Sure, you’ll see some great road-side views in New Zealand – Milford Sound looks great from the hotel carpark, and Rangitoto Island dominates the view from Auckland’s waterfront. But to say you’ve truly experienced the wilderness, you'll need to lace up your hiking boots and head out into the backcountry.
If you’re heading out overnight on foot in New Zealand, 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.
There are a few key rules for keeping the New Zealand wilderness happy. Abide by these – they’ll keep you safe, keep the environment pristine, and the locals will love you.
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 through the sensational scenery, with waitlists and price tags to match.
The Routeburn traverses from the upper end of Lake Wakatipu (near Queenstown
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.
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 40 people can walk the track per day.
The track climbs over MacKinnon Pass (don’t miss Sutherland Falls, 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.
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.
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.
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 $20 for a bunk.
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.
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.
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!
Not keen on struggling under a weighty pack? Get 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 the trip from Te Anau, stop and take in Lake Marion. This three-hour return, 1.5mi (2.4km),
Next, park 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.
The Arthur’s Pass road crosses from the West Coast to
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
For a challenging day walk, tackle Avalanche peak (
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