It turns out that actually, one can simply walk into Mordor.
If you find yourself in New Zealand, I would highly recommended marking down the Tongariro crossing on the must-do list for your trip. This was definitely one of the biggest highlights of my last visit home, and to be honest I’m still kicking myself that I never considered doing this earlier. Lauded as one of the best one day hikes in the world, the crossing offers up a stunning, dramatic visage with snowy peaks, intense jewel-toned lakes, and the chance for LOTR fans to see (and climb if you’re feeling ambitious) Mount Doom IRL. Located in the Tongariro National Park, this hike takes you through an active volcanic region in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand which encompasses tussock moors, barren desert, alpine plateaus, deep geothermal vents and of course, spectacular views of the three mountains. Quite simply, it is a lot of epic packed into one day as you traverse the gap in between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe.
We hiked at the end of January which is the height of New Zealand summer. This meant that we were lucky enough to have a clear, beautiful day which afforded us views on views on views. However it was hot, and with little to no shade for the majority of the hike (particularly around midday) it occasionally got quite uncomfortable – particularly climbing the steep parts. Also summer = busy – we shared the track with a lot of fellow hikers, and we seldom had a stretch without seeing someone in the distance. Nevertheless it was a beautiful, unique landscape that you would be hard pressed to match with only one day, anywhere else in the world.
- Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs
Excited/Yawning from our crack of dawn commute, we set off into Mordor. This first part of the track is very pleasant, a flat walk alternating between boardwalk and gravel path over alpine flowers and grass, which meandered up a valley and onto a rather barren plateau. Here you come face to face with Mount Doom. Unfortunately in a rather un-Samwiselike gesture, my hiking companion refused to carry me up it which was somewhat disappointing.
We decided to make the first of the optional detours to Soda Springs – a 30/40 minute trip round trip from the main path to the springs where we had a little snack stop, and enjoyed watching the falls.
- Soda Springs to South Crater (The Devil’s Staircase)
Back on the main path, and up up up the stairs we go. This was definitely the most physically challenging section of the crossing, and was more of a half scramble, half climb than a walk. This was done up a rough track, occasionally interspersed with stairs. If it was bad weather or rain this part would have been a lot more slippery and challenging – it’s not nicknamed the Devil’s Staircase for nothing. However it’s okay if you take your time, and seeing the old lava flow striation was pretty cool.
If you are one of those nut jobs claiming to be able to easily do the crossing in 4 hours, and/or you have a spare extra 3 hours, you can take the second optional detour up to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe (Doom) and back. We didn’t this time round, and chose to continue across to South Crater.
- South Crater to Red Crater
Firstly there was a hike across a flat plateau but this dramatically swept upwards into the steepest incline yet. This incline involved climbing a series of boulders, and literally hauling yourself up in some places, all with a bit of a freaky drop to one side. When you get to the top though, you’re met with the red crater. It really is a deep bloody red, coloured so from the iron ore deep in the volcano. You can see steam rising from the ground, and smell that sulphuric, devil may care scent. We wisely chose to stop for lunch here.
If you still have 2 hours, you can hike to the summit of Mount Tongariro from here – again, we didn’t do this this time round.
- Red Crater to Emerald Lakes
The awkward descent begins here – though admittedly this was the funnest, and most visually stunning part. You can either crab walk very slowly if you want to stay upright, or throw caution to the wind and sort of very inelegantly ski through the gravel (you will most likely fall – I did twice, and there’s no way I would attempt this if it was slippery with rain) which was the faster option. Here you will be rewarded with the sight of the emerald lakes – bright, intense turquoise lakes, coloured so by the mineral deposits of the surrounding volcanoes.
- Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake
This part was quite pleasant, a fairly gentle descent into the central crater, and a swift and comparatively easy ascent back up to the edge of the Blue Lake. This sapphire lake is sacred to local Maori, so it is disrespectful to disturb it. Nevertheless, it is beautiful to walk alongside.
- Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut
The landscape slowly meanders up to the North Crater, and down again, leaving the desert plateaus behind in favour of rolling, grassy moor and volcanic flowers. The path eventually straightens into a well maintained set of switch backs. This was my least favourite part – the switchbacks dragged on and on, relentlessly downhill, and relentlessly cruel to my grandma knees. Eventually you reach Ketetahi Hut, where there are your first set of toilets since the beginning, and some equally welcome shade. From here you can see the steam rising from the Ketetahi Springs (which are sadly located on private land), and way out in the distance you get a tantalising glimpse of the road – you’re on the home stretch.
