Choosing which of all the Great Walks of New Zealand to hike is a tough one. With nine incredible trails to choose from and a new Great Walk opening in 2019. There are six trails in the South Island and three on the North. The South Island ones get much more attention, but having walked all nine, we can tell you that the North shouldn't be so easily overlooked.
We've broken down the walks into categories to help you decide which is the best Great Walk of New Zealand for you.
The Bucket List Hikes
1. The Milford
The Milford Track is definitely the most famous of all the Great Walks and is so popular that it sells out for a whole year within a day. When you hike the track, you understand why. The track was the first overland route to Milford Sound, making it a historic path that cuts through some of the most spectacular scenery you'll ever see.
There are so many icons in one track, including New Zealand's highest waterfall, Sutherland Falls, and the majestic MacKinnon Pass. It even finishes at Milford Sound, a place Rudyard Kipling called the 8th wonder of the World! What more could you want from a hike?
2. The Kepler
The Kepler Track is a magnificent hike, starting at Lake Te Anau and immediately taking you deep into the spectacular Kepler Mountains. After starting through some beautiful fern forest, the track takes you above the bushline and the epic part of the walk begins.
For the next day and a half, you'll walk some of the most incredible ridge lines in the world. Throughout you are gifted uninterrupted, panoramic views of the stunning Fiordland National Park. It is hard to really state how good this trail is. So much so, that we'd put it as one of the greatest hikes we've ever done.
3. Tongariro Northern Circuit
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most popular day walks in New Zealand, but it offers only a glimpse of this spectacular trail. For two to four days, the Northern Circuit takes you through an incredibly diverse and beautiful landscape, from lush forests to barren volcanic lands.
By doing the Northern Circuit, you also have the benefit of staying at Oturere Hut: a once in a lifetime opportunity to see sunrise, sunset and star gaze on an iconic volcanic plain. We'll never forget waking up to the sun turning Mount Ngauruhoe a deep red in the morning as the sunrose.
The quietest Great Walks of New Zealand
1. The Heaphy
If you're wanting a Great Walk that takes you far away from everyone else and deep into the wilderness, then the Heaphy is the track for you. When we hiked in peak season the huts were less than half full and we didn't see anyone else on the trails for the whole day.
The Heaphy takes you from Golden Bay in the North West of the South Island to the West Coast, via a beautiful mountain range that is pretty much as far from civilisation as you can get on a Great Walk in New Zealand. Passing mountains, tussock plains, palm trees and isolated beaches, the Heaphy has a real feeling of connecting with nature and disconnecting with the outside world.
2. The Whanganui Journey
As the Whanganui Journey isn't a walk, many people skip it. But if you're looking for a chance to get into some quiet waterways and off your feet, then it's a good choice. Whilst we're not kayakers, we enjoyed being able to sit back and paddle downstream through the Whanganui Gorge.
If you do the five day version, you'll see no one else for the first two days. We only met five others at camp!
3. The Rakiura
The Rakiura Track is one of the few Great Walks that has availability for the majority of the year, meaning you don't have to book ahead (well, unless you're there at peak holiday periods). The track takes you into Rakiura National Park, pristine forest that has been maintained to give a glimpse of what New Zealand must have looked like before humans arrived.
For the majority of your days on the trail, you won't see another soul and the beaches are wild and spectacular. Our favourite was Maori Beach, a stretch of sublime coast with white sand and bright blue water. It could be mistaken for a tropical island!
The best short Great Walks
1. The Routeburn
As well as being one of the best Great Walks, the Routeburn is one of the shortest. At 32km long, you can make this track into a two day hike (some crazy people run it in a few hours!). For those who don't have much time and want to do a spectacular walk in Fiordland, then the Routeburn ticks a lot of boxes.
However, it is a steep walk, so don't underestimate how hard it is to do this track in two days. If you stay at Lake MacKenzie, one of your days will be over 20km of uphill trekking. But it is definitely two of the best days of hiking you'll ever do.
2. The Rakiura
The Rakiura is another 32km hike which DOC suggests doing in three days. We chose to do it in two and - whilst it was tiring - it is certainly manageable. The trouble with the Rakiura is that if you do the three day version, you'll spend a lot of the time hanging around the huts as the walks on each day are pretty short.
