Walking routes in New Zealand

New Zealand’s mountains, wild valleys and shimmering coastline have worked their magic on walkers for centuries, from the Maori explorers who navigated the land on foot after crossing the largest ocean in the world to the Europeans who surveyed the interior in the 18th century. In the early 20th century, tourists took to the bush with the advent of rail and road links and dubbed their newfound outdoor pursuit ‘tramping’. There are plenty of demanding multi-day hikes available on our New Zealand walking holidays, such as the Milford Track in Fiordland, and full-day hikes abound, including the legendary Tongariro Crossing. However, New Zealand also offers a range of shorter walks on both islands that can be tackled at a relaxed pace by unexperienced walkers.
Abel Tasman National Park

1. Abel Tasman National Park

New Zealand’s smallest national park is still a decent size with lesser walked inland tracks leading through forested valleys to the coast where sheltered coves, golden beaches and views over the Tasman Bay stretch all the way from Marahau to Nelson. Its jewel in the crown is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a five-day hike that’s the most popular of all of the country’s ‘Great Walks’.
Fiordland National Park

2. Fiordland National Park

Soaring mountains, ice-carved fiords and sweeping valleys jostle for space in this enthralling corner of South Island. New Zealand’s largest national park, it’s home to one of the country’s most famous natural attractions, Milford Sound. It’s also where you’ll find some of New Zealand’s hardiest multi-day walks: the Milford, Kepler and Routeburn Tracks, which can all be walked in their entirety or in smaller sections.
Flagstaff Hill Track

3. Flagstaff Hill Track

In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the Bay of Islands, and it’s generally considered to be New Zealand’s founding document. Not all Maori people were happy with the arrangement, however, and across the water a flagpole bearing the Union Jack was repeatedly vandalised in an ongoing campaign of resistance to British colonisation. The 360-degree views from the hill summit are spectacular.
Heaphy Track

4. Heaphy Track

Set in Kahurangi National Park, on the South Island, this 80km walking trail showcases New Zealand’s incredible biodiversity, with ancient beech forests, limestone cliffs and alpine plateaux providing inspiring backdrops. Cuckoos, kingfishers, kiwis, kakas and Swedish blue ducks all making their home in these surrounds. What’s more, thanks to its even gradients, broad river bridges and well maintained, heated huts you can walk here all year round.
Leslie-Karamea Track

5. Leslie-Karamea Track

A classic long-distance tramping route through Kahurangi National Park that normally takes around six days to cover its 91km length, overnighting in historic huts and led by guides descended from the families that were among the first to inhabit this region. Expect pristine beech forests, alpine scenery and myriad opportunities for a refreshing wild swim.
Mount Aspiring National Park

6. Mount Aspiring National Park

Sitting at the southern end of the Southern Alps, alongside Fiordland National Park, this 3,500 sq km wilderness is pure Lord of the Rings country, with a landscape scattered with snow-tipped mountains, glaciers, river valleys and alpine lakes. It’s also a fabulous hiking spot, offering everything from short, half day walks to hardy overnight treks.
Napier Art Deco Trail

7. Napier Art Deco Trail

Napier is one of New Zealand’s most unique towns. Most of the centre was levelled in the 1931 earthquake, after which it was rebuilt in the Art Deco architectural style that was all the rage at the time. A heritage walk takes you past around 70 landmark buildings over an easy-going two hours, or you can enjoy the coastal scenery instead.
Paparoa National Park

8. Paparoa National Park

Set along South Island’s west coast, near the town of Punakaiki, is Paparoa National Park. Its spectacular shoreline is lined with pebble beaches and backed by ancient coastal forest, vast canyons and twisted boulders. It’s most famous for the Pancake Rocks – thin layers of hard limestone that look like wafer-thin crepes, where the sea bursts through a handful of vertical blowholes.
Roberts Point Track

9. Roberts Point Track

This is a fairly demanding hike that rewards you with a superb viewpoint over the Franz Josef Glacier, stretching out for 12km from the Southern Alps to the rainforest. You’ll cross rocky outcrops, dramatic suspension bridges and walk past waterfalls on an 11km route that takes around five hours.
Tongariro Crossing

10. Tongariro Crossing

One of the most famous day walks in the world, the Tongariro Crossing takes you through North Island’s most spectacular volcanic terrain: lava flows, steam vents and an active crater, with emerald lakes and mountains in the background. Stretching along 19.4km of track just south of Taupo, it's not for the faint hearted. You’ll need to be fit and in possession of proper walking gear.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park

11. Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Wedged between the lofty peaks of the Southern Alps and the wild beaches of the West Coast, this park’s primeval landscape includes forests, lakes, grasslands, snowcapped mountains and – the main attraction for most travellers – the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. Sitting 23km apart, these impressive hulks move up to four metres a day. Unfortunately, they are also slowly retreating, due to climate change.
Whirinaki Forest Park

12. Whirinaki Forest Park

A hike through ecological icon Whirinaki, on North Island, is like stepping back into the Jurassic era (indeed, this is where the BBC filmed its Walking with Dinosaurs series). Its forests are renowned for their waterfalls, massive ferns and towering ancient trees, including podocarps and giant kahikatea. It’s also home to a rich and diverse bird population; and a number of rare endemic species are found here.

