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5 Fantastic South Island Day Hike Views

New Zealand is one of the most naturally stunning places I’ve ever been to, especially because it has so many varied landscapes crammed into such a small area. Within a few hours, you can go from the beach to a rainforest…that has a glacier in the middle of it.

It seems like there is a lookout around every corner to allow you to take in these views, but I often felt like it was the ones I had to work a little bit for that were the most rewarding. And while New Zealand does have many backcountry tracks that I would highly recommend, you don’t have to go that far bush to get a view that you’ve worked for; many places are accessible via a short day hike.

These are my five favourite locations that took an hour or less (one way) to reach by foot.

Key Summit

The Key Summit

The Key Summit on the Routeburn Track in Fiordland.

The Key Summit is part of the 32km-long Routeburn Track, but it can be accessed as an easy day walk from The Divide, which is western terminus of the track on the Milford Road. The Routeburn Track itself between The Divide and the turnoff for the Key Summit can be quite muddy (and often you can’t avoid slogging through the mud), so I would recommend wearing sturdy hiking boots or trail runners and pants that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty!  The ascent to the summit is not too steeply uphill and only requires average fitness.

I know I’ve included it in this post, but it will probably take about 1h15m or 1h30m to make it to the summit (but it’s just too good not to include)!

The view from the top is worth every footstep. Mountain ranges arch in every direction and are reflected by conveniently placed pools. The Hollyford Valley snakes to the west towards the Tasman Sea while the Greenstone and Eglinton Valleys stretch towards the east and south respectively. In fact, the Key Summit itself is on the continental divide, but unlike, say, the continental divide in the US, this is a triple continental divide — and how often have you stood on one of those?!

For more information on walking the Routeburn Track, check out:

Kaikoura Peninsula

Kaikoura Peninsula

The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway in Canterbury.

Often, visitors to Kaikoura (a 2 hour drive north of Christchurch) spend the majority of their time on the water…and why not? You can spend the morning swimming with dolphins and then jump on another boat to watch whales in the afternoon. Not enough? You can spend more time in the water with inquisitive seals or stay dry watching gigantic albatrosses sail past on the wind.

One of the best ways to take in Kaikoura, though, is by walking the coastal track around the Kaikoura peninsula. There were so many things that struck me most about this track. First of all, the seal colony was great fun to walk around…although you really need to watch your feet, because I very nearly tripped over a seal when I was scanning for them further afield! I also found it intriguing that the landscape here was so parched; the hills were a golden brown colour that would never be seen on the West Coast. What a contrast this was against the dazzling blue of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged peaks of the Kaikoura Ranges to the north.

For more information on walking the Kaikoura peninsula and getting to Kaikoura, check out:

Wharariki Beach

Wharariki Beach

Wharariki Beach, near Farewell Spit in the northeast of the South Island.

This trail, in the northwestern corner of the South Island, starts out feeling like you are in a stereotypical New Zealand landscape, surrounded in rolling green hills that echo with the “baaa”s of the locals.

After about half an hour, you’ll be thinking, “Surely there is no beach around here. We’re in the middle of farmland.” If you’re me, you’ll be thinking, “Should I have really gotten in the car with a girl I barely know and a random guy from the hostel? Are we really going where he says?” Then you’ll turn the last corner and the green will be wiped away by the glittery white of sand dunes, from which walls of sand are being picked up and thrown over the cliffs that punctuate them.  The massive rock formations that lie just off the coast draw the eye and it’s hard not to be struck by the general “otherworldliness” of the windswept landscape.

Once on the beach, there are endless little caverns in the rock to explore…and plenty of seals sunning themselves on the rocks to pose for photos!

For more information on Wharariki Beach, check out:

Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier on the West Coast.

If you’ve been in any gift shop in New Zealand, you’ve seen the view from Lake Matheson. A glassy lake perfectly reflects the two tallest peaks in the Southern Alps (Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman). On the right day, it’s perfection.

Being there on the right day is the key though. As I’ve noted before, it’s pretty easy to get there and find that the entire view is clouded over…and while the lake is nice, it’s the view that makes it postcard-perfect. I recommend going early in the morning as clouds often form in the afternoon on the West Coast…and plus, you may get a lovely mist hanging over the lake for added effect as well!

The car park for the lake is 6km away from Fox Glacier township, so it’s an easy drive (or bike ride — the Ivory Towers hostel rents them out). From there, it’s an easy (and flat) 30 to 45 minute walk around the lake to get to the best viewing platform, which will hopefully have a bit of space on it for you to squeeze in and snap some photos!

For more information on Lake Matheson, check out:

Queen Charlotte Sound

Marlborough Sounds

Queen Charlotte Sound in the Marlborough Sounds

Anyone that has been on the Interislander Ferry can attest to the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds. Here, little fingers of land with hills for knuckles stick out into the Cook Strait.

While the ferry is a great way to see the sounds, I really enjoyed seeing them from a different perspective — that is, from above. I spent seven days and six nights in and around the sounds and never did get sick of them (although I did get sick of my backpack, as the Queen Charlotte Track was the first major tramp I did in NZ)!

You don’t have to hike all 71km of the track to get these views though. This track is actually one of the best serviced tracks in NZ due to its proximity to water; therefore, there are many different day trip options because boats can drop and pick you up at so many places along the track. I recommend going from Ship Cove, where you can see relics of Captain Cook’s landing in the 1700s, to Resolution Bay, which is roughly a 2-hour walk. This does require a reasonable level of fitness because the first hour is a pretty steep climb. This view is doubly as good because you’ve worked for it…and you know that it’s all downhill from there!

For more information on the Queen Charlotte Track, please check out:


By no means do I think this is the definitive list of good day walks in New Zealand. In fact, I’m sure that as soon as I hit publish, I’ll think of more! What is your favourite day walk or view you’ve had to work for in New Zealand?

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