Top 10 Hiking Trails in New Zealand

DestinationA scene from the Milford Sound, Fiordland. Pic: Rob Suisted/ Tourism New Zealand.

Itching to explore New Zealand on your own? Well, we’ve got a list with some of the greatest walking trails and hikes that make New Zealand amazing! Whether your hiking skills are moderate, beginner or intrepid, there’s an amazing walk for you here.

Well, before we launch into names, difficulty, what to take along and on – there are a few clarifications. The Kiwi term for hiking and walking is ‘tramping’, which we feel is very spot on. It is tramping about but hiking just adds a glam-apropos shabloing to the beautiful woodlands, mountains, beaches, and ravines. Secondly, because of the country’s conservation efforts and demarcation of natural preserves, there are over nine ‘Great Walks’; named so because of the absolutely gorgeous vistas that they offer to the patient hiker/tramper. 

Moving from top, that is North Island, down to hiking trails in the South Island, here is our list of all-time greats. Because we said 10, we’ll sneak in one of our favourites. You won’t know. 

1. Lake Waikaremoana track

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 3-4 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 1 hr 30 min from Gisborne

Winding around North Island’s largest tract of forestland, the Lake Waikaremoana track showcases the ancestral home of the ‘Children of the Mist’ – the Maori tribe of Ngai Tuhoe. In a leisurely 3-4 days, hikers can appreciate the wild, pristine beauty of Te Urewera, the national park. Tramp through wetlands, herb fields, rushes, rainforests and even a magical ‘goblin forest’ (there really is, you’ve to discover that on your own)! The track steps around Maori tribe Ngai Tuhoe’s home, presenting travellers with sundry views of the great lake, along with rivers, waterfalls and swirling clouds of mist (doh!). 

Birdwatchers will come also across a diverse collection of avian species ranging from wood pigeons, called Kereru, the tui and come evening the country’s national bird, the kiwi, sounds dusk’s approach. The Tuhoe tribe’s dedication and love of nature is manifest in the region’s natural beauty, which is why the Lake Waikaremoana track is one of the country’s great tramps. 

2. Whanganui Journey

Split Apple Rock, Nelson Tasman, New Zealand
The Split Apple Rock at Nelson Tasman Pic: Camilla Rutherford/Tourism New Zealand

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 5 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 2 hrs from Whanganui

Err… this is not walking so much so as it’s kayaking. Whatever, it’s one of the ‘Great Walks’ – let the water do the walking, so we’ve been told. Also, this ‘walk’ is more of a paddle and involves a fair amount of rafting in rapids, so good fitness and practice at canoeing is required. 

Compared to other rivers around the world, the Whanganui is a moody teen at under 300 kilometres long. That said, the ‘walk’ shows how distinctly and ridiculously beautiful the country is. From kayaking down ravines with moss-covered high granite walls to meandering stretches of emerald-green water to foaming white rapid sections – there’s all that and more! This 5-day punt involves more of paddling than walking per se, but there’s a bit where travellers can take pictures on solid, dry ground. It’s at a place affectionately called ‘the Bridge to Nowhere’. Seriously, it’s true! With a simple and short hike, people will come across a ravine which is connected by an old concrete bridge, leading to nowhere but dense jungle. Which wasn’t always so, it was made to connect to a military settlement which got disbanded in 1942; the forest reclaimed the land and now it’s a nice spot to take a picture. Nice detour!

The hike/row covers roughly 145 kilometres and blends sights such as forests, national park territory, stunning cliff edges and the constant companionship of birds. Thumbs up, we say!

3. Tongariro Northern Circuit

Scene from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ruapehu. Pic: Graeme Murray/New Zealand
Scene from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ruapehu. Pic: Graeme Murray/ Tourism New Zealand

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 4 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 1 hr 20 mins from Taupo

This takes the cake for being up there in the brag-value lists. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is ensconced around the rumbling Mount Ngauruhoe volcano and is an extension of the more-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing day-hike.

Besides the fact that the volcano is picture-perfect cone and makes for a great photo subject, hikers will come across lava fields, explosion pits, Mars-like craters and even the very photogenic Blue Lake and Emerald Lake. From Taupo, the immediate reaction is to plunk for the day-hike, but our advice: take the longer route and experience the full beauty of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Climb to the summit of the volcano, now that’s a real selfie, eh?

