Story: Walking tracks

The footprints of past travellers have marked out a network of scenic trails that attract trampers from around the world. Many of these pathways were once important routes for Māori transporting greenstone, for gold miners and for deer cullers.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Signs on the Routeburn Track

Story Summary

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Early pathways

Māori made New Zealand’s first walking tracks as they travelled around the country. Often they walked along the beach, but they also cut tracks through the forest, and used ladders or pegs to climb steep cliffs. In the South Island they made trails up the valleys and across the mountains to the West Coast, the only place that had precious pounamu (greenstone).

The 19th century

The first European explorers were often guided by Māori along traditional tracks. Later, settlers began to build roads and railways, but many still travelled on foot, especially in the rough back-country.

  • Gold miners headed into the South Island’s mountains, carrying packs.
  • Shepherds moved sheep and cattle along farm tracks.
  • Loggers carried out timber on forest trails.
  • Deer cullers used mountain tracks and huts when clearing the forest of deer.

To mark the path and avoid getting lost, trail makers chipped the bark off trees, or built cairns (piles of stones) – this is known as blazing a trail. Today, orange plastic markers are often used.


It took some time before people enjoyed exploring New Zealand’s native forests and other places of wild, natural beauty. At first, they followed the old tracks made by Māori and gold miners.

Milford Track

In 1880 an explorer, Donald Sutherland, discovered the spectacular Sutherland Falls near Milford Sound in Fiordland. The Milford Track was made, and tourists walked along the route, staying in huts. The track was called ‘the finest walk in the world’.

National parks

Soon, more walking trails and huts were made, especially in national parks such as Taranaki, Tongariro and Abel Tasman. On Mt Ruapehu, hikers stayed at the Chateau Tongariro hotel, built in 1929.


By the 1970s physical fitness was very popular, and the government started a network of walkways, marked with an orange ‘W’. Some follow old gold-mining or railway trails. In 2007 there were 125 walkways.

The ‘Great Walks’

Nine trails have been named ‘Great Walks’ because they are so beautiful, with features such as lakes, waterfalls, sea caves, rainforest and native birds. They are:

North Island

  • Lake Waikaremoana Track
  • Tongariro Northern Circuit
  • Whanganui Journey (by river)

South Island

  • Abel Tasman Track
  • Heaphy Track
  • Routeburn Track
  • Milford Track
  • Kepler Track
  • Rakiura Track (Stewart Island).
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Walking tracks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 January 2020)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 14 Apr 2016