The Great Walks of New Zealand

Craig McClelland


Murky goblin forests, bright emerald lakes and a bridge that goes nowhere.

Secret rock pools that bring new life to tired legs, limestone cliffs in which grey wise faces seem to peer down as you walk, and old stories of mines that have been carved deep in the mountains.

Towering peaks around which clouds shudder and freeze, cascading waterfalls that stay hidden in a prehistoric fiordland, and curious animals that are like nothing else seen on this planet. 

There is magic to be found on New Zealand’s Great Walks, so what are you waiting for? Nature is calling.

Great Walks on the North Island

(Jump to South Island)

Lake Waikaremoana

Features: giant podocarp rainforest, waterfall paradise, ancient mountain range, magical ‘goblin forest’, and the ancestral and spiritual home of Ngai Tūhoe.

Rating: intermediate great walk – a comfortable, well-formed multiday trail.

Length/Time: 46 km (28.6 miles) – 3 to 4 days.

When to go: any time of year but you’ll get the most out of it in summer.

Child-friendly: yes. Especially in summer to enjoy the lake.

More information: see DOC’s overview of Lake Waikaremoana.

Map of New ZealandMap of New Zealand

There’s one thing you need to know about the Lake Waikaremoana trail: it’s located within the largest area of native forest in New Zealand's North Island, making this a New Zealand Great Walk that will have you feeling truly liberated from the humming and buzzing of mobile notifications.

The trail predominantly hugs the lake and is home to almost every native North Island bird species. Listen out for the calls of the tui, kereru (wood pigeon) and even the kiwi.

The lake is the ancestral and spiritual home of Ngai Tūhoe, a Māori tribe also known as the ‘Children of the mist.’ The Tūhoe people have lived in this region for centuries and have deep links with the land.

TIP: soak up the superlative panoramas from Bald Knob – an open, rocky terrace that’s a two minute, non-signposted walk off the main drag.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Features: emerald lakes, active volcanoes, glacial valleys, and steaming vents – the best day hike in NZ.

Rating: easy walking track – a comfortable, formed trail.

Length/Time: 19.4 km (12 miles) – 1 day.

When to go: November to April – outside these months you’ll need mountaineering experience and equipment.

Child-friendly: no. This is a tough alpine crossing with rapidly changing weather.

More information: see DOC’s overview of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Open fields on New Zealand Great Walk Tongariro Alpine CrossingOpen fields on New Zealand Great Walk Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Image: Nicholas Rean 

The Tongariro Crossing is rated as one of the best day walks in the world, but you also have the option of hiking the circuit and staying one to three nights in huts.

Famously used as the landscape to Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies, make sure to bring a gold ring to play with on this New Zealand Great Walk. The brilliant colours of craters and lakes in this area are otherworldly, with sandy tussock framed by white-capped mountains in the distance proving this area's cinematic allure.

The weather is unpredictable here so come prepared for all conditions (and even for the track to be closed at late notice). Ensure you have the right rainwear to protect you from the elements.

TIP: Being an active volcanic area, it’s a smart idea to check the current volcanic conditions on Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.

Whanganui Journey

Features: fun rapids, picturesque vantage points, majestic narrow gorge, culture, history, and a bridge to nowhere.

Rating: no rating – this is a journey by kayak or canoe.

Length/Time: 87 km (54 miles) – 3 days or 145 km (90 miles) – 5 days.

When to go: October to April – the river in winter is freezing and some kayak and canoe companies close down then anyway.

Child-friendly: yes, if they don’t mind getting wet – especially in summer to enjoy the warmer river.

More information: see DOC’s overview of the Whanganui Journey.

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River on the New Zealand Great Walk Whanganui JourneyRiver on the New Zealand Great Walk Whanganui Journey

Remote hillsides and bush clad valleys line the magnificent Whanganui River as you drift along in your kayak or canoe. This is the Whanganui Journey – the only ‘Great Walk’ that’s not actually a walk.

You can include a unique stay at Tieke Kainga – the only DOC hut on the journey that’s also used as a marae (meeting house). And when you get tired, simply sit back, relax and take in your surroundings while having a break from paddling.

Don’t miss a break from your river cruiser to enjoy a short hike up to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ – an abandoned bridge covered in foliage that was built for a settlement (that never eventuated) for returning WWI soldiers.

The three-day journey is more popular so if you choose five days, you’ll likely have stretches of the river all to yourself.

TIP: Look out for the lavender farm at about 18kms (11 miles) downstream from the start of your five-day adventure – bring cash to try the homemade muffins.


Check our hiking gear list before tackling a New Zealand Great Walk.


Great Walks on the South Island

(Jump to North Island)

Abel Tasman Coast Track

Features: golden sand beaches, explorable estuaries, hidden rock pools and lush beech forest.

Rating: intermediate great walk – a comfortable, well-formed multiday trail.

Length/Time: 60 km (37 miles) – 3 to 5 days.

When to go: any time of year but you’ll get the most out of it in summer.

Child-friendly: yes. Especially in summer to enjoy the beaches, rivers and ocean.

More information: See DOC’s overview of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.

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Beach at New Zealand Great Walk Abel Tasman Coast TrackBeach at New Zealand Great Walk Abel Tasman Coast Track

Image: David T

 

The Abel Tasman is a summer playground – and you can choose to kayak it, hike it or do both. Featuring a treasure chest of coastal wonderment, it’s one of NZ’s most amazing outdoor experiences.

Named after Abel Tasman, the first European explorer to spot New Zealand in 1692, this water playground has a mild climate, an abundance of bird and sea life, and plenty of swing bridges to keep you interested.

Spectacular golden beaches link to limestone and marble rocks, which are home to a few colonies of New Zealand fur seals.

TIP: Grab a kayak and explore the otherworldly estuaries of Bark and Torrent Bays when the tide is on the low side.

Heaphy Track

Features: lush forests, sub-alpine tussock downs, nikau palms, limestone and marble rock faces and the roaring Tasman Sea.

Rating: intermediate great walk – a comfortable, well-formed multiday trail.

Length/Time: 78.4 km (48.7 miles) – 4 to 6 days.

When to go: December to April – best to go outside of mountain bike season.

Child-friendly: it’s a long way so probably not the whole track. Instead, start on the West Coast side and walk the relatively flat, beachside trail to Heaphy Hut and back.

More information: see DOC’s overview of the Heaphy Track.

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Beach on New Zealand Great Walk Heaphy TrackBeach on New Zealand Great Walk Heaphy Track

Image: Amy Workman

When comparing all of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Heaphy offers the most significant contrasts. It has rainforest, sub-alpine tussock, lowland bush and nikau palm trees. And if you’re really lucky you might even hear takahe near Gouland Downs or the great spotted kiwi call out in the evening.

Located in NZ’s second-largest national park – Kahurangi – the trail was first used by Māori searching for greenstone (pounamu) in rivers on the West Coast.

The easiest way to hike the Heaphy is by starting from Golden Bay in the north and ending at Kohaihai on the West Coast.

EXPERT TIP: Keep your eyes on the path after rain in the Gouland Downs area – giant, carnivorous powelliphanta land snails hunt for slugs and suck them up like spaghetti.


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