OPERATION TONGARIRO SUNRISE :
Wake up – 2:10am, leave Mangawhero Campsite by 2:30am and drive 7km to the Mangatepopo Car Park.
Begin hiking – 3:00am, head torches on
Goal – Be at the highest point at the Red Crater just before sunrise [6:25am]
Over 600,000 people a year embark across the famous Tongariro Crossing. And it’s easy to see why. The 19km hike passes Mount Ngauruhoe [Mt. Doom], an active stratovolcano that is famous for its appearance in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, includes waterfalls, long deck strolls in between mountains, the Devil’s Staircase, and crosses the massive South Crater [actually a glacier-carved basin], and this is all before the best part. From atop the highest point, hikers enjoy a 360 view of the famous Emerald Lakes, Mount Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, the Blue Lake, and the Mars-like Rangipo Desert. Ryan and I wanted to hike the Crossing before arriving in New Zealand, and although it took us over a year to finally do it, I believe it was worth the wait.
Plans had been stewing for weeks after we learned about hiking the Tongariro for sunrise. After waking up on the beach on Kapiti Coast and a big Valentine’s Day brunch at Whisper’s Cafe in Levin, Ryan and I stocked up at the supermarket for the hike. Per usual: avocado sammies, assorted fruit, trail mix, and overpriced Clif bars — to keep us energized. We arrived in Tongariro National Park late afternoon, visited Whakapapa village, and snagged a near by camping site. Knowing we had to wake up at 2am, we attempted to go to sleep before sundown. It didn’t happen. We couldn’t contain our excitement and probably slept 3-4 hours.
The alarm went off, and we were up. Excited like kids on Christmas morning, we exited the campsite as quietly as possible and headed to the Trail Head.
We started in the pitch-black night, but after 30 minutes of walking, the moon appeared through the clouds. Turning our torches off, we walked guided by the moonlight, taking in the vastness around us. We saw the shadows of massive mountains, and listened to the wind whistle ahead. This path that is usually full of groups of hikers, was ours and only ours. Not a soul in sight and I loved every bit of the night silence. In all honestly it felt magical to be awake and walking at this hour.
Not to mention, the best thing about hiking in the dark, is you cannot see your ascent. You climb and climb without knowing how high you have left or how high you have climbed.
Around 5am, we began crossing the crater (having no clue). The wind grew stronger and the air, colder. We found shelter behind a massive rock face to pass the time. We hiked faster than anticipated and chose to kill time before our final climb to the top of the Red Crater [1886m]. After 20 minutes of cuddling, we decided to head up to greet the sun. At this point the path shrinks, and eventually chains attached to the rock are there to help pull yourself up. Mix this in with battling strong winds and loose, volcanic terrain, with little light is a tad worrying, but this all disappeared when we reached the top just in time for the show.
As the sun rose, clouds pooled below us, and hues of orange, red, and purple began to light up the sky. The Emerald Pools lit up in the most striking green as the sun glistened on the surface. The volcanic ground beneath our feet turned fiery red, and we spent the next hour in absolute awe. Though we saw torches in the distance, we did not see another human for hours. After many fun photoshoots, we headed down the steep, always moving, volcanic ash to the edges of the Emerald Lakes and onto the Blue Lake.
Walking through the Central Crater
We wandered the area catching views of Mt. Ruapehu in the distance and around 9am began our trek in reverse. Most hikers do the one-way crossing start to finish, grabbing a costly shuttle back to their cars. We chose to hike back the way we started to see what we missed in the dark, [and also because I refuse to pay $30 for a 10minute bus ride]. We slowly crawled back up the Red Crater, and finally ran into the masses. Looking down and across the South Crater, heaps of groups were making their way up. It looked like mayhem. As we climbed down, we took turns with people coming up on the narrow stairs. And I couldn’t help but smile knowing how awe-inspiring our experience was that morning. Regardless of the time of day, this region is stunning, but it’s unimaginable when you have it all to yourself.
Mount Ngauruhoe [Mt. Doom] and the South Crater
I was glad to see many young kids on the trail, and props to those mothers carrying infants, people of all ages from every corner of the globe tackling this famous hike. I did worry that many of the people we passed were unprepared for the conditions atop. Ryan and I wore every layer we carried. Gloves, beanie, and my blanket-scarf saved me from the 0°C/32°F windchill. I could only hope the fellow hikers knew what lied ahead. While crossing the massive South Crater, we considered summiting Mt. Doom/Mt. Ngauruhoe, but the sheer incline and terrain turned us against this thought. We’ll save the 2287 m summit climb up an old lava flow for another time.
We visited Soda Springs, a relaxing stream of waterfalls, for a rest stop/lunch break. And even caught a view of Mount Taranaki. A few hours later, we arrived at Ronda, proud of our accomplished day still gushing over the phenomenal morning. The rest of the day was spent venturing around the National Park and relaxing in Ronda waiting in hopes of a magnificent sunset as our sunrise. We found a great spot along the road with views of both Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Ruapehu and took a few fun snaps while waiting for the sun to drop. We waited and waited and when it appeared that we weren’t getting our wish, we hopped in the van and started driving. Only then did the sky start lighting up. Just as the last hint of sun dropped behind the horizon, cotton candy pinks and purples swept across the park.
Clear view of Mt. Taranaki [over 100miles away]
Checking out Mahuia Rapids
If you plan on hiking the Tongariro Crossing, GO AT SUNRISE. You’ll experience a sunrise unlike any before without a million other tourists getting in your way.
This type of hike is everything Ryan and I love about this country, this planet. It’s why we fall madly in love with nature over and over again. Thankfully New Zealand is full of more impressive hikes, and we plan on tackling all of them while sharing our best tips and tricks along the way.
Thanks for reading, now GO OUTSIDE and enjoy,
[Photos of a mix of mine and Ryan’s, check out more of his work here]