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Last Updated on 16/11/2021
New Zealand has some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. It’s a well-known walker’s paradise and for anyone who loves nature.
You’re really spoilt for choice when hiking in New Zealand, so to narrow it down, this article highlights the best hikes on South Island New Zealand, featuring insider tips to help you plan for an epic experience!
New Zealand’s South Island is a land of towering mountains, remote alpine lakes, glaciers, ancient native rainforest, lush fiords and arid rocky landscapes. Unsurprisingly, it’s home to some of the greatest walks in the world, so how do you choose which ones to do?
After spending several months on the South Island, I still didn’t have time to do them all so I’ve enlisted the help of other travel bloggers and local experts to share their top recommended South Island hikes.
Whether you’re a beginner or advanced hiker, looking for short day hikes to multi-day treks, here are the 14 best hiking trails on New Zealand’s South Island.
New Zealand hiking etiquette
Fall in love with these breathtaking hikes on the South Island of New Zealand!
New Zealand is a world leader in protecting its environment. It has over 10,000 protected areas, including reserves and 13 national parks. All the hikes featured on the list are maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC) to ensure that both visitors and the environment are safe.
If you’re hiking in New Zealand, it’s important to adhere to any of the DOC’s warnings or advice, and as a best practice, follow the principles of Leave No Trace so that the country’s breathtaking beauty can be safely enjoyed and protected for generations to come.
The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:
- Plan ahead and prepare for your trip. Problems are less likely to arise if you’re well prepared.
- Stick to durable surfaces when you’re camping or walking. Stay in the middle of the path or campsite to avoid harming yourself or the environment.
- Whatever you bring with you should return with you too whether it’s food leftovers or litter.
- Minimise fires when camping. Use a lightweight camping stove and don’t bring your own firewood as it could introduce new diseases or pests.
- Take only photos and leave everything as you found it.
- Respect wildlife and keep your distance from any animals you may encounter.
- Respect other visitors and treat others as you would like to be treated.
Editor’s tip: Planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island? Read my complete 2-week itinerary!
Map of the best hikes on South Island New Zealand
By Greta from Greta’s Travels
Length: 16km return (between 5-7 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 1,228m
If you’re looking for the best hikes in the South Island, you have to add Roy’s Peak to your list. Roy’s Peak is one of the most famous and popular hikes in New Zealand, and it’s easy to see why.
Roy’s Peak is located 6km away from the town of Wanaka. Just drive for 5-10 minutes along Mount Aspiring Road until you reach the Roys Peak Track car park. The parking area is free, but it can get very busy in peak season, so make sure to head there early to find a parking spot.
It’s a 16km return hike with an elevation change of 1,228m. It can take anywhere between 5 and 7 hours to complete the hike. While the inclination is tough, the trail itself is well marked and well beaten, making it fairly easy to hike along. Overall it’s still a very challenging trail, but the views from the peak are well worth it.
From the top of Roy’s Peak, you will get an incredible 360° view over Lake Wanaka and all the surrounding mountains. If you don’t feel like hiking all the way you can stop at the 7km mark. Here there is a smaller peak with equally stunning views, as well as a free public toilet.
Roy’s Peak is a challenging hike with spectacular views, which deserves its spot on every South Island hiking bucket list.
By Bailey from My Queenstown Diary
Length: 14km return (between 6-8 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 1,500m
Ben Lomond Track is one of the most popular hikes in Queenstown and one of the best day hikes in New Zealand. Ben Lomond, the name of the mountain peak, towers over Queenstown.
Those who climb to the summit are rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views you can imagine – Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, and Cecil’s Peak to name a few.
There are two ways to hike Ben Lomond Track. The first is the hardest and the way the locals typically do it. Starting from Queenstown, make your way to where the Skyline gondola departs in town. From here follow signs for the “Tiki Trail.”
You’ll follow a path that after a series of steep switchbacks, brings you up to the top of Bob’s Peak (this is where the gondola also ends.) From here, follow signs for Ben Lomond.
In total, hiking to the summit of Ben Lomond from Queenstown and back down is 14 km long. The trail climbs nearly 1,500 meters in elevation.
