10 August, 2020
Last updated on 10 February, 2022
Posted by Spaceships Crew
The South Island of New Zealand is one of the world’s best and most pristine hiking destinations. Coupled with the Kiwis’ love for the outdoors means that there are hundreds, if not thousands of pristine hiking trails and tramping routes ready to be explored. This guide will show you the most amazing hikes in the South Island. Check it out.
Hikes near Queenstown
Queenstown, affectionately known as the adventure capital of the world, is also a great base for tackling some of the country’s best hikes.
Queenstown Hill is probably the most popular sunrise and sunset hill in town. This hike is very easy and wide and begins within walking distance of the main strip in Queenstown. Taking only 2-3 hours for the return trip with an optional short loop near the top, this is a great warm-up hike for things to come!
Since Queenstown is high on most people’s New Zealand itinerary, then I’ve included this hike as one of the best in the South Island for the simple reason that you’ll get some of the best views of the town from here.
Ben Lomond Track
This is one of my favourite hikes in the South Island New Zealand. The track leads to the Ben Lomond summit, from which you can climb another short distance to the 1748M peak. From here, hikers are rewarded with the best views of Queenstown, the Remarkables and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu below.
Ben Lomond track, a favourite hike in the South Island of New Zealand | photo: Olly from We Seek Travel)
Moke Lake Loop
Moke Lake New Zealand is a small mountain lake located near the small suburb of Closeburn, near Queenstown. Although this lake is only a relative stone-throw away from the bustling adrenaline hub, Moke Lake is a much tamer and more secluded hiking area.
While only offering a short loop hike and a lake viewpoint hill, heading to Moke Lake is a great idea, especially if you have a camper. This is because Moke Lake has one of the best DOC campsites near Queenstown. So, if camping and hiking are on your Queenstown itinerary, don’t miss Moke Lake.
How many of the hikes in the South Island can you pack in one campervan road trip?
The Routeburn Track is the first of the “Great Walks” on this list of best hikes in the South Island New Zealand and one that is truly worthy of the title. This is a through-hike that can be started from either Glenorchy or the Divide in the Fjordland National Park.
Passing vast tussock plains and deep valleys and climbing through temperate rainforests to high alpine peaks, hikers are treated to the real “New Zealand experience”.
Hikes near Wanaka
Second, to Queenstown, Wanaka is arguably the next most popular destinations for adventure travellers visiting New Zealand.
Known as New Zealand’s most trafficked mountain, to say that Roy’s Peak track is popular would be an understatement.
However, that’s not to say that its popularity is unwarranted. On a clear day, Roy’s Peak rewards hikers with sweeping views of Wanaka town and lake, as well as distant Mount Aspiring.
Roy’s Peak track is one of the most popular hikes in the South Island | photo: Olly (We Seek Travel)
Rocky Mountain Summit and Diamond Lake Loop
If the Roy’s Peak car park has reached max capacity and you’re not too keen on queuing up for a summit photo, then the Rocky Mountain summit track is a great alternative.
Just 10-15 minutes drive from Wanaka, the Rocky Mountain summit track climbs to a very scenic viewpoint high above Wanaka Lake. Often missed by visitors to Wanaka, the view from the summit has earned it a spot on my list of best hikes in the South Island New Zealand.
Rocky Mountain summit track is a great alternative to Roy's Peak | photo: Olly (We Seek Travel)
Hikes near Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The crown jewel of New Zealand hiking areas – the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has some of the absolute best hikes in the South Island New Zealand.
From unbeatable views of New Zealand’s tallest mountain to moraine viewpoints looking over the country’s largest glacier, this is a New Zealand hiking destination you won’t want to miss.
Tasman Glacier Viewpoint Hike
Starting off the hikes in the Mount Cook area is this unmarked and little-known viewpoint on the edge of the Tasman Glacier moraine. To get here, you’ll need to drive to the Tasman Valley, just a short stint from Mount Cook Village. The viewpoint is found about one hour’s hike along the Balls Hut Track.
While this hike isn’t the most scenic or challenging, it’s the lookout at the end that makes it worth it!
Sealy Tarns Track
The next four hikes on this list all depart from near the White Horse Hill campsite, just a short drive from Mount Cook Village. First up is the Sealy Tarns track, a steep climb that traverses over 2200 wooden steps before concluding at a set of beautiful reflective alpine ponds (tarns).
From here, views of the Hooker Valley and Aoraki/Mount Cook are pristine. If you’re a keen photographer, make sure to snap some reflective photos of Aoraki in the tarns!
Camping at the foot of Mt. Cook at White Horse Hill campsite
Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley track is often considered one of the most scenic hikes in New Zealand. Winding up the Hooker Valley, this hike passes several swing bridges, passing moraine viewpoints and crossing the Hooker River as it makes its way to the Hooker glacial lake at the feet of Mount Cook.
If you’re looking for great views New Zealand’s tallest peak without having to commit to a strenuous hike, this is the one for you!
Fiordland National Park Hikes
For those chasing a real slice of Jurassic New Zealand, the Fjordlands is the place to be. When most people think of the Fjordlands, they think of Milford Sound. The reality is that there is so much more to explore than just the regular tourist beat. Here are some of the most epic hikes in the area to get you started.
Another of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”, the Kepler Track is a 2-4 day tramp departing from Te Anau. The great thing about the Kepler Track is that it’s a loop track, which means you don’t have to follow your footsteps to return back to Te Anau.
In terms of scenery, the Kepler is one of the most amazing hikes in New Zealand’s South Island. Following the largest body of freshwater in Australiasia (Lake Te Anau), the track climbs through dense native forests before entering vast tussock plains with views of snow-capped peaks in all directions.
There are several ways to tackle this track, but in my opinion, the best way is to do it anti-clockwise in three days. I’ve written a very detailed guide about hiking the Kepler, which you’ll find in the link below.
Perhaps the most well-known and trafficked of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Milford Track is a 4-day 53.5 KM track which finishes in the magical Milford Sound. Known as the ‘finest walk in the world’ the Milford Track passes several waterfalls with spectacular viewing opportunities of the fjords and Mitre Peak.
The calm reflective waters of Lake Matheson is one of the best places in New Zealand to get views of Aoraki/Mount Cook’s western face. Located just a short drive from Fox Glacier village, Lake Matheson has a short, scenic loop hike around its circumference.
The highlight is undeniably Reflection Island, where in the right conditions, you’ll be treated with Mount Cook views like in the photo below.
An iconic Kiwi view & hike: Lake Matheson | photo: Geee Kay (CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Kaikoura and the East Coast hikes
Now for the South Island’s east coast. The north-eastern Kaikoura region is considered to be the island’s wildlife capital, especially when it comes to marine creatures.
Kaikoura Peninsula Walk
The Kaikoura Peninsula walk is a short coastal loop located just south of the Kaikoura township. This hike is popular because it allows visitors to spot dozens of basking fur seals who call this part of New Zealand home.
If you’re driving around the South Island on a road trip, then I’d highly recommend dedicating at least a few days to checking out this region. What makes this drive so great is that there are dozens of very short hikes which lead to some of the best temperate-rainforest waterfalls in New Zealand.
Advantage of adding Catlins to your road trip: short hikes to amazing waterfalls