6 Best Day Walks in the South Island
Want to explore New Zealand’s South Island on foot without spending days hiking? Then this guide to the South Island’s best day walks is for you.
All the must-see destinations are covered like Abel Tasman National Park, Mt Cook, Queenstown, Franz Josef Glacier and more. We also include key facts like a handy difficulty guide, walk-distance, how to get there & things to see along the way. So strap on the boots and get walking.
Please note that there are times when some of these walks may not be open, due to weather events or other unforeseen circumstances. If you book a MoaTrek New Zealand tour, your guide will be able to assist and will have up to date information.
Day Walk from Awaroa Inlet, Abel Tasman National Park - 4 to 5 hours
The stunning Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island is an essential destination for any visitor to New Zealand. Encapsulating the very best of what New Zealand has to offer, Abel Tasman promises expansive golden beaches, pretty native bush and abundant native birdlife and wildlife. The park is also home to the popular Abel Tasman Coast Track – one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Whilst the full 60km/37mi track takes 3 to 5 days to complete, it can also be broken up into a series of short walks spanning a few hours to a full day.
Our pick from the short day walks on the Abel Tasman Coast Track is Awaroa to Medlands Beach or Tonga Quarry. This 2 - 4 hour walk is perfect for those who have little hiking experience and want to experience everything the Abel Tasman has to offer in a short space of time. Awaroa is only accessible by boat, meaning you get to cruise through the Tonga Island Marine Reserve and enjoy the spectacular views (and hopefully some sea life!) as you begin your journey. Once on land, follow the signs to join the track and soak in the lovely native bush and birdsong which will eventually lead you out onto the golden sands of Onetahuti Bay. You will walk the length of Onetahuti Bay so you need to be mindful of tides. This section of the track is only accessible four hours either side of high tide, otherwise you will be wading through water. Check tide times before you set out and ensure your water taxi bookings allow for this timeframe. Soon after leaving Onetahuti, you’ll reach Tonga Quarry where you can opt to end your journey. Alternatively, if you’re continuing on to Medlands Beach, you’ll head into the bush again before reaching the picturesque Bark Bay swing bridge and Medlands Beach, where you should have enough time for a paddle in the azure waters of the bay before your water taxi arrives.
Abel Tasman Day Walk - Key Facts
- Grade: Easy to Intermediate
- Length: 5km/3mi to Tonga Quarry or 9km/5.5mi to Medlands Beach.
- Time: Approximately 2.5 hours from Awaroa to Tonga Quarry or 4 hours from Awaroa to Medlands Beach.
- Elevation: Awaroa to Tonga Quarry: Approximately 91m/300ft; Tonga Quarry to Medlands Beach: Approximately 122m/400ft.
- How to get there: Most Abel Tasman Day Walks start from Marahau or Kaiteriteri. You will have to catch a water taxi from Marahau or Kaiteriteri to Awaroa. Marahau and Kaiteriteri are both just over an hour’s drive from Nelson.
- Guided or Independent: This well-marked track can easily be completed independently. However, if you are joining one of the MoaTrek tours that includes Abel Tasman National Park, take the opportunity to do this walk with a guide who can answer your questions about the fascinating history, wildlife and flora in the area.
- Facilities: Some benches for resting/taking in the views; toilet at Tonga Quarry, Onetahuti campsite and Medlands Beach; information panels en route.
- Wildlife: On this walk you are likely to see a selection of native New Zealand birds that could include the bellbird, fantail, wood pigeon, shag, tui and robin. If you’re lucky you may spot some New Zealand fur seals off the coast or even the odd whale or dolphin! For an extensive list of Abel Tasman wildlife, including audio of the calls of each bird, visit the Project Janszoon website.
- Flora: This walk takes you through native beech forest. As well as black beech and hard beech trees, you’ll discover plentiful New Zealand ferns, manuka and kanuka trees (which you may pick up by scent before you see them) and rata trees which flower a brilliant red at certain times of the year.
