The moment you first spy the vivid green Emerald Lakes gleaming in a landscape of black volcanic rock is an undisputed highlight of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Their brilliant colour is partly caused by dissolved minerals, washed down from the thermal area of nearby Red Crater, which is also rather spectacular.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as one of the best one-day walks in the world for good reason. This hike provides a feast of Instagram-worthy vistas across the volcanic plateau including Mt Ngauruhoe, Red Crater, Emerald Lakes and nearby Blue Lake (if it was up to me, I’d name it Sapphire Lake).
This is why it’s recommended to walk it in good weather – if there’s a white-out due to low cloud there won’t be anything to see. The alpine environment means the weather is extremely variable. It is common to experience strong wind, high rainfall, heavy snowfall and rapid changes in temperature, even in summer, which is why you need to be prepared for all conditions (see essentials check list).
We were lucky to get a good day (it was the third time I’d tried). It’s best to start the walk at the Mangatepopo Valley and walk to Ketetahi Springs (though you can start the walk from either end). Starting at Mangatepopo minimises the climbing involved (though not all by any means) and is also by far the most rewarding direction to walk in, in terms of vistas that continually unfold before you.
It’s immediately picturesque as you traverse a series of board walks over an alpine meadow and a burbling stream. Then there’s a steady uphill climb to the South Crater and base of Mt Ngauruhoe. The track then veers left, climbing again to another plateau that looks into the womb of the dramatic Red Crater. From here, a narrow path appears to lead into the sky. At its summit the view that unfolds is gasp-worthy as the Blue and Emerald Lakes wink from the arid landscape. Getting close to these mineral lakes is the reward of the descent (which is a fun slide down scree slopes).
The path then winds through a valley of alpine meadows and looks out towards Lake Taupō and native rimu forest, through which the final part of the journey wends, past Ketetahi Hut and springs.
This isn’t a loop track so you need to arrange transport to the beginning of the track and a pick-up at the end of the day. There are heaps of operators in the region to choose from (tongarirocrossingshuttles.co.nz and tongarirocrossing.com). Average price per person is $40.