Mountains, Forests, and Beaches of New Zealand's South Island

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15515A, International


  • Explore waterfalls, rainforests, glaciers, and golden-sand beaches
  • Enjoy a day cruise in Doubtful Sound
  • Visit a glowworm cave and experience an underground waterfall and river


  • All lodging, meals, ground transportation, and entrance fees
  • Local hiking guides, kayak rental, guided glacier walk
  • All gratuities


DatesFeb 3–13, 2015
Price$5,745 (12–15)
$6,345 (or fewer)
StaffMargie Tomenko

Trip Overview

Yes, it's a long way to go for one trip. Why not double up? If you sign up for both this trip and Devilish Tasmania, you will get a $300 discount.

The Trip

New Zealand is a country of spectacular variety. Lush rainforests, impressive glaciers, active volcanoes and geothermal areas, steep-cut fjords, high plateaus, rushing rivers, waterfalls, and countless miles of island-dotted coastline all await our exploration.

Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves, offer visitors a friendly reception. Kiwis are also passionate conservationists; more than one-third of the country is protected in national parks and conservation reserves managed by the government. Marine mammals in the seas surrounding New Zealand are fully protected.

Our trip concentrates on the South Island only. There is significant diversity to keep you busy -- the towering alps, rugged coastline, sweeping plains, and abundant fjords! Not to mention the local flavor we will experience.

Accompanied by knowledgeable naturalist guides, we will day hike in national parks, forested valleys, the golden-sand beaches of the Tasman Sea, and the 1,000-year-old kahikatea (white pine) rainforest. We will have the opportunity to walk on a glacier, hike portions of New Zealand's famous track system, and take an easy kayak trip in a tranquil lagoon in search of unique wildlife. We will spend two evenings at a lovely lodge near the Tasman Sea, tour the famous glowworm cave, and enjoy a nature cruise aboard a boat in remote Doubtful Sound.

We visit Abel Tasman National Park, established in 1942 and named after a Dutch explorer who, in 1642, became the first European explorer to sight New Zealand. This area is renowned for its golden beaches, sculptured granite cliffs, and world-famous Abel Tasman Coast Track. We have the opportunity to do a combination hike and kayak, enjoying the forest, the ocean, and the spectacular views.

As an example of the huge diversity of the area, we will also enjoy a glacier hike. The Fox Glacier is New Zealand’s largest commercially guided glacier.  We supply the equipment you will need to enjoy this fabulous experience. Given climate change, glaciers are rapidly disappearing around the world, and New Zealand is no exception. We will see the changes in this glacier manifested over the short span of a few years.

As visiting the Southern Islands requires some longer bus rides to allow us to visit these unique areas, we break up the bus rides with occasional hikes or walks along the way. While the itinerary may show a four-hour drive, we will do stops along the way.


Day 1: The trip begins in Nelson, New Zealand on the South Island.  We will meet at 10:00 a.m. at the Nelson airport, or if you arrived before today, the trip leaders can pick you up at your hotel at a pre-arranged time. We start with a bus ride through horticultural lands to the small town of Mapua, where we will stop for lunch, our first meal of the trip. This is a beautiful seaside town along the way to Abel Tasman National Park. We get to our lodge in time to relax or hike the nearby trails before our welcome dinner. Overnight in Motueka. Driving time: about 2 hours.

Day 2: We'll hike the trails in Abel Tasman National Park along the granite-edged coastline by soft-sand beaches. Weather permitting; we will enjoy a guided sea kayak trip suitable for beginners and experienced kayakers alike. If you choose not to kayak, you may explore the beach or do an additional hike. As we hike and kayak we should see many birds, including the native kereru. Our three-hour walk is on fairly level ground and about five miles long. Overnight in Motueka.  Driving time: about 1.5 hours.

Day 3: After breakfast we'll depart for Paparoa National Park, approximately a six-hour drive away. With the Arthur Range as a backdrop, we will head south through farmlands to Murchison and down Buller Gorge to the coast at Westport. Here we have the chance to view a nearby fur seal colony. Coastal flora includes nikau palms. We will stop for the night at Punakaiki, famed for its geological formations, limestone "pancake" rocks, and blowholes. We will walk the Pancake Rocks Coastal Trail and may have time for another short walk, in scenic Paparoa National Park. Overnight in Punakaiki. Driving time: about 4 hours.

Day 4: Following breakfast we'll take a short, three-mile hike through native forest at Rapahoe Range Forest Park at Point Elizabeth. Bird life we may spot includes the bellbird, fantail, grey warbler, rifleman, and tui. In the afternoon we will continue our four-hour drive south down the coast through Greymouth, making a stop at Hokitika, home of New Zealand greenstone jade. Then we'll explore the Okarito Lagoon, which lies just south of Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve, a 1,000-year-old kahikatea rainforest. At Okarito Lagoon we will enjoy easy kayaking and search for bird life, such as royal spoonbills, wood pigeons, and rare white herons. If you do not want to kayak, there are several different easy scenic hiking trails. We'll continue to the town of Fox Glacier, where we'll stay for two nights. Driving time: about 3.5 hours.

