Tongariro Alpine Crossing: 10 Things You Need to Know Before You Go

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most epic New Zealand Great Walks I have ever taken in New Zealand. The 19.4 km extensive track traverse through astonishingly beautiful volcanic-alpine terrain that left me breathless – literally and figuratively speaking.

I actually underestimated the difficulty and hazards of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but thankfully I had friends supporting me all the way through to the finish line. 😀 I will not hesitate to do it again, but this time I will be physically fit, properly equipped and well prepared to take on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Great Walk.

 

Through my experience, here is a list of the 10 Things You Need To Know Before You Go on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing:

 

1. Challenging Alpine Terrain & Conditions

The great walk is named Tongariro Alpine Crossing with emphasis on the words ‘alpine crossing’ to better reflect the rugged and exposed alpine or mountainous terrain, and caution visitors of the conditions and potential hazards that exist on the track.

For your info, almost the entire length of the crossing is in volcanic terrain with little or no vegetation and is fully exposed to the weather. That means you are fully exposed to the extreme elements of nature. There is only one section of lush native forest at the northern end of the track, past Ketetahi Hut heading towards Ketetahi car park.

You can start your Tongariro Alpine Crossing at either ends of the crossing, but it is easier and requires less climbing to start the crossing from a higher altitude and make your way down from there. That means you start the crossing from Mangatepopo (1120 m) and make your way to Ketetahi (760 m). The highest point of the crossing is at the top of the Red Crater (1886 m). 🙂

 

From left to right: YJ, Jenny, Eri, Angel, Stephanie and Erika at Tongariro National Park @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Lush native forest at the northern end of the track, past Ketetahi Hut heading towards Ketetahi car park offers a stark contrast in comparison to the barren volcanic terrain @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

2. Physically & Mentally Demanding Track/Crossing

Mind you, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is no child’s play. The crossing covers an extensive distance of 19.4 km from the start to finish over rugged and mountainous terrain. Ideally, you have to be fit and have a reasonably good level of fitness, stamina and mobility to complete the crossing.

The steepest climb of the hike is known as the Devil’s Staircase. I was huffing and puffing all the way to the top, taking several short breaks in between just to catch my breath. From there, it is a steady climb up and down two huge craters, passing by picturesque emerald and blue-coloured lakes. In between, there is a steep descent on a loose rock (scree) surface – the part I dread the most because I am slightly terrified of heights and I was concerned that I might slip and fall into the acidic lake below. 😛

Some sections of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing are steep, rocky or muddy (after a rain), whereas much of the track goes through hard, rocky and uneven surfaces. The final leg of the crossing takes you downhill to Ketetahi, through lush native forest – offering a stark difference in the landscapes.

 

Scenic Mangatepopo Valley/Saddle @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Erika walking on the boardwalk over lava fields and streams in Mangatepopo Valley @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The steepest climb of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as the Devil’s Staircase

 

3. Volcanic Hazards & Safety Measures

The Tongariro Alpine Track traverse through active volcanic area, therefore eruptions are possible at any time without warning. Active volcanic vents on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing are Mount Ngauruhoe, the Red Crater, and Te Maari Craters. Volcanic Hazard Zones surround all of those active vents. If you are uncomfortable with the risk, turn back before you enter the Volcanic Hazard Zones.

Do know that if you are within one of these areas when an eruption happens, you may be in danger from eruption hazards such as flying rocks, fast moving burning clouds (pyroclastic flow), lahars (flash floods), falling ash and poisonous volcanic gases. Knowing what to do when an eruption happens might just save your life. 😉

So, in case an eruption happens:

  • Stop and watch for burning ash clouds and flying rocks
  • Run away from the path of fast moving burning clouds
  • Otherwise find shelter behind something – banks, ridges or in hollows
  • Shelter from flying rocks and cover your head with your backpack
  • Move out of the bottom of a valley if a lahar is possible
  • Evacuate out of the Hazard Zone and away from the eruption site keeping on ridges if possible

 

Togariro last erupted in 2012 in which the Te Maari Craters spewed out ash, gasses and rocks that damaged parts of the track and Ketetahi Hut. There are several active fumaroles (steam vents) in and around the Red Crater and the water of the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake is acidic with a pH of around 3-5.

