such an investment I’ll feel pretty disappointed if we just got suckered in by puffery. Then again, the bad weather would have stopped us from bike riding just as well as it stopped us from hiking, and hey, we spent $240 for one extra night in Glacier National Park in order to hike to Grinnell Glacier, so $327 for four extra nights at Tongariro National Park sort of seems like a steal.

Well, unlike hiking at Glacier, we also paid an explicit US$88 to do this hike: $70 for the two of us to get shuttled to the start and picked up at the end, and $18 to rent two sets of hiking poles for the day. On the other hand, it appears that National Parks here don’t have entrance fees (or for that matter entrance gates, or lodges, or any of the tourist infrastructure that’s built-in in the US).

Even if there turns out to be no substance behind the hype, that hype still brings nose-to-butt lines of hikers to the mountain, so even on a non-ideal Thursday our full-sized shuttle bus was full. Our default practice would have normally put us on the earliest possible (6:15am) shuttle to beat the people not willing to get up that early, but in this case my extensive weather research was telling me that the skies would get clearer as the day went on, so we instead were on the last (8:30am) shuttle.

As expected, when we reached the trailhead at 3800 ft., clouds were still roiling across the landscape, sometimes reaching down and touching the ground. Parts of this park were locations in the Lord of the Rings movies, so for us it really just added to the Mordor atmosphere.

Rett trying to see “Mount Doom” through the clouds, while very Mordor-like volcanic columns of rock surround the trail.
Soda Springs, a bit of an offshoot, but we took it partly because we like to see everything, but mostly because the longer we could wait before we reached higher elevations, the better the chance that we would be able to see things.
Despite the bits of life, it really did have the blasted-land feel that Frodo and Sam trudged through on their way to Mordor.
Oh no…it’s clear that a hobbit was recently wrapped inside this web spun by a 2000 lb. spider, but did he escape (to the extent that “being set free in Mordor” can be considered “an escape”), or did Shelob finally eat him?!

Then perfectly timed with our ascent, the skies began opening up more-frequently, giving us direct views of the symmetrical, missing-top volcanic cone Ngauruhoe, which was Mount Doom in the movies (or, at a minimum, the inspiration for the CGI/minatures that Weta created). Luckily Sauron must have been distracted by something, for we did not feel his baleful eye turning upon us.

Mount Doom (aka Ngauruhoe) lets his top be seen for the first time, and Rett bravely points to it, protected by the Elvish tattoo on her wrist.
Us in front of Mount Doom (aka Amon Amarth).
Not only did we have sun that Frodo and Sam didn’t have when they struggled up the slopes of Mount Doom, we also have chocolate muffins when they had nothing but lembas bread.

We have never hiked across a landscape quite like this before: treeless and volcanic, but not desert. By the time we got up to the Red Crater at the apex of the hike, I had already seen enough to know that the hype was not entirely artificial. This is definitely a special place in the world.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
After a gradual 700-foot climb and then a steeper 1000-foot climb amongst volcanic upheaval, I was shocked to hit this quarter-mile diameter dead-flat circle (to whose surface some of the passing clouds somehow became stuck). My only guess is that we were walking across a former lake of liquid magma that has since solidified?
After climbing back up out of the hardpan (you can see the line of tiny hikers walking diagonally across the bottom right), we got one of our best views of Mount Doom.
A final steep climb brought us to the top of Red Crater, including our first peek-a-boo of one of the Emerald Lakes, and a bonus steam vent bursting out the side of this volcano that we’re walking on.
A look down into Red Crater, where the earth appears to be simultaneously covered in dried blood where it has not been scorched black, and where it is not bloodied or black it seems to have been violently ripped apart like a bullet shot through an aluminum can.
Blue Lake, much larger than the Emerald Lakes directly below us.
Once again we’re sure glad that the skies of Mordor are not low, black, and crossed with lightning while we do this hike.

In order to limit the number of Instagram-inspired city-folk who see photos like those above and then need to be helicopter-rescued off the mountainside, the DOC (the park service) has a 7-minute-long big-budget YouTube video describing the hike and all of its risks and challenges (as well as the incredible drone-shot scenery). One of the most-critical bits of information for us was the steep, 300 ft. descent from the peak on an extremely-loose surface. This is Rett’s absolute least favorite type of hiking (though she continues to get ever better at it), so that’s the main reason we rented the poles (for which it was really nice to have a shop in National Park renting poles for a reasonable rate). Many reports said people regularly slip and fall in this section, and we were prepared for those people to be us, even with the poles.

Looking down to the Emerald Lakes, ready to begin our descent down the steep loose ridgeline.
Rett heading down, gloves on, poles out, hair and towel falling forward.
Looking back up the scree to the hikers coming down behind (on top of?) us.

