Great Walks of New Zealand: The Ultimate Hiker’s Guide

October 31


To keep this website running fast, the photos are very small. To get a better idea of what 1964 is really about, you need to see the magazine.

Would you like a FREE digital issue of 1964?

Hiking in New Zealand is world class. So what are the Great Walks all about?

If it’s immersion in nature at the tips of your fingers (and a well maintained track under your feet) that you’re after, New Zealand has more incredible hikes than you can shake a walking pole at. It’s a national pastime, after all. The hikes are all excellent, but there’s a popular handful in extra special spots, with particularly well-kept tracks and huts. They’re called the Great Walks – Great with a capital G – and there are ten of them dotted around the country.

As popular multi day tracks (between 3 and 5 days) the ten Great Walks offer a chance to swap your notifications for birdsong, drop right in to the rhythm of nature, and feel the earth beneath your feet.

Which of New Zealand’s Great Walks is best?

As the name suggests, they’re all brilliant. So it depends what you’re after, really – native forest, soaring mountains, raw coastline or lakes and rivers. Or all of the above. The New Zealand Department of Conservation does a wonderful job of maintaining the tracks and the huts, so wherever you decide to go, you’ll have world class facilities.

When’s the best time to hit the Great Walks of NZ?

The New Zealand Great Walk season is between October and the end of April, with slight variations for each walk – check out the DOC website for more details. Booking is essential, and visitors travel from all over the world for these popular tracks, so it’s a good idea to get in early.

 

How hard are NZ’s Great Walks?

All the Great Walks in New Zealand are multi day hikes, between 3 and 6 days, and all classified as either Easy or Intermediate. Some have higher high points than others, but with a moderate level of fitness, anyone can be out there.

North Island Great Walks

Lake Waikaremoana

Welcome to Te Urewera, home of the Tūhoe people and the first natural feature in New Zealand to be granted its own legal personhood. This hike is 3 -4 days of pure magic, walking through native bush, along mountain ranges and across remote beaches on the shores of Lake Waikaremoana. The spiritual history of the place is one that you can feel, if you take your time and savour every moment.

Tongariro Northern circuit

If you’re into extra-terrestrial vibes, the Tongariro Northern Circuit is for you. The longer version of the Tongariro Crossing (one of New Zealand’s most popular day tracks), this Great Walk gets you up close and personal with dramatic North Island volcanic landscape. The track winds around two active volcanoes , Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. The views are outrageous, too, from the active craters and emerald lakes within the National Park out to Lake Taupo, Mt Taranaki and the Kaimanawa ranges. It’s a 43km hike, taking most visitors 3 or 4 days, and being a loop track, you’ll arrive at the carpark you left from. Or, if you’re just in the mood for a solid day walk, the Tongariro Crossing track takes about 7-8 hours one way.

 

Whanganui Journey

If we’re honest, this one’s more of a Great Paddle, but it’s still classified as a Great Walk. Kayak or Canoe down the Whanganui river, through bush-carpeted hills and countryside. It takes between 3 and 5 days to travel afloat from Taumarunui to Pīpīriki, and a reasonable level of fitness and paddle confidence is required.

Quick fact: in Kiwi-speak, tramping means hiking

New Zealanders have a lot of weird slang – it’s probably an island thing. In NZ, the most popular way to talk about hiking is tramping, which actually has its roots in Middle English, meaning ‘to walk with heavy footsteps’. Maybe not so weird after all.

South Island Great Walks

Abel Tasman Coast track

This track is a coastal New Zealand adventure, weaving through the bush and golden sand beaches as you snake your way around the shorelines of the Abel Tasman National Park. This is a 60km walk, usually taking between 3 and 5 days, with water taxis available to shuttle you back to where you began. Or, if it floats your boat and you’d prefer the sea breeze through your hair, a popular option is to do some or all of it by canoe or kayak.

The Heaphy Track

Welcome to the tropics of New Zealand. The Heaphy Track has the feel of a promised land, with lush rainforest, nikau palms and stunning golden sand beaches that will have you believing you’ve stepped back in time. Running between Golden Bay and the West Coast, it’s one of the longer Great Walks at around 78kms, and takes between 4 – 6 days. Make sure to keep an eye out for kiwi and takahe.

Paparoa Track

Expect to see limestone cliffs and abundant native rainforest on this West Coast Great Walk, which crosses the Paparoa Range. One of the shorter NZ great walks at 55km, this track takes 3 days and offers glorious views of the Tasman Sea. This is sandfly country, and don’t be fooled by their size – they’re vicious, so come prepared.

The Routeburn Track

Named one of the best hikes in the world by Lonely Planet, this Great Walk is a spectacular, classically New Zealand alpine experience. The track climbs to soaring mountain peaks and weaves through tussock-filled meadows, native beech forest and gorgeous crystal clear tarns (lakes). Easily accessible from Queenstown, the Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s most popular walks, and for good reason. It’s only 33km, but with a high point of 1,300m at Harris Saddle, it can take between 2 and 4 days.

The Kepler Track

Another glorious South Island mountain track, the Kepler keeps hikers soaring high across ridgelines and mountain peaks, with views of Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau. With a high point of 1, 300 m, this 70km loop walk generally takes 3 – 4 days.

Milford Sound Track

Welcome to the most popular track in New Zealand, and a journey into Fiordland‘s primeval wilderness. Good luck hiking the Milford Track without losing your jaw to the ground multiple times – expect glacier carved valleys, pounding waterfalls and native rainforest. It’s been coined the finest walk in the world. So how hard is it? Like most of the Great Walks, it’s an intermediate. The track climbs up to MacKinnon Pass at about 1,100 m, and from there descends into Milford Sound. Being the country’s most popular walk, it’s best to get in early – we’re talking 6 months at least.

Stewart Island Great Walks

Rakiura Track

Stewart Island is a step into the past, and a long, slow exhale. The bush is thick, the native birds take sovereignty and the Rakiura track is absolutely gorgeous. A 32km, 3 day loop track, it’s without a doubt one of the muddiest walks in NZ, so bring lots of spare socks and proper waterproof hiking boots. Keep an ear out for rustling at night and you might see a kiwi!

The Te Araroa Trail

Not satisfied with a moderately challenging multi day walk? Hiking the length of the country is always an option instead. Te Araroa means ‘the long pathway’ in te reo Maori, and is a 3050km track that spans the length of New Zealand. The duration and cost varies massively hiker to hiker, but the trust asks for a $500 donation to cover costs.

How to prepare for your Great Walk

Get a little bit fit

While the Great Walks of New Zealand are not graded as difficult, hiking with your food and gear on your back can be exhausting if you’re not used to it. Practice by doing some day walks with 10-15kg on your back.

Get the right gear

NZ weather is notoriously unpredictable, so it pays to be ready for anything. That means thermals, a waterproof layer, a headtorch, proper hiking boots and plenty of spare socks. The tracks may be popular, but the weather is still uncontrollable, so prepare for the worst.

Don’t forget your scroggin

Here’s another Kiwi idiom to leave you with: scroggin, aka trail mix or granola. It’s a tramping essential – bring plenty of it, and enjoy your trip!


This article is even better in print.


1964: mountain culture / aotearoa is a reader-supported magazine that explores Aotearoa New Zealand’s remote places and the people who seek them out. Working with more than thirty artists, photographers, writers, woodworkers and welders, we advocate for and support Aotearoa’s creatives.

Subscribe here to get four delectable print issues of 1964 delivered to your doorstep every year. Or, if you’re into pixels, you can subscribe to a digital mag instead. We’re flexible that way.