If that sounds a little too challenging then you can take the shortcut. Ride the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak and hike to Ben Lomond summit from there! This wipes a whopping 3 kilometres off the total distance you need to hike and nearly 500 meters off the elevation gain.
One thing to note about hiking Ben Lomond is that it is best done in the summer months when the trail is free of snow. During other times, you should check with the visitor centre in Queenstown before you go and be prepared with crampons and other winter hiking gear – the trail can get very slippery and icy!
Editor’s tip: Hike the ethical way with these waterproof vegan hiking boots. They’re comfy (even after the first wear!), ethically made and certified carbon-neutral. Use code LITTLE10 to get an exclusive 10% discount!
By Kenny from Knycx Journeying
Length: 53km from start to finish (about 4 days to complete)
Elevation gain: 1,755m
The scenery of New Zealand’s South Island is otherworldly. The Milford Track is one of the most popular and famous trails among them all. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the 10 Great Walks of New Zealand and referred to as the ‘finest walk in the world!’
The trek begins from Lake Te Anau and ends in Milford Sound, and it was the path that the early explorers walked until they discovered the natural wonders of the country.
Milford Track is about 53 kilometers long covering a diverse range of landscapes through mountains, valleys, lakes, and other breathtaking views. To complete, the track typically takes three to four days, but the walk is relatively easy and suitable for many types of travelers who are generally fit.
For a one-day scenic walk from Te Anau, check out the Giant Gate Falls, a 30-meter-high spectacle that is also a wonderful spot for a picnic and for a dip in the pool.
Going on further, hikers are required to take part in a guided tour, or trek independently, staying in huts overnight.
The track takes hikers through the highest point of Mackinnon Pass, Sutherland Falls, the tallest waterfall in New Zealand, and all the way to Milford Sound, the most visited Sound in New Zealand.
There are many things to see and do in Milford Sound, from the scenic cruises, Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory, kayaking, sailing, and more.
By Daniel from Destinationless Travel
Length: 32km from start to finish (between 2-3 days to complete)
Elevation gain: 2,130m
The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks, meaning it is very popular and offers a stunning, diverse landscape.
Some of the highlights along the trail include a waterfall, the stunning Lake Harris, bright-blue Lake Mckenzie, and plenty of panoramic mountain views.
In total, the track is 32 kilometers long, which is why it is most commonly hiked over 2-3 days. It is a point to point trail, meaning it ends in a different spot than it begins.
One end is near Glenorchy (a small town not far from Queenstown) and the other end is in Fiordland National Park not far from Milford Sound.
For this reason, a little bit of planning is involved if you want to hike the entire trail. You’ll need to organize a shuttle to pick you up at your endpoint and drive you back to your vehicle where you started.
The drive between each point is actually quite long, around 4 hours. This is why many people choose to hike the Routeburn Track on a guided tour as well, so they don’t need to worry about transport.
You don’t need to hike the entire trail to enjoy the Routeburn though. In fact, there are some shorter out and back hikes you can do in just a couple of hours.
For example, the hike to Routeburn Falls is often considered one of the best day hikes from Queenstown since it starts not too far from Queenstown and is fairly easy. Plus, it’s beautiful!
Mueller Hut Hike
By Nina from Where in the World is Nina
Length: 5.6km return (between 4-5 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 1,000m
If you’re visiting New Zealand, there’s no way you can miss out on visiting Mount Cook.
It’s the country’s most majestic and tallest peak and is absolutely stunning.
You’ll be greeted with towering mountains and epic glaciers from the second you drive up to Mount Cook Village, just meander a bit further in until you get to the White Horse trailhead.
You’ll have views straight away and this is just a small preview of what you’ll encounter on the Mueller Hut hike!
Fill up your water at the trailhead and use the restrooms before you start heading up the Sealy Tarns trail. This is the trail that will lead you to Mueller Hut.
Take on the 2,000 something steps up to the Sealy Tarn viewpoint. There are a few picnic tables up here and many will take in the views and head back from this point. If you’re not too experienced and are already tired, you’ll get great views here so don’t feel bad turning around but you don’t have much further to go!
