Tongariro – The track across Middle Earth

Tongariro – The track across Middle Earth

Ngauruhoe featured as the model for the terrifying Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Although it is often referred to as a seperate mountain, Ngauruhoe is actually one of the many cones of the vast Tongariro volcanic complex.

With its 45 degree slopes and perfect triangular shape, Ngauruhoe is the most distinctive volcano-shaped volcano in the area – outshined only by Mount Taranaki.

Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, North Island, New Zealand.
The perfectly volcano-shaped Mount Ngauruhoe.

Mount Ruapehu, New Zealand.
Mount Ruapehu on the Tongariro volcanic complex, at 2797 metres the highest mountain on the North Island.

Tongariro Crossing

Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu are three of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand. They are all part of the Tongariro National Park, just south of Lake Taupo in the central volcanic zone of the North Island.

You can meander along the slopes of Ngauruhoe on the Tongariro Crossing. This spectacular track crosses 20 kilometres of steaming and colourful volcanic terrain from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi. It’s often referred to as the best one-day hike in New Zealand.

Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
Mount Ngauruhoe and its colourful crater.

Volcanic unrest in Middle Earth

When I was there in January 2013, the northern part of the track was closed due to Tongariro’s unrest and upheaval. The Te Maari craters near the Ketetahi end were still belching out fumes & smoke after their eruptions over the previous months in 2012.

So at that time it was only possible to do half the track, the first part of the Tongariro Crossing from Mangatepopo to the Red Crater and the Green and Emerald Lakes, and then return the same way. One does not simply walk into Mordor… 😉

Te Maari craters, Tongariro National Park, New Zealand.
The fuming & smoking Te Maari craters, on the Ketetahi side of the track.

Tongariro Crossing hiking track, New Zealand.
The hiking track on the Tongariro Crossing.

The giant Red Crater

At nearly 1900 metres, the Red Crater is the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing. When I approached it, I heard several excited exclamations coming from people further up the track. Once I reached the crater’s edge, I could see why. A stupendous gap laid in front of me, vividly coloured in all shades of red, with several ejection vents on its inner walls and rocks & lava bombs scattered all around.

It was so huge that the shouts of awe and surprise people were letting out when they saw it actually echoed off its walls.

Red Crater, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
The Red Crater, triggering resonating exlamations of awe by all who gazed upon it.

What to expect on the Tongariro Crossing

From Mangatepopo to the Red Crater

The first part is an easy stroll of 4 kilometres along the Mangatepopo Stream, with a gradual climb up to Soda Springs. This little waterfall creates a lush oasis in the barren terrain as it trickles down from underneath the lava rocks. After Soda Springs the track becomes more challenging. You climb up on the slopes of Ngauruhoe via the Devil’s Staircase, where the path meanders over 370 steps between several lava flows on its flanks. Then you’ll arrive at the open expanse of the dusty South Crater, the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.

At the end of this wide plain the track becomes quite rough, with loose rocks and gravel, as you zigzag your way up to the fabled Red Crater. The top ridge of the crater reveals the iconic view over the dazzling Green & Emerald Lakes.

This was the point of return when I hiked the Tongariro Crossing.

Volcanic flying rock zone, with the Blue Lake in the background. Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
Volcanic Flying Rock Zone, with the Central Crater and Blue Lake in the background. You can see the steam from the Te Maari craters rising behind the ridge in the distance…

From the Red Crater to Ketetahi

When the entire track is open and there are no volcanic hazards on the Tongariro Crossing, you can continue down from the Red Crater. This is the most challenging part of the hike, as you’ll descent about 100 metres down its steep & gravelly slopes towards the Green & Emerald Lakes. After the lakes you pass by several steaming vents near the track. Then you’ll cross another section of flat terrain at the Central Crater, which is much smaller than the South Crater plateau. At the end there’s a short climb up to the sparkling Blue Lake. This is the halfway point of the Tongariro Crossing.

From the Blue Lake you’ll start the long way down the forest-covered slopes of Tongariro. The descent is nearly 1000 metres down the north side of the mountain over the remaining 10 kilometres. It takes about 3 hours to hike down to the Ketetahi carpark.

Green and Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
The Green & Emerald Lakes – the end of the track during the volcanic unrest of 2013…

How to get to Tongariro National Park

Several shuttle companies offer transfers from National Park Village, Okahune, Raetihi and surrounding villages, as well as the major town of Taupo further away. Since 2017 there is a 4-hour parking restriction at both Mangatepopo and Ketetahi ends of the track. This allows only enough time for short walks in the area.

Tongariro Crossing hikers bus

If you want to do the full day Tongariro Crossing, you will need to book a shuttle bus. Another option is a one-way morning shuttle from Ketetahi to Mangatepopo. You can park at a private car park near the end of the track, and take a shuttle from there to the start.

Ngauruhoe on the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
Mount Ngauruhoe looming large on the Tongariro Crossing track.

Tongariro from the Desert Road, New Zealand.
Tongariro from the Desert Road, fuming from the Te Maari craters.

Tongariro Crossing hike summary

Distance: 20 kilometres one-way.
Time: About 7 to 9 hours.
Start: Mangatepopo road end at 1120 metres.
Finish: Ketetahi road end at 760 metres.
Highest point: Red Crater at 1886 metres.
Difficulty: Challenging. Steep terrain with some rough sections.

You can find more information about the Tongariro Crossing and the necessary preparations on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website.

Tongariro Crossing map

This handy interactive map shows the locations in the pictures above and around Tongariro National Park. You can also zoom in for more details of the Tongariro Crossing track itself.

Mountains & Volcanoes – Tongariro & Ngauruhoe, New Zealand

This article was originally published as a NaturePic Challenge: pictures of epic nature with a specific theme, and places that will trigger a natural high.

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Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand.
Natural high @ Ngauruhoe!

More to explore & discover

Ode to the mountains – The magic of Mount Taranaki

The Hazards – Scrambling up to prehistorical views

Pico del Teide – A volcanic playground

Reykjanes – Hidden treasures beyond the barren landscape

Fimmvörðuháls – The fiery pass across Eyjafjallajökull

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First published: 25 February 2017

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