New Zealand Hiking Trails: A Local’s Guide

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Disclosure: This article may contain links to products or services (including Amazon) that pay me a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you.

This is a guest post from Jonny Baker.

New Zealand, or Aotearoa as it’s known by the indigenous Māori population, is a beautiful island nation. It has gained a worldwide reputation for its stunning and unique nature, attracting many visitors every year. Many of those visitors will take road trips, but one of the best ways to experience some of the incredible scenery is through the amazing New Zealand hiking trails. There are so many amazing trails and tracks throughout the country, making it a dream destination for hiking enthusiasts.

In this guide I will be covering everything you need to know about hiking on New Zealand’s trails, from how to choose a hiking trail, the different types of trails and tracks, and the best time to hike, as well as highlighting some of the best hiking trails you need to try.

How To Choose A New Zealand Hiking Trail

New Zealand is home to a diverse network of hiking trails for all abilities. Some of the best trails and tracks can be found in the national parks, of which there are 13 throughout the country. As well as the national parks, great hikes can be found in the many reserves and conservation parks.

Most of the trails and tracks have an official difficulty grading, making it easy to pick the right hike for your ability. The gradings start at the easiest short walks and go all the way to expert routes. The easy short walks are on flat terrain and are suitable for all abilities including wheelchair users. Conversely, the most advanced expert routes require extensive hiking experience and the ability to be self-sufficient in the backcountry. These routes travel through steep and rugged terrain and are extremely challenging.

You can find and search for hiking trails and tracks on the Department of Conservation website. All the information you need to choose your hike will be listed, including the difficulty grading.

Types Of Trails And Tracks

The trails and tracks on offer in New Zealand usually fall into one of three categories: short walks, day hikes or multi-day backpacking trips.

Short walks are extremely accessible which makes them perfect for families and just about anyone that wants to get out and explore. There are some fantastic short walks all across New Zealand. Most short walks won’t last for more than an hour or two but will help transport you to some of New Zealand’s most breath-taking spots.

Some of New Zealand’s most popular hiking tracks are day hikes. There are many glorious day hikes to try throughout the country, allowing access to some stunning locations. They tend to be more challenging than short walks as they cover a longer distance and can be quite steep in places. These trails can take anywhere from 3-8 hours to complete so require a good level of fitness.

Hiker on a trail between hills covered with plants and trees
A Great Walk standard trail on The Heaphy Track (image copyright Jonny Baker)

The final hiking trail category you should be aware of is multi-day hikes. There are many multi-day hiking trail options, from simple overnight hikes to week long expeditions. This type of hike gives the opportunity to venture deep into the beautiful rugged backcountry. Although there are so many to choose from, the most popular multi-day trips are the Great Walks.

The Great Walks are a series of 10 multi-day tracks that pass through some of the most unbelievable areas in New Zealand. These hikes are aptly named because their trails and tracks are kept in extremely good condition. The Great Walks are perfect for those looking to experience the best that New Zealand has to offer.

When Is The Best Time To Hike?

To make sure you get the best weather you should hike during the summer or autumn months. With New Zealand being located in the southern hemisphere, this happens between December and April the following year. The best weather can be found in January and February but this is also when the trails are at their busiest. March and April are a good time to hike as the trails are quieter but the weather remains good.

Although summer and autumn present the best conditions for hiking, it is still possible to hike during the winter months. Low level tracks and trails are safe enough to walk throughout the entire year. It is however a good idea to stay clear of higher altitude alpine routes during the winter as these can become very dangerous.

Staying In Backcountry Huts And Campsites

If you come to hike in New Zealand, something you must do is spend at least one night out in the wilderness in one of the backcountry huts. The country has an extensive network of almost 1,000 backcountry huts offering hikers a place to stay. These huts are usually equipped with bunks with mattresses, running water, heating and toilets. Some huts even have gas cooking facilities and a warden based there during the busy season.

If you hike any of the Great Walks, it is likely that you’ll stay at multiple huts as the trails usually take anywhere from 2-6 days to finish. The huts on the country’s most popular routes must be booked well in advance as spaces tend to fill up very quickly. Other huts on less popular routes operate on a first come first served basis. The Department of Conservation manage these backcountry huts, you can search their database of huts here.

As well as huts, there are plenty of campsites along the trails to pitch up your tent. Facilities at campsites are usually a bit more basic than the huts. However there are normally toilets and a water supply.

Hut beside a walking trail with hills in the background
A backcountry hut on The Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park (image copyright Jonny Baker)

The Best Short Walks In New Zealand

New Zealand has so many great short walks to try out. The following three walks are ones you certainly won’t want to miss.

Lake Matheson/Te Ara Kairaumati Walk

This short walk is a 2.6km loop track which takes you around the edge of beautiful Lake Matheson. The Lake Matheson/Te Ara Kairaumati Walk is located on the West Coast of the South Island and is a particularly popular track.

The lake is set in a very picturesque area with spectacular views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, the tallest mountains in New Zealand. The highlight of the lake is the flawless mirror reflections of these mountains. To see these reflections at their best you will need to walk the track when the wind is calm. The best times are usually early morning or during the evening at dusk.

Misty morning with mountains and trees reflected in a lake
Lake Matheson’s mirror reflections on a calm morning (image copyright Jonny Baker)

The track itself is very easy and takes approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes to complete. It is suitable for all abilities, including wheelchair users and strollers.