The only issue is, the rest of the hike is a bit more difficult. From this point, you’ll be essentially rock scrambling the majority of the way, still going uphill. The rocks are massive and there are tons of cracks and holes to watch out for.
You’ll have to keep an eye out for the poles poking through the rocks to see which way to go. After you make it to the top you’ll get crazy close to the glaciers, it’s insanely beautiful! You’ll maybe even hear an avalanche!
Just a bit further and you’ll eventually see the bright red Mueller Hut in the distance. The hut is simple, with just a few kitchen burners, tables, and some bunk beds. Reserve your overnight bunk or make this a day hike, it’s up to you!
The sunset and sunrise views of Mount Cook from the hut are absolutely gorgeous and overnighting is very worth it. The spaces do fill up though so make up your mind if you want to stay the night or not in advance.
The hike is 5.6km long, out and back, and is rated as difficult.
Hooker Valley Track
By Caroline from CK Travels
Length: 10km return (between 3-4 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 100m
Difficulty: Moderately easy
The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular day walks on New Zealand’s South Island. Located in Mount Cook National Park, this walk takes you along the Hooker River and has some absolutely incredible scenery with several viewpoints along the way.
You’ll pass over three suspension swing bridges that take you to the beautiful Hooker Valley glacier lake with several floating icebergs, having broken away from the nearby glacier. If the weather is clear, you will also see Mount Cook in the distance.
The distance covered on this return walk is approximately 10 kilometres, which takes around 3-4 hours to complete. The trail only gains 100 metres in elevation which makes it a fairly easy walk suitable for all levels of fitness, and can easily be completed without doing a guided tour.
The Hooker Valley Track starts from the White Horse Hill Campsite which is a short 5-minute drive from Mount Cook Village where the majority of all Mount Cook’s hotels and hostels are located.
The car park at the campsite is quite small and gets full quite quickly so be sure to arrive early.
The weather can change quickly in this region so make sure you pack layers of clothing so you can change / de-robe accordingly.
The trail can also be quite busy during the hot summer months so you might want to start early to avoid the crowds (also make sure to bring plenty of drinking water!).
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By Leah from Officer Travels
Length: 7km return (between 3-4 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 336m
Difficulty: Moderately easy
Picton is the landing pad of New Zealand’s South Island from the North Island.
While many get off the ferry and rush through this beautiful harbor town, keen to explore the mountain ranges of the Southern Alps, you’re encouraged to stick around a little longer to experience the tropical landscapes of Marlborough before indulging in the snow.
If you don’t have time to do one of the area’s more famous multi-day hikes, here is an alternative that only needs half a day; The Snout Track.
This stunning track winds you through native forests with scenic pit stops before opening up to panoramic views of the sounds where you might even be lucky enough to see Orca and other wildlife passing through.
The Snout Track is classed as a moderately easy 7km track that can be easily completed by active families and is perhaps one of the best hidden city walks on the South Island.
Starting from the Victoria Domain, on the outskirts of Picton, allow yourself 3-4 hours return and be prepared for occasionally steep terrain that can be slippery after rain.
Alternatively, there is an adjacent mountain biking track if you want a little bit more of an adrenaline rush.
By Katie from Two Wandering Soles
Length: 5.8km return (between 6-8 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 989m
If you’re planning to travel around West Coast New Zealand, you’re in for quite the adventure!
This rugged coastline is filled with all sorts of epic landscapes. From mountains to the ocean, and rainforests to glaciers, there are plenty of hiking trails in this remote region of the South Island.
One of the best hikes in the area is the trek to Brewster Hut, which is located in Mount Aspiring National Park. Since the trailhead is pretty remote, be sure to stock up on gas and food before you arrive.
While it’s just under 6 km in length, the trail is very steep and quite challenging in some areas. The hike begins in a thick forest and eventually passes above the treeline, rewarding hikers with incredible panoramic views.
This hike can be done as a day trip or an overnight adventure, as Brewster Hut has 12 beds that can be reserved in advance. With rustic facilities, you must carry enough food, water and proper equipment to last throughout your stay.
