You’re not a hardcore Lord of the Rings fan if you haven’t hiked Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Tongariro National Park is the real-life landscape of Mt. Doom, that famous mountain that serves as the most important destination in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mt. Ngauruhoe is the actual mountain that Mt. Doom was modelled after (pictured below). Our guide told us that they did an overlay of two mountains together in order to achieve the actual composition for Mt. Doom, most of which is still CGI.
When people ask me what my favourite hike in the world has been, it’s this one, without a doubt.
[Updated May 2020]
Summer vs. Winter
When you plan a trip to New Zealand, you need to allow for at least 1-2 days in the Tongariro region of North Island if you do this hike. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the official name of the full-day trail that many undertake.
Depending on the season of your trip, you’re either hiking this in the summer (November – February) or winter (June – August). I did the latter, since my two month road trip (and vacation) coincided with this season.
I stayed in Tongariro Village, which is only a 20 min. drive to the crossing starting point (our tour company picked us up and shuttled us back and forth). Ohakune is the other main area to stay, but it’s 30 min. from the village, meaning it’s probably over 45 min. drive to the crossing starting point. Some also came from Taupo, which I don’t recommend (you’ll be exhausted from the long drive back).
My recommendation is to book two nights in Tongariro Village. Use the first night to relax, sleep early, then hike on the second day and come back to sleep there for the night so you don’t have to worry about driving jelly-legged to your next destination in the darkness.
I also strongly recommend you to do the Tongariro Crossing in the winter rather than summer.
Less crowds (there were probably only 50 other people on the trail at the same time as us), less heat, and far more spectacular, wintry views. It could just be personal preference, but I’d much rather hike without thousands of tourists getting in the way of my views and photos. Plus, the NZ sun during summer is no joke. It’ll absolutely fry you at temperatures of 30°C+.
Make sure you book a reputable company for a guided winter hike. I’ve outlined my recommendation in the following section. If you hike in the summer, you don’t necessarily need a guide (but you do need to take serious precautions and wear appropriate clothing). Also keep in mind that there is no marked trail (in either season), except for a few tiny yellow arrows.
However, be mindful that winter hikes have greater chances of inclement weather. I was extremely lucky with the date I had selected (months in advanced), but the week prior to my hike, they cancelled all hikes due to a freak blizzard. Make sure you call your tour company 24 hours in advance to ensure that your hike will still go forward as planned.
Here’s a comparison of the views from the winter vs. summer. The main difference is the fact that the winter hike covers up the famous Emerald Lakes:
The Best Tour Company: Tongariro Adventure Outdoors
If you’ve decided to go forth with a winter hike, definitely go with Tongariro Adventure Outdoors. This is not a sponsored post, this is based on all my personal experience and I 100% recommend them over any other company.
Laura and Jar were our two wonderful guides. I should mention here that I did this hike with my arm sling, so they took extra care to ensure that nothing further could happen to me. They even went so far as to being my “left arm” in parts where we needed to hold the ice axe in our left hands. Absolute gems!
Tongariro Adventure Outdoors focuses on smaller tour groups with more personalised attention and the BEST guides who told us hilariously entertaining stories along the way. For an 8+ hour hike, you need people at the helm who inspire and support you!
By all means, $175 NZD for a guided tour is worth every penny. Even if you’re experienced, do not go on your own in the winter. An avalanche could truly happen at any time and it’s best to be with locals who have hiked the trail thousands of times.
Our guides also taught everyone how to prevent themselves from tumbling down a snowy ledge via demonstrations and use of their ice axes. I couldn’t partake because of my injury, but I was still able to still do the 125m slide down the snowy hill.
Folks from other tour companies looked on in envy as we did this. HA!
I was surprised at how the hike wasn’t as intense as I anticipated. I thought that Roy’s Peak Track (Wanaka) was a lot worse since it involved three continuous hours of uphill climbing in the sun. However, Tongariro Crossing definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. You can still go even without proper hiking experience, but you will be extremely sore by the end.
Aside from 180-ish stairs toward the beginning, the trail wasn’t difficult at all. Again, this might vary with seasons (in the summer, loose gravel and slippery rocks prove downhill climbs to be more more precarious).
