Hiking In New Zealand
In many ways, hiking in New Zealand defies a single definition. Despite being roughly the same area as Colorado, this island nation fits in a dizzying variety of treks. From day hikes to multi-day adventures, prepare for everywhere from sandy beaches to barren volcanic alpine vistas.
Notable Trails and Hiking Networks in New Zealand
Hiking abounds throughout New Zealand, but the nation’s crowning jewel is a collection of nine trails known as the “Great Walks”:
- Abel Tasman Coast Track (Nelson and Tasman)
- Heaphy Track (Nelson and Tasman)
- Kepler Track (Fiordland)
- Lake Waikaremoana (East Coast)
- Milford Track (Fiordland)
- Rakiura Track (Southland)
- Routeburn Track (Otago)
- Tongariro Northern Circuit (Central North Island)
- Whanganui Journey (Manwatu and Whanganui)
- Coming 2019: Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track (West Coast)
Ranging in length and relative difficulty, these walks pass through some of the most stunning scenery New Zealand has to offer, and the diversity of tracks means there’s something for just about everyone.
These trails are most often explored solo, but guided tours are available. Trails and bridges on the Great Walks are usually sturdy, well maintained and well-marked. Note, many have dubbed the Milford Track the “finest walk in the world.” If you get a chance, don’t miss this four-day, 33-mile experience.
Perhaps the most noted of all single-day hikes in New Zealand is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a volcanic alpine landscape dotted with geothermal vents, emerald lakes, glaciers and more. It’s approximately eight hours and just over 12 miles of hiking one way.
What You Can See
Whether you’re looking for a thirty-minute stroll or a multiday adventure, New Zealand hiking trails offer an array of landscapes, natural wonders and diverse wildlife-spotting opportunities. With a handful of well-chosen day hikes across the North and South Islands, you could experience pristine beaches, lush forests, imposing glaciers, tranquil lakes, vibrantly blue fjords and stark volcanic landscapes. New Zealand might be small, but its biodiversity is a thing to behold!
For the rock climber at heart, take a 20-minute stroll along the Kura Tawhiti Access Track (approximately an hour and a half outside Christchurch) to marvel at the impressive size of the limestone rock formations there. This is a world-renowned climbing spot, so you’ll likely see others scaling the massive structures. (Take care, though. In wet conditions, these rocks become extremely slick.)
If you’re looking for a more serene day out, venture about two hours from Christchurch to tackle the Devil’s Punchbowl Walking Track. The one-hour walk brings you through native forests and to the base of Devil’s Punchbowl Falls (just under 430 feet).
Depending on the trail of choice, you might encounter any number of unique New Zealand critters, including the following:
- Kiwi (bird): These nocturnal, surprisingly elusive denizens of the forest are the nation’s unofficial mascot.
- Hector’s dolphin: The world’s smallest dolphins, they can be found in the South Island, particularly Akaroa Harbor.
- Kea: These alpine parrots hang around Arthur’s Pass National Park and Fiordland National Park.
- Yellow-eyed penguins: One of six penguin species found in New Zealand, this variety is predominantly in southeast New Zealand (Stewart Island and Banks Peninsula).
- New Zealand’s fur seal: Hikes around the South Island’s coastline will likely result in a fur seal spotting or two.
- Wood pigeon (kereru): Bright green plumage and comically clumsy flying make these large birds more exciting than your average pigeon. Spot them in just about any native forest.
Good to Know When Hiking in New Zealand
Permits: Trails are typically open and free for all hikers, but overnight stays in huts must be paid for—and often arranged ahead of time.
The Great Walks are usually booked far in advance, so plan well ahead if you want to land a limited spot on one of these iconic walks. Always visit New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) website before starting any hike to determine if a permit is necessary or any fees must be paid.
Note, the Great Walks have a season where bookings are required. Outside of those dates, bookings aren’t mandatory, but huts are first come, first serve, and increased risks, such as avalanche and flood, exist.
Weather: Weather in New Zealand can be unpredictable. Especially if your hike takes you to higher altitudes, always be prepared for cold and wind—even if the day starts out sunny and warm. Temperatures don’t typically crest 80 Fahrenheit, which is great for hiking, but it also means temps drop low and fast as you ascend. Always be prepared for sudden onsets of rain, hail or even snow. Long pants, a fleece, a waterproof jacket, gloves and a hat should always be staples in your day bag.
Trail Difficulty: The DOC is an invaluable resource when learning about local hiking options, but don’t rely blindly on their difficulty rating system. What’s deemed an “intermediate” hike might be strenuous by your standards, so start small until you’ve assessed what kinds of challenges and unique terrain New Zealand trails present.
Many of the nation’s hikes are incredibly popular and are frequented by hikers from around the world. Don’t be fooled into thinking heavy foot traffic means an easy hike.
All common sense hiking rules apply as well. Therefore, even if you’re only venturing out on a day hike, always walk with a buddy, or let someone know exactly where you plan to trek.
Want to Know More about New Zealand?
Read the full “New Zealand: Travel Guide Overview”.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great New Zealand adventure!