South Island walks and day hikes - some personal favourites

A selection of easy short walks with glorious scenery and challenging but rewarding day hikes in the South Island of New Zealand.

New Zealand is the Switzerland of the Pacific, but without the pressure of population. Combine the range of trails from gentle lakeside strolls to remote and dramatic wilderness hikes with superb facilities, no predators and few people and you have one of the best places to go hiking in the world. See the notes at the foot of this page for advice on packing and preparing for an active holiday in New Zealand.

Southern Lakes

Routeburn Flats or Routeburn Falls, Day One of the Routeburn Track - Glenorchy, Queenstown

Enjoy a taste of the famous Routeburn Track, either as a very achievable 4 hour return hike through stunning beech forest along the Routeburn river valley to Routeburn Flats hut for lunch or a more lengthy 8 hour return hike climbing as far as the dramatically situated Routeburn Falls Hut just above the tree line as you enter the alpine zone of the track. Allow 1 hour to drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy and the start of the track. Guided by Guided Nature Walks

Ben Lomond Summit - Queenstown

One of the highest peaks in the Wakatipu basin providing the most stunning views of the region. Take the Gondola to Skyline and follow the signs to the saddle. The next portion of the track to the top of Ben Lomond (1748 metres) is a steep and demanding climb but it offers spectacular panoramic views towards Mounts Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi and Aspiring/Tititea. Return via Gondola or walk down the Skyline access track turning right off the track where signposted to One Mile.  Follow the old water pipe through native bush, past the 1924 hydro dam to the Fernhill roundabout on the lake edge. Ben Lomond Summit is 5 hours return from the top of the Skyline Gondola.

Rob Roy Glacier Hike - Wanaka

Access on a gravel road through the beautiful Matukituki Valley into Mt Aspiring National Park. The hike takes 3-4 hours return across a swing bridge over the river and on up the Rob Roy stream through beech forest and past waterfalls to the tree line. Towards the end you reach a mountain cirque with spectacular views of hanging glaciers. You can enjoy spotting avalanches from a safe distance. There are some magnificent waterfalls and New Zealandʼs native alpine parrot, the Kea, will entertain you over lunch. 3 Allow a full day for this trip. Excellent guided options with Eco Wanaka

The Siberia Experience - Wanaka

Much of Mt Aspiring National Park is only available to overnight hikers, but the Siberia Experience offers you access relatively easily, and for those with a sense of adventure and a good level of fitness is hugely rewarding. The trip begins with a 20 minute scenic flight into the Alps, often taking in a view of Mt Aspiring. After landing in the remote Siberia Valley, you cross the Siberia stream (cold), then commence your hike. The route takes you along meadow flats beside the stream before climbing more steeply up through beech forest before descending into the magnificent Wilkin River valley. A short walk along the river and you are met by a jet boat for an exhilarating ride out. Allow a full day: 3 hours hiking and 30 mins each for the flight and jet boat trip, plus an hour’s drive from Wanaka resort to the start point at Makarora.

Lake Marian in the Hollyford Valley - Fiordland, Te Anau

A 3 hour return hike passing a spectacular series of waterfalls before climbing steeply up to a beautiful alpine lake high in a hanging valley carved by glaciers millennia ago. The track is accessed from the Hollyford Valley road, just over 1 hour’s drive from Te Anau. Best attempted by experienced hikers or guided by Trips and Tramps.

Kepler Track - Fiordland, Te Anau

You can do all or part of the first day of the Kepler Track. Starting from the Kepler Track carpark follow the lake shore through mountain and red beech forest, ferns and rimu. After 1-1 1/2 hours you reach Dock Bay and Brod Bay, both beautiful picnic and swimming spots on a hot day. From here the track climbs steeply for another 3-4 hours to the bush line and Luxmore Hut where you obtain panoramic views over Lake Te Anau and the Fiordland Mountains. Very achieveable self-guided or guided by Trips and Tramps.

Key Summit - Fiordland, Te Anau

This walk begins at The Divide, about 85 km along the Milford Road from Te Anau (1.5 hours drive). The track follows the last part of the world famous multi-day Routeburn track in the Fiordland National Park, branching off to ascend the Key Summit. This walk offers spectacular views of Fiordland National Park and passes a range of native vegetation: beech forest, sub-alpine shrublands, alpine tarns and bogs. Birdlife is prolific and tomtits, robins, NZ pigeons and bellbirds are commonly seen. If you only have time for one walk on your drive to Milford Sound and the weather is fine, this track is well worth the effort! 3 hours return, 3.4 kms. Guided by Trips and Tramps.

