The New Zealand Great Walks
When visiting New Zealand everyone should add at least one of the “Great Walks” to their itinerary. These nine multiple day treks (well one of them is a kayak ride, but close enough) plunge you into the very best of New Zealand’s trails through breathtaking environments from snow-capped peaks and active volcanoes to cool forests and golden sand beaches. I’m not even going to pretend I complete all or even most of these; I tried my hand at a couple, but my schedule didn’t actually allow me the time needed to run anyone of them from start to finish (thanks Greenpeace. lol). Someday I plan on going back to finish them all, especially since the longest of the tracks is the same as a trek I completed in Chile with no problems. Anyway, before setting out, you’ll have to plan ahead and not just for the weather; these walks are extremely popular and some of them require advanced booking. Whether you’re an old hand at backpacking or a beginner (moderately fit) there’s a trail you can conquer (or at least partially explore for a day).
This is a 28.6 mile/46km trek located in Te Urewera National Park on the North Island close to Wairoa, Gisborne, and Rotorua. The walk through the forest and along the shoreline and hidden beaches along the massive Lake Waikaremoana and take in the views from Panekire Bluff. The area is still holds many sacred places for the Tuhoe, the local Maori tribe, who call the lake the ‘sea of rippling waters’.
Since it’s not a circuit you need transport to and from the start and end of the trail; there’s local bus/boat shuttles available. The Department of Conservation (DOC) estimates 3-4 days to cover this trail, but from my own experience you can cover the distance in half that time if you have some experience. There’s five huts and five campsites so there’s plenty of options for stopping, but you need to make advanced reservations all year round before trekking here.
Tongariro Northern Circuit
The Northern Circuit winds around the two active volcanoes Tongariro and Ngauruhoe in a 43.1km/27 mile journey. Included in this is the much frequented day hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing which encompasses the most stunning elements of the trek. Fans of Lord of the Rings may recognize this as home to Mordor and Mt. Doom, but there’s also brilliant lakes, geothermal activity, and a gorgeous glacial valley. Some parts of this trail are super windy while others can get warm so pack for all occasions and make sure you check the weather.
All told it’s supposed to take 3-4 days to complete the circuit and you can stay in one of the huts or campsites along the trail. Off peak season you don’t even have to make a reservation, but it’s first come, first serve.
Abel Tasman Coast Track
Without a doubt, the most popular of the “Great Walks” is the Abel Tasman Coast Track and probably the easiest one. There’s 53. 3km/34 miles of easy trail through the along the forests edge and you can dip off onto the golden sand beaches all on the way. As there is water the whole way, many people combine this track with sea kayaking and many people who don’t have time for the full trail complete smaller sections.
To access the trail you can enter from either trail head or be shuttled by commercial water taxis which most people end up doing, at least one-way, back to where they started. You can easily finish the trail in 3 to 5 days and still have plenty of time to bask in the scenery. Huts and campsites are along the way, but definitely book ahead given 200,000 are on this trek every year. On your way in and out, you’ll likely need to stop in one of the nearby town of Motueka, Takaka, or Nelson.
Close to Abel Tasman National Park is the much larger Kahurangi National Park where the longest of the Great Walks, the Heaphy Track, 78.4km/49 mile, is located. It takes 4-6 days to walk roughly, but May-September you can also mountain bike and cut the time in half if you so desire. This track is known for its diversity of landscapes and the stretches of beech forest will give way to tussock grasslands that turn into lush forests. You cross the Heaphy River on several swingbridges and then hit the most striking part of the trail where nikau palms grow and eventually you’ll reach the Tasman Sea.
For accommodation, you have to do advanced booking with the DOC year round to use one of the seven huts or nine campsites. Get yourself ready to go either in Nelson, Takaka, Wesport, or Karamea.
Heading further south is the Routeburn track, a 32km trek taking you from the Queenstown side of the southern Alps to it’s end close to Te Anau. Scenery here is absolutely fantastic and National Geographic Adventure Magazine named it one of the 11 best in the world years back. You will definitely feel like you are in Lord of the Rings though nothing was filmed on the actual trail, but nearby Glenorchy was used for Isengard. The trail crosses the Alps through Mt Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park so get ready for clear green rivers, striking alpine lakes, and the exhilarating mountain pass views.
The track is well maintained with huts and campsites, with slightly reduced facilities in the winter from May to October. Should take you 2-4 days to complete it unless you are one of the crazy awesome people who run in the annual Routeburn Classic and can do it in 3-9 hours. Maybe I could too, but I wonder if you don’t miss a lot of the scenery.
Milford is one of the more heavily regulated trails, 33 miles/53.3km through the rainforest and cascading waterfalls of Fiordland National Park. This really is New Zealand at its grandest and you can see ice-carved valleys, wander through wetlands, traverse the alpine crossing, and finally end at the jaw-dropping Milford Sound. Maori tribes used to transport greenstone through the area. Interestingly, the trail has always been overwhelmingly popular for women.
Take 4 days to complete the trek and make yourself at home at one of the three huts because there is no camping allowed. You can also go on a guided tour in which case you’ll be spending the night in one of their lodges. As always, book well in advance.
Another trail fairly close by is the 60km/37mi Kepler Track which runs through the beech-forested shores of Manapouri and Te Anau lakes up to the top of Mt. Luxmore. This trail also runs through the Fiordland National Park — no wonder the park is 10% of the South Island. You get some amazing panoramic views of the Kepler Mountains, the lakes, and valleys below.
It’s a slightly tougher trek, but not bad really and there’s plenty of camping and hut facilities along the way.
You have to get yourself to Steward Island, lying south of the South Island, either via air from Invercargill or a ferry from Bluff. The 32 km/19mi hike is the least frequented of the Great Walks and you can complete it in 1 to 3 days winding through Rakiura National Park along the coastline, passing large bays and inlets, and even crossing into some bush. Part of the track has boardwalks to keep you from sinking into mud.
It’s an easy treck, but don’t let it fool you into thinking you can take on the entire Steward Island North West Circuit — 125 km/78 mi estimated 8-10 days walking. If you are experience go for it, you might spot some wild Kiwis but probably no one else. One of my friends who did this said he basically spent a good number of days sinking into mud and that it was the most difficult trek of his life (and he was no newbie).
The River Run
Back up to the North Island is the last of the ‘walks’ since this is actually a kayak/canoe ride of 5 days of 145 km/90mi down the Whanganui River. It falls under the Great Walks title mostly because it’s managed by the DOC which is in charge of Whanganui National Park. Start at Taumarunui and drift down the river through the hills and valleys till you reach the end in Pipiriki. This area holds a lot of cultural and historical significance for the local Maori populations who used the river as a major food source.
There’s huts and campsites along the way, no park entry fee, though you pay for the accommodations of course. During wintertime you can actually use the campsites fro free.
Unfortunately you can’t go into any of these treks thinking you’ll be able to save money and just pitch a tent wherever you please. The trails are very popular destinations and the DOC regulates their usage heavily. If you want to save money walk fast… because regulation fare for most the huts is $32/night and $54 for Routeburn, Milford, and Kepler. That’s on top of the food, gear, transport, etc. you go in for. Worth the cost, but you may have to make multiple trips to get every one of them in.
More Information & Booking
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation is really great and you can get more information about all the treks and bookings on their website. The DOC also issues weather warnings and has written extensive guidelines to help trampers enjoy the walks while staying safe.