Introduction to Hiking in New Zealand (South Island)
Firstly, before 2020 most of my hiking had been around Queenstown, but now I’m living in Christchurch I’m steadily adding many walks in Canterbury to the blog. 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. 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.
As of 2020 I’m just beginning to get acquainted with walks in the Canterbury Region. I had previously visited Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and that is really spectacular. Closer to Christchurch there are excellent walks in the foothills of the Southern Alps, in the really excellent Arthur’s Pass National Park, and closer by in the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula.
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.
Many of the Canterbury Foothills are hardly hills, some of them rising above 2000m of elevation. There’s many a scree slope, lots of tussock grass, and some patches of attractive forest too. There’s also braided rivers, gorgeous gorges, and many of the walks border the flat as a pancake Canterbury Plains. Most walks are about 1-2 hours drive from Christchurch.
Arthur’s Pass National Park, in the Southern Alps, has spectacular scenery equal to that around Glenorchy. It lacks a big lake, but the high peaks, deep valleys and beautiful forest are highly recommended, and I hope to do lots more walking there.
The Port Hills and Banks Peninsula are to the south-east of Christchurch, the Port Hills being on the city boundary. The scenery is pretty but a bit tamer than the mountains to the west. It’s a mostly altered landscape, but the volcanic topography and coastal scenery are very nice, plus some of the walks are less than 30 minutes drive from Christchurch.
When in Queenstown 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. In 2020 I subscribed to Wilderness Magazine, and this has lots of great tramping ideas. 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. It gets bloody windy in the Canterbury Foothills, and Arthur’s Pass is particularly known for its wild weather.
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 15-16 hours of daylight to play with.
The winters are coldish, but snow seldom settles at lower elevations in winter. 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 winter and found the conditions can be quite mild, but it depends a lot on the wind.
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):
Queenstown is truly a hiker’s paradise. There’s dramatic scenery in all directions, and the mountains are filled with well maintained hiking trails. And as a major adventure-tourism destination the area is well serviced and cosmopolitan.
Plenty of tourists visit the area, and yet it seems the majority of people choose not to go hiking. In fact, I’ve sometimes not seen a single other person on the best hikes in the area. So if you are willing to put in the effort, you can have New Zealand’s magical scenery mostly to yourself.(more…)
This walk up Brow Peak (1456m) was a real find for me when I first did it in the summer of 2018/19. A really high quality walk that I hadn’t done yet, just out the back of Arrowtown, and so only about 25 minutes drive from Queenstown. At that time I started the walk in the afternoon, finishing not much before dusk. The fading light cast shadows over numerous wrinkly mountains and valleys, which made for excellent views on the way back in particular. In winter you pretty much get this lighting all day, plus some snow to top it all off (literally). (more…)
Brow Peak (1456m) is an accessible mountain near Arrowtown, and climbing it provides excellent views of golden brown mountains to the north, and of the Wakatipu Basin to the south. It starts on the fairly well trodden Sawpit Gully Circuit, but once off this you might not meet another person. And the approach to the summit along a sometimes narrow ridge feels just a little adventurous, adding to the appeal of this walk. There’s also a very pleasant stand of beech forest on the way to Big Hill Saddle.
The walk up Crown Peak (1735m) from Arrowtown is yet another underrated hike near Queenstown. There were excellent 360 degree views from the summit rocks, and a variety of scenery with Central Otago’s roly-poly mountains and wrinkly ridgelines, some pointy peaks, valleys, the Wakatipu Basin, and a nice angle on Lake Wakatipu itself. (more…)
This section of the multi-day Greenstone and Caples Track circuit makes for an excellent day walk, and one for those who are less keen on climbing. The level track wanders from near the western shore of Lake Wakatipu through the beautiful Caples Valley. There are high mountains in every direction, beech forest, grassy flats, groves of manuka, mountain streams and the Caples River to enjoy along the way. Mid Caples Hut makes for a good lunch spot and turnaround point. (more…)
You get up close and personal with Mt Earnslaw and its glacier on this mammoth walk, which took my wife and me almost 10 hours. The Earnslaw Burn Track follows the true left bank of the Earnslaw Burn through beech forest up to a tussock basin below the Earnslaw Glacier. Once out of the forest the views will be enough to knock your hiking socks off, and are amongst the best we’ve seen on any day hike. They include the Earnslaw Glacier and numerous waterfalls, big fallen rocks, and we caught sight of an avalanche too. (more…)
The sleepy village of Glenorchy sits in a dramatic landscape at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. It’s a spectacular 45 minute drive from Queenstown along the shore of the lake, and worth making the trip for the drive alone. The scenery on offer is amongst the best in New Zealand, and there are some really world-class hikes in the area, including the famous multi-day Routeburn Track.