4. Abel Tasman Coast Track

Difficulty: Easy

Duration: 5 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 75 mins from Auckland

An introductory level hike, the Abel Tasman Coast Track takes hikers across some scintillating sights such as pearly-white beaches, grassy hills and national park territory. As a Great Walk, this tramp showcases New Zealand’s beauty. A portion of the hike can also be covered with a kayak, so there’s also that option. Starting at Marahau and going past the Tinline Bay and its emerald waters, the track meanders through coastal vegetation of Bark Bay, then diving into deep forests of manuka trees, a species endemic to this country. The track winds back to the coast at Onetahuti Bay and then the Avaroa Islet. Oh, there’s also a spot where Tonga is visible – the snorkelling is fantastic off the reefs, so pack a bubbler. The next few days will see hikers stay at halts at Awaroa and Whariwharangi, while reaping million-dollar sights of crystal-clear bays, forests and wildlife at any and every turn. Novice hikers will need water transport and should book water-taxis, but experienced hikers can cut across the wetland forests and make the course even more rewarding.

5. Big River Track

Hiking past the old Waiuta gold mine in New Zealand.
Hiking past the old Waiuta gold mine in New Zealand.

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 2 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 4 hrs from Christchurch

Set four hours away from Christchurch, the Big River Track is a hit amongst nature lovers and Bear Grylls enthusiasts. 

Surrounding the Victoria Conservation Park, this tramp starts at the Big River Hut near Waiuta and passes gold mining countryside, meandering rivers, tussocky grasslands and vast forests of beeches. Hikers will pass the St George mine, the stamping battery site, abandoned mining hut sites, coalmine trams, picturesque sawmills and the lush greenery of the forests before hitting the Inangahua River Swingbridge. 

This track can be walked from either ends of Reefton and Waiuta; also, weather can change rapidly here – checking the forecasts before setting off is just good sense. That said, the two-day hike is a smashing weekend getaway! 

6. Heaphy Track

The suspension bridge at one point of the Heaphy Track in New Zealand.
The suspension bridge at one point of the Heaphy Track in New Zealand.

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 4-6 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 70 mins from Westport

Ooh, this one is definitely murder on shoes and needs hikers ready to clamber across hills, rocks, grasslands and dales. That said, this Great Walk offers travellers spectacular sights and contrasts – hikers will pass dense rainforests and jump into mountainous trails, walk across soft grasslands and then pick seashells from the beach! Covering a staggering 82 sweaty kilometres, the Heaphy Track is best done with preparation, fitness and patience. There’re sore feet, too – but look at the brilliant Great Spotted Kiwi Birds!

The tramp is set within the Kahurangi National Park and this region’s rocky landscape switches bewilderingly from marble to granite to limestone – even to non-geologists and ‘rock-lovers’, the colour shifts are preternaturally beautiful. The first day will see hikers walk across tussocky grassland, (there’s a deep natural pool to chill out in, but know how to swim, is all) but the next day will see people tromp across massive sinkholes, water-worn arches and caves! Interestingly, the Heaphy Track has a bit of history to it – it was used by the Maori jade hunters to traverse from one region to another! 

The track will see hikers across high suspension bridges, across rocky riverbeds, gurgling streams, golden sand beaches and lush vegetation as diverse as bush flats, cabbage trees and nikai palms! Definitely a thumbs-up. 

7. Paparoa Track

The Aoraki Mount Cook National Park near Canterbury. Pic: Rob Suisted/ Tourism New Zealand.
The Aoraki Mount Cook National Park near Canterbury. Pic: Rob Suisted/ Tourism New Zealand.

Difficulty: Intermediate/Easy

Duration: 3 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 4 hrs from Christchurch

Trekkers and fans of Game of Thrones will be overjoyed at this one. Covering the great Paparoa Range, this track takes hikers across white alpine peaks, lush forests and limestone karst landscapes – quite the kaleidoscope of diverse sceneries. Starting from Snoke-ho Creek, the tracks winds through the picturesque Blackball Creek, the Grey River or the Māwheranui as it is called in Maori, trekking across grassy landscape and mountain paths to the Croesus Knob and the Aoraki Mount Cook. Hikers will follow the path carved out by the goldminers of old, marvelling at the sights of the Pororari River Gorge, incredibly beautiful sunsets over the Tasman Sea, the Lone Hand rock formation and walk the historic Croesus track.

