Introduction to Hiking in New Zealand (South Island)
Firstly, most of my hiking has been around Queenstown, and I’m yet to even visit the North Island, but New Zealand’s South Island is just fantabulous, and is a must-visit destination for any keen hiker. The scenery varies from the steep glaciated peaks of the Southern Alps, with deep forested valleys and turquoise waterways, to the golden domed mountains of the arid interior, and the coastal scenery I’ve only touched upon (because I can’t not go to the mountains when in NZ). Read on for more info, or go straight to a list of the walks.
Queenstown and Central Otago
When in NZ we’ve stayed mostly in Queenstown. For a good long walk I’m willing to drive up to 2.5 hours, and there’s a huge number of well maintained walks within that distance from Queenstown. This makes it a great base for hiking, or tramping as it’s called in New Zealand. Queenstown is a famous outdoor centre and attracts a large amount of visitors in the summer and winter peak seasons. But hiking’s not for everyone, and there are enough hikes on offer that you can sometimes complete a walk without meeting a single person, even in summer.
Queenstown is on the shores of the picturesque Lake Wakatipu, and is surrounded by peaks of around 2000 metres elevation, including the rather dramatic and aptly named Remarkables. There are plenty of walks nearby, including some that start near the centre of town, so that you could knock those over without even having transportation. (I’m thinking of Queenstown Hill, and the more strenuous ascent of Ben Lomond).
Mt Aspiring National Park & Glenorchy
Mt Aspiring National Park can be accessed from the town of Glenorchy, which is situated in a particularly attractive spot at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Queenstown, and I recommend the drive even if you don’t want to hike. The walks around here are almost all scenic and spectacular, often passing through beech forest, along tumbling frothy rivers, and providing views of many a snow capped mountain and a few glaciers to boot.
There are a number of famous multi-day walks accessible from Glenorchy, such as the Routeburn, Greenstone and Caples Tracks, but you can also do sections of these as day-walks of various lengths. I highly recommend getting down this way on any trip to Queenstown.
The attractive town of Wanaka, (on Lake Wanaka), also offers access to Mt Aspiring National Park and other areas of the Southern Alps, and hence to more spectacular walks of this ilk. It’s about a one hour fifteen minute drive north-east from Queenstown to Wanaka, and then a bit further to most of the walks (sometimes quite a bit).
Going further inland (east) into the Central Otago District, the environment becomes more arid. The mountains are generally domed and their slopes often covered with tussock grass, or else grazing land for sheep. (Note that some tracks are closed during lambing season, about 1st Oct to 10th Nov: best check those dates). The peaks and plateaus are frequently barren moonscapes. I tend to prefer pointy mountains, but these areas offer a fairly remote tramping experience that you won’t get on the likes of the Routeburn.
Other South Island
I’ve not seen nearly enough of the South Island, but Mt Cook/Aoraki and surrounds were just spectacular. And you don’t have to climb NZ’s highest mountain to become immersed in the scenery, (which is just as well because people die climbing that monster).
There are both short and long day walks starting at or near Aoraki/Mt Cook Village that are well worth it, despite the crowds. Navigating these walks was straightforward so you’ll only need the brief notes you can get from the NZ DOC website. We stayed in the larger town of Twizel, which is a 50 minute drive away.
We’ve mostly used track notes from Day Walks of New Zealand: Central Otago and Queenstown by Peter Dymock. It looks like in early 2018 it’s becoming a little hard to get online, but you might still get it in Queenstown and surrounds. I also found James Milne’s website helpful.
More generally, the Department of Conservation offices have lots of their own paper and online resources for hiking. If you are a multi-day hiker / mountaineer, or are just hankering for a bit of NZ mountain porn, then you can’t go past Danilo Hegg’s blog Southern Alps Photography. I salivate on my computer every time I look at his blog.
The weather in Queenstown and particularly Central Otago can be quite dry, but Mt Aspiring National Park is wetter. And anywhere on the west coast is wet. Very wet.
The South Island has mild summers, and we’ve walked a lot in mid-summer, though it can be a bit too hot for comfort some days when exposed to the sun for long periods. Summer snow will fall on high ground from time to time. The bonus of walking during the summer months is having about 16 hours of daylight to play with.
The winters are coldish, but snow seldom settles on Queenstown in winter (it sits at just 300 m elevation). The alpine areas can be very cold and windy at any time of year, and the weather moves fast so be prepared. We’ve walked in early winter and found the conditions quite mild, but the beginning of the ski season had faltered so I think it was unseasonably warm. Nevertheless, there’s walking to be had in winter, and if you’re prepared for walking on snow then I imagine it can be quite spectacular.
And lastly, the sunsets are really nice. This is the view over Lake Wakatipu from the place were we stay.
The New Zealand Walks
You can browse through a list of the walks I’ve posted on so far:
Queenstown Day Trip
Firstly, those walks manageable in a day trip from Queenstown (up to 2.5 hours drive one way):
Climbing Ben Lomond (1748m) is a must do for any reasonably fit hiker visiting Queenstown. The route we take to the top starts on the edge of town, and at first passes through beech forest, then pine forest, and once above the treeline it’s tussock grass until the summit, where there are 360 degree views of the Southern Alps, the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu.
Central Otago District
And now further afield…