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 holidaying 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. There are also good walks on the shores of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. It’s about a one hour fifteen minute drive north-east from Queenstown to Wanaka, and then a bit further to the walks.
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, roughly Oct to mid Nov depending on the location: best check those dates). The peaks and plateaus are sometimes 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.
In early 2020 I moved Christchurch, and set about getting to know walks in this 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 similar 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 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.
The spectacular scenery of Fiordland is immediately apparent on the drive to Milford Sound. If the drive and maybe a cruise on a fiord is not enough, you can sample more of this wonderous place on some very accessible day-walks from the Milford Road, some easy enough for non-hikers to do. The only downside to the accessible regions of Fiordland is their understandable popularity, and then there’s the extremely wet weather, and the often aggressive sandflies. But the region is magical, and I highly recommend a visit. It is also home to various multi-day walks, including the world famous Milford Track, and one end of the also famous Routeburn Track.
Many locals in New Zealand recommended I visit the lush West Coast of the South Island, and it didn’t disappoint. Having said that, the typically wet weather restricted our options on our first trip there in 2020, but I saw enough on short walks to know I want to return in a better weather window. The unique forests are fabulous, and down south there is easy access to view two of NZ’s biggest glaciers. There are lots of walking options so this will be a region we’ll return to in the future.
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 / Fiordland 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):
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…)
The Gibbston River Trail runs through the picturesque Gibbston Valley wine region next to the Kawarau River. It’s a mostly flat gravel track that can be walked or mountain-biked, and to be honest biking it would probably be more enjoyable.
It offers nice views of the river in certain spots, which in sunny weather is an intense aqua colour as my pictures demonstrate. But the rest of the time it meanders through somewhat uninspiring vegetation that offers no protection from the sun, and so was a bit of a slog for us in summer. I recommend walking it in sunny winter weather. (In overcast weather the river won’t be such a nice colour.) (more…)
It snowed on the last day of our trip to Queenstown in late Autumn 2017, and so we took advantage of this relative novelty by doing the Jacks Point Track, which starts just behind the house where we stay. This walk provides excellent views over the remarkable Remarkables, as well as Lake Wakatipu, and various mountains on the other side of the lake, the most prominent of which is Cecil Peak. (more…)
I did this walk for the first time in the summer of 2018/19 and it became an instant favourite. When Sophia and I came back to Queenstown the following winter it was first choice to kick off the holiday, and it did not disappoint. Much of the scenery was unsurprisingly enhanced by snow, although I just went back to see my photos from summer and realised the colours were very nice then, so you can’t lose really. (more…)
The views from the summit of Mt Alaska (1965m) are some of the best I’ve seen, and climbing this mountain isn’t as difficult as some other walks around Glenorchy. You don’t have to go all the way to the summit for excellent views, but if you have the time and energy I highly recommend it. (more…)
Mt Alfred stands alone in one of the most picturesque spots in New Zealand. The summit provides some of the finest views in the country, with archetypal scenery north into Mt Aspiring National Park, and south over Lake Wakatipu. The Dart River runs from the former into the latter, and adds to the already starkly contrasting colours. (more…)
After enjoying the excellent hike to Mt Alaska in the Whakaari Conservation Area near Glenorchy, I had looked forward to returning and doing the Mt McIntosh Loop Track. Although this can be done as a loop by crossing over the Buckler Burn, we did it as an out and back tramp to the summit of Mt McIntosh (1701m) entirely on the northern side of the burn. Like the walk to Mt Alaska the views of surrounding peaks and valleys are excellent. A highlight for me were views of rugged Temple Peak (2089m), and views over the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. (more…)
Pigeon Island is a small island at the Glenorchy end of Lake Wakatipu. You can only get there by boat/kayak, (unless you’re a really good swimmer!) There’s a handful of short tracks on the island, and when we visited we climbed to the island’s high point for good views over the grand peaks at that end of the lake. There are also plentiful weka there, an otherwise rare flightless bird confined to just a few islands in New Zealand. (more…)
