With more exceptional trails than you can shake a walking pole at, it’s incredibly easy to explore New Zealand by foot. From volcanoes to fiords, Barton Mathews picks the best of the best
1. Milford Track – Fiordland National Park
At the bottom of the earth, at the end of the road, lies the vast Fiordland National Park. With over three million acres of pristine wilderness, this cherished corner of South Island is the remarkable location for one of the world’s finest walks. The 33-mile, multi-day hike leads you through deep glacial valleys in a land of the perpendicular; where mountains and forest fight for space. After overnighting in a backcountry hut, the track meanders beside the Clinton River before ascending to MacKinnon Pass, the highest point of the trail with a climb to 3,786ft. With perhaps the best vista in all of New Zealand, it’s impossible not to be humbled by the sheer scale of the surroundings. Descending past bellbirds into Arthur Valley, you can cool off at the towering Sutherland Falls, New Zealand’s tallest waterfall at 1,904ft. Milford Sound’s 10-mile fiord provides a grandiose conclusion to this world-class walk, mountains rising dramatically from dark waters.
To preserve the landscape, numbers are limited to around 40 independent hikers a day along with a similar number of guided walkers. It’s therefore crucial to reserve passes ahead of time. Pack waterproofs — the annual rainfall here is measured in meters.
2. Mueller Hut Route – Mt. Cook National Park
Nestled precariously between Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier, there are few more scenic spots to spend a night than Mueller Hut — this walk’s final destination. On paper, the three-mile, one-way hike looks straightforward, but this level of altitude has to be earned, and at 3280ft, determination is crucial. Break up the four-hour ascent with lunch at Sealy Tarns, where surrounding mountains punch their way skywards, their peaks mirrored in the lake below. Then push on with fresh legs, using the orange markers to navigate through steep rock fields.
After traversing the spine-tingling ridgeline, the russet roof of the hut appears amongst the boulders. Watch the sun set over Mount Cook, it’s white peaks turning fiery shades of pink. As night falls, a low rumbling can often be heard reverberating down the valley as avalanches race down distant mountains. In the morning, take 30 minutes to climb nearby Mount Ollivier — world-famous climber Sir Edmund Hillary’s first major ascent, and one that placed him on the path to Everest.
3. Routeburn Track – Mt. Aspiring & Fiordland National Parks
The Routeburn’s 20-mile track is an ideal introduction to multi-day hiking. Starting in the aptly named Mount Aspiring National Park, the drive to the trailhead traces the stunning shores of Lake Wakatipu, setting the bar high for the hike. Vegetation seems to overflow from the beech forests as the path winds its way up towards Routeburn Falls Hut. Towering above the glacially carved valley, it’s an excellent viewpoint. From this point on, the trail truly becomes an alpine adventure, and much of the remaining trek is spent traversing ridges well above the treeline.
Day two leads to Harris Saddle, but take the time to climb Conical Hill; it only takes half an hour and is well worth the effort. From the top, the Tasman Sea stretches out in one direction and the Darran Mountains in the other —the perfect place to stop for lunch and soak in the view. Stay overnight at Lake Mackenzie Hut before walking on past the powerful Earland Falls. For those who still have miles left in their legs, connect with the Greenstone Track at Howden Hut to create a grand traverse of monumental proportions.
4. Tongariro Northern Circuit – Tongariro National Park
Central North Island is a land of fire and ice, where nature’s extremes collide with dramatic effect. The 27-mile loop encircles active volcano Mount Ngauruhoe, which erupted 45 times in the 20th century and was famously depicted as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. The first leg incorporates New Zealand’s best-known one-day hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, weaving between three active volcanoes and around the accurately named Emerald Lakes. As the smell of sulphur subsides, the track veers away from the main path revealing black-rocked lava fields that you’ll need courage to cross.
Dropping down into the deserted valley, the surroundings take on an alien appearance. The ash and pumice, scoria and grit have formed a landscape that’s raw and harsh in its beauty. Look out for the white gentian, an alpine plant with soft, delicate flowers that contrast starkly with the surrounding environment. Then stop at Upper Tama Lake for a rewarding final climb before completing the loop.
The weather here can change incredibly fast so it’s vital to pack wet-weather gear, even with a promising forecast. The huts en route are quiet and peaceful, and come stocked with plenty of wood to keep the fire burning well into the night.
5. Kepler Track – Fiordland National Park
New Zealand’s nine Great Walks are widely regarded as the ultimate multi-day hikes, and the newest trail to be given this prestigious status is the Kepler Track. The route is a custom-built 37-mile loop with a well-maintained and thought-out path, showcasing Fiordland’s jutting peaks and crystal-clear lakes. Wander through moss-draped beech trees where inquisitive tomtits flit around the forest floor, welcoming insects with open beaks. A steady climb eventually takes you above the treeline, but wait for a weather window before continuing — the views of Lake Te Anau and the Murchison Mountains will make jaws drop.
Out of all the Great Walks, the exposed and undulating ridgeline between Luxmore and Iris Burn Hut is a favourite stretch with many. From this high lookout, the expansive south fiord catches the light and throws it with abandon across the mountains that line its shores.