Tongariro Alpine Crossing is rated as the top Day Hike in NZ. It is 19.4km. It ascends 765m and descends 1126m crossing through the heart of Tongariro National Park and its active volcanoes. In fact Mt. Tongariro erupted August 2012 after century of silence.  The scenery as supposed to be amazing… but it didn’t seem promising when we awoke. Rain was pouring outside as we cooked breakfast. It petered to a lighter shower as we drove down SH 47 at 5:15am. We were using a shuttle service run by Discovery Lodge  ($35pp round trip) since the crossing is a car to car hike. The hostel offered a shuttle ($30pp round trip), but it left at 7:00am with two buses bringing up to 70 people to the trail head. Eric and I went with Discovery because they leave at 6am getting the 22 seat busload to the Mangatepopo starting point at by 6:30 or earlier. They do not have one set pick up time at the other end of the trail, but make pickups at the trail head every hour beginning at noon and ending at 5:30pm.

We passed Discovery Lodge turn off  several times even with my GPS and turned down SH 48 at one point confused. Eric went into the Chateau Tongaririo Hotel where a gentleman explained that the turnoff for Discovery was very dark, but right after the airfield we’d passed. We sped back and found the turn off… indeed it was dark and we would have never seen it without the beta.

The bus was just beginning to board as we pulled up. Breathing a sign of relief we grabbed our gear and headed over. The driver inquired about our gear. Tongariro is not a simple day walk… it is a major undertaking. The walk was changed from Tongariro Crossing to Tongaririo ALPINE Crossing to make the track seem more extreme since so many folks were dying on it. This most shuttle services do there best to ensure that their clients are prepared for the elements. There were only six of us on the bus. The driver told us that the shuttle had not gone out in 4 days because of the weather conditions. He thought that there was a 10% chance we would see anything at all. He predicted that most of the hike would be in heavy mist and rain. Two folks decided to come back another day and left the bus. We and a German couple remained determined to do the walk after traveling across the world to be here. So off we went.

We arrived at Mangatepopo Car-park at about 6:30am.Immediately you are informed of the dangers of the trail with notices and a volcano warning light system. Basically if the light is green the trail is open. If the light is red then the trail is closed and the volcano is about to erupt. The light was green and we began walking.

The weather seemed to be clearing up. clouds were parting on the west (but the winds came from the east and it looked bad in that direction). Mangatepopo valley is a lovely place surrounded by volcanic hills, pumice piles, rough grasses, streams and wildflowers. On a clear day we would have seen the three volcanoes (Tongairio, Ngauruhoe and Ruepehu), but the swirling mist made them barely an outline on the horizon. We passed the Mangatepopo Hut and some bathrooms at the end of the Valley before we began to climb.

As we climbed the trail weaving through massive volcanic rocks the sun illuminated the valley below. Sulpuer was thick in the air as we neared the volcanoes. Dark clouds still enveloped us though threatening possible rain. This combined with the sun created a rainbow over the valley. We paused several time to admire it before dipped over the crest of the pass where were greeted by a sudden change.

Suddenly we were on a cold, damp ridge surrounded by mist. It was not a white out and the poles that mark the trail were very visible. However, any promise of the sky clearing vanished. The trail led us across South Crater, a flat sandy basin. The Trail then climbs out of the crater an across a long rocky ridge. We passed the turn off to climb Ngauruhoe and later Mount Tongariro. We had hoped to climb Tongairiro even in the mist just to summit. However,  howling wind and cold rain made the slog seem like a great way to made a bad situation worse so we pressed on. We followed the ridge as it steadily gained elevation. At one point we passed a sign by another red/green light system that read “Trail Closed” in large letters. As we drew closer we could read the smaller print reading “…if light is red. ” It was green so up we went to the top of Red Crater, the highest point of the Crossing.

Normally we would have splendid views of the mountains here, but all we saw was swirling white and the faint  turquoise image of the Emerald Lakes just below. We descended steeply to the lakes so starkly blue it was amazing they were real. We then followed the track though a flat area of  tussock grass. We passed several other lakes according to my maps, but we couldn’t see them. Switchbacks then lead us at what seemed like a painfully slow pace to the Ketetahi shelter. The German couple were there along with two other gentlemen. We stopped and hung out sloping wet clothes from the line and ate for the first time that day. We traveling way ahead of schedule. Rain will encourage you to move!

It was 6k more to the Ketetahi car-park. The trail switch backed over more tussock before we arrived at the treeline and exited the volcanic hazard area. The last 3k of trail wove through a dense rainforest and the sun seemed to peak through the clouds at moments. We reached the car-park at about noon… it took us 5.25 hours to do the track. the DOC estimates it takes 5.5-8 hours.

Since there were only 4 clients the shuttle was no coming every hour. Earlier we had agree for a 1:30 and 4:30 pickup with the option to call if we arrived earlier. The German couple made the call and the bus arrived at 12:45. Damp abd ragged we boarded the bus for the 60k ride back. We asked the driver for suggestions of what to the over the next few days since rainw as forecasted and we wouldn’t be able to climb Ngauruhoe and Ruepehu as we planned. He suggested some short trails and also helped up with the rest of of travel plans on the North Island.

Since it was still early Eric and I went to the Whakapapa Visitor Centre. Rangers in New Zealand were shorts and a polo shirt, hardly as formal as NPS Rangers in the States. Then we walked a bit on the nearby Taranaki Falls trail to stretch our legs. We got lucky. The clouds suddenly parted revealing Mt. Ngauruhoe full. I had never seen an un-glaciated volcano before…and we looked at it for 5 minutes before it was once again swallowed by the clouds.

Back at the hostel we cooked dinner and noticed that some other guests had left dirty dishes and wine bottles all over one table. Also unacceptable. We decided to head up to Lake Taupo the following morning as the bus driver had suggested and booked the next hostel. We can hardly wait to leave YHA National Park.

12 miles

2889 ft ascent/ 4071 descent

Risk lights by the trailhead

Risk lights by the trailhead

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

volcanic rocks in Mangatepopo Valley

volcanic rocks in Mangatepopo Valley

Mangatepopo Valley

Mangatepopo Valley

Rainbow over Mangatepopo Valley

Rainbow over Mangatepopo Valley

Eric at South Crater

Eric at South Crater

walking on the ridge upt to Red Crater

walking on the ridge upt to Red Crater

Me on South Crater

Me on South Crater

Eric descends from Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

Eric descends from Red Crater to Emerald Lakes

Emerald Lakes

Emerald Lakes

tussock ramble

tussock ramble

Rainforest near the end of the track

Rainforest near the end of the track

The Crossing map

The Crossing map