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Best Day Hikes and Walks in the South Island

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New Zealand is the perfect destination for hikers and walkers. You’d be hard-pressed to find another country so small yet so wonderfully diverse. From stunning blue lakes, deep fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, golden-sand beaches, dense forests, majestic mountains and roaring waterfalls, New Zealand’s South Island is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Most of which are best experienced on foot! Much of our unique wilderness can be explored on day hikes (or tramps as we call them). With the different levels of track difficulty across a variety of different landscapes, there really is something for everybody.

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Travel by campervan and you can truly experience nature in New Zealand without having to commit to multi-day tramps. Day walks are without doubt some of the best free things to do in the South Island. Not to mention you can spend a day exploring without having to carry too much gear, and come home to your comfy camper at the end of the day. We have put together a list of the 7 best day hikes and walks in the South Island. Planning a campervan road trip in the South Island? Be sure to include at least one of these epic walks. Why not mix and match these walks on your South Island road trip? But first:

How to stay safe when hiking in the South Island

New Zealand has loads of day walks on well-formed tracks. Regardless of the day walk you choose though, you still need to take these necessary precautions to keep yourself and your travel buddies safe.

  • Tell someone: For any walk, you need to let someone reliable know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
  • Appropriate clothing is critical: You need clothing that will get you safely home in whatever conditions mother nature can throw at you. The weather in New Zealand is known to change on a dime, so it pays to be prepared for all four seasons in a day. When it comes to appropriate hiking attire, it’s generally better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. The key lies in layering. From shorts and a T-shirt to a merino wool thermal base and a good waterproof jacket, you can put on and remove layers depending on the conditions. Check out this handy day hikes gear list for recommendations.
  • Take walking fuel: Carry snacks to keep you going throughout the day, and most importantly, pack plenty of water. You will want to carry an absolute minimum of two litres for longer day hikes. It may be heavy, but as the day goes by, it will get lighter. As tempting as it might be, we don’t recommend you drink from streams and rivers along the way.
  • Think of your feet: Walks in NZ generally mean well-maintained tracks whereas a tramp means rough-going and a bit of scrambling. However, you will still need sturdy, comfortable footwear. Leave the jandals (flip flops) at home and be sure to pack hiking boots if you plan on doing a few hikes on your trip.
  • Be sun smart: New Zealand’s sun can be harsh, so it pays to be extra sun smart if you’re out walking. Wear water-resistant sunscreen of at least SPF 30 during the summer months. And don’t forget a sunhat and sunglasses.
  • Check the weather beforehand: It may be that the weather forecast for your alpine walk is glorious sunshine, but the weather can change quickly. Be aware of the conditions on the day of your hike and prepare accordingly. Always err on the side of caution and follow recommendations to ensure a safe and enjoyable walk.
  • Make a plan: Check out the Mountain Safety Council’s website for helping to plan a safe adventure in New Zealand.

Got your gear sorted and ready to walk your way around the South Island? Here are 7 of the best South Island day hikes.

1. Mount Robert Circuit - Nelson

Distance: 9 km loop

Estimated walk time: 5 hour return

A loop track designed for visual pleasure, the Mount Robert Circuit winds above the shores of scenic Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park. This well-formed track winds through both dense beech forest and open tussock grasslands. It is a comfortable 5-hour return walk, but we recommend packing a picnic lunch and enjoying a well-deserved break. Enjoy the 360° views of both the lake and St Arnaud Range once you get above the 1,000m treeline.

2. Queenstown Hill Time Walk - Queenstown

Distance: 1.5km

Estimated walk time: 3 hours return

A little work, for a lot of reward, the Queenstown Hill Time Walk is the single most popular walk in Queenstown. Most people can do the 1.5km walk up Te Tapunui in a couple of hours and the views from the top are seriously impressive. From the summit, you’ll have views of the town centre, Lake Wakatipu, and a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. The track is wide and starts with a steady incline through trees. Once you reach the summit, you’ll come across the Basket of Dreams. This large metal sculpture was created as a resting place to relax, enjoy the views, and spend some time in thoughtful reflection.

For many, the sculpture marks the end of their Queenstown Hill walk, but it is just the beginning if you’re after the best views. Make sure you do the short loop track that takes you around the top of Queenstown Hill.

Top tip: Set those alarms and try the walk at sunrise. The track will be the quietest, the views magical, and you’ll have no trouble nabbing a parking spot.

3. Lake Marian Track - Fiordland National Park

Distance: 3.1 km one way

Estimated walk time: 3 hours return

The Lake Marian Track in Fiordland National Park is a gorgeous day hike on the road to Milford Sound /Piopiotahi. Walk 3.5km along the well-formed track that sees you travel past waterfalls and the stunning lake. It is classified as challenging, so best for those with a good base level of fitness, but short enough that you can comfortably do the whole thing in about 4-5 hours.

Lake Marian with its gorgeous turquoise blue water, is in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks and waterfalls. It is safe for swimming, but only for the brave - it can be extremely cold!. Lake Marian Track is especially beautiful if you are travelling through on a South Island road trip during winter.