For travelers who don’t mind “roughing it” a bit, staying at a mountain hut is an experience in and of itself. You’ll get to exchange stories with other hikers and wake up surrounded by sweeping mountain views in all directions.
By Delilah from Our Travel Mix
Length: 3.1km return (about 3 hours to complete)
Elevation gain: 412m
Difficulty: Moderately challenging
Lake Marian is an alpine lake found in the breathtaking Fiordland National Park – one of the most beautiful places to visit in New Zealand. The lake itself is the termination point of the 3-hour (return) Lake Marian Track.
The lake is found in a remote location most likely visited on the way to or from Milford Sound. It is a 40-minute drive from Milford Sound, an hour from Te Anau or 3-hours’ drive from Queenstown.
Although short, the hike is relatively difficult. Over 1.5-hours, the track climbs constantly with an elevation gain of 412m.
On top of this, the track is poorly maintained requiring constant attention to avoid tripping on roots, as well as some scrambling from time to time. After rainfall, the track can also get muddy so it’s worth checking the weather beforehand.
Despite the challenge, the Lake Marian Track is one of the most rewarding hikes in New Zealand. The track begins meandering along a beautiful waterfall, before changing into a climb through native New Zealand bush.
At the end of the hike, the bush abruptly ends on the shores of Lake Marian. The lake is a deep, emerald green and is nestled amongst towering peaks forming a valley.
Time this walk right with the sun and you’ll get a vivid lake with the sun pouring through the mountaintops.
By Megan from Red Around the World
Length: 2.6km return (about 1 hour to complete)
Elevation gain: 85m
While long hikes are great, sometimes you just need a short one. Enter Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes not too far from Aoraki and Mount Cook.
This is a short walk at just over a mile round-trip. It makes for the perfect stop to break up some driving time. There is no fee and you don’t need a tour for this easy hike which is even better.
You should plan to spend about an hour here between the hike itself and time to enjoy the views.
This hike takes you from the parking area up to a gorgeous glacial lake where you can see Tasman Glacier, one of the longest glaciers in New Zealand surrounded by mountains.
Along the way, there will be a chance to see the Blue Lakes, which are actually more green than blue because they’re filled with rainwater instead of glacial water. They probably looked a lot nicer blue but it’s still a nice and slightly-secluded stop to rest on the way to the top.
To make the hike even better, the whole way up you have a stunning view of the Tasman Valley off to your right. It may not be the grandest hike in New Zealand, but the payoff vs the effort is certainly worth making this stop to enjoy the views and solitude.
Looking for another glacier lookout walk? Try this hike in Franz Josef!
St James Walkway
By Anna from Anna Meanders
Length: 66km start to finish (about 5 days to complete)
Elevation gain: 1,136m
The St James Walkway is a perfect choice for getting a taste of the South Island at its most authentic self. This hike is rugged, mountainous & wild without the same overtouristing problems of some of the more well-known treks.
Located in the gorgeous Maruia Valley on the outskirts of Canterbury, you will be hiking through a scenic valley in the Southern Alps, where Canterbury meets the West Coast. The area is mountainous and you’ll walk through scenic gorges, sub-alpine trails and beech forest.
Suitable for both beginners and experienced hikers alike, the 66km South Island New Zealand hiking trail is normally completed over five days.
If you want to camp, you can do so along the way. Alternatively, the trail has five serviced huts, and two additional huts, available to stay in – just be mindful that they operate on a first-come, first-served basis; so in the busier summer months, they may be full up.
Both entrances to the walkway are found onSH7 (Lewis Pass Rd), not far from a number of towns including Waipara, known for wineries; and Maruia & Hanmer, both known for excellent hot springs to relax after a few days out on the trails!
It is not required that you have a guide to hike the St James Walkway, and as long as you follow common sense, DOC guidelines, and watch the area weather conditions, you could complete this hike unguided (although it’s never a good idea to go it alone – get a small group together!)
