With her endless black or white sand beaches, her huge, cascading waterfalls, her towering mountains that ascend into the clouds, and her miles and miles of native rainforest, New Zealand’s scenery is majestic, wild, and utterly unforgettable. Of course, the best way to see these magical, unpopulated scenes is on your own two feet. Renowned for having some of the best hikes in the entire world, The Land of the Long White Cloud is the perfect place to don your hiking boots and sense of adventure; whether you’re a keen tramper, enjoy a relaxing amble or have never hiked before, I promise that New Zealand’s hikes – on the North and the South Island – will not disappoint.
Deciding just which hikes to do, however, can be a difficult choice – especially if you’re on a strict itinerary. For this post I have whittled a very long list down to my ten favourite (on the South Island, that is – the North Island is another story!) Most of the following treks are an ascent since I’m travelling with James, who, if he sees a mountain, has an urge to be on top of it. I hope I can give you an insight into some unmissable hikes, though I can promise you that even if you do all of the hikes on this list, you’ll leave New Zealand wishing you had done even more!
In no particular order…
1) Rob Roy Glacier Walk – Wanaka
Length: 3-4 hours
A great half-day walk in Mount Aspiring National Park, located near Wanaka. After crossing a swing bridge, the path progresses through the valley which was carved out by the Rob Roy Glacier many years ago. The track twists and turns over rocks and alongside slips – where many explorers have tramped before. The lower lookout offers a decent view of the glacier as well as being a place to stop for a rest or even lunch, but the slight climb to the upper lookout is 100% worth it: you’ll be rewarded with a serene view of the edge of the glacier. The track is well-formed but keep an eye out for potential falling rocks and slips! The weather in this area is very unpredictable so be sure to take wet-weather and warm gear, even on a sunny day. If you’re lucky enough to spot the kea, NZ’s alpine parrot, please don’t feed them.
2) Kepler Track – Fiordland National Park
Length: 3-4 days, 60km
This multi-day walk is one the nine ‘Great Walks’ in NZ and is one of the best experiences I’ve had! Fiordland National Park was one of my highlights of the South Island. I adored this hike in particular because of the variety of terrain you are able to see, from native bush to alpine ridges – plus the views are just spectacular. The Kepler is a loop track, and, depending on your level of fitness, it could take between 3 and 4 days. The track is maintained by the Department of Conservation; huts and/or campsites must be booked in advance either at a Visitor Centre or online through the DOC website.
Related: Photo Diary: Hiking the Kepler Track
3) Waipohatu Walk – Catlins
Length: 15 mins or 3 hours return
This track gives you an opportunity to experience the real New Zealand bush! This track is in the Catlins, the beautiful area between Dunedin and Invercargill that’s often missed on travellers’ itineraries. This track will surround you with the magic of the ancient rainforest: huge ferns overhead, dirt beneath your boots and the sounds of native birds. The first fifteen minutes of the walk is suitable for wheelchair users, while the next part of the track is less maintained – we had to climb over a few fallen trees. Some sections of the track are steep and uneven, though you are rewarded with views of the Waipohatu Waterfall – be sure to go to both the lower and upper lookouts, and, if you’re careful, you can climb/jump over the stream for better views.
Length: 4 hours return
Another area of the South Island that is often overlooked, Nelson Lakes National Park is a stunning area that deserves more attention in my opinion. The Mount Robert Circuit is a well-graded track that can be walked in either direction and comprises of two separate tracks. We took the Pinchgut Track up through beech forest (a good idea in the summer sun!) until we reached the bush line hut, where we had our lunch while looking out at the breathtaking views of Lake Rotoiti. We passed the Kea hut and then followed Paddy’s track down the side of the mountain.
5) Lake Marian – Fiordland National Park
Length: 3 hours return
Hidden along the Te Anau – Milford Highway, this walk begins at the Lake Marian Waterfalls, an easy 15 minute stroll from the car park. The water crashes down the rocks, an impossible shade of blue. The track then becomes a tramping route, and the strenuous climb through the forest brings you to an opening where an alpine lake sits in a hanging valley. Surrounded by mountains, the lake offers reflective views on fine days. When we did this walk, the weather was extremely foggy (we couldn’t even see the mountains) but the eeriness of the fog hanging over the water created a surreal, spooky aura: even if we weren’t rewarded with reflective views, the climb was still worth it! Sturdy walking shoes and warm/wet gear are strongly recommended.
Related: SH94: The Te Anau – Milford Highway
Length: 2 hours return
This popular day walk is the last section of the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. The track starts at Kohaihai campsite and follows the coastline through the bush, where you’ll spot huge Nikau trees towering above the canopy. Halfway along the track, be sure to stop at Scott’s Hill Lookout, about halfway along the track, which gives you a stunning view of Scott’s Beach and the West Coast. The beach itself is vast with white sand and an enormous rock that juts out from the sand – climbable if the sand is high enough! Here, you’ll be exposed to the elements of the Wild West Coast: the huge, crashing waves of the Tasman Sea, the wrath of the wind and rain. Swimming is not advisable because the beach is so steep and the tides so strong and unpredictable. Be prepared: take wet weather gear even if it looks fine, and don’t forget insect repellent – the sand flies are lethal in these parts.
Length: 3 hours return
Starting from the bush-line at the carpark, this track zig-zags up the side of the hill to the Temple Basin ski field. The track is marked, but the terrain is loose and unstable – sturdy walking shoes are recommended. Upon reaching the top, the views across the valley are simply marvellous. Since we visited in summer, there was no snow on the slopes, so the ski lifts looked slightly out of place in the tussock field!
8) Abel Tasman Coast Track – Abel Tasman National Park
Length: 3-5 days, 60km
Arguably the most beautiful of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, this track stretches along the coastline of the Abel Tasman National Park, located at the northern end of the South Island. This region has some of the best weather in the whole of New Zealand, so you can soak up the sun as you tramp across pristine white-sand beaches and through native bush, go for a swim in one of the many bays, and enjoy your lunch with views of the endless ocean. Be prepared to get your feet wet; there is one compulsory tidal crossing at the Awaroa inlet. The track is clearly marked and well-graded, with four comfortable huts and nineteen backcountry campsites en route. With regular water-taxi and kayaking services, the Abel Tasman is a popular tramp for day walkers as well as over-nighters, as you can easily walk all or just part of the route. There are also plenty of side trips, for example to the serene Cleopatra’s Pool. Walking this track is definitely a highlight of my time in NZ!
9) Roy’s Peak – Wanaka
Length: 5-6 hours return
Wanaka is fast-becoming one of the most popular areas of the South Island to explore – and it’s easy to see why. This hike is along a well-graded track which crosses some private farm land as it climbs Mount Roy. With no tree cover, it’s open and exposed to the elements, so bring sun cream and a wind/rain-proof jacket. You should reach the 1,578m summit after around three hours. Here, the views will leave you speechless – a panorama of Lake Wanaka and the mountains in Mount Aspiring National Park. This is one of my favourite views in NZ; it’s like a painting! The sweat, blood and sunburn all become 100% worth it when you see that view through your own eyes.
10) Hooker Valley – Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park
Length: 3 hours return
Of the many walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, this one is always a firm favourite. The track begins at the White Horse Hill Campsite (or from the village, add one hour) passes the Alpine Memorial and Freda’s Rock before reaching a view point of the Mueller Glacier. It continues through the valley and across three swing bridges, before arriving at the Hooker Valley Lake, a glacial lake which had icebergs in it even when we visited in the height of summer! The views of the mighty Aoraki/ Mount Cook are simply spectacular and well worth the walk. The track is well-graded, with some parts being wooden platforms, and the incline is just 80m across 5km. I wrote a whole post about my favourite hikes in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park here.
These walks are in no particular order – how could I choose a favourite? They are all so varied, offering such diverse views, varying in length and difficulty across a range of terrain. However, there are still so many more hikes on the South Island that I need to do – I’d better lace my boots again!
Have you hiked any of these tracks? Which was your favourite? Can you recommend any other hikes on the South Island I should add to my ‘To Do’ list?
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
All of the photos used in this post are my own.