The Complete Guide to New Zealand's Great Walks

woman wearing backpack walking along a golden beach with blue sea and sky and an offshore island

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New Zealand is a paradise for keen hikers, with hundreds of trails in the mountains, along the coast, beside lakes, through forests, and elsewhere. But 10 trails stand out above the rest: the Great Walks. These multi-day hikes are administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC), who maintain the trails and the huts and campsites and manage bookings. They're extremely popular routes, but numbers are limited in the peak season (generally between October and March), and bookings are essential.

While the Great Walks are not wilderness walks in the same way that many lesser-known paths through sparsely inhabited areas are, the upshot is that trails and accommodation are well-kept. They also guarantee some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. Here's a complete guide to the 10 Great Walks: three in the North Island, six in the South Island, and one on Rakiura Stewart Island.

01 of 10

Lake Waikaremoana Track, Te Urewera, East Coast, North Island

green forest-covered cliff with blue lake below and blue sky

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  • Distance: 29 miles (47 kilometers) one way
  • Time Commitment: 3-4 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

The Lake Waikaremoana Track is located in the Te Urewera region of the North Island, an area that was a national park until 2014 when its administration was handed back to the local Tuhoe people.

The trail follows Lake Waikaremoana, one of the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand. The views from bluffs high above the lake are breathtaking and make the more strenuous parts of the hike worthwhile. Korokoro Falls, deep in the forest, is another highlight.

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02 of 10

Whanganui Journey, Whanganui River, North Island

two people in a canoe on a brown river cutting through a steep sided canyon covered in forest

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  • Distance: 54/90 miles (87/145 kilometers)
  • Time Commitment: 3 or 5 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

The Whanganui Journey is rather an odd walk because it is not, in fact, a walk. It's a kayak/canoe river journey, but DOC administers it in the same way as the other Great Walks, grouped with the on-foot hikes.

This journey along New Zealand's third-longest river is an exceptional way for experienced paddlers to travel through an area of the western North Island that is inaccessible any other way. It passes through the Whanganui National Park and can either be done in full, which takes about three days, or in part, three days.

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03 of 10

Tongariro Northern Circuit, Tongariro National Park, Central North Island

volcanic landscape with two green lakes and blue sky

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  • Distance: 26 miles (43 kilometers), loop
  • Time Commitment: 3-4 days
  • Accommodation: Huts

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of several walking options in the Tongariro National Park but the only one that's a designated Great Walk. It crosses the volcanic high-altitude plateau that features three active volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. The Tongariro National Park is the oldest national park in New Zealand (established in 1887) and is one of New Zealand's few UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit crosses rugged alpine terrain, much of which is exposed, so be prepared for changing weather conditions. Highlights include volcanic craters, blue lakes, glacial valleys, and close-up views of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.

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04 of 10

Abel Tasman Coast Track, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

shallow sea inlet with golden beaches and blue sky with forest covered hills in background

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  • Distance: 37 miles (60 kilometers), one way
  • Time Commitment: 3-5 days
  • Accommodation: Campsites

The Abel Tasman Coast Track is an ideal hike for walkers who also enjoy a good beach, as it follows the coastline of the Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island. New Zealand's smallest national park is also its most popular, for a good reason. The golden-sand beaches and sparkling turquoise seas are among the most beautiful anywhere in the world.

As this trail is at sea level rather than high altitude, it can be done throughout the year, although swimming in the sea is only comfortable in the warmer months.

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05 of 10

Heaphy Track, Kahurangi National Park, South Island

chain bridge over a stream surrounded by trees and ferns

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  • Distance: 48 miles (78 kilometers), one way
  • Time Commitment: 4-6 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

The Heaphy Track starts on the upper West Coast of the South Island and crosses the mountains of the Kahurangi National Park before ending at the coast of Golden Bay (or vice versa). This area, the second-largest national park in New Zealand, is significant for its geological and biological diversity. As a result, the walking trail takes in a wide variety of landscapes, from the wild beaches of the West Coast to the dense forests inland.

The Heaphy Track is also open to mountain bikers between May and October (the opposite of peak season for walkers, and takes about two days to ride.

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06 of 10

Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track, Paparoa National Park, West Coast, South Island

brown river surrounded by trees with blue sky at top

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  • Distance: 34 miles (55 kilometers), one way
  • Time Commitment: 3 days
  • Accommodation: Huts

The Paparoa Track crosses the Paparoa Range in the Paparoa National Park, on the upper West Coast of the South Island. Incredible river gorges, cliffs, and the remnants of old gold mines are highlights of this trek. It can also be done as a mountain biking trail.

The Pike29 Memorial Track is still under construction but passes through the same area, along a slightly different trail to the Paparoa Track. This trail was devised to commemorate the 29 men who died in an underground accident at the Pike River Mine in November 2010.

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07 of 10

Routeburn Track, Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring National Parks, South Island

person walking on trail in mountainous landscape

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  • Distance: 20 miles (33 kilometers), one way
  • Time Commitment: 2-4 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

The alpine Routeburn Track crosses the mountains spanning two national parks in the south-western South Island, the Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring National Parks. While in winter it is covered in snow and ice and should only be attempted by highly experienced mountaineers, in the summer, hikers can enjoy an intermediate-level walk past mountains, waterfalls, and tarns and through meadow blossoming with wildflowers.

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08 of 10

Milford Track, Fiordland National Park, South Island

waterfall running into a turquoise pool surrounded by rocks covered in shrub

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  • Distance: 32 miles (53 kilometers), one way
  • Time Commitment: 4 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

The Milford Track, along with the Abel Tasman Coast Track, is one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand. Hikers can expect to see dramatic glacial valleys, ancient native forests, and some of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand.

Fiordland and the whole West Coast are famously wet, with very high annual rainfall. So prepare for wet weather at any time of year!

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09 of 10

Kepler Track, Fiordland, South Island

hut on grassy field overlooking a lake surrounded by mountains and a cloudy sky

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  • Distance: 37 miles (60 kilometers), loop
  • Time Commitment: 3-4 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

The third (and final!) of the Great Walks that takes in part of the Fiordland National Park, the Kepler Track also traverses the mountains and forests of the Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau areas east of the park's boundaries. Highlights include gushing waterfalls, hidden caves (the Luxmore Caves), and the chance of seeing cheeky kea, an olive green bird that's the only species of alpine parrot in the world.

The campsites on the Kepler Track are very basic, so it's preferable to book a bunk in a hut.

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10 of 10

Rakiura Track, Rakiura Stewart Island

rocky islands near shore with turquoise water

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  • Distance: 20 miles (32 kilometers), loop
  • Time Commitment: 3 days
  • Accommodation: Huts and campsites

New Zealand's third main island, Rakiura Stewart Island, lies to the south of the South Island. Very few people live there permanently, and 85 percent of the island is reserved as a national park.

The Rakiura Track follows the coastline of the island and crosses the forested inland. The beaches here are as beautiful as any in more northern parts of New Zealand, though the seas are much colder. The Rakiura National Park is one of the best places in the country for spotting the elusive, nocturnal kiwi bird in the wild, so listen out for them after dark.