The Great Walks of New Zealand
Most, if not all of New Zealand’s walking tracks and trails are great, fantastic even. But there’s only a select few that hold the coveted title of being one of New Zealand’s official ‘Great Walks’. There are nine Great Walks dotted up and down the country, with a tenth opening in 2019. These walking tracks represent the very best of New Zealand’s great outdoors, passing through some of our most awe-inspiring scenery by way of National Parks, coastal trails, native forests and mountain passes.
Those lucky enough to set foot on a Great Walk during their time in New Zealand will find that photographs alone can’t do justice to the beautiful landscapes, friendly wildlife and native flora they encounter on their travels – being there is everything.
Our Great Walks are understandably popular and, as a result, there are limits in place around how many people can hike on the trails. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) carefully manages and maintains the walking tracks to ensure the delicate ecosystems are protected. For the most part the tracks are well formed and easy to follow. If you’re contemplating a Great Walk for yourself, it’s worth noting that some of the tracks have a specific season during which most hikers venture out.
You can walk the tracks either guided or unguided, choosing either just a section of the trail or the full length. Those hoping to hike the full length of any track must be well prepared and book early to avoid disappointment. If you’re heading out alone, we strongly recommend you chat with DOC in advance and pay close attention to the weather forecast.
Here at New Zealand Trails we take care of all the nitty gritty details and arrangements, hiking with our guests on the very best sections of some of New Zealand’s Great Walks. At the end of your trip you’ll be able to say you’ve hiked on one, if not more of these iconic tracks!
Here’s an overview of each of New Zealand’s Great Walks and how you can explore the area and hike them with us.
1. Lake Waikaremoana, North Island
46 km (28.6 miles) one way | 3-4 days hiking | Intermediate track
Located on the East Coast of the North Island in the Te Urewera area, this Great Walk follows the shoreline of Lake Waikaremoana, the ‘sea of rippling waters’. The track passes through ancient podocarp forests and wetlands teeming with life. Along the way it’s worth taking some time to stop off at the beautiful isolated beaches you’ll encounter, as well as the thundering Korokoro Falls.The views from Panekire Bluff are outstanding and the sunsets over the lake and ocean are unforgettable.
You’ll cross a couple of impressive suspension bridges and get your heart pumping with a rugged ridgeline climb. This protected region is home to the largest area of native forest remaining in the North Island, as well as nearly all species of native New Zealand birds. The Tuhoe people who live there have a strong spiritual connection to the land. Their respect for nature has protected the landscape, allowing it to remain largely untouched and offering hikers a glimpse into how New Zealand used to look.
2. Tongariro Northern Circuit, North Island
43.1 km (26.8 miles) loop | 3-4 days hiking | Intermediate track | Seasonal restrictions
This hike takes you through a World Heritage area and the volcanic heart of the Tongariro National Park. The track winds through volcanic landscapes, glacial valleys, native beech forest, alpine meadows and past stunning emerald-coloured lakes. This culturally significant area is home to active volcanoes, with Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe casting their gaze over the trail. Hikers enjoy sweeping views across the central North Island and really appreciate the track’s diversity, with alpine fields and forests on one side and desolate plateau on the other. It’s truly an incredible area and one of our top picks here at New Zealand Trails.
One of the best ways to experience the Tongariro area is to take a day hike on the crossing. It’s known as New Zealand’s ‘best day walk’, and for good reason. On our Sweet North trip, we hike the 19.4km (12 miles) Tongariro Crossing, taking our time to soak up the views and appreciate the incredible landscape. Traversing a land of extremes, it’s a walk you’re not likely to forget in a hurry!
3. Whanganui Journey, North Island
87 or 145km (54 or 90 miles) one way | 3- or 5-days paddling | River Journey | Seasonal restrictions
There might some confusion here, as this Great Walk is a river journey as opposed to a hike! Located on the North Island, this journey follows the Whanganui River through a landscape of farmland, remote hills and bush-clad valleys. There are two options available, with either a 145km paddle from Taumarunui to Pipiriki taking 5 days, or a shorter 3-day journey from Whakahoro to Pipiriki. Immerse yourself in culture and history with an overnight stay at Tieke Kainga, the only DOC hut that also serves as a marae.
