Walking Holidays in New Zealand: An Introduction
Home to a compelling mix of breath taking, diverse landscapes and an outdoor-loving culture, a walking holiday in New Zealand is hard to beat. Here, turquoise rivers dissect alpine valleys, soaring mountain passes offer panoramic views and lush, emerald forests echo with the call of native birdsong. Exploring on foot is the best way to experience these special environments. Along the way, you’ll get to know a country full of warm, friendly locals with a passion for the outdoors. Inspired? Here at New Zealand Trails, we love showcasing New Zealand to guests on our small group walking tours. Below, we’ll discuss why we believe New Zealand is a walking paradise before going into the details of what a New Zealand walking holiday has to offer.
What makes New Zealand a walking paradise?
It’s not just New Zealand’s beautiful natural places that make this country a haven for walkers - although that’s a big part of it. ‘Kiwis’ - the nickname for New Zealanders - are renowned for getting outside and enjoying all that mother nature has to offer. And with more than 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of National Parks and a track network that’s one of the best in the world, it’s easy to see why.
New Zealand’s trails wind their way throughout the country, from the coastal beauty of Northland down to the famous alpine grandeur of Fiordland in the South Island. Ranging in length from under an hour to multi-day Great Walk adventures, all walking tracks are managed by the Department of Conservation. As a result, the tracks are very well-maintained, well-signposted and easy to access. What’s more, there’s a wealth of information - it’s straightforward to find out how difficult a trail is, what type of weather to prepare for, information about the elevation gain and the natural highlights you’ll experience.
Our uncrowded country has a population of only four million people, so walkers enjoy having many of New Zealand’s wilderness areas all to themselves. There are not huge numbers of people walking the tracks, allowing you to enjoy personal experiences that are all your own.
The diversity of the landscape is also a huge drawcard. From wild, windswept coastline to ancient glaciers, verdant forests, jewel coloured lakes and the soaring backdrop of the Southern Alps, the contrasting environments you’ll experience walking in New Zealand are inspiring. And, because New Zealand is a relatively small country (similar in size to the United Kingdom) with a great road system, it’s easy to experience vastly contrasting landscapes and places within a short timeframe.
Options for a walking holiday in New Zealand
There are a number of things to consider when deciding on the style of your New Zealand walking holiday. What types of tracks would you like to incorporate and how will this affect your experience? If you’re considering a multi-day hike like the Milford Track, keep in mind that accommodation is in huts or lodges along the way. Contrastingly, if you would prefer to incorporate a number of shorter, half or full day tracks, you’ll be able to stay in accommodation such as hotels or lodges in between. If you have your heart set on experiencing the landscapes of some of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks - like the Milford or Routeburn Tracks - but would prefer not to cover the full distance, it’s easy to incorporate a small day walk portion of each of the tracks. Often, this option offers the best of both worlds for those wanting to experience these famous trails, but who don’t want to walk the full 3 or 4 day distance.
Also consider whether you would prefer to experience a New Zealand walking holiday independently, or if a guided tour appeals more. Independently, you’ll need to hire a rental car and self-drive to the walking destinations of your choice. Pro’s of an independent walking holiday include the flexibility of choosing the tracks that appeal to you most and having the freedom to enjoy your holiday exactly as you want to, with your own car. Keep in mind that you’ll need to consider the accommodation options that are available in each of the destinations you’re planning to visit.
The guided tour option for a New Zealand walking holiday means that all of the organization and planning is taken care of. You’ll travel in a group with an expert guide or tour leader whose New Zealand expertise and knowledge is likely to enrich your holiday experience. One of the great things about a guided tour is the opportunity to enjoy the company of like-minded people - often, lots of laughs and good times means you’ll share your holiday with new friends. Transport, accommodation and some or all meals are usually included in the tour price. If this sounds like the option for you, look for a tour with an itinerary that incorporates the walking destinations you’re interested in - places like the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track and the Hollyford Valley are standouts.
Where to walk in New Zealand
Beautiful landscapes and national parks in New Zealand are so abundant, it’s hard to know where to start.
The North Island
Golden coastline, rich Maori heritage and thrilling geothermal elements like volcanoes and gem-coloured crater lakes characterise walking experiences in the North Island. The Coromandel Peninsula offers kilometres of walking trails and tracks, some along picturesque beaches and others inland on old logging and gold mining routes. Tongariro National Park, located in the centre of the island, is home to the impressive volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, as well as the Tongariro Northern Circuit - one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Towards the east, Te Urewera offers many walking tracks through mist-shrouded forests steeped in Maori legends.
