Hiking in New Zealand is a life affirming event and we made sure we latched on to a life well lived with these easy jaunts in both the North and South islands.
Hiking in New Zealand
A great walk is like candy for the senses. By putting one foot in front of the other, you can invigorate the mind and body. It seems perversely easy to get such a joyous feeling from such a simple act. New Zealand is known for its spectacular scenery. The best way to witness these wonders is on foot. Nearly every day of our fantastic 20 day journey to New Zealand included a walk into its epic beauty. Join me as we explore some very approachable hiking in New Zealand that is guaranteed to exhilarate your soul.
Tongariro National Trout Centre and River Walk
After our drive from Auckland to Turangi, we were in need of a break from the car. We couldn’t check into our Airbnb in Turangi until later in the afternoon, so we headed over to the Tongariro National Trout Centre for a stroll on the river walk.
For a small fee, we decided to include the aquarium and hatchery into our stroll along the river. The aquarium lets you get up close and personal with the trout while providing details about these hardy fish. There are also bullies running wild in the aquarium. However, have no fear as the common bully is a small fish native to New Zealand and looks quite harmless.
The hatchery at the Tongariro National Trout Centre is more educational than functional. The stocks of trout in the river and Lake Taupo are vibrant. There isn’t a need for a hatchery to sustain the population. Instead the hatchery provides information about the rainbow and brown trout and provides an educational experience for students.
Leaving the hatchery, we made our way on the trail toward the river. The beginning of the trail is heavily wooded and bristling with Jurassic Park ferns. Honestly, if a velociraptor popped out onto the trail, we wouldn’t have been surprised. To add to the experience the forest offered a cascade of scents from moss and pine to a honeysuckle perfume.
The wooded section doesn’t last long before clearing along the river’s edge. The Tongariro river is one of the most heavily fished rivers in the world. It is a fly fishing destination and we saw a few anglers enjoying the caress of the water and warm embrace of the sun.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Greg and I soon found ourselves out on a trail fit for mountain goats. I think I stopped to take a picture and we lost Dianne and Brenda on a turn. They smartly followed the signs back toward the parking lot. Meanwhile, we followed a sign that mentioned “Angler’s path”. Lacking equipment for fishing and finding the trail dwindling into a game trail, we backtracked until we met back up with our gals. Needless to say, we all worked up a thirst hiking in New Zealand and made a beeline toward town and a tasty beverage.
Located in near the middle of the North Island of New Zealand is Tongariro National Park. This is the home of one of New Zealand’s best day hikes, the Tongariro crossing. It is located about 40 minutes from our Airbnb in Turangi. One of the reasons we picked Turangi was the proximity to this trail which takes you through an active volcano region.
The full Tongariro cross is a one-way hike of 12 miles with an estimated travel time of 7-9 hours. Besides the distance and time, we did not want to fuss with arranging a drop off and pick-up. Instead, we decided to start out from the car park at Mangatepopo and walk out to the Soda Springs and back. This is a little less than one-third of the total trail, but provides a nice taste of the landscape. It also gets you near the volcanoes without having to climb them.
The sky was blue as blue can be when we arrived at the car park. We had read that parking is limited, so we arrived early. This was a good move as this trailhead was busy with people getting ready for full-day adventure hiking in New Zealand’s oldest national park.
Signs and attendants are clear that the you can only park for 4 hours. Their serious faces indicate this is no joke. Noting the time on our watches, we hit the trail.
Brisk temperatures made for an enjoyable stroll. The valley is wide open. Dotting the landscape of ancient lava flows with hardy plants that enjoy the dry conditions. The trail is fairly flat alternating between crushed stone and boardwalk. You climb as you get closer to Soda Springs with patches of rocky trail. Watch your step as these portions can surely twist an ankle or worse.
Trekking out on this short out and back gives you time to savor this brilliant landscape. The volcanic peaks in the distance tell the stories of creation and renewal. You can imagine these peaks as mighty Māori whose battle for supremacy created the land upon which we admire.
Our first on foot adventure on the South island of New Zealand is Devil’s Punchbowl. It sounds scary, but it isn’t too bad. We were on our way to Franz Josef where our heli-hike of Fox Glacier was set for the next day. To break up the drive and see some of the rugged beauty of the Arthur’s Pass area, this short but intense hike sounded like just the ticket.
The parking area for the Devil’s Punchbowl is just off SH73 just north of Arthur’s Pass. We pulled into the gravel lot and in the distance could hear music. As we made our way toward the bridge across the Bealey river we saw what looked like a clubhouse. A few vehicles were parked outside and you could hear some classic rock cranking from within. Greg suggested we should head over to join the party. With Aerosmith playing in the background, we forged on.
Once across the bridge, things get a bit intense. While the trail is only .7 miles (1km) to the falls, it is nearly all climbing up a series of steps. I lost count of the number of steps. The elevation gain is roughly 295 feet (90m). We took our time and were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the falls.
The Māori call the falls Hinekakai after an ancestor of the same name who was a famous weaver. The flowing ribbons of water give the impression of finely woven fabric endlessly cascading through time. What a great way to preserve the legacy of your ancestors by associating their story with the lands in which they lived.