- Walk Options
- Whilst climbing Tonga Saddle (after leaving Awaroa Inlet) there is an opportunity to go off-track to visit Awaroa Beach. As well as for its beauty, Awaroa Beach is famous for being purchased by the New Zealand public through a crowd-funding campaign in 2016 to save it from falling into the hands of private developers. There are a number of other short day walk options in the Abel Tasman National Park which can be accessed and completed in much the same way as the options outlined here.
- Tips for your Walk
- It’s important that you decide how far you will be walking before booking your return water taxi journey, as the taxi staff need to know where you will be picked up and when. If opting for a guided walk, your MoaTrek tour guide can arrange this for you.
- Remember to check tide times for your crossing of Onetahuti Bay.
View the Department of Conservation’s full Abel Tasman Coast Track brochure here.
See our tours which include walking in Abel Tasman National Park
Kea Point & the Hooker Valley, Mount Cook National Park - 1 to 4 hours
Located within the spectacular Aoraki/Mount Cook National park, Kea Point Track is a pleasant walk with incredible views of the surrounding peaks and the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. The gently climbing trail winds through subalpine grassland and some spectacular rock formations before arriving at a viewing area affording incredibly close vistas of the Southern Alps towering above the Mueller Glacier lake. Return along the same track.
If you’ve got the time, the nearby Hooker Valley Track is also well worth a visit. One of the best day hikes in Aoraki/Mount Cook (for good reason), this track takes you over three swing bridges into the stunning Hooker Valley with views across Hooker Lake straight up to Aoraki/Mount Cook – New Zealand’s tallest mountain.
With a total combined walking time of 5 hours return, these two walks can both be completed within the same day. The shelters, tables and toilets at the start/end point of White Horse Campground makes it a perfect lunch spot in between your walks.
Mt Cook Day Walk - Key Facts
- Grade: Easy. The Kea Point Track is slightly more advanced than the Hooker Valley Track due to the steady elevation of the track.
Kea Point Track: 2.8km/1.7mi return from White Horse Hill Campground.
Hooker Valley Track: 10km/6.2mi return from White Horse Hill Campground.
Kea Point Track: Approximately one hour return from White Horse Hill Campground. Two hours return if walking from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village.
Hooker Valley Track: Approximately three hours return from White Horse Hill Campground. Four hours return if walking from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village.
Kea Point Track: 180m/590ft.
Hooker Valley Track: 80m/262ft.
- How to get there: For both walks you can start from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village (which will add around an hour to your return trip) or from the White Horse Hill Campground which has ample parking.
- Guided or Independent: Both of these trails are well-signposted and information panels give you plenty of information on the surrounding area, so you can complete them independently. However, an experienced guide will add a lot to your walk, such as historical information on the glaciers, mountains and local Maori legends.
Toilets and shelter at White Horse Hill Campground car park, the starting point for both tracks.
Kea Point Track: Rest benches on the track; benches, viewing platform and information panels at Mueller Glacier lake lookout.
Hooker Valley Track: Toilets, picnic tables and information panels en route.
- Wildlife: Keep an eye out for the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea. Other birds you might see in the area include the New Zealand falcon / karearea and the paradise shelduck. Native butterflies are also common here, including the red admiral butterfly and the pretty boulder copper butterfly. Harder to spot but also about are the Southern Alps gecko and the common skink.
- Flora: Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is home to some striking alpine plants include the world’s largest buttercup – the Mount Cook buttercup. The large mountain daisy, gentian, bush snowberry and the spiky Spaniard bush are also about. The best time to see alpine flowers in Mt Cook is late spring and early summer (October, November & December).
- Sealy Tarns Track branches off the Kea Point Track and offers an excellent side-trip for those seeking a slightly more advanced hike in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. This steep track, dubbed ‘stairway to heaven’ rewards walkers with jaw-dropping views of the Hooker Valley and surrounding mountains. Three to four hours return, rising to an elevation of 600m.