- Ketetahi Hut to Car park
Finally shelter! The rest of the way goes through a downhill forest, split by a large stream of water. If there are loud rushing noises from up river, you need to gap it as far away as possible – if there is a lahar or any volcanic flow, then it naturally follows the course of this stream and you will die (not recommended). The bush is a cool, welcome respite, and the feeling of completion when you turn the last corner and make it out to the carpark is incredibly rewarding.
Need to know
- Length: The full hike is 19.4km from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi car park. Depending how speedy/fit you are, allow 6-9 hours. Others have claimed to do it in 5 (mad), but we took a leisurely 8 hours.
- Location: Tongariro National Park, New Zealand (4-5 hour drive from both Auckland and Wellington).
- Cost: Free!
- Fitness Level: Moderate. There were kids walking it, one of us who had done no exercise bar lifting pizza to mouth height in the last 6 months did it, but at the same time there are incredibly steep inclines and taxing descents without paths. Your knees will probably take a bashing.
- Waste: There are a few toilet stops along the track, but no rubbish bins (so you will have to take your rubbish out with you).
- Water: The water in the park is unsafe to drink. You have to bring your own.
- Weather: What you get out of this track is very much weather dependent. If you are flexible with time, I would recommend waiting for a clear day like we did because the views are unparalleled. Others we spoke to who did it in the cooler months, or overcast days felt that they missed out on half the experience as they couldn’t see more than a kilometre in front of them. Before you go you can check the weather with MetService and for volcanic activity with GeoNet.
- Volcanoes: Although Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu are all pre-fixed with ‘Mount’ – all of them are actually active volcanoes which you would do well to remember – both Ruapehu and Tongariro have erupted in the last 15 years, causing the area to be evacuated.
What to Bring
- Plenty of water (minimum 1.5L per person, we took 2L each and it was only just enough), snacks, and something to eat midday. Hiking is hungry business.
- If it’s clear weather it will likely get hot regardless of the season, so it also goes without saying to bring SPF (NZ sun will burn you at double speed – in the middle of summer it’s an estimated 3 minute burn time. New Zealand is right under the hole in the ozone layer, and a lot of visitors underestimate the intensity of the sun – even when it is cool and overcast, you can walk away with a nasty burn.).
- A hat – seriously on the hat, one of us (read: me, O gormless, hatless one) had a super swollen, sunburned ogre forehead the following day. Swap out for a beanie in winter as it gets quite nippy.
- Gloves, a sweater, and/or jacket – the weather can change in a matter of minutes, so make sure you have a sweater and something to protect you against potential wind and rain.
- First aid kit.
- A map (especially if you are going to do a side stop), and a cell phone.
- Closed-toe walking shoes
- Note: In winter it is recommended that you have crampons and an ice axe with you – if you’re inexperienced with these it may be safer to take a guide with you.
How to get there
There are a couple of ways to get out to do the crossing. As we were staying nearby in Ohakune with a car, we opted to drive out to the National Park, and park our car at the Ketetahi Car Park at the end of the track, the premise being that from there you catch a shuttle bus to the beginning of the track and you walk back to your car. We used Tongariro Crossing Shuttles which cost $30 per person for the one way and they were absolutely fine. You can also check out Tongariro Expeditions, Adventure HQ and Mountain Shuttle.
Bear in mind that the car park is quite small – we got there just before 8 am (with a shuttle booked for 8.30 am) and it was completely full, with cars parked down each side of the highway for about 1 km each side of the entrance. In the summer months there are security staff watching the parking lot, and they are more than happy to point you in the direction of a car park.
Alternatively if you are staying nearby in Ohakune, Taupo, Turangi, Whakapapa or the National Park Village you can book a return shuttle which drops you off at the beginning, and picks you up at the end (flexible pick up time) for about $40. If you are staying in a hostel or motel in one of these locations, they can usually hook you up with a cheaper return ticket (around $30), so it doesn’t hurt to ask.
If you are not doing the full hike, for instance if you are only interested in seeing Mount Doom up close, you can park your car at Mangatepopo (which has a 4 hour parking restriction in peak season, so it is impossible to park there and do the whole thing unless you are Bear Grylls on crack) and do it as a circuit.
- The beautiful clear skies and good weather meant we could actually do the whole crossing.
- The gorgeous mountain scenery (Red Crater and Emerald Lakes were my favourite parts of the crossing).
- The feeling of satisfaction having smashed out a 19 and a half kilometre walk in one day.
- Having a Mount Doom moment.
- The knee/soul destroying downhill switchbacks
- The lack of shelter from the sun and wind
- Only just having enough water