New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most stunning places on earth. It boasts impressive mountain peaks, picturesque waterfalls, turquoise lakes, and diverse forests. By far the most popular way to explore New Zealand’s South Island is on a road trip.
However, a car or van just won’t get you to the best and most beautiful spots. Instead, you will need to venture out on foot and explore New Zealand’s rugged terrain. Hiking New Zealand’s South Island is definitely the way to get the best views, and you don’t even need to do a multi-day hike, a day walk in the South Island will do!
From harder trails that involve a little courage to much easier ones suited to all fitness levels, there’s a South Island day walk for almost everyone. Below are the best day hikes on New Zealand’s South Island, handpicked by me after almost one year exploring this breathtaking place!
Hooker Valley Track (Mount Cook National Park)
Distance: 10km return, 3 hours return
The Hooker Valley is easily one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks. Not only is it stunningly beautiful but the trail is also very well maintained and flat. The trail length is 10km return and ends at the Hooker Lake in Mount Cook National Park. What’s so special about this trail is that at the end of the lake sits Mount Cook (New Zealand’s tallest mountain.)
Lake Marian Track (Fiordland National Park)
Distance: 2.4km return, 20 minutes return to the falls and 3 hours return to the lake
The Lake Marian Track is a short 3-hour walk in Fiordland National Park. The trail is a great stop on your way to Milford Sound and is one of the most picturesque in the national park. The trial involves a 2-hour climb through the forest before you reach the stunning Lake Marian with the Southern Alps as a backdrop. It’s a great place for a swim, that is if you can brave the cold glacier fed lake!
Ben Lomond Track (Queenstown)
Distance:3-4 hours to Ben Lomond Saddle, 6-8 hours to Ben Lomond Summit
Difficulty: Intermediate (more challenging towards the summit)
The Ben Lomond trail is another popular trail. This trail actually starts in the heart of Queenstown and ends at the summit of Ben Lomond Mountain. If you do go to the summit expect an 8 hour day, however, the great thing about this day walk is that you can cut it short and still get amazing views. In fact, the saddle is only a few hours return but has very similar views to the summit.
Hike to Luxmore Hut on Kepler Track (Fiordland National Park)
Distance: 28km return, 8-10 hours return
The Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and the full track takes around 3 days to complete. However, if your time is short you can spend the day walking to the most beautiful spot along the trail – the Luxmore Hut. At the hut, you get stunning views of Lake Te Anau and will also likely see a few Kea’s (New Zealand’s friendly Alpine parrot.)
Moke Lake Loop Track (Queenstown)
Distance: 2-3 hours
Moke Lake is a stunning lake famous for its still water that gives amazing reflections. Located near Queenstown there are two hikes – one around the lake, and the other to a viewpoint. The walk around the lake is very flat and only takes a few hours. The hike to the viewpoint is shorter but goes straight up for 45 minutes before you reach the top.
Franz and Fox Glacier Walks (West Coast)
Distance: Approximately one hour each
Difficulty: Easy but with some elevation
The Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier and the most popular and well know glaciers in New Zealand. These glaciers are highly popular for glacier heli-hikes; however, you don’t have to spend a few hundred dollars to see them. Instead, you can walk to one or both viewing platforms for free! Each trail is around 1 hour long and both are very well maintained.
Sealy Tarns Track (Mount Cook National Park)
Distance: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: Intermediate (steep and 2200 steps)
The Sealy Tarns Trail is not so much a walk as it is a climb. However, instead of a path, it involves stairs – 2000 of them! It sounds like a lot and it is, but this trail is so worth it! Once at the top you have possibly the best views of Mount Cook National Park. If you’re feeling adventurous you can actually continue on to hike to the Mueller Hut which is another 2-hour climb.
Roys Peak (Wanaka)
Distance: 16km return, 5-6 hours return
Difficulty: Intermediate (steep track)
Roys Peak is by far my favourite day walk in New Zealand. This is also the hardest hike on this list in my opinion. Although it is only 8km one way you are faced with a 1100m elevation climb. However, once at the peak, you are rewarded with the best views of Lake Wanaka that likely exist. The trail starts only 5 minutes from Wanaka and is best hiked at sunrise to avoid the large crowds.
Thanks largely in part to Instagram, the track has become very busy in the last few years. You now need to pay $2 to walk it and there is often a line of people waiting to capture one of the most popular photos of it. You can consider nearby Isthmus Peak track as a similar alternative.
Waipohatu Waterfall Track (Southland)
Distance: 6.5km loop, 2 hours
The Waipohatu Track is a rather unique trail to this list because instead of searching for glorious mountain views or stunning lakes you instead search for mesmerizing waterfalls! This trail takes around 2 hours to complete and along the way you can visit two amazing waterfalls. The trail also has a few river crossings via bridges and is usually uncrowded and peaceful.
Queenstown Hill (Queenstown)
Distance: 1.5-2.5 hours depending on chosen route
Difficulty: Easy (although uphill)
Queenstown Hill is another trail that begins almost right in the centre Queenstown. This trail is much easier than its neighbour Ben Lomond and is definitely one of the best things to do in Queenstown. Reaching the top only takes around an hour and once there you can look down at the beautiful Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu!
