While some of the best multi-day tramping in NZ has been hijacked by the Great Walks, there are other quintessential tracks which have stood the test of time. They are the classics.
1. A Tararua journey
Southern Crossing, Tararua Forest Park
The Tararuas have a legendary reputation and a handful of classic trips, of which the most popular has to be the infamous Southern Crossing. Originally routed from Otaki Forks to the Wairarapa Plains, the epic journey now finishes near Kaitoke.
From Otaki Forks, a track climbs steeply, arriving at historic Field Hut, just shy of the bushline. Further up, the leatherwood is left behind for tussock tops, which make for faster progress.
Beyond Table Top (1047m), a boardwalk and metaled track protect the underlying subalpine bogs. A few poles mark the obvious ground trail up Judd Ridge, over Hut Mound to the latest iteration of the notoriously cold Kime Hut, nestled in a hollow.
From here, clamber over the range’s highest hill, Mt Hector (1529m), with its wooden memorial cross. On rare occasion, when the winds of Wellington are not gusting gale force, you might linger long enough to enjoy the stupendous 180-degree panorama.
Once past the Beehives, a narrow section of ridgeline must be carefully negotiated. Unrelenting ridge travel continues over Atkinson, Aston and Alpha (1361m), via the Dress Circle.
Most trampers opt to stay at Kime and Alpha huts. On the third day, pass through Hells Gate, scramble over Omega, before swinging south to march along the rooted Marchant Ridge.
When your legs finally recover, you may speak in hushed tones about how you have ‘done’ the Southern Crossing.
Grade Moderate Time 3 days
2. Kahurangi dreaming
Dragons Teeth, Kahurangi National Park
Follow in the footsteps of early explorers, miners and musterers across the rugged Douglas Range, linking the Cobb and Aorere valleys. Tip-toe along razor-sharp ridgelines and loosely cairned ground trails. Live on the edge of the untracked Tasman Wilderness for a week, enjoying the rewards of self-reliance.
These are some of the highlights awaiting those who undertake this demanding expedition.
From the Cobb Reservoir, a leisurely ramble ensues along lazy river flats adorned with riots of yellow Maori onion. Along the trail you’ll stumble into the restored Chaffey Hut, a great example of a slab hut. Another recent renovation is the Tent Camp, exuding an old-school charm.
Further upvalley, the track climbs through bonsai beech to Fenella Hut and its picturesque tarn.
An interesting array of paint-tin lids nailed to the trees marks a forested spur to the bushline where rock cairns lead around Waingaro Peak. Winding through pygmy forest, travel north along the eroded spine of the Douglas Range. An exposed sawtooth ridge leads over a tussock pyramid, before a dodgy sidle under the western flank of Kakapo Peak. Frequent cairns are a comfort on an otherwise unmarked ridgeline. Good balance and unwavering concentration are needed to traverse the undulating ridge, before a rough trail descends to the tiny biv at Lonely Lake.
At the crux of the route, you’ll need fair weather. Stroll up snowgrass terraces onto a saddle where expansive panoramas open up across the Anatoki abyss. The Dragons Teeth are impossibly-angled peaks that stab into the sky with such defiance as to pose a significant barrier to mere mortals. There are two possible routes: the ‘high route’, which includes a vertical chimney section, is best left to mountaineers. The ‘low route’ includes poorly-marked bush-bashing on a valley wall peppered with bluffs and can take more than 12 hours.
Begin by sidling beneath the leaning hulk of Drunken Sailors, traversing the tussock knob below. An intermittent ground trail descends a vague spur to the Anatoki River. Locate a rough track to the topmost forks and gradually gain height through beech and neinei. A GPS will help pinpoint, then penetrate, the weakness in the line of bluffs above. Once through these, an awe-inspiring panorama unfolds below: Adelaide Tarn, cradled into an alpine amphitheatre, surrounded by a series of gnarly peaks. Stumble to the lakeshore and squeeze into the four-bunk Adelaide Tarn Hut.