- Other notable day walks in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Village area are the Red Tarns Track and Tasman Valley Track
Tips for your Walk:
- Do NOT forget your camera!
- Make sure you check the weather forecast before setting out. In an alpine environment such as this, weather can change drastically very quickly. Be prepared for possible weather changes.
- More Info:
View the Department of Conservation brochure on walks in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park here.
See tours which include day walks in Mt Cook National Park
Routeburn Track Day Walk from Queenstown - 5 to 8 hours
Spend a day walking the popular Routeburn Track with this enjoyable return hike starting at Routeburn Shelter. Located within Mount Aspiring National Park, this pleasant 5 to 8 hour day walk (depending how far you want to go) promises abundant native New Zealand bush, stunning swing bridges and pretty waterfalls. The beauty of this day hike is you can do as much or as little as you like. Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats is a popular option totalling 15km/9.3mi return. If you have the time and inclination, you can continue on to Routeburn Falls which will add another 4.6km/2.8mi to your return trip.
Routeburn Track Day Walk - Key Facts
- Grade: Easy to Intermediate
Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats: 15km/9.3mi return.
Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls: 19.6km/12.17mi return.
Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Flats: 3-5 hours return
Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls: 6-8 hours return
Routeburn Flats: Approximately 700m/2296ft
Routeburn Falls: Approximately 1000m/3280ft
- How to get there:
Routeburn Shelter, your starting point, is a 75-minute drive from Queenstown. If travelling independently, there is a carpark at the start of the track. Alternatively, a number of Queenstown operators offer transport to and from the track.
- Guided or Independent: It is easy to complete this section of the walk independently, but walking with a guide will provide an expert insight into the history, flora and fauna of this stunning part of the world.
- Facilities on track: Toilets, information panels and rest benches can be found at the Routeburn Shelter starting point, at points along the track and at both Routeburn Flats Hut and Routeburn Falls Hut.
- Wildlife: A number of native New Zealand birds are present on the Routeburn Track including the kea, rifleman, yellowhead and paradise shelduck.
- Flora: On this section of the track you’ll walk through abundant beech forest, showcasing a wide range of ferns, mosses and lichen. The area is also home to the world’s largest fuchsia, the kotukutuku.
- If short on time, Forge Flats is another destination to consider. Located approximately 40 minutes short of Routeburn Flats, Forge Flats is an excellent spot to stop in the sun for lunch before returning the way you came.
- Or for just a taste of the Routeburn Track, the 45-minute Routeburn Nature Walk is an excellent short option. Start as for the above walks and, after around 15 minutes, take the signposted turn-off to follow this pretty loop track back to the carpark.
Tips for your Walk:
- Sandflies can be a bother at some times of the year, so ensure you have applied and packed your insect repellent.
- Remember you are in an alpine environment and extreme weather changes can occur rapidly. Pack appropriate clothing and adequate food and water for your journey.
View the Department of Conservation brochure on the Routeburn Track here.
See our tours with options for day walks on the Routeburn Track
Ben Lomond Track, Queenstown - 6 to 8 hours
The Ben Lomond Track in Queenstown is a popular yet challenging day hike that starts from the Queenstown Skyline Gondola. The well-formed but exposed track leads hikers 1400m above Queenstown for the spectacular, panoramic lake and mountain views that Queenstown is known for. This sub-alpine hike will take you a full day and requires a good level of fitness and preparation – all of which will be rewarded with the stunning photos you’ll get at the summit.
Ben Lomond Walk - Key Facts
- Grade: Although classified by the Department of Conservation as an Easy Walking Track, this walk is more technical than others listed on this page and does require a good level of fitness and balance – particularly for the final stretch to the summit which is steep, unmarked and involves some rock scrambling.
- Length: Approximately 11km/6.8mi return.