Following are five of my favourite day-hikes around Glenorchy. There are majestic mountains, alpine lakes, glaciers, tumbling streams, and atmospheric beech forest. And you might be joined by some of New Zealand’s friendly bird life along the way.(more…)
The Glacier Burn Track crosses the Glacier Burn early on, and then climbs up through attractive beech forest to good views of a glacial valley and up to the Humboldt Mountains near Mt Bonpland. (more…)
Glenorchy Walkway is a flat and relatively short circuit walk through a wetland near the town of Glenorchy, at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. It’s a spectacular area, and this walk is a good option if you want to stretch your legs surrounded by many high mountains. The track is constructed the whole way, and entirely flat, so you don’t need any special gear. (more…)
Central Otago District
This walk is one half of a complete traverse of Cairnmuir Hill (1114m) in Central Otago, which would take you from near Bannockburn over to Clyde. It starts in New Zealand’s driest and most arid area, with just introduced thyme eking out an existence. As you steadily climb the country becomes more hospitable, with familiar tussock grass dominating the scenery, along with a few rocky outcrops. There are good views over the moody Dunstan Mountains, with their large tors and wrinkled dark slopes, and also glimpses of the aqua coloured Lake Dunstan in the valley below. (more…)
Quintessential Central Otago scenery on this long walk to the summit of Cloudy Peak (1526m), not far from Cromwell. Once you begin the ascent onto higher ground there are great views of golden tussocked and wrinkly hills and valleys, contrasted with flat-as-a-pancake plains in the distance, and from the summit you have partial views of the attractive St Bathans Range. (more…)
I realised the other day that I hadn’t posted all of my NZ walks to date. This is the walk I missed: A longish but mostly flat walk to the tops of the Old Woman Range, an arid alpine plateau near Cromwell in Central Otago. There were many tors along the way, and views of nearby mountains. (more…)
An excellent walk to the top of the Hawkdun Range (1857m) in the remote Maniototo region of Central Otago, famous for its isolated vistas of golden tussock grass and mountains. The walk starts in the Manuherikia Valley, and after a flat start rises steeply up to the long and barren summit plateau of the Hawkdun Range: about 1100m of ascent and descent. Not as dramatic as the Southern Alps, but very atmospheric, and we had the place to ourselves. (more…)
On our seventh visit to Queenstown in May 2017 I had to work a bit harder to find decent sized day walks that we hadn’t already done. In doing so I came across the reasonably unique Kanuka Track, situated in Bendigo, an old mining area near Cromwell in Central Otago. The walks in Central Otago generally pass through fairly arid country, and they often start in farmland, then end up in grassland reserves or sometimes on arid alpine plateaus. But this one took us through native Kanuka forest, and up and down the foothills of the Dunstan Mountains, which were peppered with rocky outcrops. There were views of the almost 2000m high Pisa Range which we had climbed a couple of years earlier, and of the wide open Clutha Valley, which contains vineyards, farmland, and Lake Dunstan, which was formed by damming the Clutha River. (more…)
This is definitely one of my favourite walks. Starting at the frigidly beautiful Haast River, the track climbs steeply through attractive beech forest to the tree line. It then climbs onto a narrow ridge and up further to Brewster Hut at 1400m of elevation. There are views of many high mountains to the west, and up towards Mt Brewster (2516m) and its glacier. (more…)
The East Matukituki Valley is about an hour’s drive from Wanaka, and is less well known than its neighbour, the West Matukituki Valley. The initial walk from Cameron’s Flat crosses featureless farmland, and doing this in full sun definitely took the gloss off this walk. Nevertheless, the views of the surrounding mountains are lovely, and the short section in beech forest to Glacier Burn is very picturesque. The views from the burn of Avalanche Glacier provide the money shot. (more…)
On entering New Zealand in March 2020 we were soon hit with increasingly severe restrictions due to the Covid 19 epidemic. Before the complete lock-down we snuck in a final hike to the summit of Grandview Mountain at the southern end of Lake Hawea, a new walk for us. The views from the top were indeed grand, although I most liked the views of rugged country we passed by along the way in the Grandview Creek Conservation Area. (more…)
The Rob Roy Glacier Track was one of the first walks we did in New Zealand, and provides access to excellent views of the Roy Roy Glacier. There are impressive waterfalls along the way, as well as picturesque scenes in the West Matukituki Valley. The drive in is also nice, so there’s lots to recommend this walk.
