Best Walks in New Zealand
Author AAT Kings
Date 11 Nov 2021
Countries New Zealand
The AAT Kings’ guide to the best walks in New Zealand
THERE are some places on this planet that simply demand being done at strolling speed.
Destinations with landscapes so lovely, cities so cosmopolitan, country towns so charming, mountains so majestic, and corners of coastline so captivating that walking is the only way to become immersed in what makes them so special.
New Zealand is one of these lands, a country that regularly crowns lists of the world’s top places to wander and a location that makes it a cinch to marvel at Mother Nature.
It’s a walkers’ wonderland with addresses right across the region, from the weather-beaten cliffs sitting in the shadows of the Cape Reinga lighthouse to serene stretches of Stewart Island sand, suited to every visitor capable of knotting up their laces.
While New Zealand is home to challenging multi-day walks that test even the hardiest of hikers – think Ball Pass Crossing, Dusky Track, Avalanche Peak Route, Traverse Sabine Circuit – the diversity of districts means there’s something to satisfy travellers set on seeing the legendary Land of the Long White Cloud.
Perhaps it’s Sunday strolling through the fashionable enclave of a big-smoke settlement, an early-morning meander across a pristine peninsula to see the sun surface at the start of a new day, or a twilight toddle around a centuries-old forest to hear symbiotic stories from one of the land’s traditional custodians.
AAT Kings is here to help you discover New Zealand on – or off – the footpath with our guide to the best walks on both islands.
The Auckland waterfront
The Auckland waterfront was transformed by the America’s Cup, with corners like Viaduct Harbour and Wynyard Circuit starting to get spruced up back in the 1990s when the metropolis was preparing for the 2000 defence of the world’s oldest sporting trophy.
Today the revitalised precinct overflows with energy and is home to some of the city's favourite eateries including fine-dining restaurants, quirky food vans, and the busy Auckland Fish Market where those with a fancy for seafood can buy the catch straight from the sea.
Walk in the shadows of superyachts, discover sailing history at the New Zealand Maritime Museum, venture onto the water by joining a harbour cruise, do a dolphin-spotting excursion on Hauraki Gulf, or just watch the world pass while lingering with a chilled glass of Waiheke Island wine.
The Auckland waterfront is a highlight of New Zealand Uncovered with this 17-day tour, which starts in the country’s biggest city before traversing both islands, dedicating the first full day of exploring to the seaside sights from Mission Bay to the North Shore and Waitemata Harbour to Bastion Point.
The Milford Track
The iconic Milford Track is arguably New Zealand’s most admired multi-day hike and has been tantalising trampers for more than a century since poet Blanche Baughan declared – in London’s The Standard more than 100 years ago – it to be ‘’the finest hike in the world’’.
The 53km course takes four days to complete and departs Lake Te Anau before passing thundering waterfalls, pristine alpine lakes, deep valleys and towering peaks as it winds and climbs through Fiordland National Park.
Summer is the obvious time to walk, when the sun warms the lofty pastures and ponds along the route are suited to swimming, but locals recommend visiting during the shoulder seasons when showers produce torrents that tumble down from the sides of the steep summits.
The Long White Cloud from Inspiring Journeys dedicates two days to South Islands scenic south-west corner and gives travellers a taste of the Milford Track during a half-day hike hosted by a guide who identifies significant flora and fauna while explaining the colourful human history of this UNESCO World Heritage location.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
The Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park, with the picture-perfect parcel near the northern tip of the South Island home to one of the country's most accessible and famously friendly hikes.
The Abel Tasman Coastal Track roves across golden beaches, past emerald and sapphire bays, beside crystal-clear streams, and through valleys full of ferns with the whole 30km route between Marahau and Wainui Inlet taking five days to comfortably complete.
Those looking to peruse some of the perfect panoramas during a half-day tramp are warmly welcomed with locals advocating for autumn and springtime visits when mornings are crisp, the sky is blue, the water is calm, and the tracks uncongested.
Ride a water taxi to Medlands Beach and walk the waterfall trail around Bark Bay, head to Anchorage Beach and follow the path to Te Pukatea Bay, take a dip in Cleopatra’s Pools, roam the Tinline Bay Nature Walk, or survey the Tonga Island Marine Reserve during a scenic sail before disembarking at Awaroa Spit and walking to Onetahuti.
Another option is pausing in Kaiteriteri – the holiday hamlet considered the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park – and completing an amble before taking a dip in the lagoon or lingering on the balcony of a waterside cafe.
Head to the southern end of the sand to follow the Little Kaiteriteri track, the beach locals frequent during summer, or find Withell’s Walk behind the campground for the 45-minute ascent to a scenic spot that frames views across the bay.
A two-night stop in Nelson during AAT Kings’ Southern Spirit provides the perfect window to complete a bite-sized section of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track with water taxis darting around the route to deliver walkers to parts perfect for seeing those fabulous vistas.
New Zealand’s gold-star location
If New Zealand gave gold stars to locations that satisfied walkers then Nelson, which rests on the edge of Tasman Bay near the top of the South Island, would come close to topping the register of most-rewarded destinations.
Those ready to don their strolling shoes need not stray far from town with Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, the South Island’s largest fully-fenced reserve protecting vulnerable flora and fauna, boasting a network of tracks that wind through the wooded valleys.
