Day Walks on New Zealand's Great Walks - South Island

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By Kim Mackay-Wallace

12 minute read

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New Zealand Great Walks – Day Walks:

New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks are a selection of the best hiking tracks in the country, showcasing a range of different landscapes, geological wonders, and a vast variety of flora and fauna. The Great Walks typically take between 3 to 5 days to walk in their entirety, but if multi-day tramping isn’t your cup of tea, or you’re a bit short on time, there are plenty of great options to explore New Zealand’s premier tracks in smaller bite sized pieces. Each of the tracks can be experienced as day hikes, which is a great way to enjoy the best snippets of each track without having to hike the whole thing (or carry a tramping pack or sleep in huts and tents!). 

6 of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks are found in the South Island, and 1 on Stewart Island. Below are our top picks Day Walks on the Southern New Zealand Great Walks. If you like the look of these day walks, check out our New Zealand Great Walk Adventure where we have combined the best of the best into an all-inclusive 5-day luxury walking tour. This trip includes our favourite day hikes on the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, Kepler Track and Rakiura Track. Check out our Day Walks on New Zealand Great Walks - North Island blog for information on the 3 Great Walks in the North Island of New Zealand.

Day Walks on the Milford Track

The Milford Track is New Zealand’s most famous Great Walk. Due to its popularity, the Department of Conservation strictly limits the number of walkers on the track in order to protect the environment as well as the experience of walkers. Both ends of the track are only accessible by boat, with the Southern end of the track a half hour boat journey from Te Anau Downs, and the Northern end a short 5-minute water taxi ride to Sandfly Point from Milford Sound.

Milford Track Day Walks Giants Gate Falls

1. Giant’s Gate Falls | 3-4 hours return | 10km/6mi | Return via same track

The section closest to Milford Sound is the most easily accessible, and the walk to Giant’s Gate Falls is a wonderful half-day trip. A walk on the Milford Track would not be complete without a visit to Milford Sound itself, so a day walk on the northern end of the track gives the perfect opportunity to combine a half-day walk with a cruise of the Sound – a must-do when visiting Milford Sounds.

Starting from Sandfly Point (as the name implies, it is recommended to bring some bug repellent on this walk!) the track winds its way through the forest, until reaching the spectacular 30m Giant’s Gate Falls. This section of track is very easy-going and almost entirely flat, making it very achievable for most levels of fitness and ability. The lush Fiordland rainforest had abundant and diverse birdlife, and drastic mountain vistas unique to this part of New Zealand.

Independent day walkers are not permitted on the Milford track to protect the surrounding environment and prevent overcrowding. Joining a guided tour not only allows you access to one of the most famous walks in the world, but provides the opportunity for your guide to share their wealth of knowledge with you and make sure you get the best possible Milford Track Experience. Even better, join our 5-day New Zealand Great Walk Adventure to enjoy guided walks not only on the Milford Track, but the Routeburn, Kepler and Rakiura Tracks as well.

Abel Tasman Track Day Walks

There are 3 main access points to the Abel Tasman Track: Marahau, Totaranui and Wainui. Marahau is the most accessible and is located a convenient 1 hour drive from Nelson, making it the ideal starting point for a day trip to Abel Tasman National Park. Sections of the track can be easily walked from each of the access points, although a popular option that allows easy access to the most beautiful parts of the track is to take one of the regularly scheduled water taxis to locations along the track and walk a short segment. Both our Masterpiece Tour and Kiwi Classic Tour have a free day in Nelson in the middle of the trip where you have a whole day to yourselves to explore the area. This is the perfect opportunity to take a day trip to the Abel Tasman National Park and take a day walk on the Abel Tasman Great Walk Track.

