Introduction to Hiking (Tramping) 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 tramp in 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):
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…)
This relatively easy walk around the Kelvin Peninsula provides grandstand views of Lake Wakatipu, various peaks over the water, of Queenstown and Ben Lomond, and also the Remarkables. If golf is more your thing then the peninsula has a very picturesque golf course. (more…)
It’s a straightforward walk up to beautiful Lake Alta from the Remarkables ski field car park. And another short option is to climb to wide open views of Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown from Shadow Basin Lookout. If you are willing to do some boulder hopping and navigate one steep section, then you can combine the two into a circuit. You’d be hard pressed to get so much alpine scenery and epic views from any comparably sized walk in NZ.
Despite numerous holidays in Queenstown over the years we had never done this short and pleasant walk around Lake Hayes: the Lake Hayes Walkway. There are more interesting tracks to do first I guess, but this was a good option to stretch our legs after lunch in Arrowtown one day when we needed to recover from other longer tramps. There’s a bit of variety, with small wetlands and a number of wetland birds in residence, as well as small stands of trees, some native scrub and exotic plants/trees. (more…)
The Routeburn 2-3 day walk is one of New Zealand’s most famous Great Walks, and the whole area is truly spectacular. I’d done day walks on this route as far as Harris Saddle and Conical Hill in the past, but had never considered the Routeburn North Branch because valley walks aren’t really my thing. To anticipate a longer than average introduction, I’m now a convert, or at least for the very best valley walks like this one. (more…)
One of New Zealand’s classic multi-day walks, the Routeburn Track can be walked from the Glenorchy end to Harris Saddle in a long day. The views are fabulous, and you can also fit in a short but steep side trip to the summit of Conical Hill (1515m) for even more fantastic views. It’s inevitably popular, but probably won’t be as busy as you think. It rates as possibly the best walk we’ve done to date, although with a well graded track and good facilities, it lacks the remoteness of some other great NZ day walks. (more…)
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s classic multi-day tramps. Walking through the Mt Aspiring portion of the walk as far as Routeburn Flats makes for an excellent day hike of moderate difficulty. The track follows the Routeburn through beech forest as it tumbles down from the flats, and there are views through the trees of the burn and high peaks along the way. When you get to the flats the scenery opens up to provide uninterrupted views of the Humboldt Mountains, and Flats Hut makes is a good spot for lunch before heading back the way you came. (more…)
We did this walk for the first time on about our seventh trip to New Zealand, and I can’t understand how it had remained under our radar for so long. After a moderate amount of time in very atmospheric beech forest, the walk emerges above the tree line to a saddle for the first views of mountains and valleys in Mt Aspiring National Park. But the views get really spectacular when you take a right turn off-track up to point 1290m. There are views of rugged mountains in various directions, including a great angle on Mt Earnslaw, which peaks at 2830m of elevation. (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…)
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?).
The Rocky Mountain – Diamond Lake Circuit is a walk near Wanaka that offers excellent views for only moderate effort. It’s an easier-going alternative to the famous but much longer Roys Peak Track that starts down the road a bit closer to town. The views are less epic, however this is a more attractive walking experience all round, with sections of native bush and other vegetation.
You can do a circuit or figure of eight (I recommend an anti-clockwise circuit) taking in the picturesque Diamond Lake and the summit of Rocky Mountain (775m) for views over Lake Wanaka and towards various high peaks in Mt Aspiring National Park and around the lake. (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…)
Although a very nice walk, this hike to Sawyer Burn Hut was most memorable for the chance encounter with a completely nude hiker. (Well, he was wearing hiking boots). Alas, it was a somewhat portly middle aged man, but he did make quite an impression. Presuming you won’t meet any such person, you can instead expect to remember nice beech forest, great views of lake Hawea, and views of high peaks towards the end of the track. (more…)
And now walks in Canterbury…
Christchurch Day Trip
These next walks are manageable as a day-trip from Christchurch…
This circuit walk in the Craigieburn Range visiting Lyndon Saddle and Camp Saddle is a good half day option with views of the Castle Hill Basin, Craigieburn Range and Torlesse Range. We took a side trip to Helicopter Hill (1256m) for the first of the views, and that would make a much shorter but worthwhile walk if you had limited time. For a bit more adventure then climb off-track along a ridge at about 1500m to Camp Saddle, with views all the way. The return section is a pleasant enough walk down through tussock and then back into native forest. (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…)
The climb to Mid Hill (1831m) via Lagoon Saddle is mostly easy travel with maybe 300m of moderate scrambling along a rocky ridge to get to the summit. Once out of the beech and pine at the start there are views for the rest of the walk and many attractive tarns between Lagoon Saddle and the final climb up onto the ridge. Arthur’s Pass is to the north, but some of the best views are the Black Range to the south-east, a patchwork of dark green forest and grey scree. Views west are over rugged and remote country. A very satisfying walk.
