Planning a Hiking Trip on New Zealand’s South Island

For the 2018-2019 academic year, I was on sabbatical. While I was still working, I had a lot more flexibility in when I could travel. New Zealand had been on our to-visit list for a while, but seasons and distance make it hard to visit during a normal year. We took advantage of my flexibility by planning a three-week trip to New Zealand for February and March — late summer / early fall.

Over the years of wanting to visit New Zealand, we had accumulated an extensive list of places we wanted to hike and explore. As we got into planning the details, we narrowed our trip to focus on hiking in the mountains of the South Island. Just that easily filled three weeks.

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How we decided to allocate three weeks

We spent about three months of on-and-off research prioritizing what to see and planning potential itineraries before we were ready to book.

Prioritizing

Kyle and I both love to hike, and so we knew that would be our priority. We also don’t really go for very touristy destinations, so while we were both interested in some of the Lord of the Rings locations, they were much lower on our priority list than nature for nature’s sake.

After lots of reading and looking at photos, we ended up with a roughly prioritized list:

  1. At least two great walks. Our preference was for the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track, with the Kepler Track as a backup.
  2. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing (North Island)
  3. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park (South Island)
  4. Waitaha Valley – Ivory Hut (South Island)
  5. Hiking near Wanaka, in Mount Aspiring National Park (South Island)
  6. Seeing glowworms (North or South Island)
  7. Abel Tasman National Park, including hiking and kayaking (South Island)
  8. Arthur’s Pass National Park (South Island)
  9. Nelson Lakes National Park (South Island)
  10. The Queen Charlotte Track & Marlborough Sound (South Island)
  11. Kahurangi National Park (South Island)
  12. Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers (Westland Tai Poutini National Park, South Island)

We also estimated the number of days we thought each would require to enjoy. With that list, and not counting travel days, we entered up with somewhere around 45-60 days: much more time than we had. We needed to narrow our list down.

We first restricted ourselves to the south island. While we wanted (and still want!) to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we felt we would be happiest without adding the travel days necessary to get to and from it to this trip. 

Next, we started mapping the various potential stops and looking at drive times. Knowing that we wanted Fiordland National Park (home to the Milford Track and part of the Routeburn Track) and Aoraki National Park, we soon focused on the Southern Alps between those two points. With this focus, many of the coastal destinations fell off from our list for this trip, along with the mountains in the northern part of the South Island. Finally, we cut visits to the Franz Jolsef and Fox Glaciers, as the drive to the western side of the mountains would use too much of our scarce time.

This left us with the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track (and the Kepler as a backup, if we could not get reservations), Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, hiking near Wanaka in Mount Aspiring National Park, and glowworms (if our schedule allowed).

Resources we found helpful

While working to prioritize, we did a lot of image searching to figure out which scenery most excited us. Beyond that, we examined a few guidebooks and also did a lot of reading online:

  • Of the books we looked at, the Rough Guides book was most thorough. It helped us prioritize, but, like many broad guidebooks, offered limited help in selecting specific hikes.
  • We extensively relied on the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) website for hike information. Once in New Zealand, we realized that the site seems designed to guide tourists toward specific, better-marked routes. Information about more remote options was present, but obscure. As a result, we would go on hikes that we thought dead-ended, only to pass a variety of trails that kept going in one direction or another.

Working with Itineraries

With our prioritized list, we could work with our schedule. We decided to spend about half the trip with a rental car, while we’d group the Great Walks into a part of the trip during which we would not have a car (that we would not be using). This plan also made Queenstown a logical hub for our trip. We could fly in to Queenstown, rent a car there, easily drive to our other stops, and also arrange shuttles to the great walks.

We reached this set of priorities in May, just about 10 months before our trip and still too early to reserve hut spaces for the great walks. That gave us some time to sketch out different possible itineraries  — so we could know which dates would and would not work for hut reservations — and to begin watching airfares.

Hut reservations opened in early July. Kyle and I were awake and ready to book, and we happily got our first choice of dates for both the Milford and the Routeburn. We studied the information — including which huts (for the Routeburn) and transportation options (for each) we wanted — ahead of time. This helped us be we could be efficient in our choices.

With those locked in, we moved quickly to book the rest of the hotels. In hindsight, we possibly should have made speculative bookings for some of the more popular areas in advance. By the time we booked at Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, we were highly constrained in for room types and dates within our price range, and ultimately we had to book one night outside of the park.

