Great Walks of New Zealand
By Claire Todd
10 minute read
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Most, if not all of the New Zealand hiking tracks and trails are great, fantastic even. But there’s only a select few that hold the coveted title of being officially named New Zealand Great Walks. There are ten Great Walks dotted up and down the country. 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.
New Zealand 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!
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 we think it's one of the best hikes in New Zealand.
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.
Our Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic tours include a free day in Nelson, giving you the perfect opportunity to explore the Abel Tasman on foot or by kayak.
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!
We explore both the Nelson area and the West Coast on our World Heritage, Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic trips and it’s a great chance to experience the landscape that the Heaphy Track passes through.
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 New Zealand 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 five 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 New Zealand hiking trails, was custom-built to make the most of the landscape.
A spectacular way to experience the Kepler Track in just one day is by embarking on a heli hike from Te Anau. A scenic helicopter flight over Lake Te Anau to Luxmore Hut affords panoramic views of the Te Anau Basin. From here you will have the option to climb to the summit of Mt Luxmore for views over the Fiordland mountains, before starting the 8km descent through alpine tussock fields and beech forest to the shores of Lake Te Anau. For all of the views with only some of the effort, you can enjoy this day walk on The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure.
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 in New Zealand, 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. If the Milford Track is on your bucket list, our New Zealand Great Walk Adventure trip has a day walk on the Milford Track, as well as three other Great Walks over five unforgettable days.
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.
We explore Stewart Island on The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure, with a day walk on the Rakiura Track and a visit to Ulva Island. We'll also set foot on three other Great Walks during this 5-day trip!
10. Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track, South Island
55km (34.2 miles) one way | 2-3 days hiking | Intermediate track
The latest addition to the New Zealand Great Walks list is in Paparoa National Park on the South Island’s West Coast. It's also 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. We spend some time hiking in and around this area on our Grand Explorer, World Heritage, Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic trips.
Enjoy a taste of the New Zealand 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 hiking in New Zealand that includes the chance to hike some sections of the Great Walks in New Zealand. 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.
Other articles you may like:
- The top 10 lesser known walks of New Zealand
- Hiking the Routeburn Track
- Walking the Hollyford Track
- Hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand
- Get your free New Zealand Trails guided tour brochure
Hiking the Milford Track in October
Hiking the Kepler Track in November
The Best Adventure Activities on New Zealand's South Island
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Can you tell me if there is a guided walk for the kepler Track. Thanks Robin
Hi there, we take a day hike on part of the Kepler Track on our Masterpiece and Kiwi Classic trips. You'll have a local Kiwi guide with you the whole way on these trips as well. Cheers, Jodi
Three older women would like to hike 2 or 3 of the Great Walks. How would we go about setting that up? Ideally, we would complete the Routeburn for instance then relax at a nice hotel a few days, then go on to the Heafy. Rest a few days and then go on to the Milford, Kepler, or Nelson Tracks. Is there a way to focus such as this but be guided?
Hi there, thank you so much for getting in touch about our small group trips here in New Zealand! We would be delighted to help with your plans to explore our Great Walks! We have sent you an email and look forward to helping with your plans! Cheers! Jodi