Hiking the Tongariro Crossing & Devil’s Staircase: Everything You Need to Know

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It felt as if I had just closed my eyes when the alarm sounded. I felt around for my phone in the direction of the annoying buzzing. Found it, 4:30 AM. It took a second for me to remember why I had set it for that time, but I needed to get up, get ready and catch a bus in the front of the hostel at 5:30 AM for the start of the Tongariro Crossing.

The epic Tongariro Crossing is one of New Zealand’s best day hikes and although it’s tough, it’s an excellent way to experience the volcanic, alpine landscapes of the North Island.

The Tongariro Crossing takes you through a unique world that is quite unlike anywhere else on the planet, and you’ll trek through otherworldly landscapes and ancient lava flows while being continuously surrounded by high mountain peaks.

You’ll even see the infamous Mount Doom, the peak that featured in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

As beautiful as the trek is, it’s a real challenge at the same time, but nothing great ever comes too easily, and it’s worth tackling the steep inclines and high elevation over this long day hike to experience a part of New Zealand that would be otherwise inaccessible

To complete the hike you’ll need to be prepared and have a decent level of fitness and to help you out, we put together this Tongariro Crossing Hiking Guide to share our experience and ease your planning worries.

Tongariro Crossing New Zealand

The Tongariro National Park

The Tongariro Crossing is found within the beautiful confines of the Tongariro National Park, a spectacular region of volcanic landscapes and high mountains, so spectacular in fact, that many of the shots you see in Lord of the Rings, were taken here. If you see a mountain in the movie, chances are you can find it around here.

The Tongariro National Park has a special place in New Zealand history, because this is the country’s oldest national park, and one of the oldest to be found anywhere in the world.

The area was outlined as a national park as far back as 1894, primarily due to local Maori pressure on the government. Tongariro has long played an important role in Maori culture, and there are to this day many religious sites around the park.

The creation of the national park meant that this cultural landscape could be preserved, and it stopped further development by European settlers into the center of the North Island.

The area is prone to volcanic activity and as recently as 2012 there was an eruption of a local volcano, meaning the landscapes here are constantly changing and in flux. 

Today, it’s one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its importance.

Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing is classified as an Alpine Crossing. That means it’s a relatively high elevation and seriously prone to extreme weather, i.e alpine conditions. It’s the most famous day hike in New Zealand, and it allows you to experience the best of the Tongariro National Park.

The hike is 19.4 kilometers from start to finish, but it’s not a circular route, but rather a linear one, meaning you’ll end up a long way from where you started. That can make traveling here more difficult, and it will involve a little planning. You can read more about that further on in the article.

The Tongariro Crossing starts at the Mangatepopo Car Park, which is at the southern end of the trail – you can, of course, make the hike in either direction – at an elevation of 1,120 meters.

The highest point is found at 1,886 meters in height, at the summit of the Red Crater, which is roughly the halfway point. From here you descend again to 760 meters when you reach the endpoint at the Ketetahi Carpark.

Tackling the trail in reverse, i.e from north to south would, therefore, involve rather more uphill walking than starting in the recommended southern car park at Mangatepopo.

You should allow around 8 hours of hiking time to complete the Tongariro Crossing, but this will depend on your fitness, the weather conditions and how many stops you make to stare in awe at the landscapes.

It’s recommended to start early and to be on the trail by 8 am.

Taking on the Crossing – Our Personal Experience

After traveling south through the North Island and running into some bad weather a few weeks prior, we had no other option but to head out of Taupo early and miss one of the items on our list that we wanted to do.

This left us with one last chance to try it on our way back to Auckland. It was going to be a gamble because we only had 1 day to play with, so if we encountered bad weather again, we would be out of luck.

When booking our transportation the evening before they told us that the forecast was strong winds and that it may be unpleasant to try the crossing on the following day.

They advised that we try to stay in Taupo another night and do it the following day. We weren’t afforded this convenience, we had no extra days to play with, so we crossed our fingers, had dinner and went to bed at 8:30pm hoping the weather would work itself out for the morning.

Stumbling down to the reception at 5 AM, we made breakfast and checked the Tongariro board that displayed weather and information on the day’s trip out to the crossing.

