The Aotea Track – Discover Auckland’s only multi-day hike on Great Barrier Island

The Aotea Track is the only multi-day hike found in the Auckland region. Located on Aotea Great Barrier Island, it is isolated but surprisingly accessible from Auckland City.  This hike is a must-do for nature lovers and bird watchers.  To help you put the ideal route together, we’ve asked Karllie, an ex-Aotea Track hiking guide to share her top tricks and tricks for the Aotea Track.

The Aotea Track (and the Great Barrier Island as a whole) is literally my favourite thing about Auckland.  This three-day adventure offers something truly unique compared to other multi-day hikes you might find in Aotearoa New Zealand.  It is incredible!

Not only is the Aotea Track located on an off-the-grid island but it is also the only multi-day hike in the Auckland region.  Being off-the-grid means there are differences to the mainland; they don’t have streetlights (even in built-up areas) and you’ll be unlikely to find a toaster in a local home.

Everyone on Aotea generates their own power and sources their own water so these things are very precious.  Because of this, you will, of course, want to be considerate over the course of your visit – leave the hairdryer at home and get back to nature.

After all, you’re there to hike the Aotea Track and make the most of this incredible Auckland island.

In a Nutshell: Why Great Barrier Island Should be Top of Your List

Great Barrier Island is known for its incredible native flora and fauna.  It is a nature-lovers paradise!

This island has been awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status and is one of only eleven in the world (as of April 2020).  You can expect to witness the most spectacular night skies there!

It is incredible that a location so accessible from the mainland can still feel so remote and unique.

The main drawcard of the island, the Aotea Track, traverses over volcanic terrain with the most breathtaking views of the Hauraki Gulf and the Pacific Ocean.  The summit, Hirakimatā (Mt Hobson), peaks at 621m and is also the most populated breeding ground for the extremely endangered black petrel.

The track also includes a real treat in the Kaitoke Hot Springs; a soak is the perfect way to finish off a three-day hike.

Simply put, hiking on Aotea Great Barrier is a spectacular glimpse into what life in New Zealand once was like.

The Milky Way as seen from the Great Barrier Island.

How to Get to Great Barrier Island

Getting to Great Barrier Island is hardly a challenge with regular daily flights from Auckland (and a number of spots in New Zealand) and a number of ferry sailings each week.

Should you wish to fly, it’s worth keeping an eye on the different airlines that fly to the island as specials do sometimes pop up.  Your best chance of securing a reasonably priced flight is to remain flexible with dates and book well in advance.

When Should You Hike the Aotea Track?

If you are there just to hike the Aotea Track, then any time of the year will suit.

The weather is no different from the mainland but when it is windy, it can really blow on Great Barrier.

My preference is autumn when the weather is most settled and the ocean is still warm enough to swim.

The summer season is great, especially if you intend to spend a few extra days on the island as there are definitely more things to do and enjoy in the warmer months!

Visiting outside of the peak summer season (which falls late December to early February) will ensure fewer people, however, the tracks are never really that crowded and the huts are very rarely full.

Winter is wonderful if you plan to include a night sky experience – and as this dark sky sanctuary is something very special, it’s a great idea!

If you are worried about the cold then you really do not need to be. It never gets that chilly with the island rarely dropping below zero degrees overnight.

The island is subtropical in climate and enjoys temperate weather most of the year.  At most, it would experience a light frost once a year.

What to Take on Your Great Barrier Island Hike

To help you stay safe and comfortable, it is important that you are well-prepared for any hike and the Aotea Track is no different.

We suggest you travel light (to make the walk more comfortable), whilst ensuring you have everything you need.  The following is a suggested packing list:

  • Suitable clothing.  Layers are best for hiking so you can easily warm up/cool off as required.  Natural fibres, such as merino, are also worthwhile investments.  Chances are, you won’t be too worried about reusing t-shirts across the hike (because everyone will be a bit smelly), but definitely have some spares so that you’ll be guaranteed dry clothing to change into if you get wet.  Make sure that you have suitable clothing for hot, cold, wet and dry weather – you never know what you might encounter.
  • Plenty of underwear and socks.
  • Comfortable hiking boots (or walking shoes if you’d prefer).  Ensure you have broken these in before departing on your hike.
  • Hiking sticks/poles if you would benefit from a little more support going up and down hills.
  • A good raincoat/jacket.
  • A sleeping bag.
  • A drink bottle.
  • Sunscreen, bug repellant, deodorant and personal toiletries.  Wet wipes will help you freshen up in a squeeze too.
  • A first-aid kit along with any personal medication.
  • Cooking and eating utensils.
  • Your camera!

