New Zealand Mountains: The Complete Guide 2020

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As a geologically active and historically volcanic country, New Zealand has plenty of intriguing mountain landscapes. Between them, New Zealand mountains contain some of the country’s most stunning scenery and most rewarding outdoor experiences, so whether mountaineering, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, swimming or wildlife-watching, New Zealand mountains offer a range of unforgettable activities for thrill-seekers and families alike. Here’s our quick outline of some of New Zealand’s most important or popular mountains. It includes where they are, when to visit, and what to do there.

Major New Zealand mountains

Major New Zealand Mountains

Aoraki/Mount Cook

New Zealand’s highest mountain is home to world-class hiking and mountaineering, as well as rich flora and fauna and a fascinating visitor’s centre detailing the history of mountain-climbing, both in New Zealand and around the world.

How to get there: Buses between Christchurch and Queenstown pass via the Mount Cook viewpoint and turnoff, between Tekapo and Twizel in the central South Island.

Mount Tasman

New Zealand’s second-highest mountain offers a challenging ascent for even the most experienced climbers. It’s an incredibly rewarding, but experts-only option.

How to get there: Road access is extremely limited, and getting to Mount Cook first then going from there is the easiest option.

The Kaikoura Ranges

Diversity abounds on this beautiful stretch of the South Island, encapsulating world-class wildlife watching, kayaking, rafting, and hiking.

How to get there: The Kaikoura Ranges begin just a short drive north of Christchurch up State Highway 1, and they run until the lower Marlborough region near Blenheim and Picton. Coming from the North Island, it’s just a short drive from the Picton ferry terminal.

Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku

New Zealand’s highest peak outside of the Southern Alps can be seen from all around the Marlborough region, from as far south as Christchurch, and from as far north as Wellington and Taranaki on a clear day. It is sacred in local Maori folklore.

How to get there: A 4-hour drive from Christchurch, or 2-3 hours from Blenheim.

Mount Taranaki

Something of a Lone Ranger in terms of high mountains in the bottom half of the North Island, Mount Taranaki makes up for its scarcity of alpine neighbours by offering up a smorgasbord of fabulous hiking and climbing trails, which criss-cross their way up New Zealand’s most perfectly formed volcanic peak.

How to get there: New Plymouth is the main city in the Taranaki region and biggest centre near Egmont Village, which is the service town nearest Mount Taranaki. New Plymouth is about a 5-hour drive from Wellington, or 4 hours from Hamilton.

Mount Aspiring National Park

As well as proximity to New Zealand’s best ski resorts, this huge national park and its eponymous peak offer amazing hiking trails and some of New Zealand’s most beloved multi-day tramping tracks.

How to get there: The easiest access to Mount Aspiring National Park is from Wanaka, which is just under an hour's drive from Queenstown, or a 4-5 hour drive from Christchurch. Regular buses run from either direction.

Tongariro National Park and World Heritage Site

The three mountains making up Tongariro National Park showcase otherworldly volcanic landscapes, Hollywood backdrops, world-class skiing, challenging mountaineering, and one of the world’s best half-day hikes.

Mount Tongariro

Home to the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the northernmost of Tongariro National Park’s three volcanoes has arguably the best views of all.

Mount Ngauruhoe

Instantly recognisable around the world as Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this eye-catching mountain is sacred land for local Maori and rich in cultural heritage.

Mount Ruapehu

An imposing trek to its volcanic crater, a unique Sky Waka gondola experience, and two world-class ski fields on its slopes make the North Island’s highest mountain one of its most attractive for visiting sight-seers and active travellers.

How to get there: Located in the central North Island, just an hour and a half drive from Taupo, or 4 hours from Auckland down State Highway 4.

Mount Tutoko

The highest peak in Fiordland National Park rewards those hardy enough to tackle its rainforest-shrouded ascent with incredible views over the West Coast, the Southern Alps, and the Tasman Sea.

How to get there: Access to Mount Tutoko is limited, although it’s easy to reach other parts of Fiordland National Park by road from Te Anau, roughly 2 hours' drive from Queenstown or Invercargill.

When to visit New Zealand mountains

When Visit New Zealand Mountains

Summer on New Zealand mountains

Between December and April is the hottest and best period of the year for any watersports at New Zealand mountains, including kayaking, swimming, rafting and canoeing. Summer is a popular time for alpine hikes and multi-day walks, too. However, bear in mind that New Zealand’s Ozone protection is lower than anywhere else in the world, and the sun is intense all around the country. You can get severe sunburn and sunstroke if exposed to the sun for long periods — especially in the mountains, where the combination of high altitude and reflective snow makes the sun’s damage even more dangerous. Be sure you have necessary gear and equipment in these cases, including clothing that covers the skin, powerful sunblock, UV-protected sunglasses and plenty of water.