Our luck, the wind warning had cleared out and it was looking like it would shape up to a decent day for us.  We hopped on the bus at 5:30am and power napped on our almost 2 hour trip to the start of the track.

Now, we had heard that the crossing was challenging from many people that we had spoken to, yet we weren’t sure what to expect. It seemed that all sorts of different people had completed the crossing, from the fit to the first time hikers.

We were somewhere in between there and assumed the Tongariro Crossing would be a challenge for us, although doable.

They weren’t kidding about it being cold. When we stepped off the bus into the crisp air it reminded of us of Fall in Wisconsin. The air cut right through our pants while we got organized to start our walk.

I stood in the line at the bathroom and watched my breath as I talked to some other trekkers. It was cold out.  Thankfully I had my light down jacket. I ended up wearing it almost the whole day.

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The first part of the walk is an easy trail to the first hut. It was a pretty good warm-up with only a gradual incline in places. It was a beautiful spot to watch the fog lift while the sun rose on the backside of the volcanoes.

Walking to that first hut seemed to take forever. I guess when you sign up to walk 19.4km in one day, you don’t realize how long that is when you start throwing in ascents and descents.

Rounding that last corner of the first part and watching the first set of bathrooms come into view was exciting, even though we had much of the path to continue on.  From first glance, the open space we had to cross to get to the bathrooms appeared flat and easy to cross.

I don’t know if it was the early morning or what, but it wasn’t flat.

The incline was hard to see but it was consistent and just enough to get your legs burning. I know that sounds funny, but for the amount of distance, it really did get to me. 

By the time I reached the bathroom, I needed a good 10-minute session of stretching my legs and a bathroom break. News flash, no toilet paper.

No worries I thought to myself, David had mentioned the night before that he was packing Kleenex for the hike. Exit bathroom, holler for David, who can’t hear me because the wind had picked up, only to discover he hadn’t packed them. Ugh, no bathroom breaks for me.

At this point, we approach the infamous ‘turn back now’ sign. The one that states if you are winded, tired or suffer from just about any type of condition, you should turn back and phone your transport.

Hmmm, does having a bursting bladder count? We pushed on and before we knew it was climbing, climbing, climbing and climbing hundreds of steps into a pretty desolate area.

I would climb a set or two and need to take a break. The steps were practically straight up and many people were approaching the task similar to us. We were operating like a tag team, we would pass these two people then stop, then they would pass us and then stop. This went on the whole way up.

By the time we reached the top, I was thinking to myself that I was never going to survive the devil’s staircase. I was winded and my legs were burning already, yet I had seen no sign that we were close to the devil’s staircase. Well, I signed up for this so I decided to suck it up and press on.

A short walk later and we were literally standing at the base of Mt Doom. I found myself thinking, every single person had told me that you have to climb the devil’s staircase to get to this point. I guess I imagined it would be marked clearer before we started it, but all those steps we just did, were in fact the devil’s staircase.

I all of a sudden found myself with a whole new wave of motivation. I had already navigated the hardest part of the crossing and I didn’t even know I was doing it.

That made it easier for me, instead of suffering through and saying how horrible it was, I just pushed through thinking that the worse was yet to come. It is weird how your mind plays tricks on you like that based on the perception of your situation.

Devils Staircase

We took a short break here and visited with some of the other hikers that had stopped. There was one bigger climb up to the summit of the Red Crater, where we would be afforded the world-class view of the inside of the crater and then the Emerald Pools.

That was something to look forward to. Having slammed an energy drink and gorged on protein snacks, we pushed on.

The summit climb turned out to be more challenging than the devil’s staircase. The wind had picked up through the top part of the crater and this made navigating the unmarked, rocky, twisting trail difficult. If you stepped wrong, you would often slip due to the loose rocks under your feet.

There were no handrails and the path was narrow with drops straight down the side of the volcano on both sides. You didn’t want to take a wrong step here. I found myself with a boost of energy that had me running up the steep inclines where the footing was good. This was easier for me than trying to just walk up the steep grade.