Central Otago District
A fairly long walk to the summit of Leaning Rock (1647m), the latter half of which is off track in the Waikerikeri Conservation Area. Starting in farmland, the walk ascends up Lilico Spur to the edge of the conservation area. From there the scenery is predominantly tussock grass, rocky areas, and finally the barren summit moonscape replete with multiple tors of various shapes and sizes. The overall feeling is one of remoteness, (although there are major communications installations on the summit). (more…)
Sophia and I had driven through the Lindis Valley on our way to Mt Cook at Christmas time in 2015. After doing most of the regular day walks around Queenstown, I decided to drive out this way again in winter 2016 for the walk up Lindis Peak, and it did not disappoint. There are 360 degree views of the surrounding Central Otago countryside, (and over the border into Canterbury), including the impressive St Bathans Range, and distant snowy peaks of the Southern Alps. (more…)
The ascent of Mt Pisa is a pretty gruelling slog up 1600m of elevation over 12.5 km, but the otherworldly moonscape on top is impressive and worth the effort. Most of the climb is through farmland on a vehicle track, and when we did it there was a lot of animal dung around, so it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Once out of the farmland and into the Pisa Conservation Area the terrain changes to a barren and rocky moonscape, and when on the plateau there’s a further 2km of mostly flat walking to rocks on the summit at 1963m of elevation. (more…)
This walk from Crown Saddle (1070m) to Rock Peak (1490m) provides easy access to the tussock-grassed Pisa Conservation Area. It’s easy walking along a vehicle track, and there are views the whole way over the Crown Range, the Wakatipu Basin, including the back of the Remarkables, and the Gibbston Valley wine region. (more…)
The Mt Shrimpton Track takes you from lush broad leaf forest, through beech to above the bushline. From there you can wander at will, but a long and fabulous day walk is to keep going upwards to the ridge at about 1900m of elevation. There are spectacular alpine views of rock spires and numerous teal blue tarns, down into the Makarora Valley to the west, and the upper High Burn Valley to the east. My first look at the tarns and spiky peaks was one of those moments I let out a slight gasp of wonder. (more…)
For some time I have contemplated doing the highly rated Cascade Saddle walk as a day trip from Raspberry Flats, but the length (~32km?) and reputed danger of descending the route has put me off a bit. I may still get to this classic walk, but in the summer of 2020 I settled instead for this lesser known but excellent day-walk through the West Matukituki Valley up to Shotover Saddle, and then on to Red Rock (1858m). You get spectacular views up and down the valley, of multiple peaks in Mt Aspiring National Park including Rob Roy and its glacier, and nearby Mt Tyndall. A great way to sample the spectacular Mt Aspiring Scenery on a day walk and without undue risk. (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 snow 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 said the views were even better. (more…)
Roys Peak has become a favourite destination for Instagrammers, attracted by the prospect of epic views over Lake Wanaka. The views are really excellent, but as a hike it can be lack lustre, as at least half of it is through unattractive pasture, and it’s along a vehicle trail the whole way. Still, on a clear day it’s worth joining the crowds of walkers making their way either to the summit, or else to that particular spot about two thirds of the way up where you get a picture of yourself or your friend backed by the best bit of Lake Wanaka. (more…)
And now walks in Canterbury…
Christchurch Day Trip
These next walks are manageable as a day-trip from Christchurch…
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…)
I rather like the idea of climbing 2000m high peaks in a day, and the route to Godley Peak (2087m) offers this experience, plus you can bag a second, Moorehouse Peak (2025m), for just another kilometre of walking. The patchwork of colourful pink scree and golden tussock of the surrounding slopes is very attractive if you like that sort of thing. There are views of the Rakaia Valley for almost the whole walk, and there are higher peaks in the Main Divide not too far away. (more…)
One of Canterbury’s more popular walks, climbing Little Mt Peel takes you 1000m up through a variety of vegetation types, including podocarp and broad leaf rainforest with a variety of ferns, then native bush, and finally into heath and tussock. The views from the summit are very good, including the Canterbury Plains to the east, and various hills and mountains in all other directions. (more…)
Mt Alford sits on the edge of the Canterbury Plains, with taller mountains on the inland side. The walk up is not bad, passing through forested sections early on, a short while in paddocks, then back into reserve for the alpine portion to the summit. The main attraction of this walk however is the view from the summit, although the views over the plains as we descended were also nice.
