Hiking Guide to Tongariro Alpine Crossing Blog post header

Welcome to the ULTIMATE hiking guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing!

Chances are that you’ve found this page because you’re interested in hiking the incredible Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand – BUT you want to know a little bit more about how to actually do it.

Since I’ve had the pleasure of hiking this phenomenal track twice in my life (hopefully a third time coming up some day), I want to share my knowledge and experience with you.

In this blog post, I’ll go through everything I know about hiking the Tongariro Crossing such as hike time, distance, elevation, how to prepare, tips on what to pack, how to get there with a shuttle bus, answer questions like, “Are there any toilets on the trail?”, and I’ll share my own experience on the track.

To this day, it’s still one of my (and Glenn’s) favorites hikes in the world, and it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a day outside. So let’s get started on this full guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I hope you’ll enjoy this magnificent trail.

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About the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

Let’s begin with all the need-to-know information about the hike.

In this section I’ll guide you through everything you need to prepare and pack for the Tongariro Crossing, plus I’ll share a thing or two about the incredible volcanoes in the area.

Why should you hike the Tongariro?

There are SO many reasons to why you should hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

The Tongariro National Park has actually been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990 (and later again in 1993). It’s such a special place, and many of the volcanoes and mountains are part of the Māori cultural heritage.

Read more: History and culture behind the Tongariro National Park

Apart from being an important place to the Māori heritage, the Tongariro National Park has some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth, which I’ve ever experienced.

The best thing about this hike is that the scenery constantly changes! You’ll walk past craters, volcanoes, lakes, and hot springs. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful day hikes in the world.

There are several volcanoes in the area, but the most spectacular one is Mount Ngāuruhoe, which is a perfectly shaped (and still active) stratovolcano with a 2291 meters height. Mount Ngāuruhoe is also known as, “Mount Doom” from Lord of the Rings. So make sure to stop and enjoy the beauty of this volcano during your hike.

So let’s sum up: You should hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has important cultural significance for New Zealand and the Māori, it has the most beautiful landscapes, and let’s face it – it’s a great workout.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing (hike time, distance, elevation)

Time: 7-9 Hours

Distance: 19,4 KM

Elevation: 1196 M

Above is the hike time, distance and elevation of the Tongariro Crossing, which indicates that the difficulty of this hike is pretty challenging. The distance and elevation are challenging enough already, but when you add in the rough volcano terrain, then you have the combination of a tough day hike ahead of you.

If you’re completely new to hiking or you have some injuries, then you might pass this hike.

Read more: Hiking for beginners

How to prepare for hiking the Tongariro Crossing

There are several things you need to do in order to prepare for hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The word “Alpine” might give you a hint. An “Alpine” hike is a trail that goes through difficult terrain in mountains and alps. So it’s important to prepare yourself properly.

You have to prepare for the Tongariro Crossing depending on what time of year you’re visiting.

  • SUMMER TIME: November – May
  • WINTER TIME: June – October
Preparing for the Tongariro Crossing in 4 steps
1. Check the weather
2. Book a shuttle bus to the trailhead
3. Familiarize yourself with the trail
4. Pack a backpack with necessities
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More information: Official Tongariro DOC Site

What to pack for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

If you’re hiking during winter, then you need to prepare and pack differently for the Tongariro Crossing because you need proper hiking equipment for a trail covered in snow. Since I’ve only hiked the trail in March and January, I can only speak of my experience on the Tongariro during summer time.

This is what you (at least) need to pack for the Tongariro hike during summer:

Tongariro Packing List (Summer Edition)
1. A good pair of Hiking shoes
2. Extra layers of clothing
3. Lunch + quick energy snacks
4. About 2 Liters of water/person
5. A roll of toilet paper
6. Sunscreen for your exposed skin
7. A hat to block for sun and rain
8. Rain cover – you never know
9. Hiking poles (optional)
10. Band-Aids for blisters
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Related post: Day hike packing list

How to get to and from the Tongariro Crossing without a guide

In this section I’m going to guide you through how to get to and from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing by yourself. However, if you prefer to hike the Tongariro Crossing with a guide, then you can always check out these Guided Tongariro Crossing Tours.

You want to get an early start on this rather long day hike, so you need to stay overnight in the area of Tongariro National Park. Plus, the track begins and ends in different locations, so you need to book a shuttle bus. This shuttle bus picks you up at the parking lot at the end of the trail and drops you off at the trailhead where you begin the hike.

1. Choose your accommodation

There are several places to stay in or close to the Tongariro National Park. We stayed in a hostel named The Crossing Lodge, and for just 36 NZD (2020 price), Glenn and I could set up our tent in their garden and use all their facilities such as kitchen, shower, common room, and bubble bath.