 1. Bark Bay to Anchorage | 3-4 hours (tide dependent) | 8.4-11.5km/5.3-7.1mi | One-way track

Our favourite section of the Abel Tasman Track for a day walk involves catching a water taxi to Bark Bay and walking from there to Anchorage with a short side trip to Cleopatra’s Pool. This is the most varied section of the track and takes in impressive waterfalls, idyllic hidden pools, and stunning beaches. Taking roughly 4 hours it is the perfect walk to spend a half day in the park or take the full day to leisurely enjoy the numerous pristine golden sandy beaches along the way. Those looking for a longer full-day walk can start the walk a further 3.5km north at Tonga Quarry, adding 1.5 hours to the walk. After exploring for the day, get picked up by water taxi from Anchorage for a scenic cruise back to Marahau or Kaiteriteri.

 2. Marahau to Apple Tree Bay | 4 hours return | 10.4km/6.5mi | Return via same track

If you’d rather not catch a water taxi, the first section of the track starts right from the carpark at Marahau. An easy walk featuring native bush and beautiful beaches leads you to Apple Tree Bay, a great spot to lounge on the golden sand and have lunch before heading back to Marahau.

 3. Totaranui to Mutton Cove return | 4 hours return | 13km/8mi | Return via same track

The Northern end of the Abel Track is equally beautiful and worthy of a day trip. Anapai Bay is roughly halfway to Mutton Cove and is one of the most spectacular beaches in the Park. Far fewer visitors travel the section of the track north of Totaranui as the water taxis don’t operate in this Northern region. If you want to experience a couple of the Abel Tasman’s best beaches and get away from the busier parts of the park, exploring north of Totaranui is the way to go.

 4. Totaranui to Goat Bay return | 2 hours return | 4.2km/2.6mi | Return via same track

For a nice short walk that delivers the quintessential Abel Tasman views, follow the track south from Totaranui to Goat Bay. Elevated views overlooking the white sands and crystal-clear waters of both Totaranui Beach and Goat Bay are easily achieved with a 45-minute walk each way. Complement this walk with the walk to Mutton cove for the ultimate northern Abel Tasman experience.

Day Walks on the Kepler Track

day walks kepler heli hike

1. Moturau Hut | 4 hours return | 11.2km/7mi | Return via same track

The Kepler Track offers a huge amount of variety of scenery and landscapes. Starting from Rainbow Reach, walk through the beech forest until reaching the wetlands at Balloon Loop. Keep an eye out for the 18 species that live in this unique environment as you walk across the boardwalk that takes you across this delicate wetland area. After another hour in the forest you suddenly emerge onto the beautiful sandy beaches of Lake Manapouri, against a backdrop of the dramatic Fiordland Mountains. There aren’t too many places where you can walk through an inland mountain range and eat your lunch at the beach!

2. Rainbow Reach to Control Gates | 2.5-3.5 hours | 9.5km/5.9mi | One-way track

Starting from Rainbow Reach but heading in the other direction, walk to the Control Gates on the shores of Lake Te Anau. Following the mighty Waiau River, the track meanders gently through the forest. Make sure to take in the views from the swingbridge at the beginning of the hike, the impressive scenery in this spot was one of the many filming locations of the Lord of the Rings movies.

3. Mt Luxmore Heli Hike | 4-7 hours | 8-16km/5-10mi | One-way track

A heli hike on the Kepler Track is the ultimate way to enjoy this Great Walk in a day. Take in the spectacular alpine views from Mt Luxmore, explore the beech forest as the track drops below the treeline, and end the day walking along the shore of Lake Te Anau. This day trip has it all! A scenic helicopter flight will deliver you from Te Anau township to Luxmore Hut, perched high in the alpine with sweeping views across Lake Te Anau and the Fiordland mountains. From here, take on an optional additional climb (3 hours return) of the well-graded track to the summit of Mt Luxmore for even more awe-inspiring views of the Te Anau basin. Then it is time to descend back down to the lake, travelling past Luxmore Hut, along the boardwalks that traverse the alpine tussocklands, and down the zigzagging track through the beech forest. Upon arrival at Brod Beach, a water taxi will pick you up and whisk you off across the lake, back to Te Anau for a well-earned meal. If you’re only going to do one day hike in Fiordland National Park and want the most variety and best views, this is the one to do!

