The diverse landscape of New Zealand is home to some of the most breathtaking nature in all of the world. From rainforests to active volcanoes and glaciers, the island is home to a variety of dramatic landscapes. It is also known for the 10 great walks of New Zealand, which make the decision easier for hikers who feel overwhelmed with the amount of choice they have.
What are the Great Walks?
Although there is no shortage of ‘great walks’ in New Zealand, the term Great Walks refers to tramping tracks that have been developed/maintained by the Conversation Department and are considered to be premier tracks. These walks pass through some of New Zealand’s best landscapes and sceneries that range from dense forests to coastlines and alpine terrain.
The 10 Great Walks became 11 in 2019 when the department added Hump Ridge Track in the list. What makes these great walks so special is the high standard of maintenance, which also means better accessibility. In addition to conserving and managing the tracks, the network was established as a way of promoting hiking in the country.
What to Expect?
Since the Great Walks are well maintained by the Department of Conservation, you can expect better accessibility and facilities throughout the tracks. Well-equipped, comfortable and world-class backcountry huts are located conveniently throughout the trails, while private operators offer guided tours in most of the walks.
Although you won’t be charged just for gaining walking access, you have to pay for overnight accommodation at the campsites or huts. Setting a camp within 1,600 ft / 500 meters of a track is not allowed (for Milford Track the limit is 0.62 miles / 1 KM). Most of these walks are easy to follow, well-formed and perfect for people wanting to explore on their own. But you can also opt for guided tours for a more comfortable experience.
The walks are easily accessible from towns that offer accommodation, transportation and other services. The demand for these services peaks in the summer. You need to keep in mind that the walks have been given a special status to conserve them and to regulate the number of people that visit them. The number of people is managed by requiring them to book beds in the huts well in advance.
The cost for accommodation rises sharply in the main season and is a lot higher compared to other backcountry huts. The higher costs are justified by better facilities and the extra maintenance the Great Walks receive. The season varies from one Great Walk to another. Some walks should be visited between October to May, while others are open year round due to the favorable weather. The cost of accommodation and traveling mainly depends on whether you are visiting during the main season or out-of-season.
Although you need pre-booking in the main season, for some tracks such as the Fiordland National Park you need to pre-book well in advance. Hiking in winter is also possible in some tracks, but you need specialized gear, experience and a certain degree of physical strength to walk in icy and alpine conditions. Bookings are done online on DoC’s website and it’s recommended to book campsites or huts well ahead of time.
The cost of hiking varies from one walk to another. The in-season average cost of tent camping is around $15/night, while the cost of booking a hut ranges from $30-$70/night with Fiordland National Park being the most expensive. Out of season the prices are cheaper and huts are available on a first come first serve basis. Camping out of season will cost you around $5 and a hut usually costs $15/night. Some walks are annual, so these discounted rates do not apply to them. More detail about costs involved in hiking different walks is available at the official website linked above.
Going Solo vs. Guided Walks
Visitors who plan on a solo tour have to book online through DoC official website ahead of their visit. Bookings usually open for the upcoming season in June, so try to book as early as possible because they sell out quickly. Another thing to keep in mind is that most of the great walks are not looped trails, so you also need to carefully plan for transportation. One option is using car relocation services using which you can access one end yourself and pay someone to bring the car at the other end.
Small group tours make the journey easier for visitors who don’t want to deal with logistics and other things. Guided tours enhance safety and make sure you are prepared for the adventure. Going in a small group also saves you from the hassle of managing a lot of things yourself, including hiking permits, accommodation, food and transport.
The 10 Great Walks
Historically, there have been nine great walks in New Zealand. The 10th was added after 25 years, while the 11th Great Walk has already been approved (Hump Ridge Track). Six of these premier walks are located in the South Island, three on the North Island and one in the Steward Island. Around 11% of the total land area of New Zealand is protected and managed by the Department of Conservation, which is roughly 11,000 sq.miles of area protected in 13 national parks.
The Great Walks are the premier trails that are scattered across New Zealand with well-kept tracks, modern facilities and world class accommodation. These walks offer an experience unlike anywhere else with each walk being different and within easy access. Whether you want to hike through dense bushes, a rainforest or along a coastline, there is something for everyone, including first-time hikers.
Great Walks in the South Island
The Routeburn Track
The 20-mile (32 KM, one-way) hiking track can be completed in either direction and overlaps Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. Being a relatively short track, day hikers can also access it without having to book in advance. It is popular for its wide valleys, glittering lakes and mountain peaks. It usually takes from two to four days to complete the hike and the best time to visit is from late October to May. Although relatively short, the track is challenging in some sections, and offers breathtaking views when you reach the top.