- Time: 6-8 hours return (or 3-4 hours return to the saddle)
- Elevation: 1438m/4717ft
- How to get there: You can start your walk from either the bottom or the top of the famous Queenstown Skyline Gondola on Brecon Street, which is within walking distance of central Queenstown. If starting at the bottom, follow the ‘Tiki Trail’ signposted near the gondola base terminal. However, we recommend enjoying a ride up this first section in the scenic gondola, saving your legs for the climb ahead and ticking off one of Queenstown’s top attractions as you do so.
- Guided or Independent: Like most day walks in New Zealand, you can complete this one without a guide. It is a clearly marked track and the incredible views give you all the information you need about the area.
- Facilities: Track markings only. There are no toilets, shelters or water on this route so plan accordingly. There is a bench seat at Ben Lomond Saddle. The closest toilet facilities are inside the Queenstown Skyline Gondola building at the start/end of your walk.
- Wildlife: Native birds to be spotted on Ben Lomond include the New Zealand pipit and the occasional kea.
- Flora: Although mostly open hill country, this track does start in a Douglas fir forest. Higher up, hikers will experience some New Zealand beech forest and extensive tussock grassland.
- Options: If you want a shorter walk, stop at Ben Lomond Saddle, which is approximately 2 hours into the walk. At 1000m/3280ft high, you will still get the benefit of amazing views but you will avoid the steep 1 to 2 hour climb to the Ben Lomond summit.
- Tips: Do not attempt this track between May and September. Winter brings snow to Ben Lomond and anyone hiking this peak during the winter months requires snow climbing equipment and experience.
- More info:
Find more information about walking the Ben Lomond Track on the Department of Conservation website here.
See our tours with a free day in Queenstown to hike Ben Lomond
Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk, Westland Tai Poutini National Park - 45 minutes to 1 hour
This short, easy and spectacular walk is a quintessential experience for anyone visiting the South Island’s West Coast. The well-marked, gently uphill track will lead you from the carpark, through lush rainforest with glimpses of the mountain tops, waterfalls and the upper glacier. From the view point you can see the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier in the distance.
Below the viewpoint the Waiho River winds its way towards the coast. The river has cut off access up the valley, so it is not possible to go further on foot. As the glacier retreats this is a good location to see the landscape left behind by the ice, and understand the natural forces at work.
In recent years, safety concerns around the ever-changing glacier and its surrounding landscape have meant access to the glacier itself is significantly restricted. To access the glacier directly you will need to book a heli-hike with one of the operators in Franz Josef village.
Since March 2019 the nearby and equally popular Fox Glacier Valley Walk has been closed indefinitely due to safety concerns making Franz Josef the best place for glacier viewing on the West Coast now.
Franz Josef Glacier Walk - Key Facts
- Grade: Easy
- Length: 1.7 km return via same track
- Time: 30 minutes return
- Elevation: Approximately 200m/656ft
- How to get there: The carpark at the start of the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk is approximately 4.5km south of Franz Josef village. The walk is well-signposted from the carpark.
- Guided or Independent: The short length and ease of this walk means you can complete it independently. However, opting to visit Franz Josef with a MoaTrek guided tour will provide you with a fascinating insight into the historic glacial landscape as well as the local Maori legends relating to the area, not to mention transportation to and from the start of the track.
- Facilities: Toilets at carpark; information panels at carpark and on track.
- Wildlife: Wildlife here is not abundant due to the glacial landscape, but keep your eye out for the odd kea. You may also spot other small native birds in the forested parts of the walk.
- Flora: In the Franz Josef Glacier Valley area you will encounter a range of native New Zealand plants and trees in varying stages of regrowth following the retreat of the glacier that once covered the entire area.
- From the carpark you can also complete the 25min (1.1km/0.68mi) Peters Pool track – another easy and flat walk that will take you through West Coast rainforest to a beautiful little glacial lake with stunning reflections. Extend this option further by continuing along the Douglas Walk to see ancient glacial landforms, varying vegetation and a historic suspension bridge. The full Douglas Walk is a 1 hour loop track of 3.9km/2.4mi, bringing you back to the carpark.