We had heard of one person not being able to book huts so got up before sunrise and hiked the whole thing in a day! However you choose to do it, the Rakiura is a beautiful walk through dense, pristine forest and along stunning beaches. If you're looking for a Great Walk but want to limit your time on the trail, then the Rakiura is a good option.
3. The Tongariro Northern Circuit
The epic Tongariro Northern Circuit can be condensed down into two days if you choose. It is the longest two day walk (at nearly 50km long) and definitely the most tiring, but it is possible.
We would suggest staying at Oturere hut - as this is the closest to the halfway point - and getting up really early each day. This way you can have the maximum daylight and time to take in the stunning Alpine Crossing with plenty of time to sit back and admire the views. You can also easily knock 8km of the track off if you don't hike the Mangatepopo to Whakapapa section. This is the least nice part of the trail, and is badly maintained, making a two day hike much easier.
The easiest Great Walks
1. Abel Tasman
By far the easiest of all the Great Walks is the Abel Tasman Track. It is pretty flat and you have the option of having your pack transferred between huts by boat if you wish! Great Walks don't get much simpler than that.
There aren't very many climbs - and the climbs aren't very steep - so you can go through your days at a leisurely pace and enjoy the views and of course a dip in the ocean. Oh, and if that's not enough, there's a pizzeria in the middle of the track.
2. The Whanganui Journey
Whilst the Whanganui Journey isn't easy, it is one of the easier Great Walks. For one, you sit down throughout the whole hike and you paddle with the flow of the river. This means that the only reason you paddle is to get to the next camp quickly! Technically you could sit and steer for the majority of the days.
The other benefits are that you don't have to carry a pack (your gear is in barrels) and as it's a river, there's no mountains to climb up!
Don't get us wrong, paddling for 5-7 hours a day isn't restful. But it's easier than hiking up mountains for 7 hours a day with a heavy pack!
3. The Rakiura
The Rakiura makes the easiest list as it is one of the shortest. However, we wouldn't class it as an easy hike, just easier than the others. There are steep climbs, patches of mud to naviagte and if you choose to do the hike as a two day walk, you'll probably find it pretty tiring.
However, it is just two days and one night in a hut, making it easier than the 1,000m climbs over four days you get in Fiordland!
The most challenging Great Walks
1. Tongariro Northern Circuit
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is tough primarily for the climb to the Red Crater. This is by far the steepest climb in all the Great Walks of New Zealand and it is up a scree/volcanic sand slope. Add in hundreds of day walks and a backpack, and you get one of the toughest sections of hiking on the Great Walks.
But it is not just the Red Crater that is tough. There are a lot of gradual climbs and stairs, making it pretty exhausting. There's next to no shade, so the walk is very exposed as well. Even if the weather gods are looking kindly on you (and holding back the wind), the relentless sun saps your energy! We did do this walk in two days which might have skewed our opinion a little but we still think it's one of the harder ones.
However, the challenge is what makes Tongariro so rewarding. Not only does it have incredible views, but it also feels like you've put in the effort to complete the hike. It is one of the greatest hikes we have ever done.
2. The Milford Track
There's a lot of arguements about how hard the Milford Track is, but we'd put it up there as one of the more difficult Great Walks. Whilst day one is very short, day two and three really turn up the heat. On day three in particular, there's a steep climb, very steep descent, a bolder field to cross and over 20km of hiking to do if you want to see Sutherland Falls.
The reasons this makes the Milford so challenging is that by day three you would have had two days of hiking in your legs, two sleepless nights from DOC Hut snorers and a heavy pack on your back. If you've also had a day or two of rain, then - like us - you'll be ready to collapse by the time you reach Milford Sound!
3. The Kepler Track
The Kepler Track is another Fiordland special, adding distance and elevation into the walk. On day one you'll be in for a 900m climb over 8km, making it very steep! It doesn't let up for the remaining three days as day two has a 700m climb (and equally steep descent) and day three and four also having nearly 300m of climbing each.
As the Kepler is in Fiordland, the weather can also make things harder. You can get major winds or snowfalls on the ridgeline and relentless rain, even in summer. We had all weather conditions but still fell in love. Once more, the challenge of the hike makes this hike so rewarding!
The best Great Walk for wildlife
1. Heaphy Track
If you're a wildlife lover, then the Heaphy Track is the best one for you. Whilst wildlife can be tricky to see on all the tracks, you're most likely to see a fair amounnt of New Zealand's native birds on the Heaphy.