Devils Punchbowl Track

If you love waterfalls then the Devils Punchbowl Track in Arthur’s Pass National Park will be a walk you’ll want to try. Throughout the walk there are many points where you can see the spectacular 131 m tall waterfall. However the highlight of the walk is the viewing platform at the end of the track. From here you will get a great opportunity to see the waterfall in all its glory. Make sure you’re prepared to get wet as the spray from the bottom of the waterfall can reach the platform.

The walk takes 1 hour to complete and is 2 km in length. Again, this is an easy walking track, but there are quite a few steps to climb so it requires a moderate level of fitness.

Blue Pools Track

Another great South Island short walk is Blue Pools Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. This is a very easy walk suitable for the majority of people as it is flat and is only a 1 hour return journey.

This walk takes you on a trip through a beautiful native forest with Blue Pools being your final destination. Blue Pools is a part of the Makarora River and is aptly named because of its extremely clear and vibrant turquoise waters. The water is so crystal clear and blue because it is made up of glacial water from the mountains. If you fancy a quick dip be warned, the water is ice cold.

For the best views make your way to the Blue Pools bridge which sits above the river. From here you will be able to see right to the bottom of the river as well as enjoying the views looking down the gorge.

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The Best New Zealand Day Hikes

Some of New Zealand’s most popular trails and tracks are day hikes. These trails venture deeper into the wilderness than on the short walks and are perfect for those looking to experience the country’s beautiful landscapes.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is arguably New Zealand’s best day hike. This 19.4 km one way track will take you on a journey through the incredible volcanic landscapes of the Tongariro National Park.

On this hike you’ll get to walk between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, which are both active volcanoes, and enjoy the vibrant colours of the Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake. Throughout the hike you’ll get to enjoy the otherworldly volcanic landscapes that surround you. At times you may even feel like you’re on another planet!

Volcanic landscape with mountains and a lake
Blue Lake in the distance on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (image copyright Jonny Baker)

Hooker Valley Track

If you enjoy breath-taking mountain views then the Hooker Valley Track is the day hike for you. This 10 km track is situated in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and takes 3 hours to complete. The walk takes you through the Hooker Valley, across swing bridges and over roaring rivers. Throughout the day you will enjoy the views of the surrounding glaciers and mountain ranges.

The hiking trail ends at the Hooker Lake which is a beautiful sight with many icebergs poking their way through the surface of the water. Behind the lake stands Aoraki/Mount Cook, which is New Zealand’s tallest mountain at 3,724 m.

Roys Peak Track

Roys Peak Track, located near the town of Wanaka on the South Island, is a challenging but extremely rewarding hike. This is a 16 km adventure that takes about 5-6 hours to complete.

The hike starts at a low altitude near Lake Wanaka (New Zealand’s fourth largest lake) and travels all the way to the summit of Roys Peak at 1,578 m. Throughout, this trail follows a steep incline towards the summit so it will definitely test your fitness level.

From the summit, the views looking over Lake Wanaka are outstanding. As well as the lake you’ll be able to enjoy spectacular views of the Southern Alps.

The Best Multi-Day Hikes

The final trail type in New Zealand is multi-day hikes. These can range from a simple overnight hike like the Mueller Hut Route, to as long as a 4 month trip like the Te Araroa trail. Some of the country’s best tracks are the Great Walks which range from 2-6 day trips.

Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of the ten New Zealand Great Walks. You will cover some of the same ground as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike. However, the Northern Circuit is a much longer hike, taking about 3-4 days to complete.

This track gives you more access to the rugged backcountry of Tongariro National Park with so much to see. This area is listed as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Area because of both its natural and cultural significance. The track is very well formed and maintained throughout, making it perfect for those just starting out with multi-day hiking trips.

Heaphy Track

The Heaphy Track is a great multi-day hike if you’re looking to experience the diversity of New Zealand’s unique nature. This 78.4 km track is located in Kahurangi National Park at the top of the South Island and takes 4-6 days to finish.

The track starts in Golden Bay through dense forest areas full of beech trees. As the hike continues, the forest changes to large open tussock covered clearings where there is lots of unique wildlife to find.

Hiker on a path with hills on one side and beach and sea on the other
The trail on the coastal section of the Heaphy Track (image copyright Jonny Baker)

The last section of the hike takes you along the West Coast where you’ll find forests made up of Nīkau palm trees. The final stretch of the walk takes you along a coastal path with the roaring Tasman Sea on your right. To learn more check out this extensive guide to the Heaphy Track which will explain everything.

Kepler Track

The Kepler Track is one of three Great Walks situated in Fiordland National Park. This track is a 60 km circuit which takes 3-4 days to complete.

This trail passes through some of Fiordland National Park’s most beautiful and lush native forests. However the highlight of this track is the alpine section found in the middle of the hike. This section will have you traversing the exposed ridgelines with amazing views of Lake Te Anau and the encompassing mountain ranges. This is a great multi-day trip for experiencing New Zealand’s alpine landscapes.

And there you have it, your guide to New Zealand’s hiking trails. There are so many trails and tracks to explore in this stunning country, and with so many you’re sure to find the right trail for your ability. I’m sure it won’t be long until I see you out on the trail. Thanks for reading!

Jonny Baker is the photographer and general earth enthusiast behind The Photographers Passport. With his blog he aims to provide the best information to help others explore and adventure our beautiful world. Jonny is originally from the United Kingdom but spends most of his time exploring the country of New Zealand.

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