At Needles Eye, descend a flax-filled gully to find a well-cairned route heading north. It’s an enchanting ramble, punching through tight scraps of bush. From Green Saddle, descend to boggy flats and through a labyrinth of head-high tussock to Boulder Lake Hut.
The exit route traverses a shoulder of Brown Cow. From here on, the easily graded track descends to the road end.
You will have tramped through the heart of Kahurangi’s geological dreamscape. You will have made it out of the wilderness, but it will take a long time to get the wilderness out of you.
Grade Difficult Time 5-6 days
3. Hut-bagger’s heaven
Leslie-Karamea, Kahurangi National Park
This popular pathway showcases the wonderful biodiversity found in Kahurangi. From the head-high tussocks of the Tableland, to the muddy bogs of the Karamea, to expansive grassy clearings and lush forest trails, it’s all here.
The trail, blessed with a generous and diverse range of accommodation, is also a hut-bagger’s heaven.
Both trailheads begin on benched miner’s trails, making the first (or last) day a walk in the park. By beginning at Flora Saddle (960m), the trip will be (nearly) all downhill. From there, skirt the flanks of Mt Arthur and descend to the twin room Flora Hut – built in the 1920s, when men and women had separate sleeping quarters.
Climb a steep trail to the corrugated-iron hut at Upper Gridiron, eclipsed by an overhanging rock. Kids will love a night here, sitting around a blazing outdoor fire, listening for the kiwi that Friends of Flora have reintroduced to the valley.
The bulldozed road merges into a miner’s track, wide and well-worn. Push on through lush beech forest to emerge on to Salisbury Open. Further on, through tall tussock and stunted silver beech is Salisbury Lodge. A full day here is recommended to explore the caves and mining relics of the Tableland.
The journey progresses down Peel Stream to Spludgeons Rock and then on to the Leslie River where the track levels out, eventually arriving at Karamea Bend Hut to the accompaniment of abundant birdlife. The flat section to Crow Hut is especially appealing.
From Venus Hut, a rooted trail over forested terraces can become knee-deep bog after rain. Later, negotiate a 100m scramble around the base of a cliff, hanging onto a steel cable – not too difficult, providing the river isn’t lapping at your feet.
The crossing of Kendall Creek can be tricky and has caused delays. From Trevor Carter Hut, either climb up Lost Valley (where trampers actually get lost), Biggs Tops (where deep snow can be encountered), or keep to the Karamea. Climb steadily past Saxon Falls to the Wangapeka Track. Past Helicopter Flat Hut, head towards Wangapeka Saddle (1010m), then drop down to Stone Hut.
On the last day, stroll alongside the Wangapeka River, skirting the base of Mt Patriarch. A century of grazing sheep explains the frequency of grassy clearings. In one clearing sits Cecil King’s slab hut, now restored as an historic relic.
With its wild reputation for tough tramping, its fascinating history of deluded diggers and hut-bound hermits, and its legacy of mining and mustering, there will be much to reflect on at tramp’s end at Rolling River.
Grade Moderate Time 7-9 days
4. Full circle
Rees-Dart, Mt Aspiring National Park
The mountain grandeur on this 77km trail is dramatic; the valleys are vast; the huts are historic; and if you’re seeking solitude, a smattering of rock bivouacs and riverside campsites are on offer. After a huge landslide closed the Dart Track for three years, DOC has recently reopened this classic.
The Rees Track begins at Muddy Creek where a road crosses river flats to the dilapidated Twenty Five Mile Hut. A worthy detour from the main valley track is to climb to the rustic Earnslaw Hut. Climb higher still, and the rock biv at Kea Basin provides a grandstand view of colossal mountain architecture.
Further up the Rees Valley, the benched track enters delightful beech forest lined by a lush carpet of moss. Wade through long grass at Slip Flat, before the trail opens out onto exposed avalanche fans. Finally, the sidle route crosses to Shelter Rock Hut.
