The Tongariro Alpine Crossing Track
The alpine crossing traverses the length of Mt Tongariro (19.4 Kilometres) and takes about 7-9 hours. You start from the Mangatepopo Valley and walk over towards the Ketetahi road end as this minimise the climbing involved.
Mangatepopo Car park to Soda Springs
Time 1 - 1 1/2 hours | Grade: Easy
Most of this section covers fairly flat or gently rolling country with just an occasional short steep bit. The track is generally well formed and board walked in damper parts, poles mark the way should you be in any doubt. Fifteen minutes from the car park the track to Whakapapa branches off to the right (3 hours) and can be seen sidling around the wide base of Pukekaikiore before disappearing over a moraine ridge. Just beyond this junction a 5 minute side track leads left to Mangatepopo Hut. The main track continues up the valley following the picturesque Mangatepopo stream with occasional diversions up and around the edge of old lava flows.
As you go note the change in plant cover. Red tussocks and mountain inaka surround the car park and continue towards the hut. Further up the valley, inaka persists but does not grow in such profusion. Raoulia, a low mat –like plant grows on the fine silt outwash in the upper valleyu along with small bristle tussocks.
Soda Spring to South Crater
Time: 40 minutes – 1 hour | Grade: Moderate – Difficult
There’s no getting
away from it – this section is steep climbing from 1400 up to 1600 metres above sea level (known as the devils staircase) But on a clear day the view down the valley and out across the surrounding countryside provides a good excuse to make frequent stops; you may even see Mt Taranaki, another volcanic sentinel, on the western horizon. Remember you are walking over layers of ancient and modern lava flows and other volcanic debits so don’t expect the track surface to be smooth. Five minutes from the top the track veers slightly to the left before reaching the open expanse of South Crater. This isn’t actually a crater at all but a basin carved out by ancient glaciers and in filled by fine volcanic debris. A route departs from this point to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe but to continue the Crossing follow the marked route across to the eastern side of the basin. Plant life here is very limited but you will see small bristle tussocks and in summer, the flowers of the hardy mountain carrot, a parahebe and gentians. Two species of mountain buttercup grow here but are usually only found in seepage areas around the edge of the basin.
South Crater to Red Crater
Time: 1 hour | Grade: Moderate – Difficult
The flat, easy start to this section doesn’t last for long. Once you’ve crossed South Crater there is a short climb onto an exposed ridge. The track follows the ridge northward towards Red Crater, a steady climb on loose scoria. To the left of the track you may see a dark line of lava standing out from the paler background rock – the smallest flow to emerge from Red Crater within the last 1800 years.
Just before reaching the crater, the route to the summit of Tongariro heads off to the left, while the main track continues around Red Crater’s narrow rim. This is a spectacular part of the walk but it can be a little scary on a windy day If the weather is settled, stop to enjoy the view eastward over the Oturere Valley, the Rangipo Desert, and the Kaimanawa Ranges.
Red Crater to Blue Lake
Time: 30 minutes | Grade: Moderate
The descent from Red Crater is steep and the loose scoria moves easily underfoot so some care is required. Look to the left to see another of Red Crater’s post-Taupo lava flows spreading out in a broad wave across the floor of central crater. To the right, Emerald Lakes fill a series of small explosion pits. The Maori name ‘Ngarotopoum\namu’ describes the brilliant green colour of the water in these lakes, caused by minerals leached from the surrounding rock. The steam vents above the lake are responsible fro the distinct sulphurous smell. The water is not suitable for swimming in or drinking.
The Track to Otureree Hut, part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit, branches off just past the lowest lake while the Tongariro Crossing track sidles around the edge of Central Crater then climbs up to Blue Lake. This cold, acidic lake fills the crater of another post-glacial vent that formed between 25,000 and 10,000 years ago. Research suggests that it produced showy eruptions with very hot lava up to 500 metres in the air. Plant life is still sparse here but you may see a low growing grey-green moss around the lake.
The Maori name translates as Rangihiroa’s mirro. Rangihiroa, the son of the local chief, was said to have explored the Tongariro volcanoes in the middle of the 18th centrury. The lake is tapu (sacred) and it is disrespectful to eat or drink around its shores.
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut
Time 1 hour | Grade Moderate
Once past the lake there is a short, easy climb to the edge of North Crater then an abrupt change in outlook as you walk through a narrow saddle onto the northern slopes of Tongariro. In good weather there are spectacular views out over Mt Pihanga and Lake Rotoaira to Lake Taupo. The other notable change is in the vegetation, from barren gravel fields to lush slopes of red tussock dotted with buttercups, eye bright and sturdy shrubs like mountain inaka and snow Totara. The soils here are much thicker than elsewhere on the Crossing and plant life is correspondingly diverse. As the ground can be quite boggy and the pumice base is easily eroded – please stay on the track as it slowly zigzags its way down the Ketetahi Hut.
Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car park
Time 2 hours | Grade: Moderate
Ten minutes walk from the hut the track crosses the stream that flows down from Keteahi Springs. The rocks are stained a multitude of colours by minerals in the water, algal growth and the impact of hot water and steam. The springs and this section of track are on private land and visitors are asked not to leave the track.
Follow the poled route down through more open tussock land to clearing with some seats. Past this point the track drops steeply through podocarp-hardwood forest to the Mangatetipua Stream. Here the Totara-dominated forest gives way to regenerating scrubland with a low canopy of Kanuka and Manuka. A short side track leads down to a waterfall a few minutes before reaching the car park.
The route should only be attempted in summer unless you are experienced on snow and part of a well-equipped group.
A poled route leads from the edge of South Crater over to the base of Ngauruhoe. From here it is a matter of picking your own rout up; the best option is to follow the ridge of red scoria to the left of the scree slopes. The summit area can be dangerous and should be avoided if there are any signs of volcanic activity. The descent can be made relatively quickly but it is easy to lose control on the free-flowing scree and car is required. Allow 11/2 hours up from the saddle and 30 minutes down. If you want to climb Ngauruhoe and complete the Crossing in one day – ensure you allow plenty of time as it is a strenuous side trip.
The poled route to the summit of Tongariro branches off the Crossing just before Red Crater. It follows an undulating ridge that can be cold and exposed in poor conditions. However, in good weather if you have spare time, it can be an enjoyable diversion. Allow 1 1/2 -2 hours return.