The Tongariro Crossing might be the most popular one-day trekking in New Zealand. Although many hikers will finish the 19-kilometer journey, it is also one of the longest and challenging walks on the northern island. Be prepared to climb the volcano with hundreds of other hikers. At some points, you can get stuck in traffic jams on the mountain.
No warm and fuzzy feelings with this prospect? Then it is time to discover some alternatives. That’s why I have created a list of alternative hikes on the North Island that are all at least half as busy and slightly shorter but just as beautiful and rewarding.
The best alternative for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the 17.6 kilometers long Tama Lakes Track. You can enjoy splendid views over the volcanic area between Mount Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. The lakes occupy old explosion craters on the Tama Saddle between these two majestic volcanoes.
But there are other volcanic day hikes in the area with lesser crowds and stunning views. Here are my top 3 alternative hikes to Tongariro Crossing.
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Tama Lakes track
Prepare for a long yet stunning hike up to the Tama Lakes. You will get right into the heart of the Tongariro National Park. The track will go up and down many times and is unforgiving hot on a summer’s day without trees to provide shade, but it is an unforgettable adventure. And more important much less crowded than the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Get ready to see some of the oldest lava flows on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu.
First, follow the walking track towards the Taranaki Falls, which is a 6-kilometer loop track. There are two options; a higher track through exposed volcanic terrain and a lower track through tussock, alpine shrublands, and beech forest. I choose to walk the higher track on my way to the Tama Lakes, and the lower track passed the base of the Taranaki Falls on my way back. This way, I could spend some time with my tired feed in the ice-cold water of the falls and benefit from some shade on the hottest hours of the day.
After you pass the Taranaki Falls, the track climbs and descents through stunning volcanic terrain and passes several streams, it takes quite a while before the track branches to the left to the lower Tama Lakes. In contrast, the main track continues to the Waihohonu Hut. Just past this junction, there is a viewpoint of the lower lake. The track continues to climb, now steeply, up to the Upper Tama Lake viewpoint at 1440 meters above sea level. From here, the track is no longer formed and is made of loose and uneven rock. Be careful! To make sure both lakes remain pristine alpine lakes, do not touch or swim in the water.
Distance and height
While the track requires less uphill walking than the Tongariro Crossing, it is still a challenging hike. The highest point at the Upper Tama Lake is 1440 meters, and you will climb around 550 meters of elevation (according to my Garmin Phoenix 5 watch). It will take you around five to six hours to complete the return trip.
Latest weather conditions and safety
Please check at the local DOC office for the latest information. Streams may rise fast during or after rainfall. Take plenty of food and water, sunscreen, -hat, and -glasses, a raincoat for wet and windy conditions, and a camera to capture the beautiful surroundings. Wear sturdy walking shoes or even boots. I always prefer boots in volcanic environments because of the rocky surface. It was very hot on the day I did this hike. There was no shade; besides the forest on my way back after the Taranaki Falls, a sun hat is indispensable. Bring a lot of water too!
More on the Tama Lakes Track on the website from the Department of Conservation.
Lake Surprise track
The Lake Surprise track is a return track and part of the Tongariro Round the Mountain track of 66.2 kilometers. It is a much less crowded alpine walk which is just as spectacular as any other walk on this list. It will take you around 5 hours to complete this backcountry hike across volcanic terrain.
The destination is a broad, yet shallow lake set amongst beech forest. Waterfalls will complete the stunning views of Mount Ruapehu along the way. On a calm day without wind, the mountain will reflect clearly in the pool. You will need to do some unassisted river crossings on this track which are very accessible during nice weather. It is a fantastic walk to undertake in spring and early summer while some snow still resides on the mountain.
The Lake Surprise track starts off the Ohakune Mountain Road and climbs over several mountain flanks to a higher point besides the Mangaturuturu River. You will then descend beside a beautiful cascade to the Mangaturuturu hut. The track will cross a river and starts climbing on a boardwalk section to Lake Surprise. The best picnic spot in the area! Take your time and set yourself down into the tussock beside the lake and take in the views of Mt Ruapehu.
Distance and height
The lowest point of the track is 1226 meters and the highest point 1535 meters. You will climb and descend 535 meters on a total distance of around 10 kilometers.
Latest weather conditions and safety
Please check at the local DOC office for the latest information. Streams may rise fast during or after rainfall. Take plenty of food and water, sunscreen, -hat, and -glasses, a raincoat for wet and windy conditions, and a camera to capture the beautiful surroundings. Wear sturdy walking shoes or even boots. I always prefer boots in volcanic environments because of the rocky surface.
The Tupapakurua Falls is one of the hidden gems just outside the Tongariro National Park. But it is also one of the more challenging hikes. It is a really exciting walk which at some points might feel like an obstacle run with lots of rocks and do it yourself river crossings. Beware! The descent to the base of the falls can get very slippery after or during rainfall. You use trees and branches to get assistance while getting up or down.
The track can be reached from the National Park Village and starts of Fishers Road. You can get your legs warmed up in the first 20 minutes or so with an easy stroll to the Taranaki Lookout. On a clear day, you can see this iconic volcano in the distance. From here it becomes a backcountry track suitable for experienced hikers with a good level of fitness.
The track starts by following a ridgeline and descends steeply to a stream with beautiful native trees surrounding it. Passed the stream you will have to climb back up and follow the track to a nice lookout point over the waterfall.
Distance and time
It is a return track of 11 kilometers and it will take you somewhere between 4 and 5 hours to complete it. Parts of the route are moderate and advanced and ask for a good level of fitness and good walking shoes or boots.
Final words on these amazing Tongariro hikes
It is safe to say there is more to the Tongariro National Park than The Crossing. If you want to stay away from the crowds and don’t spend money on transport, try one of the hikes mentioned in this article. They are absolutely stunning too. Download this PDF from the Department of Conservation with more hikes in the area.