Easy Hiking in New Zealand
Visitors to New Zealand may be easily fooled into thinking that the most magnificent scenery lies only in the South Island. But the North Island also has some spectacular terrain, including what many consider to be the best one-day hiking trail in the country.
In the Shadows of Mt Doom
The 19.4 km Tongariro Alpine Crossing took us up and across an active volcanic desert, through meadows and forest, into craters and across glacial valleys as well as steaming thermal areas. We took on this incredible journey, which is located in the Tongariro National Park and were rewarded by its diverse landscapes and stunning features.
Is this really an “easy” hike, you may wonder?
The day we tramped there was an 89-year old man on the track. It depends on when you decide to tramp. In winter, weather on the Crossing can be very extreme requiring special equipment and an experienced guide. But in summer it’s completely accessible to people of varying fitness levels.
Parts of it can be very difficult, but if approached with the proper attitude and respect, almost anyone of average fitness can complete this easy hiking adventure.
We began our day at the car park at Mangatepopo Valley Road (off State Highway 47). It can take from five to twelve hours to complete the journey depending on the person and how many stops are made for photos, rest or exploring side paths.
The one way trip requires transportation to the start of the track and pick-up on completion, which can be arranged through local shuttle operators or accommodations (we paid NZ$35 return each). Park admission is free unless you stay overnight.
The first hour or so is a gentle walk through an alpine meadow to a small waterfall called Soda Springs.
Along the way, the dark and intimidating Mt. Ngauruhoe (2287m) towers over walkers.
This is an active volcano and well-known known as Mt Doom in the movie The Lord of the Rings.
The climbing begins after passing Soda Springs. The very fit can actually climb to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe on an unmarked route for views of the crater. This is a difficult climb that is not for the faint of heart and we skipped this experience.
We went on to descend into the South Crater, trekking through the vast valley with the views of Mt. Ngauruhoe on one side and Mt. Tongariro (1967m) on the other.
The next portion was the most treacherous, involving a very steep scramble over loose rocks to the top of Red Crater (1886m). From there, we continued to the most spectacular part of the day.
Looking down from the top of Red Crater, we were rewarded with the view of a deep maroon crater with incredible rock formations and, at the bottom of the hill, the three majestic aqua pools known as the Emerald Lakes. It was like standing on another planet.
One isn’t left with much time to contemplate the views, however, as a loose slip and slide along the ridge is the immediate task at hand. Some fellow trampers chose a slow, cautious descent (when all else fails, bend your knees and scoot along on your bottom). Others flew past us like skiers, hopping along on their heels and cutting huge lines in the dirt as they flitted down the mountain. Either way, don’t get too close to the edge.
On our way down, the smell of sulphur wafted past our nostrils. Steam rose from the ground and we stopped to pass our hands and arms over the vents, enjoying a warmth on par with a hot towel.
The hardest part was over, the greatest rewards reaped. Central Crater lay ahead, another spectacular valley offering views of the trifecta: Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe and Red Crater side by side.
Remember to look back from all points on this trek. Sometimes the best scenery may be in the direction you came from.
We ate our packed lunches at the lovely Blue Lake. It was nice to find respite from the crowds in this tranquil spot.
From there the next destination is the Ketetahi Hut, reached through grassy hillside paths. The last spectacular feature beyond this is the steaming Ketetahi Springs. From there, it’s all downhill.
This hike requires proper clothing, equipment and fitness level as well as an awareness of weather conditions that will impact these necessities.
Bring food and plenty of water (water in the park is not potable), bring a rainproof jacket, sturdy boots with the correct fit (we did the hike in sneakers during perfect conditions but this is not advisable in rainy or winter weather), layers of clothing including warm wool or polypropylene, sun protection, a hat and sunglasses.
In winter, over trousers, a woolen hat, gloves, an ice axe, crampons, snow gaiters and additional winter equipment will be required. Cellphone service is available along most parts of the track.
Toilet facilities are available at the start and end of the walk, at the huts and at Soda Springs. In between, there’s a lot of open terrain with nowhere to hide.
All rubbish (including cigarette butts, fruit cores, pits and other food scraps) must be taken out of the park as they can attract rodents and are slow to degrade due to the desert environment. For more information, go to www.doc.govt.nz.
The National Park Village services the park with accommodation, restaurants, bars, a petrol station and tour operators.
Andrea and John have been inspiring travellers for the past few years with their blog. Andrea is a writer and media specialist who has lived as an expat for the last six years. She has travelled extensively in Australia, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. John is an engineer who has worked and travelled extensively in Australia, Europe and North America. He is also a musician and writer.