New Zealand walks

Barry took a few months away from our mild and sunny winter (well that is what we told him)  to venture south and try some of the best New Zealand walks. Here are his five favourites and their practicalities.

Classic South Island scenery

A Summary

For those who enjoy walking in the mountains, New Zealand is one of the best places in the world and any chance of a trip there during the British winter should not be missed

I recommend ‘202 great walks’, the best day walks in New Zealand by Mark Pickering as pre trip reading but you should also visit the local information centres or if there is one, the Department of Conservation centre. These latter centres are excellent for setting out what’s on offer and providing maps etc. They are in the major South Island walking centres of Wanaka, Queenstown and Te Ana.

North Island

In North Island I would recommend focussing on the main peaks which are Mount Ruapehu, the highest at 2797m, Mount Ngauruhue (2287m) and Mount Tongariro (1967m) which are both covered in the section on the Tongariro crossing, and Mount Taranaki (2518m). The summits of all these can be reached by the ordinary walker in good summer conditions but they are not easy and I would recommend you confirm the snow conditions before attempting the summits.

South Island

In South Island it is worth doing some day walks but you will need crampons and probably a guide to reach any of the higher peaks,over 2500m. I would also recommend trying one of the long distance walks which all have great paths. The Milford track is the best known but there are about 7 long distance walks in South Island including the Abel Tasman track near Nelson, the Kepler track near Te Anau and the Routeburn track’

I have included some notes on the Routeburn track and would note that this one could be done in two days or even one day by a very fit party with a driver prepared to drive the 200 miles required to pick you up at the other end! Assuming you are going to take more than one day, you will need to book into one of the lodges at least a few weeks in advance and in the case of the Milford track at least 6 months in advance

North Island Walks

  • The Tongariro crossing (approx. 12 miles)
  • Summits of Ruapehu (approx. 6 miles)
  • Taranaki and Fanthams peak (approx. 5 miles)

South Island Routes

  • Roy’s Peak (approx. 6 miles)
  • Key Summit and the Routeburn track (approx. 25 miles)
  • Gertrudes pass and the view down Milford Sound (approx. 5 miles)

The Tongariro crossing, North Island

Roughly 12 miles

“The Tongariro crossing is generally regarded as the best one day walk in New Zealand and probably one of the best in the world. The crossing can be one on it’s own but Tongariro (1,987m) and/or Ngauruhoe can be added. Tongariro will add one to one and a half hours to the walk and  Ngauruhoe will add two hours to two and a half hours to the walk. The route up Ngauruhoe is hard work up steep volcanic scree and there is a risk of being hit by a dislodged rock from walkers above. The Tongariro ascent is much easier.

I did the walk in 2012. You will need transport at both ends but if you do not have a driver this can easily be arranged at Whakapapa village (cost about £15).  The minibus took me to the start at mangatepopo road end at 8.20am with the last mini bus leaving at 5pm from the far end.

The Walk

There is a good path. The walk is straightforward up to the soda springs then there is an ascent to South Crater. Just as you reach South Crater a small path goes off to the right to Ngaurahuoe (Mount Doom).  After a few hundred feet the path disappears and you are left scrambling up a steep and loose volcanic scree slope.  It is best to move to the left by about 100 feet where there is a rocky ridge which gives an easier ascent.  Eventually about 250 feet from the summit you will see a path which leads to the crater edge.  It is 2000 feet of climbing from the South Crater and took 1 hour 15 minutes.

Just across from the crater edge you will see another ridge which looks and I believe is slightly higher.  If you want to climb to this point it is best to go back down the path you came up for about 100 feet then up another path to the ridge.  I attempted to cut across and the underfoot terrain was extremely difficult.

On the way down the path from the crater edge will lead you towards a gravelly shoot which gives good scree running and will make the descent easier and swifter.

I rejoined the Tongariro crossing a couple of hundred yards from where I left it at the South Crater.

Red Crater

There follows a flat walk of about 1 mile along the crater then an ascent of about 650 feet to the top of Red Crater. Just before you reach the summit of Red Crater there is a path and poled route to Tongariro summit.  I didn’t take this as I was concerned about the time. In retrospect I probably had enough time.