8. Routeburn Track

Scene from the Routeburn Track in Fiordland National Park. Pic: Stewart Nimmo/ Tourism New Zealand
Scene from the Routeburn Track in Fiordland National Park. Pic: Stewart Nimmo/ Tourism New Zealand

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 3 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 45 mins from Queenstown

This is definitely going as drone-footage heaven stuff. The Routeburn Track needs some strong legs and an appetite for hiking rocky trails, but travellers will be treated to sights like walking above cloudbanks, past the azure Lake Harris and bass-heavy waterfalls!

This track connects two conservation regions – the Mount Aspiring National Park and the Fiordland National Park, sort of like a pathway, really. Birdwatchers will love this hike as the national parks are home to avian species like robins, fantails, tomtits, bellbirds, wood pigeons and a beautiful endemic bird – the Kea, the world’s one and only alpine parrot! Hikers can start at either end of the Routeburn Track as it doesn’t link to itself. One end is at the Shelter in Glenorchy, while the other is at the Divide near Te Anau. A word of caution: this track was formed from erosion, icemelt and avalanches and the natural phenomena are still pretty much there; therefore, meteorological advice is to be followed before embarking.

9. Kepler Track

Scene from the Kepler Track in Fiordland. Pic: Tourism New Zealand
Scene from the Kepler Track in Fiordland. Pic: Tourism New Zealand

Difficulty: Intermediate

Duration: 4 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 2 hrs from Queenstown

Unlike other tracks, the Kepler Track has been designed to showcase New Zealand’s vast swathes of natural beauty. And boy, does it succeed! In four short days, hikers will traverse landscapes such as deep valleys, high grasslands, waterfalls, mountain country and forests.

This track was designed, cleared and opened as late as 1988 and is made for easy walking. And the effort shows – the wetlands and bogs are covered with boards to facilitate tramps, streams have neat little bridges and steps have been cut to help climb steep sections. And the rewards of the above? Exquisite sights and breathtaking vistas at every nook and cranny – it’s so easy to stop and marvel at hilltops towering over hundreds of kilometres of grasslands, the sunshine lighting up a deep mountain gorge… we can wax eloquent for hours. Must-do, and it’s a short drive from Queenstown.

10. (or 1? ) Milford Track

A scene from the Milford Sound, Fiordland. Pic: Rob Suisted/ Tourism New Zealand.
A scene from the Milford Sound, Fiordland. Pic: Rob Suisted/ Tourism New Zealand.

Difficulty: Intermediate/Expert 

Duration: 4 days

Distance from nearest city/town: 2.5 hrs from Queenstown

Probably one of the most famous hiking trails of New Zealand, the Milford Track rewards travellers with breathtaking, wallpaper-quality sights – except it’s in front of them and (#betterthan4k, we say!). The Milford track is the OG of all hiking in New Zealand, explorers have been wowed by the beauty of the region as far back as 150 years. 

Over the course of four days, hikers will tramp around 54 kilometres and see sights like the Lake Mintaro, Hirere Falls, Mackinnon Pass, Pompolona Ice Fields, Clinton Valley, the Milford Sound and the stunning Sutherland Falls – the highest in New Zealand at 580 metres! Hikers will have to book accommodations in advance at the overnight huts, pack in plenty of food, supplies and have the stamina to trek quite a bit, but … it’s worth everything. 

There you are; 10 tracks that will have you visiting New Zealand over and over again – the first few times to check them out and the next few times to revisit them again. We’re fans, what can we say? Keep an eye out for this section; we’re coming up with a second set to the Top Things to See, Do, Eat and Experience in New Zealand, because – surprise, surprise, we couldn’t fit them all in 10 measly points. Speaking of which, we are still aghast that we couldn’t shoehorn gems like the Ball Park Crossing (because it’s for experts only!), Copland Track, the Pinnacles walk and many others. Well, we’ll try to do a short blog on them soon. Until then, keep reading, keep planning and keep dreaming!

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