The Tongariro Crossing is one of the most well-known walks hikes in New Zealand.
(this and the Milford Track)
It had been on my bucket list for ages and in February I finally crossed it off.
The Tongariro Crossing is a popular ‘must do’ for NZ tourists and locals alike. Its fast-growing popularity could be linked to Lonely Planet awarding it New Zealand’s ‘Best One Day Walk’, or it could just be because the walk is pretty special…
The 19km track takes you past three active volcanoes, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro in the North Island’s rugged Central Plateau. You’re treated to stunning views of mountains, volcanic craters, native forest and thermal lakes in gorgeous shades of emerald blue and green (a great reward for when you make it to the top).
It’s a popular track and it’s easy to see why, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
In fact, I will stop calling it a walk right now… it’s a hike.
While much of the beginning is along a wooden boardwalk, other parts can be quite steep and rough. It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into – we watched quite a few people turn around within the first couple hours as they’d obviously not realised that “New Zealand’s best day walk” is actually a hike!
So here’s my advice…
When to go
The track is most popular in summer and this is definitely the time I recommend going (unless you’re a pretty savvy hiker). You can complete the hike at other times of the year but there’s likely to be snow, even in autumn and spring, so you’ll need to prepare for these kind of conditions.
In saying that, the track is really busy on the weekends in summer, so go during the week if you can.
How to get there
We made the Tongariro Crossing into a weekend trip and booked two nights in an AirBnB in Ohakune. While Ohakune is a hotspot for skiers in winter, in summer it’s not as busy so the prices are really reasonable.
Most people either stay in here or in Turangi (on the other side of the mountains) because their nearby and both offer shuttle services for the hike.
We booked a shuttle on the Friday night (for a Saturday hike) and were lucky to get seats – we only got in because a group had just cancelled. I highly recommend using a shuttle service (more convenient than taking two cars and leaving one at the finish/start) BUT you do need to book early – especially in peak seasons.
The shuttle took us from Ohakune to the Magatepopo end of the track (best end to start at as it’s higher) and picked us up from Ketetahi and took us back to town. It was well organised and after seeing how far away some people had to park from the end of the track, I’m glad we organised this!
What to expect
Expect a lot of people. According to Lonely Planet 10,000 people complete the track each year… but this has to be a severe understatement. We were there on a beautiful day in late February and honestly, there must have been at least 2000 other people there.
The hike will probably take you about 6-7 hours to complete, depending how many people are there and what time of year it is. (If you choose to add on the steep walk up to the summit of Ngauruhoe, you can add another 2 hours to this.)
There are three toilet stops fairly close together at the beginning and then none for a few hours. If you need to go in between this time beware of stopping behind rocks… we called one rock Shit Rock for reasons you might be able to figure out. About an hour after the emerald lakes there’s another toilet stop, wait for this if you can.
The weather changes rapidly. Seriously, we had hot and cold extremes which had me pulling out my gloves and swapping my cap for a woolly hat! Which brings me to the next point…
What to wear and take with you
As the name implies, this is an alpine crossing and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. You should have multiple clothing layers, including a rain jacket and hat.
For summer hikes I’d recommend a synthetic base layer to help draw away moisture and sweat, some merino layers to keep warm (I wore one and took a spare in my bag) and then a versatile high-performance rain jacket – I wore one just like this, which was perfect as it blocked the wind, kept the rain off and then folded up nicely and fit into my bag when the sun came out.
I wore exercise pants which were fine, though I also saw people in shorts and hiking pants. It really depends on what the weather is doing, but you 100% can’t wear jeans. Just don’t.
Jeans are not practical for this (or any) hike. Nor are sandals, Chuck Taylors or bare feet – please wear good walking shoes with some decent tread – parts of the hike are over lose gravel, so they’ll help you stay on track.
On top of this, I’d also recommend gloves and a warm hat! When we got to the first peak it was freezing cold and I had all my layers on, including a woollen hat. An hour later I’d stripped back down to a t-shirt and sunhat – the weather just changes so quickly.
Note: Take sunscreen.
Also take food and water.
But don’t take too much water, you’re only there for 6 hours and remember there are only four toilet stops. I took two 600ml bottles and that was plenty for me – although I’m not a big drinker. We also took sandwiches, scroggin, fruit and cliff bars (yum).
As I learnt in Girl Guides, we took only photos and left only footsteps – solid advice, which I urge you to follow too (and please if you see any litter on the track, do everyone a favour pick it up).
I really enjoyed the walk, despite its busyness. While it shouldn’t be taken lightly, it works well as a Kiwi ‘must do’, one that I’m super happy to have crossed off the list!
Milford Track, you’re next.