Each of these cabins includes two non-flush toilets, a number of bunk beds with mattresses, heating, water (which you will need to boil before drinking) and cooking facilities.  They are also generally well-stocked with pots, pans and eating utensils (left behind by previous hikers), but to be safe, it is recommended to carry your own.

Hikers passing along the Windy Canyon of Aotea Track.

The Aotea Track: Auckland’s Only Multi-Day Hike

Visitors to Great Barrier Island have a number of different route options on the Aotea Track.  The track itself is actually made up of a series of smaller trails, so it is possible to adapt the hike to your own timeframe and preferences. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has its own recommendations but as an experienced Aotea hiker, I have two tried-and-tested recommendations of my own.

As a hiking guide on the Aotea Track, and as someone who first started working on the island in 2011, I have hiked the trails countless times.  Through experience, I have two distinct route preferences to share with you.

Both recommendations will see you spend the first night in the Kaiaraara Hut and the second night in Mt Heale Hut; both huts must be booked in advance so you’ll definitely want to arrange that before leaving home.

Aotea Track Map

Though we have included a map for each of the routes we recommend, we also wanted to include a blank map.

You may like to print your own copy to record any changes you make to the route.

Aotea Track map also showing the huts.

First Recommended Route for the Aotea Track: Windy Canyon to Kaitoke Hot Springs/Whangaparapara

This route is recommended for those visiting Great Barrier Island for the first time and also those who are there just to do the Aotea Track.

For this version of the Aotea Track, you will start at Windy Canyon and finish at the Kaitoke Hot Springs.  This route will make sure you get to enjoy the best the Aotea Track has to offer with the limited time you have.

You will need to organise transport to and from the track.

If you’d like to book transport in advance, we recommend Go Great Barrier Island; they are reliable and charge a fair price for their services.

Or, if you’re looking to save some money and connect with a local, you may like to hitchhike.  Though we don’t recommend it in all parts of New Zealand, hitchhiking is completely safe on the island and is very common.

Map of Route One on the Aotea Track

Aotea Track map - Route 1

Aotea Track Day 1: Windy Canyon to Kaiaraara Hut

Starting at Windy Canyon, make your way along Palmers Track to the summit.  This section of the track will reward you with the most amazing views!  Plan to have your lunch at the summit; it is a great spot to relax and replenish.  There you can enjoy the lookout over Port Fitzroy to Hauturu (Little Barrier Island) and on a clear day, you can see as far as Whangarei Heads.

From the summit, you will head down to the Kaiaraara Hut via the Kaiaraara Track.  This will take you through some lovely lush bush and past the site of the old kauri dams.  Unfortunately, these dams were washed away in 2014 during a storm.

It is worth noting that all routes to and from the summit include a lot of stairs!  This is to protect the burrows of the breeding Black Petrel.

In total, this day will take you about 4-5 hours, not including stops.

You’ll want to rest up for the night at the Kaiaraara Hut, ready for tomorrow’s adventure.

Total hike time: 4-5 hours.

Cabin to overnight: Kaiaraara Hut. Adult $15 per night, child (age 11-17) $7.50 per night, child (0-10) free.

Hikers walking up a wooden stairs during the hike.

Aotea Track Day 2: Kaiaraara Hut to Mt Heale Hut

With a relaxed day of hiking ahead of you, you can take your time in the morning.  The beauty of day two is that you can really plan your day as you like – add more in or take it easy; the choice is yours.

Before you leave the Kaiaraara Hut, we suggest you take a stroll out to Bush’s Beach, which is an easy one-hour return walk.  Along the boardwalk, you will see a Kauri Grove with dead, dying and healthy Kauri. This is a great example of what the Kauri Dieback disease is doing to our native forest giants.

Or, if you’d prefer to do a full day’s hiking then you may consider doing the loop via Bush’s Beach, Kiwiriki, W Line Track, and Forest Road before finally heading up the South Fork Track to Mt Heale Hut.  This optional hike will add approximately 2 hours to your day’s total.