At the observation stand, Greg struck up a conversation with a guy in a Pink Floyd shirt. I think his name was Pete (sorry Pete if I got your name wrong). Pete actually played guitar in a cover band which included some Pink Floyd tunes. The next thing you know, Greg was inviting Pete to Thanksgiving in North Carolina. Greg is a fun guy and I’m sure Pete is going to have a great Thanksgiving with Greg, Dianne, and Willie.
On our way back down the trail, we ran into a couple of youngsters who popped off the spur trail that climbs up Mount Aiken. They were with their grandmother and assured all of us that the trail was safe. We stared at this steep goat path with mistrust, thanked these little gentlemen for their recommendation, and proceeded back down the stairs. The clubhouse rocked out to REO Speedwagon as we drove off to our next adventure.
The Blue Pools
On our travels to Wanaka from Franz Josef, we made a pit stop at the Blue Pools. The glorious blue waters of the Makarora River collect into pools of aquamarine beauty. The parking area is located on the Haast Pass Makarora road about an hour south of Haast and perhaps 15 minutes from the northern end of Lake Wanaka.
The skies were a mottled gray which threatened rain. However, temperatures were pleasantly perfect for this easy half mile hike. You’ll travel through ancient beech forest before reaching the suspension bridge over the Makarora River. A limited number of people can be on the bridge at one time. Beware of dumbasses who think it is fun to jump on the bridge.
The beauty of the bridge is that it is actually a great place to see the majestic blue pools. The water is tantalizing and crystal clear. Apparently people jump off the bridge into the pools, yet we witness none of this craziness. The entire place feels ancient and magical.
You can make your way down to the water to place a toe, foot, or your entire body into this mystical water. On your way back, we spent time admiring the lush forest and ferns. In particular, the serrated leaves of the lancewood trees that are plentiful in this area.
Our most challenging adventure while hiking in New Zealand is Isthmus Peak. The peak stands at just over 4500 ft (1385m) with views of the surrounding mountains and both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. When searching for hikes with mountain views in the Wanaka area, Isthmus peak and Roys Peak top the list. We opted for Isthmus peak given that many posts suggested it as the less traveled hike with a similar rugged experience.
The trail is out and back at a total of nearly 10 miles (16km). We started out early to avoid any potential for crowds. The carpark is right off State Highway 6 (aka Makarora-Lake Hawea Rd) about 30 minutes north of Wanaka. The parking lot is decent size and no issues finding a spot.
The trail starts on the opposite side of the road and starts climbing through pasture land. You can see the sheep in the field and may even see a few on the trail with you. The trail soon expands into a 4 wheeler trail. Don’t be alarmed if you actually see a 4 wheeler on the trail as we had a couple of hunters pass us on the way.
This trail is definitely uphill. I was reminded of Pikes Peak. Isthmus Peak isn’t nearly as big, but the incline is just as significant. The trail features plenty of switchbacks which offer a spot to rest and take in the dazzling views. There are a few false “summits” and after dragging our carcasses uphill for hours we called this rocky outcropping the “top”.
With the wind whipping and the sun high, we took in the grand majesty of this wonderful spot on our planet. It was hard to imagine that we were halfway around the world. We then made the long descent back to the car. Why does it seem that the way home is always the longest?
Given the logistics of our trip to New Zealand, we had a 2.5 hour drive from Wanaka to Aoraki Mount Cook national park and the Hooker Valley trail. It is so hard to see it all in New Zealand in 20 days, so a long drive is in the cards. No matter, the stunning beauty of this valley is worth the effort. Plus we had David Sedaris along for the ride to incite fits of laughter with his oddly amusing stories.
The long drive meant that we would not arrive early, which led to a bit of a parking dilemma. However, Brenda and Dianne’s guardian angel provided us an opening that didn’t require a long ass hike to get to the planned long ass hike. With cameras and daypacks in tow, we set out on the Hooker Valley track.
While most of our trip was blessed with clear azure skies, we were not so lucky today. It was not completely overcast, yet the thick cotton clouds tinted with gray had us playing peek-a-boo with the mountain tops. I kept thinking “Come on blue sky! You can do it!”.
The Hooker Valley Track gently rolls over glacial moraines and uses those fun swing bridges to cross over the Hooker River. Thankfully, no jackass jumping on the bridges this time around. However, I’m not sure many folks gave a shit about the maximum of 20 people signs.
Aoraki (aka Mount Cook) stubbornly remained in the clouds as we walked toward its massive foot. I could hear it saying “Thanks for visiting, but I’m enjoying a nap in these lovely clouds”. We eventually turned back the way we had come to seek out food and tasty beverages back in Wanaka. We will never forget the wonderful memories we created while hiking in New Zealand
We have loads more photos in our gallery from our adventures hiking in New Zealand. Feel free to take a gander, but please contact us regarding their use.
See More of New Zealand
Be sure to read our other stories from our trip to New Zealand including:
- Our 20-day first-timer itinerary to New Zealand
- The mysterious volcanic White Island
- A visit with the hobbits in Hobbiton
- Heli-hiking on Fox Glacier
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