Nevertheless, friends who walked this with us in 2014 preferred the Routeburn Track to Flats Hut. But the views at the end of this walk are pretty spectacular, so I think it’s worth doing for those alone. It’s a fairly popular track so consider doing it on a weekday or out of season. Track notes at the end.
Rob Roy Glacier Track: The Scenery
We did this walk in 2008, 2012 and 2014, so I’ve included pictures from each of those occasions. Don’t be confused by the apparent change of weather conditions.
The DOC website has basic information on the walk. It’s about an hour from Wanaka, and over 2 hours from Queenstown. There’s a few streams to ford on the drive in so they recommend a four wheel drive if there’s been heavy rain (or maybe glacier melt?).
This walk near Wanaka offers good views for only mild to moderate effort. It’s an easygoing alternative to the famous but much longer Roys Peak Track that starts down the road a bit closer to town. You can do a figure of eight taking in the picturesque Diamond Lake, and then climb higher to the summit of Rocky Mountain (775m) for views over Lake Wanaka and towards snow capped mountains to the north. My wife did this walk in winter with her sister and the views were even better. (more…)
And now walks in Canterbury…
Christchurch Day Trip
These next walks are manageable as a day-trip from Christchurch…
I’d heard this circuit walk along the tops of Ben More, the high point of the Big Ben Range in Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park, was a good winter tramping option, with safe enough travel for those less experienced in snow. By time we did the walk in early spring there’s wasn’t much slow left, but enough to add to the aesthetics of the area. However I think the rugged scenery would look good in any season. (more…)
We first walked the Dry Acheron Track intending to climb Big Ben (1416m), but on that day there was low cloud and we turned back. A few weeks later after snowfall we thought we’d return and finish the job. Snow and clear blue skies added some variety to the grey skies of our first visit, and intense NW winds some adventure when on the upper reaches of the mountain. There’s great views from the slopes of Big Ben, including a jumble of topography towards Lake Coleridge, and a rather striking Mount Hutt Range popping out of the Canterbury Plains. (more…)
I first did this classic Canterbury walk up Castle Hill Peak (1998m) via Foggy Peak in autumn, not long after I had arrived in Christchurch (that post here). On that snowless day there were gale force winds and the final ascent to the summit felt rather adventurous. I had wanted to return and repeat the walk in snow because I’d read that it made for good winter tramping. The Torlesse Range captures and holds a fair bit of snow, so I waited until a sunny day in early spring to do this, having so many good new walks to do over the winter. (more…)
This classic Canterbury walk in Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park, an hour west of Christchurch, takes you to Castle Hill Peak (1998m), the high point of the Torlesse Range. The scenery is starkly beautiful, with large areas of scree intermixed with colourful scrub and tussock. There are extensive views over mountains, valleys, lakes and the Canterbury Plains. (more…)
We’d originally intended to walk this track for access to Big Ben Mountain*, but low cloud put us off climbing this. So we settled for finishing the Dry Acheron Track, which follows the Dry Acheron Stream from where it passes through a series of small gullies and other valley landforms, to where it emerges from a rugged valley in the Big Ben Range. I’d heard the area around the stream described as ‘handsome scrublands’, and I think this is an apt description. (more…)
Arthur’s Pass National Park
The excellent but somewhat notorious routes to the summit of Avalanche Peak attract many hikers of various abilities, and have killed 11 of them apparently. Nevertheless, both routes to the summit are marked, and the views are just fabulous, especially after a bit of snow. This was our first time in Arthur’s Pass National Park and it exceeded already high expectations, with pleasingly steep and rugged tracks up through beautiful beech forest, then epic views of mountains, ridges and valleys in all directions. The opportunity to make this a circuit walk adds to the appeal. (more…)
