Atop Mt Ollivier

Adventures on the South Island: 11 of the best hikes in New Zealand (updated 2020)

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 11 of the best hikes in New Zealand to get you started.

Hiking out to the Routeburn Falls Hut

Hiking up to Harris Saddle

1 | Routeburn Track

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 (rather than one-way), 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.

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 (if you’re trekking one way).

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: If you do the trek as a return journey, stay both nights at the same mountain hut so you can hike day 2 with only a small pack!


Paddling along the Abel Tasman Coast Track

2 | 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.

Start & finish: The Coast Track runs from Marahau to Totaranui or Wainui Bay, where you can catch a water taxi back to your starting point. Book this online for about $50 prior to setting out.

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 DOCs 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.


Overlooking Lake Hāwea from Isthmus Peak

The summit of Isthmus Peak

3 | Isthmus Peak

The climb up to Isthmus Peak is pretty demanding, a never-ending series of steep switch backs winding 1,250m up the mountain and over multiple false summits, but the rewards are spectacular. Practically the entire trail looks out over Lake Hāwea and then, from Isthmus Peak itself, you are surrounded on all sides by snow-capped peaks and blue lakes.

There isn’t a single boring moment on this hike, which really does make me wonder how on earth it isn’t more popular?! While queues of people clog up the Roy’s Peak trail, nearby Isthmus Peak is still amazingly under-rated and uncrowded, leaving you to enjoy all this sensational scenery without feeling like you have to wait your turn.

Getting there: Isthmus Peak is a 30min drive from Wanaka.

Start & finish: The trek begins across the road from the Stewart Creek car park.

Distance: This 16km track takes about 4-5hrs in total, so there’s plenty of time to cram in other hikes or activities around Wanaka.

Difficulty: Although quite steep, this isn’t an overly difficult hike and is suitable for most anyone with a reasonable fitness level. I’d recommend bringing trekking poles if you have a hard time with steep descents.

Where to stay: The Camp has great tent sites located right on the shores of Lake Hāwea. It’s about 10min outside Wanaka, but the setting is really wonderful and already half way to the Isthmus Peak trailhead.


Walking to Fox Glacier

4 | 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.

Top tips: To get up close and personal with the glacier, take a helicopter ride or even book a heli-hike.

Walking along the ridge line after reaching Avalanche Peak

Me and Eileen descending the brutal scree field to Crow Hut

5 | 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.

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 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.


View over the unbelievably blue Lake Tekapo

6 | 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 2hrs, including a few short stops for photos. There’s also a shorter version, which can be done in under an hour.

Difficulty: Although steep while ascending the hill, this short hike is super easy and can easily be completed in runners rather than hiking boots.

Where to stay: Grab one of the lakeside, unpowered tent sites for $50/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.


Hooker Valley and a smoky Mt Cook

Hooker Valley

7 | 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 the Hooker Valley Track referred to as NZ’s best day hike, and although I don’t think it can quite compare to the scenery of Sealy Tarns, it is absolutely beautiful (and much easier)! If you want to experience stunning Aoraki/Mt Cook views without breaking a sweat, look no further than the Hooker Valley Track.

Getting there: Drive 4hrs SW of Christchurch or 2.5hrs NE of Wanaka to Mt Cook village.

Start & finish: Begin your trek from White Horse Hill Campground on Hooker Valley Road.

Distance: Allow 2-3hrs return to cover the flat 10km trail.

Difficulty: This is a flat, undemanding walk suitable for all skill levels.

Where to stay: For $15/person, 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 Sealy Tarns/Mueller Hut Route, Mt Ollivier scramble, or Kea Point Track, all of which depart from White Horse Hill.

Sealy Tarns

8 | Sealy Tarns

With sweeping views of Aoraki/Mt Cook, Hooker Valley, Mt Sefton, and Mueller Glacier Lake from every step of the trail, Sealy Tarns is one of the most spectacular short walks you can do in New Zealand.

