12 Best New Zealand Day Hikes
15 minute read
Get hold of your free New Zealand Trails brochure here
In this article:1. Ben Lomond 2. Roy’s Peak 3. Isthmus Peak 4. Rocky Mountain 5. Pororari River Track 6. Mueller Hut Route 7. Hooker Valley Track 8. Tongariro Crossing (said to be the best New Zealand day hike) 9. Routeburn Track (Shelter to Flats) 10. Routeburn Track Key Summit 11. Lake Rotoiti Circuit 12. Kepler Track
New Zealand day hikes are one of our favourite aspects of the beautiful place we call home! Whether you want to explore our enticing coastline or go deep into our National Parks, there’s a walk for you! Delving into the hiking on offer on New Zealand’s South Island is an absolute must when you’re visiting our shores. Whilst most of our favourite hikes happen to be found on the South Island, we’ve also included our top pick from the North Island, the emerald lake gem in the centre of our walking crown. If you're looking for a stress-free vacation we believe the best way to experience these wonderful walks is on one of our New Zealand hiking tours but if you’re just looking for a little more information on the best hikes in New Zealand, you’ve navigated yourself to the right place… just be wary of those contour lines!
Overlooking the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown, Ben Lomond is an epic day hike that begins right in the heart of New Zealand’s adrenaline hub. Head towards the Gondola from the town centre and follow the Tiki Trail up to the Skyline building. Be warned, the first section of the track is pretty steep, but the views over Lake Wakatipu are well worth the effort.
Just when you think the views can’t be surpassed, you’re greeted by spectacular, awe-inspiring outlooks towards Mount Aspiring National Park. The final section of the hike, as you ascend towards the summit, is quite challenging. New Zealand’s cheekiest birds, Kea, are often found taunting tourists as they near their final destination. These alpine parrots have worked out that the summit means a rest for hikers, and they’ll hope to steal some of your snacks! By this point, you’ll have gained nearly 1,500 metres in elevation so a tasty treat will have been well earned.
Summiting Ben Lomond is a full day of activity. Expect to take a minimum of six hours to complete this epic trail, undeniably one of the best hikes in New Zealand. It’s worth noting that you will be entering an alpine environment; conditions can, and often do, change quickly. Be prepared for adverse weather and make sure you have adequate clothing, food and water. Organised walkers with a good level of fitness will experience one of New Zealand’s most rewarding day hikes and hopefully meet some Kea and New Zealand Falcons along the way.
We reckon the optimum time to check out the stunning panoramic views from the summit is just before you start our Masterpiece, Kiwi Classic and Pure South tours, or on your rest day if you’re on our World Heritage trip.
Named after one of Scotland’s most infamous adventurers, Rob Roy MacGregor, this trail is arguably the most Instagrammed in New Zealand and maybe even the entire earth! Like its namesake, this trail has a similar outlaw to hero tale. Spending years unknown to those outside of Wanaka, this hike is now probably the most popular hike undertaken in this beautiful lakeside town. The start point can be found on the road that heads out of Wanaka towards Glendhu Bay and Mount Aspiring National Park.
The track crosses private farmland and it’s worth noting there is no access during lambing season, which falls from mid-October to mid-November annually. Respect the farm owner’s property and stick to the track, using stiles where they are offered. As you begin your 1,228 metre ascent, you’ll be greeted by a chorus of grasshoppers and skylarks. Making your way through alpine meadows and native tussock grasslands, it should take you between three and four hours to reach the summit. The top stands at 1,578 metres and you’ll be rewarded with pristine views of Mount Aspiring National Park and New Zealand’s fourth-largest lake, Lake Wanaka. If you look really closely, you’ll be able to spot Mou Waho, one of New Zealand’s hidden gems.
In our humble opinion, this is some of the best hiking that the South Island of New Zealand has to offer. Similarly to the Ben Lomond mission, prepare in advance and ensure you have adequate supplies. We often say we can get four seasons in one day here in New Zealand! Give yourself approximately five to six hours to complete this 16km / 9.9 mile hike and don’t forget to watch out for the sheep!
Situated a stone’s throw from Roy’s Peak, the hike up Isthmus was until recently one of Wanaka’s best kept secrets. Like many of the hikes on our list, the track up Isthmus begins just off State Highway 6. The road is a bit of a mecca for hikers to say the least! You’re looking for a car park around 30 minutes drive from the town of Wanaka, slightly north of the endearing Lake Hawea township.
Expect to be rewarded with panoramic views over both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea following your ascent up Isthmus. On a clear day, you will also be treated to spectacular views of the Southern Alps/Ka Tiritiri o te Moana (the 360 degree view alone makes this one of the best New Zealand day hikes). This 16km / 10 mile return hike takes most folk around five to seven hours and includes time walking on the Glen Dene Ridge. Upon reaching the ridge, follow the sign that points to the Isthmus Peak track which you will see on your right.
