9 "Great Walks" of New Zealand: Beaches, Forest, and Mountains By Foot

Whether you are looking for an hour-long hike or a multiday trek, these pristine trails will satisfy any level of adventure.

Kiwis know how lucky they are.

Nearly 11 percent of their country’s total land area is protected in 13 national parks administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC). That’s more than 11,000 square miles to play in, and Kiwis make the most of each one.

Helping them do so are the Great Walks, nine premier trails developed and maintained by the DOC.

Scattered across the country, each within easy access of cities and towns, the tracks are well-kept and popular with both locals and visitors. Each route is different and offers a one-with-nature experience you can’t get anywhere else.

South Island

Easily accessible from Queenstown, New Zealand’s self-proclaimed “Adventure Capital,” the Routeburn has the scenery New Zealand is famous for: glittering lakes, wide valleys, and soaring mountain peaks.

Length: 20 miles one-way
Duration: Two to four days
Open: Late October through early May

The Milford Track is one of the most popular Great Walks, with forested mountains climbing steeply out of glacier-carved valleys. This is one of the wettest places on the planet, with an annual average rainfall of 22 feet. The result? Stunning waterfalls, including the 1,903-foot Sutherland Falls.

Length: 33 miles one-way
Duration: Four days
Open: Late October through early May

This is one of the more remote Great Walks. It’s located on Stewart Island, which lies off the southern tip of the South Island. Stewart Island is known for deserted, sandy beaches, rugged native forest, and its population of kiwis. (The flightless birds are easy to spot here, often on the beaches.)

Length: 20-mile loop
Duration: Three days
Open: All year

The Heaphy is another wild and remote track, located in the northwest corner of the South Island. This track is the longest Great Walk, winding through tussocks and palm forests to the wild west coast.

Length: 49 miles one way
Duration: Four to six days
Open: All year

The Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s most popular walk. With its temperate climate, strangely sculpted boulder formations, jade-colored ocean, and golden beaches, it’s easy to understand why. Located at the top of the South Island, the track hugs this dramatic coastline, leaving hikers to navigate a 15-foot tidal range, one of the biggest in New Zealand.

Length: 37 miles one-way
Duration: Three to five days
Open: All year

This circular track begins and ends three miles from Te Anau, in the southwest corner of the South Island, taking hikers through beech forests to ridgelines.

Length: 37-mile loop
Duration: Three to four days
Open: Late October through early May

North Island

Winding through the rugged forest of the North Island’s east coast, this track follows the lake’s shoreline, taking hikers past remote beaches.

Length: 29 miles one-way
Duration: Three to four days
Open: All year

This loop is another of the most popular Great Walks, showcasing some of New Zealand’s most extreme and dramatic landscapes, from active volcanoes, to peaceful beech forests, to what appear to be Martian plateaus.

Length: 27-mile loop
Duration: Three to four days
Open: Late October through the end of April

The Whanganui Journey is a river trek, not a hike. Canoe or kayak through the lush, culturally rich Whanganui National Park.

Length: 54 to 90 miles one-way
Duration: Three to five days
Open: Early October through the end of April

Tips for Tackling a Great Walk

· The Great Walks are popular, so plan your trip well in advance.

· New Zealand’s weather is very changeable, year-round. Check the local forecast. If you have any questions, stop by a local Department of Conservation office.

· Although the Great Walks are well maintained, this is still wilderness: pack and prepare well. Always let someone know of your plans. If you have any doubts about the weather, terrain, or river crossings, err on the side of caution—there are plenty of other extraordinary hikes nearby. Do not stay wedded to your plans; adapt to the conditions.

· Not ready for a multiday hike? No worries! New Zealand is woven with walking trails, from short wanders in city parks and one-hour hikes to half-day tramps in landscapes that range from beaches to mountains. Pack your hiking boots and set off to explore.

Carrie Miller is a New Zealand-based writer, traveler, and storyteller for National Geographic Traveler magazine and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Krista Rossow is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Travel. You can follow her on instagram @kristarossow.