The complete list of the absolute best hikes in South Island New Zealand! Hand-picked day walks and overnight tramps from the wildlife coast of Kaikoura to the jurassic Fjordlands.
The South Island of New Zealand is one of the world’s best and most pristine hiking destinations. Coupled with the Kiwis’ love for the outdoors means that there are hundreds, if not thousands of pristine hiking trails and tramping routes ready to be explored.
It would take a lifetime to explore all of the South Island hikes and trails. However, in this guide, I aim to outline some of the best and most famous hikes, as well as a few little-known gems.
In this list of the best hikes in South Island New Zealand, I’ve broken down different hikes into areas. This will make it easier for you to plan your trips.
- Great Hikes Near Queenstown
- Awesome South Island Hikes Near Wanaka
- Hikes Near Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
- Fjordland National Park Hikes & Tramps
- Arthur’s Pass and the West Coast
- Kaikoura and the East Coast Hikes
- Hiking in the Catlins
- Bonus: Te Araroa Trail – Most Epic Tramp in New Zealand’s South Island
- Tips & Info For Hiking in South Island New Zealand
- Best Overnight Hikes on the South Island
- More South Island New Zealand Hikes: The Wishlist
- More South Island New Zealand Travel Guides and Blogs
Great Hikes Near Queenstown
Queenstown, affectionately known as the adventure capital of the world, is also a great base for tackling some of the country's best hikes.
I've written a separate article that includes a little more detail regarding the best hikes in Queenstown. Otherwise, you can also find hiking guides for most on this list beneath each item.
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1. Queenstown Hill
Queenstown Hill is probably the most popular sunrise and sunset hill in town.
This hike is very easy and wide and begins within walking distance of the main strip in Queenstown. Taking only 2-3 hours for the return trip with an optional short loop near the top, this is a great warm-up hike for things to come!
Since Queenstown is high on most people's New Zealand itinerary, then I've included this hike as one of the best in the South Island for the simple reason that you'll get some of the best views of town from here.
2. Tiki Trail
Starting from the Skyline Gondola just a few minutes' walk from Ferg Burger is Queenstown's Tiki Trail.
This steep, yet scenic climb through dense beech and fir forest winds up to the top of Skyline Hill, just next to Bob's Lookout.
At the top, you’ll also find the “luge” which is one of the most popular adventure activities found in Queenstown.
Tip: If you’d like to take the Gondola back down, I’d recommend booking a gondola and luge joint ticket online.
READ MORE: Best Things to Do in Queenstown, New Zealand
3. The Ben Lomond Track
Are the legs warm after climbing up the Tiki Trail? If you're up for it, then you can continue onto the Ben Lomond track, which is one of my favourite hikes in the South Island.
This track leads to the Ben Lomond summit, from which you can climb another short distance to the 1748 m peak.
From here, hikers are rewarded with the best views of Queenstown, the Remarkables, and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu below.
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4. Bob's Cove Track
From mountain summits to lakeside views, they say that Queenstown captures what New Zealand's diverse landscapes are all about.
This next scenic South Island walking track is called Bob's Cove Track.
Bob's Cove is a popular lakeside swimming and picnic area located just a short drive from Queenstown's main strip. Here, you can walk a very scenic loop, with the highlight being "Picnic Hill" whereby you'll be treated to sweeping views of Lake Wakatipu and the distant Remarkables range.
5. Moke Lake Loop
Moke Lake New Zealand is a small mountain lake located near the small suburb of Closeburn, near Queenstown. Although this lake is only a relative stone-throw away from the bustling adrenaline hub, Moke Lake is a much tamer and more secluded hiking area.
While only offering a short loop hike and a lake viewpoint hill, heading to Moke Lake is a great idea, especially if you have a camper. This is because Moke Lake has one of the best DOC campsites near Queenstown. So, if camping and hiking are on your Queenstown itinerary, don't miss Moke Lake.
6. Lake Alta Hike
The Lake Alta hike is a short track that leads from the Remarkables Ski Area and finishes at a pristine mountain lake at 1900M.
To get here, you'll need to drive up the Remarkables Ski Area access road, which is an adventure in itself!
Compared to most of the short hikes in Queenstown, I believe the Lake Alta hike to be one of the most underrated.
