New Zealand may offer the very best day hikes in the world. They offer miles upon miles of well maintained trails, have an impressive network of information centers both on the ground and online, and everywhere you go, people are friendly and helpful.
Some of the best maintained and most beautiful trails are known as the Great Walks.
The Great Walks
New Zealand is home to nine amazing multi-day hiking trails they call the Great Walks. These are:
- Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk
- Tongariro Northern Circuit
- Whanganui Journey
- Abel Tasman Coast Track
- Heaphy Track
- Milford Track
- Kepler Track
- Routeburn Track
- Rakiura Track
The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) maintains an impressive network of huts and campgrounds along the Great Walks and other hiking trails. The best equipped huts are found on the Great Walks, while elsewhere the huts may be more spartan. Hut and camping sites along the Great Walks must be booked at least six months in advance during the summer months (December through February) because space is limited and fills up fast.
Yet if you prefer day hikes you needn't bother with huts or campgrounds. You can rent a car or arrange other transportation and get accommodations in a town near the hike you want. If you want to hike one of the Great Walks for a day you can.
When we recently visited New Zealand we used bus transportation in the North Island where traffic is heavier and rented a car after we took the ferry from Wellington to Picton in the South Island. Traffic is much lighter in the South Island and the roads are good.
The tracks themselves are impeccably maintained for the most part and many are constantly monitored for hazards like rock falls and washouts. Current trail hazards and condition alerts can be found on the DOC web site. Maps and tips are readily available at the many local "i-Site" information centers scattered across the country.
For our New Zealand adventure we flew into Auckland and worked our way south. Following are some of the day hikes we enjoyed along the way.
Tongariro River Trail
The Tongariro River trail is a very relaxing, relatively flat 10-mile loop that leads through beautiful forest on both sides of the river as well as lush farmlands. Beginning in Turangi on the west side of the river, we hiked out past the fish hatchery to the suspension foot bridge (called a 'swinging bridge' because it does swing a little when you cross it) at the site called "red hut", and then back downriver on the east side to the other swinging bridge nearer town.
During our walk we were serenaded with sweet bird song on the first leg of the walk and saw quail and a harrier, as well as a herd of sheep, on the second leg.
The trail starts near the Turangi i-Site information center.
Maunganamu Scenic Reserve
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On another day we walked north up State Highway 41 to the thermal pools (a fascinating place) just north of Turangi and on the way back climbed Mt. Maunganamu. We were able to climb to the 1600-foot summit in a little over a half an hour and were rewarded with a panoramic vista overlooking Lake Taupo (see photo at the beginning of this article). The entrance to the reserve is near the Tokaanu Tailrace bridge.
We arrived in Picton at around midnight by ferry from Wellington. We planned to pick up our rental car there the next morning and head over to Abel Tasman National Park, but we had some time in the morning prior to picking up the car and spent it climbing the Tirohanga Trail to enjoy the magnificent view shown in the photo above.
The trail was only a couple of blocks from our motel - an easy walk, though the trail head was a little hard to find. A moderately steep but relatively short climb brought us to the shoulder of the ridge that overlooks the harbor.
The start of the trail is marked by a small sign on the left side of Newgate Street as you walk up the hill, away from the harbor.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
The Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of the Great Walks of New Zealand. Many backpackers hike the length of the trail in three to five days, but there are many options for day hikers to enjoy this wonderful walking experience one day at a time. One of the most popular ways is by water taxi: transport by boat to a point along the track that one would not be otherwise able to reach in a day's walk. One can arrange to be picked up at the end of the day at the same spot they were dropped off or at a different landing along the track.
Highway HS 60 provides multiple access points all around the landward perimeter of the park. Accessing Abel Tasman by car, one can hike the track for some distance from either end. Our accommodations were in nearby Tasman, so a half hour drive took us to Marahau where we hiked a section of the eastern end of the Abel Tasman Track. The next day we drove about an hour and a half to Tata Beach on the western end of the track, overlooking spectacular Golden Bay, and hiked in from there.
Hiking Abel Tasman from either end in this manner affords the day hiker as long or short a walk as they could want along some of the prettiest coastline forest in the world. The hike ranges from easy to moderately challenging and the scenery is simply outrageous.
The town of Lyttelton is just south of Christchurch down highway 74.
At the end of Harmans Road in Lyttelton you can find a sign designating the Whakaraupo Reserve and a trail that leads in a switchback pattern up the steep slope of the volcanic ridge overlooking Lyttelton harbor. The narrow trail trail climbs steadily to the breathtaking overlook shown above.
The path alternately passes through thickets of small trees and bushes and open grassy spaces. In places it is a bit steep and rocky. We found that our trekking poles came in handy.