Stewart Island

Take a flight across the island to Masons Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and patterns with the prints of kiwi. Stewart Island is one of the best places to experience New Zealand bird life they way it would have been before settlement. The hike back from Masons Bay to Freshwater Inlet is an easy 3 hour walk, so take you time at the beach and exploring the old huts and remains of the early attempts to farm this area. At Freshwater Inlet your pre-arranged water taxi will ferry you back across xxx Bay to Oban township. Contact Stewart Island Water Taxis and Stewart Island Air for the flight and water taxi services.

Mt Cook and Arthurs Pass

Mueller Ridge and Sealy Tarns at Mt Cook

The Mueller Ridge hike directly behind Mt Cook village, up to Sealy Tarns is steep but rewarding. It is almost a direct climb from the valley floor, but with an incredible payoff when you reach the ridge itself and views of Mt Sefton and the Mueller Glacier. Follow the Kea Point Track to the Sealy Tarns turnoff.  Allow 2 hours to Sealy Tarns and remember that the return trip will probably take just as long as you watch your footing on the steep descent.

Arthur;s Pass

Bealey Spur is an easy day walk in the mountains of the Southern Alps, on the Canterbury side of Arthur;s Pass.  Walkers enjoy mountain beech forest and river valley views after climbing to a historic mutterers hut at 1,200m (4,000ft) which makes a nice lunch spot. Once you are on to the ridge you will be rewarded with a fantastic view of Arthurs Pass and the Waimakariri River. Allow 5-6 hours return to the hut. The track starts from the end of Cloudesley Road, off the main highway near the Bealey Hotel, 14 km south of Arthur’s Pass Village. The Wilderness Lodge at Arthurs Pass offers a range of guided treks for their guests.

The West Coast

Lake Matheson Walkway - Fox Glacier

Recommended not least because of the fabulous cafe at the beginning/end of this track. This is an easy walk offering clear views of Fox Glacier, Mt Tasman and Aoraki/Mt Cook and lots of opportunities for photographers. Drive 6km down Cooks Road off SH6 at Fox Glacier township. Winding through ancient native rainforest, the walkway has three viewing platforms along the journey, providing excellent views. The full circuit around the lake takes 1 – 1 ½ hours, or you can just go as far as Jetty View Point, 30 minutes return.

Okarito Lagoon - near Franz Josef

Shallow open water covers over 3000 ha to form the Ōkārito lagoon—a bird watcher’s paradise. Thousands of native birds (more than 76 different species) visit the Ōkārito Lagoon and many make their home in the vicinity, including the famous white heron/ kōtuku and royal spoonbill/kōtuku-ngutupapa. The Ōkārito Wetland Walk (25 min, 1 km return) winds though bush before crossing the estuary on a curving boardwalk to climb to a viewpoint overlooking the estuary. Return to the car park or continue along the Three Mile Pack Track for a longer walk of 3 hr/9 km. The track passes through coastal forest before climbing over the Kohuamarua Bluff and meandering through wind-shorn rimu, rātā and silver pine forest and then dropping down to Three Mile Lagoon—a sheltered estuary fringed with rimu forest. Return the same way or, if the tide allows, follow the coastline back along the beach. Unsurpassed views of the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Access: Drive 15 km north from Franz Josef Township on State Highway 6 to the Ōkārito Forks turn off signposted on the left, then another 13 km along a sealed road to Ōkārito. For keen bird watchers there is a superb guided tour, Okarito Boat Tours.

Harihari Coastal Walkway - from either Franz Josef or Hokitika

One of the most scenic walkways on the West Coast, taking in spectacular views of forest, rivers, mountains and coastline while walking through estuaries, bogs and a swamp forest. The Harihari Coastal Walkway (2 hr 45 min) follows in part an historic pack track route and an old logging tramway, crossing through a variety of vegetation. From the car park, walk out to the Wanganui Heads where the top of Mt Oneone provides a panoramic view. (It is also a sooty shearwater/tītī breeding site). Access: Turn off State Highway 6 at Harihari and follow Wanganui Flat Road before turning left into La Fontaine Road to the road end car park (20 min drive). Note: The section of track around the estuary and down the beach to the Poerua River mouth should not be attempted within 2 hr either side of high tide. From the Porerua River, return on the inland track.

