New Zealand has eight Great Walks (the Whanganui Journey is managed under the Great Walk system but is a great paddle), multi-day tramps (NZ word for hikes or long walks) across some of the finest scenery in the country. Apparently about 15% of the population has done at least one of them. Having walked all of them in the past few years thought I’d share some tips, and how I’d rank them. I’ve also ranked them against all the other multi-day walks I’ve done in New Zealand.
1. Routeburn Track (32km, 2-4 days)
The first Great Walk I did and still my favourite. Absolutely spectacular views throughout, both from the track and via side trips up Conical Hill and Key Summit. Deservedly one of the most popular Great Walks (second most popular after Abel Tasman), with similar scenery to the Milford Track but half the annual rainfall (as it’s the other side of the mountain range) and better route (as from the Routeburn Shelter end you get most of the ascent done on day one). Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Views toward Humboldt Mountains and valley heading up to Routeburn Falls Hut, walking around Lake Harris, along Hollyford Face looking toward Darran Mountains, descent to Lake Mackenzie
Lowlights: Few sand flies at Lake Mackenzie, carrying all my non-tramping gear as I went from Queenstown to Te Anau – 20kg pack not recommended!
Route taken: One night, started at Routeburn Shelter (bus from Queenstown via Glenorchy), stayed at Lake Mackenzie Hut, finished at the Divide (bus onto Te Anau) – doable but long first day (20km plus up Conical Hill)
Tips: Leave your pack at the shelter before going up Conical Hill, don’t carry too much water as you can fill up from the fast flowing streams between Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie Huts, take the 40 min side trip from Lake Mackenzie Hut to Split Rock before heading on
2. Tongariro Northern Ciruit (43km, 3-4 days)
Like it so much I’ve done it twice though more due to the weather conditions first time round (Easter 2014 was pretty wet!). About a quarter of it overlaps with the one day Tongariro Alpine Crossing but you soon branch off onto a much quieter track, leaving the hordes behind. There really isn’t anywhere else like Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage area. Huge variety of landscapes, with some very bizarre colours and plants due to it being a volcanic area. Bizarrely it’s the second least popular track (after Rakiura), probably due to many people having already done the Alpine Crossing. It’s easy to get to though, just runs in a loop doable in either direction from Whakapapa. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Crossing the Red Crater, descending past the Emerald Lakes, heading along the Oturere Valley, relatively few sand flies
Lowlights: The day two section shared with the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing can be very busy
Route taken: Two nights, Mangatepopo and Waihohonu Huts, the later being a new and rather nice hut – long second day (21km) but definitely doable. I’ve also done it in one night staying at Oturere Hut but that was a little full on…
Tips: Don’t drink the stream water! but hut water is fine, get going early from Mangatepopo Hut to beat the masses doing the crossing on day 2
3. Milford Track (53.5km, 4 days)
The original and best known Great Walk, the Milford Track perhaps doesn’t quite live up to its reputation but is still a pretty awesome tramp. It requires booking well in advanced (I booked eights months ahead) as only 40 people a day are allowed to start the track (excluding those taking the guided tours, which as the track was originally a guided track, make up at least half the numbers allowed each season). Expect all the weather Fjordland can throw at you, which as the third wettest place in the world, is quite a lot! Half way through walking the track DOC closed the track due to 390mm of rain falling in 24 hours (about what Auckland gets in four months). A month before the track was closed due to several feet of snow! During the winter DOC remove the bridges to avoid them getting damaged and to discourage people from walking the track, there 76 avalanche risk areas! Basically you want either rain (though perhaps not enough to close the track) to get the spectacular waterfalls, or sunshine (though rare) to enjoy the views from McKinnon Pass. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Through the prairie valley toward Mintaro Hut, views from McKinnon Pass, the McKinnon memorial, side trip to Sutherland Falls (largest waterfall in New Zealand), when it rains waterfalls everywhere!