Similarly to Roy’s Peak, this track crosses private land and is closed for a month annually between the 20th November to 20th December. Fawning of the baby deer occurs during this time and it is very important that mothers and their offspring are left alone in this period. This hike has become an incredibly popular sunrise saunter and we recommend you get up early to make the most of the endless lake views!
Another jewel in the Wanaka hiking crown, Rocky Mountain is found west of Wanaka. There are several trail options from the car park, making Rocky Mountain the ideal place to hike with people of different abilities. All of the hikes should take less than three hours, so they’re perfect for half a day of hiking.
A gentle stroll around Diamond Lake is the simplest option here. This 2.5km / 1.8 mile track allows you to meander around the lake where there is plentiful birdlife to be seen and heard. If you fancy a bit more of a challenge, the next step up is the Diamond Lake Lookout trail. This walk offers a lush view over the lake and should take around an hour in total. To complete the Lake Wanaka Lookout trail or the Rocky Mountain Summit hike you ascend steeply from the Diamond Lake Lookout viewing area. Reaching the Lake Wanaka lookout should take you around 30 minutes from this point. From the lookout, you’ll be greeted with stunning views of Lake Wanaka and the islands found on it!
Up for an extra challenge? From the Diamond Lake Lookout, the Rocky Mountain Summit should take around an hour to ninety minutes. The Rocky Mountain Summit track takes you up to an impressive 775 metres in height. On a bluebird day, from the summit you will be treated to panoramas of the Southern Alps/Ka Tiritiri o te Moana and even Mount Aspiring/Tititea, the highest mountain in Mount Aspiring National Park that towers at 3,033 metres!
Pororari River Track
This verdant green revelation is found within New Zealand’s smallest national park, Paparoa National Park. It’s soon to be home to our tenth great walk, the Paparoa / Pike 29 track, with a section dedicated to those who unfortunately perished in the November 2010 mine disaster. The hike can be found near the Pororari River Bridge, north of the Visitor Centre found on State Highway 6.
This is one of the easiest walks on our list of the best hikes in New Zealand. It feels like you’ve stepped into a prehistoric world as you skirt alongside the gentle Pororari River. Huge nikau palms and heaps of fern species wave as you strain your eyes looking for dinosaurs… it really does feel like walking onto the set of a Jurassic Park film. Whilst there may or may not have been T-rexes and Pterodactyls roaming through this lush rainforest, there were definitely Moa, the hybrid Ostrich-Emu birds that went extinct a few hundred years ago. Many of our native flora evolved around these birds, including the lancewood tree, which can be seen on many of these wonderful walks.
Despite being the shortest hike within our trekking guide, the Pororari River Track is incredibly rewarding. Over the 7km / 4.3 mile return hike, there are a few gentle undulations, but nothing too challenging, even for inexperienced trampers (that’s how we affectionately refer to hikers here in New Zealand!). This gem of a hike is included in our Grand Explorer, Masterpiece, Kiwi Classic and World Heritage itineraries, so there are ample opportunities to wander amongst the dense rainforest.
Mueller Hut Route
This much-loved route is found within the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Once you begin this challenging full day hike, you’ll quickly understand why it’s some of the best hiking that the South Island of New Zealand has to offer. The hike begins from the White Horse Hill car park that is a short drive from Mount Cook Village.
You will begin your hike amongst Tussock grasses and head towards your first milestone, Sealy Tarns. As you climb towards the Tarns, the Mueller and Hooker Lakes sit in the valley below. On a clear day, Aoraki’s frowning face is clearly visible too. It’s not uncommon to hear and see Kea and New Zealand Falcon along the route – just keep your snacks hidden! Once you’ve reached a set of small ponds, the first leg of your journey is complete. Despite already climbing 1,882 steps (!) this is where the challenge really begins.
The trail conditions change from here on in with the route ascending a loose gravel slope of scree up to the skyline ridge. To say the trail is rather rocky is an understatement! It is important to keep following the orange trail markers as the weather can change in an instant at this altitude. Upon reaching the ridge, hikers are rewarded with a magnificent view of the Mueller Glacier. Turning south towards the hut, it should then take around 20 minutes to half an hour to reach this famous Alpine Hut that offers panoramic views over many of New Zealand’s highest peaks.
The Mueller Hut Route is arguably the most challenging of our best hikes in New Zealand as you gain 1,040 metres over a 5.2km / 3.2 mile distance. Expect to take between seven to nine hours to complete the hike. We recommend starting early and stopping for lunch at the distinctive Mueller Hut, it’s a serene spot to enjoy a sandwich at 1,800 metres!
