In July, I accomplished a dream of mine – hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, otherwise known as the filming location for Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Mt. Ngauruhoe is the actual mountain that Mt. Doom was modeled after. However, it’s hard to tell – it could have been any damn mountain in New Zealand, since they’re all so incredible. After all, I’ve been told that they did an overlay of two mountains together in order to achieve the actual composition for Mt. Doom, most of which I’m sure is still CGI. Regardless, it’s still cool AF to say that I got to pose in front of Mt. Doom.
The hike also overlooked the filming location for the black gates of Mordor.
It’s important to preface here that my injured shoulder was still healing, so I couldn’t wear a backpack on the left shoulder. It was a bit difficult to balance all the weight of my water, crampons, snacks, my GoPro (which wasn’t even used), and ice axe on one shoulder for 8.5 hours, but thank goodness for the waist strap which alleviated some weight.
Frodo didn’t hike to Mt. Doom with a sling and a backpack on one shoulder, did he!?
A special shoutout to Tongariro Adventure Outdoors and Laura and Jar, our wonderful guides. They took extra care to ensure that the injured one (me) wasn’t going to get more injured from this hike, even going so far as being my “left arm” in parts where we needed to hold the ice axe in our left hands. I highly recommend going with this company above all others because they’re a smaller group with more personalised attention and the BEST guides who told us entertaining stories along the way. And bless them for carrying over 35 lbs of stuff on their backs (tents, extra clothing, snacks, extra water, first aid kit) – I used to think that being a hiking guide was my dream job but after slipping on that rock, I don’t think that’s in the cards anymore (harhar).
I was surprised at how the hike wasn’t as intense as I anticipated. Hell, Roy’s Peak in Wanaka was a lot worse (3 continuous hours of uphill climbing in the sun). Aside from 180 or so stairs toward the beginning, the trail wasn’t difficult at all. The treacherous parts involved 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.
In regards to the views, holy actual moly. Talk about the most beautiful landscapes ever. The snow was so white, so pure, and so smooth – it even GLITTERED in the sunlight. Totally not exaggerating. It was like we were trekking through a private snow palace… It felt strange to leave our footprints in such perfectly smooth snow.
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.
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, but I WAS able to still do the 125m slide down the snowy hill – it was the best. Definitely transported me back to my childhood when my parents took me to the snow.
I luckily spent 45 min in my lodge’s hot tub directly after returning from the hike, so I wasn’t sore at ALL the next day. My right shoulder didn’t even ache from carrying the backpack all day! Additionally, I loaded up on sodium (apparently the smart thing to do after a huge hike) for dinner and slept like a LOG. And because of my $350 NZD Salomon lightweight Goretex boots, I had 0 blisters. Totally worth the investment, even if a dislocated shoulder was the driving force behind me getting them…. (ALWAYS PACK HIKING SHOES FOR NEW ZEALAND, FOLKS)
But by golly, what a hike. Nothing compares to that pure white sheet of snow surrounding you from every angle. Not even the Antarctic glaciers were as incredible, and that’s saying something. It was like being in Hoth in reality, but actually being able to hike through it like Luke and Han.
FOR THOSE PLANNING TO HIKE IN THE WINTER
I stayed in Tongariro Village, which is only a 20 min drive to the crossing starting point (and our 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 – definitely don’t recommend that. Make your life easier and stay two nights in Tongariro Village and it’ll be totally fine.
There are so many reasons why anyone looking to hike the Tongariro Crossing should do it in the winter instead of summer. There’s less crowds (there were probably only 50 other people on the trail at the same time as us, most of which were another guided group that we didn’t run into much), less heat, and far more spectacular 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.
Here’s a comparison of the views from the winter vs. summer:
There are more considerations to take into account with a winter hike, but it all depends on weather. I got extremely lucky – I had one date solidified months ago for this hike, and it just so happened that the weather was perfect. It was sunny and we didn’t even have any wind! It was -2 Celsius at the top, whereas it’s normally -20 or -30 not even including windchill in the winter. The week previous to our hike, they had to cancel all hikes due to a blizzard. Just be sure to monitor weather and call 24 hours beforehand to ensure that a winter hike will still go forth as planned. And by all means, pay the $175 NZD for a guided hike in the winter. Even if you’re experienced, do not go on your own – an avalanche could truly happen at any time and it’s just best to be with locals who have hiked the trail thousands of times.
If you hike the crossing in the summer, of course it’s free since you can probably do it on your own – but there’s really no marked trail. And good luck braving those temperatures of upwards 35 Celsius.
Also, pack a LOT of snacks and food. It’s fine to overpack in case of an emergency. I had plenty of water, but I foolishly didn’t have enough food – I usually don’t eat much on hikes, but I truly regretted not having any food for the last 5 hours. My headache, even with painkillers, didn’t subside until the next day – so be sure to stuff your packs with heaps of chocolate and trail mix for energy.
OTHER TRAILS IN TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK
There are heaps of other trails to do in the National Park if you’re not keen on a 19.4km day hike. Taranaki Falls is a loop track just 8 min from the village and definitely one of the nicest waterfalls in South Island, so it’s worth a visit.
Also, Tawhei Falls is very close by – you just park your car, walk 3 min, and get to a waterfall lookout where a 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 somewhere in the snowy rocks below the gondolas, they filmed the scene where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are looking out to the Black Gates of Mordor. There’s a brilliant view of the national park from the top of this skifield by the carpark.
And if this hasn’t convinced you to hike the Tongariro Crossing in the winter, maybe you’re just crazy. Go to New Zealand already! What are you waiting for?!