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Must Do Hikes On New Zealand’s South Island

Oceania


The best hikes on New Zealand’s South Island!

Photos for this blog were created in collaboration with Quin Schrock

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. . . . 


Views over Lake Wanaka in New Zealand.

Views over Lake Wanaka in New Zealand.

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 veer 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.  


Mount Cook, New Zealand.

Mount Cook, New Zealand.

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 on New Zealand’s South Island. We spent 2 nights camping here.

Lake Marian on New Zealand’s South Island. We spent 2 nights camping here.

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


The view from the top of Gertrude Saddle down to Milford Sound.

The view from the top of Gertrude Saddle down to Milford Sound.


Camping at the top of Gertrude Saddle.

Camping at the top of 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 are 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 Gerturde 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


Lake Mackenzie is part of the famous Routeburn Track in New Zealand.

Lake Mackenzie is part of the famous Routeburn Track in New Zealand.

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


Coromandel Peak above Lake Wanaka at sunset.

Coromandel Peak above Lake Wanaka at sunset.

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 6: Isthmus Peak


The views from the Isthmus Peak trail are endless!

The views from the Isthmus Peak trail are endless!

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 carpark. 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 7: Hooker Valley Track


The famous boardwalk on the Hooker Valley Track.

The famous boardwalk on the 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. 

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  1. Emil says:

    Excellent! I have been looking around for day hikes with great views for our upcoming trip. No more searching required!

    • Jess Dales says:

      That’s awesome to hear! I’m so glad that you found it useful. Obviously there are so many hikes that we didn’t have time to do, and I’m sure they are equally beautiful. But you definitely can’t go wrong with these! Have so much fun on your trip!

  2. Oliver says:

    I live in New Zealand and I really enjoyed reading this! Love you guys!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much Oliver! I’m so happy you enjoyed it. New Zealand is such a beautiful country, and will always hold a really special place in my heart. I only hope I’m lucky enough to visit again someday!

  3. Brian C says:

    Hi Jess,

    Excellent and timely post, as I have been enjoying these same hikes during my time in New Zealand for the past two months. I enjoy your IG posts as well, so please don’t take this as a negative question/comment, but it appears both of the Roys Peak photos are from Coromandel Peak. Did you hike up to Roys Peak lookout and then make your way over to Coromandel Peak, or did you hike straight up to Coromandel Peak? All the best in your continued travels.

    –Brian

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hey Brian! No worries, I really appreciate the feedback. To be honest, I had no idea that this view point had a separate name. We hiked to Roys Peak and were way too early for sunset, so we traversed the ridge looking for a more lined up shot until we reached the spot in the photos. Now that I know it has a name, I will certainly add it to the text. Thanks again!

      Jess

      • Brian C says:

        That’s great, thanks for the clarification, Jess! I think it definitely helps, especially for those who are inspired by these photos and descriptions and want to hike to these places. That ridge is a bit steep in places but the views are epic. I’ve been traveling around the world for five years now so hopefully our paths will cross at some point.

        All the best,
        –Brian

  4. jade Thomas says:

    What a phenomenal read! It’s as if I’m there in my imagination as you do so well at painting the perfect picture in my head. So many beautiful sites to see and super information! Thank you! Been on my list for some time now. I’ll look to this for my checklist!
    -Jade Thomas
    Bellingham, Wa.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Jade! I’m so happy that you found the information useful, and the stories interesting. I hope that they help fuel your wanderlust and that you are able to check New Zealand off your bucket list one day soon!

  5. Talia Purser says:

    You are such an incredible writer! I am from New Zealand, and while I have done a few of these hikes (or tramps as we call them!) you make me want to go back and relive them!

    Absolutely love your writing style. Can’t wait to read more.

    • Jess Dales says:

      Really appreciate that Talia! Thank you so much for taking the time to read it. I’m still confused about tramps, treks, trails, and hikes lol. When I was writing this I felt like I was mixing them all up! I do think tramp sounds the coolest though! 😉

  6. Jakob says:

    Hi Jess! I have been admiring you and your pictures for quite a while now – you were one of the first people on Instagram I had followed. I am leaving to New Zealand in few days and this article literally made my day perfect now. I was struggling to make a plan for our trip for quite a long time but now we just decided that we will follow your steps and do every hike which you suggested. Now I have my itinerary ready and it´s gonna be massive! 🙂 Thank you Jess!

    • Jess Dales says:

      That’s so awesome to hear Jakob! I have no doubt that no matter what you do in New Zealand you will have a wonderful time. Safe travels, and I’d love to hear how everything goes!

  7. Erwin Ravago says:

    Hello Jess,
    First, thank you for taking us to great heights and giving us all the beauty of the south islands. The voice in your writing is amazing, it reads as if I’ve already been there. I will be able to use all these information from you, when I get to New Zealand in a few years. You and Quin are a great wandering team of ever changing horizons ❤️

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much for the supportive words Erwin! To be honest I get quite nervous before publishing each blog post, so it’s very nice to hear that you enjoyed the writing. I do hope you make it to New Zealand. It’s such a wonderful country!

