Trail running Kiwi style: A week in summer on New Zealand’s South Island

Variety describes both the weather and the trails in New Zealand. In one day, the temperatures in the summer (December through February), can vary from 7 to 23 degrees Celsius. That means for us Yanks, 40s to upper 70s. What may start as a rain-soaked, cloudy morning, can turn into a bright, sunny afternoon with a mixture of wind, fog, and breaks of blue sky throughout the day. Even when it is raining, if you are in a heavily forested area, the tree canopy often catches the raindrops well before they reach the ground.

The trails, or the preferred term of “tracks,” can be described with terms like awe-inspiring, rugged, challenging, flat, undulating, rocky, rooted, single track, packed dirt, and over-the-top breathtaking.

The people you’ll meet on the trails are friendly, multi-cultural, and of all ages and abilities. It is not uncommon to stand atop a summit and hear four or five different languages, nor is it surprising to see babies strapped in a carrier on their parent’s back alongside a 70-plus year old briskly walking with the added momentum afforded by a quality set of hiking poles.

There are no snakes, and no predatory animals. Birds, crickets, and waterfalls may be the only sounds you’ll hear, and daylight lasts for nearly 14 hours in February.

Have you been convinced to book your trip to Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud? If so, consider these tips for your adventure:

  • Flight: It’s a long way to travel for a week, especially when you cross over the International Date Line and lose a day immediately. Flights aren’t cheap, so shop around and know that you’ll probably have to transfer from the major hub of Auckland, or perhaps Christ Church, depending on your final destination.
  • Car: Rent a car with automatic transmission. It’s way easier to get around on your own time, rather than relying on buses, or hitchhiking. The auto transmission is a good idea so you just have to concentrate on staying on the left side of the road, rather than coordinating a new shifting routine at the same time. Gas is expensive and some gas stations, especially the self-serve variety, require a pin with your credit card. Common for Aussies and Kiwis, not so common for Americans. Exchange some cash so you’ll have two options for payment.
  • Lodging: Book in advance to insure you’ll have a place to stay, or consider renting a camper van. Tent camping is also an option, but you’ll probably get rain on more than one occasion.
  • Venues: Focus on a few areas, study the routes, and plan how long or far you plan to run each day. Typically the trail heads publish an estimated time and distance for each route on signage. The times are for hiking, not for running. Most routes can be halved (or more), even if you stop periodically to take photos.
  • Flexibility: With every trip, be flexible and consider your adventurous side. Sometimes a diversion along a seemingly obscure road leads to an amazing trail, which was not initially on your radar, or not publicized. These hidden gems can be wonderful experiences.
  • Hydration: Water can be safe to drink from higher flowing streams and lakes. Refrain from drinking “fresh water” near sheep, cow, or deer farms.
  • Apparel: Know that the weather can be finicky, and plan for all seasons in your apparel selections. Always carry at least a wind jacket. Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses are a must to counteract the intensity from the depleted ozone layer (which is slowly healing itself). Bring extra dry gear in the car to change into post run, or between runs if doing more than one venue in a day.
  • Footwear: Grippy soles are a good choice for rocky, slippery terrain. Shoes that drain well are advised if numerous creek crossings are part of a route (as well as an extra pair of dry socks). Have at least two pairs of running shoes, or be sure to pick up a local newspaper, roll up in balls, and stuff in your shoes overnight. This helps capture the moisture and the sweaty smell.
  • Maps: For the most part, trails are very well marked, especially the more popular tracks. However, some of the lesser-known trails can be a bit more challenging to navigate if you don’t know what markings to follow. It’s common to have small red or orange triangles affixed to trees to show the way. Be aware that if there is a downed tree on the trail, the marker may not be visible, and if you are color blind, you won’t see the markings at all.
  • Race: Consider planning your trip to include a trail race. This is a great way to have a supported trail experience and be part of an event. If you are doing your trip solo, it’s also a great way to meet other like-minded adventurers.

Below is an overview of my recent week trail running with Salomon pro Anita Ortiz (it’s more fun to go with a like-minded friend, or relative). We decided in advance to have two main hubs – Te Anau for three nights and Queenstown for three nights (I stayed one extra night in Queenstown).

Day One:

Kepler Track – Start at the car park just a few miles from Te Anau town center off SH95 to Golf Course Road. This seven-mile out-and-back route along the lake front through rain forest, included two short bridges over creeks and had 255 feet of elevation gain. The path had great footing with crushed, packed dirt/small rocks and some exposed roots. The full Kepler Track loop is 37 miles, or 60K.

Anita Ortiz on the Kepler Track.

Day Two:

Routeburn Track – Start at the trail head located within a mile after passing Lake Fergus on SH95 just north of Te Anau. Our 6.3 miler included Key Summit and Lake Howden. The trail surface was much like the Kepler in sections, but also had some rocky spots and steps heading to the lake and included single track and double-wide path. The majority of the elevation, some 1200 feet, was to the summit which was an out-and-back route, which returned to the second out-and-back from a turnoff to the lake (another 230+ feet of climbing). The full Routeburn Track is 32K one way.

