Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely rated as New Zealand’s best day hike. Traversing a barren volcanic landscape that appears at times as if on another planet, the scenery is for many people, like nothing they’ve seen before. Cutting up past Mount Ngauruhoe (famous to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and swinging past Mount Tongariro, the full track is just over 19kms (11.8miles), and reaches an altitude of 1886m (6188ft). Roughly 109,000 people hiked this trail in 2015, and the numbers continue to rise. We were told by the warden at our hut that in the height of summer, you have to queue to get onto the track from the hut we were staying in that night, such was the density of people walking the trail at times. He told us to get going early to beat the crowds that pile onto the trail from the shuttle buses. I had tried to do this hike twice before, in 2012 and again in 2014, but the weather had stopped me going. With day two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit incorporating the best part of the Alpine Crossing, I was set to finally join the crowds, no matter what the weather would be.
I awoke at Mangatepopo Hut to clear skies, but by the time I’d had breakfast and packed up, the clouds had piled in and the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. We’d been given a disheartening weather forecast the day before, and I was sad to see it was coming true. I had no choice but to set off, and I acknowledged with sadness that I wasn’t going to get much of a view. I left the hut behind early, but not early enough. After the short walk from the hut to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track, all I could see was a stream of people walking up the trail. I sighed internally and slipped into the crowd and set off. I go hiking both to get out in nature, but also for solitude and to get away from civilisation. Straight away I was met by people jostling to get past and others that would just stop suddenly in front of you. This wasn’t going to be the hike I hoped it would be.
The path up the valley was plentiful with vegetation, but narrow in places. This meant that there was regularly impatient people walking off the trail and trudging through the vegetation to overtake. Early on there is a sign stating that the landscape is fragile and to keep to the path, but this was repeatedly ignored and I became silently annoyed. After a gentle climb, the path becomes a boardwalk as it passes by a historic lava flow from Mt Ngauruhoe. Under the grey sky, the dark landscape took on a gloomy hue. Carrying a large backpack as I was, I attracted a bit of attention from the day hikers who needed only supplies for the day, and who didn’t realise that there was a multi-day hike in the area. As I marched onward with the others, I tried and failed to pick out where the path would climb up the mountainside.
After a while, a side track leads to the Soda Springs, a volcanic waterfall that comes through the rocks from Mt Tongariro. Many of the day hikers ignored them, but it was only a short detour to take, and I dumped my backpack at the junction, giving my back a brief rest whilst I picked my way across the rocky path to them. From the vantage point back towards the mountainside, I could start to get a vague idea of where the path went and it looked very steep. My backpack was around 13kg, and I readied myself in anticipation of the strain. In 2013 I injured my back and have been left with chronic back pain. Frustratingly to top that off, I injured both my shoulders in 2016, and am still on the long road to recovery from that even nearly a year later. Chronic pain has become my life, and whilst it has changed my mental outlook in some ways, I am grateful that I can still do the physical activities that I enjoy, even if I can’t do them in comfort. The climb with my pack was going to hurt, but I was going to do it anyway.
Near the bottom is a sign telling you to stop and think about whether you are fit enough to do the hike. In some respects, the walk has almost been sold as such a must-do activity, that I think there are (and indeed saw that day) people out on the trail who weren’t necessarily prepared to do it. I have repeatedly seen tourists hiking mountains in New Zealand at the wrong time of day, wearing the wrong clothing or footwear and often with little water or supplies. Once again, I looked around me, and saw people pushing up the steps with just a small water bottle to sustain them all day. One woman on her own who had nothing with her other than the clothes she was wearing, breathlessly commented on my large backpack as she struggled up the first flight of stairs. How she got on for the rest of the hike I do not know, but I suspect she would have been pretty damn hungry and thirsty by the time she finished.
The only toilets on the hike until either the shelter near the end of the Alpine Crossing or the next hut on the Northern Circuit are just up the first few steps. For about 5-6hrs on either trail, there are no more facilities beyond that. As the steps continued their steep climb up the mountainside, the vegetation grew patchier and patchier. Either side of the track were lumps of volcanic rocks, and above me the cloud was still hanging over the summit. Below me it became increasingly obvious that the rocks formed a lave flow and the landscape began to take on that other-worldly feel that I had read so much about. A little below the summit plateau, a sign pointed out the fact that this is an active volcanic zone. The most recent eruption was only in 2012, and I was already living in the country when it happened. A side vent on Mt Tongariro known as the Te Maari craters blew themselves open sending rocks and debris into the air which damaged the Ketetahi Hut near the end of the Alpine Crossing and closed the track for a few months. Following the hike, I purchased a fascinating book about the volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park that gives some background information to the various eruptions in the area, as well as how the volcanoes formed and why the landscape looks the way it does. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before I did the hike, as I would have appreciated what I was walking through even more.