I spent a fair bit of time up on the summit photographing the changing views as the weather began to clear, enough that my wife Sophia made a small snowman to pass the time (that gets into one of my shots). Track notes at the end. (more…)
Mt Barrosa is apparently a new-ish addition to the large Hakatere Conservation Park in Mid Canterbury. It sits in the Clent Hills, and you can continue across these to other destinations such as Lake Emily. If all you’re after are extensive views of the surrounding countryside then climbing to the summit and back on a short but steep poled route makes for a good half day option. (more…)
Arthur’s Pass National Park
Climbing Mt Bealey is one of a few classic walks starting conveniently on the highway through Arthur’s Pass Village. The others include the popular walk up neighbouring Avalanche Peak , Mt Aicken across the valley, plus more we’ve yet to do. As for all of these walks you start with a steep ascent in beech forest, then once above the bushline there are extensive views of very scenic country, with many a rugged peak and deep valley to feast your eyes upon. (more…)
Mt Binser had been recommended by a mountaineering neighbour of ours as a walk with great views and a bit of bush bashing to add to a sense of adventure. My wife Sophia rated the views as possibly the best we’d seen since arriving in NZ seven months earlier, which was a big call considering the quality of walks we’d done in that time. The views were spectacular though, taking in two river valleys, including views right up the Waimakariri River, countless peaks in every direction, many of them now familiar to us from other walks, and the rugged bare slopes of Mt Binser itself. (more…)
The Mt Cassidy – Blimit Traverse starts on the Cons Track and finishes on the Temple Basin Track and Arthur’s Pass Walking Track. But in between it is one of the more adventurous of the very accessible walks starting on the highway at Arthur’s Pass. I’ve got used to these walks being spectacular but I think this one probably took the views to a new level.
You get to bag two peaks, Mt Cassidy (1850m) and Blimit (1922m, apparently short for “Bloody Limit”), the latter being a longish scramble to probably the best views of the day. Returning via Temple Basin makes it a quite varied circuit. Apart from epic alpine vistas, there is very attractive beech forest on the way up the Cons Track, amongst the nicest I’ve seen in New Zealand. So for views and adventure in a medium to long day this route is hard to beat. (more…)
I’d been saving the Woolshed Hill Track for winter, when I thought I could get good snowy views for moderate effort and without avalanche risk. The walk certainly delivered, with excellent views from the summit of Woolshed Hill (1429m) over the Waimakariri, Hawdon and Andrews Valleys, and many of other snow capped peaks in Arthur’s Pass including Mt Binser and the Pyramid. And there was enough snow on the tops to make it feel a bit alpine up there, (although somebody who walked it a week later said the snow had gone). (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…)
The Sluice Box Bridge Short Walk is a very short walk, but is a nice way to stretch the legs if you are driving to or from the West Coast (or Nelson) via the Lewis Pass. It’ll only take 5 minutes to get to the bridge on the Lake Daniell Track, however you might like to spend some time down on the rocky Maruia River bed. The river narrows to a short gorge here, the Sluice Box, and is a lovely green colour. The surrounding area is quite picturesque. Track notes at the end. (more…)
The climb to Travers Peak (1724m) is another partially tracked walk in the Lewis Pass Region that offers nice forest walking then excellent views from the tops. We did this walk in winter when there was quite a bit of snow on the tops, and this added to views over high mountains to the north especially. It’s not such a long walk, about 4 hours in total, so you you get good value for effort on this tramp. (more…)
Banks Peninsula/ Port Hills
There are a variety of tracks available in Mt Vernon Park, passing through sections of native bush, paddocks and tussock. As you climb higher towards Mt Vernon itself there are increasingly good views over Christchurch and of the lumpy crater rim from on the tops. Like many walks in the Port Hills it is far from a wilderness experience, but I was pleasantly surprised how remote some sections felt given you start in the suburbs of Christchurch. (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…)