Arthur's Pass National Park
Bridal Veil Lookout Trail
Traveling west on SH 73 through Arthur's Pass, one comes first to the i-Site center on the left, and shortly after that a trail head parking lot on the right. There you can cross a swinging bridge across the Bealey River and hike the Devils Punchbowl Falls trail or the Bridal Veil Lookout Trail. We elected to do the latter.
As you look up in Arthur's Pass, first you see beautiful mountain landscapes. Then you notice that every so often there is a spectacular waterfall. The Bridal Veil track winds up and down the mountainside, through lush subtropical alpine forest, up and down steps and across small bridges and platforms as it passes a smaller waterfall, then leads you to a lookout point with a picnic table, and finally brings you to the amazing gorge and cascade of the Bridal Veil. The experience is very much a delight. The walk is about 45 minutes round trip.
Combining two or more of the spectacular walks in Arthur's Pass can easily afford the day hiker a full day in beautiful forest if one so desires.
If I were to move to New Zealand, I would consider Greymouth a fine place to stake my claim. The relaxed west coast New Zealand atmosphere, beautiful coastline and many places to enjoy the outdoors along with the comforts of a small, clean, friendly city make Greymouth a memorable and enjoyable place.
Here are two fine day hikes near Greymouth.
Parapoa National Park - Pororari River Track
In addition to the famous "Pancake Rocks" tourist walk and the Truman Track that both feature crashing surf that splashes striking geological formations and beautiful subtropical flora, Parapoa National Park offers several longer hikes for hikers of varying ability. We chose the Pororari River Track.
The Pororari River track links up with Bullock Creek Road for a 5-6 hour hike. We were slightly less ambitious, electing to hike out to the swing bridge and back for about a 4-hour hike. Since the trail follows the river it is not very hilly, but leads the hiker between tall volcanic ridges up from the subtropical coastline into a dryer upland climate with more open forest. The variety of plant life there is remarkable.
You can find the trail less than a mile north of the visitor's center on SH6.
Just a few minutes north of Greymouth on SH6, the Point Elizabeth Walkway is said to mark the southern border of the New Zealand subtropical forests. The track winds up from the beach and along a ridge line through groves of nikau palm, black fern trees and New Zealand flax to a spectacular coastal view. Locals said it was sometimes possible to see seals on the rocks there, though they were not around when we visited.
Taking our time, the walk was about 2 hours round trip and very enjoyable. Before or after, one can enjoy just being on the beautiful beach and listening to the surf. When we visited there were just a few local fishermen casting their lines. Otherwise we had the beach to ourselves.
We had a lot of fun walking the Mount John Summit Circuit Track in Tekapo. The entrances to the loop can be found at the west end of the village near the hot springs.
On the advice of our Air BnB hosts we walked the loop in a clockwise direction, that is, we went up the left side of the circuit. We are glad we did.
The trail climbs the side of the mountain through mature pine forest to the observatory at the summit of Mt. John. There you can enjoy a cup of cappuccino at the Astro Cafe if you choose, sitting at a table with an amazing view of Lake Tekapo below. Looking in various directions from the summit one sees mountains near and distant across mind boggling open spaces. In many places in New Zealand one can look down into valleys that stretch for miles and miles without a structure, vehicle or human in sight.
From the observatory the trail leads down the other side of Mt. John though vast open fields to the lake shore, and follows the shoreline back into the village. Including cappuccino I believe the hike took us a total of about 3 hours or so.
As you pass the southern end of Lake Pukaki on your way to Mount Cook, the above is what you see. And when you turn north from SH8 onto SH80, Mount Cook Road, as you continue to approach Mount Cook Village the unbelievably beautiful panoramas continue to unfold.
At Mount Cook Village you will find many hiking trails. We chose to climb to Tasman Lake so that we could see Tasman Glacier, and then, having satisfied our desire for relatively steep climbs for the day, we hiked the Kea Point track to see some more glaciers. All in all it is very easy to piece together a very full and satisfying day of short hikes with spectacular views and a variety of terrain that ranges from flat to quite steep.
We encountered the most changeable weather of our New Zealand journey on Mount Cook. In a short span of time we experienced sun, wind, rain and hail. But since we were dressed for anything we were able to take it all in stride and we had an excellent, memorable time.
Many kinds of adventures await in Queenstown: paragliding, skydiving, bungee jumping, jet boat rides, paddle boarding, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking ... the list goes on. It is therefore not surprising that there are a great many day hikes in and around Queenstown. We were there for five days and we barely scratched the surface. Among the hikes and walks we enjoyed, these stood out.
Mt. Chrichton is located about a half hour out of Queenstown on the Queenstown-Glenorchy Road.
