70. Bike and hike Aotearoa’s amazing landscapes
From skydiving and jet-boating to hiking and biking some of the most spectacular and dramatic landscapes in the world, New Zealand is synonymous with adventure: here is No. 70 of our 101 Reasons To Stop Dreaming About New Zealand And Go.
Explore a hiker’s paradise
There are endless opportunities for Aussies to explore Aotearoa’s great outdoors, starting with 13 national parks and countless other nature reserves managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Embroidered throughout these diverse, often iconic landscapes are more than 14,000 kilometres of trails that abound with epic vistas, notable natural wonders and native wildlife. A network of simple campsites, atmospheric huts and lodges offers memorable immersion in starry nights and morning birdsong.
The most popular multi-day trails are known as the Great Walks. Well-formed and easy to follow, these 10 trails take you deep into some of the country’s most amazing landscapes. Although very popular during the Great Walks season (October to April), bookings are readily available outside of New Zealand school holidays or weekends. Most DOC tracks are graded from easiest to expert, making it simple to select a walk that’s right for you. An increasing number are wide and flat and therefore accessible to wheelchairs or strollers.
At the other end of the scale, expert trails follow challenging routes through often steep and rocky backcountry requiring total self-sufficiency and extensive hiking experience. There really is something for everyone. DOC and local visitor centres offer a wealth of information and advice, and passionate local tour operators provide everything from simple transport logistics to fully guided tours with luggage-transfers and comfortable lodging after a long day of walking.
Five top day hikes:
This spectacular day hike loops around the northern face of Pourangahau/Mt Robert. Splendid views over Lake Rotoiti, the national park and surrounding mountains are rich reward for the fairly strenuous initial climb up the aptly named Pinchgut Track, which zigzags its way up Mt Robert to the alpine tops above the bush line. A hikers’ hut is a good place to picnic before hitting Paddys Track for the wind back down again.
A half-hour scenic cruise from downtown Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau, Rangitoto is a volcanic island that emerged from the sea just 600 years ago. A series of easy, well-signposted trails take in various volcanic oddities, pōhutukawa forest, and panoramic views from the 259-metre summit, including a unique perspective of downtown Auckland. A causeway connects to its 178-million-year old neighbour, Motutapu, a wildlife sanctuary home to rare native birds such as the takahē, tīeke/saddleback and colourful kākāriki.
Starting on the road to Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, this half-day hike offers a taste of the Routeburn Track Great Walk. The trail climbs steadily through beech forest to an incredible alpine garden with wetlands, miniature trees and the world’s largest fuchsia. The hilltop nature trail takes in various viewpoints across Fiordland’s dramatic valley and peaks. Birdlife includes the beautiful kererū (native pigeon) and the kea, Aotearoa’s inquisitive alpine parrot.
It’s hard to argue with the claim that this is one of the world’s greatest day hikes, with the Crossing taking in two active volcanoes, fumaroles, giant lava fields, a bright red crater and steaming emerald lakes. From the tops, mind-blowing views stretch across Lake Taupō and around the volcanic plateau, all the way out to Mt Taranaki on the west coast. Fitness, proper equipment and a good forecast are essential for this seven- to eight-hour mission; advice, transport and guiding are supplied by excellent local operators.
A quieter alternative to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the Pouākai Crossing is an equally big and beautiful day hike of up to nine hours around the lower slopes of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. Among its highlights are the much-photographed Pouākai Tarns, towering cliffs, a mighty waterfall and primeval Akukawakawa Swamp. The two trailheads are less than 30 minutes’ drive from New Plymouth, with track transport readily available.
Five top multi-day hikes:
Accessed from the lovely lakeside town of Te Anau, this three- to four-day (60-kilometre) Great Walk traces ridges offering ever-changing vistas of Fiordland National Park, part of Te Wāhipounamu–South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Natural wonders include rocky valleys, wetlands and moss-laden forest. Side trips take in caves and waterfalls, while those with limited time can take a guided heli-hike trip up to Luxmore Hut and hike back down to Lake Te Anau.
