Volcanoes of the North Island
The North Island of New Zealand is an area with a very high volcanic activity. In the largest city of the country – Auckland, you can find almost 50 extinct volcanoes. If you wish to visit the active ones and marvel at stunning landscapes which were used as a set for shooting Mordor in the Lord of the Rings, you need to go 350 km south. Here, in the very center of the island you can find the Tongariro National Park and three active volcanoes within it: Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe.
It is a great idea to break the drive South. We recommend to stop at hot spring and geyser region – Rotorua and idyllic rural land and an amazing movie set – Hobbiton.
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro is the oldest National Park in NZ. The area was quickly recognized for its remarkable natural beauty. Today, it is double-listed on UNESCO World Herritage List for both: its unique environment and cultural values. The volcanoes have spiritual and cultural significance to indigenous local people.
In winter time, Tongariro is also a busy ski area. We drove almost to the top of one of the volcanoes, where we found the bottom station of ski lift Whakapapa. It was closed due to off season. The surroundings looked spectacular tho. Rugged, black rocks were all around. No wonder why sir Peter Jackson chose this spot to set Mordor scenes. To warm up before the longer hikes, we did a loop trail to Taranaki Fall. The weather was very changable, so we hoped that it would improve for the next day….
One way trail?
In the National Park you can find two very popular trekking routes. The longer one called Tongariro Northern Ciruit takes 3 to 4 days. It runs around the volcanoes and takes you to the remote corners of the park.
Best one-day hike in New Zealand
Second trail is probably the most popular one in the whole New Zealand. Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a route running for almost 20 km across the northern parts of the National Park. We chose to hike it, because we were lured by the colourful view that we found on every postcard – the Emerald Lakes. The trail connencts 2 parking lots: Mangatepopo & Ketetahi. First is located on the higher elevation, so more people choose to start there. You can park at the end in the morning and buy a bus transfer to the trail head or look for the transport after finishing the hike. Better to book ahead, but you might end up waiting for it or rushing to finish on time. Your call. 30 NZD pp. We do not like being told what to do and where to go. Therefore, we figured out that we will hike the Red Creater and the Emerald Lakes and than decide if we want to finish and look for the ride or to come back the same way to our car at Mangatepopo lot.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
We checked the latest volcanoe activity at the visitor center. You never know where the next eruption is due. We wanted to start the crossing early in the morning as there was almost 20km of walking ahead of us. We started at Mangatepopo Lot (1100 m). The problem was that everyone had the same idea and, in additon, the buses were scheduled to arrive at 7am. We were walking in endless queue of people. Felt almost like London Underground. This is not how we pictured the trail in our heads 🙁
We are marching in a tight cordon in the morning mist. The crowd is impossible to avoid. After a while, we made it to the stream and small waterfall at Soda Springs. From now on the ascent to Southern Creater (1600m) starts and than the Red Creater (1886m). The trail becomes more challenging and we quickly pass the “conquerors” in sneakers who rushed in race tempo at the start. The sky is clearing up and we can see the Ngauruhoe volcanoe in its full glory. It is so simetrical that it resembles a pyramid. This peak was used as the “Mount Doom” in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Red Creater
On the top of the creater, we could bearly see the tip of our own noses due to the heavy fog. There was a cloud sitting on the top of the volcanoe and it seemed that it is not going anywhere. Luckly we did not miss the trail as it was leading right next to the edge of the creater. That would be a long way down!
The trail leads on and it changes to gravel slope. It is very slippery on the descent and we felt that it might be quite dangerous. The cold wind was blowing and it chased the clouds away. We could see the Emerald Lakes and their fantastic colours right before us. The more the sun shinned through clouds the greener the lakes bacame. It was the most amazing spot on the entire crossing. The water contrasts with black and red rocks of the surrounding. Here and there you can see some steam coming out from between the rocks. It is an active volcanoe, after all!
A whole new day
We had a short picnic at the lakes. Eventually we headed to the Blue Lake. As we walked there we looked back and we could finally see the Red Creater. It looked incredible. Almost lika the Gate to Hell. We decided to turn around and go back to our starting point the same way.
It turned out to be the best decision! Around 3pm there was bearly anyone on the trail. The clouds were chased away and the sun was shinning. We had the volcanoes exclusively to ourselves. Amazing! We could see the abyss inside the Red Creater as the view was no longer blocked by the fog. It was just the two of us walking down the South Creater. Way better experience than the morning crowds. It might be a good idea to start Tongariro Alpine Crossing a bit later after all. Our walk was a bit longer – over 25km but it was so worth it!
In addition, you can extend you walk and hike the summits of Tongariro 1967 m, or Mt Ngauruhoe 2287 m. The second peak is far more challenging as it has a very steep and gravel ascent. We had enough of this after hikking the Red Creater twice.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing was truly a great hike and we recommend it to every traveler heading to the New Zealand! Just be mindful of the changing weather condintions and be prepared for slippery surfaces. Have fun!