9 Great Walks of New Zealand

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The nine Great Walks of New Zealand showcase the very best of the country’s vast wilderness and sublime scenery

New Zealand is woven with hiking trails: short strolls through city parks, extraordinary day hikes and lake loops, and spectacular long-distance hiking trails. It is this network of routes, long and short, that makes New Zealand one of the best hiking destinations in the world.

Great Walks of New Zealand

Scattered across the country are the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. Marked out as extraordinary, these trails showcase the very best of New Zealand’s wilderness.

The country has thousands of kilometres of hiking trails, but it is these well-maintained and easy-to-follow premier trails, managed by the Department of Conservation, that journey through the country’s most magnificent scenery.

The nine Great Walks of New Zealand penetrate every corner of the country… and all the mountains, lakes, beaches, forests and fjords that make New Zealand one of the leading hiking – Kiwis call it ‘tramping’ – destinations on Earth.

Lake Waikaremoana, NORTH ISLAND

Distance: 46km
Duration: 3-4 days
Difficulty: Intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand Lake Waikaremoana
Dreamstime The trail mostly follows the shores of Lake Waikaremoana

Every shade of green is on display at Lake Waikaremoana and its surroundings. Blessed with the largest area of native forest on North Island, as well as the magical ‘Goblin Forest’, the trail largely follows the shores of Lake Waikaremoana. Despite following the shore, the track branches off regularly into areas of wetland and forest with deserted beaches and waterfalls also cropping up en route.

Tongariro Northern Circuit, NORTH ISLAND

Distance: 43km
Duration: 3-4 days
Difficulty: Intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

great walks of new zealand Tongariro Northern Circuit
Dreamstime The Emerald Lakes on the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The Tongariro Northern Circuit follows the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the first section, named by National Geographic as one of the best day hikes in the world. The hiking only gets better as the full circuit takes in the volcanic terrain of central North Island.

The trail passes the perfectly circular cone of Mount Ngauruhoe, New Zealand’s most active volcano with 61 eruptions since 1839. Continuing,du expect a medley of otherworldly colours throughout thanks to volcanic minerals, glacial valleys, beech forest and emerald lakes.

Whanganui Journey, NORTH ISLAND

Distance: 87 or 145km
Duration: 3 or 5 days
Difficulty: Canoe journey
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand Whanganui River
Dreamstime The Whanganui River is New Zealand’s longest navigable river

Let the water do the walking and swap your hiking boots for a pair of aqua shoes on this serene river journey. Canoe or kayak from Taumarunui to Pipiriki on New Zealand’s longest navigable river, the Whanganui River, which has actually been granted the same legal rights as humans. Even though this is not a hiking trail, the journey is managed under the Great Walks system.

Gently drifting downriver through steep-sided canyons, this journey takes visitors well beyond the clutches of modern civilisation. Instead, complete tranquility awaits, along with bountiful birdlife and forestry clinging to the cliff faces and shoreline.

A shorter three-day journey from Whakahoro to Pipiriki is also possible.

Abel Tasman Coast Track, SouTH ISLAND

Distance: 60km
Duration: 3-5 days
Difficulty: Easy/intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

This beautiful coastal trail is set in Abel Tasman National Park, named after Dutch seafarer Abel Janszoon Tasman. He was the first known European to reach New Zealand during his voyage of 1642.

We hiked a section of the trail as part of our multi-sport tour of South Island and were utterly enraptured by the undulating trail and its golden beaches, clear waters and lush native bush.

It’s possible to walk the entire track in either direction or make use of water taxis or kayaks to get between locations on the trail. We hiked 13km from Anchorage to Bark Bay in the morning before kayaking back to Marahau in the afternoon.

Heaphy Track, SOUTH ISLAND

Distance: 78km
Duration: 4-6 days
Difficulty: Intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand heaphy track
Dreamstime The Heaphy Track is a more challenging trek

This challenging ancient Maori trail on the west coast of South Island provides the strongest contrasts of the Great Walks of New Zealand. Often overlooked for the more famous Milford, Routeburn and Abel Tasman trails, the scenery on the Heaphy Track frequently changes from lush rainforest and tussock grasslands to craggy mountains and palm-fringed beaches with rolling surf.