Lowlights: Plenty of sand flies around, weather typically pretty poor, risk of track closure (if you’re due to start the track the day it’s closed DOC will offer people the Routeburn or Kepler if there are spaces available)
Route taken: In season has to be done over three nights, four days, starting at Glade Wharf and finishing at Sandfly Point (with ferries from Te Anau Downs and to Milford Sound respectively). Day one is 5km, super easy, day two is reasonably flat, day three is the big day up and over the pass, day four is pretty flat
Tips: Take spare food in case you get stuck in a hut, good waterproofs and insect repellent are a must, book well ahead of time
4. Kepler Track (60km, 3-4 days)
Opened to take the pressure off the Milford and Routeburn Tracks, but has since become one of the most popular Great Walks, though it may be the toughest. The day two leg from Luxmore Hut along the ridge in good weather is possibly the most spectacular section of any of the Great Walks, though when I did it I couldn’t see much other than clouds. The day after was perfect weather… Handy loop circuit from Te Anau, with some pretty steep ascents and descents on days one and two. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Along the ridge line if the weather is clear, Luxmore Hut at 1299m above sea level is one of my favourite huts with some cool caves nearby so take a torch
Lowlights: Lots of sand flies at Brod Bay and Moturau Hut, doing the full loop from Te Anau involves quite a long walk along the road at the start and end of tramp
Route taken: Two nights, Luxmore and Iris Burn Huts, very doable to skip Moturau Hut as is gradual downhill / flat from Iris Burn Hut onwards
Tips: Can skip start and each of track road sections using buses, or ferry out to Brod Bay, recommend starting Brod Bay end as easier to go from Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut than the other way around
5. Heaphy Track (78.4km, 4-6 days)
The longest Great Walk but easier than expected, with gradual uphill / downhill sections. Bit like a best of a Great Walk with coastal, bush, tussock and semi-alpine sections, though nothing as spectacular as the four Great Walks above. Was the quietest Great Walk I’ve done, able to walk for hours without seeing anyone, and had the best huts, with Heaphy, James Mackay and Perry Saddle Huts all new within the past three years. Taking the Heaphy Bus it is a long way (ends of the track are 463km apart by road) but very doable from Nelson, six hours to Kohaihai, and a few hours to Brown Hut. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Views from Mt Perry, a two hour return walk on unmaintained track by Perry Saddle Hut, great new huts, through Gowden Downs, along West Coast beaches from / toward Kohaihai
Lowlights: West Coast sand flies live up to their reputation, some dull bush walking between Lewis Hut and James Mackey Hut and Perry Saddle Hut and Brown Hut
Route taken: Three nights, started at Kohaihai and stayed at Heaphy, James Mackay and Perry Saddle Huts, which is opposite to usual due to transport timings, would recommend starting at Brown Hut as gets the uphill out the way in one day
Tips: Stay at Heaphy, James Mackay and Perry Saddle Huts as they’re new and best spaced, take plenty of insect repellent!
