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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.