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4. Isthmus Peak Track - Wanaka

Distance: 16 km return

Estimated walk time: 5-7 hours

Isthmus Peak track is a 1133m climb for a jaw-dropping, panoramic view of both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, plus plenty of great views along the way. Perfect if you want to avoid the crowds along the popular Roys Peak track. This is a great challenge for seasoned hikers.

This is no ‘walk in the park’, so a good level of fitness is required to tackle the steep but well-maintained track that grinds upwards. However, the pain of the climb is largely forgotten once you reach the top. The panorama of mountains and lakes is so spectacular the slog is truly worth it, particularly if you time the walk to the summit at sunset.

The hike is 16 km return, so expect the walk to take 5-7 hours and be sure to prepare accordingly. The track is quite exposed to the elements and offers little shade, so sun protection, wind protection and plenty of water is a must. Note that the track closes annually between 20th November and 20th December for maintenance, so plan your trip accordingly if this hike is on your bucket list.

5. Roys Peak - Wanaka

Distance: 16 km return

Estimated walk time: 5-6 hours

In terms of reward, the Roy’s Peak track gives you possibly one of the most beautiful vistas in the South Island, making it one of the most popular day hikes in the South Island. The uphill hike to get ‘that shot’ for the ‘gram however, isn’t the easiest, but it is so worth it.

The majority of the track is on the eastern side of the mountain, providing you with breathtaking views throughout the climb. The actual summit is 1.5km beyond the popular Instagram spot and is worth the extra push, as it’s quieter away from the queues, and you’ll get the 3600 views of Lake Wanaka, surrounding island bays and snow-capped mountains.

For day hikes in Wanaka, wearing layers, sun protection like a hat and sunscreen and packing plenty of snacks and water is a good idea. You may also want to take a windproof or waterproof layer just in case!

If you are visiting Roy’s Peak between the summer months of December and February, you will be sharing the track with lots of others and parking is limited. Twilights are long over summer in New Zealand, so we suggest that you head up early in the day, or aim to hit the peak at sunset. A lot will depend on how fixed your South Island itinerary is, but you may want to plan a couple of free days around this particular day walk, as it’s best done on a clear day for maximum views. The track is closed from October 1st to November 10th each year for lambing season and it’s a bit more treacherous in the winter months, so only recommended for experienced hikers equipped with alpine equipment, such as an ice axe and crampons.

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6. Hooker Valley Track - Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Distance: 10km return

Estimated walk time: 3 hour return

The well-developed tracks make Aoraki Mount Cook suitable for many different types of trampers. The Hooker Valley Track in particular, is a fabulous day walk that’s sure to take your breath away. The track is mostly flat with an iconic boardwalk leading to the mountains. No part of this walk could ever be called boring. On the hike you’ll experience views of Mueller Lake, Mueller Glacier, Hooker Lake, Aoraki, beautiful alpine tarns, plus cross three suspension bridges. You may even spot icebergs floating on alpine lakes during the winter months!

The walk is a comfortable 10kms return and takes about three hours to complete. Be aware that this track will be closed if the weather is bad, so it pays to check the forecast before making the drive. If your walk is rained off for the day, take advantage of the relaxing hot pools and health spas in Mt Cook village.

7. Ben Lomond Track - Queenstown

Distance: 11km return via same track

Estimated walk time: 3-4 hr return to Ben Lomond Saddle, 6-8 hr return to Ben Lomond Summit

If you’re an adventure-seeker after a challenging hike with sweeping 3600 views of Queenstown, the Remarkables, and Mt Aspiring National Park then Ben Lomond Track ticks all the boxes. The track starts from the bottom of the gondola in Queenstown and climbs 1,483 meters, taking you across the stunning alpine terrain. This track also offers a bit of flexibility when it comes to choosing how much of the walk you want to do. Catch the gondola and you can shave 3kms off the trail distance and almost 450 meters off of the elevation. You can hike 1.5 hrs or so to Ben Lomond Saddle and take advantage of the bench seat for a rest, a snack and to take in the views.

The weather is known to change rather suddenly on this walk, so preparation is key, and you may find it wise to head back if the weather has changed since you set out. Even in the height of summer, the elevation can lower the temperature drastically, so you’ll want to ensure you wear layers and take a windproof jacket. The summit is about 1 hour from the saddle on a narrow track. It is suited to intermediate trampers and gets more challenging the closer you get to the summit. The walk is about 6-8 hours return and we recommend you do it during the summer season. You will need alpine equipment and more experience during winter.

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Ready to experience the best South Island hikes?

Walks in the South Island range from alpine hikes to meandering forest tramps to coastal beach walks. There are day walks suitable for all tastes, levels of fitness and experience. Wherever you go on your New Zealand road trip, there are great walks where you can make lasting memories with family and friends. So, book your Britz motorhome online and then pick it up at the most convenient Britz branch. Then get out there and experience our great outdoors.