New Zealand is known for its pristine nature and beautiful scenery. From volcanic mountains, picturesque beaches, lush rain forest, glaciated valleys, and snow-covered peaks, New Zealand has a lot to explore. With hundreds of kilometers spanning different regions of New Zealand, the Great Walks are a great way to see the diversity in outdoors throughout the country. The Nine Great Walks are popular walks catered to any hiker, including those with very little experience. While the walks are not advanced trails, they cover beautiful terrain and are a great way to immerse into nature.
About the Walks
Developed and maintained by the Department of Conservation, the Great Walks were established in the late 1980’s. The Great Walks are intended to protect the local habitat. These hikes are marketed by the DOC and the government of New Zealand. As a result of the investments made by the DOC on the Great Walks, the hut infrastructure and trails are world class. Each walk is between 32 km and 78 km in length, with several huts or campsites to choose from.
The Great Walk season varies depending on the location. The season is typically from late October until the beginning of May. Some great walks are in season all year around due to their temperate weather. The Great Walks are priced differently in-season and out of season. During the in-season, huts and campsites require prior bookings. Some of the walks, especially those in the Fiordland National Park, book out far in advance. Huts typically have flush toilets, cooking gas stoves, water taps and hut wardens during the in-season. Out of season, only drop toilets and rain water is provided. Some of the walks in the winter require experience in alpine and snow/ice conditions.
There currently are nine Great Walks with a 10th walk on the way. Three walks are located in the North Island, five (plus the new 10th walk) are located in the South Island, and one is located on Stewart Island.
What to Expect
Coming in different shapes and sizes, each walk is very different. Many of the walks include coverage through rain forest or dense bush. Some have alpine crossings while others are coastal. The commonality of these walks is the infrastructure. While some have challenging sections, all can easily be done by a first-time hiker. Trails are groomed with some of the best maintained huts in New Zealand. For those who are very experienced hikers, a few of these tracks are still worth doing, especially the Fiordland hikes, however, there are better walks suited for advanced hikers.
How to Book
All of the Great Walks can be booked online at the Department of Conservation’s website.
Each walk has a different price. The cost for tent camping is typically $15 per night. The cost for huts range between $32 and $70 per night. The hikes in the Fiordland National Park are the most expensive. Out of season, huts are first come first serve with discounted rates of $15 per night for huts and $5 for camping. A hut pass can be used during this time. The walks which are annual do not have off season rates. For more details including the costs for each hike, check out the DOC’s Great Walks page.
The Great Walks
Ranked from our favorite to least favorite walk
The most famous of the Great Walks, the Milford Track is stunning. Throughout the hike waterfalls are plentiful and the scenic mountain pass does not disappoint. Arriving into the Milford Sound to finish the walk is the cherry on top. This area of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth and the waterfalls here are like nowhere else. The most expensive of the Great Walks, the Milford Track requires boat transportation to start and finish the hike.
Read more about the Milford Track.
The Kepler track is the only Great Walk which has a large section on a mountain ridge. For 10 kilometers, the section between the Luxmore Hut and Hanging Saddle rivals any hike in New Zealand for the best views. Unfortunately, this section is also known for rough weather conditions and often attracts heavy clouds passing through. Catch this hike on a good day and it will absolutely impress. This hike is a circuit without the need for transportation.
Read more about the Kepler Track.
The Routeburn is one of the best hikes in New Zealand and is the best way to experience alpine scenery on an easy track. There are two stunning alpine lakes, a mountain pass, and views into the heart of the Fiordland. The two or three-day walk typically starts at the Routeburn car park and ends at the Divide, a five-hour drive. As a result, car relocation or transfers are expensive for this hike. It is possible to connect this walk with the Greenstone-Caples to return close to Kinloch, a much cheaper and easier return to the start of the Routeburn.
Read more about the Routeburn Track.
The best hike on the North Island is also the busiest. Only a few hours south of Auckland, the Northern Circuit also includes the famous one-day Tongariro alpine crossing. This section of the three or four-day walk is the busiest day walk in New Zealand, attracting 100,000 per season. The walk includes the option to summit Mount Ngauruhoe, more commonly known as Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. The active volcanoes and stunning emerald lakes are unique compared to the other great walks. This hike is a circuit without the need for transportation.
Read more about the Tongariro Northern Circuit.
The longest track of the Great Walks, the Heaphy has spectacular views of the Tasman Sea as the trail covers multiple days on the rugged West Coast. While the Abel Tasman may be more popular for a coastal walk, the Heaphy has less crowds and more time spent on the coastline. Transportation is required and is costly. The trail is located a 7 hour drive from beginning to end.
Read more about the Heaphy Track.
The only great walk that does not include any walking, this canoe or kayak trip is in one of the most remote locations in New Zealand. The three-day route is best, paddling through dense forest and massive cliff faced gorges. This is a fun river experience with very nice huts and camping accommodations. The river is typically calm, but has several fun spots with small rapids. This walk is great for groups or family trips. Transfers to and from the river with your canoe or kayak are provided by the rental company.
Read more about the Whanganui Journey.
Abel Tasman is considered a coastal track, however most of the walk is through the bush. The walk during the spring and summer is extremely crowded. Multiple companies shuttle people to nearly every beach in the park for day trips. Kayaking is a perfect way to explore the park with the best views. There are several kayak rental options including single day, multi-day, as well as kayak & hike options. Boat transfers are available to start or finish the hike.
Read more about the Abel Tasman Coastal Track.
The Rakiura Track is on the remote and rugged Stewart Island. The track is mostly along the coast passing by many beaches and hidden coves, as well as old mills. This is the shortest of the great walks and can easily be completed in two days. A short flight or ferry ride from Bluff is required to get to the town of Oban on Stewart Island.
Read more about the Rakiura Track.
The least visited of the great walks is in one of New Zealand’s largest rain forest. The track is around half of the lake, and includes one small climb to nice views on a clear day. It is best to go during the summer dry season. The track conditions can rapidly deteriorate during heavy rains . The hike requires a boat transfer to begin or finish the hike depending on the direction of the walk.
Read more about Lake Waikaremoana.
NEW 10th Great Walk, Paparoa National Park
Starting in October 2018, there is a new Great Walk, the Paparoa Track. This is a new Great Walk currently being constructed, and first to be added since the Great Walks were established. Paparoa was conceived as a memorial to the 29 miners from the Pike River mine explosion in 2010. This easy three-day walk will be 65 kilometers, beginning in Blackball and ending in Punakaiki.
Read more about the Paparoa Track.
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Visited between March and May of 2017.