The walk continues in spectacular fashion as it goes over Red Crater summit and down to the emerald lakes before traversing blue lake then starting the gradual descent to ketetahi.  The descent takes you through alpine scenery with potentially good views but the weather was starting to deteriorate so the views were restricted.  Finally the path goes through the rain forest to the car park where the mini bus picked me up on it’s 4 pm run.

The Tongariro crossing is popular and best known of all New Zealand walks.  There were at least 500 people on it when I was there although very few of these climb Ngaurahoe.  It takes under 6 hours if you are reasonably fit as it is a good path and therefore possible to average over 2 miles per hour. The walk is just over 12 miles.

Summits of Ruapehu, North Island

Roughly 6 miles to the Dome Centre

I purchased the 1/60,000 map at the tourist information at Whakapapa and drove up to Iwikau village at 1600m. From here you can either take the chairlift to 1900m or walk up. I took the chairlift which runs from 8.30am until 4pm.

At the top of the chairlift there was a number of guided parties going to the Dome Shelter and I followed one of these to ensure that I stayed on the right route for the first few hundred feet. You will find that the tourist information at Wakapapa encourages you to join a guided party to the Dome Shelter but I dont believe this is necessary as the route to Dome Shelter is no more difficult than a Scottish Munro.

The Route

If there aren’t any guided parties to follow the key point is to traverse one ridge to the right by going down a little then back up. There are paths but these can be confusing. Once on restful ridge as it is described on the map there is a well cairned route and no route finding difficulties at least if the weather is good. This route would be confusing in mist.

At the top of restful ridge you will come to the summit plateau. From here you head to the right along a relatively easy volcanic ridge to Dome Shelter at 2672m. It takes just over 2 hours from the top of the chairlift to Dome Shelter. All the guided parties and most walkers go to the Dome Shelter but it is not the highest point.

I walked round the ridge to Te Heuheu at 2731m having been told by one of the guides that I would need an ice axe and crampons to reach, the highest point on Ruapehu and thus North Island at 2797m. Te Heuheu is an interesting and at times spectacular walk along a volcanic ridge and well worth the detour if you have time. You will pass Tukino peak which is particularly sharp and takes some nerve to stand up straight on. From Te Heuheu I returned to the top of restful ridge and descended to the chairlift.


I think Tahurangi can be reached without an ice axe and crampons in good summer conditions by heading straight across the plateau from the top of restful ridge. Underfoot conditions on the plateau will be poor and there are some points where you will have to cross small valleys a few feet deep in the shale. From here Pyramid Peak can be ascended and then it should be possible to reach the ridge up Tahurangi. My recommendation is that you obtain a more detailed map of the summit plateau if attempting Tahurangi.

Mount Ruapehu is an active volcano and a siren will go off if it is likely to erupt. Hopefully you will be warned not to set off if there is any risk of this happening

These 3 great volcanic peaks ie Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro dominate the Tongariro national park at the centre of North Island. The only other mountain over 2000m in North Island is Taranaki and as the most climbed peak in New Zealand, this should not be missed

Taranaki and Fanthams peak, North Island

Roughly 5 miles

I travelled up from Wellington towards Taranaki. On a clear day it came into view from about 70 miles away as a Christmas cake dome with a small saucer off to the side representing Fanthams peak

I stayed in a place called Stratford which appeared to be close to the peak but then struggled to get any proper advice on whether the mountain was climbable following a heavy snow dump the previous weekend. Eventually I established that Fanthams peak should be climbable assuming the weather stayed fine but that Taranaki would require crampons and ice axe. So I went to Dawsons Falls as I could climb Fanthams peak from there and see if it was possible to get up Taranaki

The Climb

However the easiest route up Taranaki and the one used by walkers is the north ridge from North Egmont and I recommend that you start there. If the weather is fine and there is not much snow the walker can climb Taranaki but it is 5000feet of climbing on at times poor underfoot conditions so it is going to be a challenging and difficult day. I would not recommend going up this mountain if the weather was not good.

From Dawsons Falls a poled route and good path leads up through rain forest then grassy and alpine terrain towards Fanthams peak. Eventually you will reach steep volcanic scree and a 1000feet of tough going as you slither about on the scree before the summit plateau of Fanthams peak. This is a good spot with fantastic views over the plateau and out to sea. It is a 3500feet climb from Dawsons Falls and it is very satisfying to reach the Fanthams peak. From here I could see about 100 miles across to Ruapehu and the Tongariro crossing.


