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Best Day Hikes on the South Island of New Zealand

This is a bit of a ‘crowdsourced’ post. We get the question all the time in the group: what’s the best day hike in New Zealand, and in particular the South Island. This question has especially been common lately due to the closure of several popular multi-day tracks in Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks. 

Here’s a list of popular day hike suggestions. If you have any other NZ day hikes you think we should add, comment below.

Note: Before embarking on any of these tracks please read the DoC information here and check the weather forecast. Even better, pop into the nearest DoC office (there is an office in each of the towns mentioned in this article) and lodge your intentions

Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough Sounds

Nearest Town: Picton

Getting to the Track: Water Taxi

Length: 17km one way

Time: 5.5 hours one way

The Queen Charlotte Track is a popular and cruisy multi-day hike. However, it can be done as a rather civilised day hike too.

Get a water taxi from Picton to Ship Cove (Meretoto). Hike the 17km to Endeavour Inlet and Furneaux Lodge. And get a water taxi back to Picton. While you wait for the water taxi enjoy a white wine or beer at the lodge. Civilized, indeed. 

The scenery is stunning across the Marlborough Sounds. I have walked the Queen Charlotte twice—once as a day hike (the exact itinerary above) and the second time as a multi-day all the way to Anakiwa. And I totally rate it as a ‘must do’ either in its day hike or multi-day format if you visit New Zealand’s South Island. 

Lake Rotoiti Circuit

Nearest Town: St Arnaud

Getting to the Track: Track starts in town

Length: 23-31km loop

Time: 7-10 hours

Nestled in the gorgeous Nelson Lakes National Park, Lake Rotoiti is among New Zealand’s most picturesque lakes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—this is my favourite place on earth.

The Lake Rotoiti Circuit is a long day hike at between 23-31km. It’s 23km if you cross Travers River near where it enters the lake. Or else you head up the Travers several kilometres and take the swingbridge to take you down the opposite side of the lake and back to the start at Kerr Bay, St Arnaud.

Alternatively, pick a side of the lake, hike to the Travers and enjoy lunch at Lakehead or Coldwater Hut (depending on the side you choose) and hike back the way you came. You can turn this into an overnighter by staying at either of these huts, or going a little further up the valley to John Tait.

Avalanche Peak, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Nearest Town: Arthur’s Pass

Getting to the Track: Track starts in town

Length: Around 6.4km return

Time: 6-8 hours return

Many people travelling the South Island of New Zealand will choose to drive to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass. Avalanche Peak is the perfect day hike to break up that road trip.

The track starts directly behind the visitor centre (smack bang in the village, so handy if you have arrived by coach) and climbs immediately. It’s a hard slog up—it’s a vertical scramble in places and there’s tree roots aplenty but eventually you break out from the beech forest and start to enjoy the alpine vistas and rugged peaks. The final stretch to the peak is precarious in places with steep drop-offs on both sides—only recommended if you have a head for heights—but the views over to Mt Rolleston and down the Crow valley are amazing.

I did Avalanche Peak as an overnighter several years ago by combining it with Crow River. There’s a great little hut in the Crow River valley and it’s a relatively easy walk out via the Waimak the next day.

Mueller Hut Route, Mt Cook National Park

Nearest Town: Mt Cook Village

Getting to the Track: Track starts in town

Length: 10.4km return

Time: 6-8 hours return

No trip to the South Island of New Zealand is complete without taking in the views of Mt Cook from Mt Cook Village. In and around the village there are several short hikes that take you to the best vantage points to get a view of NZ’s tallest mountain. The Hooker Valley Track is a popular day hike at 10km that takes you right up to the glacier lake over which towers Mt Cook.

However, my favourite track in the region is the Mueller Hut Route.

If you can, do this route as an overnighter and enjoy a night in Mueller Hut. That said, it’s a fine day hike taking around 6-8 hours return. 

Yes, it’s steep and rugged in parts but the scenery is phenomenal the whole time. There’s the major peaks of Sefton and Sealy nearby, and Mt Cook off in the distance, to the north.

Ben Lomond, Queenstown

Nearest Town: Queenstown 

Getting to the Track: Track starts in town – a 5 minute walk from Shotover Street

Length: 11-12km

Time: 6-8 hours return

If you’re based in Queenstown—as so many first-time New Zealand goers will inevitably be—then the Ben Lomond Track, right behind the town, is a must hike.

Image Credit: Flickr/Trailsource.com

A 3-season hike, the track begins its steep climb at the top of Brecon Street, at the Skyline Gondola base station, and takes the Tiki Trail before joining the Ben Lomond Track near the Skyline access road. Or, you can start it from the top of the Gondola, as you might the Kosciuszko Summit Walk from Eagle Nest after getting the chairlift up.

The hike up to the Ben Lomond Saddle takes 3-4 hours according to DoC and all the way up to the summit a full day of around 6-8 hours.

Roy’s Peak Track

Nearest Town: Wanaka

Getting to the Track: 10 minute drive north east of Wanaka

Length: 16km return

Time: 5-6 hours return

A popular day hike with those visiting or staying in Wanaka, Roy’s Peak is all up and up and up and down and down and down. 

It’s one of those hikes where you really do feel like you’re on top of the world, with panoramic views on offer most of the way, providing the perfect excuse to catch your breath and snap some photos. 

Image Credit: @TamHikes

The trailhead is around a 10 minute drive from the heart of Wanaka.

DoC rate Roy’s Peak an ‘easy’ hike. Group mod and founder of Melbourne Girls Outside, Tam, recently hiked it and was quite surprised by this rating. “Easy to find the path maybe but not much else” she wrote on Instagram. Be mindful of this before setting off–Roy’s Peak takes you above the treeline and the weather in this part of the world can change at any time. Pack your day pack for all possibilities. 

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