At the valley head, the route zigzags up a poled path through snowgrass to Rees Saddle (1471m), only taking about 30 minutes. Soon you will be lounging at Dart Hut, complete with flush toilets.
Most people opt to spend a rest day here, while the very keen visit Cascade Saddle for unparalleled views of Mt Aspiring.
From Dart Hut, walls of lush green moss and ferns line the track. Not far from Cattle Flat is Veints Biv, where a boulder the size of a house cantilevers to provide a dry sleeping space. But the sandflies here are ferocious and it’s better to overnight at Daleys Flat Hut.
On the final day, the track alternates between forest and flat, eventually reaching a 3km-long lake, formed in the 2014 landslide. DOC has rerouted a safer track here and after five days’ wandering, you’ll have come full circle.
Grade Easy Time 4-5 days
5. World famous in New Zealand
Travers-Sabine, Nelson Lakes National Park
A circuit of the twin Nelson Lakes has long been a sought-after destination offering moderate tramping, well-established tracks and commodious accommodation. The trail has become popular among international trampers as it lies on the route of the Te Araroa Trail.
The traditional route is to depart from St Arnaud, skirting the eastern shoreline of Lake Rotoiti to Lakehead Hut (save time by taking a water taxi). Further up the grassy flats of the Travers Valley are John Tait Hut, and the wonderfully sited Upper Travers Hut – the perfect place from which to launch your assault on Travers Saddle. This objective is attained after some 90 minutes following a poled route to the pass at 1787m.
Reaching the Sabine Valley requires a careful descent over scree, zigzagging through forest.
At West Sabine Hut, you have an optional detour to the beautiful Blue Lake, reputed to have the clearest water in the world. Camping here is often the highlight of the trip.
From West Sabine Hut, it’s a long forest walk to the jetty at Lake Rotoroa. A radio at Sabine Hut can be used to contact the water taxi. Alternatively, a day’s tramp via Speargrass Hut will complete the circuit to Lake Rotoiti.
Grade Moderate Time 3-7 days
6. A timeless classic
Three Passes, Arthur’s Pass National Park
If you have experience in river travel, aptitude with an ice axe and a head for heights, this alpine crossing – considered a timeless classic – will be a memorable challenge.
The four-hour gravel bash up the Waimakariri is a bittersweet affair. While progress is fast, your feet get cold and wet. At least you’ll be guaranteed a bunk in 36-berth Carrington Hut. This bulky barn recalls the glory days, when tramping clubs built their own memorial huts.
If you can cross the White River, locate its confluence with Taipo-iti River. This is the key that unlocks Harman Pass, but low water levels are necessary to negotiate the tight, bluffed walls and unstable scree. Topping out at 1321m, some parties opt to camp at Ariels Tarns, with a prime view down the Taipo into Westland.
Swinging south-west, ice axe and crampons are required to climb the snowfield to Whitehorn Pass (1753m). Here, a hanging glacier melts into the abyss below. Care is needed to descend to the valley, and navigate down the incredibly rugged Cronin Stream. At its mouth, Park Morpeth Hut (eight bunks) squats defiantly on a scrubby terrace where the Cronin empties into the desolate Wilberforce River. The hut serves as a memorial to two trampers who drowned nearby.
The Wilberforce is then traced to its headwaters, where the Clough Memorial stands sentinel, yet another reminder of how treacherous these rivers can be. An old bridal path zigzags uphill, merging into a gnarly scramble up loose rock before reaching Browning Pass (1411m) and a re-crossing of the Main Divide.
While it’s possible to camp here, the miner’s pack track leads to the more sheltered haven of Harman Hut. In good conditions, carry on over Styx Saddle to stay at the well-sited hut on Grassy Flats. Recent slips have made the Lower Styx Track dangerous in high water. If this is the case, continue along the Arahura River to the road.
Grade Moderate-difficult Time 4-6 days
7. It’s the journey, not the destination
Harper Pass Track, Arthur’s Pass National Park and Lake Sumner Forest Park
You won’t climb anything significant, or gain amazing vistas on this tramp. It’s all about the journey, and the history.
