Hiking the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand
August 11, 2021
By Kayla Kurin

As I pass by on the gravelly path, sulfuric steam wafts off the top of Mount Ngauruhoe, an active volcano.

This particular volcano, which is most famously known as the stand-in for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is just saying a friendly hello.

But another active volcano on the trail has closed down some of the Tongariro Crossing due to dangerous volcanic activity. Even with that knowledge, I can’t help but be in awe of the smoke streaming from the tip of the mountain.

Leaving Mount Doom behind, I trek on. Crumbling reddish rocks jut out in every direction as I wind up and down the narrow path known as the Devil’s Staircase.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19km trek in Tongariro National Park on the North Island of New Zealand. The path passes several active volcanoes, sulfuric pools, and rocky outcrops.

It’s an intermediate-level hike with challenging peaks and some areas with exposure and loose rock. As I make my way up to the top of the Devil’s Staircase, I see several hikers take a tumble heading back down the path. Luckily, the loose molten rock cushions their falls.

Thin clouds float in the blue sky overhead, but despite the nice weather and the steady stream of hikers, the place has an eerie feel to it.

Walking in my barefoot trainers, not the hiking boots required to take the shuttle at the hostel I was staying at, I feel every piece of loose molten rock underfoot. The sensation makes me feel grounded, steadier, connected to the earth.

Sweating, I make it to the peak of the staircase 1,600 meters above sea level. It’s the place I’ll have to turn around to avoid the volcanic activity. But even making it halfway through the crossing, I can tell why this area is so popular with hikers.

In one direction, bright sulfur pools lie in the red rocky earth, covered by a thin mist. The pools have the Maori name, Nga Rotopounamu—greenstone lakes. They’re also known to hikers as the Emerald Lakes and the color is truly stunning.

To the other side, red and black peaks rise all around. I can’t see the active volcano from this vantage point, but the strong sulfuric scents mixing with the earthy smells of the ground let me know I’m not far off.

I take a moment to look at all the beauty around me, knowing that I’ve walked over ancient layers of hardened lava to enjoy this beautiful view.

Even though it was a challenging walk up, I feel energized. My heart is pumping, my breath is heavy and I feel giddy from the beauty (or is that the altitude?).

Leaving the bright pools behind, I make my way back down the Devil’s Staircase, sliding down the loose rock near the peak before finding steady ground again.

After a steep decline, I Pass by Mount Ngauruhoe again and am amazed at how much the scenery has changed in a short amount of time. The mist has thickened and a creepy white fog hovers around my feet.

I can barely see where I’m stepping as I watch my feet disappear into the smoke.

Finally, I reach the boardwalk, clear of mist, that leads back to the road.

As I drive away, heading north to Auckland, I watch the volcanic landscape disappear behind me. Even as I leave the park behind and emerge into the city, I feel the wildness of the trek in my sweaty forehead and sore limbs. It seems that when in New Zealand, one simply can walk into Mordor, and it makes for an invigorating day hike!

To get to Tongariro National Park, you can stay in one of the park’s hostels or hotels, or book a spot in nearby Taupo. You can then arrange to park your car at one end and have a shuttle pick you up at the other, or, if you’re staying in the area, get a shuttle both ways. Shuttles can be booked through any nearby towns or accommodations.

The trail can be hiked in late spring, summer and early autumn (November – May) but is covered in snow from May through October, requiring elite alpine skills and equipment to climb during those months.