The classic and reasonably popular walk up the Bealey Spur Track offers excellent views over Arthur’s Pass National Park for less effort than climbing nearby mountains. There’s also no avalanche danger, so after significant spring snowfall we headed out there on a weekday to see some magical snowy scenes. And being on a weekday we had the place to ourselves. You can get great views of the braided Waimakariri River Valley from quite early on in the walk at roughly 980m of elevation. Most people continue through attractive beech forest and over plains of tussock grass to Bealey Top Hut, but for the full experience I recommend continuing past the hut to a minor peak at 1545m. (more…)
I first saw Devils Punchbowl Falls from afar on my way down the Scotts Track, from the summit of Avalanche Peak. They were an impressive sight and I thought I would have to visit them one day. It turns out the short track to the falls starts nearby the start/end of the Scotts Track, so we did it that same day. It’s a nice short but steep walk up through beech forest to a viewpoint below the falls. Maps show the falls to be 112m, although the DOC website claims they are 131m. They are big anyway, and worth seeing. (more…)
On our first visit to Arthur’s Pass National Park we climbed the popular Avalanche Peak. On this walk there were great views across the valley, and I was particularly enamoured by a smaller valley that bent around out of sight behind some mountains. (This valley contains Devils Punchbowl Creek, and the impressive waterfall of the same name is easily visited). I noticed that a route up Mt Aicken would provide views of this valley, and after a little research we decided to return a few days later to climb it. The views were fabulous, at least as good as Avalanche Peak but with much fewer people. And it felt a bit more adventurous being mostly off track and unmarked. (more…)
We wanted a quieter walk to do on our first trip to the Hanmer Springs area, and this was a great choice. We met nobody else on a Sunday doing this long but very enjoyable walk to the summit of Mt Charon (1560m) via Dunblane (1303m) from Jacks Pass (870m). The very colourful heath vegetation was a real highlight, as where the views towards numerous other mountains, over the Hanmer Plains, and into a few valleys. Going as far as Mt Charon felt satisfyingly remote, but the much shorter trip to only Dunblane and back would also be a good option. (more…)
Mt Isobel (1319m) is said to be Canterbury’s most climbed mountain. One reason would be good accessibility, sitting as it does just on the edge of the popular resort town of Hanmer Springs. But it is a very nice mountain, with wide open views over mountains, valleys and the Hanmer Plains, forested lower slopes with colourful heath vegetation higher up, and some rugged rocky sections to boot. Walking from Jacks Pass is fairly short, and there are great views the whole way. (more…)
This pleasant walk in the Nina Valley as far as Nina Hut was a plan B on our first trip to the Lewis Pass area, as low cloud made put us off our planned mountain ascent. Almost 6 hours in beech forest was a bit much for me, but it was very pleasant forest, and a couple of sections of the Nina River were picturesque too. My photos proved reasonably popular amongst friends and family on Facebook, so I guess that is a vote of confidence in the scenery on offer, but of course look below and judge for yourself. (more…)
Banks Peninsula/ Port Hills
Walking around Godley Head is a good option for those based in Christchurch who want a easy walk that can be done in half a day. It’s mostly through paddocks, and good accessibility makes it a fairly popular choice, so don’t expect much serenity. But there are a number of WWII heritage sites on the route, and the coastal scenery is quite nice, with a section of more natural looking vegetation on the Lyttelton Harbour side (south). And sea breezes will blow away the cobwebs 🙂 (more…)