6. Abel Tasman Coast Track (55.2km, 3-5 days)
The most popular National Park and Great Walk and it shows. You can tramp for hours to a secluded beach, only for a water taxi to have disgorged a group of day walkers onto the track. It is also one of the tougher Great Walks to do quickly with steep ascents and descents, no more than 200-300m at a time but each leg has at least one such hill. It is however absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous yellow sand beaches and stunning coastal views that make it all very much worthwhile. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Vast beach at Onetahuti Bay, crossing the Awaroa river at sunrise, cold water shower at the Awaroa Hut
Lowlights: Number of people on the track, number of baches including an entire village at Torrent Bay, few sand flies at dawn and dusk
Route taken: One night, started at Marahau and staying at Awaroa Hut and finishing at Wainui Bay, crazy 36km first day, really should be done over 3-4 days
Tips: Bring your togs as plenty of great places to swim, start on track early to avoid the day walkers, check the tides for Awaroa to be able to cross, and just past Anchorage (only new hut on track) there is a short cut at low tide
7. Lake Waikaremoana Track (46km, 3-4 days)
Just beats the Raikura Track by virtue of more altitude (and therefore views), more eclectic huts, and the impressive Korokoro Falls. The easiest of the Great Walks due to generally excellent track condition, and mostly flat other than one decent ascent and descent. Just doesn’t beat any other Great Walk in any way. Kepler and Routeburn have much better views, Tongariro Northern Circuit is way more interesting, and the Heaphy has a lot more variety. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: View from Panekire Bluff, side trip to Korokoro Falls, moss covered forests
Lowlights: Track views are basically the lake, and lots of forest, some issues with track and hut maintenance atm as DOC and Tuhoe work out the transition from national park status
Route taken: One night, stayed at Marauiti Hut, though was ridiculously quick, most people take the 3-4 days
Tips: Go anti-clockwise which is opposite to the usual route taken but saves the best views for the end, and is easier in terms of the ascent (mostly staircases that way), take toilet paper as there is none on the track
8. Rakiura Track (32km, 2-3 days)
The newest Great Walk but shouldn’t be one in my opinion, plenty of better walks, though is a good excuse to visit New Zealand’s third island. Lacks the elevation for any decent views and the coastal sections aren’t a patch on Abel Tasman or Heaphy Track. Surprisingly tough despite the distance as its very up and down, and muddy. Famed for its bird life but less than I expected, a better experience (and closer for most people) would be the Aotea Track on Great Barrier Island. Here’s the full story of walking the track.
Highlights: Some nice coastal views on day one section, loop track from Oban
Lowlights: Day two section is a dull tramp up and down muddy hills with nothing to see other than bush, road sections from Oban not that long but felt endless
Route taken: One night, stayed at Port William Hut, Track is very doable in two days
Tips: Go clockwise which is opposite to usual route but recommended as saves best bits for the end and Port William Hut is more sheltered than the North Arm Hut
Few general Great Walk tips
- Book early. People come from around the world to do the Great Walks. Given the size of the huts and camp grounds though there’s not space for more around 100-150 people max on any one track at a time. Therefore they do book up very quickly (particularly the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler) so get organised and book well ahead of time. Apparently all 1,240 places on the Milford Track in January 2017 sold out in three hours…
- The Great Walk huts have mattresses in the huts during the season but not all have gas in huts (e.g, Abel Tasman, Rakiura, Waikaremoana, some huts on The Heaphy)
- The tracks are very well maintained and sign posted, no need for maps on any of the tracks other than the brochures that can be downloaded or picked up from visitor centres
- Essential things you should pack are matches, rubbish bags (all rubbish needs to be carried off the tracks), ear plugs, a torch, warm clothes to change into in the huts, a bag liner (thick plastic bag that goes inside your pack to keep things dry), insect cream (sand flies are an annoying feature of most of the walks), toilet paper (provided on some tracks but best be prepared) and a first aid kit
- Recommended things you could pack are a sleeping bag liner (to save washing your sleeping bag), a travel pillow (bit of a luxury but only really takes up space rather than weight), and hiking poles (make a huge difference to speed and safety of walking, though not essential for the Great Walks given how well maintained the tracks usually are)
- Be prepared for the worst, I.e. good amount of food, wet weather gear and warm clothes, as the weather can quickly change on any of the tracks. Very easy to get caught out by New Zealand weather, much more variable and difficult to predict than European weather
If you’re after a Great Walk experience without the people I’d recommend the Hump Ridge Track. It’s up to (and exceeds in places) the standards of the Great Walks but is far less well known as it is not run by DOC, but the local community instead. Three hours drive from Queenstown, at the southern end of Fjordland, it’d make a good alternative in the area if the Milford, Routeburn or Kepler are full. I’d rank it above half the Great Walks above.