The Whanganui Journey offers a real sense of adventure with a few navigable rapids, waterfalls and caves along the way. There’s a chance to stretch your legs with a short walk on the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ track that, as the name suggests, leads you to an eerie abandoned bridge. This unconventional Great Walk offers something a little unique and is well worth the effort, particularly if you enjoy paddling.
4. Abel Tasman Coast Track, South Island
60km (37.3 miles) | 3-5 days hiking | Intermediate track
Situated in the breathtakingly beautiful Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island, this track really does have it all! Golden sand beaches, secluded bays, crystal clear swimming holes, native coastal bush and to top it off, it’s located in the sunniest place in New Zealand. You can walk the whole length of the track in either direction but be sure to check the tide timetable before you set off as part of the trail crosses an estuary. One of the track’s many impressive features is the 47-metre long swing suspension bridge that takes you over the rushing Falls River – do look down!
You can also catch a water taxi or kayak between different points on the track, which is ideal if you’re a little short on time. Here at Trails, we absolutely love the Nelson/Abel Tasman area, so we spend a fair bit of time here on our trips. Our Kiwi Classic trip offers a chance to explore the tranquil waters of the National Park by kayak on a 3-day paddling adventure. We’ll make stops at various points along the track, so you’ll get a chance to enjoy the beauty of the area from the water, as well as on land.
5. Heaphy Track, South Island
78.4km (48.7 miles) | 4-6 days hiking | Intermediate track | Seasonal restrictions
There are longer and shorter options available on the Heaphy Track, but most people start their hike in Golden Bay, north of Nelson, and travel down to Kohaihai on the West Coast. You’ll hike through tussock country, wetland and lush forest as you make your way down to the wild West Coast. You’ll also pass the surging waters of the Heaphy River as it meets the ocean - an exhilarating sight! Keep your eyes and ears out for native birdlife, including the great spotted kiwi and takahe. If you’re a keen cyclist, the Heaphy Track is also open to mountain bikers for a limited time during the year, although it’s considered an advanced track, so it pays to be prepared and hang on to your handlebars!
6. Routeburn Track, South Island
32km (20 miles) one way | 2-4 days hiking | Intermediate track | Seasonal restrictions
Located in beautiful Otago and Fiordland, this track offers the ultimate alpine adventure with incredible mountain views, native forests and waterfalls at each turn in the path. It really is one of the quintessential New Zealand experiences and worthy of a place on your bucket list!
You can walk the Routeburn in either direction over the course of 2 to 4 days, with some hardy souls opting to run the length of the track in less than a day. The Great Walks season runs from October to April and is considered the best time of year to hike the track. Outside of those months you’re likely to encounter some adverse weather conditions which will make hiking the trail a lot trickier.
The Routeburn is one of our favourite Great Walks and we hike sections of it on all four of our South Island trips. Walking from the Otago side, we follow the clear waters of the Routeburn River as it winds its way through native beech forest to a beautiful alpine meadow (the perfect place for a picnic lunch!) and then on up to the Routeburn Falls, enjoying views of the impressive Humboldt Mountains in the background. We also walk in from the other side, starting off at The Divide in Fiordland and hiking up to Key Summit. It’s a good climb but well worth it for the panoramic views across the mountains and tarns. By hiking the very best sections of the Routeburn with us here at Trails, you’ll be able to tick this Great Walk off your list and bask in the afterglow of a fantastic day’s hiking in one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand.