By the time I reached the plateau of South Crater (which isn’t actually a crater), the cloud had lifted enough to reveal the plateau but the mountain tops were still shrouded. Soon the turn-off to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe was reached, and considering the lack of visibility, there were plenty of people heading up there that day. When I was reading up on the hike before I set off, I had decided that I wanted to summit both Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, but the former has no official route up and is effectively just a scree field on the flanks. Several websites listed it as dangerous, and even the warden at the hut recommended not attempting it. If the wrong route is taken, it is apparently easy to get hit by rocks loosened by people ahead of you or descending, and it is a major slip and fall hazard. Standing at the sign watching the others disappear into the clouds, I just didn’t see the point in attempting it. There would be no view to speak of, and no way of knowing in the clouds whether you were keeping to a good line of ascent or descent. It seemed the sensible thing to skip it and keep on moving.
The South Crater is a large flat plateau where finally a bit of colour starts to poke through the previously perpetual blackened landscape. Volcanic zones are very much coloured according to the minerals of the rocks or the algae that grow in the often acidic environments of the waterways there. There was a distinct yellow colour to the rocks here, and the trail was enjoyably flat for a while. Here, the crowds seemed to thin out a little although it was nearly impossible to take a photograph without other people in it. The summit of Mt Tongariro was hidden in the clouds to my left, and Mt Ngauruhoe was hidden in the clouds to my right, but by the time I reached the far side of the crater, the clouds had noticeably lifted higher, and as a result, the landscape seemed to open up a little.
Another short steep section brought me up to the first of many incredible views that day. Despite the clouds behind me, the view east was almost clear, and far down below the expanse of what was Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a steep drop, but that didn’t stop many of the other hikers balancing precariously on the edge to pose for a photograph. This was one of many spots where large amounts of people were congregated on the hike, and whilst I was gradually losing my crankiness about having to share the hike with so many other people, I was still wishing that the place was more quiet. For me, grand landscapes demand quiet and reflection, but it was time for a snack, so I stood for awhile amongst the changing crowd of people.
My reward for waiting there was that the sun was starting to break through, and looking behind me, the beauty and majesty of Mt Ngauruhoe was suddenly very evident as it broke into view. Near the summit, a patch of red stood out in stark contrast to the neighbouring grey-black of the rest of the rock and I briefly had an internal conflict as I wished I’d gone up, whilst at the same time looking at all the loose scree on the slopes, and wondering how it was actually possible to summit it. I turned to look across South Crater to see that Mt Tongariro was about to poke out the clouds too, and I knew that I would definitely be taking the side track to visit its summit.
From this first of many viewpoints, the track narrowed down again and became both steep and loose under foot. A short section has a chain nailed to the rocks to help negotiate it, and I had heard that this was a particular bottle neck for the crowds during the peak season. Hiking as I was in March, New Zealand still has plenty of tourists at that time of year, and once again, there were plenty of impatient people who barged past the slower hikers. Looking around though it was nice to see such a diversity of ages amongst the hikers, with plenty of older hikers that were much fitter than many of the younger ones. A series of blue poles marked the route up, and from the south crater at 1659m (5443ft), the track climbs up to about 1845m (6053ft) where a path junction marks the turn-off to Mt Tongariro. This rocky plateau was littered with people taking a rest. Seeing that Mt Tongariro was still clear of cloud, I wasn’t going to waste any time in heading off for its summit.
Dumping my backpack at the start of the track, and taking my water sack with me, I was glad to see this route was very quiet. With the majority of hikers tied to the schedule of the shuttle buses that pick up and drop off at the track ends, many of the day hikers just don’t have time to do the side tracks. Getting away from the crowds made it all the more enjoyable for me, and the views were incredible, looking both over to Mt Ngauruhoe now completely devoid of cloud, but also across the rest of the walk towards Blue Lake and North Crater, as well as to the surrounding plains on either side of the mountains. There was also a stunning yellow colour to large sections of the hike and the rocks were jagged and dramatic in places. The path was very narrow, and in a couple of places felt a little treacherous where it crossed loose scree at an angle above a drop. As I approached 1900m (6233ft), I was a little dismayed to see the cloud blow in over the summit and my view started to disappear.
