There’s no shortage of truly epic walks in New Zealand. I mean, we all know that. But here’s a secret: some of the best can be done in less than a day.
One of my favorite things about living in New Zealand is all of the available tracks and walks right on my doorstep. No matter where you find yourself, you’re never not far from an adventure. And while I love to get off the beaten track and really immerse myself in the wilderness of this epic country often on long multi-day missions and visiting backcountry huts, I also equally love short walks.
From far in the tropical north to the truly wild deep south, from lush native forests to black sandy beaches, from mellow and meandering to ruggedly invigorating, these little hikes are now rated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as some of the best short walks in New Zealand.
Before heading off on any walk or hike in New Zealand, even a short one, make sure you check the weather and the local DOC (Department of Conservation) office or website for any updates on the track, the weather, or any vital information you may need to know.
Here are my picks for best short walks in New Zealand, enjoy!
1. Mount Manaia Track – Northland
3.5kms. 2-3hr return. Low to Moderate Fitness Required. More info here.
Whangarei in the far north of New Zealand has one of the most spectacular harbor entrances in the country – and that’s saying something. The entire island nation has been formed and carved by intense geological forces and the resulting landscapes and coastlines are phenomenal. The easy to medium track at Mount Manaia is testament to this.
It’s a bit of a steady climb up through the lush green native forest, but the view from the top is the ultimate reward. Wind your way up to the base of what looks like an ancient castle, but in reality is proof of the volcanic energy that sculpted this remarkable land, and see if you can find the Hen and Chicken Islands just off the coast.
As in many parts of the country, DOC is working hard to regenerate the natural forest and bird life and this forest is no exception. Stroll beneath the shade of nīkau palms and kauri trees while the fiery reds of northern rātā and pōhutukawa poke through the treeline in scarlett brilliance.
2. Mangawhai Cliffs – Northland
5km. 2-3hr return. Moderate Fitness Required. More info here.
It’s no secret New Zealand has a pretty rugged coastline and this stunning walk from sandy beach to dramatic cliff tops in Northland is no exception.
Views and photo ops abound, and you might even be lucky enough to spot a pod of whales or school of sharks from the track. The track itself is a bit rocky and rough at the coastal end, and is of a steady gradient upwards of about 115 meters, but is totally doable for all ages.
Ancient Pōhutukawa trees cling tenaciously to the cliff edges while colorful, fat native pigeons (kererū), not at all like city pigeons, feast in the branches.
The track starts on the beach, then climbs steadily, at a reasonably steep gradient, for about 20 minutes. This leads to a lookout point perched above sheer slopes and the sea below. You can keep going, descending all the way to the stony beach below. At low tide you can choose to walk back along the beach, but ONLY at low tide.
3. Rangitoto Summit Track – Auckland
7km. 2hr return. Moderate Fitness Required. More info here.
Rangitoto is an active volcano and a young one to boot. The youngest one in New Zealand in fact. So of course I want to go for a nice big hike around it! But with the last eruption being around 600 years ago, I figure it’s safe for now! And it is really beautiful.
Getting there is easy. From the Queens Wharf in downtown Auckland ferries run between the city and the island volcano regularly.
The track itself is an easy climb through the world’s largest pōhutukawa forest and bare lava fields. The views from the summit are incredible. You can see all the way to the Hauraki Gulf and views of Auckland never looked so good.
In 2011 DOC conducted the world’s largest on-island pest eradication program on Rangitoto making it completely free of the mammalian pests that destroyed much of New Zealand’s native birds and foliage.
4. Cathedral Cove Walk – The Coromandel
2.5km. 1hr 30 mins return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
A North Island beach haven, the Coromandel Peninsula is a popular spot for surfers and sun-lovers. The Cathedral Cove walk can be pretty busy in the summer season, so be careful and respectful of others on the track. The walk boasts stunning views of the amazingly blue seas of the Coromandel coast and leads to the dramatically iconic rock archway of Cathedral Cove.
The track meanders along the stunning coast and is easy for every fitness level. In summer the small town of Hahei only 2kms away offers a park and ride service as the traffic can get a bit out of hand. I suggest utilizing this service as car parking can be tricky and this saves time and fluster.
An easy day trip from Whitianga (35 kms away) or Coromandel town (54 kms away) this is one of New Zealand’s most popular walks.
Amazing image by my friend Talman Madsen
5. Wainui Falls Track – Nelson / Tasman
3.4km. 1hr 20 mins return. Low to Moderate Fitness Required. More info here.
Everyone loves a waterfall. There’s something really dreamy and dramatic about them, the way the water cascades and tumbles, churning the water below into froth and spray. The Wainui Falls in Golden Bay in the Nelson/Tasman region is one of the largest and most accessible on the northern South Island.
