Hiking And Backpacking In New Zealand

14 Best Day Hikes on the South Island of New Zealand

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After you’ve spent hours, possibly days, inside a stuffy cramped tin can with wings to get to these remote islands, there is no better way to stretch your legs and get some fresh air than going on a hike!

You can’t come to New Zealand and not be willing to discover the sheer vastness that it has to offer so make sure you pack your walking legs.

Your boots might give you a few blisters, and you will get hungry, thirsty, and tired, but once you finish the hike and look at all those awesome photos that you took you will know why it was worth the effort. 

New Zealand offers something for everyone. From treks that can last anything between 30 minutes, 3 days, to even 3 months! I’ve decided to compile a selection of the best day hikes that I’ve done.

For those of you who plan on visiting the South Island I have designed a complete New Zealand Travel Guide featuring multiple road trip itineraries, hikes, photo locations, and tips. 

1. Mount Alfred

  • Elevation gain to summit: 1000m
  • Duration: 5-7 hours

This is, without a doubt, one of the best day hikes I’ve done in New Zealand, and believe me I’ve done A LOT! Mount Alfred isn’t a very common one either which makes it slightly more special.

The track, which starts around 15 minutes away from the township of Glenorchy, mainly cuts through the native bush until merging out onto a steep plane from which the summit and ridge are accessible.

The northernmost point along the ridge looks over Paradise (Yes there’s a place in NZ called Paradise) and the Earnslaw Glacier in the near distance.

From the South, you have a spectacular view over Lake Wakatipu and surrounding mountains. It’s not the easiest as summiting is a continual uphill struggle but my gosh it’s spectacular when you get to the top. 

UPDATE: The Mount Alfred summit hike goes across private land. The owner of the land has recently prohibited access to the general public without prior permission, due to hikers getting lost or stranded on the mountain. You can join a guided tour to do it. If you decide to ignore the sign that’s your decision. 

2. Ben Lomond

  • Elevation gain:  From Queenstown: 1437m, From the Upper Gondola Terminal: 950m 
  • Duration: 6-8 h return from Queenstown, 4-6 h from Upper Gondola Terminal

This is the ultimate hike from Queenstown, where I lived and worked for 4 months during New Zealand’s summer. Emerging from the forest earlier than on Mount Alfred, the very well-maintained (thanks Department of Conservation) track meets up with the Ben Lomond Saddle where one can choose to go right to Bowen Peak or left to the Ben Lomond summit.

The summit offers unique views of the Remarkables Mountain Range to the southeast, and Walter and Cecil Peak across Lake Wakatipu in the south. Moke Lake in the West and numerous valleys and canyons to the North. There’s no other way to put it apart from this….. It’s a 360-degree orgasm-inducing view fest extravaganza from up there.

For those of you not looking for such a big challenge, the route can be shortened by taking the Queenstown Gondola up the first section. If you’re in Queenstown and you’re looking for a shorter hike then check out all the other hikes around Queenstown.

3. Roy’s Peak

  • Elevation Gain: 1250m
  • Duration: 5-7 hours

The most popular day tramp from Wanaka (btw tramp means a hike in Kiwi)  is Roys Peak located just 5km from the small lakeside town.

The 6-hour up and down of this relatively simple hike is worth a day’s excursion. The walk itself, which stays for the majority of the time on the eastern side of the mountain, gives breathtaking views continually throughout the day.

Be warned though, that it is 100% exposed so take sunscreen, windproof clothes, and plenty of water although the views along the way are definitely worth writing home about, the view from the summit is out of this world.

Roy’s Peak features on many of my itineraries in my New Zealand Travel Guide. The trail is very popular now and you should expect to queue to take the famous photo along the undulating ridgeline. 

4. Isthmus Peak

  • Elevation Gain: 1000m
  • Duration: 5-7 hours 

Another great day walk near Wanaka is Isthmus Peak, located in the mountain range separating Lake Hawea from Lake Wanaka.

The “car park” which is nothing more than a small gravel field verge at the side of the road can contain about 4/5 cars max and doesn’t need to be any bigger as not that many people go there (not nearly as many as Roys Peak). It’s one of the reasons making it one of the most rewarding hikes in Wanaka

The path which leads mostly through private farmland has a nice balance between exposed and unexposed parts. 

The summit views are arguably more impressive than Roys Peak and you’ll meet a tenth of the people up there.  

5. Rocky Mountain

  • Elevation Gain: 450m
  • Duration: 2 – 3 hours

Rocky Mountain though not very long (it only takes 1,5 hours to the summit) has been equipped with quite a few steps and ladders along the way, and if there is one thing I don’t like when hiking, you guessed it, steps and ladders.

If you’re craving more adventure then try to get up there just before sunrise. Just make sure you come prepared! The mirador at the top looks directly east over Lake Wanaka and more importantly, toward the sunrise. 

There are several viewpoints along the way including great views of the Diamond Lake just at the start of the hike. The 7km (return) route is very well maintained, easy to follow, and great for families with older kids. 

6. Mount Robert

  • Elevation Gain: 600m 
  • Duration: 3-5 hours

Mount Robert in the Nelson Lakes National Park is a moderately easy half-day loop circuit that gives outstanding panoramas over Lake Rotoiti and the nearby mountains, which separate the Tasman/Marlborough regions.

This is a fantastic option if you’re not an avid hiker and at the same time want something a little harder than just walking around the pier.

