Last year I spoke with a journalist from New York who had flown in to walk the Paparoa Track, New Zealand's newest trail. What impressed him most was the scale of the project. There simply wasn't another country he'd visited that took so much pride in making its outdoors accessible. Twenty-five years in the making, this 56km memorial hike was the toast of international tourism.
But "Great Walk number 10" is just one of our country's many national hikes. By the Department of Conservation's own count there are more than 1000 trails across conservation land, any of which could be considered a "great", given the right conditions and footwear.
Undeniably this is the time to bag a Great Walk. The Routeburn or the Tongariro will be almost without crowds. But when DoC opens its huts for booking this month, it will also be a chance to visit some of the less-well-trodden parts of the country. Plan your route, tread lightly and travel well.
Off the beaten path
Te Paki Coastal Trail
This three-day trail of the "winterless north" is the perfect all-year-round hike. From Spirits Bay campsite to the surreal dunes of Ninety Mile Beach, the coastal track follows the very northern tip of the country. Passing Cape Reinga (Te Rerenga Wairua) and the lighthouse, it visits some of the most spiritually significant sites in New Zealand. Said to be the last point where souls depart the country for the afterlife, don't put off a trip to the cape until then. Real Far North Tours provide shuttles and advice for hikers taking on this Kiwi pilgrimage.
Rotorua's split mountain is a comfortable day hike at the heart of the thermal North Island. An eruption in 1886 altered the shape of the mountain and surrounding country, burying villages. The nearby Te Wairoa archaeological site and Waimangu geothermal valley are valuable detours for context. The 5-hour trip to the now dormant crater is a reminder of the dramatic and fiery forces that built New Zealand. Kaitiaki Tours run guided hikes to the crater, with members of the Rangitihi Iwi, the kaitiaki (guardians) of the site.
The unique focal point of the region, the circular perimeter of Mt Taranaki is recognisable from space. On a (rare) clear day your hike will be rewarded with views back down the almost perfectly geometric cone. It's unlike anything else in New Zealand - or possibly the planet. The summit is a steep and challenging hike. Difficult but achievable, you should leave a 10-hour window for an ascent and attempt it only in good conditions. February to April offer the best weather for a day hike. However, there are other shorter or multi-day routes and huts around the side of this spectacular volcano, open all year round. Taranaki Tours provide guided hikes, advice and a useful shuttle between New Plymouth and the mountain.
The route that launched 1000 blockbusters. The beech-lined journey from Paradise and the River Dart into the Routeburn valley is one of the most scenic and a favourite with international tourists. Possibly because it is set against the snowy backdrops recognisable from the films of Peter Jackson and countless spin-offs. Split into three days and two nights, Ultimate Hikes is the only operator running guided multi-day tours. Otherwise DoC accommodation is open for you to start planning your own epic from June 10.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
The most popular of the "great 10"', this could be the golden opportunity to take on the 60km track of crystal-clear waters and sandy beaches. At the subtropical north of the South Island, the coastal route is a top spot for sea kayakers and hikers alike. Abel Tasman Guides run tours and transport options for independent groups — including options to mix hiking and kayaking legs along the route. For those wanting to hike specific sections, sea shuttles run up to four times a day, linking points between Totaranui and Marahau. Accommodation options on the 3-5 day route include four huts and 18 campsites, which must be booked in advance. Don't forget your swimming togs.
After some last-minute repairs, New Zealand's newest great walk finally opened on March 1. The route runs from Blackball to Pororari on the wild West Coast. Open from October until June, the fact there have been so many delays to the Pike River memorial route is testament to the challenging conditions — even during open season. It's exhilaratingly open to the elements. Punakaiki Beach Camp run a daily shuttle service from Punakaiki to the trailhead at Smoke-ho. Trail accommodation is only available through DoC with three huts along the route, bookable from June 10.
For more domestic travel ideas, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew