With an incredibly sophisticated network of well-maintained trails, campsites, and mountain huts all looked after by the Department of Conservation, New Zealand is inarguably one of the world’s premier trekking destinations, before you even consider its abundance and diversity of stunning natural scenery. You’ll find high alpine regions whose peaks are covered in year-round snow only hours from sunny coastal walks, lake-dotted valleys dominated by yellow tundra, and Jurassic-era rainforests leading out to receding glaciers. The tiny South Island packs an enormous punch when it comes to scenic day hikes and stunning multi-day tramps, and there are more trails to explore than an entire lifetime would allow, but here are 7 of the best hikes in New Zealand to get you started.
Winding through forests, past serene alpine lakes, and across swing-bridges in New Zealand’s stunning Southern Alps and Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area, Routeburn Track is an undemanding but overwhelmingly beautiful hike. As one of the country’s official Great Walks, it is also one of the most popular tramps on the South Island, and rightly so. To walk the trail between Routeburn Shelter and Harris Saddle as a return journey, you’ll enjoy an easy 3hr first day to Routeburn Falls Hut before ascending to Harris Saddle on day 2, the walk’s highpoint, and then returning back to Routeburn Falls Hut about 4hrs later. The final day is just a flat 3hr walk back to the car at Routeburn Shelter. This route offers an undemanding hike perfect for those who need a few rest days without actually resting or those with limited backpacking experience, but it could easily be compressed into 2 days if you think “taking it easy” is for sissies.
Getting there: Navigate to the Routeburn Shelter, about 60km NW of Queenstown on the southern border of Mt Aspiring National Park.
Start & finish: The walk begins at Routeburn Shelter, where you can safely leave your car in the small carpark, and ends at the Divide Shelter near Milford Sound.
Distance: This 32km tramp is best enjoyed over 3 days. We chose to hike only as far as Harris Saddle before turning around to return to Routeburn Shelter, given some residual muscle soreness from hiking to Mueller Hut the previous day, but even this shortened section is spectacular.
Difficulty: The first section of this trek, as you approach Routeburn Falls Hut, is fairly level and easy, while the later sections involve a bit more climbing. However, you’ll be able to leave your big pack in the hut for day 2, and thereafter even the stair-stepping isn’t overly draining.
Where to stay: Stay at the dorm-style Routeburn Falls Hut for $65/night, and enjoy access to the large communal kitchen area with running water and gas (bring your own food and cookware), clean toilet and shower facilities, and excellent company from the other hikers. Mats are provided for the bunks, but you’ll need to pack a warm sleeping bag and camping pillow. There are also 3 other DOC huts along the trail: Routeburn Flats Hut, 6km from the start of the trail, and Lake Mackenzie and Lake Howden Huts, both closer to The Divide.
Top tips: Stay both nights at the same mountain hut to simplify your routine and allow you to hike day 2 with only a day bag!
Read more: BACK AT IT ON THE ROUTEBURN TRACK
Mt John Walkway
Beginning at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand’s Mackenzie Region, this quick day hike to Mt John Observatory offers spectacular views of the Cool Blue Gatorade-coloured lake below and the Southern Alps in the distance. The trail begins incredibly close to the Lake Tekapo Holiday Park and its lovely campsite, and as such offers a perfect afternoon activity for visitors already enjoying the scenery from their tents. Atop the mountain, you can even enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate in the cafe as you take in all the beautiful scenery.
Getting there: Lake Tekapo is a 3 hour drive south of Christchurch, a little over an hour NW of Timaru.
Start & finish: The circular trail begins and ends about 500m north of Lake Tekapo Holiday Park, right near the lake shore.
Distance: The complete 8km loop will take about 2.5 hours, including a few short stops for photos.
Difficulty: Although steep while ascending the hill, this short hike isn’t overly challengingand can easily be completed in runners (rather than hiking boots) and without any poles, a sure measure of ease.
Where to stay: Grab one of the lakeside, unpowered tent sites for $46/night (per 2 adults) at Lake Tekapo Holiday Park. Enjoy BBQs, kitchen facilities, hot showers, and laundry in a convenient location.
Top tips: The wind can reach subsonic speeds as you near the top of Mt John, so be sure to pack some extra layers to avoid death by wind-chill—a warm hood is particularly essential.
Read more: GREETINGS FROM NEW ZEALAND’S LAKE TEKAPO
Avalanche Peak (Crow River Route)
A challenging modification to the already strenuous Avalanche Peak tramp, which involves about 3 hours of near-vertical hiking to reach the summit, the Crow River Route showcases some of the best scenery in the Arthur’s Pass area without the crowds. After enjoying the panoramic views from atop Avalanche Peak (and possibly fighting off local kea as you try to eat your lunch), veer away from the well-defined trail and walk along the ridge line for just under an hour before reaching what appears to be a sheer vertical drop. Navigating to the correct spot can be a bit tricky, so here is what the DOC says about finding the correct location:
Do not attempt to descend to Crow River before the marked point because earlier screes finish in bluffs.
