Of all the many reasons to visit New Zealand, adventurous travel and indulging in the stunning nature draws most of the tourists. The government of New Zealand acknowledges its dazzling landscapes and has organized an extensive network of marked trails, from easy walks to strenuous tramping adventures.
Ten of these tracks are called Great Walks; they’re all multi-day routes that lead through a variety of scenery, from coastal cliffs to alien-like volcanic landscapes. In this article, we give you an overview of the 10 most legendary paths New Zealand has to offer.
Walking is not just great on New Zealand’s South and North Island. This is proven with the Rakiura Track, which connects the natural highlights on Stewart Island. This 32-kilometre route is one of the few loop tracks among the Great Walks and is particularly enticing for bird-watchers. Stewart Island has plenty of beautiful species, such as the kaka, tui, and also several types of penguins. The Rakiura Track shows hikers the best of the island. The trail leads along beaches and through dense forests, where you might even encounter an elusive kiwi at night.
Accommodation: The Rakiura Track has 2 huts and 3 paid campsites where you can spend the night.
By walking the Kepler Track, you’re entering one of the most significant hiking domains in the country: Fiordland National Park. This is in the southwest of the South Island. The Kepler Track is an excellent example of the beauty, and variety Fiordland offers. The 60-kilometre route leads hikers through beech forests, over mountain ridges near Lake Te Anau, and through gorgeous wetlands.
Some brilliant bonuses are the short detours to the Luxmore Caves and the Iris Burn Falls. Despite its impressive length, the Kepler Track isn’t as demanding as some of the other Great Walks and can be tackled in 3 to 4 days.
Accommodation: Along the route, you’ll find 3 huts and 2 paid campsites to sleep and break the journey.
The lush greenery and fjords are quite overwhelming, and the Milford Track certainly delivers when it comes to scenery. The track cuts through the iconic Fiordland National Park and winds between the massive mountains of this pristine part of New Zealand. You’ll be surrounded by fertile forests, that flourish as a result of the 200 days of rainfall that Fiordland receives each year.
While you’re tramping you’ll see plenty of rivers and scenic waterfalls through the alpine environment and will be in some of the country’s most untouched parks. Be prepared for the climb over Mackinnon Pass, which is quite challenging. However, everyone with reasonable fitness should be able to complete the Milford Track.
Accommodation: The Milford Track has 3 huts, but no campsites.
The Routeburn Track might be one of the shortest Great Walks (33 kilometres), it is undeniably one of the most diverse routes as well. Mountain lakes, the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps, mossy forests, thundering waterfalls, and wetlands in valleys all come on your path when completing this traverse in Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Park.
You can start from either The Divide or Routeburn Shelter, but the latter is the better option as the start here is easier. A detour worth exploring is the short track up to Key Summit, where you get an awe-inspiring sense of the surrounding mountains. Besides that, Key Summit has amazing wetlands and ‘moss carpets’ with unique flora.
Accommodation: On this route, 4 huts and 2 paid campsites are available.
If you’re a fan of tramping in forests, the Paparoa Track can’t be recommended enough. With the expanded woodlands, meandering rivers, and towering rock formations, you’d almost feel like walking on the set of Jurassic Park. Visitors are treated with walks over suspension bridges, and through forests with the typical fern plants on all sides.
Paparoa Track is the only Great Walk that can be tackled by mountain bikers as well, which gives you an alternative if you’re after a change. With its 55 kilometres, Paparoa is quite a long Great Walk, but incredible fitness isn’t required.
Accommodation: You can use 3 huts to stay overnight.
The Heaphy Track crosses a very remote area in the northwest of the South Island that in a way feels like a tropical paradise. The 78.4-kilometre mammoth track introduces the walker to palm forests, mossy bushland, native birds, and some sections even cover the coastline with its golden beaches. Keep an eye open for the massive carnivorous snails, that make their way over the forest floor at night.
With a maximum elevation of 915 meters, reached during the first day of hiking, this track is suitable for less-experienced adventurers. Unlike the alpine trails further south and on the North Island, Heaphy Track is accessible throughout the entire year.
Accommodation: The Heaphy Track has 4 huts and 6 paid campsites along the way.
Abel Tasman Coast Track
If you’re into beaches and dramatic cliffs backdrops, the Abel Tasman Coast Track is the one for you. The main features of this trail in Abel Tasman National Park are its golden beaches and native bushland. Also, you’ll find beautiful streams, the peaceful Cleopatra’s Pool, and, with some luck, some curious seals exploring the coastline.
The difficulty level of the Abel Tasman Coast Track is low, which makes walking here a family-friendly endeavour. If you don’t want to conquer steep mountain passes but still want to experience the diversity of New Zealand’s nature, this route is an excellent choice.
Accommodation: There are no less than 4 huts and 18 paid camping grounds.
Oddly enough, the Whanganui Journey isn’t a walking track. This epic quest mainly traverses over the Whanganui River, a scenic waterway in the west of the North Island. Still, the government decided to add the Whanganui journey to the impressive list of adventures on land. You can travel by kayak or canoe, between low grassland, high rock walls and lush forests. The longer you’re on the journey, the more intimidating the mountains that encircle the river get. The recommended daily routes range from 22 to 38 kilometres but prepare for lots of paddling if you’re planning to complete the whole 145-kilometre trip.
Accommodation: Along the route, you can find 2 huts and 11 paid campsites.
Tongariro Northern Circuit
Tongariro Northern Circuit (also the first image) stands apart from all other Great Walks when it comes to landscapes. Alien prospects of red soil, steaming hot springs, turquoise lakes, crater valleys, and staggering volcanic cones make this tramp in the middle of the North Island exceptionally beautiful, but also unforgiving at the same time.
Despite the length of ‘only’ 43 kilometres, the Tongariro Northern Circuit has some tough climbs, and treacherous descends. It’s worth every drop of sweat though; the landscapes of Tongariro are so out-of-this-world, that the makers of The Lord of the Rings movies used them as an inspiration for the dark land of Mordor.
Accommodation: You can stay overnight in 3 huts and 4 paid campsites.
As the name suggests, this northernmost Great Walk mainly revolves around the idyllic Lake Waikaremoana. The 46-kilometre trail goes in a circle around the lake and includes woodland, climbs to stunning mountains, and stops at quiet beaches. The unspoiled view from Panekire Bluff is a highlight, and so is the thundering Korokoro Falls. This trip offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy photography; the mirror-like reflections in the lake, the panoramic vistas, and the mountainous backdrops are merely spectacular.
Accommodation: Along the way, there are 5 huts and 5 paid campsites.
All Great Walks can be done from October to April when the trails are generally snow and ice-free. Routes in lower altitudes are usually accessible year-round, such as the Heaphy Track and Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Currently, the Milford Track and Routeburn Track are temporarily closed due to flooding in early 2020. We recommend checking the New Zealand parks websites (links with suggestions above) when planning your route.
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