8 Best Short and Easy New Zealand Hikes (South Island)
Being Slovenian means that I was born with hiking shoes on and spent my childhood being DRAGGED up the local hills. As a teenager, binge-watching Gossip Girl was just way more appealing than getting the sweat on with my parents every weekend, you know? Back then a hiking-heavy holiday would make me pull my hair out, but my move to London has left me with a newfound appreciation of the rugged landscapes of my old stomping ground – and beyond. After four years in the big smoke, a trip to New Zealand couldn’t have come at a better time. Its scenery is absolutely breathtaking, but just as with anything else in life, the best views come after the climb. If you’re short on time, or simply don’t have the will or the fitness level to do one of the challenging day(s)-long treks, I’m here with my 8 best short and easy New Zealand hikes you can do on the South Island. Some of these could even be described as walks, and can easily be done with kids or a dodgy knee – I can vouch myself for that one!
HOOKER VALLEY TRACK IN AORAKI/MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK
The first on the list of my 8 best short and easy hikes in New Zealand is the Hooker Valley Track, one of the most popular hiking trails and the longest of the bunch I’m going to mention today. The 10 km return walk takes about 4 hours to complete, however, the terrain is mostly flat (apart from the steps at the start) and requires the lowest fitness level.
Once you make it past the first viewpoint at Mueller Lake and cross the first of the three suspension bridges, there’s a nice wooden walkway leading you to the views of Mount Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand), snow-capped Mueller Glacier and Hooker Lake with floating bits of icebergs.
Don’t let all this ice talk fool you, though! If you’re visiting during the summer months, have your hat, your sunscreen, your sunglasses and your water bottle ready! I’m serious. I’ve learned what the New Zealand sun can do to you the hard way, right on this track. It can get scorching hot, and unfortunately, there’s no shade you can escape to – I found that to be the hardest part of the hike.
P.S. To reach the start of the trail, make sure you drive past Mount Cook Village to the White Horse Hill Campground. There’s quite a lot of parking space there, as well as toilets and drinkable water – super convenient to fill your water bottle before and after your hike.
PUNAKAIKI PANCAKE ROCKS AND BLOWHOLES WALK
This easy 1.1 km coastal loop walk beings right across the Punakaiki visitor centre and takes you around some of the most unique limestone formations – the rocks stacked like pancakes and blowholes, which put on quite a show when the tide is high! Trust me, you’ll be hanging around for more than 20 minutes the paved path officially takes you. The information panels will keep you busy reading all the interesting geological facts, and the views itself are worth slowing down your step too. Oh, and don’t forget to look across the ocean – you might spot a dolphin or two!
FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER WALK
There’s not a lot of places in the world that will let you walk through a lush rainforest, only to find yourself right underneath a terminal face of a glacier 45 minutes later! The Franz Josef and the nearby Fox Glacier are most known for heli hikes on the glaciers themselves, but since they’re not the cheapest and often get cancelled due to bad weather, you might be better off doing one of the valley walks below the glaciers.
The Franz Josef Glacier Walk is a two-hour, 5.4 km long round-trip that will take you within 750 m of the glacier’s terminal face. It gets a bit ‘rocky’ at the end, but the first viewpoint at the end of the Forest Walk is super easy to reach within 15 minutes, with practically no incline. It takes you past streams and you get to see a nice waterfall too!
This is actually where I ended my mini hike, as it was raining and the glacier was dressed in fog, but if you do continue yourself, just make sure to follow the rules and stick to the track, as there are dangers of landslides and flash floods even in moderate rain.
BLUE POOLS TRACK
The Blue Pools of Haast is where you’ll find some of the clearest fresh water in New Zealand, looking almost neon turquoise on a sunny day. A boardwalk takes you through an ancient forest, over Makarora River via a swing bridge, right up to the second bridge with the best views of the blue pools. If you’re brave enough, you can even go down to the beach area and take a dip in the freezing cold water!