That still left us with flights. Kyle was booking using miles and I was booking a paid fare. Quirks in fares meant that it made more sense for me to fly in earlier, into Christchurch rather than Queenstown. By some coincidence, my parents would be in Christchurch on their own New Zealand vacation at that time. So, I left two days earlier than planned and used the time to add a visit to the coast, at Akaroa, from Christchurch.

The Great Walks

After choosing which great walks we wanted to do, our next choice was whether to go-self guided or via the guided routes offered by Ultimate Hikes (TripAdvisor).

Self-guided hikers stay in Department of Conservation huts with bunk rooms (typically 8-24 people or so). The huts also have a common cooking and dining area with gas stoves, running water, a wood-fired stove for warmth. As the name implies, you go at your own pace. Rangers at each hut do make sure walkers have arrived by the evening’s hut talk. On the Milford Track, all walkers must travel the same direction and stay at each hut, so you get a bit of a cohort effect with your other walkers. On the Routeburn, hikers go different directions, and some do it in one night, while others two it in two or even three, spread over four hut locations, so you see different people each day.

The guided hikes offer cozier, more private accommodations with fresh linens. They also include prepared (well-reviewed!) meals. Because these are provided, you carry less. On the Milford Track, guided walkers stay at slightly different locations and spend an extra night on the Milford Sound. The hut locations on the Routeburn are pretty much identical between the guided and self-guided walks. Walkers have some flexibility in pace, but guides manage the group and keep people from getting too far ahead or behind. While the Department of Conservation has raised rates for international visitors staying at self-guided huts on the great walks, the guided walks are still considerably more expensive.

Kyle and I both appreciate the flexibility to explore and go at our own pace, and so we knew the guided hikes were not going to be a match for us. Even if we had been interested, the guided walks would have broken our budget for the trip, forcing us to cut back in other areas or to shorten it. So, we went with the self-guided walks, and we had a great time. On the Milford, we enjoyed that we could spread out on the trail in the day and have relative solitude, while we could catch up with other hikers in the evenings and morning.

You can review our packing lists for the Great Walks, including notes on how we handled food. Overall, we carried more than we did for the Tour du Mont Blanc — since we had to provide our own food — but less than we would for a backpacking (camping) trip.

Where we stayed

Many visitors to New Zealand rent a campervan and stay in various freedom camping sites or campgrounds. We could see the appeal of the flexibility to visit different locations, without a pre-booked agenda. However, we were not sure how well it would work in practice. With potential for lots of rain, having somewhat more spacious hotel rooms to spread out in, dry off, and wash clothes also appealed. After weighing the options, we decided to forgo the campervan option and instead booked hotels.

Juicy Snooze, Queenstown (Booking.com | Hotels.com | TripAdvisor).

We stayed in Queenstown a total of four nights: on arrival, before we left for the Routeburn track, a night in between the Routeburn and Milford Tracks, and one night before we flew home. Each stay was short and on the way to somewhere else. Consequently, we prioritized a central location where we could easily do laundry, get groceries, and repack as needed.

Juicy Snooze’s location — within a block of our great walk shuttles, a few blocks from the bus to the airport, a block from the car rental location, and a few blocks from the grocery store — fit the bill. They also had 24-hour reception (useful in case of delays), luggage storage (for a reasonable fee), and onsite laundry. We also enjoyed their rooftop bar. Rooms were comfortable but cramped — Kyle and I had to play a bit of Tetris as we repacked. We did not care for their branding.

Lakeview Motel, Wanaka (Booking.com)

In Wanaka, we chose the Lakeview Motel, set above town with a view of the lake and toward the mountains. Thanks to a shortcut on some stairs, it is still only a 5-10 minute walk to the restaurants and lakeshore. On check-in, we were surprised to see how spacious the room was. In addition to two comfortable bedrooms, we had a kitchenette, large bathroom, and large living/dining area. With so much room, we almost felt bad about how much time we were out hiking, since we did not take full advantage of the space. We also ran a bit late for our check-in; the staff took care of that proactively and everything worked great. Easy recommendation.

Aoraki Mount Cook Lodge (Booking.com)

Accommodations in Aoraki / Mount Cook Village are pretty limited, and so each has their pros and cons. As noted above, our options were also surprisingly limited by the time we booked. This left us with just the Mount Cook Lodge (Booking.com) for our dates. It had mixed reviews, but since we wanted to be in the park, we booked a twin room.

