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Fanatical hiking fan or not, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing ranks as being one of the best day hikes in the world! Can you do it with kids? Yes, you can! However, there are certain things you should know first.
We have five kids and have been traveling the world full-time for two years. We only opted to take our 12-year-old on this hike due to a local’s advice that younger children would not be allowed to go. However, once on the trail, we saw at least a dozen children and most were younger than 12-years-old (but not younger than 6-7). You know the limits of your child and their capabilities the best. This hike IS difficult and not just a “tramp” through the bush. However, plenty of families do it successfully and, with the right prep, you can knock this day hike off your family bucket list!
Table of Contents
- 1 What is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
- 2 Before You Decide to Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
- 2.1 How Fit Do I Need to Be to Hike the Tongariro Crossing?
- 2.2 Where to Stay the Night Before the Tongariro Crossing
- 2.3 Weather for The Tongariro Crossing
- 2.4 Tongariro Crossing Shuttle Service and Parking When Hiking
- 2.5 Tour Guides for the Tongariro Crossing
- 2.6 Time of Year to Attempt the Tongariro Crossing
- 2.7 Time of Day to Hike the Tongariro Crossing
- 2.8 Bathroom Facilities on the Trail
- 2.9 What to Wear and What to Pack
- 2.10 Preparing the Kids for the Crossing
- 3 The Day of Your Hike on The Tongariro Crossing with Kids
- 4 Be Respectful of the Culture
What is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?
This 19.4 km hike (about 12 miles) takes you through martian-like landscapes past three volcanos. The most famous volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, was Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings. As LOTR fans, the thought of channeling our inner Frodo and Sam and climbing past Mt Doom was all it took to convince us.
Apparently, you used to be able to hike Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro but are no longer able to. They have been deemed sacred by New Zealand and the Maori people. I’ve heard there are rangers posted to keep people from hiking them. However, when we went (in a very slow season and time), I did spot people climbing them anyway. I find this sad and wouldn’t personally do this or recommend trying. Being a global citizen and a good tourist means respecting the rules and local culture.
Before You Decide to Hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This day hike demands a healthy amount of respect from potential hikers. Supremely popular, the trail can host hundreds of people per day. In the busy summer months, it can be very busy. As estimated 140,000 people hike it every year!
Funny story: we hiked this shortly after the lockdown was lifted for COVID-19 and were told by our shuttle service (more on that below) we were the only people on the shuttle and the only shuttle for the day. We literally thought, “we might be the only people on this hike!”. How wrong we were. Despite the tourism environment and being in the early winter of NZ, we were still joined by at least a hundred other hikers on the trail. In the beginning of the hike, we were never alone, but we were slow enough to be isolated for about the last 1/3 of the trail.
How Fit Do I Need to Be to Hike the Tongariro Crossing?
In case you are NOT a world-class hiker or avid trail runner, you might be wondering if you are fit enough. This hike, in majority, is a fairly easy walk. However, you do gain a lot of elevation (over 800 meters or 2600 feet). This occurs fairly quickly into the hike and is done over several quick gains. This will wear you down.
A steep and dangerous decent through sliding sand/rock is also taxing, but the real kicker for us was the gradual and very long return down. We were feeling accomplished and tired by the time we could barely spot the end of the trail. That slog dragged for what felt like a week. It was as mentally taxing and physically difficult after the harder parts of the hike.
I would say we were on the low end of the fitness scale, for sure. We never passed anyone and were passed by a lot of people! We did the hike, slowly but surely, so chances are good you can too! We were very sore that night and the next day. All three of us had a lot of pain in our feet (despite great hiking shoes) just due to the length. It took us 11 hours (the recommended time is 6-8 hours), so plan extra time if your fitness level if not as high as you might like.
Where to Stay the Night Before the Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro National Park butts up to Turangi, which happens to be where we were already staying. I didn’t even know about this hike when we booked to stay there! This is the best place to stay the night before and maximize your time in the morning. However, it is also totally doable to stay in Taupo, about 45-minutes away from Turangi and a more “touristy” city overall.
We spent a few months in Turangi due to lockdown and fell in love with it in the end. While not a popular destination, it holds a special place in our heart and I will be writing more information on what to do there with kids.