Once again, the walk is completely flat and with only 1.5 km each way takes less than an hour from start to finish. It does get quite busy during the peak season, though, and since some parts of the path are quite narrow and the bridges only allow a limited amount of people to cross at the same time, allow some extra time to wait around for other people to pass you by.
One more piece of advice – cover every inch of your skin with an insect repellent before you head into the forest. The sandfly situation is crazy out there! If you don’t know what being bitten by a sandfly feels like, imagine being bitten by dozens of mosquitoes on steroids at the same time.
Another thing to note is that there are no facilities nearby, so if you need a toilet, you’ll have to hop in a car and drive a few kilometres down the road. Speaking of driving down the road, 20 km up north are also Thunder Creek Falls, which you definitely shouldn’t skip! The waterfall is truly majestic and only a 5-minute walk from the road.
CAPE FOULWIND WALKWAY
The Cape Foulwind Walkway takes you along the rocky coastline, a spectacular sandy beach and a lighthouse, all the way to a seal colony at the end! The whole panoramic walkway is 3.4 km long and takes you an hour and a half to complete, but if you’re only coming for the seals, there’s also a shorter, 15-minute walk uphill to the viewing point, starting from the Tauranga Bay car park.
PITT HEAD WALK AT ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK
The Abel Tasman National Park is located on the north of the South Island and couldn’t be more different from the glacial landscapes of the southern end. The turquoise sandy beaches make you feel like you’re on a tropical island – until you actually dip your toes into the cold Tasman Sea.
The 51 km long Coastal Track, which can be done in 3-5 days, is the main star of the show, but you don’t have to commit to the whole thing. The Pitt Head Loop Track gives you a nice taste of what the park has to offer in only an hour and a half/4 km.
To reach the track, you’ll have to catch a water taxi from either Marahau or Kaiteriteri to Anchorage. I suggest the latter, as you get to see the Split Apple Rock, New Zealand’s most famous rock formation, on the way too.
P.S. You will be hopping on and off the boat in water, so I suggest you to wear flip-flops, but have your running shoes in your backpack, as the track does go uphill a bit and can be slightly slippery.
HOKITIKA GORGE WALK
For even more bright blue waters, head to Hokitika Gorge. The return walk is just as short (1.3 km to be exact), but a bit more ‘foresty’ compared to the Blue Pools of Haast. After the first viewing platform, there’s a swing bridge to cross over the Hokitika River, but for the best views, you’ll have to go to the very end of the trail. You can also climb the rocks there, which makes for the perfect Insta shot, but do be careful. I don’t think falling in would end well…
The Hokitika Gorge Walk and the Blue Pools Track are quite similar, so if my vote for the list of 8 best short and easy hikes in New Zealand could only go to one, I would go for Hokitika Gorge – simply due to the fact that the water is more blue (though milkier) even when it’s overcast.
BOB’S COVE TRACK
For the best views of Queenstown, taking a gondola up to the Sky Centre is well worth the money, but if you want to avoid the crowds of tourists for a day and see the area from a completely different perspective, head over to Bob’s Cove, just 15 minutes outside the city. It’s on turquoise fresh water Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by the forest and the mountains, where you can just sit down and relax or hike up to the viewpoint on the top of the hill.
Bob’s Cove Track, the last of my 8 best short and easy hikes in New Zealand, starts right at the parking lot and first leads you to the cove. There you then turn left and continue your way past a historic lime kiln and a jetty, after which the track starts going uphill. It doesn’t take more than 50 minutes to reach the top, but unlike the previous tracks I’ve mentioned, it does get quite steep and there’s a lot of slippery gravel on the path nearing the end too.
If you can, I’d suggest you to do the hike in the morning for two reasons – the parking lot is tiny and gets full very quickly, plus a good part of the track doesn’t have proper shade, despite being surrounded by trees, and we all know how strong the sun gets later on.
For more information and the video footage of the hikes take a look at my New Zealand vlogs below!
Have you already been to the country? Are there any more trails I should add to the list of my 8 best short and easy hikes in New Zealand?