20 kms from the gorgeous village of Takaka, the last town on the western side of the amazing Abel Tasman National Park, you’ll find the signs leading to the start of the walk. After a short stroll across farmland you’ll enter a cool, green native forest, shaded by nīkau palms, rātā trees and ferns. Then the track climbs steeply for a bit, winding its way over and beside huge granite boulders.
Cross the long swing bridge, resist the urge to jump up and down and scare your friends, and you’re almost there. You know you’re close when you can hear the pounding rush of the water thundering over the falls.
6. Charming Creek Walkway – West Coast
9.5km. 2hr 30 mins return. Low to Moderate Fitness Required. More info here.
This is such a great walk for the nature lover and the history buff! I first did it almost five years ago when I moved to New Zealand, and it was a total secret. Covering an easy 9.5km the track follows an historic tramway through native bush, past relics of old coal mines and sawmills, and past the stunning Mangatini Falls as it winds through the Ngakawau Gorge on the West Coast of New Zealand.
The West Coast is renowned for its moody epic beauty and this great walk deep into the Ngakawau Gorge does epic moody to perfection. Natural walls of native moss and hanging ferns cling to steep bluffs, deep green waters rumble over rocky river beds, and everywhere you look are remnants of New Zealand’s pioneers of coal and timber.
It’s hard not to imagine what life up here must have been like for these long ago miners and millers. A harsh life. But a beautiful one, surrounded by rich native forest. A suspension bridge leads to the impressive falls, then go through a 50 meter tunnel to the flats where you’ll find the remnants of Watson’s Mill.
7. Cape Foulwind Walkway – West Coast
3.4km. 1hr 15 mins return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
Despite its rather unfair name, Cape Foulwind is one of those places on the West Coast that nature really reminds you of how small and insignificant you are. I can just imagine the chagrin of Captain James Cook as his ship was blown off course while navigating this wild coast. It is this that gives the place its name – not the seal colony at the end of the walkway!
Cape Foulwind walkway is a spectacular testament to the wildness of New Zealand’s West Coast. Vivid oceans, rocky coastline, a sandy beach, a lighthouse and a seal colony – its no wonder this is a must do short walk!
There’s also a shorter walk option for those just wanting to see seals in their natural habitat. 15 minutes and 500 meters will take you from the Tauranga Bay car park to the seal colony viewing point. Or take the longer stroll to the lighthouse and back and enjoy the bracing purity and stunning views of the West Coast.
8. Lake Matheson – West Coast/Fox Glacier
2.6km. 1hr 30 mins loop track. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
Renowned for the breathtaking shots of picture perfect Aoraki/Mt Cook captured in the gleaming mirror that is Lake Matheson on a still, clear day, this really is a walk not to miss. Nestled amid ancient forest, the lakes unbelievable reflective properties are due to the dark topaz hue of the water. The colour is not indicative of pollution, far from it, but the rich organic matter leached from the humus of the forest floor.
As in most cases, photographers, you’ll want to be here at dawn and dusk to make the most of the reflections and the light!
Lake Matheson is just 5kms from the Fox Glacier township and was formed when Fox Glacier/Te Moeka o Tuawe retreated after its last big advance around 14,000 years ago. So many of the South Island lakes, like Wanaka and Hawea, are glacial formed, carved out of the softer rock and soils by ice.
There are two walking options. The shorter option takes you from the car park to the jetty viewpoint return and is about 1km and 40 mins. The jetty is a stunning place to get that perfect reflection shot in the dark waters. Or take the loop around the lake – this is a 2.6km walk, which will take around 1hr 30mins depending how long you spend getting ‘the’ shot! Both take you through stunning native bush of rata and kahikatea with glades of native wildflowers and the odd really cool toadstool!
9. Fox Glacier – West Coast
2.6km. 1hr return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
There’s something about seeing a glacier up close and personal and the Fox Glacier on the West Coast of New Zealand is a constant reminder of the power and fragility of nature. An ancient reminder that the world was once covered in ice and snow, this eerily beautiful remnant of the far distant past is a miracle to behold.
Just south of the Fox Glacier township is the turn off to the car park of the Fox Glacier walk. Because it’s become such a popular tourist spot the walkway is pretty easy going and suitable for just about everyone. However, once you get closer to the glacier on the final section of track, there are safety barriers and a short climb to a viewing area. Don’t be tempted to jump the barriers!
The walk leads you to within about 500 meters of the glacier terminal face through native New Zealand rainforest and because it is the West Coast, make sure you take wet weather gear.
At any time of the year the weather here can be extremely changeable and so its good to be prepared for any eventuality. And I can’t stress enough to stick to the track and follow the rules as the Fox and Cook rivers can flash flood in high rains.
