The 10 Best Day Hikes and Walks on the South Island, New Zealand

The 10 Best Day Hikes and Walks on the South Island, New Zealand

New Zealand’s South Island is a hiker’s paradise and this blog shows you the top 10 most amazing day hikes on the South Island of New Zealand if you are an outdoor enthusiast.

New Zealand is one of the most amazing places to visit and hike if you love nature, outdoor activities and adventures. It’s not for someone who loves big cities or metropolitan. New Zealand is known for its natural beauty and that’s why many movies chose New Zealand as the backdrop. For this very reason, I decided to spend a few weeks in New Zealand to explore this beautiful place.

One thing I heard a lot about New Zealand is how amazing the hikes are especially on the South Island.

While the multi-day Great Walks of New Zealand get a fair amount of attention among hikers, I find that the day hikes in New Zealand are extremely beautiful and amazing (I’ve hiked in Canada, Dolomites, Switzerland, Madeira and Patagonia and New Zealand is definitely on the top of my list).

If you are not a fan of camping and multi-day hikes, then you would love the 10 best hikes in New Zealand below.

This blog contains occasional affiliate links, where I receive a small commission on sales of the products/hotels that are linked at no additional cost to you. In addition, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

lake Pukaki New Zealand landscape vs. Patagonia
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Things to Know About Hiking in New Zealand

There are a few things I observed while hiking in New Zealand that may be interesting/ helpful for you to know to prepare to hike in New Zealand.

It’s “Tramping” and “Walks” versus “Hiking”

New Zealanders call hiking “tramping” and “walking” and even the official website labels the hikes as “walks”. It was slightly confusing at first but I guess you are just walking (with certain degree of difficulties). All the famous multi-day hikes in New Zealand are called “the Great Walks”.

The DOC is a great resource

New Zealand has amazing resources for hiking and one of the best websites is the DOC website that shows you all the hiking trails, basic information as well as news alerts.

The Hikes in New Zealand Are Not Easy

I don’t know how New Zealanders measure the difficulty of their hikes but it seems like I had to add 1-2 degree of difficulty based on their ratings.

For example, on the DOC website Roy’s Peak is labeled as “Easy”, rest assured that hike is not easy by any means. I guess it’s “technically” easy as there is no tricky rock climbing. You should always adjust your expectations if you look up hikes from the DOC.

Blue-Pools-Haast-Pass

There are Apps That Can Help You

Besides the DOC website, there are several apps that can help you find hiking routes, maps and even camping sites.

If you are in the Wanaka Area, be sure to download the Wanaka Tracks App which can help you sort through the trails there.

TrailMapps: Queenstown ($3.99) is a good resource for Queenstown related maps and hiking trails.

NP Topo Maps is a good app to provide you with offline maps, DOC huts and campsites information with the latest alerts.

Rankers Camping NZ app is the official NZ camping Map with offline capability. It includes details and rules of each camping location and shows all the i-SITE and DOC visitor centers.

There are Bathrooms on the Trails in New Zealand

For most of the hikes in New Zealand, there are portable bathrooms on the trail, usually near the summit. This makes it very convenient for hikers as you don’t need to find a spot in the woods to do your business. Some trails have bathrooms at the beginning of the trail (usually in the parking lot) as well.

Seasonable Allergy in New Zealand is a Killer

If you are visiting New Zealand in December/ January, you should be prepared to suffer from seasonal allergy especially in the mountains. I had never experienced allergy that bad so if you are prone to seasonal allergy you may want to visit a little bit off season.

Be Prepared for Bug Bites

New Zealand is known for the vicious sandflies especially near Milford Sound Area. If you are hiking in shorts/ short sleeves, you should always carry bug spray with you. Once you get bitten by sandflies it will itch like crazy and it doesn’t go away for weeks.

No Drones Allowed

Most of the hikes I did in New Zealand had signs saying drones are prohibited. I actually did not see any drone when I was there. Leave your drones at home and enjoy nature (and not disturb others).

Key Summit track Board Walk

10 Best New Zealand South Island Day Hikes

Hooker Valley Track New Zealand
Rainy Day in Mount Cook, New Zealand

Hooker Valley Track

Location: Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park
Distance: 10km/6.2mile (round trip)
Time: 3 hours (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 100m (330ft)
Difficulty Level: Easy

Hooker Valley Track is perhaps the most popular and easy hike in South Island. Located in Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park about 3 hours drive from Christchurch, Hooker Valley is a hike that’s not to be missed.