The treacherous parts of the trail involved our crampons and slippery, soft ice in which my ice axe prevented me from falling flat on my face. However, once we reached the Red Crater Lookout (the famous area where you can see the emerald lakes), it’s pretty easy from thereon out.
The last half of the hike is a paved trail on gravel with switchbacks that leads into a forest and out to the other car park.
We had a pretty quick pace the entire time, mainly because we needed to get out of there before sunset (5:15pm was sunset and we reached the carpark by 4 on the dot. Keep in mind that we started at 7:30am). If I was doing that on my own, I most definitely would have stopped more and probably be in the dark for the last half, so I’m thankful for the guides.
After your hike, be sure to load up on sodium (a big plate of hot chips is always ideal).
What to Pack
If you’re hiking in the winter, make sure you properly layer all your clothing. It’s better to have too much clothes than not enough (you can always stuff jackets into your backpack as you hike).
The top of the mountain was -2°C for us, but we were told that winter hikes are normally -20°C or -30°C. Thus, think about wind chill and the fact that you will be cold periodically throughout the hike.
For my winter hike, I wore the following:
- Arcteryx GORETEX waterproof jacket & pants
- Smartwool base layers
- Arcteryx Atom jacket (inner layer)
- Salomon Women’s OUTline Mid GTX hiking boots (GORETEX)
- North Face merino beanie underneath my helmet
- Smartwool hiking socks (and inner lining socks)
- Black Diamond cold weather gloves
- Ray Ban RB3016 CLUBMASTER polarised sunglasses
- Merino Buff
- Columbia lightweight trail pants
Merino and/or wool layers and socks are a necessity for any winter hike. Also try to pack a GORETEX jacket, pants, and shoes (if they’re in your budget), since they’re extremely useful for wet, chilly weather.
If you’re going in the summer without a guide, make sure you have an appropriate camping backpack. One with a waist strap is preferable, since you’ll be carrying the pack for the entire day.
Also, pack a LOT of snacks, food, and water. Chocolate, trail mix, energy bars, PB&J sandwiches, carrots, you name it- you need enough to keep you nourished for the entire day. A Camelbak is always useful for hikes (I stuck it in my Osprey daypack), especially since you need an easy way to reach your water while hiking. A full Camelbak and a water bottle sufficed for me.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to carry quite a bit as well. If you’re going in the winter, you’ll be expected to carry your own crampons and ice axe in addition to your backpack full of food and water.
For more hiking gear essentials, check out my Amazon store.
The panoramic views throughout the hike are phenomenal. I mean, the entire COUNTRY is like a breathtaking postcard that seems too nice to be real!
If you hike Tongariro Crossing in the winter, you’ll be rewarded with sparkling sheets of snow covering the mountains. The snow was so white, pure, and smooth; it even glittered in the sunlight.
With hardly anyone around, it felt like we were trekking through a private snow palace. It felt strange to leave our footprints in such perfectly smooth snow.
The hike also overlooked the filming location for the black gates of Mordor.
I was absolutely speechless, and I can honestly say that even the Antarctic glaciers couldn’t compare to these views. It was like hiking through Hoth (Star Wars nerds, where you at?!).
For these reasons alone, this went down in the books as my favourite hike of all time. I’d 1000% hike this again when I go back.
Other Trails in Tongariro National Park
If you’re not keen on the 19.4 km-long Tongariro Crossing, or if you want more hikes, there are plenty other trails throughout the national park.
Taranaki Falls Walk is a loop track just 8 min. from Tongariro village. You’ll find one of the nicest waterfalls in South Island here, so it’s worth a visit.
Also, Tawhei Falls is very close by. It’s even marked on Google Maps as Gollum’s Pool! Once you reach the parking lot, just walk 3 min. and get to a waterfall lookout where the scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was filmed (when Gollum is in the pool and Faramir almost shoots him).
I even drove up to the Whakapapa skifields, which turned out to be a bit more icy and dangerous than expected (but definitely worth the drive if you have time!).
Somewhere in the snowy rocks below the gondolas, they filmed the scene where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are looking at the Black Gates of Mordor for the first time (The Two Towers). There’s a brilliant view of the national park from the top of this skifield by the carpark.
If you’re looking for an exceptional hike during your time in New Zealand, you don’t want to miss out on hiking Mt. Doom (Tongariro Alpine Crossing).
Whether you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or not, it’s bound to be an experience to remember!
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