- A walk on the glacier itself is possible by purchasing a heli-hike trip with one of the local operators in Franz Josef Village. You’ll need moderate fitness and agility for this option, as well as around 4-5 hours for the full trip.
Tips for your Walk: On the day you go, check with the local Department of Conservation office as to whether the walking track is open. Inclement weather, rockfalls and flooding can all close the track.
- More Info:
See more information on the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk on the Department of Conservation website here.
See our tours which include for day walks in Franz Josef Glacier
Pororari River Walk, Paparoa National Park - 2 hours
Although this area of the South Island’s West Coast is known best for the iconic Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, there is an array of other short walks and day hikes worth a mention. Our pick is the Pororari River Track, which gives you the option of a short 1.5 to 2 hour stroll or a 5 to 6 hour hike (see the options listed below). Either way, you will be rewarded with striking limestone features, tumbling rivers, a swing bridge and lush West Coast views.
Pororari River Walk - Key Facts
- Grade: Easy.
- Length: 7km/4.3mi return
- Time: 1.5 hours return
- Elevation: Approximately 30m/98ft
- How to get there: From the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre on SH6, head north for 1km/0.62mi to the carpark by the Pororari River bridge. The track is signposted from the carpark.
- Guided or Independent: The walk itself is on a well-marked track and can be completed independently. However, transportation to and around this area can be tricky. Visiting Paparoa National Park with a MoaTrek small group tour will remove the difficulties around transportation whilst allowing you to enjoy all the walks on offer in the area.
- Facilities: Seat on track. The nearest toilets are at the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre.
- Wildlife: Here you may spot the cheeky weka – a bold and flightless New Zealand bird – as well as tomtits, robins, kereru (native wood pigeons), tui and bellbirds.
- Flora: Expect dense, sub-tropical rainforest (typical throughout the West Coast). Highlights include the prominent nikau palm trees, huge tree ferns and the stunning rata, which may flower bright red in season.
- Walk Options:
- Pororari River to Bullock Creek Road: If you wish to extend the walk outlined above, the Pororari River to Bullock Creek Road option starts as for the Pororari River Track but continues onwards along part of the Inland Pack Track before joining the scenic Bullock Creek Road back out to State Highway 6. If you don’t have transport arranged to meet you here, it’s a short 1km walk back along the road to the Pororari Car Park where you started. This option is a 5 to 6 hour, 15km/9.3 mi round trip and is an easy to intermediate grade.
- Punakaiki - Pororari Loop: Another popular West Coast walking track, this loop starts south of the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre and follows the Inland Pack Track before joining the Pororari River Track outlined above. Enjoy the spectacular limestone cliffs and rainforest on this 3 hour, 11km/6.8mi round trip. If travelling independently, you will need to arrange transport to get you back to your vehicle as this track ends on State Highway 6, several kilometres from your starting point.
Tips for your Walk:
- Visit the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre before your walk for maps, weather information and advice.
- As with any destination on the West Coast, be prepared for sandflies.
- Stop in for a beer at the the Punakaiki Tavern after your walk, literally right across the road!
- More Info:
Read more about walks in the Punakaiki area in the Department of Conservation brochure here.
See our tours which include free time in Punakaiki to walk the Pororari River Walk
With so many incredible short day walks in the South Island, it can be overwhelming to know where to start and how to fit them all into your itinerary. If you are planning a visit to New Zealand’s South Island, joining a MoaTrek South Island tour will ensure you encounter the best day hikes, experiences and hospitality that New Zealand has to offer without having to worry about the logistics or hidden costs involved. MoaTrek has been showing visitors around New Zealand since 1971 and our knowledge of and experience on the South Island’s best day walks (not to mention the rest of the country) is second to none!