From the summit I went down about 100 feet and tried to pick a way up Taranaki avoiding the snow and ice. But there is no poled route and I could not find any paths so I gave up about 700 feet from the summit on steep volcanic scree/snow. There was nobody around despite the fact it was a beautiful day so I became convinced I was on the wrong route

On the way down I passed the Hillary memorial with it’s grand view of the mountain. One day I would like to return to Taranaki and reach the summit as the views must be awesome

Roy’s Peak, South Island

Roughly 6 miles

South Island offers a variety of walking opportunities, one day walks up some of the smaller mountains, 1500metres to 2000metres, longer walks over 2 to 5 days to complete the great tracks such as the Milford track, Abel Tasman track, Kepler track, Routeburn or many others, or mountaineering expeditions up the larger peaks such as Mount Cook, Mount Tasman or Mount Aspiring but this latter requires winter climbing experience and/or professional guides

I travelled down the west coast of South Island which south of Franz Josef glacier is largely uninhabited with the roads empty. From Haast, a place with one petrol station, a small hotel and a camping site you turn inland and a spectacular road leads over a pass to Wanaka, the first town you reach. Situated by the lake, Wanaka is a candidate for the most beautiful town in New Zealand. It is overlooked by Roys Peak and it’s slightly higher neighbour Mount Alpha

Surprisingly Roys Peak is not featured in 202 best New Zealand walks but it is well worth climbing for it’s grassy path which zig zags 4000 feet up to the summit and it’s spectacular views

A Popular Walk

It was a warm and sunny day and the walk up Roys Peak is popular, at a guess over 50 people walked the 4000 feet to it’s summit on the day I went up. As you walk up views for miles around start to appear, Mount Aspiring dominating to the west. The ridge is reached a few hundred feet from the summit and it is possible to traverse the whole ridge, details of this walk and others can be obtained from the Department of Conservation centre in Wanaka.

From Roys Peak I traversed along the ridge to Mount Alpha, there was a drop of some 500feet and the walking was more challenging, steeper with a smaller and at time indistinct path, but no more difficult than being on the Scottish munros. Then I retraced my steps to Roys Peak and back down to the car

It takes between 4 hours and 6 hours to go up and down Roys Peak and most people go no further. Add 90 mins for the return trip to Mount Alpha from Roys Peak

Key Summit and the Routeburn track, South Island

Roughly 25 miles

If I return, this would be top of the New Zealand walks I would like to do on South Island. It is possible to do it in one long day involving 25 miles of walking and 3500 feet of climbing but you would need transport at both ends.At a guess the walk would take between 11 and 14 hours so an early start would be essential.

It is a drive of nearly 200 miles from one end to the other but completing it in one day would mean that you would not have to book into a lodge and could choose a fine and clear day to do the walk. However most people book into the Routeburn Falls lodge and/or the Lake Mackenzie lodge. The Department of Conservation guide shows how the track could be walked in 3 days stopping at both lodges.

Routeburn Track

The Routeburn track takes you from the Routeburn road end near Glenorchy over a ridge of mountains to the Divide on the Milford Sound road or vica versa

I did 2 half day walks, for the first walk I drove up to the Routeburn road end from Queenstown past Glenorchy. The last 6 miles is on an unsealed road but I had no problems driving up this in the hire car. From the Routeburn road end I walked 10kms up a good path to the Routeburn Falls lodge in beautiful weather with superb views looking north.

Routeburn Falls is a fabulous spot with waterfalls and great views and I imagine the next section to the Harris saddle would have been spectacular but I did not have time and returned to the Routeburn road end, a round trip of 20kms.

Key Summit walk

A couple of days later I drove down to Milford Sound from Te Anau, a 70 mile drive each way with no petrol stations. The Divide, the other end of the Routeburn track from the road end is 50 miles from Te Anau so 20 miles short of Milford Sound. It has a large car park and is a popular spot. I stopped at the Divide and walked 3kms along the Routeburn track then turned of for another 1km of climbing to reach Key Summit, a beautiful spot and now featured on my business cards! From there I returned to the car and carried on to Milford Sound.

