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Last Updated on 23/12/2020
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand is one of the most formidable and awe-inspiring walking trails in the world. Located in the Tongariro National Park, the trail intersects a dramatic and rocky landscape of tall mountain peaks and active volcanoes. Dried-up lava flows scar the land and plumes of steam rise from geysers and boiling mud pools. There isn’t anything quite like it.
The trail is popular with walkers in summer but in winter, the Tongariro Crossing has its own unique set of challenges. The weather is usually unpredictable and a thick blanket of snow covers the higher points. Nevertheless, it’s still possible and every bit as stunning as the summer. It just requires forward planning and extra budgeting.
After doing the trail in August (winter in the Southern Hemisphere), I found out everything you need to know about walking the Tongariro Crossing in winter:
Some quick facts about the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Enjoying the views
- The Tongariro National Park is located in the Ruapehu District in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island.
- The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular day hikes in New Zealand.
- The National Park is a dual World Heritage Site. It’s the oldest national park in New Zealand and the sixth national park established in the world.
- Mount Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro are all active volcanoes located in the centre of the park.
- The Tongariro National Park is best known as Mordor and Mount Ngauruhoe as Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
- The Crossing is 19.4 km in length and it takes roughly six to eight hours to complete depending on the weather.
- The best time to do the Tongariro Crossing if you want an easier hike is in the summer from November to the end of April. It’s the most popular time with hikers and you can do it safely without a guide. Winter is just as beautiful but a lot more challenging. Be prepared to wait a few days for good weather.
How hard is the Tongariro Crossing, really?
It’s breathtakingly beautiful up here
I won’t lie, in winter the trail is a solid difficult if you’re an inexperienced hiker. That being said it is doable. I recommend that you attempt it with a guide because there are some seriously tricky parts to navigate and you need the right equipment. You also don’t want to get lost up there in below-freezing conditions and the weather can change very quickly. Did I mention there are active volcanoes too?
It might seem like this trail is anything but fun but trust me, the Tongariro Crossing in winter is one of those unforgettable once in a lifetime experiences that you will treasure forever.
I have a fairly moderate level of fitness and I made it up and down in one piece so you will too. If you follow my advice you’ll be just fine.
Where to stay
A VERY friendly dog
The best place to stay if you want to hike the Tongariro Crossing is Taupo. The town is located on the banks of Lake Taupo, the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand. It’s also the crater of a dormant supervolcano that erupted about 1,800 years ago.
Taupo has plenty of accommodation that you can arrange your guide and transfer to the Tongariro Crossing through. It also has some seriously good Indian restaurants if you have some leisure time.
I stayed at Rainbow Lodge, a budget-friendly hostel with free WiFi and a sauna (yes to the free sauna!). The hostel had a heavy backpacker vibe and everyone was super friendly – including the resident dog. If the hostel lifestyle isn’t your thing then it’s possible to book a private room instead of a dorm.
I arranged my Tongariro adventure through the Rainbow Lodge reception. They were very helpful and gave me daily updates when I had to wait a few days for the weather to clear.
How to get there
The very start of the trail
If you’re coming from Taupo, the easiest way to get to the Tongariro National Park is by booking a minibus transfer through your accommodation. There is a car park located at each end of the trail but unless you’re doing a round trip or going back on yourself, it’s a lot more convenient to have transport waiting for you when you’ve finished. Trust me, you’re going to want to relax afterwards anyway.
Why do a tour
A tour is the safest way to do the hike in winter
In summer, the Tongariro Crossing is a popular day hike that requires a decent level of fitness but you can do it fairly safely without a guide. You also won’t have to worry about being alone as there will be plenty of people up there with you. Temperatures at the top scarcely get above 9℃ but the weather is, for the most part, stable.
In winter, it’s a different story. The highest peaks and plateaus in the park become a snow-dusted wonderland. It’s breathtakingly beautiful but it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The weather is unpredictable and can turn at any minute. Blizzards cause poor visibility and tracks get icy and buried in fresh snow. Chilling winds can blow you off course and temperatures drop to -9℃ or lower.