There are four features to check that you are at the right place:
1. The point is marked by stakes and a rock cairn
2. You can see the full length of the scree, from the ridge to the Crow valley
3. The full drop of Devils Punchbowl Falls is visible on opposite slopes
4. Just after the correct place to descend, the ridge you are on rises more steeply towards Mount Rolleston
From here, the journey becomes a bit more technical as you descend over an hour down an impossibly steep scree field (small, loose rocks). It’s slow-going, frustrating, and more than a little sketchy even for experienced hikers, so you should only attempt this if you are confident or if you have other hikers with you. What you’ll find when you reach the valley is complete serenity among the trees as you walk the rest of the way to Crow Hut and a beautiful, ice-cold river perfect for a quick dip. Although not for the inexperienced, this is a fantastic hike that will always stand out in my memory.
Getting there: Arthur’s Pass Village is about 2hrs NW of Christchurch.
Start & finish: The hike to Avalanche Peak begins and ends in Arthur’s Pass Village, but you will finish the hike at Klondyke Corner if you are hiking out of Crow Hut. It’s easy and safe enough to hitch-hike between these points if you park at one end of the trail.
Distance: This 2-day trek typically involves about 6 hours on the first day and 4 hours on the second.
Difficulty: Overall, this is a very challenging hike, with several hours of steep climbing to the peak and a monstrous scree field leading down towards the hut (see photo above). There are easier sections of the walk, specifically the hike out on the second day, but I would say this is the hardest and most technical hike on this list (I wouldn’t have attempted the descent to Crow Hut without an experienced mountaineer, so thank you, Dad).
Where to stay: Stay in the isolated Crow Hut for $5 by purchasing a Standard Hut Ticket and leaving this in the designated box upon arrival. It’s all on the honour system, but be a good person and buy the ticket!
Top tips: There are only 10 sleeping spots available in tiny Crow Hut, but it’s not possible to book in advance, so try to arrive early to avoid missing out and having to hike all the way out to Klondyke Corner in a single day.
Read more: SURVIVING AVALANCHE PEAK
Hooker Valley Track
Meandering comfortably past glacier lakes and the beautiful Hooker River as New Zealand’s tallest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, looms impressively overhead, this leisurely walk is an excellent way to spend the afternoon, no hiking experience needed. Aside from the arctic tundra and the brilliantly white glaciers, this track is probably most well-known for the frequent swing bridges that connect sections of wooden boardwalk. You’re likely to hear this referred to as NZ’s best day hike by a great number of people, and although I don’t think it can compare to the scenery of the Mueller Hut Route, it is leaps and bounds easier and therefore is an important addition to this list. If you want to experience stunning Aoraki/Mt Cook views without the exertion and with much less time, look no further than the Hooker Valley Track.
Getting there: Drive 4hrs SW of Christchurch or 2.5hrs NE of Wanaka to reach this track.
Start & finish: You can begin and end your walk from White Horse Hill Campground on Hooker Valley Road.
Distance: Allow 2-2.5hrs return to cover the 10km trail.
Difficulty: This is a flat, undemanding walk suitable for all skill levels.
Where to stay: For $13/night, pitch your tent directly in front of Aoraki/Mt Cook at White Horse Hill Campground.
Top tips: While you’re in the area, check out the amazing Mueller Hut Route and Mt Ollivier scramble, which also depart from White Horse Hill.
Mueller Hut Route
For a challenging overnight tramp with breathtaking views over some of New Zealand’s tallest mountains, book a spot in the iconic Mueller Hut and follow signs for the Kea Point Track from White Horse Hill Campground— you’ll find that all the alpine lakes and jagged peaks with their year-round dusting of snow are more than enough to distract you from the steep and somewhat unrelenting ascent. After lunch at Sealy Tarns, follow an alpine track upwards for almost 2 hours, finishing your hike on a snow-covered scree field just as the vibrant red hut comes into sight. Coupled with a side-trip to Mt. Ollivier, this is my absolute favourite tramp in NZ and one of my all-time favourite hikes anywhere in the world! Add it to your list, and you’ll immediately see why.
Getting there: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is about 4 hours SW of Christchurch or 2.5hrs NE of Wanaka.
Start & finish: The trail begins and ends at White Horse Hill Campground on Hooker Valley Road.
Distance: The return hike is about 10.5km, and the ascent to Mueller Hut should take around 3.5 hours depending on how often you’re stopping for photos (which is likely to be every 5 seconds, because the scenery is unreal).
Difficulty: The climb to Mueller Hut is fairly strenuous, particularly during the first hour up several hundred wooden steps, but anyone with a reasonable level of fitness will find it to be an achievable challenge.
Where to stay: Reserve a bunk in Mueller Hut, often called New Zealand’s most scenic mountain hut, for $36/night. Mats are provided and there’s a lovely communal kitchen area inside the hut, but you’ll need to bring your cookwear, food, and sleeping bag.
Top tips: Stay at White Horse Hill Campground ($13/night) after your hike and use it as a base to explore another of New Zealand’s best hikes, the Hooker Valley Track.