Pororari River Loop Track - Punakaiki

This loop track starts at the bridge crossing the Pororari River, one kilometre north of the DoC Visitor Centre, and follows a spectacular limestone gorge into Paparoa National Park.
There is a superb picnic spot and swimming hole, where the Pororari Track meets the Inland Pack Track near a river ford. Experience a dense sub-tropical forest of coastal broadleaf plants, nikau palms, tree ferns and towering rata. 15 minutes walk from the bridge is a picnic spot and there are popular swimming spots during the warmer summer months. Bird life includes native Weka, a large, brown flightless bird that has a famously feisty and curious personality. Also Tomtits, New Zealand Bush Robins, native Pigeons, Tuis and Bellbirds. Allow 2.5 hours return, however, if you're just out for a short walk, the lower section is very enjoyable.

Truman Track - Punakaiki

A stunning short walk down through rainforest and flax to the dramatic Te Miko coastline. A picturesque bay awaits you and just around the corner of the beach is a small waterfall and huge caverns where you can see the remains of fossilised creatures embedded into the cliff face. The beach is best viewed at low tide when the sea uncovers all sorts of surprises. No safe swimming at the beach and pay attention to the incoming tide as it may cut you off from the stairs leading out. Access is 3 km north of Punakaiki at Te Mike.

Nelson and Marlborough

Abel Tasman Day Walk - Nelson/Motueka

Cross the estuary over the Marahau causeway and follow the track through open country, then kanuka and beech forest. Turning inland you hike in and out of forested valleys before reaching a view of beautiful Torrent Bay and descending to Anchorage Bay for a picnic and your return water taxi. You can also reverse this, book your water taxi to Anchorage and hike back. Marahau to Anchorage 4 hours, 12.4 kilometres (7.1 miles) Contact Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles for water shuttle services or Abel Tasman Charters for urther guided options.

Mt Arthur - Nelson/Motueka

Mt Arthur Hut, is a relatively accessible bush and alpine day-hike for fit hikers in Kahurangi National Park. It offers amazing views, alpine vegetation, caves and karsts. From the car park the track rises past Flora Hut (2kms 30mins)  through Flora Saddle and beautiful beech forest, then climbs through extraordinary mountain Nei Nei to Mount Arthur Hut (1.30 hrs 3.6kms) sited at the treeline, with superb views of Nelson and Tasman Bay. The summit itself at 1795 metres is another 5km of exposed ridgeline climbing (4-5 hours return from the hut to the summit) following a poled route so most day-hikers will be wise to stop at the hut. Access via the Graham Valley Road to the Flora Carpark from Motueka is along 36kms of partially unsealed road, so check road conditions before departure. Allow 4 hours return up the 5.6 kms trail to reach Mt Arthur Hut. Guided by Wine Art & Wilderness.

Queen Charlotte Track - Marlborough Sounds, Blenheim.

This is another track with an excellent water taxi service and lots of options for day walks on sections of the well-known 3-day hike. Especially recommended is the section from Ships Cove to Endeavour Inlet and Furneaux Lodge (3.5-5 hours) and for the fast and fit on to Punga Cove (3-4 hours further). Contact Marlborough Wilderness Guides for guided and self-guided options as well as sea kayaking and biking the trails.

Day Hiking - What To Pack

Footwear: the most important item to bring with you is a pair of quality hiking/walking shoes. Ideally these have ankle support (lightweight boots rather than shoes) but this is not essential. Most importantly the soles should have good tread. Lightweight runners or everyday shoes don’t cut it unless you are in a city. You will find good walking shoes are useful shoes to have with you for travelling anyway, whether you are hiking through forests or lugging baggage through airport terminals.

Sunhat, rainproof jacket, at least one really warm thermal top, hiking trousers or shorts (not jeans) and small daypack. This is sufficient for summer hiking, for winter or autumn hiking you will need more thermals, gloves and a warm hat.

Optional: Hiking poles (collapsible) if you are used to these, and they do help with New Zealand’s steepish terrain. A watch - just a simple timepiece that means you are not reliant on a phone signal to know what time it is and how long you have been hiking for when you are in the middle of nowhere.

Buy when you get here: sunscreen, insect repellent, water bottle. Always take an energy snack/packed lunch with you for longer hikes. Seek advice, from your hosts, from the local Department of Conservation Office (maps, guidance etc) and if in doubt look for some of the excellent guided walks available.

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