The Tongariro Crossing is part of a larger hiking circuit, the Tongariro Northern Circuit, which takes 3-4 days and requires overnight stays in the huts. I am sure there are plenty of camping and RV spots nearby to stay as well.
Weather for The Tongariro Crossing
Weather may be your most important factor to consider! Like many hikes, weather plays a vital role in your ability to cross the mountains (actually volcanos!!). If the weather turns bad, you cannot and should not complete this trail. In fact, there are pictures of weather along the trail at key points that warn you not to go on.
A friend we made in the area has done the hike twice. He told me in bad weather it was quite dangerous and he knew he could easily veer off the trail into dangerous terrain. Pay close attention to the weather forecast, or check in with the local I-Site in Taupo or Turangi.
Tongariro Crossing Shuttle Service and Parking When Hiking
Tip to know about this hike: it is NOT a loop. The start and endpoints of this trail are different and not close to each other. You cannot park your car, most the time, in the parking lots either due to a 4-hour limit. This prevents people hiking the entire trail from parking their car in the lots.
Because of this, you must find alternate transportation.
If you have your own car, you can schedule shuttle service. We paid around 40 NZ. You will park your car and lock it (keeping your own keys) at the end of the hike and be shuttled to the start point. We found the shuttle service through the Turangi I-Site location, but there are various services and even Airbnbs that can arrange this for you.
If you don’t have your own car, shuttles will drop you off and pick you up. They run from 6 am to 4:30 pm and cost around 40-70 NZ dollars depending on return tip and where you are coming from.
The downside to the bus shuttle is the time slots for the shuttles must be met. We took much longer to hike the trail than we expected. Let’s be honest, we were out of shape after lockdown! I was very glad to not have to rush for a timed pickup.
The only downside to our shuttle service was how far away our car was from the end of the trail. We needed to walk an additional 2-3 km at the end and I was about ready to collapse on the road. Thankfully, a kind person stopped and offer my husband a ride to the car so he could come to pick us up. We were so happy to wait there on the road! Sunset had passed long ago, so we sat and stargazed while he went to get the car. With this in mind, it might be nice to have a shuttle right at the end of the trail. The end is similar to a bus stop and has a bench area to wait.
Tour Guides for the Tongariro Crossing
If tour guides add to your comfort zone, you can hire a guide for your hike. We saw multiple groups, some in foreign tongues and others in English, hiking with guides. From what I could tell, hikers paced themselves and could spread out a bit. The guides were there for unexpected emergencies and a bit of coaching. You can expect to pay 150-200 NZ dollars for a guide.
We typically chose to do things without tour guides due the unpredictability of our children and their schedules. Personally, I would not chose a guide for a hike either as I would feel pressure to keep up with the group or guide (even if they expressed it not to be a problem!). That plays to my personality.
However, guides can be extremely helpful and really cut down on your stress. They do much of the prep work and planning for you, which helps if you are in a time crunch. I saw a guide from this company while on the trail. I can’t speak to a recommendation for them, but it might be a good starting point.
Time of Year to Attempt the Tongariro Crossing
Summer in New Zealand (October to May) is the best time to do this trail. We hiked it at the beginning of June and saw a bit of snow on the trail. With good weather, it was totally fine.
In NZ winter months, you are encouraged to have crampons and an ice pick. A guide might be a good idea in the winter months for extra safety.
Time of Day to Hike the Tongariro Crossing
Like most hikes, start early! The earliest parking service we could get was 7 am, but I would have started earlier if I could. Bus shuttles start at 6:30 am.
Bathroom Facilities on the Trail
Due to this land being sacred to the Maori, you are asked NOT to relieve yourself on the trail. The NZ Department of Conservation has placed outhouses every 1.5 hours of hiking (according to the 6-8 total hour rule). You need to bring your own toilet paper.
I was well aware of this, however, after the first toilet stop the next two were missing! I am unsure if this was due to the winter season or something else, but I was in a real bind! Only the first and last stops had toilets when we went.
What to Wear and What to Pack
We were told to bring 3L of water per person, which we did. This was a bit much and really weighed down our packs. I’d recommend closer to 1.5 L of water per person.
There is no water on the trail for drinking and it is open to the elements, so you will need plenty of water.
