Top 5 New Zealand Hiking Destinations
When most people think about New Zealand the first thing that comes to mind is a land of breath taking scenery, with a diverse range of landscapes ranging from volcanoes to rainforests, beaches to glaciers, and everything in between. It’s hard to go anywhere in the country without seeing some of this incredible scenery, but most of the real highlights lie hidden from the main towns and highways.
Luckily for you, here at New Zealand Trails, we're experts in exploring the best of New Zealand, and lucky for us New Zealand is also blessed with an expansive network of trails and tracks that showcase the best of our beautiful country. Many of these have been built by volunteers over the years and now are maintained by DOC (The Department of Conservations) meaning they are kept up to a high standard and safe for visitors of all fitness levels. While the following is just the tip of the iceberg for amazing hiking destinations throughout the country, here is a list of my five top hiking destinations which make up essential stops on any New Zealand hiking adventure.
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
What better place to start than hiking around the region of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s highest peak. The Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is located in the central South Island and is home to 19 of the 20 highest mountain peaks in the country, all of which are over 3000m (10,000ft) high. Accessed by one of the country's most scenic highways which follows the shores of the glacial lake, Lake Pukaki, the National Park is set in a giant valley carved out by enormous glaciers which once flowed from here out to the sea a hundred miles away. These days they are still found higher up the valley, with the country's largest glacier, the Tasman, visible as you arrive into the park. But what has been left behind by these giant glaciers is what makes Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park such a world-class hiking destination. Amazing rivers now fill the valley floors, flowing between several milky lakes that are filled with ice and snow melt. Alpine tussocks and plants create amazing contrasts with the rocky terrain above.
The National Park has hikes to suit people of all abilities, ranging from 15 minutes to multi-day trails. The Tasman Glacier View trail is a great short trail which climbs the terminal moraine marking the end of a glacier a hundred years ago. After a short 10-minute climb visitors are rewarded with a jaw-dropping view over Tasman Lake which is often filled with giant icebergs. This is because the face of the country’s largest glacier, the aforementioned Tasman Glacier is at the end of the lake, having sadly receded the 3-mile (5km) length of the lake over the past century. Towering above the glacier are some of the giant peaks which make up the National Park. Clear evidence of the massive natural forces which still shape the valley to this day. Looking back down the hill also offers incredible views with the amazingly flat valley floor featured in the Lord of the Rings leading to the emerald blue Lake Pukaki.
A 10-minute drive to the other side of the valley lie two of the National Parks most famous trails. The Hooker Valley Trail is a 6 mile (10km) return hike along the valley floor which crosses three impressive swing bridges before arriving at the Hooker Lake, another lake often filled with icebergs which offers amazing views of Mt Cook which sits perfectly framed at the end of the valley. This trail is extremely popular due to its easy access and relatively flat terrain.
For those prepared to walk up a few steps, 2200 to be precise, the Sealy Tarns trail is my personal favourite, offering a perspective of the National Park only a fraction of visitors ever get to experience. An impressive feat of track building, the trail climbs up the side of the valley through a series of steps and natural trail, with the views only getting more impressive the higher you get. Mt Sefton, one of the most impressive peaks in the country, stands across the valley, with snow and ice clinging onto its near vertical face. After a climb of 550m (1700ft) the trail arrives at the Sealy Tarns, a couple of tiny alpine lakes in the surrounding tussock which offer amazing reflections of the surrounding peaks. There are also several tables offering a once-in-a-lifetime picnic spot with panoramic views over the entire National Park with other hikers on the valley floor trails below no more than ants.
The multiple trail options in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park make an overnight stop here a great option to make sure you have time to fit them all in, with the famous Hermitage Hotel an ideal spot with views over Mt Cook and the best buffet dinner and breakfast in New Zealand!
Fiordland National Park
Down in the South-West Corner of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is the largest of our 13 National Parks around the country, making up close to 10% of the total landmass of New Zealand. Despite this, it is also the most inaccessible with the Southern Alps Mountains which separate it from the rest of the island almost impenetrable. Only one road, State Highway 94, crosses the park and makes it to the West Coast, taking over 50 years to complete and including a 1200m long (4000ft) tunnel through a granite mountain to reach Milford Sound.
Along this road a network of trails has been built to allow visitors to access more of this incredible place which has also been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Three of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks lie inside the National Park, with many options for hiking sections of these trails as well as other trails perfect for visitors short on time. One of these trails is the Key Summit track, a section of the Routeburn Great Walk. This trail is a perfect sample of the trail, climbing through the native Beech Forest before emerging above the bush line at Key Summit into a panorama of mountains in all directions. The trail is only an hour each way and the perfect afternoon hike after visiting Milford Sound.
Speaking of Milford Sound, a great addition to the famous scenic boat cruise is to catch a short boat across to Sandlfy Point and hike a section of the Milford Track. Another Great Walk spanning 33miles over the mountain passes into Milford Sound, it takes four days so those short on time can get a taste of this special place by hiking in from the end for an hour or two to the impressive Giant’s Gate Falls.
Halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound, the lakeside town of Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland National Park and an ideal place to stay when exploring the area. It is also where people start the third of the region's Great Walks, the often-overlooked Kepler Track. The 10km (6mile) section following the Waiau River is a great trail to experience some of the best natural virgin rainforest in New Zealand, with nothing but birdsong to be heard as all of the worries of the world disappear. Another option is to catch a helicopter up to the Luxmore Hut, a stunning spot above the bush line offering expansive views of Lake Te Anau below before descending the trail through the forest to the lake below where a water taxi waits to take you back to Te Anau.
