NEW ZEALAND’S exceptional geography — mountains in close proximity to the ocean and rivers flowing out to enormous, wave-filled bays — creates all kinds of dream scenarios as far as planning trips. What’s more, New Zealand has one of the smartest, most progressive setups in the world for conservation and backcountry exploration, what they call “tramping.”
The Department of Conservation maintains hundreds of hiking and biking trails, or “tracks,” the highlights of which are the nine Great Walks. Great Walks are highly maintained trails with a network of backcountry huts. Unlike national parks in the US and other countries, entry to New Zealand’s parks is free, and there’s no permit system for the Great Walks. Visitors only need to book / pay for their stay in the huts, and all pricing / ticket info (including local transport options) is easy to navigate at the DOC website.
The following itineraries center around 5 major areas / adventure hubs, each with its own tracks and a sampling of different activities and commitment levels. From hardcore kayakers to people just wanting to travel around, tramp, and maybe learn to surf or paddle, there’s something for everyone.
A couple of general notes: New Zealand comprises three islands — North, South, and Stewart — and 16 regions. Its largest city, Auckland, is in the north of part of the North Island, and in general this is where people will be entering the country. Thus, the itineraries are organized from north to south, starting in the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua, which is less than three hours from Auckland. It finishes in Fiordland in the south, which is accessed through Queenstown, from where there are direct flights back to Auckland. With a little planning and/or the right vehicle (NZ has epic camper van rental options), these different itineraries could easily be linked together as a single multi-week circuit.
1. Bay of Plenty Region — Whitewater blowout
Key spots: Bay of Plenty, Kaituna River, Rotorua, “The Mount” (Mount Maunganui)
Location: Giant bay (looks like a “cutout”) in the northeastern corner of the North Island
Trip length: 4-7 days
Features: Numerous world-class whitewater rivers, surf breaks, geothermal features (hot springs, geysers)
Activities: Whitewater boating/rafting, trout fishing, surfing, tramping
Season: Year round, check water levels
Like the rest of New Zealand, the Bay of Plenty area has multiple adventure options all within easy and even same-day reach from one another. There are numerous rivers, hot springs, and geothermal features based around the Rotorua caldera. The outflow from Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti forms the Kaituna River, which empties into the Bay of Plenty near Te Puke. The nearly 50km stretch of river includes several classic sections of whitewater that are commercially rafted, and is home to several kayak schools.
Fittingly, this region is also where local crews of hardcore boaters are pushing New Zealand whitewater to the next level, with notable “waterfall playgrounds” in the Kaimai Ranges such as the Tuakopai and Wainui Rivers (check video above). You can find an excellent database of whitewater runs in the Bay of Plenty region at rivers.org/nz.
The Bay of Plenty itself is an epic place, with an extinct volcano (and place sacred to the Māori) Mount Maunganui dominating a coastline full of surf breaks. For an itinerary: Follow the water. Start in Rotorua, exploring the tracks, and slowly work your way out to the ocean following the Kaituna.
2. Waikato — Same-day surf & snow
Key spots: Raglan, Mount Ruapehu, Tongariro National Park, Turoa, Waikato River, Lake Taupo, Huka Falls
Location: Northwest coast of North Island inland to border with Bay of Plenty region
Trip length: Open-ended
Features: Surf breaks, key surf town (Raglan), hot springs, waterfalls, ski areas
Activities: Surfing, snow sports, paddling
Season: Late June to late October for snow, otherwise year round
Few places in the world allow same-day access to snow and surf as found in the region of Waikato in the North Island. From Whakapapa and Turoa, the largest ski area in New Zealand, to Raglan, a town with world-class surf breaks, is just three hours on state highways.
Because of this, and for its distinction as a super chill town, Raglan receives a special recommendation as a place to base out of for an extended amount of time, venturing out to explore Tongariro National Park, Lake Taupo, the Waikato River, and other areas as swell dies down.
3. West Coast — Backcountry traverse
Location: South Island, virtually the entire west coast above Fiordland, stretching inland to the Southern Alps
Key spots: Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, Mt. Aspiring N.P., Buller Gorge, Westport, Haast
Trip length: 7-14 days (4-6 for tramping the Heaphy Track)
Features: Glaciers, whitewater, long stretches of rugged, uninhabited coast with year-round surf, TranzAlpine train
Activities: Heli-supported glacier / backcountry exploration, tramping, surf, mountain biking
Season: Year round
The West Coast is one of the least populated areas of New Zealand and has dozens of options. The most famous tourist offering is a “heli-hike” (helicopter flyover / access and then guided hikes) of the Franz Josef Glacier and other backcountry areas. The West Coast is also home to the longest of the Great Walks, the nearly 80km Heaphy Track.
A two-week itinerary could begin at the northern end of the West Coast, staging from Westport to undertake the Heaphy Track and/or visits to the Buller Gorge, with options for paddling, rafting, and day hikes. From there you could slowly traverse south to Greymouth, checking out the Pancake Rocks and/or an optional day trip through the Southern Alps via scenic train, the TranzAlpine.
Three hours south of Greymouth is the Franz Josef glacier. Book ahead of time. There are a variety of lodging options including a youth hostel. Continue south along the Haast Pass through Mt. Aspiring National Park on State Highway 6, eventually crossing into the Otago region, and eventually to Queenstown.
4. Queenstown — Multi-sport base camp
Location: South Island, Otago region; flights available from Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch
Trip length: 7 days (or longer if planning extended snow activities)
Features: 4 local ski areas (Cardrona Alpine Resort, Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, and Treble Cone), local vineyards, lakes, mountain ranges, whitewater, and infrastructure and guides for every conceivable outdoor / adventure activity, as well as year-round festivals
Activities: You name it
As New Zealand’s “adventure capital,” (and one of the major outdoor recreation hubs of the world), Queenstown deserves its own entry.
Make sure you pre-book your accommodation, but once in Queenstown you can easily wing it and plan your own activities around the city each day.
Here are just a few recommendations:
- The world’s biggest swing, the Nevis Swing
- Canyoning in Routeburn
- Climbing the Ben Lomond Summit Track directly from town
- Whitewater options on the Kawarau River
- Cycling the Queenstown Trail
- Olympic half pipe and next-level terrain park at Cardrona
- Queenstown Wine Trail
5. Fiordland National Park — The Milford Track
Trip length: 4-7 days
Location: Southwest corner of South Island
Access point: Drive, bus, fly in to Te Anau from Queenstown or Invercargill
Features: Super high-elevation waterfalls, alpine peaks, vast backcountry, numerous tracks, including world-famous Milford Track
Activities: Tramping, mountaineering, boating
Season: Year round, however between October and mid-December there is backcountry avalanche danger along Milford Track
The most famous Great Walk is the 53km Milford Track in Fiordland National Park. In four days you traverse from Lake Te Anau through temperate rainforest and wetlands, over Mackinnon Pass and past some of the highest waterfalls on earth, eventually reaching Milford Sound. The Milford Track can be completed as a guided trip with meals provided, and is accessible to anyone with a reasonable fitness level.