tongariro alpine crossing

New Zealand Must Do: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

“One does not simply walk into Mordor…”

On a cold morning in Cincinnati, I sat researching all the wonders New Zealand has to offer. I came across the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4 kilometer hike through Tongariro National Park labeled the best one-day hike in the country. I joked with Dad that we should start training since we already did a volcano hike in Bali (though that one was quite a bit shorter at about 3 kilometers return). I never imgined that 3 months later I would actually be attempting it.

A bit of a last minute decision, my trip was booked on a whim before I really processed what I was doing. The whole week leading up to it, I could barely think about anything else. I did loads of research and leg strengthening exercises. Thursday night I slept a total of one hour before I had to catch the bus and be on my way. After 11 hours on the bus, I arrived in Lake Taupo and went straight to the grocery store to get energizing snacks and then headed to bed. I ended up watching the first Lord of the Rings movie because between roommates going in and out and my ever-growing nervousness, I wasn’t going to sleep. Why did I sign myself up for this?! Can I really walk 19.4 kilometers?

At 4 a.m. I was in the kitchen making scrambled eggs – need the protein! There were quite a few others awake as well, all preparing for the Crossing. The bus picked us up at 5:30. We had to sign in and provide contact info so they can keep track of everyone so no one gets stuck on the mountain. That didn’t help my nerves. I tried to sleep on my backpack but still nothing, so I talked to the girl next to me, Franzi. She was also on her own and one of my hostel roommates.

Around 7, we pulled up to the car park and stepping off the bus, I caught my first glimpse of the mountains. Yikes.

tongariro alpine crossing

tongariro alpine crossing
Am I really prepared? No. No I am not.


I was really questioning my ability to complete the trek. I began at 7:15 a.m. and ten minutes later my phone buzzed. It was my Daily Bible app and the verse of the day was Phillipians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” WOW. God was speaking directly to me in that moment, telling me to trust Him.

Here is the layout of the hike:

tongariro alpine crossing


And so at 1000 meters, we began…

The first leg from the car park to Soda Springs took an hour. It was supposed to be easy, and if you struggled with it, they advised you to turn back. I was fine for a while but as soon as the incline started, I had a harder time. I was already annoyed with my heavy backpack so at Soda Springs I ate an apple and drank some water simply to reduce some weight! But I needed the hydration anyway. I met up with Franzi again here.

tongariro alpine crossing

From here we started up the side of Mount Ngauruhoe aka Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. This stretch was called Devil’s Staircase, and it truly was hell. I had to stop and rest every 5 minutes, and I eventually sent Franzi on ahead as I was holding her back. Finally I stopped for a bit longer and had a banana because my legs were burning and I didn’t want cramps! I seriously contemplated turning around. How was I going to go for a whole day? Little did I know, I was just a few steps from the top. I repeated Phillipians 4:13 to myself and reached the South Crater at 9:15. What a relief. 2 hours/6.4 kilometers down!

mount doom tongariro alpine crossing ngurahoe

The walk across the South Crater took about 10 minutes. It was dead flat allowed me to regain some energy and confidence.

south crater tongariro alpine crossing
South Crater

Then I realized the trail went up that slope on the left. Oh boy. This section also took about an hour, but luckily it didn’t feel as long. The path was narrower and the rocks looser, so I was forced to focus my energy into not falling off the mountain which made me forget how much my legs burned!

tongariro alpine crossing

tongariro alpine crossing
Don’t look down!

Around 10:30, I reached the peak overlooking the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes – the highest point of the day. I was in awe. The view was breathtaking in every direction, and I couldn’t believe how far I had come. “Okay, this was definitely worth it,” I thought to myself. Pictures don’t do it justice.

red crater tongariro alpine crossing
Red Crater
emerald lakes tongariro alpine crossing
Emerald Lakes
emerald lakes volcanic steam tongariro alpine crossing
Sulphuric Steam

I was so happy to have reached a descent, but it was actually pretty difficult. It was all loose volcanic, sandy, rock and I slid the whole way down. Plus, the geothermal lakes STUNK.

emerald lakes tongariro alpine crossing

central crater tongariro alpine crossing
Onward through the Central Crater…
blue lake tongariro alpine crossing
Resting at the Blue Lake

It was now 11 a.m. and I had gone about 11 kilometers. I stopped here to refuel amd reflect on my accomplishment thus far.

mount ngurahoe tongariro alpine crossing

Hard to believe I was all the way up on that right peak. I was really proud of myself at this point, and my body was feeling strong. I had prepared my snacks well. I could’ve finished right then, but I still had 8 kilometers to go.

After the Blue Lake I entered the Active Volcano Hazard Zone. The huge cloud of steam eas pretty spooky. Between that and having just eaten, I had a surge of energy and actually danced dowm the path!

volcano tongariro alpine crossing

volcano tongariro alpine crossing

An hour later, I reached the Ketetahi Shelter, the 13 kilometer mark. I emptied my shoes of all the rocks I had been collecting, had a snack, and calculated my finishing time. I had plenty of time and could relax on the way down. I was suddenly very aware of the blisters forming on my feet and pounding down the zig zagging path wasn’t comfortable at all. Because of the zig zag, the view got old fast, as I was basically looking at the same thing for an hour. I entered the forested area at the 16 kilometer mark, and the last few were the longest of all.

tongariro alpine crossing

tongariro alpine crossing

Every time I rounded a corner, I would think, “Okay this HAS to be the end!” But it was just a spot where the sun broke through the trees.

I finally finished at 1:50 p.m. and it was really anticlimactic with no one to high five! They didn’t even have a sign to say congratulations! I looked around for my bus but there was no driver to be found. All day I had been so worried that I would be the slow poke that misses the last bus at 5, and here I had beaten the first one, which left at 3. So I sat and talked to another guy who had just finished the Crossing as well. We both thought the other was crazy – he thought I was crazy for doing it alone, I thought he was crazy for finishing in… wait for it… 4 hours! He ran most of the way! Yikes.

Getting back to reality…

At 3 the bus came and I was on my way back to Taupo. I got back just in time to change and walk some more! It was another 4 kilometers return to church and back, but I figured if Jesus can die on the cross for me, I can walk to church with a blister. Plus, I had to thank Him for all the strength He provided me during the day; I had to repeat Phillipians 4:13 to myself quite often along the way. After dinner, I met up with Franzi again back at the hostel and we figured out we were both on the same bus the next day. She was only on the first leg, but it was nice to have some company for a bit.

I finally made it back to Russell on Sunday night at 9:45 p.m. and had another 3 kilometers to walk to get home. I got in at 10:30 and went straight to bed. I really wasn’t that sore until I woke up on Monday, which was pretty miserable, but by Tuesday I was back up to par and feeling fine.

I have no idea what came over me to want to hike 19.4 kilometers, but I’m so glad I had the courage to try. It was quite a weekend, one for the record books for sure! Tongariro will always hold a special place in my heart.


For more blogs on my time in New Zealand, click here!

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