My pack recommendations:
- Water (1.5-3 L)
- Layers of pants and sweater, shirts and jacket
- Umbrella or hooded jacket for rain
- Snacks/picnic meal. We packed sandwiches, fruit, chocolate, cheese, and carrots
- Gloves (even in summer)
- Hiking pole (I found this very useful on the steep descent after the Red Crater)
- Hiking boots (not totally necessary, but there is a LOT of rocks and loose rocks. I would definitely recommend good hiking boots)
- Toilet paper/hand sanitizer
- Blister bandages
Preparing the Kids for the Crossing
- Talk about expectations before you go. Let them know if you are willing to turn around or not (we were not), how long to expect, what they need to carry, etc.
- Nerves might cut into a good night of rest, so we all used some melatonin (one of our favorite travel products!). It will not make you groggy the next day.
- Previous, short hikes to prepare
- Show them a video of what to expect! We will eventually put up our own video of this experience.
- Choose a favorite snack or treat to look forward to on the trail at certain points.
- Pack as much as you can the night before, set out your outfits and boots, charge devices, etc. You’ll be getting up early and want to be able to roll out the door.
The Day of Your Hike on The Tongariro Crossing with Kids
Getting to the Hike
Driving from Turangi took us about 15 minutes to the end parking lot (where we parked our car). The shuttle to the start point took about another 20 minutes. Be sure to look up the night before how long your drive will be.
Pacing Yourself on the Tongariro Crossing Trail
You’ll need to pace yourself and take breaks (unless you are one of those envy-worthy trail runners making the rest of us feel guilty!). There is plenty of signage on the trail to keep you on track. The first half is more physcially challenging, but the second half to the end is very long and mentally challenging.
Kids can need extra breaks too. Be mindful of your times and set a timer when you stop to avoid the break dragging longer. You might get caught in a conversation and spend an hour resting.
Breakdown on the Trail
- First third: This is a lot of walking through pretty land. It doesn’t hold much to see other than walking past Mt. Doom, so walk quickly here to save time for later spots.
- The first climb is steep and quick. Once you are at the top, you will cross another plain and ascend again to the Red Crater
- Our shuttle driver said “If you make it to the top of the Red Crater, finish the hike. If not, turn around and call us.”
- The top of the Red Crater is the highest point- congrats! Enjoy the view
- Descending down the Red Crater is tough. However, you’ll see the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake, which are so beautiful and my personal favorite.
- After the Emerald Lakes, you’ll cross another plain and do a short ascent to the Blue Lake
- After the Blue Lake, it’s basically flat for the rest of the trail. It’s down switchbacks but never is very steep. It is clear and on the side of a mountain until a short rainforest area at the very end.
- The jungle/rainforest area is all downhill and has some stairs, which can be hard when you are exhausted!
Dangers and Warnings of Tongariro Crossing with Kids
The weather is your largest concern on this trail. In foggy/cloudy weather, it would be possible to walk off the trail and fall. Reportedly, there is an average of 30-40 people rescued on the trail each year. There are also deaths each year.
With children, additional risks are injury due to playing, being distracted, getting sunburnt, and dehydrated. Keep water flowing and available to your children as they are not as good at recognizing dehydration in themselves.
Alternatives to Hiking the Full Tongariro Crossing
If hiking the entire trail is not your thing, you can consider hiking the first half or last half of the trail and doing an in-and-out track. Another hiker on the trail told me her mom only hikes from the beginning to the top of the Red Crater, then turns around and goes back due to the difficulty on her knees of the descent.
We also saw groups coming from the end of the trail to see the lakes and turn back around. If you start too late in the day, this would be a great option! I’d pick this over the beginning of the trail.
You can also visit the Tongariro Chateau within the Tongariro National Park and take in some incredible views!
Be Respectful of the Culture
As already mentioned, this sacred land to the Maori people deserves respect. You are asked not to:
- Relieve yourself outside of the toilets. This is considered disrespectful in all of NZ.
- Throw rocks into the lakes, touch the water, etc. We saw people doing this as one of the lakes had a layer of ice on top. It was quite sad.
- Go off-trail.
- Hike the volcanos on the sides of the trail or go off-trail.
I hope this guide helps in your family planning and I hope you get out to enjoy this hike. It will be one of my highlights in our time in New Zealand.
Looking for more activities on the North Island? Check out my friend Jen’s North Island Itinerary for some great ideas!