Hooker Valley Track starts at White Horse Hill Campground, about a few minute drive from Mt. Cook Village. The trail goes along the Hooker River into Hooker Valley. There will be three swing bridges you need to cross along the hike, each with a slightly different view, with the second bridge as the most photographed bridge on the entire hike. You will also see glaciers, mountain peaks and lakes along the hike.

During the last 20-30 minutes of the hike, you will come across a boardwalk area, and this is often the most famous spot for photos during the entire hike (besides the end). The trail eventually ends up at a glacier lake with a view of Mount Cook on a clear day.

Since Hooker Valley Track is a very popular day hike, there are literally hiking tours that come bus after bus, so the trail tends to get pretty crowded during the day. I suggest you either start early or really late to avoid the massive crowd.

You don’t need a hiking pole for the Hooker Valley Track since there is minimum ascend/descend and many old people and younger kids walk on the Hooker Valley track.

I do have to warn you that the weather in Mt. Cook National Park can change very fast. I went on a day that was raining and the wind speed became 40-50 mph later that way, making it nearly impossible to cross the board walk without getting blown off. Aside from the occasional crazy weather, Hooker Valley Track is an amazing and easy trail you have to do in New Zealand.

Accommodation Tip: There are 5-6 hotels in Mount Cook Village, I personally stayed at the Hermitage Hotel and it had a great view of the mountains).

Mueller Hut Track View
Mueller Hut

Mueller Hut Route

Location: Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park
Distance: 10km/ 6.2miles (round trip)
Time: 6-8 hours (round trip)
Elevation: 1000m/ 3280ft
Difficulty Level: Difficult

Mueller Hut is another popular day hike in Aoraki/ Mt. Cook National Park in the South Island of New Zealand. At the summit you will get panoramic view of the area including Mount Cook, Mount Sefton, Hooker Glacier Lake and various peaks and valleys.

The hike starts at White Horse Hill Campsite (same as Hooker Valley Track). The first part of Mueller Hut track include a number of staircases and steep elevation gain to Sealy Tarns.

The Mueller Hut hike is an extension of the Sealy Tarns hike which only goes half way and is much easier. Starting at Sealy Tarns, you continue to go up the steep slope on a rocky path (no more stairs) until the top.

Some people spend the night at Mueller Hut (need to book in advance) but you can also hike back down the same day. If you want to stay at the top but didn’t manage to get a reservation spot at Mueller Hut, you can always camp near the hut (there are paid options and non paid options).

If you don’t want to go all the way to Mueller Hut, just hike to Sealy Tarn is great. The view from Sealy Tarn is amazing in its own right and the hike is much easier. Do not attempt the hike to Mueller Hut during bad weather, especially if there’s strong wind.

Hiking Roy's Peak in New Zealand
Roy’s Peak, New Zealand

Roy’s Peak Hike

Location: Wanaka
Distance: 11km/ 6.8 miles (round trip)
Time: 6 hours (round trip)
Elevation gain: 1578m/ 5177ft
Difficulty Level: Moderate to Difficult

Roy’s Peak is one of the most well-known hikes in New Zealand due to its overnight social media fame.

Located in Wanaka in the South Island, Roy’s Peak is visited by hundreds if not thousands of people everyday during peak season.

The Roy’s Peak hike itself is a relentlessly long, boring and steep uphill for about 3 hours without any shades or water source. Most people stop at the first view point, which is the Instagram famous spot. Since the spot is so famous there is always a line of people waiting to take photos there.

You can either stop there or hike another 20-30 minutes up to the summit. You get a nice panoramic view at the summit without the crowd. It is actually interesting to see how many unfit/ unprepared people struggle to go up Roy’s Peak simply for the Instagram photo. I’ve personally witnessed someone proposing up there (after carrying up a teddy bear and flowers).

The best time to visit Roy’s Peak is either early morning (~7am) or later in the afternoon (~2pm) when there are fewer visitors. The Roy’s Peak parking lot gets filled up by early morning and cars have to park on the road (there is always a risk of getting a parking ticket unless you park within the lines on the road).

I personally went in the summer time around Christmas so the days were long and the sun didn’t set till 10pm so it was great to start hiking around 1 in the afternoon. By 4pm the whole place pretty much clears out so you will have the entire hike to yourself and not have to wait in the ridiculously long Instagram line.

For more details on the hike, check out my blog on everything you need to know for Roy’s Peak.

Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak

Isthmus Peak

Location: Wanaka
Distance: 16km/ 10 miles (round trip)
Time: 6-8 hours (round trip)
Elevation gain: 1385/ 4544ft
Difficulty Level: Difficult

Isthmus Peak is a lesser known hike compare to its neighbor Roy’s Peak since it doesn’t get as much social media love. Also located near Wanaka, Isthmus Peak gets way fewer visitors compare to Roy’s Peak even though it has amazing views on top as well.

Starting at Steward Creek Carpark which is about a 30 minute drive from Wanaka, the hike up Isthmus Peak is windy, steep and rocky. The entire hike is a relentless uphill just like Roy’s Peak. However the hike is more difficult compare to Roy’s Peak.

You will see Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea, Mount Aspiring and the southern alps from the summit of Isthmus Peak (you only see Lake Wanaka from Roy’s Peak). If you want to avoid the crowd at Roy’s Peak, then Isthmus Peak is a great alternative.

Mount Iron Loop Track

Location: Wanaka
Distance: 4.5km/ loop
Time: 1.5 hours
Elevation gain: 250m
Difficulty Level: Easy

Located near Wanaka, Mount Iron loop track is a very popular hike to see the 360 view of the entire area.

Starting in the parking lot about a few minutes drive from Wanaka, the trail goes on the west side of the mount on kanuka scrub. At the summit you will see Lake Wanaka, the Southern Alps and other peaks and basins. There is also information at the summit showing names of the mountain peaks. You will then continue to the other side of the mountain, completing the loop.

Lake Marian View from Key Summit Track
Lake Marian from Key Summit Track

Key Summit Track

Location: Fiordland National Park (Milford Sound)
Distance: 7km/ 4.3 miles (round trip)
Time: 3 hours (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 365m (1389ft)
Difficulty Level: Easy

The Key Summit Track is located on the drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau in Fiordland National Park. The Key Summit Track is day 1 of Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Greatest Walks.

The hike starts at a parking lot at The Divide, one of the stops on the road to Milford Sound. There is a large parking lot with porta potties and a bus stop.

The Key Summit Track is a gradual incline all the way to the summit. The first part of the hike is through a dense forest and as soon as you break the tree line you will start seeing the surrounding valley and mountain peaks. Once you are on the summit you can even see Lake Marian, an amazing alpine lake (and something you can hike to on a separate route).

I would say the Key Summit Track is one of the most rewarding hikes in the South Island since it is relatively easy but with amazing views at the end (go on a sunny day or you won’t see much).

Read my Key Summit Track post to find out everything you need to know about this hike.

Hiking Lake Marian Track in New Zealand
Lake Marian Track, New Zealand

Lake Marian Track

Location: Fiordland National Park (Milford Sound)
Distance: 6.2km/ 3.8 miles (round trip)
Time: 3.5-4 hours (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 437m (1434ft)
Difficulty Level: Moderate

Lake Marian Track is one of the “best kept secrets” in Fiordland National Park although it has gotten very popular in recent years and is no longer a secret.

Lake Marian Track starts at the Lake Marian Car Park near Pop’s View at Hollyford Road Turnoff (there are signs at the turnoff). There are 2 large parking lots for Lake Marian and they tend to fill up pretty fast since it’s a popular hike.

The first 20 minutes of the trail is easy and flat on a paved trail towards a viewing platform of the waterfall. You can either turn back at the waterfall or keep going.

As you continue the hike you will be walking in a dense forest and you have to navigate through the not so clear trail markers. The trail becomes rocky made of big stones and rocks (no scrambling, just rocky steps) and I would not recommend doing the Lake Marian Track on a rainy day as the rocks can get slippery.

There are trail markers but I honestly did not see them on the way in (only saw them on the way back down). It is actually quite easy to get lost so pay extra attention and try to stay on the not so clear trail. And this is the reason why Lake Marian hike is listed as “moderate” in my opinion because it requires some back country navigational skills.

You will continue to go up in the forest for 1.5 hours until you hit the lake. The lake is pretty big so even with all the people you won’t feel crowded. You can also picnic around the lake or even get into the water (I didn’t see any sign prohibiting people from getting into the water) although the water may be pretty cold. Once you are done relaxing at the lake, take the same route back to the car park.