If you opt not to complete the loop, you’ll head straight up the South Fork Track; this is one of my favourite trails on the whole island.  It includes a lovely river walk before heading up into the hills.  The South Fork Track will take you 2-3 hours to get to Mt Heale Hut, not including stops.

If you get to the hut early, you may want to head up to the summit of Hirakimatā/Mt Hobson for sunset.  However, the view of the sunset is just as good from the hut so it’s dependent on how much walking you’d like to do.

Total hike time: Between 2-3 hours and 5-6 hours, depending on the track combination you choose.

Cabin to overnight: Mt Heale Hut. Adult $15 per night, child (age 5-17) $7.50 per night, child (under 5) free.

Two tourists taking a short dip in the rocky river.

Aotea Track Day 3: Mt Heale Hut to Whangaparapara

Today will be your last day on the beautiful Aotea Track and best of all, it includes a stop at some natural hot springs!

Upon leaving Mt Heale Hut, head down the Peach Tree Track to the Tramline Track North.  This is mostly downhill through some gorgeous regenerating bush and a whole lot more stairs.  This should take you 1-1.5 hours.

From there it is a very leisurely walk along the Tramline Track North to the turn off for the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track where you’ll be able to enjoy a well-deserved soak.  This part of the hike takes 30-45 minutes.

The best spots to enjoy are upstream from the main pool, so we suggest you jump in there and make the most of that warm water.  It’s the perfect way to relax tired muscles!

It is important that you don’t put your head under the water.  This to prevent the chance of getting amoebic meningitis which is very uncommon but possible in natural thermal springs.

It is worth noting that if there has been a decent amount of rain the hot springs may not be so warm.  Likewise, when there has not been any rain for a long period, the springs can be rather hot.

Whilst at the pools, you will also find a long drop toilet – just head across the bridge and a short way down the path.

Once you have enjoyed a relaxing soak, it is an easy 30-45 minute walk out to Whangaparapara Road where you can catch your ride back to Claris.

Note that there is no cell phone reception on the road but you may find some along the way after leaving the hot springs.  If you plan to hitchhike then just be aware that the traffic is not regular so you can expect to wait a while before you are offered a lift.

Total hike time: 2-3 hours.

Second Recommended Route for the Aotea Track:  The Whangaparapara Loop

If you plan to spend a few extra days on the island, either before or after doing the Aotea Track, this route is designed with you in mind. It really is worth spending more time if you can because there is so much to see and do on Great Barrier Island!

This version of the Aotea Track starts and finishes in Whangaparapara.

If you do decide to take this option then I highly recommend the Great Barrier Lodge for accommodation and a great restaurant dinner. It is very close to the start/end of the track and hosts Clive and Ange are incredibly accommodating.

There are also plenty of other accommodation options on the island to suit all budgets.  These range from campsites and backpackers to B&Bs and villas.

Map of Route Two on the Aotea Track

Route 2 of Aotea Track map.

Aotea Track Day 1: Whangaparapara to Kaiaraara Hut

This is a big day but worth every step!

From Whangaparapara you’ll head north along Tramline Track South for a short while before turning left onto Withey’s Track.  There is a hill to get over but once you are down the other side you will come across a number of stream crossings in some very tranquil settings.

This track links up to Forest Road, the most boring track on the island but popular with mountain bikers so do keep a lookout for them.  You will not stay on the road for too long before you come across the Kiwiriki Track on your left.

At this junction is a detour up to Mangapiko Lookout which is worth doing and makes for a good lunch stop with amazing views.

It will take you 2-3 hours to get to this point.

From there, you will follow the Kiwiriki Track to the Kaiaraara Hut; this will take an additional 3.5 to 4.5 hours.

The first section of the track is an easy walk through some wonderful regenerating kauri groves.  Following that is a steep descent down to a stream that leads to Kiwiriki Bay; be extra careful as it will be slippery if it is wet.

If it is a hot day and you are keen on a swim then a detour to Kiwiriki Bay is a great idea.  Otherwise, you are not missing much as the shoreline itself is very small.

From here, there are a few hills to climb and then a few drops back into creeks before you arrive at the Bush’s Beach turnoff.  This is not a swimming beach but a nice little spot if you still have some energy left to go and check it out.