New Zealand mountains in Spring

Retreating snow reveals budding alpine flowers that bloom into a colourful canopy on mountain meadows, and the warmer but not-too-hot temperatures make springtime a popular time for hiking and tramping in New Zealand mountains. However, the melting snow is a double-edged sword when it comes to activities in New Zealand mountains, as this is when the risk of serious avalanches is at its highest. Even for the most experienced climbers and alpine trekkers, it’s essential to evaluate and assess the avalanche risk if you are planning on skiing, climbing, or walking in backcountry areas prone to avalanches. The New Zealand Avalanche Advisory and Mountain Safety Council can help assess the risk wherever you plan to go.

Autumn weather in New Zealand mountains

If you don't mind a bit of rain, the end of summer ushers in a good walking and climbing season around Easter, with mild temperatures without the same intense heat as peak summer. It’s also a quieter time for tourism, with fewer people on the tracks, trails, and climbs. Expect some rain on hikes and tramps, but it’s still a gentle time for family-friendly kayaking and canoeing compared with the high rivers that follow snow melts in late winter and spring.

Visiting New Zealand mountains during Winter

Between the months of July and October, New Zealand’s alpine peaks are draped in snow often down to ground level, commonly backed by clear blue skies and crisp, cold days. This makes for beautiful photographic backdrops and undoubtedly the best time to go skiing, whether in the North or South Island. However, weather can change quickly in the mountains, and a bright, clear day can quickly turn into a dangerous, wet and cold situation in a remote location. Anybody planning mountain activities during winter should be well aware of the risks, prepare appropriately, and check the weather forecast specific to the area you’ll be visiting. The New Zealand MET Service is a reliable source of mountain weather updates and locally specific forecasts.

New Zealand mountains: What to do there

New Zealand mountains are world-class destinations for a number of active outdoor adventures and family-friendly activities.

Kayaking in New Zealand mountain regions

Kayaking New Zealand Mountains

Kaikoura Ranges

At the feet of the Seaward Kaikoura Range, the Kaikoura coastline provides one of the most superb backdrops for kayaking you can imagine. Head out onto the Pacific Ocean to spot local wildlife on the Kaikoura Seal Kayak Tour, looking back up at beautiful forest and bushland framed by the stunning snowy line-up of the Inland Kaikoura Range.

Marlborough

If visiting Mt. Tapuae-o-Uenuku or Rainbow Ski Area, the Hobbit Kayak Tour from Pelorus Eco Adventures is just a short drive away. This family-friendly kayak tour down one of New Zealand’s most beautiful rivers can be done by anybody ages 4 and up, with no experience necessary. It passes down a stretch of river used in the filming of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook

For a unique experience, take a guided kayaking tour between the icebergs around Aoraki/Mt. Cook's glacial lake, with breathtaking views onto New Zealand's highest peak as a constant backdrop. Tours depart from the Old Mountaineers Cafe in Mount Cook village, and they provide all the gear you need to keep warm and keep safe for all ages and abilities, so you don't need to worry about being underprepared.

Hiking in New Zealand mountains

Hiking New Zealand Mountains

Mt. Aspiring

Tackle the challengingly steep ascent up Mt. Brewster through lush beech forest, hike past 600ft waterfalls on the 5-hour return walk to Rob Roy Glacier, trek along the West Matukiki Valley river flats on an easy, family-friendly 2-hour walk to Aspiring Hut, or drive to Makarora and take the kids on a short bush walk and over two swing bridges overlooking the gorgeous Blue Pools, a great summer swimming spot!

Mt. Tongariro

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Consistently ranked among the world’s very best day hikes, the 19km Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the easiest way to get a taste of Tongariro National Park in limited time. Passing from meadows through otherworldly volcanic landscapes and tranquil lakes with stunning panoramas at every turn, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing should take about 5-6 hours to complete and is fairly moderate in terms of difficulty.

Mt. Taranaki

A large network of fantastic walking tracks around Mt. Taranaki includes everything from the 15-minute Kamahi Track walk to a three-day bush walk around the Pouakai Circuit. The Dawson Falls area has a number of rewarding trails, like the gentle walk to Wilkies Pools, a series of connected rock pools joined by gentle waterfalls.

