New Zealand easily has some of the best hiking activities in the world. And after living on the South Island for six months, I can confidently say that hiking in New Zealand is unlike anywhere else.
Any major city is a short drive from incredible fiords, the Southern Alps, hot springs, glacial lakes and more.
In this post, I’ll introduce you to the different regions in the South Island and the type of hiking they offer. Then, I’ll recommend a few top hiking destinations and the best day and multi-day hikes on the island.
Regions in the South Island, New Zealand
The South Island is home to twelve different regions (as defined by the tourism board), each of which offers something different.
I think you would need three weeks to see it all, but if you don’t have that much time, you can choose a few regions based on the sights and activities you’re most interested in.
Nearly all of my recommendations can be visited in this two week South Island itinerary.
If hiking is what you’re most interested in, be sure to visit Fiordland National Park, Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park and Wanaka.
For other adventure activities, I recommend going to Abel Tasman National Park and The Catlins.
Nelson is home to Abel Tasman National Park and excellent coastline to explore, either by hiking or by kayaking.
This park also has one of New Zealand’s Great Walks: The Abel Tasman Coast Track. This 3-5 day hike takes you along the golden beach coastline and shimmering blue water.
Must-Do Activity: Kayaking
Must-Do Hike: Abel Tasman Coast Track
This region is more famous for its wine than for hiking. That said, if you are looking for some easier hikes, there are plenty of hikes in the rolling hills that don’t require much elevation gain.
Plus, you can cap off your stroll with some world-class Sauvignon Blanc.
Must-Do Activity: Wine Tasting
The west coast looks like a prehistoric jungle (it was even used as a filming location in Jurassic Park).
Plus, here will you find two of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers: Fox and Franz Josef. There are tons and tons of hiking here for all levels and abilities.
You can even take a helicopter onto one of the glaciers and start a guided hike from there. See tour options here.
Further north is Kahurangi National Park, where another Great Walk, the Heaphy Track, is located.
Must-Do Activity: Heli-hiking at the Glaciers
Must-Do Hike: Franz Josef Glacier Hike
Fiordland is home to the famous Milford Sound and is my favourite place for hiking in New Zealand. There are dozens of excellent day hikes, plus three Great Walks.
Many travellers will come here to take the Milford Sound boat tour (which I recommend) or go kayaking (also recommended!) but not as many stop at any of the trailheads along the road to Milford Sound.
This is a huge mistake! The hikes range in difficulty, but all provide views of dramatic mountains or the fiords.
Must-Do Activity: Boat Tour on Milford Sound
Must-Do Hike: Key Summit and Gertrude Saddle
This region is home to Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. There’s some great hiking, but Queenstown is more known for its young party vibe, skydiving and adrenaline-inducing activities.
Must-Do Activity: Adrenaline Activity (like skydiving or rafting)
Must-Do Hike: Ben Lomond
The region around Wanaka is surrounded by glimpses of the Southern Alps behind rolling fields. The sparkling Lake Wanaka is never far from view.
Wanaka is also the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park, which has plenty of short, day- and multi-day hiking options.
One of the most famous hikes, Roys Peak, is located a short drive outside of Wanaka.
Must-Do Activity: Paddling on Lake Wanaka to the Wanaka Tree
Must-Do Hike: Roys Peak
Waitaki, Otago & Dunedin
Dunedin and the surrounding Otago region were my home for six months, so I’m quite fond of the area even though it doesn’t offer the best hiking. There are still some beautiful trails, and if you like beaches, Dunedin should be top of your list.
Otago is a dry region of rolling hills and looks beautiful in the fall when the leaves change.
Dunedin is on the east coast and adjacent to the Otago Peninsula, which is an excellent place for short hikes to wildlife (i.e. penguins, sea lion and albatross).
Just north of Dunedin is the Waitaki River, and the surrounding area has a few attractions (though few hikes).
Must-Do Activity: Visit the Beaches
Must-Do Hike: Otago Peninsula
Christchurch / Canterbury
This is a large region of the South Island that includes the city of Christchurch, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park (an excellent place for hiking) and Kaikoura.
Aoraki Mount Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, and its national park offers tons of fantastic hiking and is one of the most popular destinations for hiking in New Zealand.
The areas around Christchurch and Kaikoura also have some nice coastal hiking, but the views aren’t nearly as dramatic.
Must-Do Activity: Swim with Dolphins in Kaikoura
Must-Do Hike: Hooker Valley Track
Southland & Clutha
These two regions may not offer dramatic mountain landscapes, but they still have excellent hiking.
