As New Zealand approaches the 30th anniversary of its Great Walks system – a collection of 10 of its best multi-day walks – it's hard not to be blinded by the presence of such greatness. The country's trail reputation was founded on the likes of Great Walks such as the Milford Track and Routeburn Track, but New Zealand is also stitched with great day walks, taking in some of its most spectacular natural features.
Here are 10 of the best.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Almost universally described as New Zealand's best day walk, the Alpine Crossing is paradoxically colourful and bleak as it threads between the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park. The 19-kilometre walk sets out across lava-covered plains, ascending into and around volcanic craters – sometimes black and passive, other times steaming and colourful – and passing the brilliantly coloured Emerald Lakes. On the descent from the mountains, the crossing passes the Te Maari craters, which erupted in 2012, crushing a hut that stood along the track, in a reminder of Tongariro's volatility. Shuttle services to and from surrounding towns make accessing the crossing simple.
Mount Taranaki. Photo: iStock
Described by one guidebook as a "worthy runner-up to Tongariro for the title of New Zealand's best day walk", the Pouakai Crossing is also the Alpine Crossing's companion piece. This 19 kilometre walk crosses the slopes of Mt Taranaki, a volcano sitting 130 kilometres apart from its Tongariro counterparts. After ascending Razorback Ridge, midway up the mountain, this crossing provides another showcase of mountain features, with open views all the way to the Tongariro peaks. The highlight is the Pouakai Tarns, reached on a short side trail and providing famously reflective views of Mt Taranaki's summit.
The final contender in debates about the country's best day walk is usually Avalanche Peak. This frighteningly named mountain is one of the easiest summits to reach in Arthurs Pass National Park, though it's all relative in this precipitous park. Out of Arthur's Pass township, the walk climbs 1100 vertical metres in just 2.5 kilometres, following narrow ridges, winding through scree fields and finally scrambling onto the summit along an exposed rock ridge. It's as close as you'll get to mountaineering without the rope and crampons.
Cooks Cove Walkway
Cooks Cove. Photo: iStock
This short coastal spectacular, north of Gisborne, packs plenty into its 6km length. The easy walk is across private farmland, providing open views almost all the way. The highlight of the approach is Hole in the Wall, a circular cave scoured through the soft cliffs by the sea – step through it and a wide view opens out over a bay and New Zealand's longest jetty (660 metres). A short walk ahead, Cooks Cove is a narrow notch in the coast where James Cook anchored the Endeavour for six days in 1769.
If reward for effort is a measure, this stroll to the base of Aoraki/Mt Cook is as gratifying as walks get. In just five kilometres of mostly flat walking, the Hooker Valley Track unveils some of the Southern Alps' most spectacular scenes. There are lakes pooled beneath the glaciers that formed them, the Hooker River rushing through the valley, Himalayan-style swing bridges, and, high above, the summit of New Zealand's highest mountain, appearing almost in reach. And you can pretty much walk it all before breakfast.
Mueller Hut in Mount Cook National Park. Photo: iStock
Beginning at almost the same spot as the Hooker Valley Track, this climb into the mountains couldn't be more different. The trail begins gently to Mueller Lake, but then never relents as it scales the slopes to Mueller Hut, a little red shed perched atop a barren rocky ridge, ringed by dramatic peaks. Midway up the slopes, the climb passes the beautiful Sealy Tarns – three small lakes seemingly benched into the mountainside – and then slogs through a scree field to reach the hut. Rising behind it is Mount Ollivier, the first mountain ever climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary. You can stay the night in the hut if you want to break the 10 kilometre walk into two days.
Most visitors to Queenstown ride the Skyline gondola to a view over the town and Lake Wakatipu, but the best of the views are beyond. From the gondola's top station, an 11 kilometre return trail sets out over the top of the luge track, rising up tussock-covered slopes to Ben Lomond Saddle. Things steepen and roughen from here, climbing another 700 vertical metres to the summit, from where the views encompass Queenstown and the lake, 1400 metres below, and even distant Tititea/Mt Aspiring, one of the South Island's most prominent peaks.
One of the most photographed mountain scenes in New Zealand comes partway up the slopes of Roys Peak, outside of Wanaka. Standing at the end of a tussock-covered ridge, looking down onto Lake Wanaka, is the Instagram moment that's turned Roys Peak into a walking highway, but that high perch is only a prelude to the heady summit. The mountain presents a steep climb, ascending 1200 metres over eight kilometres, with unbroken views over Lake Wanaka from the slopes, and summit views to Tititea/Mt Aspiring.
Oban to Port William
Sneak a half-day peek at the least-trodden Great Walk on Stewart Island/Rakiura, sampling the Rakiura Trail from Oban to Port William. This is the first day of the three-day Great Walk, but its ends are also serviced by a water taxi, making it an easy 13-kilometre day walk along a coast tangled with bush and furnished with golden beaches. The perfect curve of Maori Beach, once home to a sawmill, is a highlight, and even the water-taxi ride back to Oban promises more nature, with albatrosses likely to drop by the boat for a visit.
Step things up with a challenging Fiordland ascent that culminates in an extraordinary mountain and Milford view. The seven-kilometre walk cuts through a short glacial valley beside the Milford Sound road (just before Homer Tunnel) before scrambling steeply up to a narrow saddle strung between peaks. The view from the 1410-metre saddle is onto the Darran Mountains, regarded as New Zealand's most challenging and rugged mountains, with Milford Sound glistening between them.