 

Mount Ngauruhoe, or popularly known as Mount Doom (Lord of the Rings) @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The impressive looking Red Crater @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Steaming Te Maari Craters in the distance @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

4. Unpredictable Weather & Poor Visibility

New Zealand’s weather can be highly unpredictable especially in the mountains, therefore expect sudden weather changes and always be prepared for them. You must check the Metservice weather forecast for the Tongariro National Park before your trip and pay special attention to predicted weather conditions at the Red Crater.

Do consider cancelling the trip should any of the conditions below appear on the Red Crater forecast:

  • Wind strength forecast to be 65 km/h or greater between the hours of 9:00 am to 3:00 pm
  • Wind strength predicted to be 50 km/h or greater and precipitation of 10mm or more in a 6 hour period (as these conditions can lead to snowfall)
  • Wind chill on a fine day of -12 degrees Celsius or colder
  • Wind chill on a precipitation day of 0 degrees celsius or colder
  • Severe Weather Warning issued for Tongariro National Park

 

Due to the mountainous nature of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, you must be prepared for cold, wet, snowy/icy, or windy weather at any time of year.

For your safety, it is essential that you are properly prepared to walk the crossing and know that it is not safe to go in poor visibility, heavy rain or snow, or strong winds. Getting lost or stranded should not be the highlight of your Tongariro Alpine Crossing experience. 🙂

 

A sign warning visitors of the avalanche prone areas on the Tongariro Alpine Track
A warning sign at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

5. Subzero Temperatures & High Wind Chill Factor (Frostbite & Hypothermia Risk)

As mentioned above, the weather at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing can change dramatically from mid-20s to sub-zero temperatures with freezing high wind chill in an instance. Even on a relatively warm and sunny day, certain areas of the crossing, especially those on high altitudes can have freezing wind chills. If you are not adequately dressed, you might be in risk of getting nasty frostbites or even hypothermia.

Wear wool, merino, polypropylene or fleece-based layers (not cotton), waterproof and windproof jacket and overtrousers, proper hiking shoes/boots with good soles (no jandals/sandals please!), warm or wide-brimmed hat, gloves, sunscreen and sunglasses. Puffer jackets, hoodies, jeans, t-shirts and tights do not keep you warm enough.

I did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in October (spring) on a bright and sunny day, however the wind was freezing! Despite wearing gloves, my fingers went numb and shaky from the cold and I was unable to hold and use my mobile phone without dropping it a couple times. Ouch!! 🙁 To save my fingers from frostbite, I kept them warm in my down jacket’s pocket.

P.s. Some of us got sunburnt from the experience, so please apply sunscreen and wear long sleeves and a hat too!

 

Mangatepopo Saddle @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Stunningly beautiful snow covered valley/crater @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

6. Snow & Ice Hazards

I did not expect to see snow or ice on my Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but I did! 😀 To be honest, it was both a pleasant and unpleasant surprise; pleasant because it was my first time seeing so much snow and I had a fun time playing in the snow, and unpleasant because I was not well dressed for snowy/icy conditions.

The first 15-minute of snow time was enjoyable and the rest was pretty much a torture. It was not easy to walk on wet snow and slippery ice without crampons, an ice axe and snow gaiters. I slipped and fell numerous times. 🙁 It was tiring to constantly watch my steps and keep my balance on the hazardous/slippery track.  Also, wet clothing and cold conditions is an awful combination – kindly take note of that!

The moral of the story is you should pack proper snow gear for your Tongariro Alpine Crossing especially if you are going in winter or when snow/ice is expected.

