10 of New Zealand's Best Backroad Experiences
Do you want to discover the best of New Zealand when you visit? While the main tourist trail is always popular, we recommend delving a little deeper for the most memorable experiences. It’s time to explore the backcountry and backroads, it’s where the real magic happens!
So, if you want to see New Zealand’s very best parts – the parts we are most proud to show off - then backcountry travel is a must. But where do you start and how do you find these places? Well… here are 10 experiences you’ll only find on a New Zealand Trails guided trip on the backroads of New Zealand.
1. The Road to Okarito
A tiny blue sign on the main West Coast State Highway 6 reads ‘Okarito 10km’. While most people drive right on by in a hurry to visit the famous glaciers, here at New Zealand Trails we will take that turn down the quiet backroad and travel seemingly back in time to a little town like no other.
A popular home for artists and writers, Okarito is a quirky wee town with just 30-odd permanent residents and a few holiday homes. It’s located right on the beach, where the wild waves crash onto the shoreline and the sun sets beautifully each night over the Tasman Sea. One of our favourite things to do here is gather driftwood from the beach, build a bonfire and spend the evening relaxing round the fire, chatting, eating or just soaking in the atmosphere. In the morning we’ll get up early to explore the lagoon by kayak with the local nature guides pointing out the incredible birdlife as we go.
2. Routeburn Flats | Backcountry Experience
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks, usually taking three days and two nights to complete if you’re doing the whole thing. But if you’re short on time then you can still experience New Zealand backcountry at its finest with a day walk into the Routeburn Flats.
If you take on the three-day hike, then the imposing Darren mountains provide a spectacular backdrop for your journey as you meander through dense beech forest and past glacial blue rivers. You can overnight in the backcountry huts with fellow hikers or bring your own tent if you’re keen! If you’re with us, we’ll hike the start of the track through the forests to the Routeburn Flats, a peaceful meadow with an outstanding view up the Routeburn Valley. We’ll share a picnic, experience the sound of nature and gaze at the mountains before us.
As part of this experience, we’ll actually sneak in another backroads travel experience as we drive along Lake Wakatipu for the spectacular 45-minute journey to Glenorchy where the Routeburn Track begins. There’s an awe-inspiring moment when you drive round a curve in the lake to meet a spectacular view you’ll never forget.
3. The Haast Pass Road
As we make our way inland from the West Coast into the mountains, we’ll head over one of New Zealand’s three backroad alpine passes. The winding Haast Pass has frequent single-lane bridges, winding switchbacks and rocky surrounds, making slips an ever present hazard. It’s also the longest single-lane highway in New Zealand! As well as being one of the only places in the world you’ll get to see mountains on one side of you and the ocean on the other.
A word of warning though, during the winter the road can become impassable so if you’re travelling alone, be sure to properly check the conditions before you set off. We’ll stop regularly as we head over the pass to explore the walking tracks, views and trails along the way. Backroads travel is always safest and (we think) more enjoyable, with a local guide.
4. The Hollyford Valley | Fiordland Backcountry
Many New Zealanders have said that the Hollyford Valley in Fiordland National Park is the most beautiful wilderness valley in New Zealand. You can’t get a better reference than that! And you can’t get much more backcountry than this either. Fiordland National Park is a densely forested region with a limited network of roads. We tend to head in by air or jetboat before exploring on foot.
Once you’re in the valley, you’ll be in a designated World Heritage area and in the midst of an untouched environment of native forests, picturesque lakes and roaring waterfalls. It almost feels like you’ve entered a prehistoric world. You’ll find yourself among giants with 1000-year-old giant Rimu trees, ancient beech forests and emerald mosses surrounding you as you go. Your guide will introduce you to the area and your wilderness home for the night – Martins Bay Lodge – where a three-course meal and a comfortable pillow awaits.
5. The Road to Milford Sound
The 119km road to Milford Sound is a feat of engineering that took almost 24 years to complete, starting in 1929. Before then, Milford Sound was only accessible by air, boat or on foot. And it was a challenging walk to say the least! Building the road was an almost impossible task. Around 100 men took it on with basic equipment working in an unpredictable climate and over challenging terrain.
Thanks to them, today we get to enjoy it as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Many people take a coach tour day trip down to Milford Sound, but with New Zealand Trails we’ll travel in a small comfortable vehicle, allowing us to easily hop in and out to enjoy the trails and capture photographs as we go. It also means we can time it right, so we don’t get there at the same time as the coach tour groups, meaning you’ll get to experience Milford Sound at its quietest and most stunning. This is one of the backroads of New Zealand you’ll never forget.
6. Nelson Lakes National Park | The Angelus Circuit Backcountry Hike
You may think that a multi-day trip into the backcountry is out of reach for your trip to New Zealand. Perhaps you think that kind of thing is best left to the youngsters, or that you can’t possibly take the right gear with you. But that’s where we come in! At New Zealand Trails we believe this experience can be the icing on the cake of your whole trip. A chance to leap out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself and have a remarkable experience.
The Angelus Circuit hike will take you into the backcountry for two glorious nights, all under the steam of your own two feet. You’ll hike the trail with the help and encouragement of your guide, who will also make sure you are well fed and watered along the way (and is bound to pull out the occasional treat, of course). Sleeping in a backcountry hut after a day in the mountains is a New Zealand experience that you really shouldn’t miss.
7. The Crown Range Road
Another of New Zealand’s alpine passes, we’ll travel over the winding Crown Range as we make our way from Wanaka to Queenstown over the Southern Alps. It’s the highest road in New Zealand, reaching 1121m at its highest point. You can enjoy the spectacular views over the Wakatipu Valley as you head to Queenstown from Wanaka. The road has many chain bays, demonstrating how hazardous it can be during the winter months. If you are driving yourself in the winter, be sure to check the weather conditions and latest advice before you set out. And don’t forget your chains!
8. Mount Aspiring National Park Hiking Trails
Using the quirky mountain town of Wanaka as a base, you are in the best place to explore the Mount Aspiring National Park. It’s a hiker’s paradise here with a mixture of remote wilderness, high mountains and stunning river valleys providing the ultimate playground. Our favourite hike takes you into the backcountry and up the Rocky Mountain trail where the views over Lake Wanaka and the Southern Alps are unbeatable. We’ll also take you to Diamond Lake, a beautiful alpine lake that’s well worth the effort to get there.
9. The Road to Mount Cook Village
A tour of the backroads of New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without taking the turn from State Highway 8 after the little town of Twizel (the town of trees!) towards Mount Cook Village. The 40-minute drive along the shores of the stunning glacier-blue Lake Pukaki gives you a chance to watch as the scenery builds around you. As you approach the village, Mount Cook grows taller and more domineering towering over the valley.
You’re really out in the wilderness now - Mount Cook Village doesn’t even have a shop, so you’ll be relying on the supplies your guides have brought in (and they always cook up a storm!) and the hospitality of the famous Hermitage Hotel. The hotel here has been welcoming tourists to the Mount Cook region since 1913, although it was rebuilt in 1958 after a devastating fire.
10. The Hooker Valley Backcountry Hike
This remote Mount Cook National Park hike winds its way up the valley, crossing swing-bridges over alpine streams and passing Mueller Lake as we go. At the end of the track is Hooker Lake, speckled with icebergs and with views of the towering Mount Cook in the background. You probably hear glaciers tumbling in the distance, see beautiful alpine flowers like the Mount Cook lily and meet mountaineers and climbers setting out on alpine adventures.