Hikes and Campsites: That’s What the South Island Does

Posted by on Mar 11, 2013 in Featured, New Zealand | 0 comments

Campervanning around New Zealand’s South Island is the experience of a lifetime. Our home on wheels took us to mountains, lakes, beaches, glaciers, and everything else imaginable over 14 days. Every drive was impressively picturesque and every day was uniquely memorable. Along the way, we hiked, went skydiving, explored small towns, etc. And at the end of each day we found ourselves at campsites in the heart of New Zealand’s wild. We felt so happy with mostly all of our decisions throughout our circular tour of the South Island, but there were a handful of hikes and campsites that really stuck out. Below is a brief recap and some pictures on some of the major highlights:
Lake Tekapo – Mt. John Summit and Lakeshore Walk
This was the first hike of our trip and a great way to be introduced to what we were about to experience over the next 14 days. Lake Tekapo (and the town) lie at the base of Mt. John. After a quick 45-minute hike to the top, we were afforded some incredible views of the lake’s aqua blue water and surrounding mountains. We took the Lakeshore Walk on the way down – a 2 hour walk along the backside of Mt. John allowing for more great shots of the lake. 
Mt. Cook National Park – Hooker Valley Trail and Tasman Valley Glacier
Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain on the South Island and it provides a dramatic backdrop to the National Park. There are a number of trails to do in the area, but we ultimately decided on the Hooker Valley trail. Although this trail wasn’t very challenging (you’re essentially walking through the valley between towering mountains), having Mt. Cook visible most of the time was pretty memorable. Two highlights from this 4-hour roundtrip walk were walking across two suspension bridges and reaching Hooker Valley Glacier Lake. The lake is freezing cold with chunks of glacier ice floating on its surface, providing a refreshing relief from the hot sun.
In addition, Tasman Valley Glacier is a short 20-minunte drive away within the same national park. This hike is only about 30 minutes but it rewarded us with direct views of the Tasman Valley Glacier. We were glad to take the extra time to visit the glacier. A posted signed put global warming and glaciers into perspective. Since 1890, the glacier’s length had decreased by five kilometers.
Glenorchy/Kinloch – The Routeburn Track
This was by far our favorite hike. If not for fear of losing daylight we would have traveled further. Routeburn is one of the more renowned tracks in all of New Zealand. To help cross its entire length in the estimated 3-5 days, camping huts are situated throughout. Due to the popularity of this track, these need to be booked months in advance. Instead, we opted for a 5-hour, 18km hike up and back to just beyond the Routeburn Falls Hut, the route’s second campsite. It was a great mix of wooded trail, wide open flats with mountain views, waterfalls, rolling “Lord of the Rings” landscape, and uphill climbs. If we ever make it back to New Zealand, we’ll definitely consider booking the huts and trekking the whole way.
There are so many campsites in New Zealand that it can actually become overwhelming to decide wheree to stay. Some nights it depends on what you’re in the mood for (lakes, mountains, rivers, etc.) and other nights it depends on what you need.  “Holiday Parks” are traditional RV parks where camper vans of all sizes and those in cars traveling with tents, fill up the lot at the tune of $15-$20 per person or more. Hopefully, that charge comes with a nice view, but it also is accompanied with clean bathrooms and hot showers, power and water stations, and sometimes, wireless internet. Although we did stay at a few holiday parks, mainly to power up our camera and other technology, we quickly realized what we preferred -staying at national park or Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites. These places had everything we truly needed: breathtaking scenery, a relaxing atmosphere, and smaller crowds.  It was well worth off roading it in the campervan on the unsealed dirt roads that led to many of these sites.
Lake McGregor
We stumbled upon this campsite after our day hike at Lake Tekapo. After a few anxious minutes on our first dirt road, we pulled up right to the shore of Lake MacGregor and enjoyed our first non-holiday park campsite. Fresh bucket showers and mountain and lake panoramas were well worth the suggested $5 “honor fee”.
Campsite @ Lake McGregor
Mt. Cook National Park
Only pictures can describe this DOC site. Due to it really being the only campsite in the area, it can tend to seem busy with day hikers and campers staying the night. Surrounding mountains quickly turned our attention away from the other visitors.  The star gazing at night was also truly memorable.
Campsite at Mt. Cook

Campsite at Mt. Cook

Unless you’re interested in the famous Routeburn Track mentioned above, there’s a good chance you would never make it up to Kinloch.  Campers must drive an hour and a half from Queenstown and endure a long unsealed road before being rewarded with spectacular lake and mountain views.  We were referred to this remote location by another couple in Chicago and Kinloch provided us with one of our best campsites and invited us to make a last-minute decision on partaking in the Routeburn Track.
Ranker’s Freedom Campsite just south of Motueka
This non DOC, free campsite was a great surprise.  Set next to a vineyard along the Motueka River, this new campsite was beautiful and allowed us to get to know Don, the sites owner (profiled in “People tell the Story”).
Rankers Freedom Camp
Quite possibly our favorite campsite, Totaranui had both beach and hiking within walking distance. This DOC site is at the northernmost entrance to Abel Tasman National Park and includes access to the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Mike at Totaranui
Marfells Beach
After wine tasting in the Marlbourough region, we needed to make our way back to Christchurch to drop off the campervan. Our handy DOC booklet yet again, led us to another gem. On the east coast near Cape Campbell, Marfells Beach was a huge surprise on our last night with the van. The ocean views were priceless, along with the sound of crashing waves as we fell asleep.
Kat at Marfells Beach


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