Around the Southern Alps of the South Island
The Southern Alps forms the backbone of the South Island, and in and around these formidable peaks lies a wonderland of walks. This is called the MacKenzie Country, and pastel high country lakes, endless fields of golden tussock and the Tasman Glacier make it a favourite destination for lovers of the outdoors. Home to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, beautiful Hooker Valley offers opportunities for shorter day walks, while three separate mountain pass routes offer more challenging hiking. Beautiful views of the peak of Aoraki Mount Cook - New Zealand’s tallest mountain - are on show on many of the trails here.
Famous trails like the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks wind their way through Fiordland, a region steeped in natural drama and grandeur. Soaring fiords give way to waterfalls that tumble into deep blue seas and mountain peaks scrape the sky. Here, walkers venture through a primeval world of alpine lakes, valleys of emerald moss and mountain passes. The country’s highest waterfall, the Sutherland Falls, as well as many others can be found here. South-west of Fiordland lies the Hollyford Valley, a dramatic and ancient wilderness that’s one of the most pristine, isolated and untouched walking experiences in the country.
Northern South Island
Wild mountains, enormous lakes and a coastal paradise can be found in and around Nelson and Marlborough at the top of the South Island. Abel Tasman National Park is a treasure trove of golden-sand coastline, marble headlands and native forest, and is home to the Abel Tasman Coastal Track - one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. A few hours away lies the rugged peaks and glacial lakes of Nelson Lakes National Park, where lakeside walking trails and challenging hiking awaits. To the north-west is Kahurangi National Park, a wild landscape of ancient rock formations, rare birds and palm-fringed beaches. In Kahurangi, walkers will feel like they’ve stepped onto another planet.
At the very bottom of the South Island lies Stewart Island, a place that’s remained unchanged for thousands of years. Here, nature is in charge - there is a larger kiwi population than there are permanent residents! Unsurprisingly, Stewart Island is great for walking. Home to the Rakiura Track - one of New Zealand’s Great Walks - as well as other, shorter trails, walkers can look forward to Stewart Island’s perfect beaches, incredible birdsong and pure podocarp forests.
For more information on top walking experiences, take a look at our blog post on New Zealand’s Best Walks.
What’s the best time of year for walking?
New Zealand offers great walking year-round, but each season offers a distinctly different outdoor experience. Spring (Sept - Nov) blooms into life with flowers and lush vegetation. Despite the weather being less settled, spring hiking is very rewarding - walkers can expect new flowers, vibrant colours, sunshine as well as a little rain. Summer (Dec - Feb) is characterised by warmer days and plenty of blue sky. Locals and visitors alike love spending the kiwi summer in the great outdoors, and despite it being high season, good planning will help you explore the New Zealand wilderness on foot without the crowds. Autumn (Mar - May) is all about calm, stable weather, slightly cooler temperatures and beautiful colours - an excellent time for walking. It's colder in winter (Jun - Aug) with snow in places, and the days become shorter. Rain is common; however there are plenty of crisp winter mornings and tranquil days. Find more detailed information on New Zealand’s seasons here.
What to bring
Walking holidays in New Zealand require a little bit of planning when it comes to packing. Lightweight clothing that’s easy to wash and comfortable to wear is key to enjoying the trails. No matter what season you’re visiting in, New Zealand can experience four seasons in one day - a good waterproof jacket and pants is necessary, as are thermal layers and waterproof hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes. New Zealand is relaxed and laid-back when it comes to casual clothing, so think jeans, shorts or skirts for casual wear. For restaurant dining, ‘smart casual’ is the norm. More information on what to bring on your New Zealand walking holiday can be found here.
A walking holiday with New Zealand Trails
When it comes to walking holidays in New Zealand, there’s nothing we love more than showcasing the most beautiful, untouched parts of the country on our 'World Heritage Walking Tour'. This 'Trip of a Lifetime includes day walks on the famous Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford tracks as well as in Mt Cook, Arthur's Pass and Paparoa national parks. Bucket-list activities like a wilderness jet boat ride, a scenic helicopter flight and the TranzAlpine train journey combine with hand-selected laid-back luxury accommodation and world-class food and wine for an unforgettable New Zealand experience. Our 'World Heritage Walkign Tour' takes the hassle out of organising your trip - experience New Zealand with a small friendly group of like-minded people while exploring spectacular wilderness environments on foot. Find out more about the tour here, or contact us directly.