New Zealand's reputation as a walker's paradise is thanks partly to its diversity of scenery, from the tropical beaches, hot springs and volcanic mountains in the north to the temperate forests, dramatic fjords and glacier-fed lakes in the south. But it's also due to the country's well-maintained network of backcountry trails managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Access to the country's nine "Great Walks" is strictly controlled via a quote system to ensure their protection, but the downside is that often you have to book months in advance to secure your place. There are, however, plenty of other DOC-maintained trails among stretches of equally magnificent scenery; the accommodation along these trails might be as sophisticated as those along the Great Walks, but they are usually well-equipped, cheaper and far less crowded. Here's our five favourite alternative treks.
A 4–5 day circuit that winds across two lush valleys following the course of two rivers – the Rees and the Dart – in the Glenorchy region in the south of Mount Aspiring National Park. Much of the 57km trek is well-marked, there are three DOC huts en route, and you can expect forested as well as steep alpine sections with dramatic views of mountain ranges similar to those encountered on the Routeburn, one of the nine Great Walks. However, the Rees Dart trek is more challenging, and the one to go for if you’re looking for several days of mountain solitude.
This three-day trek is for those who like to combine walking with the occasional refreshing dip in a river. The 36km trail, which begins 13km along the river valley from the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve in Mount Richmond Forest Park, leads to several green natural pools where you can soak your sore feet after tramping through forested valleys of matai and beech trees. The most famous bathing spot is the Emerald Pools Picnic Area – it is about an hour from the start of the trail so it’s popular with day-trippers – and though it may be hard to leave this idyll, press on and you’ll discover more wonderful bathing spots along the track. The further you go, the more likely it is that you’ll have them all to yourself.
A feature of New Zealand’s walks is its ancient forests, and there are few finer examples of this than the Whirinaki Forest Park and the adjacent Te Urewera National Park, the largest single block of native forest in New Zealand’s North Island. Maori-owned Te Urewera Treks specializes in walks (1–3 days) to both areas under the guiding eye of Joe Doherty, of local Ngai Tuhoe descent, who shows guests how the Maori use native plants for medicine and food, and gives lessons on the local history and Maori legends.
Egmont National Park on the west coast of the North Island is about as off-the-beaten-track as it gets in New Zealand, and there are some wonderful treks in this often overlooked park. Pride of place is Mount Taranaki, a dormant volcano and the site of several walks through alpine and bush in altitudes ranging from 500m to 1500m. The five–day lower-level circuit is the easier option, though from December to February the snow melts enough for hikers to loop off the main track and do the more challenging high-level route that heads up the slopes. Those who want a quick mountain fix can walk directly up to the summit and down again in a day – it’s a strenuous trek but well worth it for the wonderful views of the Tasman Sea and Tongariro mountains.
“Ninety Mile Beach” might not sound like an easy walk to do in three days, but fear not, it is at the northern end of a wide, flat expanse of windswept sand that is the starting point of a relatively comfortable – and uncrowded – hike around the headland of the northern tip of New Zealand. The walk begins at the impressive dunes of Te Paki Stream and heads northwards along 41km of coastline, stopping off at some beautifully sited campgrounds overlooking the sea. The walk ends at Cape Reinga where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean collide in a froth of foam. According to Maori legend, it is here that spirits depart to the next life. However, you might prefer to pitch your tent at the DOC campsite in the manuka woods and go for a swim in the usually deserted 7km sweep of Spirits Bay and feel very much alive.