The Earnslaw Burn Track
By Jub from Chur New Zealand
Length: 27km return (between 6-8 hours from the trailhead to the glacier)
Elevation gain: 853m
The Earnslaw Burn Track is starting to gain recognition as an amazing overnight hike, but the terrain means it’s not going to be overrun with hikers. Yet.
The Department of Conservation says this is a 16.6km return hike, but if you walk to the face of the Earnslaw Glacier (you should), it’s ~27km.
The trailhead is a 15-minute drive from Glenorchy, and make sure you’ve got the car park marked on your GPS as it’s very low key and people sometimes miss it.
Once you’re parked, look for the signs about 100 metres away to get started on the hike. The first part of the hike takes you through the forest and when you emerge from the forest you’ve got an incredible walk through the valley.
The river through the valley leads to the glacier which is incredible (see the photos) with its waterfalls and ice caves.
Having recommended this hike to quite a few people, the feedback afterward is that it’s truly amazing scenery and they’re stoked they went. But the hike was harder than expected due to the terrain. So while you can do this as a day hike, bring your tent!
The majority of people will take 4-6 hours to walk one way from the trailhead to the glacier.
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
By Nina from Nina Out and About
Length: 6.9km return (over 2 hours to complete if you take your time)
Elevation gain: 149m
Difficulty: Moderately easy
One of the best hikes in New Zealand’s South Island is often overlooked, with many people driving past it on their way from Christchurch to Queenstown.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway should be on every New Zealand itinerary. It traces the edge of the Kaikoura Peninsula, where you’ll get stunning views over the Pacific Ocean, where the endless blue sea stretches beyond the horizon.
You’ll even pass a fur seal colony, where you can get within a few feet of the stunning creatures as they bask in the sun, play in the surf, and even splash you if you get too close.
If you visit early in the morning, there’s even a chance of seeing some Hector’s dolphins from the walkway. Many people add on a morning tour to swim with wild dolphins in Kaikoura.
This is an easy hike by New Zealand standards: you won’t need to pack more than a day bag, and the only essential is a good pair of hiking boots.
The walkway is well maintained, with stairs helping you ascend the cliffs overlooking the seaside. However, this isn’t a hike for the faint of heart. The stairs will make your butt burn!
If you walk quickly and make no stops, the hike can be completed in just over an hour. However, that’s not a good way to experience the area. Instead, take your time. Pause to look for dolphins and watch the fur seals play.
When you pause to enjoy the view, the hike will likely last 2+ hours.
You can get to the hike by driving from Kaikoura for about 5 minutes south, or extend your walk and add a two-hour journey from the city along the coast.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
By Roxanne from Faraway Worlds
Length: 60km start to finish (about 3-5 days to complete)
Elevation gain: 200m
Difficulty: Moderately easy
One of New Zealand’s loveliest Great Walks is the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, a scenic route through the Abel Tasman National Park situated at the tip of New Zealand’s South Island.
The full track takes around 3-5 days to walk, and offers stunning views of the ocean and the bush, as it follows the coastline through the national park.
The Abel Tasman National Park is car free, and most people access the Abel Tasman Coastal Track by boat, taking advantage of the frequent water taxis from Kaiteriteri Beach (located about an hour from Nelson).
The track takes hikers through the bush, winding past swing bridges, blue pools and sandy coves with smooth beaches. As it is a multi-day hike, walkers also have the opportunity to wake up in the beautiful surroundings.
There are a number of places to stay overnight, with well-equipped campsites (often with stunning views), huts and luxury lodges located in the national park, although all need to be booked in advance.
The Abel Tasman National Park also makes a great destination for day trips, especially during the warmer months, and it’s possible to do a section of the coastal track if time is limited.
There are also many activities to keep hikers occupied before or after doing the trail, including kayaking and snorkelling.
Overall, though, the highlight of this hike is the peaceful forest, amazing views and swimming in the tiny, hidden bays.
Looking for more New Zealand inspiration? These articles can help!
- Ultimate Guide To Travelling Around New Zealand
- Best Places To Stay In New Zealand (2021): Insider Guide To The Top Hotels
- The Best Place To See Whales In New Zealand
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