The Best (and Worst) Day Hike in New Zealand!

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I’m inspired to travel when I hear other people share stories of their adventures.  So here’s the next installment of our weekly series where the Million Mile Secrets team shares their travel successes (and failures) with you!

Jason:   If you enjoy spending time in the outdoors, you really should consider a visit to New Zealand.  Of the many things that are great about the country, their trail system might be the best!  And they have an extensive network of back-country huts, which make multi-day backpacking trips an enjoyable experience.

But most folks don’t have the time, desire, or proper equipment to spend more than one day on a trail.  And that’s okay because New Zealand has one of the world’s best day hikes – the Tongariro Crossing!

The Best And Worst Day Hike In New Zealand
The Start of the Tongariro Crossing Gives You a Great View of Mount Ngauruhoe (Also Known as Mount Doom)

The New Zealand Park service does a great job of promoting the 9 Great Walks.  But almost all of these treks require a stay of one or more nights in a hut.  The problem is, the most popular Great Walk huts must be reserved up to a year in advance during peak season.

So if you want the perfect New Zealand outdoor adventure, but you don’t want to spend days out in the elements, the Tongariro Crossing could be your answer!

What Is the Tongariro Crossing?

The Tongariro Crossing is a ~19 kilometer (~12 mile) tramp past active volcanoes, emerald lakes, and other worldly landscapes.  It was even the filming location for Mount Doom in the final scenes of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

The trail is well maintained with huts near the beginning and the end.  That said, the Ketetahi hut near the end was damaged in a volcanic eruption several years ago and is out of commission.  It’s not an easy walk, but it is VERY popular!

The Best And Worst Day Hike In New Zealand
The Steam Vents on This Section of the Trail Fill the Air With a Sulfur Stench, but It’s Worth It for the View of the Emerald Lakes

It’s located near the middle of the North Island, ~4 hours south of Auckland.  So if you arrived in Auckland and are working your way toward the South Island, it makes a great stop after visiting popular attractions like the Waitomo Caves (glowworms and underground rafting!) and Hobbiton.

There are lots of bus services that will pick you up from nearby towns and drop you off at the end of the day.  Most of these services drop you at the Southern parking lot and pick you up from the Northern parking lot.  So if you decide to walk north to south you could end up fighting the crowds all day.

Be Prepared!  What to Know Before You Go!

Folks want to experience the Tongariro Crossing for good reason.  Unfortunately, the number of people visiting can make things a bit claustrophobic at times.  So if you are planning to use a shuttle bus service, know that you’ll be joining hundreds if not thousands of other walkers.

This is especially true during the busy season (December to February) when the weather is best.  I had a friend who waited through 4 days of foul weather before the clouds broke and she decided to do the hike.  Of course, 4 days worth of visitors were also waiting for the same thing.

The Best And Worst Day Hike In New Zealand
Most of the Tongariro Crossing Will Make You Feel Like You’re on Another Planet

She spent almost the entire journey in a line of people!  She talked with a park officer who said it was the busiest day he had ever seen and estimated ~4,000 people were on the trail that day!  I’ve even heard horror stories of folks having to wait hours to use the drop toilettes along the trail.  That sounds like an exaggeration to me, but you get the idea.

Also, you’ll want to be well prepared.  Bring enough water for most of the day.  Even if you have a way to treat water, all the water sources you come across after Soda Springs (heading south to north) are NOT suitable for drinking because of the mineral content from the volcanic activity in the area.

How to Avoid the Crowds

You’ll likely have a much more pleasant experience on the Tongariro Crossing if you can start before the buses arrive.  You could always book a bunk in the hut, but they will likely fill up far in advance.  And you won’t be able to change your plans with the weather, which could make the trip a LOT less fun or impossible to complete.

When we completed the walk, we camped off the trail.  You can camp in New Zealand national parks if you are at least 500 meters (~1,600 feet) from the trail or road and it’s not specifically prohibited.  If you decide to go this route, be sure you don’t get lost.  And also realize, most the terrain surrounding some trails can make camping 500 meters off trail very difficult.

The Best And Worst Day Hike In New Zealand
Enduring a Cold Night in Our Tent Was the Price We Paid to Get an Early Start and Avoid the Crowds

The downside of going this route is that you’ll have to carry a lot more gear with you.  All that extra weight adds up and don’t forget about the water issue!

Climbing Mount Doom Was a Highlight for Us, but This Deal is Dead 🙁

We decided to get an early start on the trail because we wanted to climb Mount Ngauruhoe, which is an optional side trip.  The volcano is a giant cone of of loose ash and volcanic rocks.  This can be especially risky when the trail gets busy because the folks above you WILL be knocking large rocks down the mountain.  And it can be quite dangerous.

We started on the trail around 3:30 am, so there were only 2 other hikers heading up the mountain with us.  And we were able to get back down to the main trail before the crowds arrived.  But the experience wasn’t all roses and great views.

The Best And Worst Day Hike In New Zealand
This Picture Doesn’t Do Justice to Just How Steep the Climb up Mount Ngauruhoe Feels

We both had large backpacks which we hid behind a large boulder at the bottom of the mountain.  When we came back to retrieve our packs, we noticed something we had missed in the darkness.  Little clumps of toilet paper were scattered all over the ground behind the rock.

We had stashed our gear in the middle of an emergency bathroom.  It might have been the grossest thing we encountered in 4 months of hiking.  Apparently, those lines for the outhouses are no joke!

Note:  Since we took our trip, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has begun asking folks to respect Mount Ngauruhoe by not climbing it, as it is considered sacred by the local Maori.  While this isn’t a official ban, it’s probably better to skip this part of the hike out of respect and for your own safety.

Bottom Line

If you’re heading to New Zealand and want to experience the beauty of the country’s Great Walks without the hassle of a multi-day backpacking trip, then the Tongariro Crossing is for you!

You’ll be able to tramp around volcanoes, past sulfur vents, and through moon-like landscapes.  And you can do it all in a day!  But be sure you’re prepared for the walk because it’s not easy.  And bring enough water for the day as most of the water sources you’ll come across are NOT suitable for drinking.

If you’re planning a trip during peak-season, you won’t be alone on the trail!  So be prepared for the crowds.

Have you been to New Zealand?  If so, what was your favorite hike?

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