Harper Pass was once a Maori greenstone trail. The first European to cross the pass to the West Coast was Leonard Harper in 1857. During the 1860s, it was used by prospectors to cross the Main Divide. It gained popularity in the 1930s when the government built five huts and promoted walking the track as a healthy pastime.
It’s wise to walk this historic track from west to east, beginning near Arthur’s Pass village, because fine weather is required to cross the Otira, Otehake and Taramakau Rivers to reach the old Kiwi Hut. Further upstream is the larger Locke Stream Hut.
The next day, meander up the Taramakau River to the valley head, where a steep track climbs to Harper Pass (962m), carpeted in tussock and alpine scrub. Drop into the headwaters of the Hurunui River, to the dogbox Harper Pass Bivouac.
Across the Divide, travel becomes easy as the valley opens out onto expansive river flats, where Camerons Hut provides adequate shelter. Push on through spacious beech forest until you arrive at No 3 Hut, one of the original government structures.
Alternating between grassy river flats, and forest, the track follows the Hurunui. A highlight is a well-deserved soak in a hot spring near Hurunui Hut.
Once across the swingbridge spanning the Hurunui, walk the flats to the head of Lake Sumner. Climb steadily over Kiwi Saddle (677m) through red beech forest, descending into the swampy grasslands of Kiwi Valley. An old farm track brings you to Hope-Kiwi Lodge.
From here, the track wanders along broad, grassy flats. The final couple of hours are spent on terraces high above the riverbed. Finally, a vehicle track crosses a spectacular gorge in the Boyle River. Not long after is Windy Point and the end of the tramp.
Grade Easy-moderate Time 4-5 days
8. A classic for all comers
St James Walkway, St James Conservation Area
Opened in 1981, the St James Walkway provides novice trampers with a taste of the subalpine – without really climbing anything. The 20-berth huts are spaced at regular 15km intervals, which equates to about five hours tramping each day. Fitter and faster trampers can walk the track in 3-4 days, camping on river flats.
This classic begins on SH7, near Lewis Pass. it begins with a steep descent to the Maruia River and across Cannibal Gorge. A benched track then leads high above the river, undulating through beautiful beech forest.
Past Cannibal Gorge Hut, stroll beneath the Spenser Mountains to find Ada Pass Hut, tucked into the bush edge. Balcony views of the lower ramparts of Gloriana are splendid, encircled by towering ridges and gullies, as waterfalls tumble down steep ravines.
Bits of boardwalk lead over Ada Pass (998m) then gradually descend into the headwaters of Ada River. Pass beneath the impressive buttresses of Faerie Queen (2236m) as the path alternates between river flats and short stints in beech forest to negotiate bluffs.
The relentlessly nice trail leads to Christopher Hut, then, further down this vast valley, the Ada empties into the barren Waiau River watershed, connecting with the Te Araroa Trail. Head west up the windswept Henry River to Anne Hut.
A path climbs gradually to Anne Saddle (1136m), the track’s high point. Further on, a suspension bridge betrays the location of Boyle Flats Hut.
A pleasant amble leads to Magdalen Hut, then the track skirts matagouri flats inside the scruffy red beech of Lake Sumner Forest Park, traversing across rocky riverbeds. It ends through a grassy corridor of kanuka, where the Boyle Outdoor Education Lodge provides showers, accommodation and car shuttles.
Grade Easy Time 5 days
9. Traversing the North Island’s spine
Kaweka-Kaimanawa Traverse, Kaweka and Kaimanawa forest parks
The Kaweka Range and Kaimanawa Mountains are a veritable testing ground, a place to hone navigation skills and fitness. So if you’re coming for scenery, go someplace else.
Planning a traverse over the backbone of the North Island is a complicated undertaking, not just for the jumbled geography and patchy track network, but also because of access issues. Track ends are a day’s travel apart and the route traverses private hunting blocks and Maori land that require permission to cross.