 

Snow-covered Central Crater @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Erika in the spectacular snow-covered Central Crater @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

7. Food, Drinking Water & Long Drop Toilets

Kindly note that food is not available for purchase at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so please bring high energy food and extra rations in case of emergencies. For your info, there is no drinkable water supply throughout the crossing, so please bring at least 1.5-2 litres per person.

Water from the Mangatepopo Stream, Emerald Lakes, Blue Lake and Mangatipua Stream (from Ketetahi Springs) is not suitable for drinking due to high volcanic mineral content, acidity and/or the risk of giardia (a type of harmful parasite).

The Tongariro National Park and Tongariro Alpine Crossing are in sacred and fragile alpine area. As a sign of respect and for conservation purposes, please use the toilet facilities provided. Long drop toilets are available at Mangatepopo and Ketetahi car parks, at both huts and at Soda Springs. Between Soda Springs and Ketetahi Hut there are no toilets and the terrain is open with little cover.

 

Long drop toilets at Soda Springs @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Picturesque view of the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake from the Red Crater @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

8. Camping Passes, Huts & Designated Camping Sites

For your info, visitors who wish to spend the night in Tongariro National Park are required to have accommodation/overnight passes. Visitors must book the passes before entering the park and have the booking confirmation with them.

The accommodation passes can be booked online at the Department of Conservation (DOC) website or any Department of Conservation office. Camping is not permitted within 500 m of any track except at designated campsites adjacent to the three huts: Mangatepopo, Oturere and Waihohonu.

 

TONGARIRO ALPINE CROSSING HUTS & CAMPSITES FEES

 

Effective Date

Price

  Start Finish Adult

Child

HUTS
Mangatepopo Hut

      01 May

20 Oct $15 Free

21 Oct

30 Apr $36

Free

Oturere Hut

01 May

20 Oct $15

Free

21 Oct

30 Apr $36

Free

Waihohonu Hut

01 May

20 Oct $15

Free

21 Oct 30 Apr $36

Free

CAMPSITES
Mangatepopo Campsite

01 May

20 Oct

$5

Free

21 Oct

30 Apr $14

Free

Oturere Campsite

01 May

20 Oct $5

Free

21 Oct

30 Apr $14

Free

Waihohonu Campsite

01 May

20 Oct $5

Free

21 Oct

30 Apr $14

Free

For more information on fees and bookings, kindly visit the DOC website.

 

Ketetahi Hut @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

9. Shuttle Services & Parking

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a one way track, therefore you will need to arrange a return transport. There are shuttle services to Mangatepopo in the morning and back from Ketetahi in the afternoon at NZD30-45 per person, single journey. Detailed information on the shuttle timetables can be viewed here.

Another option would be to go in two cars. Park one car at Ketetahi car park (end point) and the other at Mangatepopo car park (preferred start point). That way, you will have transport should you arrive at either ends of the crossing and you do not need to rush to catch the last shuttle, thus have more time to enjoy the journey. 😉

However, parking spaces at both car parks are limited and there are reports of theft and vandalism happening at the car parks. Therefore, visitors are encouraged to take the shuttle service instead.

 

Mangatepopo car park @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

10. ‘Tapu’ or Sacred & Private Sites at Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage Site in recognition of its outstanding natural features and cultural importance that the landscape possesses for the local Maori. In fact, it is a priceless gift from the indigenous people to the New Zealand Government.

The mountains and certain areas of the national park such as the Blue Lake is considered ‘Tapu’ or sacred and it is disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores. The Ketetahi Springs are located on private land and hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing does not give you any right of access to the springs.

Please respect it as trespassing through the springs may result in loss of access to this part of the park. Kindly keep on the track at all times and take all rubbish including cigarette butts with you. It is our responsibility to take care of the environment and ensure its preservation for our future generations. 🙂

 

The Blue Lake is considered ‘tapu’ or sacred and it is disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores @ Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

Up next: Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Mangatepopo car park to Soda Springs, the South Crater and the Red Crater

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