All of our South Island tours include a walk on the Kepler Track, but for the ultimate Kepler day trip check out The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure, which includes the Mt Luxmore heli-hike. 

Heaphy Track Day Walks

1. Scotts Beach | 2.5 hours return | 6km/3.7mi | Return via same track

The Western end of the Heaphy track near Karamea offers several good options for short walks, with a half day return walk to Scott’s Beach being our top pick. Following the unique coastline, where dense subtropical rainforest meets the ocean, stroll along golden sands underneath nikau palm groves – the southernmost palm trees in the world. The short detour to Scott’s Hill Lookout is well worth the effort, affording spectacular views along the coast. Scott’s Beach has picnic tables and barbeques and is the ideal place for a picnic lunch. Enjoy the serenity of the unique West Coast wilderness before returning to Karamea.   

2. Nikau Walk | 45 minutes return | 1.3km/0.8mi | Loop track

The Nikau Walk starts along the same track to Scott’s Beach but turns off after about 10 minutes. Meandering through the forest and a stunning grove of Nikau palms, the track then loops back onto the main Heaphy Track. This is a great option for those wanting just a short easy walk, or a pleasant extension to the Scott’s Beach walk.

Day Walks on the Routeburn Track 

The Routeburn Track travels through two National Parks, starting in Mt Aspiring National Park and finishing in Fiordland National Park. The Eastern end of the track can be accessed as a day trip from Queenstown, while the Western section is accessed from Te Anau, on the road into Milford Sound. The World Heritage Walking Tour includes a full-day walk on the Routeburn Track, with the option to go all the way to the Routeburn Falls. Our Pure South Tour explores the Routeburn Track from the Milford Sound end, with a hike up to Key Summit. 

kepler track day walk

1. Routeburn Flats | 3-5 hours return | 14km/8.7mi | Return via same track

The walk from the Eastern starting point of the Routeburn to the Routeburn Flats is a gentle stroll through the beech forest alongside turquoise glacial waters. The valley opens to the expansive Routeburn Flats, surrounded by towering peaks in all directions. There is only a small amount of incline to this point, and the very well-graded and maintained track makes this very achievable. While the walk itself only takes about 2 hours each way, you will want to allow yourself plenty of time to stop and observe the abundant wildlife that lives in this area. Many of New Zealand’s native birds that are now endangered and protected live in this region, and it is common to spot birds such as the kaka, whio, rockwren, rifleman and mohua along the track, as well as some of our more common but equally as special birds including the piwakawaka and South Island robin.

2. Routeburn Falls | 6-8 hours return | 18.5km/11.5mi | Return via same track

A further hour from the Routeburn Flats are the Routeburn Falls. This section of the track climbs considerably (but still on an immaculately maintained trail), before breaking out above the treeline to allow views back down the entire valley you walked up, and across the surrounding mountain ranges. This view is one of our favourites in the whole country – we promise it is worth the extra hour of uphill! Located just above the impressive Routeburn Falls Hut are the falls themselves, a picturesque series of cascades and pools against an impressive mountain backdrop. A return walk to the Routeburn Falls is a fairly big day out in the hills, but one of the most rewarding day hikes in the South Island.

3. Key Summit | 3 hours return | 7.4km/4.6mi | Return via same track

The other end of the Routeburn Track is located in Fiordland National Park and provides equally stunning views. The track to Key Summit zig zags its way up a series of switch backs for about 1.5 to 2 hours, before reaching the alpine fields and tarns of Key Summit. The views from here stretch across Fiordland’s Darran Mountains, and the Hollyford Valley towards the Tasman Sea. 

Paparoa Track Day Walks

The Paparoa track, New Zealand’s newest Great Walk, opened in 2019 and was the first new Great Walk to be introduced in 25 years. Much of the track was custom built, linking existing sections of track to form the new 3-day Great Walk. The track can be walked from either end, or you can skip straight to the middle portion with day walk up the Moonlight Track to the Paparoa Tops.

