Looking for the best day hikes in New Zealand? You’ve come to the right place! New Zealand has some of the best hiking – or “tramping”, as the Kiwis would call it – in the world. That’s because New Zealanders take their outdoors seriously.
According to Pure New Zealand, the official New Zealand tourism website, designated national parks or otherwise protected spaces make up a third of the total landmass. Within those national parks, there are literally thousands of miles of trails to choose from. Day hiking New Zealand is one of the best ways to see the varied and stunning landscapes of the country.
While New Zealand is perhaps most famous for its Great Walks, which typically take several days to hike in their entirety, I’m going to focus on the best day hikes in New Zealand. Day hiking is more affordable and accessible and still offers gorgeous views. It’s also easier to do on-the-go since it requires less planning ahead of time.
First, let’s take a look at some helpful tips for day hiking in general and day hiking in New Zealand in particular:
Tips for Day Hiking New Zealand
1. Take Advantage of These Resources
AllTrails app is a useful tool for discovering what kinds of trails are in your immediate vicinity. Their challenge rankings and estimated length and elevation gain are also good for planning, but they’re not always 100% accurate.
The best sites for updates on trail and weather conditions, trail closures, and helpful tips (like where to park, how long the trail will likely take, etc.) are Pure New Zealand and the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC).
You should also visit the i-SITE Visitor Information Centers, which are in all the major cities and even a lot of the smaller towns.
2. Arrive Early
Getting out on the trails early is a great way to avoid the rush. This is true everywhere, but in New Zealand, the best trails get quite crowded. If you’re visiting between December and late January, that goes double. Not only is that prime tourist season – since it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere – that’s the holiday season for the Kiwis, too.
Tourists and locals alike will be out in full force. Wake up early to make sure you get parking at the trailhead. Bonus: you won’t get caught out on the trail after dark. Hopefully. Pack a headlamp or flashlight to be fully prepared, and don’t tackle trails beyond your ability.
3. Be Trail Safe
Speaking of being prepared, the majority of trail safety is preparedness. Make sure you have enough food and water, wear the right gear, check for trail warnings/closures and inclement weather, tell someone where you’re going, etc.
New Zealand weather changes on a dime and there’s usually at least a slight chance of rain. Waterproof hiking boots, a rain shell, and warm layers are must-haves, even during summer.
Finally, sometimes being prepared means being prepared to turn around. New Zealand trail conditions might differ from what you’re used to, the trail could be harder than you anticipated, or maybe you’re just over-tired from traveling.
Whatever the reason, listen to your body and honor what it needs. Challenging yourself is great, but don’t push it past the point of safety. There is no shame in going at your own pace or turning around.
Now, let’s go over some of my top picks for best day hikes in New Zealand:
Best Day Hikes in New Zealand
1. Most Popular Day Hike: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
“One does not simply walk into Mordor,” but you can and should walk into Tongariro National Park, which was the filming location for Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies. The stark landscape of volcanic ash and startlingly blue thermal pools isn’t just beloved by film buffs, though. Tongariro Crossing is the most popular single-day hike in New Zealand and consistently ranks among the top trails in the world!
While it won’t be as difficult as Sam and Frodo’s journey through Mordor, this trail is still quite the challenge. The 12-mile trek takes between 6 and 8 hours and covers about 2500 feet of elevation gain. Soft ash underfoot provides an additional challenge and makes hiking uphill particularly tricky.
Fortunately, you won’t have to wait for a giant eagle to pick you up when you reach the end of the trail: there are shuttles waiting to take hikers between the two parking lots on either end.
2. Best Urban Hike: Queenstown Hill Walkway
This trail, alternately called the Queenstown Hill Time Walk, is an example of what makes day hiking in New Zealand great. Located right outside of Queenstown, you can walk to the trailhead from downtown, hike to the summit for spectacular views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding peaks, and head back in time for lunch.