One of my favourite regions on the South Island is The Catlins, which straddles both these regions.
Here you’ll find gentle hikes to waterfalls, expansive coastline, romantic lighthouses and the most southern point of the South Island.
Must-Do Activity: Slope Point, the most southern point on the South Island
Must-Do Hike: Nugget Point Lighthouse
Top 5 Best Day Hikes in the South Island
Here are some of the best hikes in the South Island, plus some additional hikes that are in the area.
1. Roys Peak in Wanaka
Roys Peak is likely the most photographed hike on the South Island (and maybe all of New Zealand). From the car park, the trail is 16 km return and takes 5-6 hours to complete.
The trail is smooth and well-marked, but with a whopping 1200 m of elevation gain, it is tiring and requires a moderate level of fitness.
Towards the top, you’ll see hikers line up to take that iconic, Insta-famous photo. Many do not continue to the Summit, but this is a mistake.
The views from the top are stunning. I recommend hiking Roys Peak for sunrise (just remember to bring a warm jacket and a headlamp).
Nearby Hikes: Blue Pools, Mount Isthmus
2. Key Summit in Fiordland National Park
Key Summit is an excellent, moderate hike in Fiordland. An 8 km round trip hike with only 423 m of elevation gain, Key Summit requires about 3 hours to complete.
Throughout the hike, you’ll walk through Jurassic-looking forest and be greeted with mountain views.
The mountains here are quite different from the mountains in other parts of the South Island; they aren’t quite as tall and only have a little snow on them, but they fall behind lush green vegetation and dark black lakes.
Nearby Hikes: Lake Marion, Gertrude Saddle
3. Hooker Valley in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
Hooker Valley is another popular hike on the South Island and is suitable for hikers of all abilities as there is essentially no elevation gain.
It’s 5 km from the car park to the Hooker Lake (10 km return trip), and the whole hike will take about 3 hours. The trail is well maintained, but very busy.
The views are definitely worth the crowds though – you’ll walk along a raging glacial river and over swing bridges, all the while being surrounded by sharp mountain peaks on either side.
Throughout the entire hike, Aoraki Mount Cook, the highest point in New Zealand, is rarely out of sight.
Nearby Hikes: Tasman Lake, Mueller Hut.
4. Ben Lomond Track near Queenstown
The Ben Lomond Track is an incredible hike outside of Queenstown. It is a total distance of 11 km and will require 4 – 6 hours to complete, depending on your hiking pace.
At 976 m, the elevation gain isn’t quite as aggressive as some of the other hikes on this list, but the mountain views are just as incredible.
You won’t see snow-capped mountains, but you will see rolling mountains and sparkling lakes.
Nearby Hikes: Bob’s Peak, Cecil Peak, Mount Alfred
5. Mount Fyffe
The Mount Fyffe hike is not for the faint of heart. With a total distance of 17 km and more than 1300 m of elevation gain, you will be panting the whole way up.
However, the views will definitely make up for it – you’ll be right in the snow-peaked mountain tops of the Kaikoura Mountain Range.
The hike is steep in sections, and hikers may benefit from trekking poles.
If you’re not up for that challenging of a hike, there are a few shorter hikes you can do near Mount Fyffe. There’s the Fyffe-Palmer Track and the Hinau Track, which are 1.5 hours and 45 minutes respectively.
However, these tracks take you through the forest and don’t offer the same incredible mountain views.
Nearby Hikes: Kaikoura Peninsula
Tips for Hiking in New Zealand
Dress for any weather: The weather in New Zealand can change very quickly. Always bring a rain jacket, warm sweater and extra food and water.
Tell someone when you’ll be back: On more remote hikes, ensure you bring the 10 Essentials and let someone know when you’ll be back.
That way if something happens, you have someone who knows where you are and can get help.
Wear sturdy hiking boots: Most of the mountain hikes are steep and rugged, and having a sturdy pair of hiking boots will prevent an ankle roll or sudden fall.
Trekking poles can also be helpful if you’re on a steep hike or have bad knees (like me – I almost always hike with poles now).
Take breaks to do other activities: Even though New Zealand has so many incredible hikes (more than you could ever fit into an itinerary), still try out other activities too.
I loved swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura and kayaking with baby seals in Abel Tasman. This will also give your body a much-needed break from hiking.
About the Author:
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, a blog dedicated to outdoor adventure travel. Mikaela spent several seasons working as a hiking and canoeing guide throughout Canada and lived in New Zealand for six months.
She now balances weekend adventuring with a full-time job and writes stories, resources and travel guides to help others get outside more.