The main loop is a self-guided stroll perfect for all ages and abilities – it’s fully accessible and can accommodate wheelchairs and prams – and takes 45 minutes to complete with walkers weaving through valleys that are home to ferns, waterfalls and flocks of whistling birds.
Strollers seeking something more symbolic can complete the short-and-sharp saunter to the celebrated centre of New Zealand which is the trig point used during a survey mission that set off in 1870.
The uphill climb starts at Botanical Reserve – the place New Zealand’s first rugby union game was contested that’s now a haven for green thumbs – and takes between 20 minutes and an hour to overcome.
Once the peak is conquered there are tables to take in the view while partaking in a picnic or keep the heart pumping by following the Branford Park trail to the Black Hole swimming spot before pushing on to Walters Bluff.
Spirit of New Zealand – a comprehensive 21-day expedition covering the whole country – is another AAT Kings itinerary that schedules a two-night stop in Nelson and promises the flexibility to explore this picturesque patch on foot.
Franz Josef Glacier
The dramatic west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is home to the famous Franz Josef Glacier which descends from high in the Southern Alps to the Westland National Park’s rolling rainforests with the constant creep creating an evolving arrangement of ice caves, crevasses, seracs and tunnels.
This World Heritage Area’s top tramp is the 90-minute amble beside the rocky riverbed and past waterfalls to a Franz Josef Glacier lookout, while the Terrace Walk is a satisfying 30-minute introduction to the region that can also be done at night to spy the resident glow worms.
The Sentinel Rock, Canavans Knob, Callery Gorge and Peters Pool routes are easy courses geared for glacier sightseeing and the challenging Roberts Point Track is a longer five-hour haul that crosses ice-carved rock and open scrubland to reach a place presenting views of the retreating peaks.
Inspiring Journeys’ The Southern Drift rides the famous TranzAlpine train across the heart of the South Island to Franz Josef, with the two-night stay boasting a guided walk beside the Waiho River to see formations formed by centuries of crawling ice.
Queenstown and surrounds
Queenstown is home to some of New Zealand’s most loved landscapes – the affable address is encircled by lofty alpine mountain ranges, including The Remarkables and Coronet Peak which are two of the Southern Hemisphere’s leading ski areas – and there are short hikes around town that showcase the sights.
The Queenstown Hill Time Walk is a short and sharp 500m ascent through the pine forest to the peak of Te Tapu-Nui, with sweeping views across Lake Wakatipu the prize waiting at the end of the summit footpath.
Pack refreshments to pause beside the mountain lake for a snack then return to town along the path that’s marked with information plaques detailing chapters in the region’s history.
Another agreeable alternative is to cross the lake aboard the TSS Earnslaw, a vintage Edwardian steamship built in 1912 that departs on daily drifts across the deep sapphire water to Walter Peak High Country Farm, and join a guided walk of the pastoral property before snacking on freshly-baked scones.
AAT Kings’ epic Kia Ora New Zealand promises hours of leisure in Queenstown late in the 17-day journey that traverses the territory from Paihia and the Bay of Islands in the north to Dunedin and Te Anau in the south.
Cruising the Marlborough Sounds is a highlight of every AAT Kings’ itinerary that crosses between Wellington and Picton via the Cook Strait, but the best way to discover the hidden bays and empty coves of this true New Zealand gem is on foot.
The Queen Charlotte Track is the Marlborough Sounds most famous route, with the experts recommending those set on surveying the whole 70km stretch from Meretoto/Ship Cove on the edge of Cook Strait to Anakiwa at the eastern end of Grove Arm dedicate five days to the undertaking.
But travellers with less time up their sleeve can still sample a satisfying section by catching a water taxi to a stepping-off spot and arranging collection a few kilometres further along the winding path, with the eastern end of the route the most accessible area.
Strollers looking for something more modest can start at Picton’s Victoria Domain, with routes taking from a few minutes to a few hours. The Harbour View Track, Bob’s Bay Walk, and The Snout are all highly recommended while Tirohanga Track is a tad more challenging but delivers mighty Marlborough Sounds views.
AAT Kings’ Sensational South is a relaxed 11-day stroll from Wellington to Queenstown that features a two-night stay in nearby Blenheim, putting wine lovers close to the famous Marlborough vineyards and walkers close to the Queen Charlotte Track.
Bay of Islands
Long stretches of quiet coastline and colourful seaside communities make Northland – the region capping the North Island – a haven for hiking, with the Bay of Islands a place to immerse in Māori and European history that stretches back centuries.
The Bay of Islands Coastal Walkway is a full-circle course that includes two ferry rides and will take all day to complete but, with multiple places to step on and off the track, shorter sections can be crossed from the to-do list in a couple of hours.
The walk passes beaches and bays, crosses boardwalks winding through mangroves and wetlands, and follows forest paths with the first section skirting the shoreline from Paihia to the Opua ferry and the second stretch winding from Okiato to the historic hamlet of Russell.
The passage traverses Kiwi Protection Project areas where volunteers replace weeds and other introduced plants with native species encouraging indigenous fauna to return and making this a bird-watchers nirvana and the perfect place for nature lovers to wander to a sweet soundtrack of birdsong.
Jewels of the Bay is a three-day itinerary that takes travellers from Auckland to the Bay of Island and includes a comprehensive guided tour of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds before a full day of free time to stretch the legs around the coastline.