Hooker Valley Track
The little brother to the Mueller, the Hooker Valley Track is one of the gentler hikes on New Zealand’s South Island. Just like the Mueller Hut Track, this trail begins at the White Horse Hill car park. The trail offers superb views of both Mueller and Hooker Lakes and walkers can often watch icebergs floating on the surface. A brave few enter the water each day… it’s certainly refreshing!
Despite being easier than most, this trail still packs a punch! Along the way, you can learn about the first woman to conquer Aoraki/Mount Cook, an Australian mountaineer called Freda du Faur. She first summited all 3,724 metres of Aoraki in 1910 and managed to do it in a skirt as she wanted to prove that women were just as capable as men. Her rock, found 200 metres along the track, is testament to her ground-breaking achievements within the mountaineering community.
Along this 8km / 5 mile return route there is ample opportunity to see alpine flora that is not often easily accessible. The Mount Cook buttercup is often found alongside the trail. This rare flower was long thought to be a lily but recent research suggests it is more reminiscent of a buttercup. Tussock grasses abound, along with Spaniard grass, a native flower that spreads its seeds like wildfire! The Hooker Valley Track should take around three hours return, giving hikers plenty of time to experience and appreciate the abundance of native flora. That's why we think this is one of the best New Zealand day hikes.
Tongariro Crossing (said to be the best New Zealand day hike)
With New Zealand’s South Island being so famous for its hiking, some of the fantastic hikes on the North Island can be overlooked. The Tongariro Alpine crossing is often described as one of the best day hikes in the world, making it by proxy one of the best hikes in New Zealand. The walk is found within New Zealand’s oldest national park, Tongariro National Park, and the hike begins from the Mangatepopo road end. It is best to organise a shuttle service from a nearby village such as Whakapapa or from the nearest large town, Taupo.
This hike is not for the faint-hearted! Much like Frodo and Sam’s ascent of Mount Doom, it truly is a challenging hike. For Lord of the Rings fans, this terrain is pretty special as through the vast majority of the trail, Mount Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom) looms above you. This is an active volcanic area and a landscape unlike any other in New Zealand. As you approach the Red Crater, you’d be forgiven for convincing yourself you’d landed on Mars! Fiery red characterises the area, and upon first sight, it truly is surreal.
For most folk, a minimum of seven hours of hiking is required to reach the Ketetahi Road End. There is a 1,196 metre change in elevation as you make your way along the crossing so be prepared for several ascents and descents throughout your day. You won’t mind the steep climbs though as you discover true beauty, such as the Emerald Lakes and the Blue Lake, landmarks not to be missed. The Tongariro Crossing is part of our Sweet North trip, on day four you’ll explore this extra-terrestrial extravaganza!
Routeburn Track (Shelter to Flats)
One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, we love it so much here at New Zealand Trails that we’ve decided to tell you about two different sections! If that doesn’t show our love for the Routeburn, we’re not sure what will. Most things start at the beginning, so that’s what we’ll do with the Routeburn. The majority of walkers choose to start the hike from the Glenorchy/Mount Aspiring National Park side, from the Routeburn Shelter. This start point can be accessed via an unsealed road around 30 minutes’ drive from the township of Glenorchy that lies at the head of Lake Wakatipu.
This section of the walk from Routeburn Shelter to the Routeburn Flats is the most relaxing part of the trail in our opinion. Walking alongside glacial waters, you are transported into another world. Under the canopy of the beech forest, birds sing to their hearts’ content. Many of New Zealand’s most endangered birds can be found along this route, as well as other trails when you're hiking in New Zealand's South Island. A number of rare species, including the Mohua/Yellowhead, Rockwren and Rifleman, can be heard in greater numbers than in any other recent time, thanks to the efforts of the Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust.
There are a few sections of gentle incline along the trail but they are easily navigated. The Bridal Veil Waterfall breaks the steepest section of the walk up nicely and then it’s not much further until one of our favourite toilets in New Zealand. We appreciate you are reading this to learn about New Zealand’s South Island hiking, but who doesn’t love a good toilet fact? The toilet found on the left, overlooking the river at the halfway point to the Flats, are some of the most expensive to maintain in New Zealand as their waste tanks are taken away by helicopter. We’re not making this up; here in New Zealand, helicopters sort out some of our waste! Moving on from our toilet talk, the Routeburn Flats provide an idyllic spot for a wee bit of tucker (that’s a Kiwi-ism meaning lunch) before returning to civilisation at the Routeburn Shelter. Give yourselves between four and six hours to complete this return section of the track of 15km / 13.8 miles, unless you get distracted by the abundance of bird life, in which case you may as well spend a whole day!
