For anyone planning on travelling to New Zealand, knowing about the Great Walks is essential. The Department of Conservation program consists of nine beautiful, easily-accessible hikes located throughout the country that offer a wide range of scenery. From beach walks to steep alpine climbs, the Great Walks are an awesome way to see the variety of New Zealand’s natural beauty.
You are warned: the Great Walks can be costly and overcrowded, especially if you travel during peak season. Expect to have photo opportunities intruded upon and peaceful moments interrupted. One night in a hut can run you up to NZD$50 per person, and the trails are visited by thousands of Kiwis and tourists alike throughout the year. So why am I recommending this costly, popular trail system?
Well, for one, all of these trails are perfect for newbies. If you stay in a hut, you’ll be guaranteed a bunk at the end of the night and won’t have to carry the extra weight of a tent or a stove. Trails usually have toilets between stops, so you’ll barely even be roughing it if you play your cards right. The paths themselves are beautifully maintained, which makes struggling up a steep mountain pass doable for a beginner. Great Walks are great for solo travellers as well, as you can meet other backpackers in huts and campsites along the way.
So you’re a backcountry expert who enjoys the challenge of living off the grid? You still might want to consider splurging on a Great Walk or two. My partner and I saved some money by camping (usually about NZD$30-$40 cheaper per night than staying in a hut) and managed to stay out of the crowd by placing our tent on the outskirts of the campsites and waiting to make moves on the next leg of the trail after the mass had made their early start. The trails are also relatively accessible, as you can get a shuttle to and from the tracks during peak season (and sometimes during the off-season as well). This can be a huge help if you don’t have a car- there were other hikes we wanted to do, but often had no feasible way of getting to the trailheads.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce the nine spectacular Great Walks (with links to their official pages):
If you want to do a Great Walk, you’ll need to put in some planning time. First, make sure you’re going during the right season. Great Walk Season in New Zealand starts in mid October and ends in late April, so expect rates to change accordingly. You’ll pay less and avoid large crowds during the off-season, but be wary that some tracks are inaccessible and dangerous during inclement weather. Aim for the shoulder season – just before the season begins and ends are great times to travel these popular walks. For instance, Abel Tasman, a beachy breeze of a track, is best avoided during the middle of summer unless you’re fond of swarms of biting insects and loud, smelly backpackers. Milford Track, “the finest walk in the world”, is almost certainly guaranteed to be booked to capacity every day of the high season. The volcanic Tongariro Northern Circuit is peaceful, offering almost Martian scenery once you make it past the bit of track which overlaps with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which can have more than a thousand hikers walking it in a day. The point here? Be aware of timing.
You’ll also need to book ahead of time for most of these walks. You can get lucky and secure a last-minute spot on the trail, but you’ll likely need to book your huts and campsites at least a few weeks in advance. You can do that here, on the Department of Conservation website. Simply click on the track you’re interested in and scroll down to the menu item that says “Fees and Bookings” (and count yourself lucky that the dear old DOC has done a fabulous job revamping their website since I traveled NZ).
Nguaruhoe Volcano in Tongariro National Park
Disclaimer: I’ve only done four out of these nine Great Walks, so my advice is not complete. Talk to locals and guides at the local Department of Conservation office. If you’re in an area for an extended period of time, seek out experienced hikers through a local tramping club. The Great Walks are designed to be easy to get to and easy(ish) to walk, so don’t avoid hiking just because you’ve never done it before! The money, time, and effort you spend will be well worth the spectacular views, encounters with beautiful indigenous birdlife, and deepened understanding of New Zealand’s world-famous natural wonders.