Gertrude Saddle
Gertrude Saddle

Gertrude Saddle

Location: Fiordland National Park (Milford Sound)
Distance: 7km/ 4.3miles (round trip)
Time: 6-7 hours (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 646m/ 2121 ft
Difficulty Level: Difficult and should only be attempted on sunny days

Known as New Zealand’s greatest short hike, Gertrude Saddle is a difficult (and potentially dangerous) but amazing hike that leads to the view of Milford Sound and its surrounding peaks.

The hike starts at the parking lot near the Homer Tunnel. The trail starts off gentle in an open meadows on the valley floor. As you climb up Gertrude Valley, the track then becomes very steep along a creek and over steep rock slabs. There are cables at the steepest section and the hike requires some scrambling and the climb is along a waterfall. The hike could be dangerous and even lethal when wet so go when it’s sunny and dry.

The view from the saddle is extraordinary as you can see all the surrounding peaks and valley and ultimately Milford Sound in the far distance.

Rob Roy Glacier Hike New Zealand Mount Aspiring National Park
Rob Roy Glacier

Rob Roy Glacier Track

Location: Mount Aspiring National Park
Distance: 10km/ 6.3 miles (round trip)
Time: 3 hours (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 500m (1600ft)
Difficulty Level: Easy – Moderate

Rob Roy Glacier is a relatively easy but rewarding hike to see a live glacier and waterfalls.

The trail starts at Raspberry Creek Car Park, about 1 hour drive from Wanaka in Mount Aspiring National Park.

There are 9 Fords (or shallow river crossing) along the drive and you should either rent a SUV/ Jeep during rainy weather or go on a sunny day when the water level is low since the fords can potentially trap vehicles that are low (like regular Sedans, etc). When I went to Rob Roy’s Glacier it hadn’t rained for a couple of days so the fords were shallow and easy to cross with a regular vehicle (Toyota Corolla).

After the first 15 minutes of the hike on a flat land, you will cross a swing bridge and head into the dense forest. The track gets more steep from that point until the look out points and you will be hiking along the creek most of the way.

There are 2 glacier look out points, one Lower Lookout and one Upper Lookout. I personally think you absolutely need to go to the Upper Lookout (which is about 1 hour more hike from the Lower Lookout) with a much more impressive view with the glacier literally in your face and the view of several small waterfalls from the cliff walls. You can walk around the upper glacier lookout point to get away from the crowd.

The Rob Roy Glacier hike does get more crowded later in the day so I recommend you get to the parking lot no later than 10am.

Queenstown Ben Lomond Saddle Hike
Ben Lomond Saddle

Ben Lomond Hike

Location: Queenstown
Distance: 11km/7 miles to summit (round trip)
Time: 4-6 hours (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 1400m (4600ft) to summit from the top of Gondola
Difficulty Level: Moderate to the Saddle; Difficult to the Summit

Ben Lomond Hike is the most popular hike in Queenstown. There are two routes to hike up Ben Lomond, either from the top of the Gondola station in Queenstown or from Queenstown itself. If you decide to take the Gondola up, you can save yourself about 450m of elevation (~1 hour of hiking each way).

You can either hike to the Ben Lomond Saddle or the Ben Lomond Summit. It takes about 1.5 hours each way from Gondola to the Saddle and about ~3 hours each way from the Gondola to the Ben Lomond Summit.

Starting from the top of the Gondola station in Queenstown, the Ben Lomond trail to the Saddle is very straight forward with moderate incline all the way up. There is no cover on the trail at all so you will need to bring a lot of sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.

You can take a break at the Saddle (there is a famous bench there) before you tackle the relentless steep incline to the Ben Lomond Summit. The hike from Ben Lomond Saddle to the Summit include some steep climb that may require you to be on all fours and this hike should not be attempted during bad weather or windy weather.

The view from the Ben Lomond Summit is panoramic whereas the view from the Saddle is only towards Queenstown. However I’ve been told by someone that the view from the summit is not necessarily better than the view from the Ben Lomond Saddle and the climb from the Saddle gets much steeper.

Overall the Ben Lomond hike is the most spectacular hike near Queenstown and the hike to the Saddle is suitable for most people. But because the mountain can be seen from Queenstown, many hikers underestimate the difficulty of the hike to the Ben Lomond Summit. There have been incidents where people had to be rescued so use your discretion and do your research before attempting the hike to the summit.