Walking allowed the wind to catch your foot as you lifted it and often times landed it down on unstable footing.  So much for the wind warning being lifted. As odd as it seems, running was easier and got me up to the top in a quicker fashion.

Taking those last few steps onto the summit of the Red Crater was incredible. Despite my burst of energy, it was still hard work and reaching the top was a huge reward. We had walked 9-10km at that point and pretty much all uphill.

You couldn’t miss the view down the backside of the crater that took your eyes to the Emerald Pools below. They really are as green as they look in photos and words don’t really do them justice.

Emerald Pools

We spent the good part of an hour taking photos, eating lunch and making our way down to the Blue Pool. The wind was very strong, again making it really hard to navigate the decline off the crater. The terrain was different in that it was fine sand and most of the time you just found yourself sliding down and bracing.

It wasn’t till after we reached the Blue Pool and headed across the valley that the wind finally let up. We were past the channel that fed the wind into the lakes area and we were relieved. Stopping to rehydrate we reflected on what we had just done while admiring Mt Doom and the Red Crater from the opposite side of the valley.

Making that climb is tough, but I think the worse part of the whole crossing is the descent. After leaving the valley we climbed up another incline onto the backside of the next volcanic area. The scenery here was beyond stunning and more like the landscape we saw when we first started the crossing earlier that morning.

We stopped many times to observe the steaming outputs on the side of the hills and the beautiful Lake Taupo in the distance. New Zealand just keeps giving on the scenery. After what seemed like ages, we finally arrived at the last hut on the trail.

Thankfully, the bathrooms had toilet paper because I was still holding it. Yes, I climbed onto, into and over a volcano while holding it.

We decided not to linger too long hereafter applying more sunscreen and grabbing a snack. We were already starting to get stiff just from the short break. From here, the track is boring and literally just downhill straight into the sub-tropical forest below. Most of the path is easy traveling but again, all with a decline.

From the hut to the car park it’s a 2-hour walk.  It was probably the longest part of the whole crossing. Once you come down to the hut, the weather can be quite warm. We found ourselves shedding many layers the farther we descended. So by the time we got to the forest, we were sweating and ready to be done walking.

Coming out of the forest into the car park was anti-climatic. We were overwhelmed with self-accomplishment but at the same time, happy to be done.

We had completed the crossing in 7 hours, walked 19.4km and arrived at the car park in time to catch the first bus. It was us and 100 other weary walkers, just gathered around on the grass in a dusty car park.

Dirty Details of the Day:

  • Hours Walked: 7
  • Distance Covered: 19.5km
  • Total steps: 35,590
  • Calories Burned: 3,137

Emerald Pools

Highlights of the Tongariro Crossing

Starting at the Mangatepopo, you’ll encounter these epic sights in the order below, but these are just the highlights. You are guaranteed to see many, many more incredible sights along the trail!

  • The Devil’s Staircase: From Mangatepopo, after a relatively flat start to the hike, you’ll begin ascending rapidly up to the Mangatepopo Saddle, along the aptly named Devil’s Staircase. It’s perhaps not a highlight, as much as an endurance test, but if you catch your breath for long enough, you’ll be marveling at the beautiful views.
  • Mount Ngauruhoe: In clear weather, you’ll be able to see the distinctive form of Mount Ngauruhoe from the start of the hike, but once you’ve cleared the Saddle, it’ll be even more prominent. This is Mount Doom, the same active volcano that was used in the Lord of the Rings movies. There is a detour, which begins at the Mangatepopo Hut, and that will take you up the mountain itself. This is for experienced hikers only and will take at least 3 hours return from the Tongariro Crossing trail.
  • South Crater: You’ll keep trekking uphill, although not quite as vigorously until you reach the South Crater. This is the leftover crater of a volcanic eruption, and you’ll be trekking over red rocks and volcanic gravel the whole way through.
  • Red Crater: From South Crater, things sort of level out – although only marginally, as you’ll still be ascending to the highest point – until you reach Red Crater. At 1,886 meters in height, this is the highest point you’ll tackle on the trail. After this, it’s mostly downhill. The crossing takes you around the crater itself and you’ll have excellent views over its red hues.
  • Emerald Lakes: As you begin the slow ascent, you’ll be trekking past a collection of beautiful, colored lakes. These small lakes are shades of blue and green in color and are the remnants of volcanic explosions that filled with mineral-rich water.
  • Blue Lake: The last major landmark before you reach the final car park at Ketetahi, after a long walk through the forest, is the magnificent Blue Lake. This is one of the most sacred sites in the national park for the local Maori, and there are many a legend attached to its beautiful blue color.