From White Horse Hill campground, follow signs towards Kea Point for about 10min and then fork off onto the Mueller Hut trail to start climbing. The 2,200 steps leading up to Sealy Tarns can be pretty exhausting, but you’ll definitely 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 unrelenting ascent.

Getting there: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is 4hrs SW of Christchurch or 2.5hrs NE of Wanaka.

Start & finish: Begin your trek from White Horse Hill Campground on Hooker Valley Road.

Distance: Allow 2.5hrs to get up to Sealy Tarns and back.

Difficulty: This is a steep trek with more than 2,200 stairs leading up to Sealy Tarns, but thankfully it’s still only 600m of elevation gain and the trail is well-maintained, so any fit hiker will be just fine.

Where to stay: For $15/person, pitch your tent directly in front of Aoraki/Mt Cook at White Horse Hill Campground.


Sealy Tarns on the Mueller Hut Track
The view from Mueller Hut

9 | Mueller Hut Route

For a challenging overnight tramp with breathtaking views of New Zealand’s tallest mountains, book a spot in the iconic Mueller Hut and continue hiking past Sealy Tarns to reach an even more magical alpine landscape at the base of Mt Cook.

From the beautiful panorama of 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 trek to Mueller Hut is fairly strenuous and, from Sealy Tarns to the hut, is even a little bit technical. Expect a lot of loose rocks and scree, snowfields, and insanely steep climbs. Make sure you have sturdy hiking boots and trekking poles, plus experience with more challenging hiking.

Where to stay: Reserve a bunk in Mueller Hut, often called New Zealand’s most scenic mountain hut, for $45/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.


Atop Mt Ollivier

10 | Mt Ollivier

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 Sir 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.

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.


Kea Point

Kea Point

11 | Kea Point Track

Even though it may classify as more of a quick walk than a true hike, Kea Point in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park still deserves a mention on this list because it is the easiest way to get great views of Mueller and Hooker glaciers, Mt Cook, and Mt Sefton. The viewpoint can sometimes get a little busy in the afternoon, but if you scramble 50m higher on the boulders at the end of trail, you can get above everyone and enjoy even better views.

Getting there: Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is 4hrs SW of Christchurch or 2.5hrs NE of Wanaka.

Start & finish: Begin your trek from White Horse Hill Campground on Hooker Valley Road.

Distance: This 3km walk is easily finished in 30-40min.

Difficulty: The Kea Point Track is pretty much just a gentle stroll, you could easily do this in sandals.

Where to stay: For $15/person, pitch your tent directly in front of Aoraki/Mt Cook at White Horse Hill Campground.

Looking down on Mueller Hut

*Tips for tramping in New Zealand

  • Kiwis call multi-day hiking “tramping”, which is fun.
  • Transport options around New Zealand are extremely limited, so it’s easiest to drive to all of these hikes yourself. That being said, it’s not impossible to hit the trail by using a combination of buses and private shuttles if you’re really determined.
  • If you’re new to hiking, probably give some of these a miss (seriously, do not attempt the Crow Hut Route unless you’re a confident hiker). New Zealand’s Great Walks, such as the Routeburn Track and the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, provide the perfect opportunity for novice trampers to get outdoors in a less strenuous/navigationally-demanding setting. Some of the shorter day hikes like Kea Point and Hooker Valley Track are also a great option if you want an easier trail.
  • Visit an i-SITE (NZ’s tourist information centres located all over the island) or a DOC office to get advice on tramps, to book campsites, or for help planning a specific trip.
  • For any overnight hikes, you’ll need to buy fuel for your stove when you arrive in NZ. There are heaps of outdoors shops in Queenstown (like Toredo7) and Christchurch (like the new Bunnings right next to the airport) where you can stock up on fuel, dehydrated mountain food, and most other camping/hiking essentials.
  • You can also buy dehydrated mountain meals in most Four Square, Countdown, and New World supermarkets around NZ. They are typically around $15.
  • Check out this post for all the best gear recommendations: BUILDING THE ULTIMATE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE KIT: THE BEST HIKING & BACKPACKING GEAR FOR WOMEN

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