Opened in 2019, New Zealand’s newest Great Walk blends old goldminers’ trails and new track for a journey over the alpine tops of the Paparoa Range, a remarkable landscape of limestone, rainforest and rivers. Open to both walkers and mountain bikers, this fairly challenging trail takes three days, with overnight stops in two fabulous bush line huts commanding epic views over the West Coast and Tasman Sea.
A brilliant option for those looking for a bit more comfort than a basic hikers’ hut, this three-day loop track (61 kilometres) is managed in partnership between DOC and the Tuatapere community who manage two lodges complete with hot showers and meal options. It begins along the rugged southern Fiordland coast, then heads up the Hump Ridge, topped with craggy limestone tors, offering incredible faraway views. To make it even easier, fully guided walks and heli-hikes are also available.
Another of the Great Walks, this three- to four-day journey starts and finishes at bushy Whakapapa Village, the main gateway to Tongariro National Park. It traverses a large section of the famous Alpine Crossing but adds in an array of lesser-known sights including the lava bomb-strewn Oturere Valley, hidden forests, historic Waihohonu Hut and the peculiar Tama Lakes. Just before the end, it passes one of the park’s most striking cascades, Taranaki Falls.
This remote journey takes you into Te Urewera, the largest remnant of native forest in the North Island/Te Ika-a-Māui and homeland of the Ngāi Tūhoe people. Part of the Great Walk family, the three- to four-day hike here heads through bird-filled bush, around the shores of peaceful Lake Waikaremoana and over the Panekire Range from where there are awe-inspiring views. To immerse yourself more fully in Te Urewera’s culture and history, consider a guided hiking trip.
See the best of New Zealand by bike
New Zealand has gone bike-mad over the last decade, with countless kilometres of new trails springing up in town, country and everywhere in between. Leading the charge are Ngā Haerenga/New Zealand Cycle Trail’s 22 Great Rides, most of which are multi-day journeys but can easily be split into shorter rides of various lengths and levels of difficulty. Other trails and mountain bike parks have joined the Great Rides to create a growing network of recreational trails across the country.
New Zealand’s bike trails are a brilliant way to reach must-see sights while soaking up some of the country’s most impressive landscapes. Many of them pass by iconic natural wonders, as well as bucket-list activities, cultural sites and welcoming small towns. Easy rail trails are a particular speciality, closely followed by riverside and coastal pathways.
Local shuttle and tour companies are on fine form and offer excellent flexibility around mixed-ability groups and special requests. Options range from simple shuttle drops to fully guided rides with all luggage transfers, food and accommodation taken care of. Add-ons such as hiking, kayaking, wildlife- watching and wine tours are also available. A great first port of call for information is the Ngā Haerenga/New Zealand Cycle Trail website, nzcycletrail.com.
Five top day rides:
This large and largely flat trail network of themed rides traces the coast, rivers and plains taking in world-famous Art Deco architecture and wine country along the way. Combine the Marine Parade Explorer and Landscapes Ride between Napier/Ahuriri and Clifton to enjoy awesome Pacific Coast views, outdoor art and some of the region’s best cellar door experiences. Add in a trip to iconic Cape Kidnappers for a full day’s adventure.
Another great trail for working up an appetite, this 177-kilometre network serves up a range of top day rides as it loops around the sunny top of the South. Starting in Nelson, the easy two- to three-hour ride to Mapúa follows the water’s edge to Moturoa/Rabbit Island with its pine forest and idyllic beach. A short ferry hop and you’re all ashore at Mapúa Wharf where there are several cafes, the Golden Bear Brewery, and boutique shopping.
Hanmer Springs, less than two hours’ drive from Christchurch/Ōtautahi, has traditionally been known for its thermal pools. However, a growing network of trails through its delightful heritage forest is giving holidaymakers even more reason to visit the laid-back resort town. Start with Easy Rider, work up to the Swoop/ Swamp Loop, then test your mettle on Tombstone. When you are finished, rest and relax with a hot soak and warm hospitality in the village’s cafes and restaurants.
