Trail Distance: 12 miles
Elevation Gain: 2500'
Terrain Rating: Moderate in good weather to Above Moderate in poor weather (loose rock, wooden bridges and stairs, very well-marked trail)
Hike In: 5:20AM
Hike Out: 11:44AM
Trailhead: Mangatepopo Car Park.Highly recommend staying at Discovery and using the earliest shuttle
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was rated by Lonely Planet as one of the best day hikes and a "life-changing experience." I personally wouldn't go so far to call it that, but it is a very nice day hike if you are in North Island. The Emerald Lakes are beautiful and the entire landscape looks like you're in another planet. I would say it's a moderate hike in perfect, sunny weather and a moderately difficult hike in poor weather (high wind and rain). The toughest part is the hour long climb before Red Crater, where it is very steep and the rock is loose. The entire hike is exposed, so good gear is crucial for this hike.
The most common way to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is to start at Mangatepopo Car Park. You will have less elevation to ascend this way. Some hikers will start at Ketetahi Car Park and only go so far as the Emerald Lakes before turning around.
The hike is officially broken down into 6 sections. It starts off pretty flat from the Car Park to Soda Springs for the first hour and is comprised of so many wooden bridges. This was a bit of a let down in my opinion because it makes the hike less 'rustic,' but I can see the necessity of having them there. From Soda Springs to South Crater, the scene becomes a little more beautiful and steeper. When we went, it was misty, windy, and cold. It was poor visibility for the first few hours. From South Crater to Red Crater, it becomes very steep and the rocks are a lot looser. The wind was so tough here (around 65 kmph that day) that we just put our heads down and half jogged up the mountain. Hiking poles were so nice to have here for stability. The entire ascent has a book time of 3-3.5 hours, but we only took <2.5 hours because we wanted to power through the rain and heavy winds (the winds were getting worse as the day continued).
Once we reached the 10 minute descent to Emerald Lakes, it started to clear up! We arrived to the bottom of Emerald Lakes at 7:49PM. We grabbed a few photos around the lakes and were happy to beat the crowd. At this point, there were only 2 hikers ahead of us going this direction, so it was nice to have the place to ourselves. Again, I'd highly recommend the earliest shuttle from Discovery.
After it cleared up, we took our sweet time for the descent from Emerald Lakes to Ketetahi Hut. The sun was shining, the trail was easy (big S-curve switchbacks), and we had a lot of time before our 12:30pm pick up. From Ketetahi Hut to the Car Park, you enter tussock land with some good rocks and benches for a snack. We had a nice hour long lunch here while we looked out into the surrounding areas. Shortly before the Car Park, there is about 2 miles of jungle and some landslide warnings. Even with our long lunch and multiple stops at the descent, we arrived to the Car Park at 11:44AM.
Overall, Tongariro Crossing is a fantastic day hiking option in the North Island. We didn't experience the massive crowds you read about online because we started early and in poor weather, so I can't comment on that experience. Rain gear and layers were crucial on this hike. We ran into 1 man soaked in blue jeans. He didn't look very happy. There are options for side trails and we had planned to go up Mount Ngauruhoe but there was such poor visibility at the time we opted out.
- Osprey 36L Sirrus Pack and rain cover
- Hiking poles
- Salmon X ULTRA MID 2 hiking boots and Darn Tough socks
- 1.5L of water
- 5 bars
- Sandwich lunch with a muffin and an apple
- Lululemon yoga pants
- Arc'Teryx Beta SL Pant
- 2 Icebreaker Merino Wool shirts (one long-sleeve)
- Icebreaker Merino mid-layer
- The North Face HyVent 2.5L rain jacket
- Extra clothes packed away: socks, fleece
- Emergency Gear: Headlamp, First-Aid Kit, Swiss Army Knife, Emergency Blanket