This lesser known walk to the tops of the Moorhouse Range offers really excellent views of the Rangitata River and Harper Range to the west, and many other peaks including Mt Taylor to the north. There’s just 650m ascent and a fairly straightforward scrub bash to get these views, and you’re unlikely to meet anybody else. We did this walk after quite heavy snowfall so the views were extra good. (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…)
Arthur’s Pass National Park
One of the more gnarly walks in Arthur’s Pass National Park, the climb to Mt Philistine (1967m) from Otira Valley provides an adventurous walking experience through rugged terrain. It was our first time to climb a glaciated mountain, and there are excellent views of the Rolleston Glacier on the mountain’s southern slopes, of nearby Mt Rolleston (2275m), and of many other peaks and valleys in Arthur’s Pass. (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…)
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 Dumblane (1303m) from Jacks Pass (870m). The very colourful heath vegetation was a real highlight, as were 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 Dumblane and back would also be a good option. (more…)
Although I’d read about the walk to Mt Clara (1945m) before, I decided to do it when the knowledgeable owner of Hanmer Backpackers (Tristan) recommended it to us. In winter conditions it turned out to be one of the better walks we’ve done. The conditions on the tops in winter were proper alpine, and the views north and east in particular were quite spectacular. And you get those views for much of the walk. It’s a long and remote enough tramp to be a bit adventurous, but short enough to fit comfortably into a long winter’s day. (more…)
Kaikoura is a coastal town in the far north of Canterbury, and is famous as a place where tall mountains meet the sea. Those tall mountains are the Seaward Kaikoura Range, peaking at the summit of Manakau (2608m). Grandstand views of these mountains on one side, and the sea on the other, are available from Mt Fyffe (1602m) and nearby Gables End (1592m). Most people would stop at Mt Fyffe, but the relatively easy walking (with one steep bit) across the tops to Gable and then Gables End was the highlight of the day, and so if you have the energy I can recommend this extension. The views at Gables End are also very good. (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…)
I came across the Mt Norma Access Track on my way up Nina Valley, and as always got a bit excited at the prospect of another easily accessible mountain summit in the Lewis Pass area. I waited a long time for a good weather window to get up there, but it finally came in the middle of a very snowy winter, so the views of mountain peaks and valleys galore were extra beautiful. With so much snow this turned out to be a bit adventurous also, and probably the closest we’ve come to mountaineering.
Banks Peninsula/ Port Hills
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…)
Mt Brown Hut is considered one of the very best locations of any accessible backcountry hut in New Zealand. With a decent weather window one weekend it was time for me to embark on my first ever overnight tramp and check it out. The steep 1000m climb up through beautiful West Coast forest is hard work but rewarding. Once above the tree-line the epic views begin to unfold, with Lake Kaniere and the coast to the east, and numerous mountain ranges to the north south and west. We visited the nearby unnamed summit of Mt Brown (1210m) for extra views; that took about 1 1/4 hours return. The views were an obvious highlight, but the forest was unusually beautiful as well, so if you don’t get the views I think you’ll still enjoy the walk.
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…)
If you want a very short walk at the West Coast end of the Heaphy Track then consider this short loop through native forest – the Nikau Palm Walk. The forest is very attractive, and as the name suggests, there are many nikau palms, New Zealand’s only native palm. You cross the Kōhaihai River at the start and views up and down this are also very nice.
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…)
Other South Island
And here’s an interactive map of the lot. Click on the icons to view the walk details and access trip reports.