Tip: If you follow my guide below, I detail a relatively unknown route to a viewpoint just beside the lake for the best views of Lake Alta and Shotover Country.
7. The Routeburn Track - Epic South Island Multi-Day Tramp
The Routeburn Track is the first of the "Great Walks" featured on this list and is widely considered one of the best overnight tramps on the South Island.
This is a through-hike that can be started from either Glenorchy or the Divide in the Fjordland National Park.
Passing vast tussock plains and deep valleys and climbing through temperate rainforests to high alpine peaks, hikers are treated to the real "New Zealand experience".
Read: Routeburn Track Day Hike
NEW ZEALAND GREAT WALKS
The New Zealand Department of Conservation has categorised some hikes as "Great Walks". There 9 "premier tracks" are typically multi-day tramps in New Zealand's best hiking areas. For more information, visit the DOC website.
8. Earnslaw Burn Hike
Also departing from Glenorchy, the Earnslaw Burn hike is another amazing overnight hike (or long out-and-back day trip).
Following the Earnslaw glacial burn, the track dips and climbs along pristine beech forest for several hours before finally breaking out into a magical glacial valley.
The track leads all the way to the Earnslaw glacier, passing plunging waterfalls on each side. There are several spots that make great freedom camping spots. For this reason, the Earnslaw Burn is typically hiked on an overnight trip.
If you're looking for 2-day hikes on the South Island and staying near Queenstown or Glenorchy, go give this one a try!
Awesome South Island Hikes Near Wanaka
Second to Queenstown, Wanaka is arguably the next most popular destination for adventure travelers visiting New Zealand.
9. Roy's Peak
Known as New Zealand's most trafficked mountain, to say that the Roy's Peak track is popular would be an understatement.
However, that's not to say that its popularity is unwarranted. On a clear day, Roy's Peak rewards hikers with sweeping views of Wanaka town and lake, as well as distant Mount Aspiring.
Tip: Leave early (before sunrise) to secure a car park spot and to avoid big crowds on the trail and at the summit.
10. Rocky Mountain Summit and Diamond Lake Loop
If the Roy's Peak car park has reached max capacity and you're not too keen on queuing up for a summit photo, then the Rocky Mountain summit track is a great alternative.
Just a 10-15 minute drive from Wanaka, the Rocky Mountain summit track climbs to a very scenic viewpoint high above Wanaka Lake. Often missed by visitors to Wanaka, the view from the summit has earned it a spot on my list of best hikes in South Island New Zealand.
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11. Blue Pools in Wanaka
The Blue Pools track is located in Mount Aspiring National Park, approximately one hour's drive from Wanaka.
This easy and shot walking track leads through beautiful native forests and over two swing bridges before finishing at the Makarora River's Blue Pools.
Many visitors flock to the Blue Pools to swim in the incredibly blue glacial waters at the end of this short, yet scenic track.
Hikes Near Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The crown jewel of New Zealand hiking areas - the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has some of the absolute best hikes in South Island New Zealand.
From unbeatable views of Mount Cook - New Zealand's tallest mountain to moraine viewpoints looking over the country's largest glacier, this is a New Zealand hiking destination you won't want to miss.
Tip: I've also written a separate guide to hiking in Mount Cook National park hikes.
12. Tasman Glacier Viewpoint Hike
Starting off the hikes in the Mount Cook area is this unmarked and little-known viewpoint on the edge of the Tasman Glacier moraine.
To get here, you'll need to drive to the Tasman Valley, just a short stint from Mount Cook Village. The viewpoint is found about one hour's hike along the Balls Hut Track.
While this hike isn't the most scenic or challenging, it's the lookout at the end that makes it worth it!
13. Sealy Tarns Track
The next four hikes on this list all depart from near the White Horse Hill campsite, just a short drive from Mount Cook Village.
First up is the Sealy Tarns track, a steep climb that traverses over 2200 wooden steps before concluding at a set of beautiful reflective alpine ponds (tarns).
From here, views of the Hooker Valley and Aoraki/Mount Cook are pristine. If you're a keen photographer, make sure to snap some reflective photos of Aoraki in the tarns!
14. Mueller Hut Route
If this list of best South Island hikes was ordered, then the Mueller Hut Route would have to finish close to the top.