The Key Summit walk is a good half day walk on it’s own and is featured in Mark Pickerings 202 one day walks in New Zealand

However the best walk is the Routeburn track. To walk this end to end on a long sunny day in the height of the New Zealand summer would be hard to beat

Gertrudes pass and the view down Milford Sound, South Island.

Roughly 5 miles

My final walk in South Island was to climb to Gertrude saddle. The saddle is an incredible place with remarkable views down Milford Sound. The climb up to it is interesting and similar in places to climbing up to the Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye from Glenbrittle.

This walk is set out in “202 great walks” and as stated there is best suited to experienced mountain walkers. The signs at the start suggest you should have Alpine experience but experience in Scotland or the ridges of England and Wales would be sufficient in summer.

As with Key Summit the walk starts from the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau but this time at a place called the Homer hut which is shortly before you reach the Homer tunnel and some 10 miles short of Milford Sound.

The Walk

The start point is about 2000feet and the route takes you to the saddle at 4500feet. The start is straightforward and a path leads along fairly flat ground for about 2km to the head of the valley. From here the path is at times difficult to follow but you should find it on the right hand side of the stream as you look up although lower down there is a path on the left hand side of the stream.

I went too far to the left of the stream initially but was able to traverse across and find the path as it crossed the stream at about 250m above the valley floor. The path then led up the right hand side of the stream and was easy to follow

Once you are on the path and approaching Black lake the going is more straightforward as the path is easy to follow. Just below Black lake you will find some slabs which lead up some 50feet to the lake and a steel rope to hold on to if you need to. However as the rock is Gabbro you will find it is not slippery unless it’s wet and the climb up to the lake is not difficult.

Tricky Section

At the lake you must go immediately up to the right where there is another steel rope to hold on to as you climb the slabs. But again you will find the rock sticks to your feet well and you may find the rope unnecessary. I attempted to traverse around the lake. Then go straight up from there as  I thought the route up to the right looked exposed, this was a mistake! After traversing about a quarter of the way round the lake, I tried to go up to the right and found the slabs getting dangerously steep. Fortunately I was able to get up but only after some worrying minutes!

Once above the slabs it is about 400feet of climbing to reach the saddle but the route is straightforward. I met a few people at the saddle who had been up there enjoying the sunshine and the views for over an hour and they advised me to climb up about 50feet to the right to get the best views

For those feeling fit and with time it is possible to climb a further 2000feet up to the right up steepish slopes to attain a 2000m peak and no doubt more great views. If you are interested in this I suggest you get a map and guide from the Department of Conservation at Te Anau. From there you can also get a guide of Fiordland day walks which features Gertrude saddle although the route description in this could be better, at least I struggled to follow it!

I returned to the car by the same route but avoiding the route finding errors I made on the way up. The return journey takes 4 to 6 hours

  • Hilary says:

    I visited New Zealand in February 2018 and walked across the Tongariro Crossing. The tourist board are now requesting that people do not climb Mount Ngaurahue and Mount Tongariro out of respect to the Maori community as they are sacred areas. You also have to book transport via a shuttle company or have a willing driver as parking is now limited. A highly recommended walk to do despite these restrictions.

  • Jonny P says:

    I walked the Routeburn a while back. Excellent yomp up to the well appointed first hut, lovely views back over east from the sunny dunny. A blizzard put paid to my companions but next morning I persevered and had a magical climb/traverse to the col, the veil of snow clouds parting now and again to offer glimpses of the tarns and surrounding newly winterised hills. Despite the condition the path was easy to follow. Once over the col the clouds broke, and the lonely western peaks were revealed in full splendour. A pleasant stroll took me slowly down through the snow covered forest to the next hut. Plentiful firewood and a party traveling the other way made for an amusing and warm evening. A short hike next day landed me on the road, and an easy but very cold hitch on the back of a ute brought me into a blue sky Milford Sound. WOW. Magnificent place. Really glad I carried on after that first night, as the memories are fresh. I’d like to have done the Milford to get back out, but time was too short and other Queenstown based enticements beckoned.

  • Barry says:

    I would welcome comments on the Milford track if anyone has walked this recently

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