The three trails mentioned offer visitors a chance to experience all three of the Great Walks in a couple of days as we do on our New Zealand hiking tours, but those with more time will never run out of trails to experience in Fiordland. Whether it be by completing one of the multi-day Great Walks (make sure to book early) or by basing yourself in Te Anau and visiting with various short walks and day hikes until your legs fall off, each visit to Fiordland always leads to new trails to add to the bucket list.
Queenstown and Wanaka
More famous as beautiful lake towns in summer and ski resorts in winter, Queenstown and Wanaka are also home to many great day hikes and trails which are a great way to break up the gastronomy and retail therapy. At New Zealand Trails, Wanaka in particular is a favourite spot of ours to visit, avoiding the crowds of Queenstown and getting a chance to hike on some trails which are hidden gems of the region. One of these is the Rocky Mountain Trail, a 3-hour loop circuit near Wanaka. Starting with a lovely flat trail around Diamond Lake, the trail then heads up its namesake mountain through the bush before revealing amazing views of Lake Wanaka and into the nearby Mt Aspiring National Park. This trail attracts a fraction of the visits of the nearby Roy’s Peak Trail making it a great option for those wanting to avoid the crowds while not compromising on the views. For those preferring a flat trail the Upper Clutha trail is another great option as it meanders along the edge of the Clutha River, the longest in the South Island. It also makes a great beginner's cycle trail and is wide enough for both walkers and bikers to share. This trail and all of those around Wanaka are especially scenic in Fall/Autumn (March-May in NZ) when the leaves on the trees which line the trail turn red and yellow before falling to cover the tracks.
Over the hill, Queenstown also has several amazing trails that can transport you from a busy town to untouched nature in a matter of minutes. Ben Lomond Trail is a favourite day hike above Queenstown and can be accessed by the lakefront or by catching the Skyline Gondola first to limit the ascent. Rising to just over a mile high (1650m), the trail follows the ridgeline before climbing to the summit of Ben Lomond, with views of the township and Lake Wakatipu on one side and the seemingly endless expanse of snow-capped mountains of the Mt Aspiring National Park on the other. Another easier option is to follow the lakefront trail around the Queenstown Botanical Gardens and round to the nearby town of Frankton, also a dual-purpose trail (cycling and walking) and an ideal way to soak in the scenery.
Abel Tasman National Park
After exploring the mountains of the Lower South Island, Abel Tasman National Park provides a welcome respite for the legs, with a bounty of trails around the golden sand beaches that highlight the region. Set in the warmer climate of the Upper South Island, Abel Tasman is a favourite spot of locals for the summer holidays and while popular with visitors is yet to reach the numbers found in places such as Queenstown.
The highlight of the National Park is the Abel Tasman Great Walk which is a three-to-five-day trail along the granite coastline of the park. With private lodges, public huts and campsites and boat transfers available it is a hiker's paradise, while also popular with kayakers who follow the trail on the sea. The trail switches between lovely native bush and golden beaches, with each corner revealing another bay more scenic than the last. While day hikes can be done to get a taste of the trail, a multiday experience is the best way to really soak in the area with guided and freedom walking options available. As part of our Grand Explorer Tour, we do a three-day two-night experience highlighting the best sections of the trail while staying each night in a fully catered private lodge to ensure every comfort on our visit to paradise.
For those with less time, water taxis provide regular transfers giving visitors countless options for hikes ranging from an hour to a full day, or the start of the trail can be walked out and back from the road end at the picturesque holiday town of Marahau. Nearby, the town of Kaiteriteri is another great spot to stay with lovely trails connecting the various beaches and several beachfront bars and cafes to watch the sunset.
Tongariro National Park
While the South Island gets the majority of the publicity when it comes to hiking, deep in the heart of the North Island lies a region which is probably the most unique of the lot. The Tongariro National Park is the oldest in New Zealand and has claims to be the oldest in the world, with the local Maori Chief gifting the land to the people of New Zealand to ensure access for all back in the 1860’s. These days it is one of the few places in the world which is listed as a Dual UNESCO World Heritage site, protected for both its natural and cultural significance
The National Park is centered around three major volcanoes, Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings, Ruapehu (tallest mountain in the North Island at 2800m (9000ft)) and its namesake Tongariro. World-leading monitoring technology highlights any sign of increased activity to ensure visitor safety, making Tongariro one of the best places in the world to experience an active volcanic zone. While also home to two ski fields, the park has a large network of trails making it a hiker's paradise.
The most famous of these, and rightly so, is the Tongariro Crossing. Another of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks it’s a 19km(11.5m) hike over the Tongariro Crater. The Trail passes through valleys formed by lava before rising into the crater itself with amazing views of neighbouring Mt Ngauruhoe. It then visits the red crater and emerald lakes which make you feel like you’ve just been transported to the moon before finally descending through amazing forest which thrives on the rich volcanic soil. Good weather is required to safely attempt the crossing, so when this is not the case there are several other shorter options that allow visitors to still experience this unique landscape. The Taranaki Falls walk is a great option, the 6km(4-mile) loop track following lava-formed rivers in the shadow of the volcanoes before emerging at an impressive 30m(100ft) high waterfall which is a perfect lunch stop. For an even shorter option, the 10-minute trail through dense forest to Tawhai Falls is another great option and perfect for a rainy day due to the forest canopy above.
The destinations listed are amazing hiking destinations due to their extensive networks of trails and hiking infrastructure, with a range of options to suit people of all fitness levels and timeframes. They also offer a diverse range of the various different landscapes New Zealand has to offer. All of our small group tours at New Zealand Trails are built around these amazing locations, with other lesser-known local spots enroute also included to allow guests to experience trails only we locals know. With enthusiastic and knowledgeable local guides to make sure you get the most out of your experience while staying at trusted hotels and dining at our favourite local restaurants, our tours are designed to make your trip to New Zealand as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. If you would like more information on our New Zealand hiking tours grab a copy of your FREE BROCHURE.