Tasman Lake Walk (Mount Cook National Park)
Distance: 2.6km return, 20-40 minutes return to Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View, 1 hour to Tasman Glacier Lake
The Tasman Lake walk is the shortest walk on this list. The round trip only takes 20 minutes to complete, although the Department of Conservation recommends around 40 minutes, and is very flat. Once you reach the Tasman Lake edge you can stare out at the Tasman Glacier and enjoy the picturesque view. It’s also not uncommon to see icebergs floating in the lake!
Truman Track (West Coast)
Distance: 1.4km return, 30 minutes return
The Truman Track is a coastal walk that leads to a secluded beach in New Zealand’s north western coast. This trail is only around 30 minutes long but is a great place to try and spot Blue Penguins. The viewing platform is also the perfect place to watch the sunset over the ocean! The trail starts just outside the town of Punakaiki – a popular tourist destination.
Blue Pools (West Coast)
Distance: 1.5km return, 1 hour return
The Blue Pools are located on New Zealand’s West Coast. Surrounded by lush forest the Blue Pools is actually a river that pools in a small area making it perfect for swimming. At the pools, there are a few trails to explore as well as two suspension bridges. In the summer months, this place is always busy with those wanting to cool off, just be warned though, the water is blue because its glacier fed and therefore it’s freezing!
Slope Point Walk (Southland)
Distance: 40 minutes return
Slope Point is the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island. Here you can almost see the Antarctic…well, not quite but it’s still a really beautiful place to visit! Along the walk, you can watch the violent seas of the south crash against the cliffs and get a picture with the sign marking the most southern point – just so you can prove you went!
Note, no public access during lambing season from September – November.
Key Summit Track (Fiordland)
Distance: 6.8km return, 3 hours return
Many people take the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau with few stops, aiming to reach the end and return within one day. However, if you give yourself enough time or intend to stay overnight in Milford then you there are plenty of great walks along the way. Key Summit Track is an uphill slog but the views at the top are well worth it.
You follow the Routeburn Track for the first part of the walk before splitting off towards Key Summit. From there you’ll have panoramic views over Fiordland National Park. The first part of the trail is in the bush and the rest is exposed, so be sure to wear sunscreen and take a hat to protect yourself from the sun!
Other South Island day hikes worth a mention
It’s impossible to mention all of the best hikes in the South Island of New Zealand because there are just so many! However, a few other’s that you could consider if you enjoy walking but don’t want to do anything too difficult are below:
Scott’s Beach, Heaphy Track – This 2-hour return track is considered an easier walk, leaving from the Kohaihai campsite and ending at the beach. Just to note the beach is not recommended for swimming though.
Mount Robert Circuit, Nelson Lakes National Park – This 4-hour loop track is one of the most popular day walks in the Nelson Lakes National Park. It is quite exposed so be sure to take lots of water and seek out shade for resting when you can.
Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall – A short 1-hour return from Arthur’s Pass, but uphill with lots of stairs. You can also see the waterfall see them from the much longer Scott’s Track and Avalanche Peak walks.
For those looking for more of a challenge (think uphill trudging and 6-8 hour day hikes) then you can consider Mount Fyffe near Kaikoura, Alex Knob which has fantastic views over Franz Josef Glacier, and Mueller Hutt in Mount Cook National Park, which can be split over two days with a stay in the backcountry hut.
Multi-Day Hikes in the South Island
New Zealand’s Great Walks are designated premier tracks that are well maintained and easy to navigate, but also require you to book your accommodation well in advance thanks to their popularity. Five of the Great Walks are in the South Island.
Kepler Track – A circular track around Fiordland National Park, near Te Anau. Walk through valleys of Beech trees, and over ridgelines of tussock. The trail is 60km and takes 3-4 days.
Abel Tasman Coast Track – Walk along golden sand beaches and through native rainforest at the top of the South Island, near Nelson. The trail is 60km and takes 3-5 days. You could also walk part of the trail as a day trip, by taking a water taxi in/out.
Milford Track – Fiordland is one of the most stunning areas in New Zealand, and the Milford Track will take you along 53.5km through ancient rainforest, ending at the beautiful Milford Sound. Best undertaken from late October to the end of April, this track will take you 4 days to complete.
Heaphy Track – It takes 4-6 days to walk the 78.4km Heaphy Track, but you can also mountain bike it in 2 – 3 days from May until November. You might even spot Kiwi or Takahe on this South Island hike!
Routeburn Track – With spectacular alpine views, the Routeburn Track is another popular South Island hiking trail.
New walks, the Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track will be opening some time in 2019.
Outside of the Great Walks, there are plenty of other amazing multi-day South Island hiking trails. Consider the Hollyford Track which is 2-8 days in Fiordland National Park, the 3 day Inland Track at Abel Tasman, the 3-4 day Pelorus Track between Nelson and Picton, and a popular alternative to Abel Tasman, the Queen Charlotte Track (3-5 days).
New Zealand’s South Island is an explorer’s paradise, filled with stunning walks that venture high and low. The above day walks are some of the best, and my personal favourites. Ticking them all off would take some time but believe me they are all so worth it! I hope you enjoyed this article and hope it helped shape your trip to New Zealand’s south island into an epic one!
Looking for more New Zealand tips?
- South Island Itinerary Ideas for 1-4 Weeks
- Hiking in Fiordland: Key Summit Track
- Things to Do in Mount Cook, New Zealand
- North Island Itinerary Ideas for 1-4 Weeks
- Visiting Wanaka Lavender Farm
- 23 Epic Destinations for a Honeymoon in New Zealand
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