On arrival, we could see why reviews were mixed. Our room desperately needed renovation. Beds sagged, every carpeted surface was stained, and the bathroom had a troubling combination of rust and past mold. However, the staff clearly worked hard. What could be cleaned was cleaned, the coffee / tea service and other amenities were fine, and the staff were genuinely helpful. Though we had not explicitly booked a view room, our room had a balcony with stunning views of Aoraki / Mount Cook. This made for great sunrises and sunsets and made it easy to forget the condition of the room. Overall, we’d stay here again. We just hope the owners invest the building to bring it up to the same standard as the service.

The lodge also had chalets and motel rooms, which could work well for larger groups, and quad bunk rooms that can work well for travelers on a budget. Booking.com lists each type. We would recommend paying for a view.

Other options in Aoraki / Mount Cook Village

My parents stayed at Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Lodge (Booking.com) on their trip. Based on their description, it has more spacious rooms, slightly better views, and a better common space. They said they had a good stay, slightly hampered by an REI tour group that took over the common space and made others feel unwelcome.

Other options in Aoraki include the Aoraki Court Motel (Booking.com), which appeared to be better maintained and might be particularly good for families. The up-market Hermitage Hotel (Booking.com) was out of our budget, but views from there looked outstanding. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also a Youth Hostel (Booking.com) with a mix of dormitory and private rooms.

Twizel area

Because of limited availability, we needed an additional hotel night outside of the park. This also would give us some flexibility. If we had good weather each day in Aoraki, we could use this as a flex day to explore elsewhere. If not, we could use it as a makeup day for one of our must-do hikes.

We initially booked the Mountain Chalets Motel (Booking.com) in Twizel. These chalets looked cute, the price was great, they had laundry, and the location was convenient to our route.  However, while considering the mixed reviews for the Mount Cook Lodge, we started to wonder if we would be happier splurging for this night. One accommodation — The Barn at Killen B&B (Booking.com) — had come up with particularly strong reviews. It was a bit further out of the way, but in a direction that looked interesting to explore. After going back and forth for a bit, we decided to rebook.

This turned out to be a great choice. From the moment we pulled up, the host, Hugh, took care of us. We were shown to our comfortable room and then offered beers while we had a chance to clean up.  Dinner was ample and delicious: chicken with stuffing, pork with blackberry jam, root vegetables, fresh vegetables, gravy, and finished with a wonderful Pavlova. We enjoyed the conversation and an accompanying bottle of wine as well. After dinner, we retired to the hot tub with a bottle of brut. After the hot tub, we enjoyed gazing at the stars in the dark, dark sky.

Te Anau Lakefront B&B (Booking.com)

We stayed in Te Anau the night before the Routeburn Track. This let us get an early start and gave us the chance to visit a nearby glowworm cave. Here, we wanted accommodations close to the Department of Conservation Visitor Center. This would make it easy to drop bags and to get back to our shuttle in the morning.

We booked the well-reviewed Te Anau Lakefront B&B (Booking.com), located just across the street from the visitor center. In addition to the great location, we had a comfortable room, good common space, and a tasty breakfast of eggs Benedict with salmon.

Best Meals

This is a tough call. We loved our dinner at The Barn at Killen. In Queenstown, we kept going back to Vudu Café and Larder (TripAdvisor) for breakfast, where the orange zest pancakes and brioche french toast kept calling our name. In Wanaka, we thought Relishes (TripAdvisor) served an excellent breakfast and Federal Diner (TripAdvisor) had great scones, while Big Fig (TripAdvisor) served a delicious, filling, cheap dinner cafeteria style. We also had a fantastic dinner at Redcliff Café (TripAdvisor) in Te Anau, including venison hazelnut chocolate lollipops, duck confit with blue cheese soufflé, and a deconstructed lemon meringue pie.

Our final itinerary

  1. Sean only: arrive Christchurch in the evening. Day trip to Akaroa, including a boat tour with Akaroa Dophins. Fly to Queenstown the next day.
  2. Wanaka and hiking in Mount Aspiring National Park (3 days)
  3. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park (3.5 days)
  4. Lake Tekapo, Ohau, Blue Pools, and back to Queenstown (2 days)
  5. Glow worms, Te Anau, and the Routeburn Track (4 days)
  6. Milford Track (4 days)

We booked our return flight for the day after the Milford Track. While we initially congratulated ourselves on this efficient use of days, we later read that the Milford can flood. When it does, people can be stuck on the track for a day or more; sometimes they need to be helicoptered out). Fortunately, everything worked out. In hindsight, though, we would have given ourselves a little more padding.

Read on to the start of my trip, in Christchurch and Akaroa.

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