4 Top Outdoor Adventures in New Zealand

By Michael Lanza

Have you adventured in New Zealand yet? If not, then why not? Some of my all-time favorite assignments for Backpacker magazine have involved trekking and paddling on this island nation with an amazing bounty of natural beauty and a outdoors-loving culture to match it.

This is the time of year to start planning a visit during the upcoming austral summer; for many trips, you need to make travel arrangements and hut reservations months in advance. I’ve listed below a series of five-star, multi-sport adventures that could fill a two-week (or longer) visit to New Zealand. This itinerary includes dayhiking volcanoes, canoeing a wild river, a hut trek in the Southern Alps, and sea kayaking a remote fjord in the country’s largest national park. Click on the links (or any photo) to read the complete story about each trip.

Get on it, mate.


A hiker on the rim of Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park.
A hiker on the rim of Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park.

Super Volcanoes: Hiking the Steaming Peaks of Tongariro National Park

Having explored some of the most fascinating landscapes in the world that were born of volcanic activity—Yellowstone, Iceland’s Landmannalaugar, Mt. St. Helens, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon—I have to put Tongariro, on New Zealand’s North Island, right up there with the best of them. I hiked to the rim of one volcano there, Mt. Ngauruhoe, that erupted 45 times in the 20th century, and had a bird’s-eye view of another, Mt. Ruapehu, that ranks among the world’s most active volcanoes. The colors in this stark, nearly barren environment defy description; check out the photos in the story linked above.


Canoeing the Whanganui River, North Island.
Canoeing the Whanganui River, North Island.

River of Many Stories: Canoeing the Whanganui River, North Island

As soon as you dip a paddle into the Whanganui River, you begin to understand why the country’s native Maori people believe that every bend in this stunning waterway had a mauri, or “life force.” Paddle for three days or five days down this unbroken gorge of sheer sandstone and mudstone cliffs soaring up to 200 feet straight out of the water and draped with jungle-like foliage in infinite hues of green, where ribbon waterfalls pour in straight, pencil-thin lines down the walls. You may discover your own life force.


Dart River, Dart Hut, Rees-Dart Track
The Dart River, above the Dart Hut on the Rees-Dart Track.

Off the Beaten Track: Trekking the Rees-Dart in Mt. Aspiring National Park

Although just spitting distance from the world-famous and enormously popular Routeburn Track, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the hordes of international trekkers. Yet, it has scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template: golden grasslands, roaring waterfalls, glaciers and whitewater rivers, and lush and otherworldly forests of moss-draped, twisted beech trees. And incredibly, my companion and I found ourselves walking most of each day without any other hikers around.


Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park
Kayakers in Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park.

Into the Mystic: Sea Kayaking Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s largest national park, Fiordland, sprawls over nearly three million acres of the southwest corner of the South Island—an area as large as Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined. It’s home to another world-famous hike, the Milford Track, and other worthy adventures that are relatively accessible. But deep in Fiordland’s wilderness lies Doubtful Sound, a 30-mile-long fjord where cliffs rise straight up out of the sea to 4,000-foot summits—sheer, Yosemite-like granite walls improbably sprouting a vertical jungle of podocarp trees and other indigenous vegetation, thanks to upwards of 23 feet of rain annually. On an overnight sea kayaking trip around upper Doubtful Sound, I saw native crested penguins and paddled on an often mirror-flat sea reflecting soaring cliffs choked in rainforest.




Gear Review: Osprey Zip 25 Kids Daypack

A Matter of Perspective: A Father-Daughter Hike in the Grand Canyon


Leave a Comment

6 thoughts on “4 Top Outdoor Adventures in New Zealand”

  1. Hi Wayne, I’ve heard that sentiment before, more often in response to articles I’ve written for Backpacker magazine. In my experience, other factors have a much greater impact on the popularity of a hike or outdoor destination than whether there was a recent magazine or blog article. The biggest factors are how hard it is to get to the place–if it’s physically demanding or far from major population centers, you won’t see a lot of people–and whether it’s a national park, which are always popular.

    That said, you can avoid crowds even on the most popular trails by avoiding the times that most people go there. For instance, I’ve hiked the Mist Trail and Half Dome in Yosemite when there wasn’t anyone else around just by starting early in the morning (a beautiful time of day when you’re also going to get better light for photos and see more wildlife).

    As for my Tongariro story, as I point out in the trip-planning suggestions under Make It Happen, the vast majority of dayhikers arrive on buses between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., resulting in a huge pulse of people on the traditional Tongariro Crossing route right after those buses roll in. So either start the hike by 7 a.m. or after 9 a.m.; we did the latter and saw just a few other hikers all day.

    You are fortunate to live in a beautiful country. I look forward to visiting again. The many people who visit New Zealand annually support a tourism industry that has a significant, positive impact on your national economy, so I think there are many more benefits than drawbacks to living in such a wonderful place. Enjoy.

  2. We have been there and to me it is like going to Alaska and Hawaii in one trip. It is the greatest travel destination in the world.

    • just remember, there is no shortage of trails to do in NZ,, do some homework and you can find some hidden gems of your own.. be prepared for rough tracks that may require navigaton skills and bad weather any time of the year

  3. i’m a new zealander
    i wish people wouldnt run these stories, lost count of how many articles talk about the same trips in nz, result they get overrun with people and stop being such great walks,
    tongariro crossing gets up to a thousand people a day on it… so if thats not your thing, find your own track and don’t rely on these articles that are ruining our best places with crowds of people…