The Tongariro Crossing in winter is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done but I strongly recommend joining a guided tour because it can lead inexperienced hikers into an unforgiving world.
I went with Adventure Outdoors, a TripAdvisor approved local tour guide. The price was a hefty 195 NZD but it included the minibus shuttles, all the necessary equipment, a full guided tour and refreshments at the end. Most importantly, I felt safe.
What to pack for the Tongariro Crossing
You get the gear free with a tour
If you’re going with a tour guide you don’t actually need to be as equipped as you think you do. They will provide most of your equipment for you but it’s still a good idea to have a strong base so you can be comfortable. High up in the Tongariro National Park you can expect temperatures to dip below freezing and it gets pretty windy.
Wear comfortable clothing that’s warm and breathable. Whatever you do, avoid denim. It can rub in the wrong places, restrict mobility and once wet, you’re stuck like that for a while which isn’t ideal in subzero conditions. Here’s what I wore for the Tongariro Crossing in winter:
- Thick leggings
- Thick fleece trousers*
- Thick socks
- Non-PFC walking boots
- Lightweight fleece
- Non-PFC Waterproof jacket
- Ice axe*
You will also need to take 1.5 litres of water and a packed lunch.
All items marked with * were provided by the tour guide at no extra cost.
PFCS are chemicals that are harmful to the environment. Find out how to be a sustainable traveller in this guide to green travel.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike itinerary
What the park looks like without the snow
To say that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a challenge is an understatement. It was probably one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done but I am an inexperienced hiker who had never dealt with crampons and ice axes before.
Still, I’d do this trail in a heartbeat if I got the chance again. It’s astonishing beauty and the sense of achievement at the end is truly unbeatable.
The Start: Mangatepopo to Soda Springs
Mount Doom in all its glory
You’ll start the trail at Mangatepopo car park and head towards Soda Springs. It’s the easiest leg of the route as you can follow the Mangatepopo stream via a wooden track that elevates you slightly over the boggy terrain.
You’re still low down here but the landscape is fairly barren and looks almost otherworldly. You’ll start to see black rocks and old lava flows among the tussocks and coarse heather. Ahead of you, the snow-covered peaks dominate the skyline, unyielding of the challenges that lie ahead.
Soda Springs to South Crater
Before it started to get tough
After about an hour and a half, you’ll reach the end of the first section and the track will immediately start to get challenging. This part of the trail also goes by the name of Devil’s Staircase. You know that any trail with the word ‘devil’ in it is never going to be a walk in the park…
The reason for the difficulty is the steep climb from 1,400 to 1,600 metres above sea level. It requires a bit of stamina and scrambling on all fours (no judgement!) but the sweeping views back down the valley make it well worth the effort. Despite the cold, it was hot work so I did have to pause and peel some of my thermal layers off – hence the t-shirt!
As you get closer to the South Crater, the stark rocky landscape will be buried in a blanket of brilliant white snow. I was glad of my sunglasses and my ice axe to steady myself over the more slippery parts.
South Crater to the Base of Red Crater
Taking a well-earned breather
After a steep ascent, the vast expanse of the South Crater is a bit of a relief. To the right, Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) towers over you, an aloof white cone.
The South Crater was one of my favourite parts of the trail. It looked like a snow-filled bowl bordered by the white outline of mountains against a blue sky. There had been a blizzard the night before so the snow was crisp and fresh.
There were hardly any people except the odd group of hikers that seemed to get swallowed up in the expanse. It was serene and silent. The only sounds were our hushed breath and the crunch of our footsteps in the powdery snow.
This crater is a good spot to put your crampons on and get used to walking with them. Our guides also taught us how to catch ourselves with our ice axes in case we slipped. You’ll see why in a moment.
Red Crater Ridge
Really trying not to get blown away here
This section of the trail is where it starts to get really tricky – more so than the Devil’s Staircase. The climb up Red Crater Ridge is sharp and the track is small so you have to walk in single file.