1. Pororari River – Punakaiki River | 2 hours | 7km/4.3mi | One-way or Loop track

The best section to explore as a day walk is the Punakaiki end of the track. Starting at the Paparoa Track carpark just north of Punakaiki township, follow the Pororari River through nikau palms and subtropical rainforest below dramatic limestone cliffs. The scenery looks like something straight out of Jurassic Park and offers views found nowhere else in New Zealand. The track climbs briefly over a small hill before descending to the Punakaiki River. To make this track a loop, follow the road 3.6km/2.2mi through Punakaiki township back to the Pororari carpark.

2. Paparoa Tops | 4-6 hours return | 13km/8mi | Return via same track

The middle section of the Paparoa Track follows the ridgeline of the Paparoa Tops. From this open alpine ridge, the views on a clear day stretch up and down the West Coast as far as the eye can see. The easiest way to access the Paparoa Tops as a day walk is to follow the Moonlight Track from Anderson’s flat, winding gradually uphill for about 3 hours until reaching the ridgeline. Aside from a short steep section that forms the final 20 minutes of the ascent, the track is very well graded making the climb not too strenuous despite covering a descent amount of elevation. You will be well-rewarded with spectacular views upon reaching the ridgeline, including Aoraki/Mt Cook to the South.

Day Walks on the Rakiura Track

The Rakiura Track is New Zealand’s most remote Great Walk, located on Stewart Island which lies a 20-minute flight or 1 hour ferry ride South of Bluff off the bottom of the South Island. The are plenty of things to do on Stewart Island, and a walk on the Rakiura Track is a major highlight.

day walk rakiura track stewart island

1. Lee Bay to Maori Beach | 4.5 hours return | 9km/5.6mi | Return via alternative track

Both ends of the Rakiura Track are conveniently located within walking distance of the island’s main township Oban, making the track easily accessible for day walks. Starting the track from Lee Bay takes walkers between a series of golden beaches, connected by sections of lush forest. Maori Beach is a perfect place to sit back and relax on the sand, looking out across Fouveaux Straight to the mainland. Once the site of a permanent settlement consisting of a sawmill, houses for the workers and their families, and a school, relics of the area’s history can still be found a short stroll from the beach. On the way back to Lee Bay, follow the same track as far as Little River before turning off and taking the Garden Mound Track. This track climbs 164m to a lookout point and will get the heart pumping, but it only takes about 30 minutes to the top and is well worth the effort for the views over Oban and Horseshoe Bay. A short descent down the other side will deliver you back to the road leading back into Oban township.

2. Port William – Lee Bay | 3-4 hours | 8km/5mi | One-way track

A perfect extension to the walk described above, this walk involves a water taxi ride from Oban to Port William Hut. After a scenic trip along the coastline, start your walk at Port William and take a 2 hour walk along Magnetic Beach and over a small hill to Maori Beach. From here you will continue following the Rakiura Track back to Lee Bay, and we recommend taking the Garden Mound route. This option allows you to explore an extra 3.5km of the track, in the same amount of walking time, plus you get to experience the Stewart Island coastline from the water!

3. Oban – Kaipipi Bay | 3 hours return | 8km/5mi | Return via the same track

The other end of the track is just a short 2km walk from Oban and follows close to the coastline, sidling around headlands and staying primarily within the forest. In the peak of the sawmilling era on Stewart Island, Kaipipi Bay was the location of several busy sawmills and the track to Kaipipi Bay was one of the busiest and best-maintained roads on the island. This section of the Rakiura Track follows the former logging road and the walk is easy-going. The track emerges to a clearing overlooking Kaipipi Bay and affords beautiful views across the bay.

 

Ready to tick New Zealand's Great Walks off your bucket list? All of our tours include day walks on the Great Walks as well as heaps of other amazing walks and activities. Request a free copy of our brochure here to get more information on our trips!

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