The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

At the moment, I’m working at the Chateau Tongariro, a lovely alpine hotel nestled at the base of Mount Ruapehu. It’s a great place to visit (if you have the money), not such a fantastic place to work, but I digress.

The job has allowed me to thoroughly explore the park by taking pretty much all the day walks on this side of the mountain. Yesterday I finally got around to the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing… and I was really disappointed.

Do it. Like all the tourism websites you read say, its a must see in New Zealand. So by all means, if you have the time, do it. But remember that it sucks.

The crossing is a moderately easy hike that spans somewhere between 17 and 19 km, depending on who you talk to. Along with the crossing, you have the option to summit 2 mountains:

Mount Ngauruhoe, (Mount Doom, for Lord of The Rings fans) took me about 2.5 hours, although 3 is recommended. It is not for the faint of heart, as the mountain can be incredibly dangerous, and physically draining. I’d recommend climbing experience for this one.
Mount Tongariro, will take roughly 1.5 hours. If it’s particularly windy you’ll be on an exposed face for most of the trek, which can be dangerous or unpleasant, but it’s a manageable hike for anyone with experience walking on uneven surfaces. If you’re on the crossing already you can probably conquer this summit.

The main trail of the crossing offers beautiful views of volcanic landscapes and alpine lakes for the first 4-6 hours. It feels like you’re on a different planet. The last 2 hours of the hike… Well the trail looks like something out of a Doctor Seuss book. It weaves back and forth across the same grassy slope for what feels like the better half of your day, then it descends into a trek through the woods that takes just as long and is equally as hard on your knees.

Do the views make the descent worth it? Heck yeah. The hike is worth the pain. If you plan to spend most of your New Zealand trip not once leaving the car, leave the car for this one.

Why was I disappointed?

Upper Tama Lake, on the opposite side of Mount Doom as the crossing.
Upper Tama Lake, on the opposite side of Mount Doom as the crossing.

Maybe it had something to do with my time trekking around the park before the crossing, I expected the same experience as Tama Lakes. That is, a challenging 5 hour hike, a beautiful end, and 5 other people on the trail.

In the on-season, Tongariro Crossing sees 1000+ hikers a day. Busload upon busload, most arriving between 7:00 and 10:00 in the morning. Besides a few uphills the crossing is really easy. It’s a moderate hike, which makes it accessible to all.

My friend and I, pushing to summit both mountains and complete the crossing a day (if you are in good shape and experienced allot 8-10 hours), spent most of our time on the main trail pushing past people. A shocking number of said people were wearing earbuds.

 Aside: If you do the crossing, don't wear earbuds. This can be anywhere from inconsiderate to extremely dangerous. The hike is easy, but you are still on a crowded trail across a mountain range with cliffs and active volcanoes. Not to mention, are you so bored hiking you need music to enjoy it?

Every viewpoint on the crossing is crowded and busy. It’s much easier to stop and enjoy a breathtaking view when you are uninterrupted by the hustle and bustle of other tourists passing through, posing for pictures, skipping rocks across the water, ecetera.

I found myself stopping at the views, but only for a second to try and snag a picture without someone else in it. All of the pictures you take will be available online anyways. Unless its a picture of you, someone has taken it before.

When I hike I prefer to be alone, be challenged, and take my time. The crossing, while beautiful, is not one that I have a desire to repeat. The sheer volume of people on the trail makes it less enjoyable than others that New Zealand has to offer.

All said and done though, you still gotta do it.

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