After you've spent hours, possibly days, inside a stuffy cramped tin can with wings to get to these remote islands, there is no better way to stretch your legs and get some fresh air than going on a hike!!!
You can't come to New Zealand and not be willing to discover the sheer vastness that it has to offer so make sure you pack your walking legs.
Your boots might give you a few blisters, you will get hungry, thirsty and tired, but once you finish the hike and look at all those awesome photos you will know why it was worth the effort.
New Zealand offers something for everyone. From treks that can last anything between 30 minutes, 3 days (like the Tongariro Northern Circuit), to even 3 months! I've decided to compile a selection of the best day hikes that I've done.
For those of you who plan on visiting the South Island I have designed a complete New Zealand Travel Guide featuring multiple road trip itineraries, hikes, photo locations and tips.
the ultimate list of day hiking trails on new zealand's south island
The Map of the hikes
This interactive map shows the locations of all the trailheads. Hopefully it helps you plan a route. If you are looking for route inspiration then I have also created several road trips for New Zealand that visit many of these locations.
1. Mount Alfred
This is, without a doubt, one of the best day hikes I’ve done in New Zealand and believe me I’ve done A LOT! Mount Alfred isn’t a very common one either which makes it slightly more special.
The track, which starts around 15 minutes away from the township of Glenorchy, mainly cuts through the native bush until merging out onto a steep plane from which the summit and ridge are accessible. The northern most point along the ridge looks over Paradise (Yes there’s a place in NZ actually called Paradise) and the Earnslaw Glacier in the near distance. From the South you have a spectacular view over Lake Wakatipu and surrounding mountains. It’s not the easiest as summiting is a continual uphill struggle but my gosh it's spectacular when you get to the top.
UPDATE: The Mount Alfred summit hike goes across private land. The owner of the land has recently prohibited access to the general public without prior permission, due to hikers getting lost or stranded on the mountain. You can join a guided tour to do it. If you decide to ignore the sign that's your decision.
Elevation gain to summit: 1000m
Duration: 5-7 hours
2. Ben Lomond
This is the ultimate hike from Queenstown, where I lived and worked for 4 months during New Zealand's summer. Emerging from the forest earlier than on Mount Alfred, the very well maintained (thanks Department of Conservation) track meets up with the Ben Lomond Saddle where one can choose to go right to Bowen Peak or left to the Ben Lomond summit.
The summit offers unique views of the Remarkables Mountain Range to the south east, Walter and Cecil Peak across Lake Wakatipu in the south. Moke Lake in the West and numerous valleys and canyons to the North. There’s no other way to put it apart from this….. It's a 360 degree orgasm inducing view fest extravaganza from up there.
For those of you not looking for such a big challenge, the route can be shortened by taking the Queenstown Gondola up the first section. If you're in Queenstown and you're looking for a shorter hike then check out all the other hikes around Queenstown.
Elevation gain: From Queenstown: 1437m, From the Upper Gondola Terminal: 950m
Duration: 6-8 h return from Queenstown, 4-6 h from Upper Gondola Terminal
3. Roy's Peak
The most popular day tramp from Wanaka (btw tramp means hike in Kiwi) is Roys Peak located just 5km from the small lake side town. The 6 hour up and down of this relatively simple hike is definitely worth a days excursion. The walk itself, which stays for the majority of the time on the eastern side of the mountain, gives breath taking views continually throughout the day.
Be warned though, it is 100% exposed so take sun screen, wind proof clothes and plenty of water and although the views along the way are definitely worth writing home about, the view from the summit is out of this world. Roy's Peak features on many of my itineraries in my New Zealand Travel Guide. The trail is very popular now and you should expect to queue to take the famous photo along the undulating ridgeline.
Elevation Gain: 1250m
Duration: 5-7 hours
4. Isthmus Peak
Another great day walk near Wanaka is Isthmus Peak, located in the mountain range separating Lake Hawea with Lake Wanaka. The “car park” which is nothing more than a small gravel filed verge at the side of the road can contain about 4/5 cars max and doesn’t need to be any bigger as not that many people go there (not nearly as many as Roys Peak). It's one of the reasons making it one of the most rewarding hikes in Wanaka.
The path which leads mostly through private farmland has a nice balance between exposed and unexposed parts, a lot like my photos which are also all perfectly exposed ;)
The summit views are arguably more impressive than Roys Peak and you'll meet a tenth of the people up there.
Elevation Gain: 1000m
Duration: 5-7 hours
5. Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountain though not very long (it only takes ca 1,5 hour to the summit) has been equipped with quite few steps and ladders along the way, and if there is one thing I don't like when hiking are, you guessed it, steps and ladders.
If you're craving more adventure then try to get up there just before sunrise. Just make sure you come prepared! The mirador at the top looks directly east over Lake Wanaka and more importantly, toward the sunrise.
There are several viewpoints along the way including great views of the Diamond Lake just at the start of the hike. The 7km (return) route is very well maintained, easy to follow and great for families with older kids.
Elevation Gain: 450m
Duration: 2 - 3 hours
6. Mount Robert
Mount Robert in the Nelson Lakes National Park is a moderately easy half day loop circuit which gives outstanding panoramas over Lake Rotoiti and of the nearby mountains, which separate the Tasman/Marlborough regions. This is fantastic option if you’re not an avid hiker but want something a little harder than just walking around pier.
Mount Robert also has loads of native wildlife including cute wekas, rare dark brown kakas and fuzzy little piwakawakas. Sounds like I’m just making up names doesn’t it? Just google them and you’ll be surprised.
The track is a 9km loop which can be steep at times but is generally manageable and fine for families.
