From North Island to South Island, around wave-bashed coastlines and beneath snow-capped volcanoes, this Culture Trip guide takes a look at some seriously awesome hikes in the land of the Kiwi. The best news is they can all be conquered after just a day on the New Zealand trails: no mountain huts or sleeping bags required.
It’s no secret that New Zealand is a country that takes your breath away – sometimes even literally. Soaring mountains well over 3,000 metres (9,800ft) crown the great ranges as they crash through South Island. Up north, there are bays of glinting sand and deep-blue seas, home to dolphins and whales and rugged islands. Between the two are swathes of emerald vineyards, bucolic farm country, rainforests, carved fjords, gushing waterfalls – the list goes on.
No surprise then that hikers have made this land Down Under one of their go-to escapes. A lot come for the famous Great Walks and hardcore multi-day treks. But if time is tight, the following adventures take a day or less to complete, yet still cover some of the most breathtaking wonders the islands have to offer.
Even the drive to the trailhead of Isthmus Peak is a doozy, as the milky-blue waters of Lake Hawea flash past car windows. Park up at one of the two lots on Makarora-Lake Hawea Road and then hit the track. First, weave through clusters of scented pines and dwarf palms. Then the path turns grassy, running between farm fields framed by the high eastern Otago ranges. The zigzags begin in earnest on the edge of the mountains. They zip left and right, occasionally opening onto rocky outcrops which make for perfect photo stops. Nearing the summit, hikers cross over the ridges that bridge Lake Hawea with Lake Wanaka. Here, an amphitheatre of snow-capped peaks unfolds. The scene is dashed with tussocks and topped by the spires of the Mount Aspiring National Park to the west.
Roy’s Peak might just be the best-known walking track on South Island. It’s a veritable Instagram celeb, with reports of queues at the summit for that iconic shot of Lake Wanaka framed by the stony backbone of Mount Alta. The trail itself is a moderate challenge. Starting by the water on Mount Aspiring Road, it wiggles back and forth across tussock grass meadows before reaching the main ridge. The whole route is shut during the spring lambing season, which takes place from early October to mid-November. It takes around six hours from start to finish.
Taking in the lush rainforests and coastal hills of the legendary Coromandel Peninsula, this four-hour walk (each way) is an extraordinary way to explore North Island. In a mecca for beach lazing and surfing in New Zealand, visitors can also turn their toes to the trail, on a route that encompasses old-growth kauri forests and remote coves like Poley Bay. The whole trip is relatively easy grade but rewards participants with a grand finale on bucolic Fletcher Bay, where emerald hills tumble straight into the Pacific Ocean.
Mike Watt, operator of the North Island travel sites My Guide Rotorua and My Guide Wellington, says, “The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s most famous and best one-day hike.” Cutting right through the oldest national park in the country for a whopping 19.4km (12mi), he explains that the “much photographed walk features incredible volcanic terrain, emerald and blue lakes, and Mt Ngauruhoe, which doubled up as ‘Mount Doom’ in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.” It’s certainly not a cinch, however, with fast-changing weather conditions and some hard ground to conquer. Remember that there are limits on car spaces inside the national reserve, so it’s best to park outside and use a shuttle bus to get to and from the start and end points.
For a challenging outing, the Roberts Point Track in the West Coast region will take a little over five hours for a fit hiker. The steep route will take you by Franz Josef Glacier and some ice-carved rock formations, then climbing through open scrubland and over a suspension bridge to reach its namesake destination.
Ben Lomond is the mountain that keeps watch over Queenstown. “Walking from the top of the Skyline Gondola,” describes Watt, who also runs My Guide Queenstown, “the Ben Lomond Trek twists and turns through grasslands before taking a steeper and rockier turn up to the summit.” It’s certainly not the easiest trek to take from the adventure-mad town. “The six- to eight-hour return walk is demanding, but the panoramic views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables are well worth the effort,” he adds. Expect to pass through pine woods, open grasslands and high alpine terrain before meeting the curious kea parrots that frequent the top.
Prepare to be challenged by the Mueller Ridge ascent. Park up at the DOC centre in Mount Cook Village and be sure to check that the trail is safe – strong winds can often shut the higher paths. From there, the track runs under soaring Mount Cook, before switching to steep staircases. They are wide and well-maintained, but can seem endless. Altitude clocks up fast, as the clusters of wild herbs are slowly replaced by edelweiss and lichen blooms. Midway, the Sealy Tarns offer a stunning rest spot by a series of mirror-like ponds. Then the trail changes to an alpine track marked only by coloured poles. Up there, Robbie says it’s “nice to be away from the crowds of the Hooker Valley walk and see some of the most epic views of Mount Cook and Mount Sefton.”
Clocking up a whopping 2,518 metres (8,261ft) on the edge of North Island, Mount Taranaki is a quintessential volcano cone. Despite the altitude, it can actually be conquered in a single day’s trekking, but it’s certainly not easy. There are sections that run over craggy lava flows and zigzag up stairways cut straight into the slopes. Robbie says of this one that, “It was a challenging walk, but well worth it for the incredible 360-degree views.” And they certainly are stunning, with even the outlines of the Kaikoura Range over on South Island visible on clear days. The Mount Taranaki Summit Track remains closed in winter, when the mountain is covered in snow.