I can really recommend The Crossing Lodge if you’re just looking for somewhere cheap to place your tent.

There is a big price range on the accommodation that you can find around Tongariro National Park. You can find double rooms from 70 NZD and up to more than 500 NZD per night. So, it really depends on what you’re looking for in your accommodation.

Camping in Tongariro National Park

2. Book a shuttle bus to the Tongariro Crossing

Once you’ve chosen your accommodation for the night, your next step is to book a shuttle bus to the Tongariro Trailhead. I think that all places of accommodation can fix this for you.

We paid 40 NZD/per person (2020 price) for a shuttle bus to get us to the trailhead of the Tongariro and to pick us up at the finish line after the hike. This is a pretty normal price to pay, and it’s more or less what you should budget for. We just went to the front desk of our hostel and they fixed everything for us.

Another popular way to get to the trailhead is to place your car in the parking lot at the end of the trail, and book a shuttle from there to the trailhead. That way, when you finish the hike, you’ll have your car standing at the Ketetahi Carpark waiting for you. You can book this shuttle bus on Viator if that sounds like the best solution for you.

The road in Tongariro National Park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing hiking guide – What to expect?

All right! Now we’ve reached the more exciting part of this blog post.

In this section of the guide, I’ll share all the legs of the trail, and a bit of my own personal experience on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This can work as a small guide of “what to expect on the Tongariro” before you set out to do this magnificent crossing yourself.

I’ve divided the track into 8 small parts – so let’s get going!

PART 1: BEGINNING THE HIKE WALKING THROUGH A THICK CLOUD

We got dropped off at the Mangatepopo Carpark by our shuttle bus. This is the trailhead where you’ll find a toilet and a map over the Tongariro Crossing track. Take your time to have a look at the map if you haven’t familiarized yourself with the trail yet.

Anyways, from here there is nothing to do but to just start hiking! The first leg of the Tongariro Crossing is the easiest part of the whole hike. So make sure to take this time to warm up your body.

It’s about 4,5 kilometer from the beginning of the trailhead to the Soda Springs and Devil’s Staircase.

We found that the first couple of kilometers were a bit dull because the trail was covered in dense clouds, so we couldn’t really see much. But then the clouds slowly began to lift, and we spotted Mount Ngauruhoe! One of the most beautiful and perfect volcanoes I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing during cloudy weather

PART 2: DEVIL’S STAIRCASE TO MOUNT NGAURUHOE

You’ll know once you’ve reached the Devil’s Staircase. Because all of a sudden you have to climb A LOT of steps! This is the first hard part of the hike because you gain a couple of hundred meters in elevation during a short distance.

But once you reach the top of the steps, and you stand right in front of Mount Ngauruhoe a.k.a Mount Doom, you’ll forget you ever did these steps. What an incredible view of the volcano!

Sitting in front of Mount Ngauruhoe/Doom on the Tongariro Crossing

PART 3: CROSSING THE SOUTH CRATER

The next part of the hike is pretty easy. For a small kilometer you have to walk through the South Crater, which is completely flat.

While walking through the South Crater you have Mount Tongariro on the left, Mount Ngauruhoe on the right, and the Red Crater in front of you. At this point you’re basically surrounded by volcanoes! This part of the hike is what I call, “Walking through volcano land” – it really is an extraordinary experience.

PART 4: HIKING TO THE PEAK AT THE RED CRATER

Now Part 4 and 5 are some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track. So please pay attention and take it easy on this part of the hike.

Once you’ve walked past the South Crater, you have a steep ascent to the Red Crater. We found this part of the hike very windy, and I was honestly concerned about some of the children walking this track.

The Red Crater is the peak of the crossing with its 1868 meters height, which means that this is where you’ll find the strongest winds!

I remember feeling a little bit scared at some point, but then we reached the peak at the Red Crater, and I just fell in love with the incredible views from up here. I did a 360 degrees spin, and I saw the many beautiful and different landscapes of Volcano Land!

It seriously looks like you’re on another planet. So darn beautiful.

Landscape from Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

PART 5: STEEP DESCENT AND EMERALD LAKES

Once we had enjoyed the views from the Red Crater (as much as I could with the strong winds and me being afraid of heights), the descent from the peak begins.

The landscape changes again – just this time it’s 3 beautiful emerald lakes, which contrast the dark volcanic landscape perfectly. When reaching this point, I almost felt like yelling, “Come on Earth! Are you for real?!” The emerald lakes are just beautiful…

However, descending towards the lakes is tricky because it’s steep. You can’t really walk down normally, because then you’re almost guaranteed to fall. So I found that the best way to get down from the peak was to slide down while zig-zagging from side to side, kind of like doing some weird form of Jazz Ballet.