Cresting the ridge is probably the most difficult bit. It gets very cold as you climb out of the South Crater. The ridge is also narrow with steep slopes on either side. One misstep could see you sliding speedily down them which is why it was important that we knew how to stop ourselves with the ice axe.
As if that wasn’t enough, you might experience a strong icy wind blowing over the ridge. There were a few moments when I seriously thought I was going to get buffeted over the edge.
Red Crater Summit
Not a bad view to have lunch to
After a tough half an hour, you’ll reach the summit of the Red Crater. At 1,886 metres above sea level, it’s the highest point of the Tongariro Crossing. It’s windy and bitterly cold but the panoramic views are spectacular.
We found a slightly sheltered dip and sat down to eat our lunch. Here you can get a stunning view of the twin Emerald Lakes that get their colour from the minerals leaching into the water. Normally, they’re an eye-catching green but during my trip, the snow and ice had covered them leaving only a faded outline. It was still a beautiful sight though!
Red Crater to Blue Lake
Just before we slid down the slope
Once you come down the other side of the Red Crater, it’s a bit more sheltered. Snow or not, this section looks like the surface of the moon. In the winter, great snowy peaks graze the sky, sparkling in the light. In the summer, it’s a barren reddish-brown landscape marked with craters and volcanic ridges.
This part of the trail takes you past Blue Lake, a large cold, acidic lake that’s Tapu (sacred in Maori culture). It’s disrespectful to touch it, enter it, or eat and drink around its shores. Just like the Emerald Lakes, Blue Lake was covered in a thick blanket of snow.
I was surprised when we were instructed to take off our crampons. However, all was revealed when we approached the top of a large slope. We could have gone around it, of course, but that would have added a few extra hours to the hike. Instead, we slid down it one at a time using our axes to steer. It was so much fun and quite possibly the highlight of my hike.
Blue Lake to Ketetahi Shelter
You can see the dip where Blue Lake is
This section of the trail is fairly moderate in the summer. Once you’ve climbed over the North Crater you’re treated to spectacular views down the valley towards Lake Rotoira and Lake Taupo in the distance.
The narrow trail zigzags around the crest of the mountain and you’ll have a steep slope on your right. It’s not a cliff but a slip could easily send you sliding down the valley. The snow can also get very deep in parts – it was almost up to my waist! The easiest way to walk it is if you put your foot directly into the footprint left by the person in front.
Eventually, the snow melts away revealing the copper tufts of grass and a landscape marred by rocks and lava from ancient and modern volcanic eruptions.
As you wind your way downhill, you’ll soon make it to the Ketetahi Shelter, a hiker’s hut with two outside toilets. It’s a bit of a sorry-looking building. Rocks from volcanic eruptions have catapulted into the roof, leaving gaping holes. As if you need any more proof that nature is not a force to be reckoned with!
Read More: What is Ecotourism and Why is it Important?
The Finish: Ketetahi Shelter to Ketetahi Car Park
A perfect view to end the hike with
The final section of the walk is a steady descent towards the car park. It’s easy in theory although your legs will start to feel a bit like jelly by this point. The vegetation changes from coarse brown grass to lush green bushes. At the bottom, you can see forest and the final push before the end. Still, this section does take a good few hours to complete.
Just before the end, you’re treated to one final beauty spot, the unofficially named Ketetahi Falls. It’s just a small cascade but it’s a pleasant end to a thrilling hike.
Once you’ve made it through the trees to the car park you’re greeted with snacks, refreshments and a well-deserved rest.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is challenging in winter but I can honestly say that it’s one of my favourite walking trails to date. The landscape is awe-inspiring and the feeling of accomplishment is a hard one to beat.
I hope you find this resource useful if you’re planning to do the Tongariro Crossing in winter. Stay safe, have fun and remember to go with a guide.
Keen to read about other walking trails in New Zealand? Find out how you can see the Franz Josef Glacier for free here!
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