Continuing on from the Sealy Tarns track, the Mueller Route ascends further up the Sealy range to the pass.
From here, the track follows on to the Mueller Hut; one of New Zealand's many scenic alpine huts. Many people choose to stay in the hut overnight, however, it is still possible to freedom camp near the hut too!
15. Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley track is often considered one of the most scenic hikes in New Zealand.
Winding up the Hooker Valley, this hike passes several swing bridges, passing moraine viewpoints and crosses the Hooker River as it makes its way to the Hooker Glacial lake at the feet of Mount Cook.
If you're looking for great views of New Zealand's tallest peak without having to commit to a strenuous hike, this is the one for you!
16. Kea Point Track
The Kea Point track is the shortest track in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. With approximately 1-1.5 hours expected for the return trip, it's a worthwhile hike that finishes at Kea Point.
From here, there are direct views of the Mueller glacial moraine and lake, with floating icebergs regularly seen in the calm alpine waters.
17. Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier Walk
On the way back from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, why not go back to the Tasman Valley to check out the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walk?
Of course, this can be completed at the same time as the moraine viewpoint mentioned above. However, if you're short on time or would prefer a short hike to the Tasman Glacier, then this is a great option.
Fjordland National Park Hikes & Tramps
For those chasing a real slice of Jurassic New Zealand, the Fjordlands is the place to be.
When most people think of the Fjordlands, they think of Milford Sound. The reality is that there is so much more to explore than just the regular tourist beat. Here are some of the most epic hikes in the area to get you started.
Note that due to closures resulting from recent severe flooding, some of these hikes may be closed. This is the reason why I was unable to include some great tracks which deserved a spot on this list. However, I have included them in the section at the end of this post with links to other bloggers and travel writers to help you out.
18. Kepler Track - Epic 3-4 Day South Island Hike
Another of New Zealand's "Great Walks", the Kepler Track is a 2-4 day tramp departing from Te Anau.
The great thing about the Kepler Track is that it's a loop track, which means you don't have to follow in your footsteps to return back to Te Anau.
In terms of scenery, the Kepler is one of the most amazing hikes on New Zealand's South Island. Following the largest body of fresh water in Australiasia (Lake Te Anau), the track climbs through dense native forests before entering vast tussock plains with views of snow-capped peaks in all directions.
There are several ways to tackle this track, but in my opinion, the best way is to do it anti-clockwise in three days. I've written a very detailed guide about hiking the Kepler, which you'll find in the link below.
19. Mount Luxmore Summit
For those who don't have time to tackle the whole thing, it's possible to lock in a long day hike up the first section of the Kepler and to summit Mount Luxmore before returning back to Te Anau.
This is a great way to see a glimpse of the Kepler without committing to a long multi-day trek. However, it's important to remember that the best views by far are experienced on day two of the Kepler track.
Another popular alternative for those low on time is to complete this day hike and stay or camp at the Luxmore Hut and walk back to Te Anau the following day.
20. Milford Track
Perhaps the most well-known and trafficked of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Milford Track is a 4-day 53.5 KM track that finishes in the magical Milford Sound.
Known as the 'finest walk in the world' the Milford Track passes several waterfalls with spectacular viewing opportunities of the fjords and Mitre Peak.
Unfortunately, I haven't written a complete guide to the Milford Track. However, you can still find useful information on the DOC website.
21. Lake Hauroko
While Milford seems to get most of the attention, there are loads more excellent hiking areas in the Fjordlands and Southlands that are worth your time.
Lake Hauroko is a popular fishing and boating lake that also has one of the best sunset lookout hikes in the region.
This short, steep hike leads to a rocky platform overlooking the lake and snow-capped mountain ranges on either side. The great thing about this hike is that it's very lightly trafficked, which means you'll most likely have it all to yourself!
Arthur's Pass and the West Coast
Arthur's Pass, at an elevation of 740M, is a small tourist hub that has become a mecca for snowboarders, outdoor enthusiasts, and of course, hikers and trampers.
The mountain pass by the same name is only 5 kilometres from the township and is considered to be one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand.
Of course, there's so much more to see and do in Arthur's Pass than just a roadside pitstop. This includes some incredible tracks and routes that have earned their spot on this list of best hikes in South Island New Zealand.