New Zealand Hikes vs Patagonia Hikes
Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike in New Zealand

Bonus Best Hike in New Zealand

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Location: Tongariro National Park, North Island
Distance: 19.4km (one way only)
Time: 7-9 hours
Elevation Gain: 766m (2454ft)
Difficulty Level: Moderate to Difficult

Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the North Island of New Zealand and it is labeled as the “best day hike in New Zealand” and one of the “best day hikes in the world”.

One reason the Tongariro hike is such a great hike is because landscape during the Tongariro hike changes constantly, from valley floor up to the volcano craters to lakes and finally through a dense forest. Most of the hikes in the South Island have pretty similar scenery throughout the hike until the end, whether it’s on top of a saddle, mountain peak or by a lake. Tongariro Alpine Crossing shows you a little bit of everything, making this a very interesting hike.

Tongariro Crossing is a one way only hike and you will need to park your car at the “ending” parking lot and arrange transportation to drop you off at the starting parking lot early in the morning.

After certain point on the hike, you must keep going as there is no turning back. Since the hike is considered an alpine hike, you should always be prepared for sudden change of weather like strong wind, rain and snow.

It’s concerning that so many people who are unprepared do the Tongariro crossing hike just because it’s the best day hike in New Zealand. I personally have witnessed someone getting rescued from the hike. For more information about this amazing hike, read my blog post to find out everything you need to know about Tongariro Alpine Crossing. 

Photo stop on the drive to milford sound

What to Wear When You Hike in New Zealand

Most of the New Zealand day hikes are not a walk in the park and you should be adequately prepared for sudden weather change and adverse trail conditions. I’m listing below a few essential items you should have with you when hiking in New Zealand.

Hiking Boots: I personally think having a good pair of hiking boots really is the most essential part of hiking in New Zealand. Some of the trails can get muddy and slippery especially when it rains/ after it rains. You have less risk of slipping and getting into an accident with a good pair of hiking shoes. I have linked my favorite pair of hiking shoes that have ankle support and is very soft and comfortable overall.

Hiking Poles: Depending on the hike you are doing, hiking poles could definitely be helpful. Most of the New Zealand hikes are uphill and having hiking poles could really make the hike easier. I personally have the foldable hiking poles so it’s easy to take them around. For the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Hike I absolutely recommend hiking poles as the trail can be really steep and slippery.

Rain Jacket: I personally made the mistake of assuming the weather will be great everyday but of course I was wrong. The weather during the hikes can change suddenly from sunny to rainy so you should always be prepared to have a light weight rain jacket with you. I personally have this jacket and it’s great and very breathable.

Sunscreen & Hat/ Sunglasses: New Zealand’s sun is brutal because there is a hole in the ozone layer above it. You won’t believe how many people I saw with burning red skin during the hikes. I don’t know about you but I’m paranoid about getting burned and skin cancer so I re-applied my sunscreen every 20-30 minutes since it was THAT sunny. Do yourself a favor and get a hat and sunscreen so you don’t turn purple after a hike.

Water & Snack: This should be a no brainer to have water and snack on the hikes. While you don’t need to bring a full on meal for those 3 hour hikes, you definitely should be prepared for longer hikes. When I was on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike I saw people carrying one small bottle of water. You don’t want to be that person that run out of water on an 8 hour hike. Bring a hydration pack/ hydration bladder on your hike with you. Some good hiking backpacks have a slot for hydration bladder.

Cell Phone: New Zealand has amazing cellular reception and having a phone with you is essential in case you need help. I always had reception on all my hikes and I did see someone getting rescued from my hikes so bring your phone with a sim card.

Wide Angle Lens: I always bring a wide angle lens with me on my hiking trips to better capture the mountain ranges and peaks (especially when the peak/ lake is in your face). When I had a Canon camera I used this lens; now I use a Sony I switched to this lens.

Layers: Always dress in layers when you hike. Some of the hikes can be pretty cold in the morning but as you hike it gets significantly warmer. Be ready to take off layers so you don’t over heat.

Head Lamp: If you are starting a hike later in the afternoon, you probably should have a head lamp just in case you don’t make it down the mountain by sunset time. You never know what will happen in case you get lost or lose track of time.

Bug Sprays: As mentioned below, New Zealand is known for sandflies especially near the water/ Milford Sound Area. If you are hiking in Fiordland National Park you should always carry bug spray with you to prevent from being attacked.

With adequate preparation and cardio training, you should be well prepared for these best day hikes in New Zealand.

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10 Best day Hikes in south Island of New Zealand
10 Best south Island New Zealand Hikes
New Zealand South Island Best Day Hikes