WHATEVER KIND OF TERRAIN you’re into, chances are you can find it in New Zealand. But what really sets New Zealand apart is the fact that all of the above is in such close proximity, and is so easily accessible. You can go surf to summit in a single day, drive from snowy mountain passes to temperate rainforest. What that means is you get to pack an incredible amount of adventure into every trip.
When you make it down to New Zealand, or what the indigenous Maori people call Aotearoa, meaning “land of the long white cloud,” here are 14 stunning and unique landscapes to look for.
1. Milford Sound
The southwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island is dominated by the enormous Fiordland National Park, a dramatic landscape of fiords with narrow fingers of sea cutting inland, flanked by cliffs thousands of feet high — Milford Sound is the most majestic of these fiords. Its glacially carved walls reach as high as 4,000 feet, and after heavy rain hundreds of waterfalls cascade down their sides. Boat cruises of all sizes can give you a good look at Milford Sound — for a more intimate experience, arrange an overnight boat trip or go by kayak.
2. Mt. Taranaki
Even if Mt. Taranaki weren’t one of the most symmetrical conical volcanoes in the world, its location would make it seem so. The 8,261ft stratovolcano stands alone above the forested plains of the North Island region of Taranaki, striking quite a profile no matter where you’re viewing it from — a distant horizon, an airplane window, or the slopes of an adjacent hill. Climbing is best attempted in summer, when there’s minimal snow cover on the summit.
3. Waitomo Caves
A couple hours south of Auckland lies the small village of Waitomo and one of the biggest tourist attractions in the North Island: the Waitomo Caves. The cave system is awesome in itself, with underground rivers that you can tube or boat on, huge caverns, and rappelling / spelunking opportunities…but the real draw is the creatures down there waiting for you. The aptly named Waitomo Glowworm Caves are home to thousands of mosquito-sized glowworms, a species that’s endemic to New Zealand, which cast an eerie green-blue glow throughout the caverns, mimicking a galaxy of stars in the night sky.
4. Mt. Aspiring National Park
Covering the southern section of the South Island’s Southern Alps, sandwiched between the waters of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea to the east and the Tasman Sea to the west, Mt. Aspiring National Park is a serious hiking and mountaineering destination. The Routeburn Track, one of the country’s most popular multi-day treks, passes through the park, and there are enough peaks, river crossings, and glaciers (like those on Mount Rob Roy, seen above) to keep you busy for weeks. Or, base yourself in the social alpine/lakeside town of Wanaka to set yourself up for an easy day hike.
5. Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This 12-mile track is one of the most rewarding day hikes you’ll find anywhere, passing over and around the craters and multi-colored lakes of Mt. Tongariro. It skirts a second volcano as well, Mount Ngauruhoe — otherwise known as Mt. Doom from The Lord of the Rings films. The panoramic views are incredible, looking out over the entire Taupo Volcanic Zone and the surrounding central North Island landscape. Budget 7+ hours to complete the trek, and you’ll need to arrange a shuttle (or do the hike in reverse) to get back to your vehicle.
6. The Coromandel
To the east of Auckland, past mountainous volcanic islands and the waters of Hauraki Gulf, juts the jagged Coromandel Peninsula, one of the most popular beach destinations for Kiwis in the country. There are few towns here, and the majority of the peninsula is protected land, with steep ridges and hills covered in temperate rainforest. In addition to some surprisingly remote hiking opportunities, highlights include Cathedral Cove, where a massive limestone arch frames an excellent beach, and Hot Water Beach — dig a hole here and underground springs will fill it with jacuzzi-temp water.
Located a short drive south of Rotorua in the North Island, Wai-O-Tapu is a geothermal area with hot springs, geysers, and surreally colored mineral pools. A series of short trails wind among the various features, including a boardwalk over the Champagne Pool. Like Mt. Tongariro, Wai-O-Tapu is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
8. Moeraki Boulders
According to Maori legend, the massive spherical boulders near the village of Moeraki are remnants of cargo that washed ashore following the shipwreck of the great sailing canoe that brought the local tribes’ ancestors to New Zealand’s South Island. These calcified concretions are embedded in the mudstone at Koekohe Beach and over time are exposed as the surrounding stone is eroded by the waves. They range in size from 1.6 to 7.2 feet in diameter and make for a unique coastal tableau.
9. The Remarkables
Views from Queenstown, the adventure capital of the South Island, are dominated by two features: the deep waters of Lake Wakatipu, and the jagged range of mountains beyond that is the Remarkables. They aren’t the tallest peaks around, but the profile they strike gives them a definite sense of grandeur. A skifield of the same name operates in winter, comprising 540 acres and running six lifts.
10. Fox Glacier
The geography of Fox Glacier is pretty incredible. Its alpine source glaciers begin at thousands of feet of elevation in the Southern Alps, feeding the main glacier on its 13km journey down to its terminus in the rainforests of Westland, just a few miles from the Tasman Sea and less than 1,000 feet above sea level. But what draws people to Fox Glacier is the chance to fly up onto its surface via helicopter and trek the ever-shifting trails and caves formed in the ice. Find it in Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
11. Wharariki Beach
At the very north tip of the South Island, in Golden Bay, the land meets the ocean in dramatic fashion, with wide expanses of white sand punctuated by bulky, angular sea stacks. It’s a wild place, despite being relatively accessible — a one-hour drive from Takaka and a 30-minute walk through Puponga Farm Park will get you there. Be aware of the tide, prepare for strong winds, and, if you’re a fast hiker, add a few miles to the trip by walking the thin finger of the Farewell Spit.
12. Mackenzie Basin Lakes
Right in the middle of the South Island is a lowland area called the Mackenzie Basin, and within it sit three roughly parallel glacially fed lakes: Tekapo, Pukaki, and Ohau. Their respective primary sources are the Godley, Tasman, and Hopkins Rivers, which transport finely ground silt from the glaciers of the Southern Alps. These tiny particles give the lakes a distinctive powder-blue hue and, combined with the lupines that grow along their shores, the effect is particularly photogenic. If you’re driving from Queenstown to Christchurch, the lakes make for a scenic drive, and/or great stops along the way.
13. Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park
New Zealand’s highest peak (12,218 feet) gives its name to the national park that covers a section of the Southern Alps where most of the country’s tallest mountains are found. Aoraki / Mt. Cook itself is made up of three separate summits and is sandwiched between the Tasman and Hooker Glaciers. Just a few miles south of the mountain lies Mount Cook Village, your base of operations for exploring this incredible New Zealand landscape. Try the Hooker Valley Track, an easy 3-hour hike that gets you right into this scenery (and over three swing bridges).
14. Piha Beach
Piha is situated 45 minutes west of Auckland, which makes it one of the most popular beach getaways for residents of New Zealand’s largest city. Still, it feels remote thanks to the drive through lush rainforest and the steep hills that hem in the mile-and-a-half stretch of black sand. There are two surf beaches, a sheltered lagoon, the distinctive Lion Rock that divides South and North Piha, and the nearby Kitekite Falls. As with pretty much every corner of New Zealand, there’s a whole lot to explore.