The Milford Track
Home to forested mountains and valleys carved by glaciers, the Milford track is one of the most famous of the Great Walks. With a 22 feet average annual rainfall, it’s also one of the wettest on Earth, so hikers need to prepare accordingly for the weather. Stunning waterfalls like the 580m high Sutherland Falls (1,903 feet) make it a great hiking destination. The 53-km long (33 miles, one-way) track takes about four days to complete with Oct-May being the best time to visit.
The Heaphy Track
The 49-mile / 79 KM one-way track is the longest Great Walk that takes from 4-6 days to complete. It’s open the whole year around and is perfect for hikers looking for a remote and wild track that winds through palm forests and tussocks to the west coast. Each 12-mile section of the track is different. It begins with a forest that leads to tussocks and Gouland Downs after which woody patches regain.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track
Being one of the most popular Great Walks, the 37 miles (60KM) track attracts a lot of visitors. The all-year track takes 3-5 days to complete. Many visitors combine hiking with kayaking in the National Park, while day hiking is also popular as many points of the track can be accessed from beaches by boat. It includes many tidal crossings, which include some of the largest in the country.
The Kepler Track
The circular track takes 3-4 days to complete and is a 37-mile (60KM) loop that is accessible from Oct-May. It takes hikers through beautiful beech forests to tranquilizing ridgelines. Most of the streams on the track are bridged and very steep parts have steps, which makes the long track doable for inexperienced hikers.
Paparoa Track (The 10th Great Walk)
Opened in 2020, the Paparoa track is the first addition to the 9 Great Walks in 25 years. The 35-mile (56KM) track was included in the list as a memorial of miners who lost their lives in a mine disaster. It’s operational since March 2020 and includes an additional 6.7 miles section known as Pike29 Memorial Track (in memory of the 29 miners who died in an accident).
Hump Ridge Track (The 11th Great Walk)
Also known as the Tuatapere Humpridge Track, the Hump Ridge track was approved as the 11th great walk in 2019. The 38-mile (61 KM) track is located in the Fiordland National Park (Waitutu Forest). The DoC aims to join other Great Walks with the Hump Ridge track by 2022 and make it a 4-day hike. The track is still walkable in three days, but it lacks the level of facilities other Great Walks have to offer.
Great Walks in the North Island
The 29-miles (46KM, one way) track follows Lake Waikaremoana and passes through grassland and forest. It offers stunning views over the lake and takes from 3-4 days to complete. Hikers can also opt for day hiking by walking different sections of the track, which can take from 30 minutes to 5 hours.
Tongariro Northern Circuit
The track is perfect for hikers who are after dramatic and extreme landscapes. The 27-mile (44KM) loop passes through diverse landscapes ranging from beech forests to areas that look like Martian plateaus to active volcanoes. The best time to hike is from October to April and it takes 3-4 days to complete the loop. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is also a World Heritage site due to its cultural significance.
Fresh water is not guaranteed on the track because the springs can be scalding hot and volcanic activity causes minerals and metals to mix with the water. Make sure to take plenty of water and stay hydrated during the trip.
Instead of a regular hike, the journey is essentially a river trek. The track is a combination of smaller sections that are essentially stretches of river between huts. Visitors kayak or canoe through the Whanganui National Park. The river can further be navigated from where the track ends, which adds two more days to the trip. The length of the track varies from 54-90 miles and it can take 3-5 days to complete the one-way track, while the best time to visit is from October to April.
Great Walks in Stewart Island
The Rakiura Track
The track is a great option for hikers that prefer remote locations over crowded places. It’s open year round and it takes around 3 days to complete the 20-mile loop (32 KM). It’s known for kiwis, sandy beaches and rugged native forests. It’s common to spot Kiwis on the beaches, providing an opportunity to experience the iconic flightless birds.
Although it usually takes 3 days to complete the track, experienced hikers can complete it in one or two days. It’s open throughout the year and allows hikers to cover almost 80 percent of the remote island in a short span of time. The trail is a sanctuary for wildlife and a great place to be for those who want solitude and tranquility.
The Great Walks are popular and a lot of people want to experience their beauty. You need to plan your trip ahead of time and take into account the ever-changing weather of New Zealand. The local DoC offices are strategically located to help visitors and provide them with important information such as the weather forecast. Being a well-maintained track does not necessarily mean there is no wilderness. Prepare and pack well for the track and make sure to keep someone updated about your whereabouts.
It’s better to be cautious and avoid pushing yourself too hard in case of bad weather. There are many other great hikes nearby if you are not comfortable with the idea of crossing rivers, passing through rough terrains, harsh weather or high costs. Hikers who are not ready for multi-day hikes can also opt from a large variety of other walking trails with landscapes ranging from mountains to beaches.