6 of the best ... day walks in New Zealand

| May 2, 2019

Few countries are as ripe for discovery on foot as New Zealand. Sharing his top pick of day hikes, travel writer Paul Bloomfield shows us why New Zealand was made for walking.


Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Best for: Epic volcanic vistas
Challenge rating: Hard – A longish day with some testing climbs. Be prepared for all weathers in one day.  

New Zealand’s birth was a messy, violent labour involving eruptions, lava rivers and pyroclastic flows. Nowhere is this more evident than in monumental Tongariro National Park, a veritable rogue’s gallery of grumbling volcanoes. To delve among the still-smoking cones you will need to tackle the 19.4-km (12-mile) Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often lauded as the world’s best day walk.

Climbing from the Mangatepopo valley, you’ll soon understand why Peter Jackson cast Ngauruhoe as Mount Doom in his Lord of the Rings films; its forbidding crater looms above the barren, otherworldly lava plains. Neighbouring peak Tongariro is equally daunting, even for other fiery mountains: according to Maori legend, he (yes, New Zealand’s volcanoes have genders) defeated five other male volcanoes in a titanic battle for the affections of delightful Mount Pihanga. Tongariro triumphed, sending three peaks fleeing, while his brothers Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu – the highest summit on North Island – retreated a respectful distance. It pays for hikers to show respect here, too: the crossing involves a testing full day’s walking of at least six hours on exposed trails. The pay-off, however, is huge: you’ll pass friable lava fields and magma formations, dazzling blue and emerald lakes, fumaroles and virgin bush.

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The 19-km (12-mile) Pouakai Crossing to the west is an alternative hike across the northern slopes of Mount Taranaki, one of the volcanic love rivals sent packing by Tongariro. The route traverses moss-clad goblin forest, grassy wetlands and ochrered streams, finishing with a flourish at mountain tarns reflecting mighty Taranaki’s battle-scarred flanks.

Fox Glacier, North Island, NZ, shutterstock_476536771

Fox Glacier Te Moeka o Tuawe Valley Walk

Best for: Marvelling at geology
Challenge rating: Easy – Short and fairly flat, but check for local news on landslips and rock falls.

If North Island owes much of its gorgeous physique to plate tectonics and volcanoes, South Island’s movie-star good looks have been chiselled by chillier geology: glaciers. Two ice rivers, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, are popular destinations for helihikes – board a ‘copter and hop onto the crevasse-riven surface for a guided wander (crampons de rigueur). But you can keep your feet on terra mostly firma for a short but dramatic stroll to the end of Fox glacier on the 2.6-km (1.5-mile) Te Moeka o Tuawe Valley Walk. Amble amid moraine – rock shed from the retreating glacier – en route to the awe-inspiring, scarred and striated ice wall; if you’re lucky you’ll witness huge chunks tumbling from the tip.

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A little to the south, the 10-km (6-mile) Rob Roy Glacier Track near Wanaka heads into Mount Aspiring National Park through lush beech forest and past waterfalls to reveal jaw-dropping views towards Mount Rob Roy and its hanging glacier.

Bay of Islands, North Island, NZ, iStock-176821661

Bay of Islands Coastal Walkway

Best for: Hiking through history
Challenge rating: Easy/Moderate – Gently undulating amble that can be extended to a full day.

New Zealand was settled first by Polynesian migrants paddling huge waka (war canoes) in the 13th century. They were joined from the second half of the 18th century by European colonists. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed by British and Maori leaders in 1840, marked the formal foundation of the modern nation, and a gentle coastal amble around this spot in the Bay of Islands is a wonderful way of absorbing both Maori and colonial history.

From Paihia, the bay’s main accommodation centre, it’s a short stroll across Waitangi Bridge to the treaty grounds, where you can visit a Maori whare runanga (meeting house) and 1830s-vintage colonial buildings. Return south to continue along the coastal walkway around the bay from Paihia, along an undulating trail through coastal bush and mangroves to Opua for an easy 5.8-km (3.5- mile), 3-hour meander passing remnants of early colonial structures and ample birdlife. To extend the walk for a full day’s outing, take the ferry from Opua to Okiato and continue to Russell, the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, from where regular ferries return to Paihia.