The summit itself (1967m/6453ft) was a high stack of rocks that took several attempts to find an accessible way up. The guys at the top pointed out the way that they had come but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the foot and hand holds that they had used, and so I was forced to backtrack a little and approach from a slightly different angle. When I made it up, I was completely shrouded in cloud and couldn’t see a thing beyond the large boulders immediately next to me. The others headed off leaving me on my own, and after rock hopping a little, I stood on the summit surveying my cloudy kingdom. Then out of nowhere a break in the clouds appeared and I could see a carpet of low cloud below me. Suddenly I found myself above the clouds, and out popped the cone-shaped summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, and behind it, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Ruapehu. It was utterly amazing, and I had the view all to myself.
The clouds came in waves as I headed back. The rocky peaks in front of me stood out against the swirling clouds and both Blue Lake and the lower of the Emerald Lakes popped in and out of view. Plants grew in patches amongst the mostly barren and very yellow rocks of Mt Tongariro’s ridgeline. Finally though I was back at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and unfortunately thick cloud had rolled in once more. It was windy and cold, and unsurprisingly the plateau was now quite devoid of people. From here the Alpine Crossing climbs to its highest point on Red Crater. I’d already seen that the cloud was passing through in roughly half an hour waves. Had it not been so frigid in the wind I would have waited it out in order to get a view, but knowing how the afternoon usually brings a deterioration of the weather in the mountains generally, I also had doubts whether it would clear at all, so I made the decision to just get on with it and sacrifice the view here.
The path was easy to follow in the cloud, but it was completely exposed to the strong cross wind that buffeted me as I made my way up. There was no point in waiting at the summit, so I was quick to cross over to the descent on the other side, and this was the one place where I felt quite unsafe due to the heavy weight on my back. The track descends on a steep scree slope with little security under foot, and I was forced to adopt a skiing type movement, sliding down as gravity pulled the rocks away below each foot placement. A few times, I nearly lost my balance, as I carefully positioned myself to counter the pulling force of the 13-odd kg on my back. The rate of descent was fast but as I emerged once more below the clouds, and I looked at the path in front of me, I couldn’t decide whether it was a man-made ridge or not. It didn’t seem natural the way the scree was piled up in a narrow ledge-like ridge, but as much as a lot of the landscape is volcanic, there are also plenty of aspects that are remnants from a time of glaciation, and I suspect this was how that particular ridge had formed. But soon my attention was grabbed by the contrasting colours of the Emerald Lakes that came into view as the clouds were left behind.
There are three Emerald Lakes: the first two sit side by side and are the same colour as each other, and the third sits further along the track and is quite distinctive. Between the duo and the single lake, steam vents belch puffs of steam out of the ground. The swirling cloud continued to rise and fall, dancing around the upper of the lakes. This was another spot where there were plenty of people milling around as well as many people walking off the track. Whilst the first two lakes were interesting enough, it was really the third one that grabbed my attention, and oddly this was mostly ignored by the day hikers. It was near this third lake that the Tongariro Northern Circuit separated itself from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Northern Circuit cut down to this third lake whereas the Alpine Crossing skipped past it.
I dumped my backpack by the third Emerald Lake and continued on the Alpine Crossing across Central Crater (not actually a crater). With the remnants of a lava flow from Red Crater to my left I was among a large crowd of hikers pushing on towards Blue Lake. Behind me, the cloud had lifted again and I could see Red Crater in all its glory. I’m sure the view from the summit would have been incredible, but considering I had thought I would get no views at all when I set off in the morning, to have only missed out on 1 viewpoint was not that bad in the grand scheme of things. Climbing up a rocky path once more, I reached the expanse of Blue Lake which was mostly shrouded in cloud. I found a handily-shaped stone that made a nice bench to sit on, and I waited a little here to see what the clouds would do. They lifted slightly to let me just see the far shore, but not for long. With the day hikers continuing on past the lake to skirt past North Crater and descend towards the forest below, I retraced my steps back to the third Emerald Lake.
Leaving the Alpine Crossing behind, I took the Northern Circuit turn-off back to the lakeside, reclaimed my backpack and paused here for a while to take a last look at the volcanic behemoths before leaving them behind. Finally, I was back to solitude and peace and quiet away from the busyness of the popular day hike. I stood out on the brow overlooking the upcoming descent, and stretched out for a great distance in front of me was the volcanic landscape of Mordor…