12 Best Day Hikes on the South Island, New Zealand

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The South Island of New Zealand has some of the best hiking in the world. Almost all travellers to this part of New Zealand will undertake a short hike of some sort as its often the only way to see the magnificence of nature up close.

Hiking seems to be a national past time in New Zealand and the country is very well set up for it. From multi day over night hikes, to short walks that take no more than 20 minutes and everthing in between, the Department of Conservation has set up and maintains an incredible variety of hikes all over the country.

After living there for three years, in my opinion, the best hikes are on the South Island. All of these hikes can easily be completed in just on day, ranging from 2 to 8 hours. They range from valley walks, to mountains, to overlooking glaciers. Some are exceptionally busy, whilst on others you’ll have the trail to yourself.

Get your hiking boots on and get planning the best day hikes on the South Island of New Zealand.

The 12 Best Day Hikes on the South Island

Tasman Glacier Walk

Tasman glacier hike, New Zealand, Dan

Distance2.6km
Time40 minutes return
DifficultyEasy
LocationMount Cook

The Tasman Glacier walk is a short but steep walk from the car park to see the longest glacier in New Zealand. Since it started retreating in the 1970’s, it has left behind the glacier lake which can be seen in the photo with the Tasman Glacier behind.

The hike takes about 20 minutes to the view point and on a clear day, much of the southern alps can be seen. Much of the hike is done on steps that slowly climb the former moraine wall. This is a simple hike that can be done as part of a much longer stay around Aoraki/ Mount Cook Village.

Alex Knob

alex knob franz josef glacier new zealand

Distance17km
Time6-8 hours return
DifficultyHard
LocationFranz Josef

The Alex Knob hike is my favourite hike in Franz Josef. Although a good level of fitness is needed to complete for 4 hour hike to the top, the views of the Franz Josef Glacier a the top make it all worth while.

The stops at Christmas and Rata lookouts give you a teaser of the views that await at the top.

A popular track for serious hikers in the area, set off early if you want to be by yourself at the top. Although not advertised anywhere, if you take your tent, there is a small clearing where it is possible to camp at the top of the mountain and wake up to magical sunrises of the mountains of the Southern Alps.

Park at the car park on the road to the main Glacier Car Park where there is normally space for 6-8 cars. If that is full, you will have to park in the Glacier Car Park or walk from town. Expect to add another hour to your trip if walking from the centre of the township.

Top tip: speak to locals before heading out to check on the weather. It is normal for the valley to cloud over in the afternoons, putting your hard work to waste.

Lake Matheson

lake matheson fox glacier new zealand
Lake Matheson at sunset with the perfect reflection
Distance4.4m loop
Time90 minute loop
DifficultyEasy
LocationFox Glacier

The Lake Matheson walk is one of the easiest on the South Island but comes with some of the best views for the amount of effort put in.

From the main car park, the entire loop around the lake only takes 90 minutes, although a shorter out and back walk to the Reflection Island viewpoint (where this photo was taken) can also be completed. Go for sunrise for the quietest times for the perfect photo that adorns much of New Zealands tourism campaigns. The evening for sunset also gives incredible views, but expect it to be more crowded.

Blue Pools, Makaroa

Blue Pools, West Coast, New Zealand

Distance<1km
Time10-20 minutes
DifficultyEasy
LocationMakaroa

Anyone driving through the Haast Pass on the South Island will need to stop off at the Blue Pools in Makaroa. There is parking on the main SH6 road and further parking available at Cameron Flat campsite just to the north.

Crossing a small bridge and looking at the pristine blue glacial water coming off the mountains is a sight that will awaken the bleariest of travellers as the travel between Otago and the West Coast. This is one of the easiest hikes on the South Island of New Zealand. The short and flat walk can be done by almost anyone.

Those that want a bit more adrenaline can jump off the bridge into the crystal clear waters to freshen up. Be warned, glacial water is FREEZING cold!

Roys Peak

Roys Peak, Wanaka, New Zealand That View

Distance16km return
Time5-6 hours return
DifficultyMedium
LocationWanaka

Roys Peak is one of the most iconic day hikes on the South Island of New Zealand with the view from the top being beamed all over the world on social media as one of the most incredible sights in the country.

Although, the view is highly recognisable (I’ve used it for the image at the top of the page), that isn’t actually the top of the hike. Head another 30 minutes up some smaller switchbacks and the views are more dramatic, despite not having the path winding out which gives a leading line for perfect photos.

The hike contains many switchbacks that head up the side of the mountain so the hike itself can become a bit monotonous. But honestly the views at the top on a good day make it worth every step.

Isthmus peak

Isthmus-peak, wanaka Dan New Zealand

Distance16km return
Time5-7 hours
DifficultyHard
LocationLast Wanaka

This may be one of the best hikes I’ve done on the South Island of New Zealand. Despite starting my climb in cloud, by the time I reached the top, the layer of inversion clouds benath me gave one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. Not only is the picture above one of my favourites, I’ve used it on the homepage of this site! Strange to think that I’m sitting at over 1300m above sea level when the clouds seem just beneath me.

The hike is tough with plenty of switchbacks along and false peaks along the way. But the views of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea make every steep step worth it.

Top Tip: the path is closed during November and December for fawning.

Hooker Valley Track

Hooker Valley track, New Zealand, Dan

Distance10km
Time3 hours return
DifficultyMedium
LocationMount Cook National Park

This out and back track is my favourite hike on the South Island of New Zealand. Starting at the car park, close to Mount Cook village, the walk takes you over swing bridges, around small hills and finishes at Hooker Lake which glacial icebergs floating by.

On a clear day, expect stunning views of Aoraki/ Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. I’ve done this walk many times, with fresh snow on the ground early in the morning as well as in summer with the heat taking its toll.

