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Looking for the best walks in the South Island? Here's a list of four great walks which offer a full range of experiences and can be visited in a relaxed two week vacation.
The walks we’ve chosen below combine spectacular scenery with accessibility, comfortable accommodation and interesting nearby activities. It’s never easy deciding on the best walking tracks in a hiker’s paradise like the South Island of New Zealand, but we’ve chosen our list thinking about the whole holiday experience. Stunning landscapes are complemented by comfortable, quality accommodation and easy accessibility; creating easy-going hiking experiences that make your New Zealand vacation truly unforgettable.
The Best Walks in the South Island:
Often described as the finest walk in the world, the Milford Track is on every walker’s bucket list. Discovered by Scottish explorer Quintin Mackinnon in the late 1880s, the Milford is our oldest and best known walking track. From the top of Lake Te Anau, traversing the Southern Alps at the Mackinnon Pass, past New Zealand’s highest waterfall and out to the Tasman Sea at Milford Sound, if there is one walk which represents the best of natural New Zealand then surely it is the Milford Track.
The Milford Track for a day
With time being our most such a valuable resource nowadays, a day hike from the Milford Sound end of the track end allows you to experience Milford Track, Sound and Road in 24 hours. Travel the striking Milford Highway in the beautiful afternoon light to overnight in Milford before a short boat ride across the sound to Sandfly Point the following morning. We begin our walk in pristine Fiordland rainforest, enveloped in a verdant world of lichens, ferns, moss and lower altitude podocarp forest. Glimpses of waterfalls cascading down the towering rock faces of the Fiordland mountains are above us, and the powerful Giant’s Gate Falls – the turnaround point on our hike– is an impressive sight.
What we love about walking the Milford Track from Milford Sound
-Beat the rush by walking in the morning after overnighting in Milford
-Milford Track and Sound in the same day
-Experience all this in just two memorable days from Queenstown
In the heart of the South Island’s best walking country, the Hollyford has a rich history and is truly is one of the South Island’s last remote corners. The story of the Hollyford Valley is a real New Zealand story – visited by the Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe people in their quest for Pounamu (Jade) and in later years the site of some over-ambitious and ultimately ill-fated development plans by British settlers. In the 1920s, ‘the tramper’s friend’ Davey Gunn opened up the valley to tourism. There is really something about the Hollyford which slows you down and helps you breathe - this is the Hollyford magic.
The Hollyford Track for a day (and a night)
In the distant corners of the South Island we sometimes need a little help, in this case a friendly helicopter allows easy entry into the heart of this special place – Martins Bay – saving us the three day hike. We are now ready for a short coastal walk to Long Reef, where we encounter the Fur Seal (Kekeno) and, if we’re lucy, the Fiordland Crested Penguin (Tawaki). After our walk who wouldn’t enjoy a little luxury at Martins Bay Lodge with its fantastic food, wonderful hosts, hot showers and warm dry beds - who says you need to rough it in the wilderness! The next day we get going early with a blast of fresh Fiordland air on our exhilarating jet boat ride across on the Hollyford River and Lake McKerrow before our day walking on the Hollyford Track. The tranquility of the Hollyford is difficult to describe in words, our trek begins in the realm of friendly forest giants which sets the mood for the day. The excellent forest track is punctuated by crystal clear pools and captivating waterfalls, while the all-seeing Darran Mountains gaze down on us from above.
What we love about the Hollyford Track
-Up-close wildlife encounters - seals, penguins and even dolphins
-Nature in solitude, you won’t see a lot of people out here
-Complement your walking with once-in-a-lifetime adventure activities like a helicopter flight and backcountry jet boat
A real notch in any global walker's belt and one of the South Island’s 'Great Walks'. The Routeburn has always been a travel route connecting Fiordland to the Wakatipu. First used by early Maori in search of Greenstone and in the colonial days the route chosen for a road between Queenstown and Martins Bay for the export of gold. Nowadays part of Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area (Te Wahipounamu), the Routeburn offers a unique array of forest and alpine walking unrivalled by any other walk in the South Island.
The Routeburn Track for a day
With easy access from Queenstown, the full day hike to Routeburn Flats or Falls from the Glenorchy is one of the best day hikes you'll find anywhere. Through ethereal Red Beech forest to the Routeburn River and moody, dramatic Gorge to the natural amphitheatre of Routeburn Flats, which looks positively Middle-Earth. If you’d like a challenge, your reward for honest effort on the climb to Routeburn Falls will be the vista which I think is the best on any day walk in New Zealand, let alone the South Island.
Why we love the Routeburn Track
-You simply cannot miss the 'Top of the Lake’
-Glenorchy, Paradise and the Mt Aspiring National Park
-A short and very spectacular drive from Queenstown
-You may even see Yellowhead (Mohua), one of our rarest birds
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
No walking itinerary of the South Island is complete without visting the home to our highest mountain and most famous of national parks. Mount Cook is an integral part of the human history of the South Island, from the legend of Maui and his brothers to the exploits of the most beloved of all Kiwis, Sir Edmund Hillary. Our only true ‘alpine’ national park and quite compact, Mt Cook offers a stark contrast to the wide domains of other walking havens like Fiordland and provides a real mountain backdrop for even on shorter day walks.
Walking in Mount Cook for a day
To make the most of everything this alpine wonderland has to offer, we recommend spending two nights in the village. Our favourite track here is the Hooker Valley, a comfortable day walk with grand views at every turn. You won’t find anywhere else in the South Island with the same easy access into a real alpine setting and your camera will bet a real workout all day with the vistas of our highest peaks and glaciers. Take a break by the Hooker Glacier terminal lake, just the right spot to enjoy a hot drink and marvel at the world around you. For flower lovers, the Hooker Valley is the perfect place to see the Mount Cook Lily (Ranunculus lyallii) in season - usually late spring to early summer.
Three more reasons we love Mount Cook
-Spectacular stargazing, you’re in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve
-The Snowline bar in the Hermitage Hotel, the perfect place to relax after a great day out
-The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre and Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre, two of the best visitor centres in the South Island
My name is Andrew Wells and I’ve been working as a professional hiking guide here in New Zealand since 1999. This is my take on the best walks in the South Island, all of which are included in our 13 day New Zealand World Heritage Walking tour, along with iconic adventure activities, comfortable four star accommodation and great local restaurants. Small groups led by our friendly expert guides will make your New Zealand Trails tour a treasured travel memory for life. Please visit our website for more about our New Zealand walking tours, or for any questions or reservations please get in touch now.
The World Heritage Walking Tour, perfect for your trip of a lifetime. The best walks in New Zealand, iconic outdoor activities, 4-star accommodation and delicious food and wine - in a friendly small group led by expert 'Kiwi' guides.