These days New Zealand’s landscape may be best known from scenes in The Lord of the Rings, but set aside your preconceptions of Mt. Doom: Mt. Ngaurahoe (Doom’s butt double in the films) and the craters surrounding it are gorgeous. The Tongariro Crossing is aptly known as the best one-day hike in New Zealand (certainly on the North Island) and is immensely popular. Friends tell me stories of hiking in a long line of slow strangers. The secret: sunrise.
We camped at Discovery Lodge with views of Mt. Ngaurahoe and Mt. Ruapehu from our tent. Our hosts encouraged us to begin early to avoid the crowd. Before dawn, they shuttled us to a drop-off near Mangatepopo Hut. Eight hours later they got us at Ketetahi Road.
Best decision ever. We were already hiking at sunrise and had the trail to ourselves. We went at our own pace, in peace and awe. We were the first ones to lay eyes on the Emerald Lakes that day. We were the only figures in our photos. Getting up before sunrise was worth it, and it turns out Discovery Lodge has the earliest shuttle to the Crossing.
The Tongariro Crossing is 17km (10.5mi) one way. The hike is staggering, both physically and aesthetically. The track is often steep and sometimes requires scrambling. The pay-off is great: striking colors where you least expect them, like the algal mats thriving in crystal water amid clouds of steam venting from the volcano walls. It took us seven hard but much-loved hours that I consider one of my top life experiences.