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Wellington is awash with both colonial and Maori history. Take the cable car to start a loop visiting the botanic gardens, historic Bolton Street Memorial Park, Old Government Buildings and Parliament House, Old St Paul’s church and the wonderful waterfront. You can also nip north to the birthplace of celebrated author Katherine Mansfield.


Key Summit, Fiordland National Park

Best for: Panoramic mountain views
Challenge rating: Moderate – A modest 3-hour round-trip, including a 20-minute haul to the summit.

The Routeburn Track – among nine designated as a ‘Great Walk’ by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation – is one of the world’s significant treks, a 32-km (20-mile), 2- to 4-day tramp in jaw-dropping Fiordland National Park. But casual hikers can enjoy one of the highlights with the 3-hour return climb up Key Summit from The Divide. The walk follows the Routeburn for about an hour to the summit track, through shrubland, bogs and forest twittering with bellbirds and tomtits, to provide panoramic vistas across gleaming tarns to the Darran and Humboldt ranges of the Southern Alps. It’s easy to incorporate this moderately challenging hike into the journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

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The gentle 5-km (3-mile) Hooker Track, one of several around Aoraki / Mount Cook village in its eponymous national park, rewards with close-up views of New Zealand’s tallest peak, Mueller and Hooker glaciers and the spectacular array of the Southern Alps.

Golden sunset over Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway, Canterbury, New Zealand

Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway

Best for: Walks with wildlife
Challenge rating: Easy/Moderate – Fairly flat, half-day walk, but exposed to the elements.

With no native land mammals, New Zealand’s natural wonders are dominated by birds and marine mammals. Kaikoura, backed by its namesake mountains on South Island’s east coast, is the hotspot for aquatic wildlife: its name means ‘crayfish meal’ in Maori, and those tasty crustaceans tempt humpback and sperm whales, as well as fur seals that haul out onto rocks near town. Boat trips offer chances to watch or even swim with these alluring marine mammals, but you don’t need to get wet to see seals and seabirds up close. On the 11.7-km (7-mile) Peninsula Walkway loop you’re nigh guaranteed a close seal encounter at the colony at Point Kean, as well as seeing diverse birdlife including oystercatchers, red-billed gulls and endangered Hutton’s shearwaters.

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The rugged, weather-worn Catlins coastline in the far south is a wild, remote area blessed with fascinating birds and marine mammals. The short return stroll from Nugget Point to the Tokata Lighthouse viewing platform may yield sightings of sooty shearwaters, fur seals and Hooker’s sea lions. In late afternoon, yellow-eyed penguins waddle ashore at neighbouring Roaring Bay.

Abel Tasman natural park, South island, New Zealand

Bark Bay to Anchorage, AbelTasman National Park

Best for: A beach bonanza
Challenge rating: Easy/Moderate – Half-day hike on flattish paths.

Named after the Dutch navigator who, in 1642, was the first European to land on what is now New Zealand, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track – another of the ‘Great Walks’ – is a wonderful 3- to 5-day, 60-km (37-mile) trail alongside curious rock formations and glorious golden beaches. Fortunately, watertaxi services offer drop-offs and pick-ups at various points along the track, so it’s easy to cherry-pick a single leg. The 11.5-km (7-mile) section between Bark Bay and Anchorage is a peach, delving into fern-draped coastal forest and emerging onto white-sand strands lapped by glass-clear, turquoise waters and guarded by curious rock formations. It's a gentle, half-day leg-stretch, allowing time to add a 500-metre side-trip to the swimming hole at Cleopatra’s Pool or a spot of sea kayaking.

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Like many of the longer hikes, Te Paki / Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway, a 48-km (30-mile) trail around New Zealand’s picturesque northwestern tip, can be broken up into achievable sections. The Te Werahi Beach Track is an easy 2-km (1.5-mile) amble from Cape Reinga to that beach’s vast, sandy sweep.

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