Mount Ruapehu is an active volcano in New Zealand’s North Island. During winter, Ruapehu is a bustling ski region. In summer, it turns into a hiking destination. Given its close proximity to Mount Ngauruhoe in the Tongariro National Park, Mount Ruapehu is usually skipped in favor of the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. But, it would be a shame not to check out the North Island’s highest point. If you’ve hiked the crossing, you’ll find that Ruapehu is far more peaceful and adventurous by comparison.
There are several ways to enjoy the mountain, including a few marked trails and the Knoll Ridge Cafe. See the end of this post for details on those options. If you’re an experienced hiker and the weather is outstanding (clear), hiking to Crater Lake near the volcano’s summit is a memorable experience. This hot and acidic lake is visually stunning both because of its color and its immediate and distant surroundings. Most online materials suggest joining a professional guide to trek to the lake. That’s a good idea. But, if you’re like us and don’t like tours, you can hike to the lake independently.
Important details re: hiking to the Crater Lake independently
- The trail isn’t marked. There are no signs, or posts to guide you.
- The route ascends over rugged volcanic terrain.
- Only attempt this hike with a buddy.
- Only attempt this hike on a clear day. People do get lost.
- Only attempt this if you’re an experienced hiker. It’s a challenging climb.
- You need: hiking shoes and pants, a rain jacket, gloves, sunglasses, beanie, and sufficient water.
- From Knoll Ridge, it takes 2 – 2.5 hours to reach Crater Lake.
- There have been more than 60 recorded eruptions from Ruapehu’s crater since 1945. This is a high hazard zone.
How to get to Crater Lake
Step #1: Get to the top of the Waterfall Express Chairlift
First, drive to the parking lot at Iwikau Village, Whakapapa Ski Area. The hike begins at the top of the Waterfall Express Chairlift (Knolls Ridge Cafe). You have two options on how to get there.
- Option #1 Hike from the base (Iwikau village). You’ll follow a wide road to the top of the Rangatira Express Chairlift. From here, you’ll follow the marked “Waterfalls” trail to Knoll Ridge Cafe, which is located at the top of the Waterfall Express Chairlift.
- Option #2 Take the Rangatira Express Chairlift, followed by the Waterfall Express Chairlift to Knoll Ridge. Start your hike at the top. This cuts out a good 1.5-2 hours of hiking. The chairlift rides costs 29 NSD per person.
What we did. When we visited, the Waterfall Express Chairlift was closed for repairs. We took the Rangatira Express and continued up via the Waterfalls trail.
Step #2: Decide what Route to take
There are two summer routes up to Crater Lake, both of which are unmarked. The first route is via Knoll Ridge and the second is via Restful Ridge. Generally, hikers opt for Knoll Ridge if heading up in early summer, when there’s still snow. Because we went in late summer (February), we opted for the Restful Ridge route. Read this article to help you decide.
Step #3: Hike up Restful Ridge
This article recommends: “From the top of the Waterfall Express chairlift travel to your right past the Knoll Ridge T-bar pylons and over to Restful Ridge. Stay on Restful Ridge as you climb towards the crater area. You will go up a series of rises. At the top of Restful Ridge there is a more open face. From this point follow the narrow foot track zigzagging up the side of and along Dome Ridge.”
It’s easy enough to go past the Knoll Ridge T-Bar, but unless you ski here in winter, it’s not so clear what ridge you’re supposed to get on. We continued right and went to the top of the Waterfall T-Bar. From there, we continued further right and crossed a small river. (If we had hiked up a bit and crossed the river again, we would have found an established footpath). We ascended rocky terrain, finding and losing various footpaths, until reaching an area characterized by red slabs of rock. We climbed up the red rocks in the direction of the highest point (Dome Ridge).
I wish we could be more specific, but we were essentially creating our own path up the mountain. We felt confident in exploring, because it was clear day and we could easily retrace our steps.
Step #4 Hike up to Dome Ridge
During the ascent, we had amazing views of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) off to the left. Once you get closer to Dome Ridge, you’ll (hopefully) see an established footpath that zigzags up the face of Dome Ridge to the top. It’s steep, but it’s the final stretch to the top. As soon as we summited Mount Ruapehu, we were welcomed by beautiful views of a melting glacier. At the end of the glacier, there was a turquoise pool with floating blocks of ice.
Step #5 Walk along Dome Ridge to Dome Shelter
Next, stay on the ridge and head right in the direction of Dome Shelter, a small equipment shed.
Step #6 Crater Lake
The end of “trail” is marked by the Dome Shelter. From the ridge, you’ll have an excellent view of Mount Ruapehu’s deep crater lake. Take it all in! Hopefully, you packed a lunch. When we visited, the lake was a milky, baby blue color. According to DOC: “The lake is approximately 100 m deep and 600 m across, and changes colour from deep green to pale blue to dark grey. The colour changes are usually associated with changes in temperature, from as low as 9°C when green or blue, to as high as 60°C when grey.”
Note: it’s not recommended to venture down into the crater lake area off of the ridge due to both volcanic and alpine hazards. So, when you’ve reached the Dome Shelter, you’ve reached the end of the hike.
Step #7 Follow the Route You Came Up
You’ll find that it’s easier to locate the established footpath on your way down. The descent was far easier from a navigational perspective. However, take care and go slowly. It’s easy to slip on scree on the way down. It took about 2 hours from the summit to the top of the waterfall express chairlift.
If you get to the chairlift by 3:30 p.m., you can ride down. If you arrive later (like we did), simply follow the Waterfalls Descent path to the base.
Other options for exploring Mount Ruapehu
If the crater lake hike doesn’t sound appealing, or perhaps too strenuous, consider these options:
- Hike the Waterfalls Trail from Iwikau Village, Whakapapa Base Area to Knoll Ridge. The hike should take 1.5 hours. Enjoy the mountain views from the modern Knoll Ridge Cafe with lunch and a glass of wine, cup of coffee, or beer. When we visited, the cafe was unfortunately closed. If the Waterfall Chairlift is closed, the cafe will be closed as well.
- Hike to Skyline Ridge. This is marked trail starting at Knoll Ridge (2,020 meters) and ascending to the Skyline Ridge (2,300 meters). From the lookout, you’ll see Mount Ngauruhoe and Lake Taupo. The hike should take 1.5-2 hours return (round trip).
- Take the scenic chairlifts (Rangatira Express Chairlift and the Waterfall Express Chairlift) up to Knoll Ridge Cafe. Enjoy the Cafe, or start the Skyline Ridge hike. Walk down, or take the chairlifts down to the base.
- At the base (Iwikau Village), take a 15 minute walk to Meads Wall. This landscape was featured in several Lord of the Rings scenes in both the Fellowship of the Ring and the Two Towers.
Continue Reading about New Zealand: