Picture this: backcountry tussock fields, wild coastlines, majestic waterfalls, dramatic alpine views and prime walking tracks. New Zealand truly is nature's playground for the outdoor zealot!
And with almost a third of the country comprised of national parks and nature reserves – that's more than 8.6 million hectares, it begs the question: where should you begin? This guide on the official Great Walks of New Zealand is the perfect place to start exploring the country's best walking destinations in both the North Island and South Island (including a kayak/canoe journey).
So whether you call it tramping (like many Kiwis), hiking or bushwalking, lace up your boots, don your pack and start planning your next adventure holiday to New Zealand’s most iconic walking tracks.
How many 'Great Walks' are there in New Zealand?
There are currently 10 official Great Walks of New Zealand, with the Hump Ridge Track set to be the 11th in the premium walking series.
These ‘Great Walks’ are classified by NZ’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and are characterised by well-maintained and easily marked tracks and well-serviced huts. The network was established both as a way to promote hiking in Aotearoa, but also as a means of conserving and managing the most popular tracks which were increasingly being damaged by unrestricted tourism.
When should you hike New Zealand's Great Walks?
The best hiking seasons to take on the Great Walks of New Zealand are during spring, summer and mid-autumn, which is between late October and April. You can experience these inspiring multi-day treks guided or self-guided and we’ve also included some bonus alternative hikes below for when certain Great Walks tracks get busy.
The South Island’s Great Walks
Abel Tasman Coast Track
Golden beach foreshores, rocky granite headlands, azure water, native beech forests and playful kekeno (fur seals), the scenery of Abel Tasman National Park will not disappoint, which is why it’s one of the most popular walking tracks in New Zealand.
Length: 60km; 3-5 days; one way. (Transport needs to be organised at either end as the walk is not a circuit. Shuttles and water taxis can be booked in advance.)
The highlights: Walk across a 47-metre suspension bridge, see the Awaroa Inlet – the largest tidal estuary in the National Park, and visit a nature-made waterslide at Cleopatra's Pool.
For our walks, we use fully catered private lodges with twin-share ensuite rooms, whereas the public DOC/Great Walks huts use multi-share bunk rooms and are self-catering. Our accommodation is a private beachfront eco lodges along the track, each one exuding charm and heritage.
Difficulty: Introductory to moderate. The Abel Tasman Coast Track is a relaxed and well-graded walk.
Nearest towns: Nelson, Motueka, Takaka
Recommended experiences: Walk at your leisure on a self-guided holiday or enjoy the comforts of a guided tour in Abel Tasman National Park, with a knowledgeable guide and freshly prepared meals included – and you only need to carry a daypack!
Alternative hikes: The Abel Tasman is one of the most popular of the Great Walks of New Zealand with the lodges frequently booked out, so a good alternative is the Queen Charlotte Track – although it is also beginning to prove equally as busy! If it’s difficult to choose one over the other, you can combine the highlights of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds with the picturesque Abel Tasman National on this ‘best of’ walk.
In addition, the Nydia Track has also proven to be a popular alternative when both Abel Tasman and Queen Charlotte tracks have been booked out. While it doesn’t visit the beaches of the Abel Tasman, you can experience the remoteness of Marlborough Sounds, especially when spending a night at the serene and secluded eco lodge. There’s even the option to do it as a cruising holiday for something a little bit different; sleeping onboard a vessel at night and exploring the track by day.
Swap serene estuaries and coastlines for epic mountain vistas on one of the most famous and world-renowned trails of the Great Walks series, the Milford Track. Gear up for an enchanting experience through lush rainforests and glacial valleys, across suspension bridges, past majestic waterfalls (including NZ’s tallest, Sutherland Falls) and along alpine and fiord paths.
Described by poet Blanche Baughan as ‘the finest walk in the world’, it arguably still holds true more than a century on.
Length: 53.5km; 4 days; one way.
A highlight: Walking in the shadow of Mount Hart and Mount Elliot to cross Mackinnon Pass, which takes in impressive views from the highest point of the track with numerous alpine lakes en route.
Difficulty: Introductory to moderate, with up to six hours of walking each day.
Nearest towns: Queenstown and Te Anau
Walk in the footsteps of early gold miners and take in sweeping views over the beautiful Hollyford Valley as you tramp on zigzag alpine trails, forest tracks and along suspension bridges.
Length: 32km; 2-4 days; one way. It is not a looped track but can be walked from either direction – from Routeburn Shelter (near Glenorchy) or The Divide (near Te Anau).
The highlights: Weaving through open alpine plains and jewel-like lakes, enjoy the Southern Alps in full view, not to mention the prolific birdlife you’ll spot on track (native tomtits, robins, fantails, wood pigeons and bellbirds, as well as the world's only alpine parrot, the cheeky Kea).
With the highest point of the track reaching 1255m above sea level, the Routeburn Track packs a punch when it comes to some of the biggest scenery.
Difficulty: Moderately challenging. While it’s a shorter multi-day hike of the Great Walks of New Zealand series, make sure to pack your walking poles for the steep sections. It is recommended not to walk the track between May and September due to the high risk of avalanches.
Nearest towns: Queenstown, Glenorchy and Te Anau
Recommended experience: Hike sections of the iconic Routeburn Track to Key Summit, which is combined with the Hollyford, Kepler and Rakiura Tracks on this 7-day guided walk: Fiordland, Hollyford and Stewart Island Trails. It combines the classic Great Walk with a remote experience so you can avoid the crowds.
A recent addition to the Great Walks of New Zealand network, there’s plenty to love on the Paparoa Track. From the dramatic gorge of the Pororari River moulded from limestone to the open escarpment landforms, to the shifting scenery where the rainforest meets cool climate vegetation.
Length: 55.1km; 2-3 days; one way.
The highlights: Crossing the Paparoa range offers unbeatable views of the wild west coast. You’ll also honour the memory of those lost to the Pike River Mine as well as walk an original gold prospector's track to finish on the coast at Punakaiki, famous for its pancake-like rock formations. The panoramic views of the National Park at Moonlight Tops Hut are pretty awesome too.
Difficulty: Moderately challenging, but it should not be underestimated with the possibilities of heavy rainfall which can occur any time of the year. Warm and waterproof gear is essential.
Nearest towns: Greymouth, Westport, Blackball, Punakaiki
Recommended experience: Complete the full track on our self-guided hike with all logistics are covered for you, such as pre-night accommodation, hot drink packs, nutritional meals, a kitchen utensils kit, a personal locator beacon as well as a donation to the Paparoa Wildlife Trust. View the full list of inclusions on the trip page.
Alternative hike: Being the newest Great Walks of New Zealand to date, the Paparoa Track has seen many hitting its trails, especially with the ability to complete it over a weekend and by mountain bike. An alternative option is the Old Ghost Road Hike, which is slightly longer but equally – if not more – spectacular! The huts on this trip include all cooking and eating utensils, whereas the DOC Great Walks huts do not – plus, you have the option to have a private sleep out instead of multi-share bunk rooms.
If you’re after varied and changing scenery at every turn, a journey on the Heaphy Track is for you. We’re talking hiking from rugged, high mountain ranges to tussock grasslands and down to palm-fringed surf beaches.
Length: 78.4km; 4-5 days; one way.
The highlights: Delivering a motley of landscapes across NZ’s second-largest national park, Kahurangi, each section of the track is anything but boring. Keep an ear out for the sound of the great spotted Kiwi birds that call these parts home, and an eye out for rare wildlife such as Takahe (a flightless bird) and Powelliphanta (a carnivorous snail).
Natural arches, bluffs, sinkholes and regions of marble and limestone marvels, characterize the extravagant cave systems – in fact, the largest of the country.
Difficulty: Moderately challenging. Make sure to break into your hiking boots because the trails are varied with days of up to 6 to 7 hours on foot with a full pack.
Nearest towns: Takaka, Westport, Nelson, Collingwood
Recommended experience: Complete the full track on our self-guided hike with all logistics are covered for you, such as pre-night accommodation, hot drink packs, nutritional meals, a kitchen utensils kit, a personal locator beacon, return transfers and more.
This dedicated multi-day walking track, specially built to showcase Fiordland’s natural wonderland for hikers, will take you to a spectacular corner of NZ’s alpine landscapes.
Length: 60km; 3-4 days; looped track.
The highlights: The panoramic views from Mt Luxmore, the highest point of the track, will simply take your breath away! There are enough cascading waterfalls, alpine tussock ridgelines, beech forestry, prolific birdlife, expansive mountain landscapes, limestone formations and glacier-carved valleys to keep the soul inspired.
Difficulty: Introductory to moderate. There are several pass crossings with steep and rough sections and, due to the exposed mountainous environment, you should be prepared for adverse weather conditions.
Nearest towns: Te Anau, Queenstown
Recommended experience: If you’re looking to explore the region without engaging in too much trekking at one time, our Fiordland, Hollyford and Stewart Island Trails guided walk encompasses sections of the iconic Kepler, Routeburn and Rakiura Tracks. You’ll also enjoy a magical helicopter ride over Milford Sound to the secluded Martins Bay and indulge in a luxury lodge set in a serene, remote environment.
Wilderness beaches, forested ridges, sheltered coastlines and native birdlife are on your doorstep on Stewart Island. It’s the perfect island escape for those looking to wander where the Wi-Fi is weak.
Length: 32km; 3 days; looped track.
The highlights: The welcomed serenity and virgin forests of the island continue to define the area for thousands of years. (Just over 400 people populate it!)
Difficulty: Introductory. Ideal for beginner trampers, it is one of the shorter circuits of the Great Walks. With tracks well-marked, simply revel and relax in the solitude of the area.
Nearest towns: Invercargill, Bluff
Recommended experience: Our Fiordland, Hollyford and Stewart Island Trails walk combines sections of Rakiura with the iconic Kepler and Routeburn Tracks of the Great Walks series. The all-inclusive, guided experience is topped by a scenic helicopter ride over Milford Sound to the secluded Martins Bay and an indulge stay in a luxury lodge.
Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track (set to be the 11th Great Walk)
It could very well be NZ’s ‘stairway to heaven’ and this track is soon to become an official Great Walks of New Zealand (initially announced in July 2019 with parts of the track and hut facilities to be upgraded and set to join the Great Walks series by 2022). You'll want to experience the Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track in Fiordland National Park before everyone else finds out about it!
Length: 61km; 3 days; looped track.
The highlights: Experience ancient regenerating forest, Maori land and deserted coastlines at your side – it’s an ideal Kiwi blend of wilderness and heritage. At the top of Hump Ridge, you will get panoramic views of Stewart Island, Lake Poteriteri, Lake Hauroko and mountain ranges found deep in Fiordland National Park. And make sure to keep an eye out for the rare Hector's dolphin playing in the surf when crossing Te Waewae Bay!
Difficulty: Moderate to challenging. A good level of fitness is required to complete this walk. Staircase or hill climbing is strongly recommended as on the first day of the walk you climb over 800 metres.
Nearest towns: Queenstown, Invercargill, Te Anau
Recommended experience: At the end of each day, relax with a glass of wine in the superb backcountry lodges and enjoy a hot shower and delicious three-course meals on our guided experience of the track.
The North Island’s Great Walks
This track calls the North Island’s largest native forest home, which makes it the perfect hike for backcountry first-timers looking for an off the beaten experience exploring this mountainous area. Considered the “gateway to Te Urewera” and a living treasure of the North Island, it is the ancestral home of the Maori tribe Ngāi Tūhoe, the ‘Children of the Mist’ – a fitting name to the enchanting film that often envelops the area.
Length: 46km; 3-4 days; one way.
The highlights: Pristine and ancient rainforests, isolated beaches, giant podocarp trees and peaks formed by landslides and storms define this sublime destination. Following the shores of the great lake, the lookout from Panekire Bluff is synonymous with splendour and the otherworldly walk to Korokoro Falls will delight your imagination. Melodic birdsongs will add to the prehistoric scenery, which teems with nearly every species of North Island native forest bird.
Difficulty: Moderately challenging. Tracks can get very muddy and you will need to be comfortable walking 4-6 hours a day with a pack of up to 15kg.
Nearest towns: Wairoa, Whakatane, Gisborne, Rotorua, Napier
Tongariro Northern Circuit
Check ‘hiking around an active volcano’ from your adventure list when you complete this thrilling and noteworthy trek, which circles the cone of Mount Ngauruhoe. The dramatic circuit encompasses the iconic and world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, so if you’re short on time, a day hike on this trail will give you a taste of the surreal landscape of NZ’s most active (but currently resting) volcano.
Length: 43km; 3-4 days; looped track.
The highlights: Trekking on sublime volcanic lands, crossing glacial valleys and weaving through twisted lava formations, before taking in the striking and scenic contrast of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Difficulty: Introductory to moderate. The track is generally well formed so it is suitable for hikers with limited remote hiking experience.
Nearest towns: Turangi, Ohakune, Taupo, National Park Village, Waiouru
Swap your hiking boots for a paddle as you trace along one of the country’s longest rivers. While this Great Walk is not a hike, there is an opportunity to land onshore for a short side trip to the ‘Bridge of Nowhere’ – a concrete road bridge, which was built in 1936 and spans a deep ravine, and now slumbers in deep isolation of the forest after being abandoned in 1942.
Length: 87-145km; 3-5 days; one way.
The highlights: As you kayak or canoe down the river, you’ll be met with steep-walled canyons dripping with ferns and moss, remote hill backdrops and bush clad valleys – there’s enough nature and adventure to sate the appetite of any outdoor lover.
Difficulty: Moderately challenging. The track is suitable for confident paddlers with a good level of fitness.
Nearest towns: Whanganui, Taumarunui, Ohakune