This is one combination of many possible walks in the Port Hills on the outskirts of Christchurch. This one takes you from the edge of town in Cashmere Hills to the Crater Rim through regenerating bush, then on the Sugarloaf Circuit with views over Governors Bay to the east, and the Canterbury Plains and Christchurch to the west. You could have food and coffee at one of the historic cafes at either end of the Harry Ells Track: Sign of the Takahe and Sign of the Kiwi. (more…)
We recently watched a documentary on the advice of friends-Fools and Dreamers-about the establishment of Hinewai Reserve, and also its passionate and somewhat maverick manager, Hugh Wilson. With gale force winds forecast for the mountains on my day off we decided to make our first visit to Hinewai, near Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. The circuit route we chose took in a variety of waterfalls and viewpoints, the highest being Stony Bay Peak at 806m, where there are views over Akaroa Harbour. (more…)
On our first ever walk in the Port Hills I spied the two highest points on the Banks Peninsula, Mt Herbert (920m) and Mt Bradley (855m). I knew you could climb Mt Herbert on a few different routes, but Mt Bradley looked to be the more interesting mountain, and I researched options to climb this. I settled on walking the Te Ara Pataka/Summit Walkway from Gebbies Pass, past Packhorse Hut, and then taking a short unmarked side track up onto Mt Bradley. Despite being mostly a modified landscape, the varied vegetation was nevertheless interesting and the views extensive. Low cloud on Mt Herbert added to the experience on the day. (more…)
During our first weeks living in Christchurch we were limited as to where we could hike due to the Covid 19 restrictions. Consequently we did a few walks in the Port Hills and surrounds because they met the definition of ‘local’. This walk was in the Ohinetahi Reserve on the hills above Govenors Bay, only about 20-30 minutes drive from Christchurch. We did a loop around the outer edge of the reserve, through sections of forest but also wide open sections with excellent views of Lyttelton Harbour. We added a short side trip to Cass Peak for lunch. (more…)
Further Afield in Canterbury
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
One of New Zealand’s classic walks, the Hooker Valley Track takes you over the Hooker River and some of its tributaries on swingbridges as far as the glacial Hooker Lake. There’s dramatic alpine scenery all the way, and particularly good views of Aoraki/Mt Cook framed by mountains along the Hooker Valley, and then across Hooker Lake, which will be frozen in winter, and might have icebergs floating in it in spring/summer. And you can fit it easily into a half day. (more…)
A really spectacular (and steep) alpine walk in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park to two excellent vantage points: first to the attractive Sealy Tarns at 1300m, and then for the energetic continue on up the hill towards Mueller Hut onto a spur at about 1740m of elevation. There are views of Mt Sefton (3151m), NZ’s highest peak Aoraki/Mt Cook (3755m), various glaciers and glacier lakes, and the Hooker River Valley 1000m below. Highly recommended. (more…)
If you visit Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park there are a number of excellent short walks that you could do in the same day, or squeeze into the day you get there, or the day you leave. Visiting the Tasman Glacier Lake is one of these, and offers excellent views of the Tasman River Valley and of course the lake, all for under an hour’s walking. (more…)
And finally, elsewhere in NZ…
Other South Island
This walk is a reasonably short side-trip off Route 8 between Dunedin and Queenstown. It’s near nowhere in particular, so if you are passing by this way it’s a good opportunity to stop and do the walk. The loop track starts at Black Gully and ascends through very attractive beech forest to tussock grass on high ground. Views of the surrounding farmland are extensive, but for me the beech forest was the highlight. There are also some lush sections of gully forest towards the end. (more…)
And here’s an interactive map of the lot (featured walks in gold)…