Ranking the Great Walks of New Zealand

One of the PRIMARY reasons to come to New Zealand is the amazing landscapes. And exploring them by  foot is probably the best way to see a good part of the country, at least if you have the time to do so. After nearly 12 months, I’ve gone on a lot of hikes. The single day hikes range from quick 20 minute jaunts to full day expeditions, but it is the multiple day outings that are the most notable. Through these hikes you can get completely lost in nature – many kilometers from the nearest road, with just the bag on your back to support you for several days in a row. ‘Tramping’ is something I had never tried before coming to New Zealand, but I’m definitely glad I discovered the joy of doing so.
Of the multi-day hikes I’ve done (7 Great Walks, 3 other significant hikes), I’d rank them, from favourite to least, like this:

1. Tongariro Northern Circuit
This and #2 are just about tied. But the Tongariro Northern Circuit will remain my favourite hike in all of New Zealand. The stellar landscape is like nothing else in the country. Where all of the other hikes I’ve done have had some great views, often they are similar to other areas…there is no such comparison for the Tongariro area. From the conical peak of Mt. Ngauruhoe to the Emerald Lakes, the highlight is definitely the Tongariro Crossing portion of the Northern Circuit. But adding 2 more days to the hiking in the area only adds to the mystique. Crossing a volcanic desert, descending into a massive valley carved out through volcanic eruptions, seeing the purple sky of dawn outlining the silhouettes of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe…all of it is a superb experience.

2. Milford Track

So close to being my #1 choice. The only reason it isn’t #1 is probably due to uniqueness – The Milford Track crosses a section of Fiordland, as do numerous other tramps. So you will see some similar scenery on the Routeburn, Hollyford, Dusky or several other tracks. But the Milford is king for a reason. The scenic splendour of both the Clinton and Arthur Valleys is first rate. The track is so well laid out as well, allowing plenty of time for the numerous detours it presents. Most tracks will have perhaps 2-4 detours along the way you can do. I lost count of the detours available on the Milford, but I’d guess 10-12. Most notable is Sutherland Falls, the highest in New Zealand and 5th highest in the world. It also helped that of all things, the weather here was fantastic. Not only did I get 3 days with no rain, but I got one night/morning of heavy rain, letting me see Fiordland how it is designed – soaking wet. Magical.

3. Routeburn Track

The Routeburn is often compared favourably to the Milford Track, and I can understand why. It’s a considerably easier hike, much easier to secure a spot on, usually has better weather, and if you can time buses or get someone to move your car, is a pretty convenient way to go visit the Milford Sound from Queenstown. While the weather wasn’t spot on, it was good enough for my hike, as I was able to get the ‘big views’ when crossing the Harris Saddle area, and Conical Hill was clear at the top to boot. The scenery of the second day is first rate, and the campground on the Routeburn side is outstanding. The campground on Lake Mackenzie however, is a joke. If coming to the South Island and wanting to multi-day hike but have little experience, the Routeburn is a fantastic first option.

4. Abel Tasman Track

There is something special about golden sand beaches with turquoise blue water. It simply says to me ‘relax here’. The Abel Tasman park has numerous such beaches, and because many are miles from any car park you can have them all to yourself if you hike or kayak there. I did both on the Abel Tasman, kayaking for 2 full days before taking a stroll the next day. I had also day-walked another section of the track with my parents. All of it was very enjoyable. Not perfect – there are larger crowds than any other Great Walk, especially on nice days/weekends, sandflies are ever present on some beaches, and water taxis aren’t cheap, but the scenery is so different and beautiful that none of it seriously matters. When you get a group of seal pups surrounding your kayak, you know you are somewhere pretty amazing.

5. Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track

While not a Great Walk, this has all the qualities of one. Fantastic views, well maintained track, historical curiosities, wonderful wildlife. All of that combines into an exhausting but often exhilarating 3 days of hiking. Of the Great Walks, only the Kepler track was the more difficult to do (when doing the Kepler in 3 days), so the Humpridge is not for the faint of heart. But the money and effort are well worth it for the views you get on top of the Humpridge itself. The accommodations are also first rate – considerably better than staying in huts, you get comfortable confines at the end of the day, and if you brought your wallet, a beer or glass of wine to top it all off. One can get used to that kind of hiking.

6. Kepler Track

This almost ranks higher based on the weather I had (3 days of nothing but warm sunshine). As it is, the Kepler might feature one of the BEST single days of hiking available, once you are clear of the treeline near the Luxmore Hut. For hours you are crossing ridgeline to ridgeline, high above trees and lakes below. It truly is a splendid way to spend a day hiking. The two campgrounds are also first rate – camping one night on a beautiful tract of sandy beach, and the next in a clearing surrounded by peaks. The negative though – the 2nd day, when crossing those ridges, is a dreadfully long and difficult day of hiking. Spacing of the campgrounds could be better, much better. Camping is not for the first time hiker (huts would be fine). The forest walks are also long and don’t offer a ton of variety either. But that second day…it easily makes the other 40km required to do the loop more than worth it.

7. Angelus / Travers-Sabine Circuit

By a fairly large margin, the hardest hike I completed. Clocking in at over 100km in 5 days (if you have more days, use them, but it will still be challenging), this is a tough but scenic hike through Nelson Lakes. Angelus is most often just done as a one night hike, returning to your car and civilization the next day, and is outstanding in it’s own right. Probably one of the highest altitude huts in use in New Zealand at 1650 meters, you get stunning views on the way up and down of the surrounding peaks, even crossing a few if you do the Robert Ridge (which I did). After that, the Travers-Sabine Circuit is a great, if very difficult addition. Mostly below the tree-line, being a big negative, the Travers Saddle itself and Blue Lake (detour) make the added days of torture worthwhile.

8. Greenstone-Caples Circuit

While not a Great Walk, but the Greenstone/Caples still is a wonderful 3-4 days of hiking, and often gets combined with the Routeburn as a way of crossing back over the mountain ranges. While not offering quite the stellar views of many of the Great Walks, the Greenstone-Caples is a fairly leisurely and peaceful walk that gets you on a quieter track. The huts on the Greenstone side are first rate and comparable to Great Walk huts – flush toilets and everything. There is also a lot of character coming down off the McKellar Saddle into the Caples valley – the foliage and forest is stellar. I wonder if that magical door is still in the forest…

9. Rakiura Track (Stewart Island)

There really wasn’t anything truly negative about this track, it just doesn’t compare well with the others. You do get some lovely coastal scenery on the first and third day, but the 2nd is a bit of a bore as it is completely forested in while you cross part of the Island. If you are a bird lover though, this track is fantastic. The amount of bird calls and spotting available is tremendous. I did spot and hear numerous types of birds, but the only one I REALLY wanted to find, a Kiwi bird, eluded me. Stewart Island is the best place to find those birds in the wild, but I didn’t have luck on my side.

10. Lake Waikaremoana

My first Great Walk, and the only one I’d characterize as ‘disappointing’. Even now, after months to think and consider the track in a more kind light, I still don’t really care for the hike. The Bluff portion of the hike is fantastic – you climb high up above Lake Waikaremoana and are rewarded for the tough effort with outstanding views across the lake. After that though, there really isn’t much to get excited about. Much like Stewart Island, the area around Lake Waikaremoana is a good place to find some birds, but I didn’t find much to be excited about. And for a lake hike, you only rarely get to see/touch the actual lake – the vast majority of the track is inland enough that you can’t see the water. The track itself is also in considerable disrepair and the huts were the saddest I have seen on a Great Walk, by a fair margin (with the new hut being the exception). Why this is considered a Great Walk, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t recommend it as one.

Comments are closed.