22. Avalanche Peak
For the adventurous, the Avalanche Peak route is one of the best hikes in the area.
This one can be tackled in a loop, with both the beginning and end of the track being connected by a short stretch of highway.
Although a very steep climb that can be hazardous in winter conditions, the Avalanche Peak hike offers incredible views of the surrounding Arthur's Pass region, including tall mountain peaks and huge, plunging waterfalls.
23. Castle Hill (Kura Tawhiti)
Castle Hill is a little bit of a different hiking opportunity located near Arthur's Pass. What I mean by this is that it's more of an attraction to explore rather than a set track or route.
Kura Tawhiti is a culturally significant area consisting of hundreds of huge limestone boulders. You could easily spend hours walking around the many tracks around the boulders and admiring this geological phenomenon.
Read More: Visiting Castle Hill (Kura Tawhiti)
24. Devils Punchbowl Waterfall Track
Out of all of New Zealand's waterfalls, the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall has to be one of the most impressive.
Plunging down sheer cliffs in a beautiful native forest amphitheater, this 131-metre waterfall is a must-see Arthur's Pass attraction.
The hike to the waterfall is quite short but can be combined with the 6.8 km Arthur's Pass Walking track departing from the Devil's Punchbowl waterfall carpark.
The hiking trail to the waterfall is also a great warm-up hike before tackling some of the big routes like Avalanche Peak!
25. Roberts Point Track (Franz Josef)
Now, onto the wild West Coast. This region is home to several large glaciers including the Franz Josef glacier and the Fox Glacier.
The best hike for views of the Franz Josef glacier is the Roberts Point track. Although much longer than some of the other, quick-fix viewpoints, this track undeniably offers the best views.
Crossing several swing bridges over the Franz Josef glacial valley and climbing steadily through incredible native rainforest, this is a hike that is seriously underrated!
26. Mount Fox Summit Route
Looking for the best sunrise hike in South Island New Zealand? What about the steepest tramping route in the country? The answer is the Mount Fox route.
Seriously steep, yet seriously rewarding. This route is approximately 80% root-scrambling and 20% jaw-gaping, awe-inspiring views.
This track is a little hard to find and can be very dangerous in foggy or stormy conditions. For this reason, pick your day for the best weather and leave early to avoid afternoon fog. This will also increase your chances of clear Fox Glacier and Aoraki/Mount Cook views.
27. Lake Matheson Loop
The calm reflective waters of Lake Matheson are one of the best places in New Zealand to get views of Aoraki/Mount Cook's western face.
Located just a short drive from Fox Glacier village, the Lake Matheson Reflection Lake has a short, scenic loop hike around its circumference.
The highlight is undeniably Reflection Island, where in the right conditions, you'll be treated with Mount Cook views like in the photo below.
Tip: Visit for sunset for the best reflective shots of Mount Cook at Reflection Island.
Kaikoura and the East Coast Hikes
Now for the South Island's east coast. The north-eastern Kaikoura region is considered to be the island's wildlife capital, especially when it comes to marine creatures.
Here are the two best hikes near Kaikoura to fill in the time between whale watching and seal greeting!
28. Kaikoura Peninsula Walk
The Kaikoura Peninsula walk is a short coastal loop located just south of the Kaikoura township. This hike is popular because it allows visitors to spot dozens of basking fur seals who call this part of New Zealand home.
29. Mount Fyffe Summit Tramp
The Mount Fyffe summit hike is a tramping track that leads high above the Kaikoura Peninsula with views stretching from the alps to the sea.
Depending on the season, the Mount Fyffe summit route can be an overnight mission (by camping or staying at the hut), a sunny summer's hike or a snowy alpine slog.
Either way, the Mount Fyffe summit route is probably the best mountain hike near Kaikoura, and one of the best hikes in South Island New Zealand.
Hiking in the Catlins
The southeastern region of the Catlins is a kiwi hidden gem with several great hikes and even more spectacular waterfalls.
30. Catlins Short Waterfall Hikes
If you're driving around the South Island on a road trip, then I'd highly recommend dedicating at least a few days to checking out this region.
