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Beautiful Hiking Experiences on the South Island

New Zealand boasts a fantastic network of wilderness trails, and many of the country’s top hiking experiences are on the South Island.

The Best Hikes in New Zealand’s South Island

  • Hooker Valley Track
  • Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk
  • Rob Roy Glacier Track
  • Milford Track
  • Abel Tasman Coast Track
  • Routeburn Track
  • Key Summit
  • Roy’s Peak Track

Read on to learn more about the South Island’s best trails, categorized by which natural wonders they showcase.

Beautiful Hiking Experiences on the South Island

Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mt Aspiring National Park, Wanaka, New Zealand
Rob Roy Glacier Track in Mt Aspiring National Park (credit: Julian Apse)

If you want to see glaciers…

Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk

This short hike leads to views of the terminal face of Franz Josef Glacier. The might of this glacier is evident in the loose boulders and raw, freshly-carved cliffs it has left behind.

Rob Roy Glacier Track

The Rob Roy Glacier Track is one of New Zealand’s most charming short hikes. The trail crosses a dramatic swing bridge over the West Matukituki River before climbing through dense beech forest, eventually opening to a meadow beneath the dramatic hanging glacier.

Hooker Valley Track

Overshadowed by Aoraki/Mt Cook and many other towering peaks, the Hooker Valley Track offers stunning views of New Zealand’s highest peak as well as the Mueller Glacier.

Non-hikers can follow a short trail to the viewpoint over Tasman Glacier in the next valley over.

milford track hiking experiences on the South Island
Hikers on a guided day walk along the Milford Track

If you want to see fiords…

Milford Track

The 4-day Milford Track cuts deep into the wilderness of Fiordland National Park, with views of towering waterfalls, near-vertical peaks, a dizzying alpine pass, and lush rainforest. Beginning at the head of Lake Te Anau, the Milford Track culminates with views of the iconic peaks of Milford Sound.

Hut bookings for the 4-day hike fill up quickly each year, so if you miss out, there are day hikes available from both ends of this famous Great Walk. Both ends are accessed by boat, adding a different perspective to the experience.

Wilsons Abel Tasman Day Walks - flexible hiking experiences on the South Island
Hiking along the beaches in Abel Tasman National Park

If you want to see beaches…

Abel Tasman Coast Track

New Zealand’s premier beach hike, the Abel Tasman Coast Track follows golden-sand beaches, tranquil turquoise bays, and stretches of lush forest.

This beautiful hiking experience on the South Island’s northernmost stretch of coastline can be done in many ways. Backpacking, kayaking, luggage transfers, and single-day boat trips that allow you to sample the trail’s highlights are all on offer.

Routeburn Track, one of the New Zealand Great Walks, Mt Aspiring National Park
Views from Routeburn Falls Hut on the Routeburn Track

If you want to see epic mountain scenery…

Routeburn Track

Another of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks, the Routeburn Track can be hiked as a multiday experience (typically completed in three days) or as a day hike from the Glenorchy end. The scenery changes constantly, rewarding hikers regardless of how far they follow the trail.

Key Summit

The Key Summit Track begins from the Te Anau end of the Routeburn Track. This relatively easy ascent puts hikers in the midst of the Fiordland wilderness, with sweeping views in every direction. From the road, it can be hard to understand the scale of this immense wilderness. Key Summit provides a vantage of dizzying peaks, rushing rivers, and deep valleys.

Roy's Peak Track Wanaka, New Zealand - hiking experiences on the South Island
Roy’s Peak Track Wanaka (credit: Miles Holden)

Roy’s Peak Track

Located beside Lake Wanaka, the Roy’s Peak Track has become famous for its panoramic views over the turquoise waters below and ridge after ridge of golden tussock-covered peaks all around. The best times to see the views are early or late in the day. Be sure to bring a light for the trek back.

Further Information about Hiking Experiences on the South Island

Keep reading for answers to frequently asked questions about hiking on the South Island.

What is the best Great Walk in New Zealand?

  • #1: The Routeburn Track
  • #2: The Tongariro Northern Circuit
  • #3: The Milford Track
  • #4: The Kepler Track
  • #5: The Heaphy Track
  • #6: The Whanganui River Journey
  • #7: The Abel Tasman Coast Track
  • #8: The Paparoa Track
  • #9: The Lake Waikaremoana Track
  • #10: The Rakiura Track

The Great Walks are popular multi-day New Zealand hikes. Once a track receives the Great Walk designation, its trails and huts are upgraded. Therefore, hikers need to book huts online in advance.

Six out of the ten New Zealand great walks are located on the South Island. The “best” Great Walk is of course subjective; however, we have graded them based on variety of terrain and dramatic scenery.

When can you hike in New Zealand?

Winter conditions can hit New Zealand at any time of year, especially in the mountains. However, December through April is typically a safe time to hike in New Zealand. Hikers must keep a close watch on the weather forecast.

Rivers are also dangerous if they flood, which can happen at any time.

Lower-elevation trails such as the Abel Tasman Coast Track are suitable for hiking year-round.

The Department of Conservation website is the best source for up-to-date trail closures and conditions.

What is hiking called in New Zealand?

New Zealanders call hiking “tramping” and trails “tracks.” Mountains are sometimes referred to as “hills,” and forests as “bush.”

For instance, a New Zealander might say, “I’m going tramping in the bush this weekend.”

Where can I find a New Zealand South Island hiking itinerary?

We offer a range of New Zealand holiday packages including hiking experiences. These include:

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Read about the 10 Best Things to Do on the South Island Next >

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