The top 10 lesser known walks of New Zealand
While researching your New Zealand trip you’ll probably hear a lot about our Great Walks and rightfully so as they offer a truly world-class hiking experience in some of the most stunning parts of our country. However, outside of our more famous tracks and trails, there exists an abundance of lesser known, but equally impressive hikes well worth exploring. From charming coastal trails and lush forest walks to multi-day hikes and alpine climbs, there’s something for everyone.
Here at New Zealand Trails, we appreciate the delights of the Milford Track and Routeburn just as much as the next person, but we also love getting a bit further off the beaten path as well, inviting guests to explore the spots which others might not know about. And so, we’ve put our heads together and compiled a list of the top 10 lesser known walks in New Zealand. Admittedly it was hard to narrow it down to just 10, but those that made the cut are our absolute favourites!
1. Te Ara Hura Walkway, Waiheke Island, North Island
7.8km (4.8 miles) one-way trip | 2 hours hike time
Waiheke Island is a beautiful little island a short ferry ride from our largest city Auckland. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Waiheke is a quiet haven comprised of rolling vineyards, native bush, golden sand beaches and spectacular ocean views. The Te Ara Hura Walkway Network is made up of 100km of track that allows you to circumnavigate the island on foot. You can walk the entire trail over the course of about five days, or you can pick a section and enjoy a shorter stroll. Start at any point, finish wherever you want and go in either direction; the choice is yours!
Our favourite section of the track starts at Matiatia Wharf where the island ferry docks. Follow the coastal trail through the native reserve, soaking up the ocean views and blue skies along the way. Be sure to make time for a stop at the Cable Bay Vineyards – the perfect spot to sample some local New Zealand wine and enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch amongst the vines. Once sufficiently fortified, continue along the trail leading to Oneroa Beach, a large sandy bay ideal for swimming. The main island township of Oneroa has plenty of small shops and cafes selling local wares and culinary treats if you’d like to pick up a souvenir or two along the way.
2. Angelus Circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island
30.6km (19 miles) one-way trip | 3 days hike time
Nelson Lakes National Park encompasses some 102,000 hectares of land located at the top of the South Island and showcases some of New Zealand’s impressive peaks, green valleys and clean, clear lakes. It’s less well known than neighbouring Abel Tasman National Park, but just as spectacular. Despite being popular with local hikers, there are multiple trails to choose from, so chances are you’ll enjoy plenty of peace and quiet while out walking.
The Angelus Circuit is a three-day hike that takes you high above the forest floor, providing superlative views across the surrounding mountains. Along the way you’ll stay in Department of Conservation huts and enjoy a taste of the real Kiwi backcountry experience. You’ll need to be prepared and carry your own gear on your back for the duration of the hike.
On the first day of the hike, follow the shoreline of Lake Rotoiti 9km (5.6 miles) to Lake Head Hut where you’ll spend the night. With minimal elevation gain, this is a good warmup for what’s to come. As the sun rises on day two, you’ll set out across the meadow and cross the river to begin your climb up through thick beech forest. You’ll hike 9.4km (5.8 miles) and climb an impressive 1050m (3445ft) up to the Angelus Hut sitting at 1650m (5413ft) above sea level. Nestled next to two alpine lakes, the hut is a welcome sight after six to eight hours of hiking today.
After a sound night’s sleep, day three will take you along the rocky Roberts Ridge for awe-inspiring 360-degree views. You’ll then make your way downhill via a series of switchbacks, with the waters of Lake Rotoiti shimmering in the background. It’s not an easy hike by any stretch of the imagination, but the rewards are well worth it! You can make like a local and hike the Angelus Circuit on our Kiwi Classic trip.
3. Porari River Track, Paparoa National Park, South Island
7km (4.3 miles) one-way trip | 2 hours hike time
Set in the Jurassic-like Paparoa National Park on the west coast of the South Island, this gentle walk follows the emerald waters of the Porari River as it makes its way through a fascinating limestone gorge forged by time and water. The nearby town of Punakaiki is a great place to spend the night - be sure to check out the aptly named Pancake Rocks and blowholes while you’re there. It’s an impressive sight as the surging waters of the Tasman Sea course through caverns below, exploding in a wall of spray in front of you.