The track is well-known for its wildlife, particularly its birdlife, as it is home to many Great Spotted Kiwi Birds. The track is within the Kahurangi National Park. Kahurangi in Maori means ‘treasured possession’; a hint at what awaits hikers in New Zealand’s second largest national park.

Milford Track, SOUTH ISLAND

Distance: 54km
Duration: 4 days
Difficulty: Easy/intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand Milford Track
Dreamstime The iconic 1,692m summit of Mitre Peak (Rahotu)

This is a historic trail through the southern hemisphere’s answer to Norway. Around 100 years ago, The Spectator declared Milford Track “the finest walk in the world” – and you can see why.

The alpine crossing takes in New Zealand’s tallest waterfall, breathtaking valleys and rivers and, of course, New Zealand’s famous glacier-carved fjords. The Southern Alps meet the Southern Ocean in dramatic fashion at Milford Sound, where the iconic 1,692m (5,551ft) cloud-piercing summit of Mitre Peak (Rahotu) rises above beryl fjord waters.

On a sunny day in the Fiordland National Park, the scene is postcard perfect. When it rains, torrents of water cascade intensely over the steep cliffs delivering mists and rainbows making for an entirely different experience.

Kepler Track, SOUTH ISLAND

Distance: 60km
Duration: 3-4 days
Difficulty: Intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand kepler track
Dreamstime The Kepler Track is custom-built to show off the best of Fiordland

Unlike many of the Great Walks of New Zealand, which evolved from Maori trails or pioneer exploration routes, the Kepler Track is entirely custom-built – designed to showcase the very best features of Fiordland. The track makes for easier walking with most streams bridged, boardwalks covering boggy sections and steps up the steeper sections.

Like the Milford Track, the Kepler track is also located in Fiordland National Park. However, the Kepler is a carefully planned trail that gives walkers endless vistas of every Fiordland landscape on offer: moss-draped beech forests, soaring mountain ranges, crashing waterfalls, vast glacier-carved valleys, luscious river flats and unbelievable limestone rock formations.

Routeburn Track, SOUTH ISLAND

Distance: 33km
Duration: 2-3 days
Difficulty: Intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand Routeburn
Atlas & Boots A typical vista on the Routeburn Track

The world-renowned Routeburn Track follows the Routeburn River through ice-carved valleys in the shadows of majestic peaks. The alpine track crosses the Southern Alps as well as Mount Aspiring and Fiordland national parks. With endless magnificent vistas stretching over vast mountain ranges and valleys, this is probably the grandest of the Great Walks of New Zealand.

Glorious waterfalls, moss-draped forests and reflective tarns punctuate the already remarkable montane scenery on this beautiful hiking trail. The only drawback is it doesn’t go on for longer.

Rakiura Track, Stewart ISLAND

Distance: 32km
Duration: 3 days
Difficulty: Easy/intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz

Great Walks of New Zealand stewart island
Dreamstime Few tourists make it out to Stewart Island

Located on Stewart Island, an hour’s ferry ride from Bluff on the southernmost point of South Island, is the peaceful Rakiura Track. Very few tourists make it out here to join the 400-odd residents on this serene island sanctuary.

The almost entirely board-walked track mostly follows the open coast, climbing over forested ridges and traversing Stewart Island’s sheltered inlets.

Paparoa and Pike29 Memorial Track

Opening in 2019 
Distance: 55km
Duration: 2-3 days
Difficulty: Intermediate
More info: doc.govt.nz 

Great Walks of New Zealand pancake rocks
Atlas & Boots The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks at the end of the trail

The nine Great Walks of New Zealand are soon to be 10. Opening in 2019, the Paparoa and Pike29 Memorial Track works its way through river gorges, limestone cliffs and forests of beech and subtropical nīkau palm trees.

Keep an eye out for the Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes at Punakaiki at the end of the trail. The bizarre rock formations make for the perfect spot to end a hike, sit back and enjoy an incredible Tasman Sea sunset.

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With stories of 50 incredible hiking routes in 30 countries, including several of the Great Walks of New Zealand, Lonely Planet’s Epic Hikes of the World will inspire a lifetime of adventure on foot.

Lead image: Dreamstime

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