From Bush’s Beach it is about a 30-minute walk to the hut via the Kauri Grove I mentioned on Day 2 of the first recommended route.

Total hike time: 6-8 hours.

Cabin to overnight: Kaiaraara Hut.

Aotea Track trail leading to the woods.

Aotea Track Day 2: Kaiaraara Hut to Mt Heale Hut

After a big first day, you’ll want to have a sleep in and enjoy the surrounds of the Kaiaraara Hut.  A hot cuppa down by the river is a nice way to start the day.

The hike up to Mt Heale Hut is not a big one via South Fork Track, as already mentioned, so take your time.   You’ll start on Forrest Road, but before long, turn left onto South Fork Track.

You may consider taking the Kaiaraara Track, which will be longer and include a whole lot of stairs before the summit. However, my experience tells me to tell you that South Fork is the better option.

Once you get to Mt Heale Hut, you can choose a bed, settle in, relax and enjoy the incredible views.

This has to be my favourite DOC hut in all of the North Island (and I have stayed in a few)!

Leaving your gear at the hut, you can head up to the summit for sunset – this will be either before or after dinner, depending on the time of the year.  It takes about 30 minutes each way to hike up Hirakimatā/Mt Hobson, and includes a lot of stairs, but give yourself a good 45 minutes to be sure you get the best of the setting sun over Port Fitzroy.

Total hike time:  3-4 hours.

Cabin to overnight: Mt Heale Hut.   Adult $15 per night, child (age 5-17) $7.50 per night, child (under 5) free.

Hikers taking a break on a wooden platform in Mt Hobson, Aotea Track while having a good view of the lands and lakes.

Aotea Track Day 3: Mt Heale Hut to Whangaparapara

This will look similar to the previous ‘day 3’ but with a few small changes (including your endpoint).

First, start along Peach Tree Track, then follow it onto Tramline Track North.

You can make a detour to the hot springs (down Kaitoke Hot Springs Track) if you like or leave it for one of your other days on the island.  If you do decide to make the detour, it will add another 30-40 minutes to your day.  This is not including the time you spend at the hot springs.

Continue along Tramline Track North and turn left onto Tramline Track South.

If it is a lovely summer day I highly recommend a stop at Kauri Falls which is a very short detour from the Tramline Track South trail.  The waterfall is nothing spectacular but the pool below is deep enough for a good dip on a hot day.

From Kauri Falls, it is about a 30-minute walk to Whangaparapara where hopefully you have organised a good meal and comfy bed.

Total hike time:  3.5 – 5.5 hours, depending on the route you take.

Two hikers standing on a wooden bridge in the middle of the forest.

Flora and Fauna on Great Barrier Island

There are some very special flora and fauna to be discovered on Great Barrier Island.  For many, they are the main drawcard of this incredible place.

A number of native birds and animals call this place home including the New Zealand dotterel, kākā, kākāriki (as photographed by Karllie on Great Barrier, below) and pāteke (brown teal duck) as well as the already mentioned black petrel.  You can also expect to see kererū, tui and kingfisher.

Another special species is the chevron skink, our longest native lizard once thought lost and can only be found on Great Barrier and Little Barrier Islands.

The island also has many plant varieties that are of interest to visitors.  Some special flora includes endemic species of hebe and orchid as well as the Great Barrier Island tree daisyMānuka and kānuka both do well sheltering much of the regenerating native bush that is slowly making a comeback.

This includes the mighty kauri that once stood tall and numerous throughout the island but most was milled over a century ago.  You will find kauri successfully regenerating throughout the island, especially in the Aotea Conservation Park.

When visiting the island, you need to take extra care to protect these incredible New Zealand natives from kauri dieback disease by making sure you use the provided wash stations every time you come across them. It is also a good idea to make sure your hiking footwear is free from soil before coming to the island and that you spray them on arrival. You will find wash stations at ferry and airport terminals.

Great Barrier Island (and the Aotea Track, more specifically), is an incredible place to visit if you want to enjoy New Zealand’s wildlife and nature.

A Kākāriki bird standing on a branch.

Great Barrier Island is a sometimes overlooked destination, but anyone that has visited before knows firsthand of its charm.  It is a place that pulls those in the know back time and time again.

And now you know, it’s time to go!

Photo credits: Todd Eyre, Karllie Clifton. 

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