Guide to the Queen Charlotte Track on New Zealand's South Island

View over the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound from the Queen Charlotte Track in New Zealand
Dmitry Naumov / Getty Images

The 44-mile Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds is very popular for good reasons. The hiking and mountain biking trail offers some of the most spectacular coastal, water, and mountain views in the upper South Island—perhaps even the whole of New Zealand—and is well-connected by water taxi to transit hub Picton. Travelers on a lower budget will find well-appointment Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites along the way to spend the night in, while those with higher budgets and a desire for greater comfort can stay at beautiful lodges en route. Here's what you need to know about hiking or biking the Queen Charlotte Track.

What to Expect

Queen Charlotte Sound is one of four deepwater sounds that comprise the Marlborough Sounds area (the other three are Pelorus, Kenepuru, and Mahau). The Queen Charlotte Track starts at Ship Cove, near the opening to the open ocean of the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands. The first part of the track follows close to the shore at Endeavour Inlet. Then it follows a ridge line on a narrow strip of land separating Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. It ends at Anakiwa, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Hiking the full track takes four to five days, but with convenient water taxi services you don't have to do the whole thing. Because you can't just camp wherever you like, the days are usually broken up between convenient overnight stopping points as follows:

  • Ship Cove to Endeavour Inlet
  • Endeavour Inlet to Camp Bay
  • Camp Bay to Torea Saddle
  • Torea Saddle to Mistletoe Bay
  • Mistletoe Bay to Anakiwa

Most days require about four to five hours of walking, but the third day requires about eight hours. The above days can be further broken up if you'd rather take your time. Alternatively, if you're up for an epic adventure, the Queen Charlotte Track is part of Te Araroa, a long-distance trekking trail that spans the length of New Zealand, from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south.

Although the Queen Charlotte Track is physically challenging and shouldn't be taken lightly, it's considered a relatively easy track by New Zealand standards—altitudes are low, you won't encounter snow, and tracks are well-formed and sign-posted. Importantly, and unlike many tracks in New Zealand, major stream and river crossings are bridged, so you don't need advanced backcountry skills to undertake this hike. Given the weather conditions in this part of New Zealand, you should prepare for rain and mud, but also for hot and sunny conditions, especially in the summer.

As well as offering gorgeous views of the forest-covered peaks and valleys of the Marlborough Sounds, the Queen Charlotte Track passes through culturally and historically significant land. The very names of the bays suggest some of the history. Captain James Cook, who claimed the lands of what is now New Zealand for the British king, first set foot on the South Island in this area. A memorial to Captain Cook can be found at the start of the track in Ship Cove. Motuara Island, now a bird sanctuary, is just across a channel from Ship Cove and is where the local Maori first encountered Cook and his men.

calm blue sea surrounded by forested hills and green trees with two people on mountain bikes
 Courtesy of Marlborough Tour Company

Mountain Biking

You don't have to just hike the Queen Charlotte Track. Mountain bikers can ride the longest stretch of single track in the country, which is also often considered one of the best.

Most of the track is graded as intermediate, with some stretches of advanced and expert grades. However, it's not a technical ride: the higher grades in places are due to the steepness, not the difficulty per se. Some bikers may prefer to walk some sections.

Most riders take two days to complete the 44-mile track, but with water taxi transfers you could also enjoy a day trip.

Fees

Although the Queen Charlotte Track doesn't pass through a national park, hikers and bikers both need a QCTLC Pass. Parts of the track cross private land, and funds from the fee go towards access, maintenance, and enhancement. These cost NZ$12 for a single day pass, NZ$25 for a multi-day pass valid over five consecutive days, and NZ$35 for a season pass. Children are free.

Where to Stay

DOC campsites along the way provide basic facilities. You'll need to carry your own tent, food and cooking equipment, including a way to purify water as that available at campsites isn't always safe for drinking. Alternatively, water taxi services (see below) can transport your gear between several of the stops along the track. Camping is not allowed at Ship Cove, so after being dropped off on the first day, you must walk on either to the Resolution Bay campsite or the Resolution Bay cabins.

Endeavour Inlet—which most hikers will reach on their second day—offers a collection of upmarket accommodation, if you don't want to camp the whole way. Or if you're happy camping, you can still drop by for some good food. Furneaux Lodge and Punga Cove Resort in particular are worth a detour.

Further down the track, on days four and/or five for most hikers, are further opportunities to sleep in comfort, at the Portage Hotel at Portage Bay, Lochmara Lodge at Lochmara Bay, Mistletoe Eco Village at Mistletoe Bay, and elsewhere.

There's a youth hostel at Anakiwa, at the end of the track.

Getting to and From the Track

The track starts at Ship Cove at the end of the northern side of Queen Charlotte Sound. It can only be accessed by boat. If you don't have your own, you'll need to arrange a water taxi service from Picton in advance (book well ahead of time during the busy summer season).

Various shuttle companies offer pick-ups from Anakiwa, at the end of the track. These can transport you to Picton, Havelock, or elsewhere. It's essential to book ahead because regular public bus services don't operate in this area.

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