 

How to Start the Tongariro Crossing

The two-car parks can be easily reached by car if you have your own transport, however, you will have the slight problem of getting back to your parking spot, after walking the 19.4-kilometer linear trail.

If you don’t have a good friend willing to run you there and back, then you can use the shuttle buses that transport hikers between the two car parks, to save you walking the whole route again!

This is fine in offseason, however during the peak hiking season, between October and April, when the Tongariro Crossing is at its busiest, there are parking restrictions that only allow you stay for four hours, rendering driving here on your own pretty much impossible unless you are an ultra marathon runner.

The best way to get to the start and away again from the endpoint is to use the shuttles that take you to the nearby towns. They are run by the national park and by private companies, and their aim is to make the whole experience much smoother and easier for you anyway.

Book your shuttles in advance: 

During the summer season, there are shuttles running from all the major towns nearby, and they will get you to the start early in the morning, but stop running around 6 pm – so make sure you are at the end by this time!

Shuttles run primarily from the nearby towns of Whakapapa, Tongariro, Turangi and further afield to Taupo, which can be a great location to base yourself.

If you want a guided hike, we recommend these tours:

 

Best Time to Visit

Summer is, of course, the best time to attempt the hike, as being at high altitude, the weather needs to be a real concern. If conditions don’t look good, then don’t risk it, and heed the national park warnings, as things can change quickly and dramatically.

You can make the crossing in winter when the landscapes are iced over and covered in snow, but to do this you will need an experienced local guide, ice picks and other specialist equipments, and have previous mountaineering experience.

We did the crossing in later March and had absolutely gorgeous weather, albeit a little windy. That said, I spent most of the hike in my down jacket until we reached the long descent at the end. We did wear hats, but no gloves, to keep the wind out of our ears. 

What to Bring with You

You will need to have adequate supplies and clothing to make the hike end to end. Even in summer, ensure that you pack rain gear and warm clothing, as you never quite know when the weather will turn for the worst when you are at altitude.

Sturdy, worn-in hiking boots that you are comfortable in are a must, as are great socks.

Take plenty of water, as there are no designated water refill stations. You may find streams, and of course the lakes, however, these can be incredibly hot due to the geothermal activity going on under the ground here. 

Do not take less than 2 liters of water, per person for this hike. You also need to pack adequate food, you’ll need lunch and plenty of high-calorie snacks to keep your energy up. 

Our Recommended Packing List:

  • 20L backpack (bonus if it is also a dry bag)
  • Rain jacket & pants
  • Warm Jacket
  • Merino Wool long sleeve top
  • Buff Headwear – to use as a headband and neck gaiter
  • Warm Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Blister Kit
  • Plenty of snacks
  • Solid pack lunch
  • 2 liters of water, at a minimum
  • Camera

Although you might never use it, it’s wise to take a head torch too, just in case your hike takes longer than expected and things start to get dark. If you run into trouble, the trail is luckily quite a busy and popular route, so you should be able to get assistance from other walkers, but it’s best to be well prepared to ensure that you won’t run into any trouble in the first place.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA



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2 thoughts on “Hiking the Tongariro Crossing & Devil’s Staircase: Everything You Need to Know”

  1. It’s an amazing hike, isn’t it! So good that there are stairs up the Devil’s Staircase now – when I first did it about 10 years ago it was a narrow rocky path! And I totally agree about the last part of the hike being so boring – I wonder how they could make it more fun?

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  2. To this day, Tongariro Crossing is still one of my favorite hikes. We had high winds as well, but we decided to press on. A hard shell jacket was nice for me to protect my skin from the dust that was being blown around. It looks like you had good weather. I think that it is hard to get perfect conditions when doing an alpine hike!

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