Day walks in Tongariro National Park. © Thomas Schweighofer

Off-the-beaten-track day walks

View the map


With the increase in our country’s population, growing tourism numbers, endless bucket lists and Lonely Planet must-dos, it can be harder and harder trying to get off the beaten trail and away from the crowds. To find a unique space that allows for solitude.

Despite how hard you try, you are unlikely to find somewhere that no one has already been to before. But that doesn’t mean that your personal sense of discovery is lost.

Going somewhere you haven’t been previously – and somewhere that is not so obvious – can still feel like you are creating first footprints in the sand, pushing a bit further through untracked bush or following a hard-to-find river back to its source.

There’s a lot to be said for a brightly coloured top in an outdoors photo. What a shot! #MakeItHomeNZ 🏠🏔🏠 —- 📷 @kmexplores | @liveslifeoutside ... “Early mornings are a breeze when you get to wake up, step outside and have beautiful mountains like these at your doorstep. Angelus Hut was on my list for a while, but weather always shut down my multiple attempts. Finally I had the opportunity and although I didn't get a sunrise I envisioned in the Angelus Basin, exploring a few hundred meters more gave me this jaw-dropping view over the valley with a cloud inversion. Such a fantastic morning I'll remember forever.” . . #NZ#nzmustdo#adventure#mountains#wild#getoutdoors#nature#hike#travelphotography#GetOutside#explorenz#igtravel#adventuretravel#greatotdoors#lonelyplanet#naturegram#lifeofadventure#instatravel#passionpassport#beautifuldestinations#keepitwild#simplyadventure#wildernessculture#lifeofadventure#liveoutdoors#roamtheplanet#gottalovenz#campermate#tripadvisor

A post shared by Mountain Safety Council (@mountainsafetycouncil) on Apr 26, 2018 at 11:20pm PDT

I love the feeling of uncovering another hidden gem in our landscape. In New Zealand, we are blessed with such a varied and still largely unpopulated countryside, that opportunities exist almost everywhere.

All you require is a map, some sturdy footwear and a strong sense of exploration.

I grew up near the coast in Northland. Actually, pretty much most places in Northland are near the coast. My brothers and I were lucky that our parents had a passion for the outdoors – fishing, diving, swimming, hunting, surfing – and they encouraged us from an early age. As Glen, Steve and I got older, our need for adventure increased. We explored difficult to reach coves, scrambled around and over sea cliffs. Swam as far into hidden clefts as we could, where ocean swells surged in and out. The ubiquitous shortcut became anything but. My brothers grew used to me saying, ‘Let’s go back that way'. 

This sense of exploration and discovery has stayed with me through the decades. Sometimes, my adventures require more planning and take longer.

They may take me overseas, or place me in situations that require technical skills and constant decisions about risk. But the essence is the same. I want to be challenged. I want to find a new, wondrous place, or experience something unexpected.

I want to see what the view is like from a certain high point. All of these things have become a core part of my life.

Regardless of how adventurous you wish to be, finding a new place to explore requires only imagination and a will to give it a go. A planned ‘mission’ to somewhere new may not uncover anything interesting. But that is also a part of exploration and discovery: If you don’t try you’ll never know.

And then, just maybe, the trip you’ve wondered about – even if just a few hours in length and not far from your doorstep – turns out to be one of the best things you have ever experienced. This moment is to know the joyous discoveries that our land holds in store for us. The only downside – as I see it – is not to have an enquiring mind. Not to wonder. Not to give it a go. 

Five off-the-beaten-track day adventures

1. Kauri Mountain to Ocean Beach, Northland

Ocean Beach, Whangārei

Ocean Beach, Whangārei. © Russell Street Creative Commons 

This long stretch of white-sand beach is not a particularly challenging ‘mission’, but the walk is along a beautiful stretch of Northland coastline and offers constantly stunning views towards Whangārei Heads. It will only take a couple of hours in one direction, but you’ll either have to organise a car swap with someone else or walk back as well. For an even fuller (possibly overnight) experience, carry on along a bush track from Ocean Beach (Te Whara Track) over Bream Head to Urquharts Bay (another five to six hours).

