6 incredible winter hikes in New Zealand
8 weeks of travelling sounds like a long time in a country as small as New Zealand, but I can assure you it’s not even close. If you’re into the outdoors (and let’s face it, you probably are if you’re thinking of braving New Zealand in the winter) then here are 6 incredible winter hikes in New Zealand that have stunning scenery written all over them, and better yet, that almost anyone can do.
North Island New Zealand Hikes
Estimated time for this hike: 6-8 hours
This is a super popular hike due to its incredible vistas and close proximity to Lake Taupo. If you look up photos on the ‘gram you’ll see what looks like a line of ants struggling down a mountain, luckily in winter, you will see none of that. In fact, you’ll probably share the hike with a handful of people the entire day, like I did. The hike itself is 19.4km but everyone that does it just says 20kms because, let’s be honest, it sounds a tad more impressive. For those worried about walking such a big distance in one day (and over a mountain) you shouldn’t be; while it’s physically challenging and steep at times, if you have a basic level of fitness and can walk for a few hours without a problem then you’ll be fine. The weather, on the other hand, can be unpredictable, especially in the winter so I suggest bringing warm clothes, gloves, waterproof jacket, maybe a thermal layer or two and a good pair of hiking boots. When in Queenstown I would recommend checking the weather day by day and try to find the best window for your hike.
As for getting there it could not be easier and choosing a hostel such as the Haka Lodge Taupo or YHA Taupo who both have access to shuttle services that pick you up in the morning, drop you off on one side of the mountain and then pick you up on the other side to drop you home for a well-earned drink and meal, if you can keep your eyes open that is. This hike is an incredible experience and one of the most accessible fun hikes in New Zealand, plus who doesn’t want to say they walked through Mordor.
Distance: 8.2 km
Estimated time for this hike: 5-6 hours (in good weather)
This one is a little more advanced and simultaneously a lot less popular but no less remarkable by any means. This is also a one-day hike, or you can take your time and make it two days if you want to break it up and spend a night in Syme Hut for only NZ$5 (bookings not required – it’s on a first come, first served basis). In winter you are told that you will need Crampons and an ice axe for almost all the hikes New Zealand has on offer, and while for some of these hikes they would be helpful but not a necessity, for Mt. Taranaki they are a must. Trust me, you will need crampons and an ice axe if you want to go to Syme Hut and especially if you want to go to the summit. You will also need some alpine experience for the summit part as it can be a little trickier than the average hike. However, don’t let the all these requirements demotivate you, I can vouch that when you make it to the top of Phantoms Peak you will be well rewarded with incredible views. It’s always best to check in with the Egmont National Park Visitor Centre before you start your hike and get an update on conditions as they change day to day over the winter period.
This is a little bit off the beaten path, especially in the winter months, which can be difficult to find these days in New Zealand. My best suggestion would be to rent a car or a van for a few days and take a trip out there from either Taupo or New Plymouth. There is also a plethora of waterfalls to visit in the area so it’s a win-win really, be sure to have Dawson falls on your list, you won’t be disappointed.
South Island New Zealand Hikes
Estimated time for this hike: 5-6 hours
Possibly one of the most popular hikes in New Zealand and for good reason, the views over the mountains and Lake Wanaka are mind-blowing. I started the hike at 4 am because I wanted to see the sunrise from the peak. I made it all the way up about 20 to 30 minutes before the sun hit the horizon. I won’t lie, it was a challenge getting up in the cold but if you’re up for it, both mentally and physically, I highly recommend it. I passed hundreds of people on the way down but shared the summit with about 6 others as we watched the sun come up. The hike itself is mind-blowing, the views are breath-taking and the walk itself is not actually that hard. It’s steep at times especially the last kilometre and a half but once you get close to the top you barely notice it. Wanaka is an incredibly beautiful town with so many options for food and places to stay but personally, I would recommend the Flying Kiwi Backpackers or if you’re looking for something a little more bougie Wanaka Bakpaka might the right fit for you.
Note: The track closes on the first of October for 6 weeks but that’s after the winter season anyway, so you should be fine if you’re reading this for your winter travels.
Getting to the car park for the hike is pretty simple, it’s only a 6-minute drive out of Wanaka and is worth carpooling if you can find some other eager hikers at your hostel or you can take a shuttle. Depending on the company they will normally pick you up directly from your hostel and drop you home again when you’re finished.