Mt. Tapuae-o-Uenuku

The 3-day hike across Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku is Marlborough's most demanding hike, with plenty of challenges, narrow tracks, and steep ascents not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted. However, hikers are rewarded by outstanding views in a stunning, remote region that most visitors to New Zealand (or even Marlborough) don't get to see.

Mountaineering and mountain climbing in New Zealand

Mountaneering New Zealand Mountains

The weather can change incredibly quickly in New Zealand mountains, and only seasoned or serious mountaineers should attempt most climbs. For more information on mountain climbing in New Zealand, visit the Mountain Safety Council website.

If you think you’re up to the challenge, here are some popular mountaineering and mountain climbing locations in New Zealand:

The Southern Alps

Only the hardiest of mountaineers should attempt scaling New Zealand’s highest peaks — but those who do will be well rewarded. Mighty Mt. Tasman is a serious climb, offering at least as many challenges and intriguing routes as its more famous big brother and neighbour, Mt. Cook. The altitude may not seem high by international standards, but unique microclimates, changeable weather systems and the remoteness of some areas of the Southern Alps makes climbing here much more dangerous than many assume. However, provided you take the proper precautions, have the appropriate gear, and inform local authorities where you are, they could provide the climb of a lifetime.

Mt. Ruapehu

Hiking up to Ruapehu’s volcanic crater summit offers a different way of seeing the area than the ski fields and Sky Waka experiences provide. It’s a daunting but doable climb for even beginner mountaineers, and a good introduction to climbing in New Zealand.

Mt. Taranaki

Although the view of its snow-fringed, gigantic volcanic crater peak from afar is more iconic, the view from the top of Mt. Taranaki is the definition of unspoilt — since it’s the only significant mountain peak for a large area. The 1.6km uphill climb from North Egmont (946m altitude) to the summit (2,518m) can be done up and down in one long (12 hour) day if you start early; or it can be split into two or more days by staying at Tahurangi Lodge (1,492m).

Mt. Tutoko

While Fiordland isn’t usually associated with mountain-climbing, its highest peak is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Although Mitre Peak in Milford Sound is much more photographed, it’s actually the much higher, snow-covered Mt. Tutoko that takes the mantle of highest mountain in Fiordland at 2,723m. There are 13 different routes up to the summit tackling a number of different faces and ridges — including the imposing glacial South Face, which traces the Age Glacier.

Skiing and snowboarding

Skying New Zealand Mountains

Mt. Ruapehu

Two fabulous ski resorts wrap around the slopes of Mt. Ruapehu, Whakapapa and Turoa. Both offer a wide range of beginner, intermediate and advanced slopes, as well as on-site facilities like daycare, ski hire, and restaurants.

Mt. Aspiring and the Southern Alps

For serious powder hounds, the central South Island is a haven of untouched slopes and high-altitude terrain just waiting to be explored. A number of heli-ski operators are based in Central Otago and Mount Cook, providing everything from enjoying gentle private slopes with a picnic lunch to hitting hard-core back-country skiing after a fresh dumping of powder. Visitors to Wanaka shouldn’t miss hitting the world-class resports of Cardrona and Treble Cone, either.

Nelson and Marlborough

Not far from Mt. Tapuae-o-Uenuku, Havelock, Nelson and Blenheim at the tip of the South Island, Rainbow Ski Area is an 1800m-altitude ski field with a terrain park, snow makers, cafe, ski rental and a good number of intermediate and beginner trails, plus a few high powder runs and chutes for experts.

Scenic flights over New Zealand mountains

Flight above New Zealand Mountains

Aoraki/Mt. Cook

Multiple companies offer a wide range of scenic helicopter or light aeroplane tours over the Southern Alps, taking in unforgettable close-up views onto Aoraki/Mt. Cook, Mt. Tasman, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, and other mighty behemoths of the Southern Alps.

Mt. Ruapehu

Ride the family-friendly Sky Waka gondola up the North Island’s highest mountain for sensational views over the entire region. This is a great option for families with little ones or for people with limited mobility to enjoy some stunning high-altitude panoramas.

A final word about New Zealand mountains

Eating New Zealand Mountains

Whatever you plan to do at New Zealand mountains, remember to respect the weather and conditions at all times, and be well aware of what you’re getting yourself into. As long as you do that, then New Zealand mountains offer some truly unforgettable experiences!

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