  8. Robin Visser says:

    Hi Jess,

    This is awesome. I’ve been traveling around NZ for almost 2 months and have about a week left without a set plan. The timing for this piece is just right because I was researching day hikes to in this last week. Could you give an estimate of the time it takes to complete the first couple of hikes? You give the time frame at the last few hikes, but not the first 🙂 Thanks again for this, really inspirational!

    Cheers,

    Robin

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Robin! That sounds like an amazing experience. I would love to spend 2 month in New Zealand. I didn’t keep very good track of the time on the first couple hikes, but I’ll give you my best estimate! All times are round trip:
      Lake Marian – 3.5 hours
      Gertrude Saddle – 5 hours
      Lake Mackenzie – 4 hours

      Enjoy your last week!

  9. Marcello says:

    Hi Jess,
    Thank you for sharing your amazing pictures and your blog.
    We are planning our next trip to NZ in 2019 and this article appeared with perfect timing!
    Safe travels
    Marcello

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by Marcello! It was such an amazing trip – it only made me realize how much more time I would like to spend there. I hope you have a wonderful trip next year!

  10. Serena says:

    Hi Jess,

    Thank you for the hike suggestions! Love your photos! Did you rent a campervan when you were in New Zealand? And if so, which company did you use? Thank you!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Serena! We did rent a camper van while we were there, and it really allowed us to have the flexibility we wanted during the trip. We actually didn’t have one the first few days, and we had a lot of time finding last minute accommodations that weren’t extremely expensive. we used Jucy.

  11. Mike says:

    Hey Jess, epic post! what month of the year / season were you travelling in? Lucky with the weather!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Mike, thanks so much! This was just about a month ago now – so mid-May. The weather was a real mixed bag actually. I just didn’t post any photos from the crappier times. 😉

  12. Shilpa says:

    Beautiful pictures and such great advice on the hikes! We are going for our honeymoon in December and can’t wait! Curious about what female hiking shoes you recommend? thanks!
    Shilpa

    • Jess Dales says:

      Sounds amazing! And a great time of year to be there. I take my Terradora Keen boots everywhere. But I do have really narrow feet, so that’s one thing to keep in mind! Have a wonderful honeymoon, and congratulations!

  13. Incredible photos of an incredible country. I lived in NZ for a couple of years and now constantly miss the amazing scenery and hiking.

  14. Carmen says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog…. it actually inspires me to travel around like you… hope that I can make it to hike in my coming trip to NZ…. keep it up !

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Carmen! That’s awesome to hear that it actually inspires you to get out and have your own experiences. I really do hope that you are able to do some hiking while you are in New Zealand. It’s such a beautiful country!

  15. Judy Cook says:

    Incredible photos!! I just discovered you this morning and can’t get enough!! I’m dying over New Zealand!! My husband and I are going there next month. I’m a hiker but unfortunately, he is not. Any suggestions? So you know of any hiking groups I could hook up with or any suggestions of small hikes we can do together?! Please and thank you

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Judy! You are going to love it. Unfortunately I don’t know about any hiking groups there. Although I’m sure there are some! Milford Sound is a great place for some short walks, plus you can take a beautiful boat ride, and the drive out there is stunning as well. I think there are probably some smallish hikes in the Mount Cook area as well. Both areas have very helpful visitor centers that can give you more details!

  16. Skylar says:

    Hi Jess,
    Love all of your blog and gorgeous photos (of you and scenery)
    It’s such an inspiration of traveling.
    Thanks for all.
    My husband and I decided to travel by driving around South island NZ in Nov. (after reading your blog)
    How long was ur trip in NZ ? And you mentioned about permit if hiking multi days, could you advise me how to attain that permit?
    Thanks in advance. And hope you and Quinn safe travels. !

    Skylar

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Skylar! Thanks for dropping by the blog. Quin and I were in New Zealand for around 2 weeks. You can reserve and check for available permits on the Department of Conservations website. Have fun!!

  17. Haley C says:

    Hey Jess!
    I know I’m a little late to the party on this post, but I was wondering about Coromandel Peak! My husband and I are pretty avid hikers and would prefer to do that peak but can’t find much information on it! I saw you got to Roy’s peak first, how long did it take you to get to Coromandel from there? And did you completely backtrack to get down or did you go straight down from Coromandel? Thanks!!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Haley! You’re never to late to a post. 🙂 I think it probably took about another hour to get there, although I have a feeling the trail is probably more defined now, and from Roy’s Peak I seem to remember that it was mostly level or downhill to get there. We didn’t backtrack the entire way. We cut more or less straight down from Coromandel until we ran into the main trail.

  18. Michelle says:

    Hi Jess,

    Great blog, beautiful pictures! Two quick questions… if you had to choose one hike between Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak, which would it be? My husband and I will be in Wanaka in March and want to do one of those hikes (just not sure which one we should do). Also, somewhat random question, but where is your white bathing suit from? I love it and have been looking for something similar.

    Thanks!