The journey begins at Makahu Saddle, about an hour’s drive inland from Napier. Climb an eroded spur, past the diminutive Dominie Biv, to the main Kaweka Range. Be warned, this gut-buster takes three to five hours. A short distance from the giant memorial cairn is the highest point of Kaweka Forest Park, Kaweka J (1724m).
The most straight-forward route is to head north along the rocky tops, then drop down the ridge to find shelter at Ballard Hut or Tira Lodge. From here, navigation can be tricky. A string of four- and six-bunk huts are on offer, as you make your way east to Harkness and Tussock huts. A low saddle is crossed to gain the wide, expansive flats of the Ngaruroro River, which has chiselled its way through layers of pumice and ash from the Lake Taupo eruption.
Entering Kaimanawa Forest Park, in an unusual reversal of the norm, the wide open river flats are cloaked in red tussock while the tops are cloaked with forest.
Past the airstrip is the Lockwood design of Boyd Lodge. Above, Boyd Rocks grant impressive views of Makorako (1726m), the highest peak in the Kaimanawas. Beyond this remote pyramid, the snowy slopes of Mt Ruapehu can be seen.
Next, it’s over Maungaorangi, eventually linking with Cascade Hut, beside the Tauranga Taupo River. The original crossing climbed over Ngapuketurua Peak and Ignimbrite Saddle, to reach the Desert Road. Alas, that track is now a tangled nightmare. Instead, gain a permit to sidle Ngapuketurua then drop down to Kiko Road, which cuts through private forest.
One option is to exit at Clements Mill Road. The other, from Boyd Lodge, to walk east via Oamaru Hut, exiting through Poronui Station.
However you finish, you will have experienced a true adventure.
Grade Moderate Time 5-7 days
10. In a class of its own
Rabbit Pass, Mt Aspiring National Park
This transalpine crossing between the Wilkin and East Matukituki valleys has a notorious reputation; certainly no place for cowards. The level of risk, the need for sound judgement and clear weather puts this ‘classic’ into a class of its own.
Jet boat up the Wilkin River to Kerin Forks and take the relatively good Wilkin Valley Track to its headwaters. The wild Wilkin surges glacial green, cutting through gravel terraces and at every turn, the distant roar from a hundred waterfalls fills the ears.
If the river is running high, you’ll be forced onto terraces with uneven, boggy ground.
Just when you really need it, you arrive at Top Forks Hut. The alpenglow on the summit cone of Mt Pollux is truly a spectacle.
An excellent day’s exploring can be had further up the North Branch of the Wilkin by clambering up a rooted track onto a high plateau, which gives access to the melancholic waters of Lake Diana.
The North Branch Track climbs higher to Lucidus Lake, an inland sea, and then Lake Castalia, a small tarn locked in a mountain cirque beneath Castor, Apollo and Mercury.
Back on track, the near-vertical Waterfall Face is not for the faint-hearted. Marker poles lead straight up through tussock before traversing above precipitous bluffs. A slip on these snowgrass slopes would most likely be fatal. Hence, this section must only be attempted in dry conditions. Likewise, the descent down Rabbit Pass itself (1430m) may need the protection of a rope to negotiate a 30m rock gut. Most of the subsequent subalpine section offers less anxious travel across a magnificent basin.
Once in the relative safety of the East Matukituki, you will still feel remote as there are no huts, few bridges, and scant track markers. Fords can become impassable after heavy rain, but there are plentiful tent sites, particularly at Ruth and Kitchener flats. The journey ends at Mt Aspiring Road, about an hour’s drive from Wanaka.
Grade Difficult Time 6-7 days
11. As easy as the come
Hollyford Track, Fiordland National Park
In the shadow of the impressive ramparts of the Darran Mountains, the underrated Hollyford Track skirts the shorelines of Lake McKerrow and Lake Alabaster on its one-way trek to the thundering Tasman Sea, 56km away. While off the tourist radar, the huts and track are in surprisingly great condition, with the added bonus of luxury lodges and guides if that’s your cup of tea.