Anita Ortiz on the Routeburn Track.

Chasm and Milford Sound – Continuing down SH95 toward Milford Sound, a stop at the Chasm Path is a short .5 miler. It’s a cool water feature worth a look and Kea (alpine parrots), are typically in the parking lot, which is signed on the west side of the road. The paths around Milford Sound from the parking lot provide about two miles of running and 270 feet or so of elevation. Paths are crushed dirt/rock and include short paved sections. Spend some time here and consider taking a cruise.

A view of Milford Sound.

Humboldt Falls – Start is on the Lower Holyford Road located off SH95 and includes a bit of a drive on gravel road. This out-and-back on single track through the rain forest is one mile with 255 feet of climbing and includes a waterfall vista at the turn around.

Lake Marian – Also located on Holyford Road, this trail starts on a swinging bridge and is a lovely, single track with lots of rocky sections and a boardwalk. Listen to the sound of the rush water along the route. The out-and-back is 2.4K, but we shortened it to one mile out and back with 270 feet of elevation gain choosing to not go all the way to the lake.

Anita Ortiz on the Lake Marian Trail.

Day Three:

Exploration was the key on this day. Manapouri Circle Track – this 6.9K route was in our initial plans, but we decided against doing it because it required a boat taxi ($10 per person) to get to the trail as well as coordinating a finish pickup time.  We took a few photos in Manapouri and continued on toward Tuatapere so we could enjoy a view at the coastline. (There is actually a great-looking track here which we plan to do on another trip). Enroute, we explored a few trails that weren’t on our radar, but ended up being great choices. The first was Rakatu Wetlands, located about 17K from Manapouri off the Southern Scenic Route. Running all of the trails resulted in 5.5 miles and included about 200 feet of elevation gain. The trails at this nature preserve are mostly double-wide packed dirt/stone and are completely in the open affording amazing views on a clear day.

Anita Ortiz runs along the Rakatu Wetlands.

Lake Monowai/Borland – What started out as a 2.2K loop (the Borland Nature Walk), ended up as a much longer run on the Borland Track along the Waiau River. The trail begged for exploration and the call was answered. Of all the trails we ran, this was the least signed as we followed small orange triangles on trees for the entire route. There were ups and downs with some technical sections and even a swinging bridge. We turned around when we reached a river crossing five miles into the run making this a 10-mile out-and-back with 700 feet of elevation gain. The trail starts on the Borland Road, a turnoff from the Southern Scenic Route about 55K from TeAnau.

Anita Ortiz on the Borland Trail.

Day Four:

Roys Peak – This 10 mile out-and-back is reached from the trail head/car park located 6K from Wanaka township on the Mt Aspiring Road.  Enjoy more than 4000 feet of elevation gain with some short steep grades between 20 and 40 percent along this route. The views are outstanding the entire route, which includes grassy sections, wide dirt trail, and some single track to the summit.

A view from the Roy’s Peak Trail.

Day Five:

Moke Lake – Not far from Queenstown, this route starts at Moke Lake Campground located off Moke Lake Road about 6K after the turnoff on Glenorchy Road, much of which is a gravel road. The four-mile run around the lake has about 400 feet of elevation gain and includes a few boardwalks, single track, outstanding views, and a short section along the gravel road.

Day Six:

Racing was the order of the day with Anita running – and winning the women’s division – of the Shotover Moonlight Marathon, and me placing second woman in the accompanying Skippers Canyon Jet 5K. Both races finished at Moke Lake, with the marathon starting in Skippers Canyon near the Shotover River. The 5K was actually a bit long (just over 6K), with 275 feet of elevation gain and included four creek crossings, single track, gravel road in a horseshoe-shaped route with a start and finish at the Woolshed at Moke Lake.

Nancy Hobbs on race day.

Day Seven:

The full length of the Queenstown Trail is 120K, but can be run in sections of varying distances, which is what we did the day after the race for a five mile out-and-back to town. The portion we ran was along the lake on crushed dirt and rock, and include a short section of pavement. The next two mornings, I ran different sections from the Peninsula Road side of Queenstown. Amazing views throughout.

Queenstown Trail

Day Eight:

Tobins Track – Located in Arrowtown, Tobins Track to the overlook is a 2.75-mile out-and-back (although the route does continue), with 750 feet of climbing, and is accessed at the bridge across Arrow River. On a wide gravel path, the route ascends to an overlook with views of Lake Wakitipu in Queenstown, the surrounding mountains, and Arrowtown.

A view from Tobin’s Track

In summary, a week is not nearly long enough to visit all the cool trails in just these few locations. And, there are so many other places to explore. So, start planning your New Zealand adventure immediately!

Tags: ,