The day starts before dawn. Waking up, I’m disoriented and groggy from not enough sleep the night before, but I lumber on in anticipation of the day’s activities. The shuttle stops by to pick me up at my Taupo hostel and makes a thousand other little stops before actually hitting the road. I finally start to nod off for a few more minutes of sleep just as our bus pulls into the parking lot at our destination. This is the day that I hiked the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing widely considered to be the most spectacular, and definitely the most popular, one-day hike in all of New Zealand. It resides in Tongariro National Park, a World Heritage site, and takes hikers across shallow streams and valleys, up treacherously steep rocky climbs, across craters and lakes, and through lush green forest. The hike takes between 5 hr 30 min and 7 hour 30 min, or around 2 hours if you’re fit (and crazy) enough to run the entire trail. The trail used to be approximately 19km, but has been increased to 24km to account for the eruption of Mount Tongariro in 2012. The distance is far from the most difficult part of the hike – an ascent and descent of approximately 700m, often concentrated in small bursts, makes the mountain walk a lot more difficult. These distances don’t include the optional side-trail.  I’ve previously mentioned the crossing and other New Zealand gems in my New Zealand Country Guide.

The shuttle pulls away and there’s no going back. Only forward, up and over. Mount Ngauruhoe lies in the distance – that’s where we’re headed. Time to start walking. The first part of the trail is relatively flat and stony, following shallow streams to Soda Springs. Shortly after Soda Springs is where the real climb begins. The first rocky ascent seems to take forever, barely moving forward at all but ascending over 300m. The parking lot looks like a forgotten speck in the distance.

Looking up at Mount Ngauruhoe from the start of the Tongariro Crossing

By the time I’ve reached the top I’ve bonded with a couple other hikers traveling at the same pace. A challenge always brings people together, and it’s always nice to have someone to hike with. We’ve arrived at the South Crater and now it’s time for the first good break. The landscape here starts to resemble the form that it will have for the rest of the hike – sandy coloured with no vegetation to be seen. It’s almost like walking on the moon.

The South Crater stop is where the Mount Ngauruhoe side trail begins. The trail takes you to the peak of the mountain. It’s very steep, so going up takes a lot longer than hiking (sliding?) back down. The side trail can add 1hr 30min to 3 hours, which can be a problem for hikers having to meet their transportation at the end of the trail. Unfortunately I can’t risk missing my shuttle.

After a short water and snack break we begin the second big ascent of the hike – from the South Crater up to the edge of the Red Crater. Rocky and steep, this ascent brings us to the highest point of the hike. It’s literally all downhill from here. Coming over the crest of the climb I immediately understand why this is one of the most beautiful hikes in the country (and arguably the world). The rich, dark red colour of the Red Crater is to our right, the bright green Emerald Lakes can be seen in the valley below, and way off in the distance we can make out the vibrantly coloured Blue Lake. These lakes are coloured like they are due to volcanic minerals dissolved in the water. Beyond the lakes, miles and miles of mountains and valleys can be seen going on forever.

The Red Crater on the Tongariro Crossing

The emerald lakes as seen from the top of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Once we’re done taking in the scenery, and having a sip of water and another snack, it’s time to descend into the valley below. The long, flat, lunar stretch of the central crater brings us past the Emerald Lakes and to the shore of the Blue Lake.

Looking back at the Red Crater

Now that we’re past the half-way point and descending we are treated to a whole new kind of scenery. The world seems so wide open in front of us, with majestic views of the country spread out in front of us and cliffs that seem to drop off into nothing. I think I can see my hostel from here. Ok, maybe it’s just Lake Taupo.

We arrive at Ketetahi Hut for one last rest stop and picture break (like we needed an excuse) before the final big descent. Hikers have the option of staying here for the night if they want to do the full hike, including the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe, over the course of two days. The trail seems to zig-zag a lot here and we drop altitude very quickly before hitting the tree line. Suddenly – trees, trees everywhere. The trail has descended into a forest hike. Just when we thought that the views were all behind us, we’ve come across a refreshing forest trail, complete with crystal-clear streams, wooden bridges and fallen trees. The little bit of shade made the final stretch a lot more enjoyable.

Looking down while descending the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Just as I begin to wonder if we’re still going the right way, I see an opening up ahead. We’ve made it. Coming out from beneath the trees we see the other hikers who made it here ahead of us. As we wait around for the shuttle we reflect on the hike and what we enjoyed most about the day. I fall asleep yet again on the shuttle back to the hostel. I’m going to need the energy for tonight – supper time will be followed by some drinks with my fellow hikers and then a good, long sleep.