Good news: it’s all downhill, with the exception of Little Homer Saddle (147m) and the much-maligned Demon Trail, which isn’t all that hellish if you’re sure-footed and used to a bit of boulder hopping. In recent years, DOC upgraded all six under-utilised huts.
It takes three to five days to reach the beautifully sited Martins Bay Hut, where visitors are treated with unrivalled sunsets, and a large seal colony a short stroll away. A jet boat or plane can be booked for a quick exit.
Grade Easy Time 3-5 days
12. Routeburn-esque, without the traffic
Young-Wilkin, Mt Aspiring National Park
This three-day circuit crosses a sub-alpine pass and features large, comfortable huts – not too dissimilar to the Routeburn Track at the other end of the park, just without the heavy foot traffic. A key difference to the Routeburn is walking times: allow six to eight hours each day.
Beginning from Makarora, most parties cruise up the Wilkin River on a jet boat, avoiding the tedious slog along cattle flats. The usual drop-off is at Kerin Forks Hut, but as this is marooned on the opposite bank to the track, it might be wise to push on upriver. This section of the circuit is well-built, gently ascending onto luxurious grassy flats at Siberia Hut.
Good weather is required to cross Gillespie Pass. While waiting, head to Crucible Lake. This delightful detour involves a steep climb to a hanging valley and a moraine wall which dams the iceberg-cluttered, teal-blue lake.
The track over Gillespie Pass zigzags up a forested spur – a punishing 1000m climb. The final push for the pass necessitates kicking steps in the snow, then hopping along weathered schist slabs until reaching the flat ridge-top. Mt Awful (2192m) dominates the basin, while tiny rock wren hunt for insects amongst the nooks and crannies of this 1600m pass.
The steep descent into the Young Valley can be knee-wrenching, but it’s mercifully short. Boulder-hopping and route-finding is easier along the lush valley floor of Young River. The track then plummets into the forest to reach Young Hut.
On the final day, the track spits you out at the mouth of the Makarora River where you’ll need to scout for a suitable crossing. Back on SH6, hitchhike back to your car.
Grade Moderate Time 3-4 days
13. The rite of passage
Dusky Track, Fiordland National Park
Mention the ‘Dusky’ to those in the know – those intrepid adventurers who have penetrated her dark forested interior, or stolen across her misty, tarn-studded mountain passes – and you will hear tales of knee-deep mud, voracious sandflies, and nonstop rain. This 84km journey is a true classic, perhaps even a rite of passage.
You will need to book a seat on the bus and boats in advance, as both ends of the track are only accessible by boat.
From the trailhead, walkers immediately enter dense forest. Along the mid-reaches of the Spey River, gaiters will be baptised in knee-deep mud and the first of 21 walk-wires crossed.
After overnighting at Upper Spey Hut, the track climbs abruptly into a subalpine world of tussock and wild flowers. It then meanders over Centre Pass, where a detour to Mt Memphis (1405m) provides a higher viewpoint.
Below the bushline, the terrain is rooted and rough underfoot; a relentless, energy-sapping workout. You will be mighty glad to reach Kintail Hut.
On the third day, stroll past the restful reaches of Gair Loch, searching for elusive markers. Wet boots are the new normal, as side-streams are forded. As the valley widens, the Seaforth River slows, snaking from bank to bank, before merging into Loch Maree.
Detour to Supper Cove (adding two days) or carry on over the Pleasant Range to Lake Roe Hut – with grandstand views to Dusky Sound, it’s the best spot for a pit day.
Exit this alpine domain via the headwaters of the Hauroko Burn, staying at the aptly named Halfway Hut. Easy flats along the Burn are interrupted by arduous sidle tracks over bluffs. The final leg follows the river, now a spent force, sluggishly seeping into Lake Hauroko, the country’s deepest lake. Hauroko Burn Hut is where you’ll await the scheduled boat ride.
The Dusky deserves its rugged reputation as New Zealand’s hardest hike; long may it endure.