From the North Island to the South Island and beyond, New Zealand’s landscape is cross-hatched with well-maintained tracks, and dotted with over 1000 backcountry huts provided by the Department of Conservation (DOC). For novices, the abundance of choice can seem overwhelming, so why not let an expert design your New Zealand hiking itinerary?
Here are five epic hikes that showcase the best of Aotearoa.
The beaches of Abel Tasman National Park, at the top of the South Island, exist to remind us that New Zealand is a Pacific Island at heart. The first time I swam there I wondered if I’d been teleported to Rarotonga. Accessible only by walking (or by sea), these are the most beautiful beaches in the country, hands down.
One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the track is also one of the least taxing, skirting the coastline through native bush and across pristine coves and inlets. You’ll cover 60 kilometres over three or four days, and you can arrange a water taxi to take you back at the end. While the huts are great for easy accommodation, if you’re feeling adventurous pack a tent and camp at DOC campsites right on the beach.
The Paparoa Track is New Zealand’s first dual Great Walk (and its newest), meaning it can be either walked or ridden on mountain bike. The 55-kilometre track traverses the alpine peaks and limestone gorges of the Paparoa Range on the South Island’s West Coast, taking in relics of mining as a counterpoint to the natural beauty.
Accommodation is in comfortable DOC huts, which you’ll need to book in advance. If riding you’ll probably need just one night on the track, but walkers should allow at least two.
For a taste of real New Zealand “tramping” (aka “hiking”) head for the Tararua Ranges, just north of Wellington. Like so many others, I cut my teeth in these hills, which although not especially high (topping out at around 1.6 kilometres) offer a great challenge for visitors looking for something different.
Starting on the eastern side of the forest park, a stiff climb through bush takes you to Powell Hut, perched over the Wairarapa Plains. Head for the summit of Mount Holdsworth in the morning, then continue north along the ridgeline to Jumbo Peak, descending to Jumbo Hut before dropping back into the valley for an easy walk out.
Google image search “Mount Taranaki” and you’ll notice most photos that pop up have been taken from one spot. It’s not a coincidence. The perfectly conical volcano – the North Island’s second highest mountain - is at its most alluring when reflected in the glassy waters of the Pouakai Tarns. And as luck would have it, these tarns (small, mountain lakes) are right on the path of what's probably the North Island’s best under-the-radar hike.
The three-day Pouakai Circuit explores the remnants of an ancient stratovolcano, just north of Mount Taranaki, known to New Plymouth locals simply as “The Mountain.” The variety of landscapes hikers cross here is remarkable – from lush, lowland forest to open alpine tussock, to vast wetlands (boardwalked for the convenience of both hiker and the fragile alpine plants) to the muscular lower flanks of the mountain itself.
The 25km loop walk starts and finishes at Egmont National Park Visitor Centre, and is relatively easy. Both Pouakai Hut and Holly Hut are spacious, comfortable and in “primo” locations (to use a New Zealand turn of phrase). The only uncertainty of the hike is whether the mountain will show its face through the cloud. For that must-have Instagramable moment, your best bet is to leave Pouakai Hut early and make the short walk to the tarns for sunrise.
There’s a real Jurassic Park feel to any hike in Fiordland, where waterfalls sprout from bush-covered mountains rearing vertically out of deep fiords. The walk starts in the Darran Mountains, within Fiordland National Park, and follows the Hollyford Valley to Martins Bay at the bottom of the South Island’s west coast.
This lowland, lake-hugging route is a hike you’ll never forget. The bird calls are particularly magic and there’s a true sense of isolation and discovery. The consistent low altitude means it can be walked year-round, too. Try to spread the 56-kilometre track out over at least five days to fully soak up the scenery. You can book a plane to fly you out at the end (or to the start, depending on which direction you want to walk).
And remember: always check the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) website when planning any trip to make sure conditions are safe and routes are open.
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on March 18, 2022, and was updated on November 23, 2023.