As a relatively flat hike, it can be completed by anyone with a good level of fitness wearing basic trainers or shoes.

Bealey Spur Track

Bealey Spur track, New Zealand, Dan

Distance6km
Time2.5 hours one way
DifficultyMedium
LocationArthurs Pass

Pull into the small car park just off the SH73 passing between the West Coast and Canterbury and start your short and steady climb into the southern alps.

The track starts from the road and ends at the Bealey Spur hut where its possible to stay overnight if you pack your sleeping bag, but its very easy to go in and out in a day. The views get better as you go up with plenty of options to rest on the way through the forest and into the tussock.

Devils Punchbowl

Devils Punchbowl, New Zealand, Dan

Distance2km return
Time1 hour
DifficultyEasy
LocationArthurs Pass

If you’re driving from Christchurch to the West Coast, use this short hike to stretch your legs near Arthurs Pass.

At the western edge of the town, a small car park awaits before taking the short walk to the 131m waterfall drops into the Bealey River via the punchbowl.

Although the walk is short in distance, there are over 150 steps that need navigating as you ascend 70m to the falls. Some are tight and you may have to wait a short while as others come down the steps first, but with such a short hike, it won’t make you too late to carry on your day.

Top tip: Grab a coffee from the excellent Arthurs Pass store with its floor to ceiling windows looking out at the mountains.

Hokitika Gorge

Hokitika gorge, New Zealand, Dan

Distance2km
Time1 hour
DifficultyEasy, Medium, Hard
LocationHokitika

A 20 minute drive outside Hokitika lies Hokitika Gorge and the accompanying hike that goes with it. Park up and enjoy the short walk along a swing bridge crossing blue waters of glacial water.

On a perfect day, getting down to river level will give you a sight of the turquoise blue waters filled with glacial flour that makes this part of the West Coast so alluring.

Like other hikes on this list, it is possible to swim in the waters, but remember that the river water was ice stored in glaciers just a few kilometers away and has the temperature to match!

Luxmore hut

Luxmore hut hike, New Zealand

Distance13.8km one way
Time8-10 hours return
DifficultyHard
LocationTe Anau

This Luxmore hut hike is part of the much longer multi day hike of the Kepler Track. However, for thos not equiped for a multi day hike but still want to get their steps in when visiting Te Anau, hiking from the car park to Luxmore hut will give you a solid workout.

You start by crossing a bridge and following the lake shoreline, passing the beautiful Dock and Brod bays. From there the path heads into the hills and remains steep for almost the entirety of the hike.

But when you emerge from the forest into the tussock, the views of Luxmore hut and Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri make the slog worth it.

It is possible to stay at Luxmore hut if you’ve made a booking and are prepared for an overnight stay. Before heading back down, take your head torch and check out Luxmore cave just a short walk further on.

Ben Lomond

Queenstown, New Zealand

Distance11km return
Time6-8 hours
DifficultyHard
LocationQueenstown

This is one of the most gruelling day hikes in Queenstown.

The steep climb takes you over 1400m above sea level but leaves you with incredible views over the town, Lake Wakatipu and the rest of the Remarkables.

Queenstown is the home of adrenaline junkies, mostly known for bungee jumping and skydiving, so why wouldn’t a tough hike also be added to the list?

FAQs on the Best Hike on the South Island of New Zealand

What’s the best hike in New Zealand?

In my opinion, the best hike on the South Island of New Zealand is the Hooker Valley track as it is very accessible, can be completed in most weather conditions and has incredible views at the end as well as right through the hike.

What are the best overnight hikes?

There are countless overnight hikes available on the South Island. Mueller Hut in Mount Cook has some of the ebst views but is most challenging. Nelson Lakes has some incredible walking trails and huts to spend a few nights in. Mount Brown is an almost secret hut that doesn’t host too many international tourists but all the locals know about it.

For most people though, I would recommend the Copland Track as it is relatively flat, has a large hut at the end with ample amenities and you can soak in the hot pools to sooth those aching muscles at the end of a long days hiking.

What are the Great Walks?

The Great Walks are a series of 10 multi day hikes that has been put together by DOC and various tourism bodies.

They are promoted to get locals and tourists into the great outdoors and their special status means the accommodation options are less rustic than other huts in New Zealand with solar power, hot shower and gas cookers available at some locations.

Make sure to book your huts well in advance, nights go on sale months in advance and often sell out. You can find more about the Great Walks on the DOC website.

Can I bring my drone on my hike?

All the hikes on this list are on National Park land that is owned by DOC. To fly a drone you need to apply for a permit well in advance following CAA rules as they are considered aircraft.

Realistically, unless you need it for commercial photography and videography, it is not worth applying for this permit. Breaking the rules can result in fines of up to $50,000.

Simply, you are not allowed to fly drones on most hikes in New Zealand.

Tasman Glacier day hike, Tasman, New Zealand, Dan

Packing list

New Zealand has some of the most changeable weather conditions I’ve encountered. There is a joke that you need to pack suncream and an umbrella on the same hike!

I often hike in my trail running shoes but good quality hiking boots will suit most people. Take a water bottle that you can reuse and refill using some of the fresh water streams that you may come across. Some water in New Zealand is some of the freshest and tastiest I’ve come across.

As with all hikes, take waterproofs, first aid kit and small snacks depends on the length of your hike. I pack all of mine in my Macpac Kahuna backpack that has been round the world with me many times and is perfectly comfy on day hikes like there.

Summing up the best day hikes on the South Island

Hiking is a must do when visiting New Zealand and these hikes on the South Island are easy to do in just a day. From seeing glaciers, climbing mountains or staring into crystal blue gorges, each hike has a little something for everyone.

Check out my other posts on New Zealand:

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