Tongariro National Park offers a number of walks, ranging from the four-day Northern Circuit to many quick jaunts. Probably the most popular, though, is the one-day Tongariro Crossing. The crowds may be daunting to those expecting a lonely trail, but you can just think that all those other people are sharing the amazing scenery with you. In this entry, I´ll give a short explanation of what you will see on the Tongariro Crossing.
The trail is about 11 miles. The beginning and end are at relatively low altitudes, with a high peak in the middle. Almost everyone begins at the Mangatepopo Car Park and finishes at the Ketetahi Car Park. You can go the other way, but you will have to do a bit more climbing, and you will also be fighting the crowd the whole way. In many places, the track is only wide enough for one person, so this may be a frustrating option. For those who want a less crowded trip, you can start at Mangatepopo and follow the crowd up to the peak. Then have a leisurely lunch until only a few stragglers are passing the peak, and then head back to Mangatepopo in relative peace. If you do this, you won´t have to arrange transportation between the two points.
Assuming you do what most people do, start at Mangatepopo and finish at Ketetahi, you will begin at an altitude of about 1150 meters. The first hour is pretty flat, and the ground is somewhat grassy. Mt. Ruapeha is visible at the start, and is the highest of the three volcanoes in the park. You will go by the Mangatepopo Hut, where you can stay and get an early start on your hike the next day. At the end of your walk through the Mangatepopo Valley, you will come to Soda Springs, which you can spot by a pretty waterfall off to the left of the track. This is the last chance for toilets for many hours, so plan carefully!
Past Soda Springs, you have to work a little harder. The track becomes extremely steep, and you often have to use your hands to pull yourself from rock to rock, or at least to keep your balance. The rocks are loose, so be careful not to dislodge them, both for your own safety and that of the person right behind you. In this section, there is actually no set path - you just find your own way up.
After about an hour of climbing, you reach the South Crater, where the ground levels off and the temperature drops, due to the altitude of 1650 meters. The crater is steaming, and the smell of sulphur is quite strong in points. The ground has interesting colors here, so enjoy this flat section and have a look around.
The climb isn´t finished yet, though. When you leave the South Crater, you are faced with another daunting trek up the mountain, this time to the Red Crater, the highest point on the trail. Snow remains on this section for much of the year, so watch out for slick spots. When you reach the top, you realize that it was definitely worth the effort - the views are simply amazing. You can see into the Red Crater, and hundreds of miles beyond in every direction. For those who gain extra energy from the inspiring views, you can take a side trip from here to the peak of Mt. Tongariro.
As you pass the peak and begin to descend, you are treated to a view of the Emerald Lakes, three small lakes that are turquoise in color due to their mineral properties. These are craters formed from previous explosions. Since this is about the halfway point, many people seemed to stop for a lunch break and enjoy the views.
Once you are well-rested, you continue to the Blue Lake, another brilliant body of water which is considered to be sacred to the Maori people. Moving on, you will see North Crater, and from here, the walk begins on a steady, but not overly sharp, decline.
The Ketetahi Springs offer another whiff of sulphur and steam, although you shouldn´t get too close because they are on private property. Soon you will come to the Ketatahi Hut, the other overnight accommodation option on the trail. If you would like to stay here, the beds are taken on a first-come, first-served basis, so don´t dawdle too much along the way.
The trail comes to an end at the Ketatahi Car Park, where hordes of people lounge around to wait for their transportation and reflect on the amazing journey they have just completed!