Te Ara o Tuawe Valley Walk
For views of New Zealand’s most famous glacier, try this super easy walk in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the west coast of the South Island. In less than 30 minutes, you’ll wander through Jurassic-era rainforests with car-sized ferns (and smaller-than-average palms), past the, well, glacial Fox River, and an infinite number of tiny, trickling waterfalls, all leading up to the terminal face of this 13km glacier. There are a number of tours and heli-hikes you can book to get much closer, and definitely get better views, but this is a quick, simple, and free way to admire the blue ice, hundreds of metres deep, that flows down from the Southern Alps to form Fox Glacier.
Getting there: As the crow flies, Fox Glacier is directly west of Christchurch, although the drive is a bit less direct and will take close to 5.5hrs.
Start & finish: The walk begins and ends at a designated carpark, about 2km out of the Fox Glacier township along State Highway 6.
Distance: This short walk is less than 3km (45min) return.
Difficulty: Both incredibly short and flat, this walk across the valley is easy for enough for children and non-hikers, with only a short incline leading up to the final viewpoint.
Where to stay: Pitch your tent at nearby Okarito Campground for $15/night, spots available on a first-come basis. There are BBQs, a communal fridge, a little kitchen area, and even hot showers ($2 coin) if you’re looking to splurge.
A small, rocky summit just beyond Mueller Hut, Mt Ollivier is an essential side-trip offering almost surreal views of the enchanting Aoraki/Mt Cook after only a short scramble. This was actually the first peak ever climbed by New Zealand’s celebrated mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, who later made the first successful summit of Mt Everest in the 50s. The weather in this area is notoriously unpredictable, but if you’re lucky enough to have clear skies, these are likely to be the best views of Aoraki/ Mount Cook that you’ll ever see, so close you feel as if you can reach out and touch its jagged peak. Standing on the summit, surrounded by the most magical of alpine landscapes, it’s not difficult to imagine the inspiration Edmund Hillary must have felt. It will almost make you want to become a professional mountaineer yourself.
Getting there: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is about 4 hours SW of Christchurch or 2.5hrs NE of Wanaka.
Start & finish: This short but incredible scramble begins at Mueller Hut.
Distance: It will only take you about 30 minutes to get up Mt Ollivier, but you’ll spend at least that long just standing on the summit and trying to take it all in.
Difficulty: This side-trip involves a lot of scrambling over medium to large rocks, so it can be challenging if you don’t have much experience, but it is short enough that most anyone could tackle it.
Where to stay: Return to Mueller Hut, often called New Zealand’s most scenic mountain hut, after your scramble. Mats are provided and there’s a lovely communal kitchen area inside the hut, but you’ll need to bring your cookwear, food, and sleeping bag. Be sure to reserve well in advance, especially in summer!
Top tips: Even if you aren’t staying in Mueller Hut, drop your pack off on the balcony to avoid scrambling with any extra weight.
Abel Tasman Coast Track
For a totally different tramping experience, head to the northern shore of New Zealand’s South Island, swapping alpine scenery for coastal views, secluded beaches, and impossibly turquoise water. You can hike the entire 60km, but the true appeal of this Great Walk is the water-access-only campsites that can be enjoyed on a mixed kayak/hiking journey from Marahau to Totaranui. Hire a kayak for 2 days through Kahu Kayaks in Marahau for $115/person, including all of the necessary gear (lifejackets, dry bags, etc) and a safety briefing. Kahu Kayaks will then come retrieve your kayak and deliver your hiking pack at your designated swap-over point, from which you can continue the rest of the track on foot. It’s not a tour— you’re completely on your own in the kayak and on the hike, but the company makes it possible for you to enjoy the Coast Track by both water and land. If not for the seal-covered islands or the beach-front camping, then at least put this tramp on your list for being entirely different than every other hike you’ve ever done.
Getting there: Hop into the water at Marahau, a 3 hour drive west of the Interislander ferry terminal in Picton.
Distance: This 60km route is usually completed in 3-4 days, but the exact stages vary depending on campsite availability and your pace. Take a look at this guide from the DOC to get a better idea of the distance between campsites when you’re planning your route.
Difficulty: The walking portion of the track is fairly easy, quite flat and well marked, but the kayaking can be challenging if you catch strong winds or bad weather. The kayak rental companies usually keep a good eye on water and wind conditions, so be sure to ask them before you set out.
Where to stay: There are about 20 campsites and 4 huts scattered along the track, some of which can only be accessed by water. Campsites are $15 per person, and you can reserve this online or in-person one of NZ’s i-Site or DOC Visitors Centres. We personally stayed at Mosquito Bay and Waiharakeke Bay, both which were beautiful and very peaceful.
Top tips: Even though you can do all the campsite booking online, I’d recommend going into one of the i-Sites and getting assistance. The staff are incredibly knowledgable and they can help you map out an itinerary to suit your experience level, which is especially important for the aquatic portion of the Coast Track if you haven’t done much long-distance kayaking before.
Read more: KAYAKING THE ABEL TASMAN COAST TRACK