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Walking in New Zealand tips

New Zealand Hiking Highlights

Advice from John Lightwood, from our supplier, Silver Fern Holidays:
“My favourite walking destinations are the Hooker Valley, which is a three to four hour return walk in Mount Cook National Park, and the Abel Tasman Coastal Path – an easy, beautiful walk along the stunning coastline of this national park, with plenty of opportunities for swimming or kayaking en route”

Chloe Oliver, from our supplier Exodus:
“Walking through the Abel Tasman National park along the coastal path. I loved the contrast of the forest and coastal views and the opportunity to go for a refreshing swim!”

Kelly Reid, from our partner Exodus Travels, has a few recommendations on where to walk and why:
“My favourite walks in New Zealand include Tongariro. The volcanic lunar landscapes are surreal and the stories of the land and Maori mythology make any hike here quite magical.

“Abel Tasman is always a highlight. The trails suit a wide range of abilities and the park is accessible by water taxi, making hiking and boat combos an ideal way to enjoy the park without needing to carry everything on your back! You get consistently great weather and can hike bay to bay with a swim at each one.

“Mount Aspiring National Park is another. You’ve got iconic South Island landscapes in this area of World Heritage status that spans both west and east of the Southern Alps, giving it incredible diversity. Expect lush beech forests, mighty rivers, pristine lakes, glaciated mountains and breathtaking hikes.“

Packing tips

John Lightwood, from Silver Fern Holidays:
“Travellers should always dress in layers with waterproofs (definitely needed for the West Coast) and a good pair of worn-in boots that must be cleaned prior to entering into New Zealand.”

Chloe Oliver from Exodus:
“My trekking essentials include a waterproof jacket, blister plasters, a first aid kit, a reusable drinking bottle, walking poles, and an extra layer (New Zealand can sometimes experience four seasons in one day so it is important to be prepared!)”

When to go

New Zealand basks in a well-earned reputation for thrill-packed outdoor activities, with more adventurous hikes than 100 Hobbits could handle. But in some ways the country has been a victim of its own success. During peak season, the Great Walks can slow to a not-so-great crawl due to the amount of people on the trail. Read these tips from our experts to find out the best time to hike New Zealand.

John Lightwood from Silver Fern Holidays:
“We suggest November (springtime) and March (late summer) when temperatures are suitable for walking (12-16 degrees) and there are not so many people on the different track walks.”

Chloe Oliver from Exodus:
“In general, New Zealand’s climate is well suited to trekking which means that there is never really a bad time to go! Spring months are September to November and giving you sunny, crisp days, wildflowers and waterfalls but you will need to pack an extra layer as the mornings and evenings can get chilly. Summer runs from December to February and generally offers longer daylight hours, settled conditions, warm sunshine and good temperatures. Autumn is another good time for trekking, running from March to May you can still experience sunshine but lower temperatures which you may find more pleasant for walking, along with beautiful autumnal colours and quieter trails.”

Fitness

It’s important to remember that not all New Zealand walks need to be tests of endurance. Many cover generally flat terrain that can be managed by inexperienced walkers. If you only want to tackle short walks then you may want to bring a pair of decent walking shoes or boots with you, but in most cases some robust trainers should suffice. Because New Zealand’s weather is notoriously changeable, your daypack ought to contain a light waterproof and a hat. Add a set of walking poles if you find them useful, and away you go.

John Lightwood from Silver Fern Holidays:
“Travellers need to be of reasonable fitness, so that they can happily manage two to three hours of walking. There is a huge variety of walks for all abilities within the national parks of New Zealand, so there should be no problem in meeting different walking abilities.”

Chloe Oliver from Exodus:
“How fit you need to be depends on how hard a trek you want to do. New Zealand has hikes to suit all levels of trekker. To do the more remote, higher altitudes you’ll require a better level of fitness.”

Tips from our travellers

At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travellers are often... other travellers. They always return from our tours with packing tips, weather reports, ideas about what to do - and opinions about what not to.

We have selected some of the most useful New Zealand walking holiday tips that our guests have provided over the years to help you make the very most of your holiday – and the space inside your daypack.
I was delighted to find that the guides were highly skilled in the interpretation of NZ plant communities, ecological interactions, and the relationships between flora and fauna (both native and exotic).
– Dr Barbara Radcliffe
“Pay attention to the information about what to bring before coming on the trip. Get what you need before the trip and have it with you. Good rain gear, broken in hiking boots, and lots of film (or extra batteries for digital) would be an excellent idea. Once you arrive in Motueka you may not have the time to sort out anything forgotten.” – Allan Justus, Heaphy Track hiking trip

“I am particularly interested in botany and ecosystems. I was delighted to find that the guides were highly skilled in the interpretation of NZ plant communities, ecological interactions, and the relationships between flora and fauna (both native and exotic).” – Dr Barbara Radcliffe, Heaphy Track hiking trip
I would advise people doing this trip to pack lightly as advised by the operator because it is hard work carrying a heavy load up and down the hills.
– Wendy Grace
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Curioso] [Abel Tasman National Park: Pedro] [Fiordland National Park: Esmée Winnubst] [Heaphy Track: Steve Bittinger] [Mount Aspiring National Park: Andrea Schaffer] [Flagstaff Hill Track: Linde Lanjouw] [Leslie-Karamea Track: Syrok] [Napier Art Deco Trail: Russell James Smith] [Roberts Point Track: Anthony Cramp] [Paparoa National Park: Tristan Schmurr] [Tongariro Crossing: Esmée Winnubst] [Westland Tai Poutini National Park : edwin.11] [Whirinaki Forest Park: Pseudopanax] [New Zealand Highlights: Andrea Schaffer] [Dr Barbara Radcliffe Quote: Andrea Schaffer] [Roisin Courtney Quote: Flying Kiwi Tours]