New Zealand’s Great Walks are a fantastic way to see New Zealand. Aotearoa is known for its stunning and variable natural scenery. From lush rainforests, stunning glaciers, pristine beaches and otherworldly volcanoes, hiking has long been considered one of the best ways to see our country.
The Great Walks span the length of the country and provide an accessible way to experience nature in all its glory. Whether you are a beginner hiker or a seasoned veteran, travelling to New Zealand or born and bred Kiwi, every visitor to our shores should do at least one Great Walk in their lifetime.
There are currently ten Great Walks around New Zealand. There are three walks on the North Island, six throughout the South Island, and one on Stewart Island. The Great Walks were established by the Department of Conservation in the 1980s as a mutually beneficial way for people to see the country and as a way to protect our natural habitats, these are the most popular walks in New Zealand.
The Great Walks are multi-day hikes, with each Great Walk taking roughly two to five days to complete. These tracks are meticulously maintained by DOC. These iconic walks feature DOC huts and campsites along the way, well-maintained trails and clear signposts and are suitable for a wide range of hiking abilities.
The Great Walks can be completed with a group, as a solo adventure, or with a guide. The nice thing about the Great Walks is how accessible they are. You won’t need to know how to read a map or need much camping knowledge before you try a great walk. However, a base fitness level and enjoyment of the great outdoors will be useful.
The best time to complete a Great Walk is right now! The season typically runs over Spring and Summer - which in the southern hemisphere is October to March. Some Great Walks are accessible all year round, depending on the weather, while others are only open during Spring and Summer.
It’s important to adjust your expectations to your level of fitness and knowledge of the outdoors. Although most walks are suitable for beginners, some walks are better suited to intermediate hikers or to beginners going with a group or a guide. This is because the weather can change quickly and wind, snow and ice can make it dangerous for inexperienced hikers.
DOC huts are bare-bones but clean, safe and tidy. Most DOC huts have wooden bunks and waterproof mattresses, flush toilets (some do have long drops), kitchen facilities with gas stoves, rainwater tanks and indoor shared spaces. Some even have wood fires!
You can book a DOC hut via the DOC website. Bookings usually open in July of each year and it’s not unusual for huts to completely book out. You can also book space at a DOC camping ground but will need to bring a tent or sleeping swag with you on the walk.
Each walk is totally unique and will take you through wildly different terrain. Some walks include alpine tracks while others will take you across beaches and near the sea. The walks are all well-maintained, while some are more challenging than others. Very advanced hikers may find the trails too easy, however, the beautiful scenery makes them a worthwhile adventure for people who have never done a Great Walk before.
Each walk differs in price and will depend on how many huts you are planning on staying at. The summer season is also more expensive than the rest of the year and the shoulder season is slightly cheaper than summer.
The Milford, Routeburn, Paparoa and Kepler tracks are the most expensive at $110-$102 for Great Walk Huts in summer. The Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Rakiura and Tongariro Crossing Tracks are all $56 while the Whanganui Journey and the Waikaremoana Track are $30.
The Milford Track is arguably the most famous hike in New Zealand and for good reason. The scenery is otherworldly, and the hike will take you past stunning mountains, ancient waterfalls, and crystal-clear lakes with mirror-like reflections. This scenic mountain pass is harder to get to than other walks and requires driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound, but it is well worth it.
As the most expensive track on the Great Walks, it’s also worth of its higher price tag. Just be sure to take mosquito spray with you and plan your trip well in advance as it tends to book out each year.
Despite both being in Fiordland National Park, the Kepler Track and the Milford Track couldn’t be more different. Rather than traversing through lush ancient-looking rainforests, the Kepler Track takes you across a mountain ridge. Covered in small tussocky grasses, you’ll have alpine views and foggy vistas to enjoy.
While the Milford Track experiences a lot of rain, the Kepler track is dryer but does experience some snowfall and heavy clouds. It’s important to check the weather and take precautions on the Kepler Track as it can be more challenging for beginners. The track is also a circuit, so you’ll start and end from the same point.
There’s a reason why Fiordland National Park is a UNESCO heritage site with not one or two but three Great Walks! If you can’t get enough of alpine terrain, the Routeburn Track is another beauty worth exploring. It is considered one of the best hikes for alpine views and will take you past two beautiful lakes, a mountain pass and into the vast wilderness of Fiordland.
The track can be completed in two or three days. This walk is not a loop and does require either a pickup option at the end or a car relocation service. Be warned, car transfers can be a bit expensive so it may be worth doing the walk as a group and splitting the cost.
New Zealand has one of the most diverse terrains in the world as proven by Abel Tasman National Park. Located at the top of the south island, the track takes hikers through white sand beaches, low tide passes where the sea is crystal clear, and native rainforests. Abel Tasman is one of the easier hikes, the track has a lower elevation and is super popular during the summer.
The track can also be completed in a range of ways, there are five huts along the trail and hikers can choose where they start and finish. Most people take a water taxi to their chosen starting point and walk back to the beginning of the trail. There are DOC huts and private accommodations along the way as well as DOC camping grounds. You can even kayak sections of the trail as well.
The Paparoa Track is New Zealand’s most recent Great Walk added to the roster. It was created as a memorial to 29 miners who died in a mine explosion in the Pike River mine in 2010. Located on the West Coast, the trail traverses the Paparoa Ranges taking hikers through wild and rugged alpine mountain ranges and beautiful lush rainforests. The track can be walked or biked and takes two or three days, depending on how you choose to complete it.
Located on Stewart Island at the very south of the country, the Rakiura Track is one of the best walks for seeing kiwi in the wild. The walk leaves from Oban, which can be accessed by a 20-minute flight from Invercargill or a one-hour ferry from Bluff. The track gets the least visitors of all the Great Walks due to its very southern location, however, it’s perfect for beginners and many hikers will see kiwi on the trail. It’s also one of the only areas where kiwi have been sighted during the day. You can also enjoy listening to the kiwi's mating call during the night at many of the DOC huts.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is located on Mount Ngauruhoe in Tongariro National Park. The single-day crossing of the Tongariro is another popular walk in the same area. The weather can make completing the full circuit somewhat difficult, and you may need to be flexible with your dates. The walk offers beautiful alpine views, glaciers and volcanic terrain. In parts the walk can be steep and gravelly, making this one of the more difficult Great Walks. It should not be attempted outside of the summer season unless you have navigation and alpine skills.
Located in Te Urewera National Park, this walk covers more backcountry and skirts the shoreline of Lake Waikaremoana. The trail is located in the home of Tūhoe people and the park became the first natural feature to be recognised as a legal entity in New Zealand. It is considered a very spiritual place for local iwi and features ancient mountain ranges, stunning lakes, dramatic peaks and valleys.
Whanganui Journey is considered one of the most gentle Great Walks in the country as the trip is completed by kayak or canoe. Make your way down the Whanganui River from Taumarunui to Pipirki, a journey once used by local Maori. There are plenty of places to stay along the river with 11 DOC campsites and 3 huts to choose from along the journey. A reasonable level of fitness is recommended as you’ll need to complete six to seven hours of paddling a day.
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