In a country where nearly 30 percent of the land is protected in national parks, if you were to hike a different trail on New Zealand’s South Island every day for an entire year you still wouldn’t come close to conquering the bountiful scenery. Nevertheless, a handful of South Island hikes are definitely more popular than others—although being popular doesn’t always translate to being the best.
The most-heavily trafficked of the South Island hiking trails are undoubtedly those classified as “Great Walks.” Well-maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and featuring huts which can accommodate up to 50 trekkers, the Southern Island Great Walks include the Routeburn Track, Heaphy Track, Abel Tasmen Coast Track, Kepler Track, and finally, the nearly permanently-booked Milford Track. Of the five Great Walks in the South Island, three of them—Routeburn, Milford, and Kepler—all scour the mountains and deep gorges of Fiordland, whereas the Abel Tasman Coastal Track meanders along the sandy coves and turquoise waters of Abel Tasman National Park. Even though these walks can be crowded and the huts booked far advance, the views afforded from the summits and saddles or the simplicity of a picnic at an alpine lake are what lure visitors from across the globe to strap on boots and head off down the trail.
Of the hikes not classified as Great Walks, trails running through the island’s national parks such as Arthur’s Pass, Aoraki/Mt. Cook, Nelson Lakes, or Mt. Aspiring all offer incredible scenery which frequently isn’t accompanied by the same level of crowds. At Kahurangi National Park, home of the Heaphy Track, there are other side trails where it’s still possible to hike for four days without encountering a single hiker along the journey.
While the Great Walks will forever take the cake in terms of hiker popularity, for those who prefer a bit of solitude while walking there are an abundant amount of alternatives located nearby to the popular routes. For example, instead of hiking the Milford Track in Fiordland head off instead on the trail to Gertrude Saddle. Or in lieu of walking the Kepler Track, take a day to tackle the Manapouri Circle Track located 20 minutes down the road. Those wanting to really get away from it all in Fiordland can head out into Doubtful Sound to lose themselves in the wilds of the Dusky Track, or if you’re packing some potent sand-fly repellent, head out on the Hollyford Track and follow it all the way to its junction with the Tasman coast.
Finally, for those travelers where time isn’t a worry, the best trail on the whole island is undoubtedly the newly completed Te Araroa trail which runs the length of the entire country over a distance of 1850 miles. Piecing together sections of multiple trails already in place, the South Island component of the trail takes about two months to walk to completion.
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s New Zealand tours and things to do, New Zealand attractions, and New Zealand travel recommendations, or book a private tour guide in New Zealand for a customized tour!