NZ Highlights: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Hailed as one of the best one-day hikes in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was at the top of our list for our New Zealand trip. And it certainly did not disappoint! Rugged volcanic terrain, breathtaking views, emerald lakes, a hike that made our feet feel like they were bleeding by the 18th kilometer… all 100% worth it.

Here are our basic logistics: we parked at the Ketetahi parking lot, took a shuttle bus (booked over the phone the day before) to the Mangatepopo starting point, and then proceeded to hike the 19.4 km back to our car.

The 19.4 hike between Mangatepopo and Ketetahi is almost other-worldly. In the first part of the hike, we strolled along a boardwalk rising up from marshland and vibrantly copper-colored streams, with Mt. Doom (in reality, Mt. Ngauruhoe) looming to our right.

After an hour or so, the actual climbing began. We left the boardwalks behind as the path became loose volcanic gravel—or scoria, as we learned it is called—zig-zagging sharply up a cliff. Quite a few times, we joined other hikers to stop, catch our breath, and evaluate our progress (“I’m so out of shape…”). Finally, the trail flattened out to reveal the South Crater before us, Mt. Doom closer than ever.

We crossed the South Crater leisurely before getting to the next challenge: the long, steep climb up to the Red Crater. I was stopping every 5 minutes to take pictures (and catch my breath) because the views were just stunning.

The hike up to the Red Crater took us quite a bit longer than the course pamphlet says it should, although I’m blaming both fitness and photography for that. By the time we actually reached the Red Crater—at 1886 m above sea level—it was well past lunch time. We marveled at the colors (the crater is quite aptly named) then bid goodbye to the once-again-distant Mt. Doom and started our descent down to the most photographed spot on the entire hike: the Emerald Lakes.

I was reaching for my camera every three seconds by this point. Slide down the scoria slope a few feet… pause and snap a photo. Scramble down a little further… oh, it’s a new angle, so let’s take another photo! Then, we had lunch on the banks of the Emerald Lakes. That’s a sentence almost out of a fairytale, and that’s exactly how lunch on the banks of the Emerald Lakes felt, too—a fairytale. Plus, it was magical indeed to finally sit down and rest our weary feet while we ate.

After lunching by those beautiful Emerald Lakes, there was another little climb up to the Blue Lake before beginning the three-and-a-half-hour, 1000m descent back to our car at Ketetahi. The first part of the descent wasn’t so bad—we were winding around Mt. Tongariro’s northern slope, and the views were still stunning. We could even see Lake Taupo far off in the distance. But after passing the Ketetahi mountain hut, with another 2 hours of trekking left to go, our car seemed unreachable, and our feet felt broken.

The end of the hike is a bit of a blur. We finally passed from sun-beaten tussock slopes into the cool forest, marking the last landscape change before the carpark. Every step was painful by this point, and every rumble of the nearby stream fooled us into thinking it was the rumble of a car engine. At long last, however, we really did hear engines, and we walked with renewed energy the final few hundred meters to our rental car. Peeling off muddy boots and sweaty socks, we then drove an hour north to Taupo, where hot showers, greasy food, and soft beds awaited us.

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