Best Autumn Hikes in New Zealand
Running from March until May, Fall, or as we call it, Autumn in New Zealand is often overlooked by visitors. The summer months of November until February are the high season for both international and local visitors alike, especially with the Northern Winter making it a very popular time to get away for people from Europe and North America. While summer is a lovely time in New Zealand with long hot days, it also means many of the tourist hotspots and best trails are extremely busy which is why those in the know often tend to avoid these months. If you are prepared to sacrifice an hour of daylight and a degree or two of heat in order to experience the great outdoors of New Zealand without the crowds, then this guide is for you. Here are some of our favourite hikes in Fall/Autumn in New Zealand.
Deep in the heart of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park lies the Sealy Tarns track, one of the most spectacular day hikes in all of New Zealand. Rising up nearly 2000ft (600 metres) from the valley floor, the trail rewards the steady elevation gain with amazing vistas of the surrounding mountains at every step. Starting initially in native alpine bush, you are soon above the trees with panoramic views of the glacial lakes and rivers below. In Autumn, the persistent snow melt after a hot summer means the rivers are in full flow, with the lakes full to the brim with milky turquoise water due to what is known as “Glacial Flour”, essentially powdered rock which has been pulverized by the ice of the glacier as it carved its way down the mountain valleys.
But what lies below is only an appetizer for what towers above you as you make your way up the ridge. At the heart of the valley Aoraki/Mt Cook stands in perfect symmetry with the smaller peaks below, creating a natural diamond of snow and ice gleaming in the Autumn sun. The higher we climb the more the mountain reveals itself, somehow appearing the stand alone while surrounded by 20 other peaks over 10,000 ft (3000m) which call the National Park home. As the track turns the corner around the edge of the ridgeline, the most spectacular of these peaks suddenly appears above us like a snow-capped giant.
Mt Sefton’s almost vertical face acts as an impenetrable barrier separating the Mt Cook and West Coast regions, and its proximity to the trail makes it appear as the largest of all the mountains in sight. But what makes it truly unique is every year around this time it sheds the majority of its coating of snow and ice, almost in the way a bird does its feathers.
As the incline of the trail begins to subside and the alpine trees and plants give way to the tussock which cover the area frequently covered by snow in winter, our destination appears on the edge of mountain. The Sealy Tarns are tiny alpine lakes of melted snow which offer a perfect spot to take in the scale and grandeur of our surroundings, as well as a chance to photograph the impressive reflections the lakes offer on a calm day. As you sit back and enjoy a picnic, you'll be hard pressed to think of a more scenic lunch stop. For those with some extra energy left in the legs, the trail then continues further up to the Mueller Ridge, opening up views deeper into the mountains still, but Sealy Tarns is for most the perfect spot to soak it all in before slowly descending to the valley below, with the changing light of the afternoon offering a fresh perspective and perfect conditions for the perfect photo.
We love to visit Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park on our New Zealand hiking tours to explore the beauty and wonder of this mountain paradise. If you’d like to explore Aoraki/Mt Cook with us then check out our array of South Island tours to find your perfect fit.
Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain Trail
Wanaka and the surrounding areas are a hiker's paradise, filled with lakes, rivers and mountains and a network of trails to allow visitors to experience all this special place has to offer. While these trails are naturally very popular, one of the lesser-known hikes which is a favourite of ours at New Zealand Trails is the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain Trail. Situated a beautiful 20-minute scenic drive out of Wanaka, an unassuming small car park is the unlikely gateway to this amazing place. After a brief climb up the hill, the landscape is suddenly transformed into an oasis of nature, with the Diamond Lake appearing surrounded by a ring of trees thriving off its water. Autumn means the leaves are a rainbow of colours, those which have fallen covering the trail and contrasting brilliantly with the rocky landscape nearby.
After following the meandering trail around the lake, it begins to climb through the trees up the mountain behind, leading to a viewing platform of the lake below. After another brief climb the trail starts its circumnavigation of the aptly named Rocky Mountain, passing overhangs and waterfalls before arriving at the clearing above and unveiling the incredible panoramic views or Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains, which if we are lucky enough will have had their first dusting of snow high above.
An optional side trail leads to the summit itself, while the main trail heads around the lakeside of the mountain and offers views up the valley into the Mt Aspiring National Park and its namesake peak appearing like a white arrowhead at the end. The final section offers views back towards the township, with the rows of poplar trees around the lakes edge framing the way back to our lakeside hotel, where an afternoon swim in the lake, which is at its warmest temperature of the years, or a wander through the golden trees into the village is a perfect way to relax after a morning experiencing one of the hidden gems of Wanaka.
Relatively quiet even in summer, in Autumn we are often lucky enough to have this trail almost to ourselves, with the high season crowds long gone and the ski season still several months away. Several of our tours, such as the Pure South and the Masterpiece get the chance to hike this trail which has somehow managed to stay under the radar for most who visit the region.
Commonly described as one of the world's best day hikes, the Tongariro Crossing is a journey into a different world, with the surrounding native bush of the central North Island a polar opposite to the landscapes found on the trail. The trail starts in the foot of Mt Tongariro, before traversing the marshy lowland surrounding the peak, with boardwalks common to avoid damaging the delicate flora and fauna. After visiting the Soda Springs, a waterfall cascading into the valley and feeding the surrounding plant life, the trail ascends what’s known as the Devils Staircase into the heart of the mountain. An active volcano, Mt Tongariro has erupted as recently as 2012 and still smolders in places. Arriving at its extinct crater is like being transported to the moon.
As the trail crosses the flat crater, Mt Ngauruhoe, more commonly known these days at Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings, towers above, its perfect cone shape stark compared to the surrounding peaks. After a final climb, the stunning Red Crater and Emerald Lakes reveal themselves, a perfect halfway point for lunch and to catch your breath. Due to its popularity, the whole trail and this section in particular can be very crowded in summertime, to a point where efforts have been made to restrict numbers. But come the Autumn, the crowds almost completely disappear making it an ideal time to experience this world-famous trail without the masses.
A final section along the crater takes the trail to the Blue Lake, another prime lunch stop, before we start our descent down the northern side of the mountain, slowly re-entering the native bush and the refreshing forest air below. Another perk of hiking the Tongariro Crossing this time of year is the ideal climate. Reaching up to 30’C (90F) in the summertime and with limited shelter during sections of the track it’s recommended to start very early in the day to avoid the midday sun, especially on the uphill section. But come March and April, these temperatures drop to 15’C-20’C (60F-70F), making for perfect conditions on the trail, which combined with the lack of crowds makes it our favourite time to visit.
The Tongariro Crossing is an option for all guests on our Sweet North trip, with a shorter option to visit Soda Springs for those wanting to experience this magical place but not do a full day of hiking.
The above three hikes are just a sample of the wonderful trails New Zealand has to offer, with these ones in particular at their very best in Autumn each year. The lack of crowds and milder days make not only these, but almost all of the trails we visit ideal this time of year, highlighted by the fact it's also the favourite time for many locals. So if like us Autumn sounds like your ideal time to explore the trails of New Zealand, then maybe it's time to come and join us for an adventure of a lifetime!