I know it sounds odd, but it worked, and most people did this. Just watch out for your ankles here, because it’s really easy to slip and get injured.

Once we reached the Emerald Lakes, we unpacked our lunch and gave our tired legs the rest they deserved.

The emerald lakes from the Tongariro Crossing

PART 6: THE BIG LAKE AND THE BEST VIEWS

When you’re at the Emerald Lakes, you’re only about halfway through the track even though it feels like you’ve been hiking forever. So you need to keep moving.

The next part of the Tongariro Crossing is the short hike from the Emerald Lakes to the Blue Lake. The Blue Lake is very special because of its clear, beautiful, blue color. Plus it’s a sacred place to the Maori.

One you make it to the Blue Lake, it’s important that you turn around and look back.

Because for me, this is the best and most satisfying viewpoint you’ll get during the Tongariro hike. You can see Mount Ngauruhoe towering above the Red Crater and the track you’ve just hiked. This is a phenomenal view, and my favorite one on the whole Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike.

Mesmerizing views of the Mount Ngauruhoe and Red Crater from hiking the Tongariro Crossing

PART 7: THE LOOONG WAY DOWN

Once you’ve passed the Blue Lake, you round a corner, and there you’ll be able to spot Lake Taupo from afar.

Yes, just as you thought the hike couldn’t get any better – it just did! Lake Taupo is the biggest lake in New Zealand, and it’s created by a supervolcano that erupted thousands of years ago.

But apart from the great views you get from this part of the hike, it’s also the toughest part of the whole Tongariro Alpine Crossing. At least that’s what we think.

I think this stretch is around 6,5 kilometers and about 700 meters of elevation difference that you do in one descent. It’s literally decent, descent, descent. Zig-zag, zig-zag, zig-zag. Pain, pain, pain.

This is the part of the hike where you’ll start to produce blister after blister because you constantly bump your toes into the front of your shoes. It’s really tough on the back, the knees and the feet to descent for this long at a time. So take your time while descending and try to enjoy the beautiful views.

PART 8: SAYING GOODBYE IN THE RAINFOREST

Reaching the rainforest only means one thing – the pain is almost over. But sadly, it also means that this phenomenal hike is coming to an end…

The rainforest is a nice break from the open track because the vegetation is so different, and you have the shadow from the trees to cover you from the sun (if it’s been a sunny hike, you’ll be tired of the sun at this point). Only a couple more kilometers, and you’re at the Ketetahi Carpark and finish line of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Congratulations, you’ve completed one of the most incredible day hikes in the world!

Frequently asked questions about the Tongariro Crossing

What is the best time of year to do the Tongariro Crossing?

You’ll find the best weather on the Tongariro Crossing between December and February. However, this is also peak season, which means that the trail is more crowded. If you hike on the shoulder season, then you’ll have a less crowded trail, but the weather is not as stable. If you choose to hike the Tongariro Crossing during Winter, then you need good preparation and knowledge of the trail.

Are there toilets on the Tongariro Crossing?

Yes. There are several drop down toilets on the Tongariro Crossing. You’ll find toilets at the beginning of the hike, at Mangatepopo Hut, by the Devil’s Staircase, and some after the Blue lake. Remember to bring toilet paper yourself.

How much does the Tongariro Crossing cost?

Nothing. Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is free in itself, however you need to pay for your shuttle bus and accommodation. We spent 36 NZD for a tent spot/night and 40 NZD for shuttle bus/person in 2020.

Can you walk the Tongariro Crossing without a guide?

Yes, we did this. However, if you’re more comfortable with hiking the Tongariro Crossing with a guide, then you can easily book one. I would especially suggest you to book a guided tour if you’re doing the track during winter when the weather conditions are more dangerous.
Here are 3 different Tongariro tours, which you may find interesting:
1. Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guided Group Walk
2. Private Tongariro Crossing Guided Walk
3. Tongariro Self-Guided Audio Tour

Can you swim on the Tongariro Crossing?

No. Please don’t try to swim in the lakes along the Tongariro hike. They are highly acidic and/or sacred places.

Is the Tongariro Crossing safe?

The Tongariro Crossing is generally safe to hike, but only if you follow the guidelines. You need to prepare well for the hike, know your own limits, and respect that this is an active volcanic area where volcanic hazards always are a risk. So always follow the guidelines from the authorities and don’t hike the trail if it’s not recommended on the specific date. Not to scare you away, but people have died on this crossing, which is why you need to have the utmost respect of the area.


I hope you enjoyed this hiking guide to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – The best day hike in New Zealand! If you have any questions, then don’t hesitate to leave them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

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