Tramping New Zealand: The South Island’s Best Hikes

Don’t miss these incredible multi-day hikes on New Zealand’s South Island. From Arthur’s Pass to Milford Sound, Helen Glenny tells us about her favorites.

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Sure, you’ll see some great road-side views in New Zealand – Milford Sound looks great from the hotel carpark, Rangitoto Island dominates the view from Auckland’s waterfront. But to say you’ve truly experienced the wilderness, lace up your hiking boots and head out into the backcountry.

Preparing for Hut to Hut Hiking Tramping

If you’re heading out overnight on foot, you’re not hiking, you’re tramping. New Zealand has an amazing network of tramping huts, all maintained by the loveable Department of Conservation (DOC). The huts on the tracks mentioned here have bunks with mattresses and a water supply, but no food, cooking equipment or rubbish bins.

Visit your local DOC visitors’ center before you head out on a tramp. The staff has the latest updates on track conditions, weather forecasts, and numbers of other trampers in the area.

You can buy maps, and the staff can give you a run-down on your route. Ask the staff about water – in most cases, you can drink during the day from the streams that run down off the mountains.

This is also where you hire personal location beacons – essential if you’re heading off by yourself, and a very good idea if you’re heading off in a group. If you have a major emergency, you can set off your locator beacon, and search and rescue will come and find you. Chances are you’ll never use it, but it’s the best safety net you’ll get.

Reaching Mt Arthur hut in Kahurangi National Park, New Zealand. Photo credit: iStock

Safe & Responsible Tramping

There are a few keep rules that everyone in the New Zealand wilderness happy. Abide by these – they’ll keep you safe, keep the environment pristine, and the locals will love you.

  • Take out all your rubbish: There are no bins at the huts. Everything you bring in, take back out, including food scraps.
  • Fill out the intentions book: Each hut has an intentions book for you to fill out. If anything goes wrong, this tells search and rescue where you’ve been.
  • Pack for the weather: Yep, New Zealand gets snow storms in the middle of summer. No matter where you’re heading, you’ll need warm clothes and waterproof gear. 

The Classics: Milford, Routeburn & Kepler

These three tramps, all located in Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, are three of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’. They’re well-maintained tracks over the sensational scenery, with waitlists and price tags to match.

The Routeburn

The Routeburn traverses from the upper end of Lake Wakatipu (near Queenstown), to The Divide, halfway along the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

As a guide, I walked the track 78 times, and with its big mountain scenery, cascading waterfalls, and perfect alpine plunge pools, I’ll definitely do it again.

  • Distance: 20mi (32km)
  • Time needed: three days
  • Difficulty: intermediate
Walking along the Key Summit Lookout trail. Photo credit: iStock

The Milford Track

The Milford track runs from the top end of Lake Te Anau to the back entrance into Milford Sound. You start on a boat. You end on a boat. For isolation, the Milford Track is unrivaled among New Zealand’s popular tramps – this is helped by the fact that only 100 people can walk the track per day.

The track climbs over MacKinnon Pass (don’t miss New Zealand’s tallest waterfall or New Zealand’s most scenic toilet) and into the Arthur Valley. Bonus points if it’s raining on your last day on the track: hundreds of waterfalls cascade down the sides of the valley, and emerging into Milford Sound in the mist is spectacular.

  • Distance: 33.5mi (54km)
  • Time needed: four days
  • Difficulty: intermediate

The Kepler Track

The Kepler, at the south end of Lake Te Anau, is the area’s slightly lesser-known cousin, but still a ‘Great Walk’. After a steep day-one climb to Luxmore Hut, you’ll traverse a mountainous backbone between sharp peaks, before walking out alongside waterfalls and winding rivers.

The tramping season runs from October to April, and to walk any of these tracks, you’ll need to book bunks in the huts, or campsites. They’re not cheap (US $45–50 per night for huts, US $10-15 for campsites), but well worth the money if you’ve got the budget to do it.

Extra costs include transport (buses are your most affordable option). Te Anau is your best base for the Milford and Kepler tracks, Queenstown is an option if you’re doing the Routeburn.

  • Distance: 37mi (60km)
  • Time needed: three–four days
  • Difficulty: intermediate

Mind-blowing Alternatives

If the great walks are out of your price range, don’t worry. There are some stunning alternatives in the area that are just as scenic, with fewer people on them, and you won’t pay more than US $10 for a bunk.

The Greenstone-Caples Loop Track

The easiest of the alternative options, the Greenstone-Caples is a loop track just a few valleys south of the Routeburn Track. You’ll wander up along the Greenstone River – meandering open valley at times, thundering narrow gorge in others – and over McKellar Saddle, a low crossing among snowy mountains.

You walk out along the Caples valley, where you should keep an eye out for bright blue glacial swimming holes. As well as mountain views, you’ll see calm lakes and gnarled goblin forests.

  • Distance: 38mi (61km)
  • Time needed: four days
  • Difficulty: easy–intermediate

The Rees-Dart Track

Huge mountains sit behind Glenorchy, near Queenstown, and this track cuts through them. You’ll cross grassy valleys, sidle around alpine basins, and climb up onto the Rees Saddle to incredible views – think massive glaciers clinging to steep mountain faces.

Plan for an extra day to take a side trip up Cascade Saddle, but only attempt it if it’s dry and clear, this route can be slippery and dangerous if it’s wet or snowing.

  • Distance: 43mi (69km)
  • Time needed: four–six days
  • Difficulty: advanced
Rope bridge over a mountain creek on the Rees-Dart Track. Photo credit: iStock

Gillespie Pass

The Gillespie Pass track sits above the northern tip of Lake Wanaka. You’ll clamber up mountain valleys and over high passes, with snowy peaks all around. Leave time for a side trip to Crucible Lake when you reach Siberia Hut.

To add a little excitement, consider flying out from Siberia Hut. Flights need to be pre-arranged, but look around for a company that flies guided tours into the hut – you might be able to negotiate a bargain seat on the empty flight back out! 

  • Distance: 36mi (58km)
  • Time needed: three–four days
  • Difficulty: advanced

Honorable Mentions

Day Hikes

Not keen on struggling under a weighty pack? Pack in a few day hikes instead – there’s a lot you can see just a few hours from your car. What’s more, many of New Zealand’s best day hikes lie alongside the best road trips.

On Your Way to Milford Sound

On the way to Milford Sound from Te Anau, stop and take in Lake Marion. This three-hour return, 1.5mi (2.4km), advanced trail leads to a glacial lake located in a hanging valley halfway up a mountain.

Next, park up at The Divide for a walk up Key Summit (three-hours, 2.11mi (3.4km), easy-intermediate), for mountain panoramas and a view back to Lake Marian.

Lastly, take the short trip to The Chasm (20 minutes, 400m, super-easy), a narrow gorge with the Cleddau river thundering through it.

On Your Way Through Arthur’s Pass

The Arthur’s Pass road crossed from the West Coast to Christchurch, and takes in some amazing mountain scenery.

Bealey Spur is one of the easier walks in the area (four­–six hours, intermediate difficulty). You’ll meander up to a historical musterer’s hut through bush and sub-alpine scrub, with views down over the Waimakariri River Valley.

For a challenging day walk, tackle Avalanche peak (six–eight hours, advanced difficulty). You’ll climb up past the bush line into alpine territory, to be rewarded at the top with views of the surrounding peaks and the glaciers that hang off them. You can ascend via the Avalanche Peak Route or Scott’s Track – Scott’s is slightly more scenic.

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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