Elevation Gain: 600m
Duration: 3-5 hours
7. Bealey Spur Track
Now when I talk about Spurs I’m not talking about shoes that are designed to stab horses or the London football team. I’m obviously talking about a projection from a mountain or mountain range. The Bealey Spur track is exactly that, a quaint little hill near Arthurs Pass village that offers sublime views around the rest of the valley.
The slowly ascending path, that lies mainly within the tree line, is a great day walk and offers unique views of the Waimakariri river and of all the surrounding mountains, namely Avalanche Peak which is featured later on.
Elevation Gain: 550m
Duration: 3-5 hours
8. Lake Marian
The trail underfoot is often laden with tree roots and you have to concentrate at times but I certainly wouldn't describe it as difficult. It's a short but sweet track that climaxes at a brilliantly iridescent lake in a hanging valley.
The route will take you away from the throngs of tourists at Milford Sound and along the road side pull outs. I've often found that with most hikes in New Zealand if you're willing to go 5 minutes away from the top spots there's lots of solitude to be found.
In the winter avalanches can happen, please check the avalanche conditions with the DOC before heading out.
Elevation Gain: 300m
Duration: 3 hours
9. Mueller Hut
There are rumours circulating that Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, wrote the song “Stairway to Heaven” after going up to the Mueller hut.
The path that includes 1806 steps and loads of steep switchbacks is not the easiest of day walks and though definitely doable in a day I would recommend staying in the hut overnight and enjoying a sunset / sunrise / stars combo. It's one of the best backcountry huts in New Zealand but needs to be booked well in advance.
It's 5km one way to the hut, and no easy feat by any means. The path can get busy on a clear day but the view of the surrounding glaciers is just incredible. You can also overnight in the hut. Just go to my other article about hiking and staying in the Mueller hut for more info.
Elevation Gain: 1050m
10. Hooker Valley Walk
Now this walk has by far the highest amazing views to effort ratio. The two and a half hour return journey to the Hooker Lake is mind bogglingly beautiful.
The hike takes you northbound along the Hooker River but it honestly doesn't matter if you were looking up stream or down stream, left, right, east or west everything is just magnificent at all times of the year.
You'd be crazy to miss Mount Cook if you're planning short road trip itinerary on New Zealand's South Island. The route is 5km one way, mostly flat and highly recommended for families.
Elevation Gain: 100m
Duration: 2-3 h
11. Alex Knob
A west coast hike in Glacier country that offers incredible views over the Franz Josef glacier and valley. It’s a long 17km return but worth every second. The track is often rocky underfoot and due to recent slips you need to climb over and under several trees but this just adds to the fun, in my humble opinion.
At the summit you’ll have incredible views toward several peaks over 3000m and the famous Franz Josef Glacier. Great alternative for those who don't have few hundred dollars to spend on a heli glacier hike in town.
Elevation Gain: 1100m
Duration: 5-7 hours
12. Gertrude Saddle
The Gertrude Saddle is another great hike in Fiordland National Park. If you’re not in the position to do a scenic flight around Milford Sound then this is the next best option. The views into the surrounding glacier carved valley all the way to the Fjord will quickly make you forget the hurdle of getting up here.
The no pain no gain rule really applies here. Although the track is not that long, the use of chains is required.
Near the top of the hike you need to cross a large section of smooth rocks which become very slippy in wet weather. Think twice about going if it’s raining (or been raining recently)! Deaths have occurred on this track previously.
I recently came across this fantastic video from NZ Mountain Safety Council with footage from Gertrude Saddle showcasing the difficulty of the trail. Make sure to check it out here.
Elevation Gain: 650m
Duration: 4-6 hours
13. Mount Fyffe
A long trudge continuously uphill to the summit of Mount Fyfe near Kaikoura rewards you with amazing views over the flatlands towards the Pacific Ocean to the east but also along saw tooth jagged Seaward ranges to west. The best of both worlds.
The routes follows a wide road until you reach the tiny Mount Fyffe Hut, a great place to stay if you have an extra night. From here it’s another hour and a bit to the summit.
The summit views are great and because this isn’t a very popular hike on New Zealand’s South Island it’s also quite serene. If you want to extend the hike you can follow the ridgeline until you reach Gables End.
Elevation Gain: 1400m
Duration: 5-7 hours
14. Avalanche Peak
This is a demanding tramp that requires light scrambling over large boulders whilst navigating along a well maintained path through the forest. After about an hour and half you’ll emerge from the bushline with spectacular views to the valley floor. From here it’s another 2 hours to the summit.
From the summit the vistas are expansive and rewarding. Several huge peaks, a light blue cirque glacier and the winding Bealey River will catch your attention. Plus there's loads of Kea, an alpine parrot, there too.
A huge plus of this hike is that it can be turned into a loop using the Scotts Tracks. Scotts Track offers great views of the Devil Punchbowl Waterfalls.
Elevation Gain: 1050m
Duration: 6-8 hours
After 15 months in New Zealand I have done loads of walking. Each time I go hiking I feel such a rush, such a sense of completion, I am addicted to the feeling of conquering mountains and seeing the World from above. I can only imagine what those people who climb Mount Everest, K2 or Annapurna feel like after reaching the top.
If you plan on travelling around the North Island and your trip is focused on the outdoors then make sure to visit my post about the best day hikes on the North Island.
The hikes in New Zealand are generally easy to follow but can become dangerous if you don’t act appropriately.
Always be prepared for all weather conditions and know your own abilities before heading into the backcountry!
HAVE YOU DONE ANY OF THESE HIKES IN NEW ZEALAND? WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me somewhere in the mountains.
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