I actually found the descent to be quite easy; the stone is so deep and loose and fine that I could just drive my heels down into it and form a nice flat pocket; it was nearly like running down a sand dune. It was much more of a challenge for Rett, but she did it, without falling once! And in fact we didn’t notice anyone in the line ahead or behind us who went down on this day. It is a little hard to understand with so many feet pushing so much stone downward, how the whole ridge hasn’t yet been eroded to nothing, but maybe that’s some volcanic magic?

Rett gingerly inches her way down.
A straight view into the uh, gash…in the earth. Yeah, Georgia O’Keefe has nothing on Mother Nature! (my aluminum can metaphor earlier was for younger readers who probably won’t get this far.)
Getting down to those lakes is a motivator to keep inching down (I read multiple reports of this downhill reducing people to tears!)

The bright saturation of the lakes exceeded even those that we saw in Glacier National Park. In fact, it exceeded many of the photos I’ve seen, so there might have been something especially good about the light on this day and time of our hike. The clouds had cooperated perfectly, and all the features were crystal-clear.

That lake!
Us in front of the blue-green Emerald Lake.
Rett framed by the bluest Emerald Lake.
We decided to take a longer loop that would take us to the edges of all three lakes.
I left the browning lake edge on the right side of the frame to help prove that this isn’t just the sky behind Rett.
A near-Grand Prismatic Spring spectrum, with life finding a way in this environment of rock and fire and ash.
A completely-unexpected sight of snow-covered Mount Ruapehu, coming into view around the slope of Mount Doom. It’s possible that in the three previous days when we couldn’t see Ruapehu’s top because it was covered in clouds, that those cold clouds were working on adding to that white cap of snow and ice (it also looked like there was a light dusting on the top of Ngauruhoe).
An Emerald Lake or a Diamond Lake? Either way it’s a gem!
Looking back, we finally got an understanding of what we had climbed over. Left to right, back to front, tallest to shortest, we have Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom), and Mount Tongariro. We can now see that Tongariro has a cone shape that mirrors Ngauruhoe, but with much more of its top blown out. That means our route took us not exactly over the top of a mountain, but around the edge of its crater. The high point in the upper right is where we crossed (you can see tiny silhouettes up there if you zoom in), and the trail descends from there until it crosses the day’s second disconcertingly flat plain.
Lunch above the shore of Blue Lake, where we were able to get down in the bowl with a wall of rocks behind us shielding us from the suddenly-strong wind.

At lunch above the shore of the uncreative-but-perfectly-named Blue Lake, a lone entrepreneurial seagull reminded us that this is one of the only places we’ve been in New Zealand where you can’t hear birdsongs, or see them flitting about. “No animals” makes it difficult to compare this hike to ones in Glacier when we’d encounter grizzly bears or mountain goats, but the fact that I no longer roll my eyes at a “top ten” claim even without animals shows how incredible the other features of the hike are.

But Blue Lake was the final highlight, and while the six-mile descent had plenty of sights on its own (distant lake views, more steaming vents, waterfalls), it’s definitely the lesser half of the hike, and now I’m even more-curious how it would feel doing it in reverse as we prefer to do (but you’d need your own car or special transport), when you could do the “boring” parts while you’re less-tired, and have more uphill than downhill. It also tells me that an out-and-back to the Emerald Lakes (that we saw some people doing) would be a totally reasonable option.

Finally heading down for real, with Lake Rotoaira filling the valley.
Whole lotta switchbacks on the way down, with vegetation growing higher as we get lower. The trail end is the short white vertical line running into the horizontal highway just left of center.
After a long downhill march through the forest (a completely different world than we were in for the first 10 miles), we got a final quick waterfall highlight.

That long downhill was another big reason why we rented the poles. We knew we missed not having them for the last two years (they’re simply too much bulk to add to our bikes), but it was almost dangerous to be reminded how useful they are, how much easier they make every part of hiking. They’re a big part of how we were able to race down and make it to the 4:00pm bus pickup with nearly 30 minutes to spare.

After a quiet bus ride back to National Park (everyone is exhausted), we picked up our bikes that we’d left in the carport of our AirBNB and moved into our new motel (where Rett, after hiking 13.3 treacherous miles incident-free, bashed her head on the the corner of a dangerously-projecting window frame). After showers and a bit of recovery, we were able to walk back across the street under our own power to Schapp’s for some good post-hike eats and drinks.


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One response to “National Park, NZ”

  1. Jyothy Avatar

    Have you been contacted by New Zealand Tourism yet to be their brand ambassadors? These are outstanding pictures! I am so envious of your adventure, but grateful for the world class online tours you’ve been taking us on! Hope Rett’s fully recovered from the window frame incident. Stay safe and keep the pictures coming!

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