Estimated time for this hike: 2-3 hours
This one is also one that’s a little obscure to get to, however, it’s directly in between Mt Cook and Wanaka, so you are probably going to go straight past it by car at some point and at the same time drive through the famed Lindis Pass, which you need to stop at. Take a couple of extra hours out of your day for the walk where you will be rewarded with a spectacular and unique view. At the start of this hike I had no intention of going to the top of the peak, all I wanted was a decent photo of Lindis Pass that I hadn’t seen plastered all over Instagram, however as fate would have it that’s exactly where I ended up. I was having some lens issues and I was not happy with my angle so up I went and I just kind of kept going until I was at the top and then the clouds parted, the gods shone down over the land and everything came together, and the view was incredible!
Getting there like I said can be a little obscure, but it is not actually that far from Wanaka really and it’s an amazing day trip if you’re that way inclined otherwise pen it in for your route in between Wanaka and Mt Cook.
Distance: 33km (one way)
Estimated time for this hike: 2-4 days
The Routeburn Track was voted one of the world’s “top ten classic hikes” by Lonely Planet. You start off in this lush green forest crossing suspension bridges and the bluest lakes you can imagine, then as you ascend you end up in this magical alpine environment surrounded by ice and snow covered peaks everywhere. The hike is incredible, it’s not difficult, the uphills are mostly on a slight incline, the track is extremely well marked and there are many huts to stop and lunch in along the way. If you intend to sleep, you can comfortably push to the Routeburn Falls hut in one day which is 11.3kms from the start of the track. You’ll need to pack everything for sleeping, eating and drinking. If you are lucky there might be some firewood in the hut to light a fire and cook but I wouldn’t depend on it and would bring my own cooking things. This is another track where at about 12kms it starts to get a little more intense and an ice axe or walking poles would be nice to stop from slipping in small sections. Also, a little alpine or hiking experience wouldn’t hurt. Again, it’s always good to check in with the DOC to make sure you’re all good to go and let them know your plans in case anything happens, after all, better safe than sorry, right?
This is most easily accessed from Queenstown. So, if you need a break from the partying and drinking then this is a perfect little getaway. YHA Queenstown Central is an awesome hostel and is located right in the middle of Queenstown and is close to multiple bus stops. The track can be walked from both ends but most people, myself included, start from the east side at the Routeburn Shelter. Buses run 2-3 times a day from Queenstown to both sides of the trail making pick up and drop off easy from both ends. If you want to hike in and out from the one entrance like I did you can also be picked up and dropped off on the same side, just make sure that you don’t miss the bus when leaving otherwise you may (will) have a problem, so just check your times and you’ll be fine.
Note: If you have the time on the way home make sure you stop in the sleepy little town of Glenorchy, it’s amazingly cute.
Distance: 11.1 km
Estimated time for this hike: 4-6 hours
This is another amazing hike that towers over Queenstown giving people a rare chance to hike a steep New Zealand peak on a well-marked and hiked track. It offers stunning views the entire way and hosts probably the most incredible view you will be able to get over Queenstown without flying. It can be steep in sections especially the last kilometre, but I can guarantee that it will be worth it once you turn around the last corner and find yourself standing triumphant on-top of the summit looking over the mind-blowing piece of the world that is Queenstown. It is 11.1kms in total if you go from the gondola which knocks off a little distance and about 400 vertical meters. I, however, started from town and cursed in jealousy under my breath every time I watched the people zoom past me in the gondola.
If you are staying at the YHA Queenstown Central, which you probably should be, it’s a pretty short walk to the start of the gondola. Alternatively, if you don’t want to take the gondola you can start the track directly below it and begin your ascent. This is probably the most accessible hike you can do in terms of travel time back and forth which means you should definitely do it because it’s way better than being hungover (again) and even if you decide to turn around before the summit you will see an incredible landscape that is hard to get views of otherwise.
About the author
Dane Faurschou is a photographer, surfer, alpinist and traveller from Byron Bay, Australia, who splits his time between the ocean and the mountains. Currently, he’s driving from Canada to Patagonia to search out as many waves and mountains as possible and anything else in between. Follow his adventures on his blog, Instagram and Facebook.
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