What makes this drive so great is that there are dozens of very short hikes which lead to some of the best temperate-rainforest waterfalls in New Zealand. Since the hikes to the Catlins waterfalls are all very short, I've included a list of them below rather than dedicating a section to each.
READ MORE: Best Things to do on a Catlins Road Trip
31. Waipohatu Waterfall Loop
The Waipohatu Waterfall loop offers not one, but two awesome waterfalls to reward you for your efforts. This hike can also be completed in a loop that leads through the beautiful rainforest that is filled with the sounds of native birds and wildlife.
Bonus: Te Araroa Trail - Most Epic Tramp in New Zealand's South Island
For the really adventurous and dedicated hikers and trampers is the world-renowned Te Araroa trail.
This is a 3000 km route that is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Starting at Cape Reinga on the tip of the North Island and finishing in Bluff, New Zealand's southernmost point, the Te Araroa connects the entire country by a single track.
Of course, this incredible feat is a once-in-a-lifetime mission that requires an extensive dedication of time and energy. So, if you've been looking for the most challenging and longest hike in New Zealand, here it is.
Tips & Info For Hiking in South Island New Zealand
With the list out of the way, here are some useful tips to help you make the most of your South Island hiking adventures!
Best Time to Hike in South Island New Zealand
Yet another great thing about visiting New Zealand is that you can hit most regular hiking trails and tramping routes year-round!
With that said, most of these hikes will offer very different experiences between summer and winter.
Arguably the best time of year to hike in New Zealand is within the DOC "Great Walks Season" of October through to May. During this time, you'll catch both the summer season and the "shoulder seasons" of Autumn and Spring.
If you are planning on hiking in the South Island during winter, make sure that you are prepared and consult the DOC for weather and trail risks.
Tips and What to Pack
- Start early
- Check for weather updates
- Prepare for icy, slippery trails in Winter
- Notify somebody of your intentions
- Keep your pack light
- Be prepared for swift changes in weather
Registering Intentions for Overnight Hikes & Tramps
For many overnight hikes or long, more hazardous, tramping tracks, it's recommended to register your hiking intentions with an organisation that can track your adventures and responds if a disaster were to strike.
You can do this by stopping by registering at the nearest DOC Visitor Centre in the area you plan to hike. Alternatively, it's also possible to register online at AdventureSmart.
New Zealand Hiking Resources
Besides this blog, there are dozens of other great resources that will help you prepare and plan your hikes in the South Island. Below I've compiled a quick list of the most essential and helpful resources.
- DOC Website- This is the official NZ parks website with details on tracks, routes, and potential alerts.
- Booking.com - Best comparison website for finding accommodation in New Zealand
- CamperMate, WikiCamps and Spaceships App - Essential for finding campsites and road-trip resources near the trailheads
- MET Service - Most accurate weather information before hitting the trail
- AdventureSmart NZ - Great for registering intentions online
- Viator & GetYourGuide - For booking tours, transport and adventure experiences between your hikes.
- World Nomads - Widely considered the best and most reliable travel insurance for adventure travelers.
Best Overnight Hikes on the South Island
I've mentioned most of these, but if you haven't got much time on the South Island and finding it hard to pick the best overnight hikes, here are my top 3:
- Routeburn Track
- Kepler Track
- Earnslaw Burn Track
More South Island New Zealand Hikes: The Wishlist
Unfortunately, due to flooding and then the subsequent Coronavirus closures, I was unable to include several hikes that I had planned to tackle and photograph on my recent New Zealand trip.
As a result, I feel like this list of the best hikes in South Island New Zealand is incomplete without at least mentioning the ones below.
Since I haven't personally taken these trips, I'm unable to write guides for them. Still, you'll be able to click through to other travel bloggers and writers who have to help you plan your hikes in NZ!
- The Rees-Dart Track
- Isthmus Peak
- Bealey Spur Track
- Lake Marian
- Gertrude Saddle
- Heaphy Track
- Abel Tasman Coastal Track
- Key Summit Track
If you find an awesome South Island hike that you think deserves to be on this list, let other travelers know by leaving a comment below!
More South Island New Zealand Travel Guides and Blogs
I really hope that you've found this guide to the best hikes in South Island New Zealand useful for planning your trip.
For more New Zealand adventure travel guides and blogs, make sure to check out some more of my guides below.