The Best Day Hike in the World
At least that how the Kiwi’s promote the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. Given that I haven’t expereinced the vast majority of the day hikes in the world, I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of such a statement, however after last week I can say with certainity that you would have a very difficult time arguing against them.
The Tongariro Crossing is located in the central portion of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest. The 19.4 km (12.0 mile) track climbs up and over a saddle between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro, two active stratovolcanoes that along with Mt. Ruapehu form the backbone of the national park and are the highest points on the North Island of New Zealand. If there is one thing that the trail is known for, it’s bad weather. The trail had been closed for most of the week that we were on the North Island due to snow and 120+ km/hr winds but on the last day of the trip, the clouds parted, the winds moved on, and we had 100% perfect weather for the entire day.
Undertaking the Crossing involves taking a shuttle bus to a trailhead on the west side of the mountains. 19.4 km later, the bus picks you up on the north side and drives you back to the carpark. From the very beginning, the landscape is incredibly stark, with almost no vegetation. Mt. Ngauruhoe (which played the role of Mt. Doom/Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) looms above you for the entire first half of the hike. In many ways, the landscape is similar to what you would experience hiking across the flanks of Kilauea or Mauna Loa in Hawaii only much more mountainous. All three of the volcanoes in the part have expereinced significant eruptions in the last few decades and the trail crosses a number of fresh lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, craters, and steaming ground.
The trail begins by slowly climbing up a broad glacial valley on the western flank of the mountains. After about 8 kilometers and a 750m (2500 ft) climb up Devil’s Staircase (brief side rant: “Devil’s” is an prefix used FAR too often when it comes to naming moderately challenging sections of trail. Go hiking anywhere in the world and I promise you you will encounter a difficult section of trail named Devil’s Staircase, Devils’s Highway, Devil’s Ladder, or Camino del Diablo or something like that. I really want to know how these conversations go. “Ooh, this here trail is pretty steep…what should we call it?” “I dunno, whatever we call it though we should probably slap “Devil’s” on the front of it to make it sound nice and foreboding.” I mean, I get that its steep and you might be a little winded when you reach the summit, but in all honesty, unless you are trying to climb Everest in 120 degree heat with no oxygen, I have a feeling the Devil could assign you far more hellish tasks.) , we arrived at Red Crater, the highest point on the main trail. Side trails split off the main route and head to the summits of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro. Since we had gotten a late start, we chose Mt. Tongariro since it was shorter and didn’t involve scrambling up a 45 degree scree slope. The views from the top were breathtaking, one could see almost from one coast of the island to the other. After Red Crater, the trail descends sharply down to Emerald Lakes past a number of hydrothermal vents and pools and lots of steaming ground. The second half of the trail basically just heads straight down the mountain and is relatively unremarkable. We ended up running the last few km’s in order to catch the 3:30 bus back to our car and not have to wait for a hour to catch the next one.
All in all, an amazing hike, especially for the geologically inclined. My only complaint were the hundreds of other people we shared the trail with. This was to be expected I suppose given that this was the first day in a week that the trail had actually been passable but it was still far from what you would call a wilderness experience. Despite the length and elevation gain, the crossing is not a particularly difficult trail. With the exception of one stretch just after Red Crater, the trail is incredibly well maintained and the footing is superb. We manged to complete the trail in exactly 7 hours including our side trip to Tongariro Summit.