New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing rewards the hearty hiker

Fog surrounded us like gray cotton candy.

Active volcanoes lurked in the murkiness like hulking giants, but my hiking partner and I  couldn’t see them — at least not at first.

At any moment, the ground could shake and fiery lava would paint the sky in orange streaks. The shroud of fog seemed to lessen the risk on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is called New Zealand’s best day hike.

On our first trip to New Zealand, we vowed to spend as little time as possible in cities and focus on what the country is best known for: the great outdoors. Tongariro topped the list.

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The writer enshrouded in fog at one point in the hike. (Sheryl Jean)

The crossing has it all: volcanoes, lava fields, alpine lakes, fumaroles, waterfalls and breath-taking views. It’s in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest park.

The track traverses the length of Mount Tongariro and skirts the saddle of Mount Ngauruhoe (see photo at top) — two of New Zealand’s three active volcanoes. Ngauruhoe posed as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings film. (You can hike up Ngauruhoe, but now it’s still covered in ice and snow and requires technical skills and crampons.)

One of the Emerald Lakes on the the crossing. (Sheryl Jean)

The 12 miles takes about six to nine hours, depending on weather conditions, your fitness level and how often you stop. (We finished the trek in seven hours, including a lunch stop, several rest breaks and lots of photographing.)

We arranged a shuttle to take us to the start of the hike and pick us up at the end. Twelve others from the United States, Ireland and the Netherlands joined us.

We were prepared for any kind of weather, since the crossing is known for unpredictable and fast-changing weather — even in the middle of summer.

Sure enough, the trek began with drizzle — enough for me to don my rain jacket and pants, which stayed on through cold and wind. We climbed many stairs, used chains on the steepest and rockiest section.

Tramping through snow earlier this week. (Sheryl Jean)

Walking across one of the craters felt like walking on the moon. At times, the fog obscured anything beyond 20 yards, but it was fast moving and cleared at key moments to provide glimpses of the Ngauruhoe peak and jewel-colored alpine lakes. We were told that the panoramic views are stunning on a clear day.

After peaking at nearly 6,200 feet, the sun appeared for most of the rest of the hike. We finally got our wide-angle views of Lake Taupo (New Zealand’s largest lake), Mount Tauhara’s volcanic remnant in the distance and the rest of the crossing laid out like a racetrack on the descent.

The reward at the the end of the trail: a view all the way to Lake Taupo. (Sheryl Jean)
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