This circuit walk in the Port Hills next to Christchurch takes in part of the Crater Rim Walkway above Lyttelton, the South Island’s major port. There are great views of Lytteton Harbour and the town itself, and a bit of a workout as you ascend onto the tops. This area is part of an old volcano, and you can see the shape of the crater in the surrounding hills. There are also views over Christchurch to the north, and out over the Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps in the west. The vegetation is a bit mixed and not always that attractive, although there were nice sections of tussock grass up high. (more…)
Further Afield in Canterbury
Aoraki Mt Cook & Mackenzie
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…)
The Tekapo Mt John Walkway is an easy route that takes you to the observatory complex on the top of Ōtehīwai Mt John (1031m). You can continue as we did to make a loop walk, returning by the shore of Lake Tekapo. The views are very spacious: this roche moutonnee is surrounded by lakes and wide plains, and beyond these are numerous high peaks. (more…)
And finally, elsewhere on the South Island…
On our first trip to the South Island West Coast we’d been denied views on our only long walk of the holiday due to the typical cloudy and wet weather. So with a good long weather window in late summer we headed west again, and our first of two excellent walks was this circuit up the Klondyke Spur Track and down the Klondyke Valley Track. The views were very good, but there was also a nice variety of forest and alpine vegetation, and a number of picturesque tarns in two alpine basins. A period of off-track walking (linking the two tracks) adds to the adventure. (more…)
The Mt Haast Route in Victoria Forest Park near Reefton promised to be a short but steep walk to good views from the summit of Mt Haast (1578m). But the views were better than I had anticipated, so much so that I would rate these views high up in my NZ walks to date. The scale of the surrounding glacial topography is not as big as some areas in New Zealand, but it’s very attractive scenery. There’s a real feeling of space up there, with countless peaks, ridges and glacial valleys in all directions. And the lush West Coast forests on lower slopes contrast nicely with the light coloured tussock grass and shrubs on the summits and high ridges. I barely notice the effort I’m expending when I’m enjoying a walk, and so it was on our way steeply down from the summit, despite tired knees from weeks of regular walking over the summer. Highly recommended. (more…)
I think I first heard of Okarito village as the home of a really excellent landscape photographer called Andris Apse. Okarito Lagoon is the main landform in the area, and there are good views of it, and on clear days of the Southern Alps (probably), from the small hill of Okarito Trig, just on the edge of the lagoon. It’s an easy walk over a wetland and up through attractive forest to get there. (more…)
I passed the sign for the very short Pakihi Walk driving from Franz Joseph Glacier to Okarito, otherwise I wouldn’t have known about it. We were operating in a short weather window during three days of forecasted rain, and decided to stop and do the walk because we might not get to do much else! It turned out to be an attractive if not spectacular walk that is worth doing if driving to Okarito as it’s just at the roadside. The highlight is the forest, (kiwi habitat apparently), but there are also modest views from the end of the walk. (more…)
A colleague suggested we visit Pancake Rocks near Punakaki on our drive down NZ’s West Coast. As a tourist attraction it is recommended, with a variety of interesting rock formations, often in layers, (hence the pancake reference), and also blow holes and bird nesting sites. The blow holes weren’t blowing on the day we did this walk. They kinda sucked 😉
As a walking experience it is more akin to strolling in a city park, being very short and on a paved track. This is just one to stretch the legs on the drive up or down the coast, or if you are staying in the area.
Other South Island
And here’s an interactive map of the lot (featured walks in gold)…