Routeburn Track Key Summit
You’ve learnt all about the Mount Aspiring National Park section of the Routeburn, so let’s delve into the Fiordland National Park side. One of our favourite things about the Routeburn Track is that it transcends two of New Zealand’s most incredible National Parks, Mount Aspiring in the east and Fiordland in the west. Despite technically being part of the same hike, the landscapes within these protected areas vary hugely. The Key Summit Trail begins from the Divide, which is situated around 85km /52.8 miles along the Te Anau to Milford Road. Taking the Routeburn Track to begin, the trail heads off to the right before Howden Hut.
From beneath the canopy of beautiful beech trees, it’s a relatively steep climb up to the summit that offers a panoramic vista over glorious Fiordland National Park. It’s easy to lose your concentration as you gasp at the nature around you. There is heaps of native flora on display and you’re likely to hear the pitter-patter of the South Island Robin! These friendly fellas are always keen to accompany hikers on the trail as we kick up kai (the Maori word for food) for them to nibble on!
You may have spotted a theme by now… Key Summit is a wonderful lunch location! It’s a much-loved picnic spot by holidaymakers on our Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic trips. After a tasty bit of kai (we’re testing your linguistic skills here!), it’s time to tread the boardwalk through more native bush. This hike should take around three to four hours return and you’ll cover 6.8km / 4.2 miles.
Lake Rotoiti Circuit
The furthest north of our pick of New Zealand’s South Island hiking, Lake Rotoiti sits in Nelson Lakes National Park. One of the multitude of reasons we’re big fans of this hike is that it’s still a wee bit of a local secret. The track begins on Kerr Bay, on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. Upon seeing the Lake, you may be shocked to discover that ‘Rotoiti’ actually translates as ‘little lake’!
Much of the hike is amongst a plethora of ferns, mosses and beech trees, a wide array of intriguing greens. In summer, the native red rata provide a stunning contrast to the green screen of flora witnessed by hikers all year round. Birdlife has a heavy presence alongside the waters of Lake Rotoiti, with Tui and Bellbird/Korimako often heard trying to drown the other bird out with their singing. There is also an array of life underwater, most notably the New Zealand longfin eels. These long locals are some of the biggest eels found on the planet, they can grow to an incredible two metres long and they enjoy their kai too, weighing up to 24 kilograms!
When it comes to the best hikes in New Zealand, this is one of the longest that we’ve included. Expect to take seven to ten hours to walk the full circuit depending on the weather and your fitness and ability. If you are comfortable with, and experienced in, river crossings, the circuit is 23km / 14 miles long. If water levels are high or you are not used to river crossings, we recommend taking the footbridge that is situated a few kilometres further north than where most people choose to cross the river. If using the swingbridge, the hike comes in at 31km. Alternatively, a water taxi can be taken from the top of Lake Rotoiti back down to Kerr Bay.
Last but not least, here’s the final chapter in our wee guide to New Zealand’s day hikes. The Kepler Track is a multi-day adventure situated in Fiordland National Park. Just like the Routeburn Track, the Kepler is one of our Great Walks and we’re going to focus on one section of it, from the car park up to Luxmore Hut. The hike begins near the gateway to Milford Sound, Te Anau, and is around a ten minute drive from the township.
There’s opportunities to swim along the way and after a long day of tramping, we’re sure Brod Bay would be quite appealing on your return leg! After a gentle meander to Brod Bay, it is here where the real challenge begins with a steep climb up to the bushline. Views permitting, as superb ones can certainly slow you down, it should take around 45 minutes to an hour to reach Luxmore Hut. By this point you know that we’ll recommend having lunch at the hut. It’s also worth issuing a Kea warning, this is a particularly treasured spot for our greedy alpine parrots!
On a cloud-free day it’s possible to view the Southern Alps all the way to Aoraki / Mount Cook and beyond, a truly inspirational sight! The return journey from Luxmore Hut will take around eight to ten hours and you’ll cover 27.6km / 17 miles. We can’t rave about the Kepler enough, it has a dynamic range of scenery, from limestone cliffs to mossy verges and is a fantastic way to spend time in the South West World Heritage (Te Wāhipounamu) area, where several of our picks for hiking in New Zealand’s South Island are found.
We hope you’ve popped clean socks on, got your snacks packed and are ready to lace up your hiking boots after reading about the smorgasbord of hikes on offer in New Zealand! If you’re still wanting to learn more about the cornucopia of hikes we have or find out the best time of year for hiking in New Zealand we've got a couple of handy guides. Considering jumping on a plane and experiencing these views for yourself? Get in touch with the lovely Jodi who will be able to tailor a trip to your needs.