    Michelle

    • Jess Dales says:

      Thanks Michelle! That’s a hard one. Roy’s Peek is more crowded, but is arguably a more lined up view. Although I kind of felt like Isthmus had a more diverse range of views on the way up. No matter what you chose you won’t be disappointed! But I definitely think doing one is a good idea. The bathing suit is from Londre Bodywear!

  19. Is any of them wheelchair accessible ?

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Fahad. Thank you for stopping by the blog. Unfortunately none of these hikes would be wheelchair accessible. However the New Zealand Department of Conservation is a great resource for hiking in the country, and I’m sure they could recommend some wheelchair accessible destinations. 🙂

  20. Annie says:

    Hi Jess,

    Just wondering where that first photo is taken, on top of the tall rock? This is what drew me to this post but I am not sure where it is after reading.

    Thanks!

    • Jess Dales says:

      Hi Annie! That photo was taken just down from Coromandel Peak. I don’t think it’s technically part of the trail as we got a little lost trying to find our way down. But the view is basically the exact view as the one at Coromandel Peak.

  21. Yolanda says:

    This is so beautiful! Wow! This is so breathtaking and serene! ❤️

  22. Megan says:

    Hi Jess! Thank you so much for sharing your adventures and beautiful photos! I also loved hearing about remembering the familiar feeling of NZ and how your wanderlust wouldn’t go away. So interesting that your plan was to become a lawyer! I think I’m starting to realize that once you are bit by the travel bug, it doesn’t just heal and go away: I’m forever stuck with wanderlust even though I hold an engineering job in the midwest. That being said, NZ is at the top of where I want to travel to next, as I’ve visited in the past and am still obsessed. Would you mind sharing what time of the year that you had this NZ adventure in? It looks like you both had fantastic weather! Also, did you do anything else in the area besides hiking? How were crowds when you were there? I visited back in Nov. 2016 and am currently debating what time of the year to visit for my next trip there! I want to weigh weather versus crowds, and I appreciate any information that you can share! Thank you!

    • Hi Megan! The photos for this blog post were taken in March. It was pretty nice while we were there, but we had our fair share of bad weather as well (I just don’t have pictures from those days). I’ve been to NZ one other time, and that was actually in November. I think the weather was probably better overall in March – but I’m not sure if that’s typical or not. We didn’t do anything other than hike, and I don’t recall thinking that the crowds were particularly bad. Although we weren’t able to get permits for any of the Great Walks, so if you’re interested in those I’d plan way in advance. I hope that helps!

  23. Lauren says:

    Wow amazing pictures! New Zealand is my favourite country in the world. It looks like you had better weather than me though 🙂
    Would you consider making a blog post about wildcamping spots in NZ? (In case I am so lucky to go back some day)
    Did you have to wait long at the Hooker glacier lake to get rid of the crowds? I remember it being the most busy place we visited.

    • Our weather was actually pretty mixed while we were there. I just only have pictures from the times it worked out! It was actually raining really hard when we hiked to Hooker Lake, which is why I don’t have any photos of the lake itself. There weren’t many people there at all, but I’m sure it was because the weather was terrible, and we had to hike back in the dark. As far as wild camping goes, if you ever go back I’d highly recommend stopping at any of the Department of Conservation Offices to ask about it. They are really friendly, and always have the most up to date information on trails, permits, and camping regulations.

  24. SONIA says:

    One of the best part of your website is the pictures. You have been to some really beautiful spots. You manage to get some great shots. I wish my vacation shots looked that amazing! I especially liked your Kaua’i article.

  25. SONIA says:

    Reading your travel chronicles is so exciting. Which destination would you recommend for hiking with teens between Hooker Valley track and Lake McKenzie?

    • Hi Sonia. Thanks so much! That’s a really hard one, because they are both great hikes. Hooker Valley might be slightly easier, but it is also more popular. So I guess if your teens like hiking I’d say Lake McKenzie, but if not then maybe they would find Hooker Valley a little more interesting.

  26. JO says:

    Do you know if there’s a trail between Roys Peak and Coromandel Peak? I’d love to see the latter, but I want to be conscious of stepping off trail especially if it’s a fragile environment. Would you recommend bushwhacking to it? I’m from the US so don’t know if there’s a different attitude toward going off trail in NZ.

    • Hi Jo. There is a pretty clear trail from Roys Peak to Coromandel (although not as well defined as the official Roys Peak trail which is basically a road). Coromandel Peak has become quite popular over the past few years, so you shouldn’t need to bushwhack or go off-trail to get there. Good luck!

  27. Ted says:

    These really are wonderful photos. How do you manage to get such great shots? I’ll be checking back often as this blog, from what I’ve seen so far has been extremely enjoyable. Keep up the amazing work! 

    • Thank you so much Ted! I really appreciate that, and I’m so glad to hear that you enjoy the blog. As far as the photos go, my partner is an amazing photographer – but it also helps when the location is as beautiful as New Zealand!

  28. john says:

    How was the camp up on Gertrude Saddle? Was there a few good spot to pitch a tent?

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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