Taking the loop in the clockwise direction, the well maintained Mt. Chrichton Loop Track climbs steadily along the river to the site of Sam Summers' hut. Sam was a gold miner who lived there in the early twentieth century. After you reach the hut it continues to wind its way up onto a shoulder of the mountain; then it levels off and brings you to an overlook that reveals the gorgeous scene depicted in the photo above.
You may not be able to see them in the photo, but there were sheep far down in the valley below, and we could clearly hear them all the way up on the mountain. Also on this hike we encountered a bell bird hopping about in one of the trees. We enjoyed hearing its clear song.
The loop was a bit less than four hours for us since we stopped in the hut to enjoy our lunch out of the rain. The track passes a waterfall and leads through majestic terrain and dense forest. As it climbs there are steep drop offs and no railings, so if you go with your kids be sure to keep a close watch on them.
The Routeburn Track
Glenorchy is a village on the shore of Lake Wakapitu. It is a gorgeous forty-five minute drive out of Queenstown on the Queenstown-Glenorchy Road, about twenty minutes or so after you pass Mt. Chrichton. When you get to Glenorchy, turn right on Glenorchy Paradise Road and look for signs for the Routeburn Track.
This was one of several occasions in New Zealand when we felt we had driven right to the end of the Earth. It really feels like the middle of nowhere. The road gets smaller and smaller until it completely disappears. There is a shelter with toilets marking the beginning of the eastern end of the track.
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand's Great Walks and as such is very well maintained. It climbs along the gorge of the Rees River into Mt. Aspiring National Park. Like many New Zealand rivers, the Rees has a turquoise hue from finely ground rock, or "rock flour," that is a product of glaciers. There are rapids and fantastically sculpted gorges, huge cliffs and dense forest to delight the eye as you can see in the photo below.
We hiked up to Routeburn Flats and back. Surrounded by such beauty, it's easy to lose track of time. I set a timer for us on my phone at two hours to head back. When it went off we were having such a good time we decided to go further to make the flats, but it is good to keep track of the time so you know about how long it will take for you to get back. All in all we hiked the Routeburn for about 5 hours.
Another of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Kepler Track is a great loop that offers a three- to four-day tramp through lush, mossy beech forest. We picked up the trail in Te Anau, just off SH95 on Golf Course Road.
The portion of the track that we hiked follows the Waiau River south from Lake Te Anau. While this section is much less remote than the Routeburn Track, it still affords an excellent day hiking experience. Here the terrain is alternately flat and gently rolling. We hiked about five hours round trip, out and back. The river is a beautiful green color for part of the way and seems to be different colors in different areas.
One could make several days worth of day hikes on the Kepler Track and experience terrain that ranges from flat to mountainous. From the car park near Rainbow Reach, for example, you could hike to Spirit Lake and back, or you could hike Kepler Track along the shore of Lake Te Anau past Brod Bay Campsite to Luxmore Hut and back for a full day with a full variety of terrain.
Milford Sound Area
The Milford Sound area is very remote and beautiful, and offers many day hiking opportunities. We were fortunate to have excellent advice, having only one day to enjoy this remarkable and unique place. We were advised to hike to Key Summit and we found that advice to be very good indeed.
Key Summit is an offshoot from the western end of the Routeburn Track. To get there take SH94 about an hour north from Te Anau to "The Divide" car park. There you will find rest rooms and a shelter and signs for Key Summit Trail and Routeburn Track.
We also found a flock of about ten kea (key-ah), New Zealand's large alpine parrot, flying back and forth and calling to each other from the trees around the car park. When they fly you can see a flash of the vivid orange feathers beneath their wings. That was a treat.
The Key Summit Trail is a moderate climb of around 1,400 feet from the car park to the summit which stands at an approximate elevation of 3,000 feet. The trail is steep in places and is a bit rocky. We were glad we had our trekking poles for this relatively short hike. In several places the trail is crossed by tiny streams that trickle over limestone rocks and scree, and on the way you'll pass a beautiful waterfall at least twice as the trail climbs back and forth across the slope.
Although much of the time our view was obscured by cloud, we could still occasionally glimpse nearby majestic, snow-covered peaks and deep forested valleys below. At the summit there is a nature trail with signs that provide information and pictures describing the unique alpine plants that live there, and a beautifully calm pond that reflects its beautiful surroundings.
During our descent we encountered a kea eating buds from the branches of a tree (pictured above). The kea was not overly concerned with us as we observed it from several feet away. They are beautiful, large birds and it was very much a pleasure to be able to capture this one's image.
Although the hike is not long, I think it took us about three hours round trip. Well worth it.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Anne Gaioni on September 10, 2017:
I found your post very useful. We will be in New Zealand Dec 12 - Jan 15. We signed up for one multi-day hike so far, but we will mostly be doing dayhikes. I am curious about what reservations you had before you arrived as I am a bit panicked about peak season... thanks for any advice or info
Anne Gaioni, CO