If you fancy a holiday where you can bike to most sights and attractions, you’ll love Taupō. It has some terrific recreational trails including a splendid lakeside path, the Waikato River Track to the thunderous Huka Falls, and Craters Mountain Bike Park, which has family-friendly loops. The nearby Great Lake Trail has several intermediate-grade mountain bike rides with lush bush and big lookouts.
The Queenstown Trail network boasts more than 130 kilometres of off-road trails taking in great scenery and many major sights. Starting in historic Arrowtown, the popular half day Arrow River Bridges ride meanders through a series of photogenic landscapes before finishing at the world-famous Kawarau Bridge bungy jump bridge where Gibbston Valley’s wineries lie tantalisingly close.
Five top multi-day rides:
Sandwiched between mountains and sea, this spectacular trail stretches between the salty port town of Greymouth and the rustic old gold town of Ross. Lush rainforest, pristine rivers, tranquil lakes and rugged beaches make this a journey for nature-lovers, but it also follows the fortunes of the Māori pounamu (greenstone) gatherers, goldminers and those that followed in their footsteps. Ride it in full over four to five leisurely days staying in small towns along the way, or dip in and out on day trips.
New Zealand’s original Great Ride upcycles a retired railway line to deliver epic scenery alongside remarkable manmade landmarks such as railway bridges and tunnels, abandoned gold diggings, and historic architecture from Art Deco municipal buildings to rustic farmyards. The full 150 kilometres can be ridden over several days or broken into shorter rides, with plenty of atmospheric accommodation, pubs, cafes and other visitor services to keep you on track.
This two-day trail takes riders through Pureora Forest Park, a hidden gem not far from Lake Taupō and Tongariro National Park. Spectacular tracts of original forest, flourishing birdlife, incredible suspension bridges and curious timber-milling relics combine for a journey full of surprises and stories retold in excellent storyboards. At the halfway point, deep in the forest, the eco-friendly Timber Trail Lodge offers modern, comfortable accommodation as well as transport and e-bike hire packages.
New Zealand’s longest Great Ride offers breathtaking vistas all the way from Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, to the Pacific Ocean at the historic port town of Oāmaru. Snow-capped ranges, glacier-carved valleys, braided rivers, turquoise hydro-lakes, tussock-covered highlands and rural plains – the wonders keep on coming on this four- to six-day journey. Accommodation and cafes are dotted along the way, along with opportunities for wine-tasting, penguin-spotting and al fresco hot tubs.
A leisurely ride between peaceful Hokianga Harbour and the beautiful Bay of Islands, this two-day trail is a rewarding way to get to know Northland/Te Tai Tokerau’s history, places and people. Following a mix of rail trails, cycle paths and back roads, it takes in wetlands, native forest and rolling countryside as well as a series of small towns. It’s also close to significant cultural sites such as the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and Māngungu Mission. And thanks to Northland’s sub-tropical climate, this trail offers great riding all year round.
Legend of the volcanoes
Of all the fiery and exciting volcanic sights around the Central North Island/Te Ika-a-Māui, the most impressive are the four big volcanoes situated in two national parks. South of Lake Taupō, Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and holds dual UNESCO World Heritage status for both its natural and cultural values. At the heart of this staggeringly crazy landscape are the three brother volcanoes – Ruapehu (2797 metres), Ngāuruhoe (2291 metres) and Tongariro (1968 metres). All three are very much alive, the most recent eruption being Mt Tongariro in 2012. A sophisticated early warning system keeps locals and visitors safe, including those hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
Just 130 kilometres away but four hours’ drive via the Forgotten World Highway, Egmont National Park is home to the incredibly handsome fourth brother, Mt Taranaki (2518 metres). This perfectly conical maunga/mountain last erupted in 1854 and is considered dormant. The Pouākai Crossing offers a chance to survey his grandeur. All four volcanoes are venerated by Māori, whose legend recalls all four brothers once living together in the centre of the motu/island. But when Taranaki made flirtatious advances towards a pretty hill named Pihanga, Tongariro erupted in a fury so fiery it sent Taranaki hot-footing it out west, gouging out the Whanganui River on his way.