One of the most spectacular single-day walking tracks in the world.
The view to the east from the North Crater shows Lake Taupo in the foreground.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been heralded as the best one-day trek available in New Zealand. The walk is located in New Zealand’s oldest national park, which is also classified as a World Heritage Site.
The total distance covered on the crossing is 19.4 kilometres, passing through some outstanding volcanic scenery. Dramatic landforms include the volcanic peaks of Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) and Mount Tongariro, plus views to Mount Ruapehu, another active volcano.
The start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track. Even here, the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe can be seen above the roof of the shelter.
Where is it?
The Tongariro National Park is located in the central North Island of New Zealand. It is the closest national park to Auckland, and is easily accessible from State Highway 1. The nearest towns are Turangi, National Park and Ohakune. The main entrance to the park is at Whakapapa Village, where you can find the visitors’ centre, accommodation, cafes and restaurants, and transport to the main walking tracks and ski field.
The Whakapapa Holiday Park provides 44 powered camp sites and eight tent sites adjacent to the village. Maps of the area can be downloaded from the New Zealand Department of Conservation website (http://www.doc.govt.nz/maps).
The track runs close to the foot of Mount Ngauruhoe, the most active volcanic peak in the area.
Looking back from the top of the Devil’s Staircase you can see the cone of Mount Taranaki in the distance.
The Red Crater, one of the most spectacular formations in the area.
Visitors should note that this is an area of volcanic activity and the New Zealand Government has installed electronic signs that provide real-time alerts of potential exposure to volcanic hazards along the track. The lights indicate the level of volcanic risk affecting the track and whether the track is open or closed.
The most recent eruption was on August 6, 2012 at the Te MÄri Craters on Mount Tongariro, which had been dormant since 1897. It sent blocks as big as one metre in size up to 2 kilometres from the vent. Mount Tongariro erupted again at 1:20pm on November 21, ejecting an ash cloud 4000 metres into the air.
The track is never closed due to weather or snow conditions. Walkers must make their own decisions about the wisdom of walking the track if alpine conditions are harsh or uncertain.
Whatever the weather, anyone attempting the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with or without a guide must be of good health and medium fitness. Medical conditions including epilepsy, blood pressure complications, heart problems and chronic asthma will prevent you from doing this walk, although you will still be able to photograph some of its highlights from the comfort of a vehicle or take one of the easier walks around the base of the mountains.
Getting There/ Getting Around
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing track spans the length of Mount Tongariro and takes between seven and nine hours to complete, on average. (You may need longer if you want to spend time taking photographs.) Most people will need to organise transport to drop them off at the head of the track and collect them at the other end. A number of operators provide transport to and from the track; you can find them through the visitors’ centre.
The best part of the track for photography is the first half; after the Blue Lake the track winds downwards and it’s a long slog to the end without much that’s worth photographing. Consequently, unless you want to tick off the track as an achievement, we recommend parking your car at the Mangatepopo car park and turning back once you’ve seen the main features. The website dedicated to the Crossing divides the track into sections as follows:
Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs: Easy Grade – allow 1 to 1.5 hours;
Soda Springs to South Crater: Moderate – Difficult Grade – allow 40 minutes to 1 hour;
South Crater to Red Crater: Moderate – Difficult Grade – allow 1 hour;
Red Crater to Blue Lake: Moderate Grade – allow 30 minutes;
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut: Moderate Grade – allow 1 hour;
Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car Park: Moderate Grade – allow 2 hours.
If you’re using the drop off/pick-up service, take note of the departure time for the last bus. If you miss that, it’s a long walk back to the highway and even longer to Whakapapa Village.
Descending from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes. You can see the steam vents around the lakes that give off a sulphurous odour.
Looking back from the Blue Lake towards the Red Crater and Mount Ngauruhoe.
When to Go
In general, the best times of the year are autumn and spring. Walking the track in summer can be challenging due to heat and the high UV exposure associated with alpine conditions. Only those experienced in hiking with crampons and ice axe and in alpine terrain should trek the Tongariro Alpine Crossing during the winter months ““ and a guide is recommended.
What Gear to Take
Tongariro National Park can be subject to unpredictable weather and conditions can change quickly. Walkers should be well-prepared and carry adequate food and water (minimum 2 litres per person), a map, a first aid kit and a mobile phone. There are no drinkable water sources on the track. The last toilet facilities are located at Soda Springs, with no more until the Ketetahi Hut.
Sturdy walking boots are a must for the uneven volcanic terrain and you will need a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses plus a water- and wind-proof jacket and trousers. Layered clothing is recommended so you can adjust what you wear in response to ambient temperature and activity levels.
Camera equipment should be light and portable. It’s possible to cover most of the scenes with a single zoom lens. The ideal range is around 24-105mm in 35mm format. If you opt for a CSC (or light DSLR) you may want to include a wider lens and also a longer one to ‘pull in’ views of distant Mount Taranaki. A longer lens could also be handy for photographing the native pipits (small birds) that nest in the tussocks of grass along the track.
You probably won’t need a tripod (particularly if there’s stabilisation in your camera or lenses). But you may need a spare battery and will definitely want plenty of memory card capacity. Avoid polarising filters as they can over-darken skies in alpine coonditions.
The edge of one of the Emerald Lakes. The water is cold and acidic and unsuitable for drinking.
Specific Places to Visit
Mount Ngauruhoe looms large over most of the first half of the track. The youngest volcano in the area, this classical cone-shaped peak is also the most active vent, with the last significant eruption in 1975.
The Devil’s Staircase is a steep section of the track between Soda Springs and South Crater. It climbs from 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level and, on a clear day, can provide beautiful views down the valley.
You may be able to see the perfectly formed volcanic cone of Mount Taranaki in the distance. If Mount Ngauruhoe is clear and you have plenty of time, it’s possible to climb to the summit. The old lava flow provides the easiest route up the peak.
The summit area can be dangerous and should be avoided if there are any signs of volcanic activity. The descent can be made relatively quickly but it is easy to lose control on the free-flowing scree underfoot. Allow 1 to 2 hours up and 30 minutes down (from the saddle).
The Red Crater is near the highest point on the track and is one of its most spectacular formations. Created about 3000 years ago, it lies within a scoria cone which rests on top of older Tongariro lava flows. The red colour is due to the presence of oxidised iron in the rock.
From the summit there are spectacular views across the floor of Central Crater. To the right are the Emerald Lakes whose colour is derived from minerals leached from the surrounding rock. The water in these lakes is cold and acidic and nearby steam vents produce a sulphurous odour.
The descent from Red Crater demands extra care as loose scoria underfoot can move quickly and easily. It’s worth spending time making the descent and pausing frequently to take in the views across the rich volcanic landscape.
Blue Lake, a cold acidic lake, is reached by crossing the Central Crater and climbing up to a ridge. The lake is Tapu (sacred) and it is considered disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores. From Blue Lake there is a short easy climb to the edge of North Crater. In this section of the track, you can look back along the route you’ve taken and enjoy spectacular views out over Mount Pihanga and Lake Rotoaira across to Lake Taupo to the north and east.
Panoramic view of the Blue Lake, stitched together from five separate images.
By Margaret Brown
First published (with additional images) in Photo Review Magazine Issue 63
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