The Porari River Track itself starts from the car park and follows the river upstream past deep pools, huge rocks and imposing cliff faces. The surrounding rainforest subtly shifts from subtropical to temperate, draping the landscape in thick greenery. The track features a few small ups and downs, but no real elevation to mention, so it makes for a very pleasant two-hour stroll. Find a quiet spot for afternoon tea by the river and enjoy the tranquillity.
4. Okarito Trig, West Coast, South Island
4.2km (2.6 miles) return trip | 1.5 hours hike time
The tiny settlement of Okarito is located north of Franz Josef on the West Coast, sitting between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. Population - not many; this sleepy seaside hideaway is the ideal place to get away from it all and soak in your surroundings, plus the beach sunsets are out of this world. Okarito Lagoon is home to over 70 different species of native birds and is well worth exploring by kayak if you have the time.
An enjoyable 15-minute boardwalk across the wetlands estuary takes you to a well-graded track that gradually climbs up to the trig lookout point at 158m (518ft). The views out across the beach, ocean, forest and mountains are truly spectacular. If you’re keen to walk a little further, follow the Three Mile Pack track past the lagoon and then back via the beach. Be sure to check the tides first or you might be in for some rock scrambling and wave dodging though!
You’ll have the chance to relax in Okarito on our Masterpiece trip.
5. Sealy Tarns, Mt. Cook National Park, South Island
4km (2.4 miles) return trip | 3 - 4 hours hike time
Home to New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park offers up many fantastic hiking options, with something to suit every fitness level. From the popular Hooker Valley walk to the more challenging Sealy Tarns hike, the views in this UNESCO World Heritage area are simply breath-taking.
One of our favourites is the steep but spectacular hike up to Sealy Tarns, known as the ‘stairway to heaven’. With an elevation gain of 540m (1772ft), this one will certainly get your cheeks glowing, but the outlook across the Hooker Valley and dramatic snow-capped mountains provide excellent motivation. During the summer months, an abundance of alpine flowers carpet the ground, making this stairway even more heavenly! For those with some juice left in the tank, you can push on up to Mueller Hut sitting at 1800m (5905ft). From the bright red hut on the ridge, you’ll enjoy a panorama across the surrounding glaciers, ice cliffs and imposing mountains – views typically reserved for serious mountaineers only!
6. Siberia Wilderness Experience, Mt. Aspiring National Park, South Island
7km (4.3 miles) one-way trip | 3 hours hike time
This wilderness experience makes for an awesome day out in New Zealand’s remote backcountry. More than simply a hike, the day begins with a scenic flight into the isolated Siberia Valley, situated in stunning Mt. Aspiring National Park. The flight is a highlight and offers an up-close perspective on the rugged cliff faces and snowy peaks of the surrounding mountains.
After a 20-minute flight or so, you’ll land in the valley where your hike will begin. There’s a spot by the river that’s ideal for a picnic lunch if you’re feeling peckish already. You’ll follow a well-marked trail through tussock land and ancient rainforest, before being met at the rendezvous point by a jet boat waiting to whisk you along the glacier-fed river back to civilisation!
This is New Zealand wilderness at its finest and a day you won’t forget in a hurry. Check out this blog post for more information about the incredible Siberia Wilderness Experience.
7. Rocky Mountain Summit Track, Wanaka, South Island
7km (4.3 miles) return trip | 3 – 4 hours hike time
The town of Wanaka sits on the shores of New Zealand’s fourth largest lake and is regarded by some as neighbouring Queenstown’s sleepier cousin. Not to be outdone by the beauty of Queenstown, Wanaka certainly holds its own in the scenery stakes. A good way to appreciate the views is the hike up Rocky Mountain to the viewpoint at 775m (2543ft) above sea level where you’ll enjoy a 360-degree aspect on the Southern Alps, Mt. Aspiring and Lake Wanaka.