It’s rated as hard on AllTrails, with 1300 feet of elevation gain over about 4 miles. But if you’re up for the challenge, it’s definitely worth it. The trail is open year-round unless otherwise posted and takes 1.5 to 3 hours to complete, out and back.
There is parking up by the trailhead, but it’s in short supply. I found street parking in one of the lakefront neighborhoods instead and then walked to the trail from there. It added about 25 minutes total onto my hike.
3. Best Great Walk to Day Hike: the Routeburn Track
There are ten Great Walks in New Zealand, three on the North Island, six on the South Island, and one on Stewart Island. Three of the six on the South Island are located in Fiordland National Park.
Fiordland is one of New Zealand’s most stunning national parks, so if you have to choose only one Great Walk to hike, pick one of the Fiordland tracks. You can’t actually day hike the Milford Track, as it’s only accessible by a one-way ferry. That leaves the Kepler and Routeburn tracks to choose from.
I had the chance to hike both tracks, but I’m going to focus on Routeburn in this post for a couple of reasons. First, the drive out to the trailhead through the glacially-shaped landscape of Fiordland National Park is breathtaking. Second, I found that the trail itself a little more interesting, if not as physically challenging.
The Routeburn Track isn’t a loop track, so you can day hike it from either direction, but I recommend starting at the Divide near Te Anau. Starting there and hiking to the Lake McKenzie Hut, you’ll have the opportunity to take the Key Summit Trail. Key Summit gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains.
If you hike this route, it’s about 14 miles round trip and you should budget between 6 and 8 hours. Make sure to leave time for plenty of pictures at the summit and for a picnic by the water when you reach the hut. If the weather’s warm enough, kick off your hiking boots and wade in.
Be warned, though: the glacier-fed lake is frigid year-round!
4. Best Day Hike to See Wildlife: Scott’s Track (Avalanche Peak)
I could just as easily have listed Scott’s Track as the most challenging day hike on this list. With 3,356 feet of elevation gain over just 4 miles, it’s certainly not for beginners. Not only is this trail physically demanding, once you get past the bush line, it’s also pretty exposed.
The New Zealand DOC warns about the dangers of hiking up to Avalanche Peak without taking proper precautions. Make sure to check for weather advisories, trail closings, and ask about conditions at the Arthur’s Pass Visitors Centre before embarking.
If you’re up for the challenge, though, this was actually one of my favorite trails. Not only do you get incredible views of Arthur’s Pass National Park (hint: all of these trails provide incredible views; New Zealand is so pretty, it’s unreal), if you’re lucky, you might also encounter some cheeky Kea.
Kea are Alpine parrots that are native to New Zealand. They’re clever, curious, and will eat your lunch, backpack, shoelaces, and anything else you don’t keep an iron grip on.
These amazing birds live up above the bush line and after hiking 3,300 vertical feet, there’s nothing more graceful nor enviable to watch than a Kea gliding on the wind.
If you can get close enough, make a note of the ankle tags many of the Kea wear. You can record your Kea sighting in the Kea Database and help with the very important conservation work they’re doing in partnership with the Kea Conservation Trust, Arthur’s Pass Wildlife Trust, and the Department of Conservation.
5. Best Coastal Day Hike: Te Werahi Beach Track
New Zealand has over 9,000 miles of coastline, so finding a great trail that overlooks the water isn’t a difficult task. Te Werahi Beach, which runs along part of the Cape Reinga Coastal Walkway, stands out, though. Cape Reinga is the northernmost point on New Zealand’s mainland and it feels remote and wild.
It’s a relatively easy walk, at only 3 miles, so enjoy a leisurely stroll beside the ocean and take some time down on Twilight Beach. If you’re up for it, there are also two primitive campsites on the beach. That wouldn’t technically count as a day hike, but camping on the beach is magical so I wouldn’t blame you.
So, there you have it. These are a few of my favorite trails for day hikes in New Zealand. I hope they’ve inspired you to lace up your hiking boots and head out for the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Did I miss any of your favorite Kiwi trails? Let me know in the comments!