2. Mercer Bay, Auckland

Mercer Bay West Auckland

Mercer Bay on Auckland's west coast is found between Piha and Karekare.  © Oliver Strewe

Surprisingly, especially being so close to our largest city, this is a little known and highly rewarding spot between Piha Beach and Karekare. To get there, drive past Karekare and look out for the Te Ahuahu turnoff. Be warned: Getting to the bay is not for the faint-hearted. It requires scrambling down a cliff, at times using sturdy ropes that have been left permanently. But the long descent is more than worth it. At the bottom, you are rewarded with a secluded beach and the most awesome sea caves in the area. Make sure you go at low tide to ensure access the largest cave.

3. Ruahine, Wellington

Ruahine valley

Looking down on the Ruahine Dress Circle. © Henry Burrows Creative Commons

The Ruahine Range north of Wellington is justifiably popular with trampers, mountain runners and hunters. Finding a quiet corner may not be easy, especially in summer, but the Knights-Shorts track full day loop (eight to 10 hours) might just be an option. The high point is the Toka Trig on the Ngāmoko Range of the Ruahines, and then returning via the tops and back to the start. There are great views of the volcanoes to the north. You can camp at Coal Creek an hour from the car park and there is also a shelter on the tops. Because this track is in the open for a fair amount of time, it is advisable to only do it in fine weather. Check with DOC for updated conditions.

4. Sawcut Gorge, Marlborough

Sawcut Gorge, Marlborough

Sawcut Gorge, Isolated Hill Scenic Reserve. © Shellie Creative Commons

Sawcut Gorge in the Ure Valley is a spectacular and remote spot, where a river has cut a two-metre-wide path through cliffs reaching above you up to 150m. To get to the walk, drive south on SH1 to the Ure Valley then follow a gravel road up to Blue Mountain Station (Check the DOC website for more details). From there you walk up a riverbed, following orange triangles, then turn off the river to meet Isolated Creek. It’s another 30 minutes to Sawcut Gorge. Much of the rock here is stark white limestone, interspersed with grey wedges of argillite, sandstone and mudstone. Several pools along Isolated Creek smell distinctly of sulphur. Be aware that water levels and rock fall can make this walk hazardous but, in good conditions, the experience is more than worth getting wet feet for.

5. Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland

Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland

Gertrude Saddle Fiordland. © Sara Larcombe Creative Commons

Hiking and scrambling up to the view at Gertrude Saddle isn’t really off the beaten track (being on the list for adventurous tourists). But, surprisingly, not that many Kiwis have done it. Starting near Homer Tunnel on the way to Milford Sound, a track leads up the Gertrude Valley, beneath towering granite mountains, and then up scree slopes to a series of broad, polished rock terraces. Where it gets steep, there is a wire to hold on to, providing Dutch courage, and then carry on up to the saddle above you. This requires a bit of height gain (two to three hours to the saddle), but the view down the other side to Milford Sound is simply gobsmacking. This should only be done in summer and autumn when all snow has melted away, and DOC will be able to provide advice and track conditions.  

Explore more...

Be the first to comment on this page. You cannot post comments until you have logged in. Please log in or register if you don't have an account.

More stories like this

Find out more

Things to do

Cathedral Cove Walk

Enjoy spectacular coastal scenery from this track that leads down to Gemstone and Stingray bays as well as Cathedral Cove, probably the Coromandel’s most popular destination beach.  Read the story . . . 

Find out more


Get outside: 14 must-do short walks

New Zealand is blessed with so many beautiful and varied landscapes. Often the best way to discover them is on foot.  Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Natural attractions

Key Summit Track on the Routeburn Track

Enjoy panoramic views over Fiordland mountains and alpine lakes plus native vegetation and birdlife on this fantastic, easy half-day walk on the Routeburn Track from the Milford Road. Read the story . . . 

Find out more

Things to do

The not-so-distant summit: day hikes to mountain tops

Mountain climbing doesn’t just have to be for the experienced or those inclined to take risks. There are plenty of spectacular summits in New Zealand that can be reached with little more than the right provisions, a propensity for physical exercise and common sense. Read the story . . . 

Where to stay in

AA Members receive additional discounts on selected accommodation and packages.

AA Members
Book now
Non Members
Book now