From dense forests to boiling mud to a trio of smoking volcanoes-trekking the Tongariro Crossing is a walk on New Zealand's wild side esterday I was sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at an outdoor cafe' with a view of the sails in Auckland's shimmering Waitemata Harbour. Today I'm hiking through a lunar plateau with two million years of volcanism underfoot and two active cones smoldering ominously overhead. My vacation plans didn't include being teleported back to the Pliocene epoch, but, happily, the aesthetic is always this cataclysmic in Tongariro National Park. And the only time-travel that's required to get here is a 45-minute flight to Taupo and an hour-long drive across New Zealand's lush North Island.
The spectacular geothermal setting is the backdrop for the Tongariro Crossing, a ten-and-a-half-mile (17 kilometers), point-to-point hike billed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as the country's "best one-day walk." Given the number of visitors, it may be on its way to becoming one of the top day hikes in the world. "In 1990 a busy day on the crossing was maybe a hundred people," says Jimmy Johnson, DOC hut warden coordinator for the area. "Now we're getting close to 700."
The upswing is due in part to the park's recent star turn as Mordor, the dark realm in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition to Mount Tongariro, the crossing skirts Mount Ngauruhoe, the almost perfectly symmetrical, 7,513-foot-tall (2,2890-meter-tall) cone that served as Mordor's Mount Doom on-screen. Either of these peaks can be bagged in a day, but the park's biggest draw for hikers (or what Kiwis call "trampers") is the chance to traverse a boggling range of ecosystems in only eight hours-from hills purple with heather to dense rain forest, through arid badlands to steam-wreathed volcano summits-the sort of diversity that usually requires multiple days in the backcountry, and sometimes multiple countries.
Hold on to Your Hat
The route is challenging, even harrowing at times, but the rewards are ample. "You go out on an alpine crossing and a see a spectacular volcanic landscape, without carrying an overnight pack," says Johnson. "But," he cautions, "come prepared for the weather." Frosts are fairly common, and winds assail the peaks year-round. The force of these gusts can be surprising. "Today alone, in the gully down below, we picked up 42 baseball caps, a slew of pack covers, all manner of clothing, and a few small children," Johnson says, deadpan.
The crossing's windswept ridgeline trail ascends 6,188 feet (1,886 meters) to the summit of Mount Tongariro's Red Crater, which last erupted in 1926. The cone is stained brick red from oxidized iron. Fumaroles ringed with yellow crystals belch out reeking vapors. A slip-slide down dark gray scoria slopes brings you to the shores of the Emerald Lakes, three crater pools gleaming in an alpine gravel field.
According to local mythology, Ngatoroirangi, a Maori shaman, embarked on a winter ascent of Mount Tongariro. Freezing and close to death, he prayed for warmth, and a torrent of flames burst up from the ground. Ngatoroirangi survived, and the land still bears the scars of his rescue. In 1897 a preservation-minded Maori chief ceded the sacred peaks to the government. Ten years later the area became New Zealand's first, and the world's fourth, national park. Tongariro now draws almost a million visitors annually, more than the renowned South Island national parks of Fiordland, Aoraki/Mount Cook, and Abel Tasman, combined.
A recreational hub for skiers and ice climbers in winter and for trampers and rock climbers in summer, this is the country's most closely monitored seismic terrain. Its trio of active craters forms the southern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire-a string of volcanoes stretching as far north as Alaska. Tongariro's most volatile cone looms over the southern part of the park: 9,177-foot (2,797-meter) Mount Ruapehu, the North Island's highest peak. In 1995 ash and acidic water erupted from Ruapehu and blanketed the surrounding slopes, home to the North Island's only ski areas, Whakapapa and Turoa. Both remained closed for two years.
The cones are currently dozing. But the chance that they might rouse themselves at any moment is what makes the Tongariro Crossing such an adrenaline-charged hike.
Pink mud, green grass
Descending from the barren heights, I navigate rocky switchbacks and stop for a breather at Ketetahi Hut-one of four spartan but comfortable cabins available to more ambitious trekkers on the multiday Tongariro Northern Circuit. On the hut's deck, trampers from home and abroad mingle with the conviviality of partners in a shared quest.
Tomorrow I'll rent a car in the town of Taupo, an angler's paradise on the shores of nearby Lake Taupo. Nearly 2,000 years ago, after another of the area's seismic upheavals, a volcanic crater began to fill with water, eventually forming what is now New Zealand's largest lake. Its clear, cold waters are a haven for boaters, swimmers, and fishermen, and the novelty of splashing around or sailing in a defunct volcano is a refreshing counterpoint to hiking the steaming rim of an active one.
Just beyond Taupo is another dynamic wonderland, the Wairakei Natural Thermal Valley, where pink mud pits boil and hot springs bubble and the incongruously icy Waikato River thunders through a chasm and over Huka Falls.
But having had my geothermal fix, I decide to take a leisurely four-and-a-half-hour drive back to Auckland and enjoy the scenery along the way: verdant, rolling pastureland dotted near and far with sheep. Sheltered beaches await me on Auckland's eastern shoreline, with their soft sand and blue water, a reminder that New Zealand is, after all, located in the South Pacific.
In a single day I've passed through five distinct ecosystems, bagged a volcanic peak for lunch, and will be back at the lodge in time for dinner. At this rate, there's no telling what tomorrow will bring.
Adventure Guide: New Zealand's North Island
Getting There: Air New Zealand offers twice-daily, 45-minute flights ($83; www.airnz.com) from Auckland to Taupo, an hour's drive from the park. Otherwise, you can rent a car ($47; www.hertz.com) and drive four and a half hours from Auckland, or take the Overlander ($54; www.railnewzealand.com) for a five-and-a-half-hour train ride through rugged sheep country to the town of National Park.
Where to Stay: Nestled at the foot of Mount Ruapehu, Bayview Chateau Tongariro ($123; www.chateau.co.nz) is one of the few hotels located within the UNESCO World Heritage park and has rooms with views of all three volcanoes. Terraces Hotel ($127; www.terraceshotel.co.nz), less than a mile from Lake Taupo, looks out on the lake and surrounding thermal valley. In Auckland the Waitakere Estate ($89; www.waitakereestate.co.nz), a 14-room, three-suite boutique hotel, sits on a ridgetop among acres of pristine forest overlooking Auckland, the Hauraki Gulf, and Waitemata Harbour.
Where to Eat: Bayview Chateau Tongariro has three casual restaurants (i.e., burgers and fries), but for a formal sampler of Kiwi wine and cuisine (think Pan-Pacific meets California fresh), try Taupo's plush Huka Lodge (www.hukalodge.co.nz).
Outfitters: Tongariro Expeditions (www.thetongarirocrossing.co.nz) runs a shuttle service to and from the crossing trailhead ($27 round-trip from Taupo). Taupo Lake Adventures ($68 an hour; www.taupolakeadventures.com) offers two-hour fishing trips and will gladly clean and bag your trout.