Rakiura National Park: The Complete Guide

hiker wearing red hat and blue backpack looks out over the sea from a high rocky point

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Rakiura National Park

Southland 9818, New Zealand

Sitting about 18 miles off the south coast of the South Island, Rakiura National Park encompasses around 85 percent of Rakiura Stewart Island's landmass. This national park is much less visited than New Zealand's other national parks and takes a bit more effort to get to. But for those travelers that do venture this far south, Rakiura National Park offers some great hikes, beaches as beautiful as any further north (if somewhat colder), abundant wildlife, and the chance to spot kiwis in the wild.

The national park is relatively new, having been established in 2002. Maori have lived on the island since the 1300s while groups of European sealers and whalers came to the island during its early colonial period in the early 19th century. Colonists also set up sawmills and farms on the island throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While much of the national park area is not untouched wilderness, there are efforts to regenerate the native flora and fauna.

The Best Things to Do

Rakiura National Park is all about the hiking and the wildlife, and if you visit at the right time of year, you can enjoy the incredible skies of the Aurora Australis, too.

Bird Watching

Whether you hike in the park or just visit on day trips, there are opportunities to spot an array of native birds, including the kakariki, kereru, tui, bellbird, weka, kakapo, South Island kaka, and the Stewart Island kiwi.

Ulva Island is an especially good place to visit on a day tour from Oban. This little island is part of the national park but just offshore from town. It's pest-free so the native birds and animals have flourished undisturbed. You can't stay here overnight but there are some easy walking tracks.

Seeing the Aurora Australis

Whether you stay inside the park or just beside it in Oban, the winter-time Aurora Australis is an attraction. The best time of year to see the Southern Lights is between March and September. The nights are longest at this time, and there's almost no light pollution here to spoil the view. The Service Aurora Hourly Aurora Forecast uses NASA technology to predict, reasonably accurately, when you'll be able to spot the aurora in the upcoming days.

Diving and Snorkeling

Stewart Rakiura Island has some impressive diving and snorkeling opportunities, especially if you're interested in seaweed! But you'll need to bring your own diving or snorkeling gear because there's nowhere to rent it on the island.

Best Hikes and Trails

Travelers who want to enjoy quick, easy day hikes and advanced, multi-day treks have a few options.

  • Garden Mound to Little River: This 2.3-mile return hike from Oban/Halfmoon Bay is the shortest option in the park but it can be steep in places, so wear proper hiking boots. The views over Oban are great and hikers will walk among huge native trees.
  • Maori Beach: Another relatively easy option, the 6-mile return hike to Maori Beach follows part of the Rakiura Track.
  • The Rakiura Track: This three-day, 20-mile loop through an eastern section of the Rakiura National Park is one of New Zealand's ten Great Walks. It's classified as an intermediate-level hike. The trails are well kept and the hut accommodation is of a good standard but during peak season (summer) the huts and campsites book out months in advance, so you have to be quick to reserve a spot on this trek. Hikers lucky enough to get a spot will follow the beautiful coastline and venture through the forested inland of the island. This is a good option if you're a keen and experienced hiker but don't want an exhausting challenge.
  • The North West Circuit. This 77-mile advanced-level trek takes nine to 11 days to complete and is much less busy than the Rakiura Track. It's essential to have advanced backcountry skills for this hike because it includes unbridged river crossings. Some beaches on the trail can only be accessed at low tide. The trail starts at Halfmoon Bay/Oban and follows the eastern and northern coastlines of the island before heading slightly inland on the western coast and then cutting through the interior back to Halfmoon Bay.
  • The Southern Circuit. This 44-mile trek takes four to six days to complete and can be done as part of the North West Circuit or on its own. It's also an advanced-level hike but because it's shorter it's suitable for experienced backcountry hikers who have less time to spare. The trail starts at Freshwater Landing, which can be reached via a water taxi.
This July 2020 long-exposure image shows Whaka a Te Wera Paterson Inlet on Rakiura Stewart Island, Aotearoa New Zealand on a cloudy day. Rakiura National Park is on the opposite side of the inlet.
Ernest Kung / Getty Images

Where to Camp

If you're hiking through the park, Department of Conservation campsites and huts are the only places you're allowed to stay. Wild camping isn't permitted in New Zealand national parks. As well as the tramping huts ("tramping" is what New Zealanders call hiking), there are a number of standard and basic hunters' huts in this national park. These don't need to be booked in advance but they tend to be challenging to get to.

Outside the park boundaries, travelers can camp at well-equipped holiday parks in and around Oban.

Where to Stay Nearby

The only town on Rakiura Stewart Island is Oban, in Halfmoon Bay, where all of the island's approximately 400 residents live. Unless you're hiking overnight in the park, this is where you'll be staying. There are a variety of affordable hotels available in Oban.

How to Get There

The point of entry for all visitors to the island is Oban. From there, the national park is nearby. Daily passenger ferries cross the Foveaux Strait from Bluff, the southernmost point on the South Island, to Oban. These are passenger ferries only, so if you're traveling by car in New Zealand or with a campervan, you'll need to park it somewhere in Bluff/Invercargill.

You can rent vehicles on the island and some accommodations offer rentals, but you can't drive into the national park anyway. In the summer and autumn, ferries run three or four times a day, during summer and autumn and two or three times per day the rest of the year. The ferry crossing takes about an hour.

Alternatively, you can fly from Invercargill to Rakiura Stewart Island, although this doesn't really save much time after you've checked in at the airport and waited. The flight takes 20 minutes on small, fixed-wing airplanes. They run about three times per day.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Rakiura Stewart Island is the last major line of defense between the South Island and Antarctica. That is, the climate is cold. With average January (mid-summer) temperatures of 56 degrees F and average July (mid-winter) temperatures of 40 degrees F, most travelers will prefer to visit in summer. However, mid-summer is the wettest time and mid-winter is the driest. The colder months (March-September) are also the best time to see the Aurora Australis.
  • The hikes in the Rakiura National Park are notorious for their mud, which can be a problem at any time of year. Be prepared with the right clothing and footwear, and budget an extra day or two into your itinerary in case you walk at a slower pace than planned.
  • Rakiura Stewart Island's weather is unpredictable and the climate is generally cold, even in summer. If you're embarking on one of the longer, more challenging hikes, get up-to-date weather information right before you leave but be prepared to change your plans if necessary.
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Rakiura National Park: The Complete Guide