7. Kepler Track, South Island
60km (37.3 miles) loop track | 3-4 days hiking | Intermediate track | Seasonal restrictions
Traversing through Fiordland National Park, the Kepler Track winds its way through New Zealand’s pristine wilderness. A tranquil lakeside footpath leads the way along the shoreline of Lake Te Anau through beech forest, before a climb up past the bush line to the ridge where you’ll enjoy flowing alpine vistas and views of the glacier-carved valleys spreading out before you. It’s worth the side trip to the fascinating Luxmore Caves, even after your climb. After descending to the shores of Lake Manapouri, you’ll enjoy an easy walk through a unique and fragile wetland, a treat for any budding ecologists on the trail! The Kepler Track showcases the best of Fiordland and, unlike many of New Zealand’s walks, was custom-built to make the most of the landscape.
8. Milford Track, South Island
53.5km (33.2 miles) one way | 4 days hiking | Intermediate track | Seasonal restrictions
Perhaps our most famous Great Walk, the Milford Track is the jewel in Fiordland’s hiking crown. Known as the ‘finest walk in the world’, hikers follow in the footsteps of early explorers who made their way through the incredibly scenic landscape to the inarguably majestic Milford Sound. Beginning with a boat cruise to the head of Lake Te Anau and finishing at Sandfly Point in Milford Sound, hikers take in incredible panoramas from Mackinnon Pass across glacier-forged valleys, as well as passing several thundering waterfalls. A side trip to Sutherland Falls is highly recommended.
We completely understand the fascination with the Milford Track and so we’ve included the chance to hike a section of it on our outstanding World Heritage trip. We’ll take you on a guided walk from Milford Sound to the iconic Giant’s Gate Falls and along the way you’ll appreciate the abundance of native flora that festoons the track, as well as the birds singing in the trees. You might even be tempted to break into song yourself and we wouldn’t blame you. The Milford Track is certainly worth writing home about!
9. Rakiura Track, Stewart Island
32km (19.9 miles) loop track | 3 days hiking | Intermediate track
Located just off the coast at the bottom of the South Island, Stewart Island is a relaxed and peaceful spot home to a myriad of native birds including our shy national emblem, the kiwi. It’s also where you’ll find the Rakiura Track, which follows the coastline past wilderness beaches and meanders inland through native forest. Nature is very much in charge here and so the landscape remains largely untouched, adding to its beauty and sense of isolation.
Strictly protected by the Department of Conservation, Stewart Island offers an even slower pace of life than the rest of New Zealand. With a population of less than 400 people, the quirky (but friendly!) locals will regale you with tales of Stewart Island life and its rich history.
10. Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track, South Island (Opening in 2019)
55km (34.2 miles) one way | 2-3 days hiking | Intermediate track
New Zealand’s latest addition to the Great Walks stable is in Paparoa National Park on the South Island’s West Coast. It’s due to open to hikers in 2019 and will also be open to mountain bikers, taking 1-2 days to ride. Home to Jurassic-looking limestone landscapes and sub-tropical rainforest, the track crosses the Paparoa Range leading to the site of the former Pike River Mine. In 2010, 29 men were killed in the Pike River Mine tragedy and this walk was created as a memorial to them, with the mine site serving as a place of quiet reflection at the families’ wishes.
We think that the Paparoa National Park is a stunning and unique location, well worth exploring and we can’t wait to set foot on the new track when it opens. We spend some time hiking in and around this area on our World Heritage, Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic trips.
Enjoy a taste of the Great Walks with New Zealand Trails
In an ideal world, of course, you’d take a few months off and travel the entire length of each Great Walk, but if you’re only gracing our shores for a week or two, then we recommend joining us on an incredible journey that includes the chance to hike some sections of the Great Walks. All of our trips include at least one or two opportunities to hike on a Great Walk, so it’s the ideal way to enjoy a taste of New Zealand’s best tracks and trails. And as for walking all ten, well that can be something to work towards, can’t it?!
Request your free New Zealand Trails brochure here to find out more about our all-inclusive, fully-guided, multi-day trips - including the Great Walks of New Zealand that we visit.