To share the best day hikes in the South Island of New Zealand, we’ve invited Lauren to join us. As a local, she’s got her finger on the pulse of the best day hikes and is pleased to share them with you. These walks are super short and accessible whilst being absolutely amazing!
No matter where you go in New Zealand you won’t be far from a hiking trail (or tramp as we call it here in Aotearoa). In fact, there are thousands of tracks with all levels of difficulty scattered throughout the country – especially in the South Island. Everything from day hikes, multi-day treks and short walks; New Zealand has it all.
If you have the time, I highly suggest getting out on a day hike or two and ticking off a few of our larger summits and walks. The views are just incredible and that feeling after reaching the summit is especially rewarding!
As a local, my go-to area for hiking is the mid-Canterbury region. With so many amazing walks on my doorstep, I’m spoilt for choice. I’m well aware though, that not everyone has as much time of their hands as I do.
Many of you may need to keep your travels moving though or may just want a quick leg stretch – perhaps you don’t have the time or the ability for a big hike.
Don’t worry because there are plenty of short walks that will get you on your way and off to the next thing but are still just as amazing. The questions of ‘Is this even real?’ will pop up more than once!
The best thing about these short walks is that they’re very convenient to include on a typical South Island road trip. They’re easy to get to and they are all very well maintained. They do get quite busy, especially during the summer months though, so I suggest if you can, try visiting as early in the morning as possible. Many times, you’ll get the place almost to yourself and also benefit from that beautiful morning light which is great for photos.
Here are 5 short walks in the South Island of New Zealand you don’t want to miss!
Pro Tip: Even though you’re off on a fairly short wander, you’ll want to ensure you’re properly packed for your day hike. You can never be too prepared!
Unmissable Short Walks: The Best Day Hikes in the South Island of New Zealand
1. Devils Punchbowl – Arthurs Pass
Located in Arthur’s Pass, the Devil’s Punchbowl/ Hinekakai is about a 2-hour drive from Christchurch heading west. It’s the best place to stop for a stretch between the west and east coast. You can see part of the 131-meter-tall waterfall from the car park but I highly suggest walking the track to the viewing platform.
The start of the track is not hard to find. It is right off the highway on the righthand side (if heading west) and the directions on where to go once you have parked are very clear. The track follows the Bealey River for a short time before going over two bridges and meeting up with a set of stairs. These stairs are built up the side of the canyon which take you to the beautiful viewpoint of the waterfall.
The track takes 40-60 minutes round trip. It is free, no permits are required but dogs and bikes are not allowed.
How to get there: The track is located in Arthurs’ Pass (northern end) on SH73. It is signposted from the Punchbowl carpark.
2. Hokitika Gorge – Hokitika/West Coast
A 33 km drive from the township of Hokitika, this spot is well worth a detour while exploring the South Island of New Zealand. The paved road in takes about half an hour with a handful of 90-degree turns. Be sure to watch out for livestock and farm workers as there are a few farms situated right by the road. There is parking but during high peak season it can fill up fast during the day.
With the right weather conditions, the walk through the lush forest takes you to the most beautiful blue and turquoise water. If you think the first viewpoint, which is right at the beginning of the walkway is beautiful, continue for about 10-15 minutes over the swing bridge and down to the rocks on the shore of the river. Unless there has been heavy rainfall, the water is Gatorade blue and, in my opinion, simply stunning.
I have been there when it was rainy and after a few days of rainfall on the West Coast. The water was a bit murky or milky as they say but still had a turquoise colour just not as bright. To get the full-colour effect of the water, we really are at the mercy of Mother Nature. None the less, the views are incredible, and you would be missing out if you didn’t stop.
This is quite a busy spot so be sure to take turns, respect the bridge capacity and bring your bug spray! The sandflies like this spot just as much as us humans!
The Hokitika Gorge really is one of the best day hikes in the South Island of New Zealand!
How to get there: Turn east on Stafford Street which becomes Kaniere Road then into Kaniere- Kowhitirangi Road. That road will turn sharply left then right. Follow the road, left on Johnston Road, right onto Nielson Road and left on Whitecombe Valley Road. There are signs to direct you.
Related: The best things to do in Hokitika.
3. Lake Matheson – Fox Township
Lake Matheson is one of the most photographed lakes in the South Island of New Zealand and is a peaceful slice of paradise with jaw-dropping views! It is very well known for its mirror reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman on the lake. The foliage around the lake is very ‘west coast’ with ancient forest- dense tall rimu, kahikatea trees and large flax bushes.
Unlike many glacial lakes around New Zealand, Lake Matheson is not a bright blue colour. Instead, the water is a dark brown colour because of organic matter leaching from the forest floor. If you look close enough, you can sometimes find long-finned native eels swimming around.
There are many spots to stop and take in the views. The short option is to the first jetty. It’s a 40-minute return walk on an assisted wheelchair-accessible path. The longer option is to do the entire circuit which takes about an hour and a half to go all the way around. This path though does take you to the iconic photo spot. If you’re able, it is well worth the walk around and if you can do get out as early in the morning as possible or close to sunset, you’ll have a better chance of catching those beautiful reflections.
How to get there: At Fox Glacier, turn onto Cook Flat Road. Follow the road for 5 km and then turn right to Lake Matheson. Signs will be posted.
4. Blue Pools – Makarora
Prepare yourself to see some of the most glorious unbelievable water you may ever see! It’s like the Hokitika Gorge and then some. The walk to what they call the ‘blue pools’ leads you to some of the clearest and bluest water in the entire country. When the Makaroa river is flowing right it is common to have calm water where you can see right down to the bottom despite it being quite deep.
The blue pools track is an hour return walk through native beech forest to a couple of swing bridges, one of which is directly above the infamous pools. The path is well-formed and easy to walk. You won’t want to forget your bug spray though as they are always out in full force but 150% worth the annoyance.
There isn’t a lot of parking space so be very cautious when pulling over and finding a spot to park as the walk starts right on the side of the highway. There are signs prompting you that the blue pools walk is coming up and with all the activity it would be hard to miss.
How to get there: The walk is located off the Haast Highway (SH6). 1 hour north of Wanaka and 1 hour south of Haast. Whilst you’re in the area, we suggest checking out these amazing Wānaka hikes too!
5. Tasman Glacier – Aoraki/Mt Cook
One of my favourite short walks in New Zealand I have ever down is the Tasman Glacier walk. There are two walks you can do to see the glacier and the lake. The main one is about a 15-minute walk, up stairs and gives you expansive views of Tasman Lake and the Tasman glacier. It took my brain a few minutes to comprehend the sheer size of everything, then another few after remembering that the glacier should be even larger. Sadly, with climate change, it has receded quite a bit in the last few decades.
The other walkway goes down to the river and you have a view from below rather than up above. The floating icebergs are in better view from this spot and you get a good size of the scale of them.
If you’re up for it, do both! It’s absolutely beautiful and such a cool part of New Zealand’s landscape to see!
How to get there: Head towards Mt Cook Village from SH8. Turn off onto Tasman Valley Road and follow the road for 7km to the car park.
Related: The best walks in Mount Cook.
Related: Things to do in Mount Cook National Park.
Related: Where to stay in Mt Cook.
Related: The best things to do in nearby Tekapo.
Related: Where to stay in Tekapo.
With so many incredible short hikes available in the South Island of New Zealand, remarkable scenery is accessible to all travellers.
We really encourage you to plan plenty of time in your itinerary; that way you’ll be able to enjoy this amazing day walks at a leisurely pace.
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Photo credit: Tourism New Zealand.
Guest post by Lauren Korstrom