10. Devils Punchbowl Walking Track – Arthur’s Pass
2km. 1hr return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
The Devils Punchbowl in Arthurs Pass is one of the South Islands most stunning waterfalls. And it’s so readily accessible it really is a must do. These are the kind of waterfalls I love the most. Whimsical wisps of falling fresh water draping dramatically over moss-coated rock – it all sounds pretty dreamy. And yet the power of this waterfall gives it its name.
The falls can actually be seen from the road but a short stop and walk to the base of the falls is a must as it really is quite amazing to stand beneath such an awesome force of nature. The track is easy, there’s a few steps, but not many, and it’s an easy hour return trip.
Located on the Arthurs Pass road on State Highway 73 between Canterbury and the West Coast, the falls are just at the northern end of the village. It’s an easy track and takes about an hour to the falls and back.
11. Kura Tāwhiti Access Track
1.4km. 20 mins return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
This magical region of giant smooth boulders is most famous for the epic battle scene in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and as you walk among these mammoth structures of limestone, you really feel like you;re in some enchanted world.
Located on the road to the West Coast about 95kms from Christchurch, the boulder track is on private property on Castle Hill Station on the South Island. At certain times of the year, if you;re lucky, you’ll see the Castle Hill Buttercup – a tiny yellow wildflower only found on this 6 Hectare area of land. Pretty special. So special that Kura Tāwhiti is the first reserve in New Zealand established specifically to protect a plant.
The area used to be a large, shallow inland sea. Around 30 million years ago the sea started filling in, the water replaced by land, and the pressure of this displacement caused massive uplift, folding, faulting, and forming the Torlesse and Craigieburn ranges. The huge limestone boulders were carved and smoothed over time to form the amazing edifices you can stroll amongst today.
Epic image by my friend Talman Madsen
12. Blue Lakes & Tasman Glacier Walks
2.6km. 1hr mins return. Low to Moderate Fitness Required. More info here.
At 27kms long the Tasman Glacier is the longest in New Zealand. This walk is one of my faves because on this walk you often see the Rifleman, New Zealand’s smallest native bird – and it is so cute!
The Blue Lakes are about 40mins along the track from the car park past Aoraki/Mt Cook village and the Tasman Glacier Lake walk is a further 20-30mins – but is well worth it!
In the summer the Blue Lakes are an incredible swim, the water still pretty icy but so refreshing and invigorating – just being in for a minute makes you feel like a new person! Both lakes have that unique opaque aqua color indicative of a glacial lake or tarn, slightly pearlescent, like moonstone. And with the surrounding mountains including the majestic Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman, the two highest peaks in the country, it makes for some very impressive and beautiful country. There are even icebergs!
13. Blue Pools Track – Haast Pass
1.5km. 1hr mins return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
Some of the clearest, most beautifully serene fresh water pools in New Zealand, the Blue Pools near Makarora on the Haast Pass road to Wanaka are simply amazing. The sheer purity of the water, the perfectly crystalline beauty that allows you to count the rocks on the bottom of the pool, it really blows you away when you see them for yourself.
And, despite being a popular tourist stop over the busy summer months, the tranquility and mesmerizing energy of the place still gets me every time I go. Getting to the pools is an easy stroll on a well maintained track through ancient beech and podocarp forest. Shafts of sunlight through the green of the natives giving the forest on either side an ethereal glow. Though tempting to swim, it is freezing all year round, and as soon as your bare skin is exposed, you’ll be eaten alive by sandflies.
There are two swing bridges and a nature boardwalk on this easy walk. The second swing bridge is the viewing platform over the Blue Pools themselves.
14. Lake Gunn Nature Walk – Fiordland
1.4km. 45mins return. Low Fitness Required. More info here.
Fiordland is one of New Zealand’s most truly wild places, home to Milford Sound, a place that inspired writer Rudyard Kipling to claim it as the 8th wonder of the world. And on the road to Milford from Te Anau, at Cascade Creek, is the short walk to Lake Gunn, another spot worthy of such an accolade.
From the moment you step from your car you are immersed in the silent beauty of Fiordlands wilderness – the only sound the rustling of tiny birds, tomtits, riflemen, and if you;re lucky, the South Island robin. Keep and eye out also for yellowhead/mohua and kaka and also, if you;re there in the evening, short and long tail bats! Fun!
The iconic beech forests of Fiordland are eerily beautiful. Tree trunks are draped in soft mosses, mounds of moss and lichen make fairy beds on either side of the track, and I can imagine falling asleep on one of these and waking up in another world. I’d probably be eaten alive by sandflies though! One thing about Fiordland, take repellant!
Have you done any of these walks? What’s your fave? Share!