MY FIRST TIME In New Zealand
It felt strange to be standing here again. I watched as a couple lingered at the sign for the Routeburn Track trailhead. A nagging sense of déjà vu swept over me. The couple took a few giddy selfies before disappearing along the trail into the depths of Fiordland National Park. I’m almost positive I have the exact same photograph – probably in some dusty album at my parent’s house. Despite a vague sense of familiarity, it seems like a lifetime ago, as if it happened to a different person.
I’d fallen in love with New Zealand on that first trip. The initial stop on my last hurrah before adulthood – 6 months, 5 bucket list countries, 1 backpack, a new camera, and my boyfriend. The idea for the trip had been planted while studying abroad in Australia. By graduation, it had blossomed into a particularly virulent strain of wanderlust. I figured the only cure was to travel for a few months. Then it would be out of my system, and I could get my life back on track. When I got home I’d apply to law school, become a lawyer, and save the world from a fancy corner office desk. And for the most part—minus saving the world—that all happened. At least for a little while.
It’s not that I never thought I’d be here again. I promised myself I would be back someday. Although I never imagined it would be so soon, or that I would ever so drastically off my carefully mapped out life plan. Packing my camera gear into my backpack I had this strange sensation that I was living some alternative butterfly effect version of my life. As if all those years ago, instead of returning home, I chose happiness over-ambition. Passion over expectation. Life over security – and never looked back. But life’s lessons don’t exist in a vacuum, and I wouldn’t take back the convoluted series of events that landed me back here.
The scent of damp earth filled the air as the thunder of a waterfall beckoned in the distance. We quickly overtook the couple taking photos at the trailhead. Overhearing their conversation as we passed, memories of that first trip came flooding back. The excitement of experiencing a new place for the first time, the freedom and independence of only being accountable to ourselves. Maybe things hadn’t really changed all that much. I still had a camera on my back, a bucket list of hikes in my phone, and with every step, I could feel myself falling in love with New Zealand all over again.
One thing was different though – I now understand that my wanderlust is here to stay. There is no cure. No point in fighting it. There is only the unknown – and for the first time, I’m okay with that.
The Best Hikes in New Zealand
Personal anecdote aside, let’s get to the good stuff! Below is a list of my favorite hikes on New Zealand’s South Island. While we elected to camp at a couple of these locations, all of these New Zealand hiking trails can all easily be done in a day. As always, please practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Keep in mind that regulations are always changing, and what was true for us, may not necessarily still be true for you. It’s a great idea to check in with one of the local Department of Conservation (DOC) offices before heading out on any trail. Their friendly guidance regarding anything from weather forecasts to local regulations, camping restrictions, and trail recommendations is an excellent resource to keep you out of trouble and improve the quality of your trip. Happy hiking!
Hike 1: Lake Marian Track
Lake Marian is nothing short of stunning. An alpine lake set in a hanging valley, surrounded by snow-covered peaks. It has to be one of the prettiest settings in Fiordland National Park. When we arrived at the lake in the late afternoon, we set up camp on the far edge, away from the water – and people. The hike itself is pleasant, albeit entirely uphill through dense forest. After about an hour and a half of hiking, the forest ends abruptly, and there she is—Lake Marian—sparkling in her jade-colored glory.
As the afternoon sun dropped lower in the sky the wind died, and the surrounding mountains reflected perfectly in Lake Marian’s clear, calm waters. We were the only people there that night, and it was impossible not to feel like the universe was smiling down on us.
Logistics: The track begins from the Lake Marian carpark. Head down Milford Road (SH94) from The Divide for a few minutes before heading 1 km down unsealed Hollyford Road.
Distance: 4.4 miles. Elevation Gain: 1,434 feet
Hike 2: Gertrude Saddle
Nothing can prepare you for the views at Gertrude Saddle. The sun rays piercing through layers of peaks, Milford sound glistening in the distance, and the sheer exposure is enough to take anyone’s breath away. And if the views don’t, the climb to the summit certainly will!
Given the right conditions, the climb to Gertrude Saddle has to be one of the world’s great short hikes. There are very few places I’ve been where the effort to reward ratio is so dramatic, which is not to say that it’s an easy hike. The hike starts out relatively level on a spectacular valley floor. It honestly feels like being dropped into Jurassic Park, as if a Pterodactyl might suddenly make a not altogether unexpected appearance. The route eventually ascends towards the saddle and over steep rock slabs that can be treacherous when wet or frosty. Don’t hesitate to use the steel cables for assistance.
Logistics: Reach this track from the Gertrude Valley carpark, about 98 km along the Milford Road from Te Anau. For the more experienced, the high country above the saddle offers outstanding opportunities for further exploration.
Distance: 4.3 miles. Elevation Gain: 2,625 feet.
Hike 3: Lake Mackenzie
When I found out I was going to New Zealand, I immediately looked up permits for some of the Great Walks. On my first trip, I was lucky to have completed the Milford, Routeburn, and Able Tasman Coast Tracks – all multi-day hikes requiring permits. But, it was still the high season, and I wasn’t able to get permits this time around. Nevertheless, Quin had his heart set on the Routeburn Track’s Lake Mackenzie. Without permits to spend the night, we decided to try it as a day hike.
Depending on which direction you hike, Lake Mackenzie is generally either the first or the last stop for most hikers on the Routeburn Track. Starting from “The Divide” side, it’s a relatively long, albeit easy 15-mile round trip. Unsure how difficult the journey might be, we left mid-morning with the intention of getting there a little before dusk for sunset. Unlike most of the hikes we’d experienced in New Zealand however, there was relatively little elevation gain, resulting in our arrival hours earlier than expected. We spent the entire afternoon in a secluded corner of the lake, swimming, taking photos, and taking it easy before eventually booking it back to the car for a Milford Sound sunset. Needless to say, it was a good day!
Logistics: You can access The Routeburn Track either from the Routeburn Shelter (near Glenorchy and 68 km from Queenstown). Or from the other end at The Divide Shelter (on the Milford Road, 85 km from Te Anau). To hike to Lake Mackenzie you will want to start at The Divide Shelter – unless you want to hike the entire Routeburn Track in one day!
Distance: 14.9 miles. Elevation Gain: approximately 900 feet.
Hike 4: Roys Peak
This has to be one of the most well-known day hikes in New Zealand. As such, I foolishly assumed it would be easy. But New Zealander’s don’t mess around when it comes to day hikes, and Roys Peak will quite literally kick your ass. While the trail is well-formed and well-traveled, the hike itself is a relentless uphill slog. Don’t let this scare you away though. Take your time, plenty of water, and remember that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other you’ll be rewarded at the summit with sweeping views over Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring, and the surrounding peaks! We did the hike for sunset, but it would be beautiful any time of day.*
Logistics: The track starts at the Roys Peak Track car park, near Wanaka township on Mount Aspiring Rd. The trail closes periodically for lambing, so it’s a good idea to check specific closure dates for planning purposes.
Distance: 9.9 miles (5-6 hours return). Elevation Gain: 4,030 feet.
*The above photo was taken at Coromandel Peak – which is apparently different than Roys Peak although we didn’t realize it at the time. Our group made its way to this spot by following the ridge from Roys Peak in search of alternative perspectives on the view. The view from Coromandel is substantially similar to the one at the Roys Peak viewpoint, although arguably more lined up and less obstructed.
Hike 5: Isthmus Peak
Same-same as Roys Peak – but different. From the trailhead, you follow a clear route along the true right of Stewart Creek that eventually turns into a 4WD track. It’s an unrelenting uphill tramp, but the endless views in every direction are an excellent distraction. The track overlooks impossibly blue Lake Wanaka and Lake Hāwea, with the Southern Alps on the horizon. Like Roys Peak, Isthmus Peak can be extremely windy and cold. Make sure to layer up so you can enjoy the summit!
Logistics: The track to Isthmus Peak starts off the Lake Hawea section of SH6, about a 30-minute drive from Wanaka Township. There’s an “Isthmus Peak” signpost at the car park. The trail closes periodically for lambing, so it’s a good idea to check specific closure dates for planning purposes.
Distance: 9.9 miles (5-6 hours return). Elevation Gain: 4544 feet.
Hike 6: Hooker Valley Track
If you believe that good things should only come to those that toil and sweat for them, then this hike probably isn’t for you. It’s hard to beat the picturesque Hooker Valley Track without putting in some serious effort! Once you’re on the trail it’s not difficult to see why Mount Cook holds special significance in traditional Kiwi culture. The scenery is otherworldly from start to finish.
Shortly after starting the track, you’ll cross the first of three suspension bridges. From the first bridge, enjoy expansive views of Muller Lake. The second bridge, a popular spot to stop for photographs, offers a beautiful mountain backdrop. From there, you’ll continue along a well-maintained boardwalk on the expansive valley floor, where you get your first glimpse of Mount Cook! As you meander further there’s not much left to do but take in the spectacular views.
Logistics: The Hooker Valley Track starts at the White Horse Hill Campsite and car park at the end of Hooker Valley Road. It’s an easy walking track, with level terrain.
Distance: 6.2 miles. Elevation Gain: 330 feet
By Jess Wandering