Superlatives are inadequate to describe this outstanding one-day hike on New Zealand's North Island. The trail takes you through a stark volcanic landscape that makes you feel like you are walking on the surface of another planet. Yet, incredibly, it is a walk of extreme contrast - you start the hike in scenery similar to Scottish moorland and finish by walking through woodland! What's more, this hike is challenging physically, taking in several steep ascents.
The trail, widely acknowledged as the country's finest one-day hike, is found in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand's first national park and a world heritage site. It encompasses three volcanoes: Ruapahu, Tongariro, and the perfectly formed Ngauruhoe.
Tongariro Crossing day-hike map and directions
The track heads through Mangatepopo Valley. After about 1.5 km (1 mile), a side trail leads off left to Mangatepopo Hut. You continue ahead, climbing gently to the right of a stream. As you pass through old lava flows, Mt Ngauruhoe dominates the skyline to the left. About 2.5 km (1.5 miles) later, and now nearly at the head of the valley, a short detour along a path to the left leads to Soda Springs, a cold water spring surrounded by lush vegetation.
Return to the main track and soon the real climbing begins as you head up from the valley floor to the saddle between Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro. Your reward for reaching the saddle are great views of Tongariro and, if it is clear, Mt Taranaki to the west. The saddle is also the starting point for those wishing to make an ascent of Ngauruhoe, a strenuous climb over loose scoria that takes around 3 hours (it is important to check conditions before attempting an ascent, as ice can make it treacherous).
From the saddle, the trail crosses South Crater - the way is clearly signed. Roughly 7 km (4.4 miles) into the trail, after a further stiff climb, you reach the highest point, spectacular Red Crater. It is still active, as evidenced by the clear smell of sulphur as you peer into it. From here, there is a stunning view down towards aptly named Emerald Lakes, two small, water-filled craters, brilliantly colored due to a high mineral content. You will want to linger, but the summit of Red Crater is very exposed, and high winds can make it bitterly cold.
The descent down to Emerald Lakes is steep, through loose scoria. Just after the second lake, pass a side trail on the right (it leads to another hut) and continue northwards over Central Crater. A final, short climb leads up to magnificent Blue Lake. An old vent, Blue Lake was originally called Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa (Rangihiroa's Mirror), and it was Rangihiroa's descendent who donated the main part of Tongariro National Park in 1887.
The track continues north, quickly leaving Blue Lake and skirting North Crater. As you descend to Ketetahi Hut, the scenery changes, and views open up ahead of Lake Rotoaira. Close to the hut, the track passes plumes of steam and mineral-streaked rocks, Ketetahi Hot Springs. Be aware that you are now crossing private land and there is no right of access to the springs.
Active New Zealand trips that include the Tongariro Crossing hike: