Hiking amongst the volcanic giants of the Central Plateau – Tongariro Alpine Crossing

One of the first things I did after moving to Aotearoa New Zealand was hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Tongariro National Park is a dual World Heritage Site, rich in both cultural identity and natural scenery.  This awe-inspiring 19.4-km journey over a volcanic landscape takes you past the volcanic peaks of Ngaruruhoe and Tongariro, with Ruapehu in the distance, active craters and fumeroles (steam vents), and water filled explosion craters.

The hike can be started from either Mangatepopo Valley Road or from Ketethai, but the topography is more easily crossed and more dramatic from the Mangatepopo start.


Since the crossing is not a loop and parking is limited, it is best to arrange for transport to drop you off and pick you up.  Because we were hiking in early October, a time when few people make this journey, most transport services were not yet available. Therefore, our initial plan was not to complete the entire crossing, but walk out and back to the Emerald Pools. Fortunately we met Pablo and Lisa near the pools, two hikers from Austria, who offered us a ride back to our car if wanted to carry on to hike the remaining portion.  WE DID!

Our journey begins

We left from the Mangatepopo Valley car park and followed a gentle path through alpine vegetation. The the symmetrical cone of Ngaruruhoe is immediately visible and we walked swiftly with excitement.

Once you reach the Soda Spring rest stop, the track starts to climb over a series of stairs, appropriately named the Devil’s staircase.


I am such a heat box when I hike and I was already down to my sleeveless as we reached our first crest with Ngaruruhoe behind us.  Most others were in full winter gear.  Here you can find a side trail to either the top of Ngaruruhoe or Tongariro.  We chose to skip these little detours this day, but returned to summit Ngaruruhoe the following winter.


From here you cross a flat snowfield before another series of climbs up to the Red Crater.


Halfway up to the crater you can look back to see Ngaruruhoe and expansive views east of the park.

The track’s highest point of 1,886m is at the edge of the Red Crater, an active crater with steaming vents.  Higher than the clouds in the distance, views here are dramatic and we had our first glimpse of the Emerald Pools below. We raced down the soft volcanic ash to the pools below.

During the descent to the pools, the track leads you by  another frozen, yet colorful crater.

The emerald pools consist of three water-filled explosion craters. Steam rises from the hot pools, melting most of the snow around them.  The pools do remain covered during the winter months, but glow even more dramatically in the summer.

Crossing another long and flat snowfield, the track runs along the edge of Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa Blue Lake, translating to Rangihiroa’s mirror. Rangihiroa was the son of Pakaurangi, a local chief that explored the Tongariro volcanoes in 1750.  While this lake is known for its distinctive color, it was generally frozen and snow covered in early October.

We started our descent from the volcanic plateau and left the snow behind us, returning to the tussock alpine grasses. Views extend to Lake Taupo from the higher ridges as you cross through highly active volcanic areas…move swiftly here.

Before we knew it, we reached the tracks end at Ketethai and our chariot awaited.

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a dangerous and dramatic landscape that we would return to many more times in the future.  Below are some of the snowier trips we have enjoyed since.

Always a fun time here, but nothing tops the excitement of our first visit and the great friends we made.


Categories: New Zealand, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , ,

angie campbell

I am an immigrant from the United States living in Wellington, New Zealand. My love affair with landscape, culture, and learning has led to a life filled with travel and academic institutions. Endowed with endless curiosity, I spend a great deal of time philosophizing about anything and everything, but very often pertaining to environmental issues. I should note that I am not formally trained in environmental philosophy, nor do I have the vocabulary competency to pass for someone who has. My writing is a somewhat tongue and cheek.

I am using this blog as a means to work through some of this thinking and to follow my own pathway of inquiry, while providing (hopefully) some meaningful insight of what it is like to live as an American in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am sure at some point there will be some interesting travel photos once I make the leap from iphone to fancy camera.

There is a secondary tab to the this blog spot. Reflections of the Watering Hole is an old blog I started during one of my academic stints studying the social and environmental impacts of oil and natural gas development in the Denver Julesburg Basin in the United States. While some of the information is a bit 'dated' (I started it in 2013), many of the conundrums remain relevant today.

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