Hiking is a big deal in New Zealand. The locals are into it (they call it "tramping"), and many overseas visitors come to the country especially for hiking. There are many fantastic long-distance treks that take a few days, requiring you to camp or stay in Department of Conservation huts along the way, and there's even a DOC shortlist of the best treks in the country called the Great Walks. But you don't need to be super-outdoorsy or uber-fit to enjoy hiking in New Zealand. There are plenty of one-hour or single-day hikes that travelers with a range of fitness levels can enjoy.
But where to go? In a country full of jagged mountains, rolling hills, a long coastline, many lakes, and deep valleys, wherever you go, you won't be far from a good hiking opportunity. Here are 10 of the best, from very short to very, very long.
Hooker Valley, Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
While the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the west coast of the South Island might be more famous, the Mueller Glacier in the Hooker Valley is perhaps New Zealand's most underrated glacier. The three-hour walk along the Hooker Valley in the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park is fairly easy, but you'll need proper hiking shoes or boots. Plus, as it's alpine terrain, you should check conditions before setting out, and be prepared with adequate clothing. There are longer hikes in the area, too.
There's a big dose of novelty factor in saying you've walked from one coast of Auckland to the other. But in fact, Auckland sits on New Zealand's narrowest neck of land, the Auckland Isthmus, and the Coast-to-Coast walk is just 10 miles. Crossing from the Waitemata Harbour in the north to the Manukau Harbour in the south (or vice versa), it passes through a lot of city landscape, but also includes a lot of culture, nature, and history. On the way, hikers will cross One Tree Hill, Mt. Eden, and the large green space of the Auckland Domain, as well as evidence of Maori pa (fortified village) sites. The whole walk takes around five to six hours (one way) and is relatively easy, with limited uphill walking but a lot of pavement pounding.
Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro National Park in the central North Island offers both shorter and longer hikes, though none can be classified as easy. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often called one of the best day walks in the country, if not the whole world, and takes hikers across a volcanic plateau dotted with lakes of dazzling sulfurous waters and volcanic cones. When the weather's good, the full-day walk isn't too challenging and can be done by anyone with moderate fitness, but it's important to note that weather conditions can change extremely quickly in the high-altitude alpine setting. It's essential to be prepared for extreme weather, even in the middle of summer.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a three- to four-day trek in the national park that's designated as one of DOC's Great Walks.
Coromandel Forest Park (Pinnacles Walk)
The whole Coromandel Peninsula offers some fun hikes of varying lengths, but the Pinnacles Walk, or Kauaeranga Kauri Trail, in the Coromandel Forest Park is one of the best. It can be done on one long day (about eight hours), or broken up over two days. As well as incredible views from the top of the rocky Pinnacles at 2,490 feet, there's a lot of history along this hike as the trail was used by kauri tree loggers about 100 years ago. There are advantages to doing the hike as both an overnight or a one-day trip. If you go overnight you can put off climbing the final, challenging stretch up vertical ladders until the second day, in the cool of the early morning. But if you do it as a one-day trip, you won't have to carry as much gear, making the steep sections somewhat easier.
Lake Waikaremoana and Lake Waikareiti
The three- to four-day Lake Waikaremoana trek on the east coast of the North Island is one of the Great Walks. It follows the shore of Lake Waikaremoana and includes gorgeous rainforests, waterfalls, and lookout points. If you don't have the time or stamina for such a long walk, the Lake Waikareiti walk is just two hours return and is in the same area. Crystal-clear Lake Waikareiti is fringed by white sand beaches, but the wildcard is that there's an island in the middle of Lake Waikareiti, which has a lake in the middle of that—a lake on an island in a lake. Get your head around that!
The Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island comprise three deep water sounds: the Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, and Pelorus Sounds. While the Queen Charlotte Track in the Queen Charlotte Sound is the most popular walking trail in the area, Pelorus Sound offers some fantastic options, with views that are just as good. The two-day Nydia Track is classified as easy, though it does require an overnight stay, and the four- to five-hour Mt. Stokes Track is challenging as it summits the 3,946-foot-tall Mt. Stokes, with incredible views from the top.
Abel Tasman National Park
The three- to five-day Abel Tasman Coast Track is one of New Zealand's most popular Great Walks, thanks to the gorgeous golden-sand beaches that flank the park, and you definitely won't have the trail or the huts and campsites to yourself. But there are many other shorter options in the Abel Tasman National Park too, from short one-hour walks and up. A great feature of this popular park is that water taxis are available along the coastline, so it's possible to be picked up and dropped off at various points along the way or even to have your overnight pack transported along the trail so you don't have to carry it the whole way. You can also kayak along the coast to add variety.
Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park
Lake Rotoiti is just one of several lakes in the Nelson Lakes National Park, but it's the most easily accessible, being just 75 minutes' drive from the city of Nelson. While many multi-day treks are possible in the park, a great thing about Lake Rotoiti is that you don't need a lot of time to enjoy a walk through the forest along the shores of the lake. With just an hour or two, you can walk from Kerr Bay to West Bay for different views of the lake and surrounding mountains. A great side trip is to drive up to the lookout part way up Mt. Robert for great views of the northern end of Lake Rotoiti.
Rakiura/Stewart Island is New Zealand's "third" island off the bottom of the South Island, and it's a special place. Although the climate is generally pretty cold, it has gorgeous beaches that rival any further north, and about 85 percent of it is national park. On the three-day Rakiura Track, hikers can expect to see blue penguins, albatross, and even the elusive kiwi. (Side note: in New Zealand, "kiwi" refers to the nocturnal flightless bird, or is a nickname for New Zealanders. The fruit are always called "kiwifruit," not kiwis). As the birds on Stewart Island have few-to-no predators, they're unafraid of humans and will come very close. This is bird-watching paradise. Shorter hikes can also be done here if you can't commit to three days.
Te Araroa—Length of the Whole Country!
If all of these options sound far too easy and you have several months to spare, check out the Te Araroa Trail. This spans the length of New Zealand, from Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach in Northland to Bluff in Southland. It spans beaches, farmland, forest, cities, mountains, rivers for more than 1,800 miles, and takes about three months to complete. Some people skip the North Island, where there are more roads and cities, and just do the South Island sections. Whichever way, it's a huge undertaking but the adventure of a lifetime, much like the Appalachian Trail or the Camino de Santiago.