The path begins in the car park and follows an old road to Diamond Lake, from where the track gets a little steeper as it climbs up towards the summit. There are two options here, either a lower level circuit or upper-level circuit, but we recommend pushing for the top if you can.
A shorter option would be the Diamond Lake Circuit; with a return distance of 2.5km (1.62m), it leads you to the pretty Diamond Lake and takes around 45 minutes. This one is ideal if you have kids in tow and can be followed up by an ice cream stop in one of Wanaka’s legendary cafes!
8. Mou Waho Island Nature Walk, Wanaka, South Island
5km (3 miles) return trip | 2 – 2.5 hours hike time
Mou Waho Island is catchily (!) known as “an island, in a lake, on an island, in a lake, on an island in the ocean” . . . I’ll give you a moment to get your head around that one! Under special protection by the Department of Conservation, Mou Waho is a predator-free island home to rare native birds such as the flightless Buff Weka and offers a fascinating glimpse into New Zealand conservation efforts.
The only way to reach the island is by boat on a scheduled tour in the company of an expert ecologist who will provide a fascinating commentary on the island’s inhabitants. You’ll hike up 200m (650ft) to the lookout, stopping at the Arethusa Pool along the way (an excellent spot for a tea break in our opinion).
At the top of the hill, you can look out across the island sanctuary and beyond to Lake Wanaka, before taking time to plant a native tree and contribute to the ongoing conservation of this incredible place. You’ll have the chance to explore Mou Waho on our World Heritage trip.
9. Mt. Crichton Loop, Queenstown, South Island
5km (3.1miles) one-way trip | 3 hours hike time
The Mt. Crichton Loop, or ‘Sam Summers’ as the locals call it, is one of our favourite bush walks in the Queenstown area. Set in the hills just off the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu, this well-graded track leads you through beautiful native beech forest, meandering alongside the clear waters of Twelve Mile Creek. There’s a bit of elevation gain, 260m (853ft), so you’ll feel a sense of achievement as you look out across the lake and mountains beyond.
This area was worked by gold miners back in the day and the aforementioned Sam Summers was one of those miners. His hut still exists today - you can poke your head in for a look around and enjoy a lunch break by his front door if you’d like. Other highlights along the loop track include a cascading waterfall and an impressive rock fissure, once used as a tailrace.
10. Martins Bay Coastal Walk, Fiordland National Park, South Island
5km (3.1 miles) one way | 2 – 3 hours hike time
Martins Bay is situated at the northern tip of Fiordland, about 30km north of Milford Sound. It’s an incredibly beautiful area, protected by its remote location and inaccessibility. For the fortunate few, a helicopter journey across the rugged Fiordland backcountry delivers them to the beautifully appointed Martins Bay Lodge, a welcome hint of luxury on this wild coastline. Martins Bay is also the endpoint for the Hollyford Track, another of our Great Walks, where the river meets the ocean in a rush of waves and spray.
From Martins Bay lodge, a short walk along a flat coastal trail takes you out to the resident New Zealand fur seal colony. Along the way keep an eye out for penguins, herons and dolphins as well. Once hunted to the brink of near extinction, the New Zealand fur seal is making a comeback these days and they’re a delight to watch as they snooze in the sun or frolic in the water.
For the complete experience, enjoy a jet boat ride back along the river to the lodge where a delicious evening meal will be waiting for you, before spending a comfortable night in laidback luxury in the heart of Fiordland’s backcountry. If that sounds like perfection to you, our World Heritage trip might be just what you’re looking for.
Now you get to be the judge!
Exploring every inch of this country has given us privileged access to and knowledge of some of New Zealand’s finest hidden spots; this list was compiled based on which walks touched the soul and left us with incredible memories.
When we crafted our New Zealand Trails trip itineraries, it was natural to ensure we could invite our guests to capture the same experiences, so we made sure to include all of these walks (and more) on our tours - and we can’t wait to share some of these unique tracks with you!
Get in touch to learn more about our trips, or you can also request your free copy of our 36-page brochure for all the details on our 5 multi-day, fully-guided, all-inclusive, small group, adventure tours of New Zealand.