Alpine tundra, barren volcanic craters, steaming springs and iridescent lakes – the sheer diversity on the Tongariro Crossing makes it probably the best one-day tramp in the country. The wonderfully long views are unimpeded by the dense bush that crowds most New Zealand tracks, and from the highest point you can look out over almost half the North Island with the lonely peak of Mount Taranaki dominating the western horizon.
The 16km hike crosses one corner of the Tongariro National Park – wild and bleak country, encompassing the icy tops of nearby Mount Ruapehu, which is, at 2797m, the North Island’s highest mountain. Catch the Crossing on a fine day and it is a hike of pure exhilaration. The steep slog up to the South Crater sorts out the genuinely fit from the aspirational, then just as the trail levels out, Mount Ngauruhoe (2291m) invites the keen for a two-hour side-trip up its scoria slopes. Ngauruhoe famously starred as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films, and you can live out all your hobbit fantasies as you look down its gently steaming crater. Getting back on track is a heart-pounding, hell-for-leather scree run back down the mountain – in just fifteen minutes you cover what took an hour and a half to ascend.
The gaping gashes and sizzling fissures around Red Crater make it a lively spot to tuck into your sandwiches and ponder the explosive genesis of this whole region. From here it is mostly downhill past Emerald Lake, its opaque waters a dramatic contrast to the shimmering surface of Blue Lake just ahead. With the knowledge that you’ve broken the back of the hike you can relax on the veranda of Ketetahi Hut gazing out over the tussock to glistening Lake Taupo in the distance. Rejuvenated, you pass the sulphurous Ketetahi Hot Springs on the final descent, down to the green forest and the welcome sight of your bus. Tired but elated you settle back in the seat dreaming of a good feed and the chance to relive the events of the day over a couple of beers.
The Tongariro Crossing typically takes 6–8hrs and requires a good level of fitness. See http://www.doc.govt.nz for updates on track conditions.