Recently the Department of Conservation released 18 Takahe to Gouland Downs. This bird was assumed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland, so the chance to see them on the Heaphy is exciting! You can also see ample Wekas, maybe the elusive Whio, Morepork (a beautiful owl) and plenty of other birds. Even if you don't spot them you will likely hear Kiwi calling in the night. There's even a carnivorous snail if you have damp conditions.
2. Rakiura Track
If you're desperate to see a wild kiwi, then head to the Rakiura Track. Stewart Island has a healthy population of kiwis and the Rakiura Track is well known for regular sightings of this iconic bird.
Make sure you bring a red light (white lights startle them) and stay up late to go find one! We weren't so lucky though we did see one on Stewart Island, so if you don't get lucky on the trail, check out where we spotted one in town.
3. Kepler Track
Whilst you can see Keas on other Fiordland Great Walks, there was no better place to see them than the Kepler. On the ridgelines on day two, we saw many Keas not only flying round, but landing right beside us and investigating what we were doing (they were particularly fascinated with walking poles!).
The opportunity to get close to this rare alpine parrot in the wild is one that shouldn't be missed!
The best Great Walks for classy huts
1. Kepler Track
Not all huts are created equal. Once you see Luxmore Hut on the Kepler, you'll wonder how on earth you got so lucky! Perched on the top of a mountain with panoramic views that a luxury hotel would kill for. Add to that fabulous cooking and eating space and indoor flush toilets and you'll think you've strayed on to a private track. It is simply sensational and a hut that you enjoy spending time in.
If that isn't enough, the final hut is on a beach by Lake Manapouri...
2. Heaphy Track
The Heaphy's huts are the newest of all the Great Walks and designed with smaller bunk rooms, making sleep that little bit more achievable. The kitchens are all in great condition and you also have the benefit of pots and pans being left in each hut for you. The bathrooms are also fab everywhere but Perry's Saddle where they are pit toilets.
3. Abel Tasman
The huts on the Abel Tasman Coast Track have reached the modern day with many having wifi connections- though we're not sure this is a great thing! Bark Bay even had its own shower you can use (it is an outdoor, cold water one), making it luxurious in terms of DOC huts.
If you really wanted something fancy, then you could swap your hut in Awaroa for the Awaroa Lodge. What a treat, it has a coffee shop, restaurant and pizzeria, guaranteeing a good night's sleep on the trail!
The Great Walks with the best beaches
1. Abel Tasman
The main reason you do the Abel Tasman Track is for the beaches. At every turn you see stunningly quiet beaches which are paradise on a sunny day. The beautiful Torrent Bay in particular could be on a tropical island with white sand and turquoise blue water. The beaches blew us away, which surprised us as after five years living in Australia, we have become verging on beach snob!
2. The Rakiura Track
Granted, we had terrible weather for the Rakiura, but even through the gloom we could see how great the beaches were. Maori Beach in particular just went on for miles with beautiful white sand and very still water to swim in. On a sunny day it would be idyllic. It was backed by forest which gave it that wild Jurassic Park feel.
3. The Heaphy Track
We wouldn't recommend swimming in the beaches on the Heaphy Track, but you can't doubt how beautiful and wild they are. Despite the roaring sea and crashing waves, the west coast beaches are incredible. Just make sure you admire them from a distance!
Changes to the Great Walks for International Visitors
For the 2018-19 season, the Department of Conservation announced a new pricing structure for international visitors wanting to hike four of the Great Walks. Sadly, international visitors wanting to hike the Milford, Routeburn, Kepler or Abel Tasman Track must now pay double the price of the year before (and double what NZ Residents pay).
We understand why the government have done this. Facing a backlash from nationalist New Zealand hiking groups, the government had to show preference to New Zealanders. However, we don't think it will change anything as we imagine the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler to continue to sell out rapidly, and it is unlikely to deter international visitors from hiking these amazing tracks.
Can't book on one of the Great Walks for your dates?
New Zealand has many privately operated walking tracks which are absolutely stunning Why not try a couple of our favourites, The Hump Ridge Track is in Fiordland National Park, and The Banks Track is near Akaroa. Both were wonderful walks and well worth your time.
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