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Hiking to Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake without a Guide, New Zealand

Mt Ruapehu is an active volcano in New Zealand’s North Island. During winter, Mount 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 Mount Ruapehu’s Crater Lake 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 Mount Ruapehu’s 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.

Mount Ruapehu Crater Lake New Zealand North Island
  • The trail to Mount Ruapehu Crater Lake 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 – 2:30 hours to reach Mount Ruapehu’s Crater Lake.
  • There have been more than 60 recorded eruptions from Ruapehu’s crater since 1945. This is a high hazard zone.
  • Where to Stay: Skotel Alpine Resort (budget), The Park Hotel Ruapehu (midrange), or Tongariro Suites (luxury)
  • Guided Tours: Premium Mt Ruapehu Summit Plateau Guided Group Hike or Private Mt Ruapehu Summit Plateau Guided HIke
  • Rental Car: We recommend using the car rental platform to search for and book car rentals. 

Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake Hiking Map

Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake Trail Description

Mt Ruapehu’s Crater Lake Trail Stats

Trailhead | Iwikau Village, Whakapapa Ski Area Parking Lot | Google Maps

Distance | 10.8 km out-and-back

Time Needed | 7 hours (hike from the village)

Elevation Gain/Loss | 1033 meters

Difficulty | Challenging

Minimum Elevation | 1613 meters

Maximum Elevation | 2672 meters

Step 1: Get to the top of the Sky Waka Gondola

First, drive to the parking lot at Iwikau Village, Whakapapa Ski Area. The hike begins at the top of the Sky Waka Gondola (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 former Rangatira Express Chairlift. From here, you’ll follow the marked “Waterfalls” trail to Knoll Ridge Cafe, which is located at the top of the Sky Waka Gondola.

Option #2: Take the Sky Waka Gondola to Knoll Ridge. Start your hike at the top. This cuts out a good 1:30-2 hours of hiking.

Step 2: Decide what Route to take

There are two summer routes up to Mount Ruapehu Crater Lake, both of which are unmarked.

The first route is via Knoll Ridge and the second is via Restful Ridge.

It’s recommended to hike the knoll ridge route in early summer, when there’s still snow on the trail.

Because we hiked in late summer (February), we opted for the Restful Ridge route. Read this article to help you decide.

Step 3: Hike up Restful Ridge

Hiking to Mount Ruapehu’s Crater Lake

This article states “From the top of the Sky Waka Gondola 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 a clear day and we could easily retrace our steps.

Step 4: Hike up to Dome Ridge

Melting Glacier, Mt Ruapehu, New Zealand

As you ascend, you’ll have fantastic views of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) off to the left.

As you approach Dome Ridge, you should be able to find an established footpath that zigzags up to the ridge.

As soon as you crest the ridge, enjoy the views of the melting glacier. In late summer, there was a turquoise pool with floating blocks of ice.

Step 5: Walk along Dome Ridge to Dome Shelter

Dome Ridge, Mount Ruapehu

Next, stay on the ridge and head right in the direction of Dome Shelter, a small equipment-shed. 

Step 6: Arrive at Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake

Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake, New Zealand

The end of this “trail” is marked by the Dome Shelter. From the ridge, you’ll have an excellent view of Mt Ruapehu’s 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 color from deep green to pale blue to dark grey.

The color 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 Sky Waka Gondola.

If you get to the gondola 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 Sky Waka Gondola 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 1:30-2 hours return (round trip).

Take the scenic gondola (Sky Waka Gondola) up to Knoll Ridge Cafe. Enjoy the Cafe, or start the Skyline Ridge hike. Walk down, or take the gondola 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.

Read Next: New Zealand North Island Itinerary

Where to Stay near Mt Ruapehu

Budget | Skotel Alpine Resort (10-minute drive to the trailhead) is the highest hotel in New Zealand and located directly in the heart of Tongariro National Park. Guests are spoiled with volcano views and surrounded by wilderness. The hotel features an on-site restaurant, a hot tub, and a terrace bar.

Midrange | The Park Hotel Ruapehu (22-minute drive to the trailhead) is located in Tongariro National Park and is the ideal base for an active-outdoor-themed trip full of mountain biking, rafting, hiking, rock climbing, and fishing. Highlights of staying here are the food, the cozy common area with a large fireplace, and the kind staff.

Luxury | Tongariro Suites (36-minute drive to the trailhead) delivers a polished and elevated experience with its attention to detail, modern furnishings, and spacious rooms. A free breakfast basket is delivered to your room, so you can enjoy breakfast in bed.

Look for accommodation in Tongariro National Park.

More Information for Your Trip to New Zealand

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How to Hike to Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake Without a Guide, New Zealand North Island

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Moon & Honey Travel is an independent blog created by two passionate hikers. We are able to provide free content to you, because of ads and affiliate links. When you make a purchase using one of these links, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Happy travels and happy trails,

Sabrina & Kati

1 thought on “Hiking to Mt Ruapehu Crater Lake without a Guide, New Zealand”

  1. The top of Dome Ridge (2,672m) is not the peak of Mt Ruapehu, though its close. The peak on the far side, Tahurangi, at 2,797 m is.
    In the 1960’s people swam in the crater lake, but it has now turned acidic so do not be tempted!


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