Grandeur. It lures us to mountainsides and puts us in the belly of the deepest snaking valleys. And logistics aside — it’s the ultimate Antipodean long-haul — New Zealand has some of the grandest walking trails on Earth. “Tramping” is a matter of Kiwi national pride.
NZ has nine Great Walks and hundreds of not-quite-so-great, but still better than most, wilderness trails to suit hardened hikers and novices alike. Here are just a few that really delivered in wonderment, without the need for climbing gear and crampons.
Kea Point Trail – Mt Cook National Park
Set at the foot of Mt Cook and its smaller siblings, the Kea is a tiddler of a walk, with an hour giving plenty of time to take in the views. But it’s breathtaking enough to warrant a same-day repeat trip — morning and evening. It’s all about the light.
Shale footing winds gently up towards the base of Mt Sefton and its glacial terminal lake. Perpetual giver of avalanche, Sefton lingers close enough for you to spot the snow slides if you have an eagle eye and far enough away to keep you cosy in your van at night with soft rumblings. New Zealand’s answer to rain on a window pane.
Mt Cook, NZ’s tallest summit, stands proud — jagged-edged, ice-blue — almost always catching the wisp of a cloud with its peak. Framed at the foot by a milky jade lake, the view from the mountain expands into a valley so vast and void of human detritus that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d arrived before anyone else.
If you walk the trail once, do it towards sunset when the light sets the landscape on fire with orange and purple. Headphones in, emotive playlist on. Shudder.
Hooker Valley Trail – Mt Cook National Park
An almost effortless 5 km in length with a gentle 330 ft gain, the Hooker is an achievable challenge with an awesome climax.
Beginning in the shadows of giants, Mt Cook obscured from view, the path winds gently northward through golden grasslands. Crossing the Hooker River — waters stained powder-blue from glacial ice — you reach the south of Mueller Glacier Lake and the first of three mighty suspension bridges. Continuing north, the valley becomes a wide vista where Cook gets its cinematic reveal. This is the most unobscured view of the mountain and it packs a powerful punch.
What gives the walk its haunting memorability, though, is the iceberg-strewn lake at the track’s conclusion. Take a breath, and a moment to note the poignancy of fading bergs and the glacier that birthed them. This place makes for a bewildering picture.
Franz Josef valley trail – Mt Cook National Park
Picking your way through the relic forest up a great bouldered gash left by the mighty frozen river, it’s hard not to feel a pang of guilt for how far the ice has retreated in recent years.
Speckled green turns to brown, then grey. The lateral moraine leaving behind a footprint of the giant this glacier once was, as you make your way to the terminal face. It’s another short hike at only 5.4 km, and the trail is easy enough for most. But despite its modest length, this stretch of track allows you glimpses of the mighty Waiho river, crystal waterfalls and some of New Zealand’s most pristine and ancient temperate rainforest. All that before a short climb delivers the glacial view you came for.
There are more challenging paths that lead to Franz Josef, but when the view is so good from here it’s hard to convince yourself to go higher or harder.
The pass is an inland mountainous region of contorted peaks and valleys which, like so much of New Zealand, seems alien and completely uninhabited. Rising high at almost 1000 metres above sea-level, it’s not uncommon to see a dusting of snow on the ground here. But, as we pass through, the bronzed grasses and buttercups are more reminiscent of a desert than a mountainside.
You can drive it, or explore by bike, horse, or foot. There are no officially recognised trails here so it is an open playground.
Like the moorlands of the UK, the Pass has a barren, hostile, beauty. A place to indulge in lonesome inner-reflection.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing – Tongariro National Park
“Woooph” was the adjective a fellow Alpinist used to describe this hike. Which couldn’t have been more accurate. This was The Big One.
The Crossing, at 19.4 km, is part of the much larger Northern Circuit which covers 41 km of the Tongariro National Park. You won’t find solitude on the trail as you’re joined by hordes of other trekkers hoping to take a bite out of the Great Northern, but the eight-hour trip across diverse, mysterious, lands will leave you feeling as though you’ve experienced something entirely unique.
The track takes in Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe (AKA Mt Doom, LotR), Mt Ruapehu and some absolutely staggering volcanic landscapes, before it eases you back down to lower ground. Leave early to catch the best of the light and colour.
Passing alongside the eastern base of sleeping giant Ngauruhoe — its spectacular wine-stained crater and perfect cylindrical cone rising sharply out of the surrounding landscape — low morning sun streams in thin shards and the ground simmers as it warms. By this point, you’ve forgotten that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other walkers doing it with you.
As you start to climb with a bit more intent, up the Tongariro Saddle, you descend into the enormous South Crater, framed at its edges by snow-tipped mountains and big enough to house a flat-sand desert at its centre. You’ll climb a little more once you reach the edge, up to the highest point of the hike — the active Red Crater. This is the “money shot” for many, but the eerie calm of the South Crater has an allure all of its own.
A final push upwards and the path descends down a loose scree slope to give you your first glimpse of the truly majestic Emerald Lakes, formed of volcanic minerals which give them their brilliant hue. If you’re not wearing good grips you will be surfing this part. Blue Lake follows Emerald before you begin the zigzag descent down to Ketetehai Car Park. This last part is otherworldly scrub land, full of browns, golds and volcanic steam, all the while giving you views of Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo to the north.
If there’s a day hike out there that can deliver more spectacular and diverse panoramas, we all ought to know.