Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a 3-year old

In April we set off for one of our final adventures in New Zealand with our friends Jenny and Julia: hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Described as ‘One of NZ’s Great Day Walks’, this 19.4km one-way hike was something we had wanted to do for a while, but we had been deliberating on whether or not it was feasible to bring Sophia. In the end we did and it was an incredible, exhilarating, long and challenging day out. We are so delighted to have gone ahead and done it, albeit with our 18kg passenger!

The Tongariro Crossing is located  in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island. It is about a 5-hour drive from either Auckland or Wellington, although it took us closer to 7-hours during Easter weekend. The closest towns are Taumarunui, National Park Village, Ohakune and Turangi. Lots of local hotels in National Park Village offer a Tongariro Crossing Package Deal which usually includes two nights bed & breakfast, shuttle transfers to the start and finish points of the track, use of the hot tubs and a packed lunch for the day of the walk. All we had to do was drive the 300km to get there.

The track is one-way and best reached by shuttle bus. The hotel gave a choice of 3 shuttle departure times to the start point on the morning of the hike: 5am, 7am or 8am. As the brochures said it was a 6-9 hour day walk, we opted for the 7am shuttle. We were the only people on the shuttle with a kid and definitely felt the many stares of disbelief that we were bringing such a young child on this hike. Undeterred we giggled our way through the 20-minute drive to Mangatepopo carpark and started off on the increasingly daunting journey. We had a pretty relaxed attitude about the hike, until we saw the peak of Mount Ngauruhoe…

The track begins at 1120m at Mangatepopo carpark and the highest point on the crossing reaches 1886m. When we got to the start point of the track, bus loads of hikers were also arriving; it was a public holiday weekend and many people had the same idea as us to get the 7am shuttle. By the time we had layered up, stretched and waited in the toilet queue it was 8am before we started the track.

Mangatepopo Road End To Soda Springs

The first section of the track is flat and mainly sticks to board walks, really pleasant and an easy start. I managed to carry Sophia up until the 2km marker which was when the track started to climb and wind through some boulders. She walked a bit of this section by herself too. The views of the saddle and Mount Ngauruhoe were stunning.

Soda Springs To South Crater

We stopped for Morning Tea at Soda Springs before beginning the ascent up the Devil’s Staircase towards the South Crater. It seemed never ending! This section of the track climbs from 1400m to 1600m above sea level and my thighs felt every step!

South Crater To Red Crater

This was one of the most challenging parts of the track and the final ‘turn back’ point of no return. We were extremely fortunate to have clear blue skies and a still, dry day. However, there were points when we were scaling a rock face on all fours, slipping in muddy tracks and feeling the reality of the sheer cliff face just feet away. It is very exposed to the elements at this point in the track and not to be underestimated, particularly with a little one in tow. Passers by were nicknaming Jeremy ‘mountain goat man’ for the way he scaled this part seemingly effortlessly!

Red Crater To Blue Lake

The Red Crater was the highest point of the walk at 1866m above sea level, and was an absolutely amazing sight: green lakes on one side and a huge red crater on the other. The descent from it was equally as terrifying! The scree (or loose scoria) underfoot was like walking on marbles. It took forever to get down and for most of it we were sliding down on our behinds in a long queue of novice hikers- just like us!

The Emerald Lakes

Sophia referred to these lakes as ‘the big smelly ponds’ as the sulfurous smell is quite overwhelming. Known as Ngarotopounamu (greenstone-hued lakes), minerals leach from the surrounding rock and cause the intense colour. Further along the track is the stunning Blue Lake, known as Te Wai-whakaata-o-te-Rangihiroa (Rangihiroa’s mirror).

Blue Lake To Ketetahi Shelter

The track from the bottom of the Emerald Lakes to the Blue lake was flat and a restful walk after the hard work along the scree. The surroundings were almost ‘moon-like’, completely silent, no vegetation and vast open spaces covered with ash and rock.

To Ketetahi Car Park

From the Blue lake to Ketetahi Shelter the surrounding changed dramatically. There was more vegetation and the board walks reappeared. By this point in the track we were just over half way- still a good 8km to go, most of which was downhill and tiring on the knees after a while. Rather that the scaling a rock face though!

The track descends in a zigzag down to the road end at 760m. The last few kilometers are through the bush, which seems to go on forever! After passing the 19km marker, we kept thinking that the end of the track would just be around the next corner…..or the next one….or surely the next one! Finally we could hear buses and the track suddenly spat us out into the long awaited carpark.


The shuttle pickup times were 3pm, 4.30pm and 6pm. We were aiming for the 4.30pm pickup and narrowly missed it. The final 2km of bush walk were choca with hikers and very few passing places. Kindly another coach driver let us hitchhike our way back to the hotel for a well earned hot tub and glass of sav to soothe the blisters and aching limbs! We completed the track in 8 hours 35 minutes and cannot express what an exhilarating experience it was. I would highly recommend it.


Passenger Survival Tips:

We are all about shared family experiences in the outdoors, but realistically there is only so much natural beauty a 3 year old can really appreciate along an 8 hour journey… In preparation for this we stocked up on downloaded cartoons and made sure to bring an extra battery charger and copious amounts of treats. After all, Sophia was there so that we could do the walk, not out of her choosing to sit in a back pack all day long. Within the first kilometer she asked if we could go back to the holiday hotel and play in the hot tub….so the cartoons and Easter eggs flowed freely for the next 18km!

  • Downloaded cartoons
  • Headphones
  • Spare battery charger
  • Easter eggs
  • Rest stops and leg stretches as often as possible

What we packed per person:

After endless research of what we might need for the track (loads of great tips on http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz), we each packed/wore the following. Jeremy carried the macpac baby carrier and I carried a day pack. We each had water humps and the only thing we wished we had carried more of was water as there were no water taps anywhere on the track.

  • Sunhat
  • Woolly hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Factor 50
  • Gloves
  • T-shirt
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Merino long-sleeved top
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Hiking socks
  • Leggings
  • Merino leggings
  • Packed lunch
  • Loads of snacks
  • 2 litres of water per person

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About tripleespresso2go

Jeremy, Katie and Sophia are a family of three from the UK who have a passion for travel, good coffee, music and photography. They are currently based in Penang, Malaysia. Follow their adventures as they taste the finest coffee and photograph their way around the Asia.