Mount Robert also has loads of native wildlife including cute wekas, rare dark brown kakas, and fuzzy little piwakawakas. Sounds like I’m just making up names, doesn’t it? Just google them and you’ll be surprised. 

The track is a 9km loop which can be steep at times but is generally manageable and fine for families. 

7. Bealey Spur Track

  • Elevation Gain: 550m
  • Duration: 3-5 hours
Bealey Spur Track Arthurs Pass 1

Now when I talk about Spurs I’m not talking about shoes that are designed to stab horses or the London football team. I’m talking about a projection from a mountain or mountain range.

The Bealey Spur track is exactly that, a quaint little hill near Arthurs Pass village that offers sublime views around the rest of the valley.

The slowly ascending path, which lies mainly within the tree line, is a great day walk and offers unique views of the Waimakariri River and of all the surrounding mountains, namely Avalanche Peak which is featured later on.

8. Lake Marian

  • Elevation Gain: 300m
  • Duration: 3 hours 
Lake Marian 1

The trail underfoot is often laden with tree roots and you have to concentrate at times but I certainly wouldn’t describe it as difficult. It’s a short but sweet track that climaxes at a brilliantly iridescent lake in a hanging valley.

The route will take you away from the throngs of tourists at Milford Sound and along the roadside pullouts. I’ve often found that with most hikes in New Zealand if you’re willing to go 5 minutes away from the top spots there’s lots of solitude to be found. 

In the winter avalanches can happen, please check the avalanche conditions with the DOC before heading out. 

9. Mueller Hut

  • Elevation Gain: 1050m
  • Duration: 6-8h

Rumors are circulating that Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, wrote the song “Stairway to Heaven” after going up to the Mueller hut.

The path that includes 1806 steps and loads of steep switchbacks is not the easiest of day walks and though doable in a day I would recommend staying in the hut overnight and enjoying a sunset/sunrise/stars combo. It’s one of the best backcountry huts in New Zealand but needs to be booked well in advance. 

It’s 5km one way to the hut and no easy feat by any means. The path can get busy on a clear day but the view of the surrounding glaciers is just incredible. You can also overnight in the hut. Just go to my other article about hiking and staying in the Mueller hut for more info. 

10. Hooker Valley Walk

  • Elevation Gain: 100m
  • Duration: 2-3 h

Now this walk has by far the highest amazing views to effort ratio. The two-and-a-half-hour return journey to Hooker Lake is mind-bogglingly beautiful.

The hike takes you northbound along the Hooker River but it honestly doesn’t matter if you were looking upstream or downstream, left, right, east or west everything is just magnificent at all times of the year.

You’d be crazy to miss Mount Cook if you’re planning a short road trip itinerary on New Zealand’s South Island. 

The hooker valley hike is 5km one way, mostly flat, and highly recommended even for families with small kids! 

11. Alex Knob

  • Elevation Gain: 1100m
  • Duration: 5-7 hours

west coast hike in Glacier country that offers incredible views over the Franz Josef glacier and valley. It’s a long 17km return but worth every second.

The track is often rocky underfoot and due to recent slips you need to climb over and under several trees but this just adds to the fun, in my humble opinion.

At the summit, you’ll have incredible views of several peaks over 3000m and the famous Franz Josef Glacier. Great alternative for those who don’t have a few hundred dollars to spend on a glacier helihike in town. 

12. Gertrude Saddle

  • Elevation Gain: 650m
  • Duration: 4-6 hours

The Gertrude Saddle is another great hike in Fiordland National Park. If you’re not in the position to do a scenic flight around Milford Sound then this is the next best option. The views into the surrounding glacier-carved valley to the Fjord will quickly make you forget the hurdle of getting up here. 

The no pain no gain rule applies here. Although the track is not that long, the use of chains is required.

Near the top of the hike, you need to cross a large section of smooth rocks which become very slippy in wet weather. Think twice about going if it’s raining (or has been raining recently)! Deaths have occurred on this track previously. 

I recently came across this fantastic video from the NZ Mountain Safety Council with footage from Gertrude Saddle showcasing the difficulty of the trail. Make sure to check it out here

13. Mount Fyffe

  • Elevation Gain: 1400m
  • Duration: 5-7 hours

long trudge continuously uphill to the summit of Mount Fyfe near Kaikoura rewards you with amazing views over the flatlands towards the Pacific Ocean to the east but also along saw tooth jagged Seaward ranges to the west. The best of both worlds.

The route follows a wide road until you reach the tiny Mount Fyffe Hut, a great place to stay if you have an extra night. From here it’s another hour and a bit to the summit.

The summit views are great and because this isn’t a very popular hike on New Zealand’s South Island it’s also quite serene. If you want to extend the hike you can follow the ridgeline until you reach Gables End.

14. Avalanche Peak

  • Elevation Gain: 1050m
  • Duration: 6-8 hours

This is a demanding tramp that requires light scrambling over large boulders whilst navigating along a well-maintained path through the forest.

After about an hour and a half, you’ll emerge from the bush line with spectacular views of the valley. From here it’s another 2 hours to the summit.

From the summit, the vistas are expansive and rewarding. Several huge peaks, a  light blue cirque glacier, and the winding Bealey River will catch your attention. Plus there’s loads of Kea, an alpine parrot, there too. 

A huge plus of this hike is that it can be turned into a loop using the Scotts Tracks. Scotts Track offers great views of the Devil Punchbowl Waterfalls.

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