Day 5: We'll explore the Fox Glacier, taking a four-hour guided hike into its blue ice caves, crevasses, and pinnacles. If you have never been on a glacier, this will be a treat!  All equipment is provided. Cameras encouraged! This afternoon is free. You can enjoy some optional activities, such as taking a short hike, or just enjoy walking around the town and the shops. We depart tomorrow. Overnight in the town of Fox Glacier.

Day 6: We'll continue south through Westland National Park, enjoy a stop at Ship Creek, then continue to Haast and the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre. Then we turn inland to Haast Pass as we continue through the mountains and rivers of Mt. Aspiring National Park. We'll have a couple of short hiking options -- depending on the weather and time -- at Thunder Creek, Cameron Flats, and the Blue Pools (but not all of them!). We will pass Makorara and drive alongside Lakes Wanaka and Hawea to our accommodation in Wanaka, where we will stay for two evenings. Half the day will be on the bus, the other half hiking. We'll overnight at Wanaka. Driving time: about 4 hours.

Day 7: We'll explore Mt. Aspiring National Park, the second-largest national park in the country, renowned for its rugged, mountainous beauty and unspoiled wilderness. Following the drive up the Matukituki River valley, we will hike seven miles round-trip to the Rob Roy Glacier View Point, with 1,200 feet of elevation gain, through native mountain-beech forests to a waterfall-crowned valley at the base of Rob Roy Glacier. There are many birds here, and flowers such as ranunculus and New Zealand edelweiss. We'll overnight at Wanaka. Driving time: about 2 hours.

Day 8: We'll head up the Cardrona Valley today, past high-country stations and over the Crown Range. The golden tussock land of the Crown Range leads to the leafy village of Arrowtown, where gold mining history comes alive beside the Arrow River. Here we'll have time to tour the town and eat lunch. Later we'll drive alongside Lake Wakatipu to Kingston, and through rolling farmlands to Te Anau Township, on the shores of Lake Te Anau. This evening we will tour the spectacular glowworm cave on the South Island, including an underground waterfall and river that are incredible to witness. This is a sight everyone has enjoyed immensely.   Overnight in Te Anau. Driving time: about 3 hours.

Day 9: We'll drive along Milford Road, enjoying a panorama of high mountains and deep valleys studded with waterfalls and mirror-like lakes. We'll then hike through diverse mountain-beech forests along the Routeburn Track to Key Summit (4 miles, 1,200 feet elevation gain), which is covered with tannin-tinged tarns and alpine bogs. Here, in the heart of Fiordland World Heritage Park, the views are spectacular. The summit derives its name from the fact that three river systems -- Hollyford, Greenstone/Clutha, and Eglinton/Waiau -- drain from this point westward, eastward, and southward.  In the afternoon, we will drive to Milford Sound to see the beautiful Milford Fiord. Overnight in Te Anau. Driving time: about 4 hours.

Day 10: Today the whole day is dedicated to the beautiful Doubtful Sound. While Milford Sound is more known (and easier to access), Doubtful Sound is noted as the most spectacular. A 25-minute bus ride takes us to Pearl Harbour, where we'll boat across Lake Manapouri to West Arm, then we'll take a different bus over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove on Doubtful Sound. Here we'll board the boat for a day cruise. The onboard commentary will highlight the geology, flora, and fauna we will see along the way. This area is a photographer's dream! We cruise back down the sound to disembark at Deep Cove, and then return over Wilmot Pass and across the lake to arrive at Manapouri. Overnight in Te Anau. Driving time: about 1 hour.

Day 11: This morning we'll take a two-to-three-hour hike on the Rainbow Reach Trail through peaceful beech forests and along the rushing Waiau River. Our coach will transport us back to Queenstown airport, making a stop for lunch, our final meal. Here our sojourn ends mid-afternoon. Note: Do not book onward flights from Queenstown any earlier than 6 p.m. The bus will let us off either at the airport or downtown, as you desire. Driving time: about 2.5 hours.

Occasionally, changes may occur in the trip -- either in advance or during the trip. Please be aware that we make every attempt to stay within this itinerary. However, if weather, equipment, or any other condition causes a change, please be flexible and respect the decision of the leader. The safety of the group is our number one concern.

We cannot guarantee that you will see all species listed as examples.



Getting There

The trip begins in Nelson. Most international flights arrive in Auckland. Allow for this inter-island flight when booking your travel. You will have to change terminals for the domestic flight, but it's very close -- only about a 5- to 10-minute walk. Note that you will "lose" a day when traveling west across the International Dateline from the United States to New Zealand. This means if you leave the U.S. on February 1, you will arrive in New Zealand on February 3. On the other hand, you may well return to the U.S. before you leave New Zealand! Note also that the trip ends in a different city, Queenstown. It's easy to fly directly from there to Auckland.

As winter storms in the USA have caused many flight cancellations in past years, it is recommended you plan to arrive in New Zealand at least a day in advance. You can take advantage of the extra day to adjust your internal clock from the travel and be well rested when we start our adventure!

Consider booking your inter-island flights (Auckland to Nelson, and return from Queenstown) when you book your international itinerary. Generally, there is little or no additional cost when the flights are booked together. Do not plan on being at the Queenstown airport before 4 p.m. on our last day. We will be arriving in Queenstown that day, and there could easily be traffic delays.

Accommodations and Food

We will stay in lodges and local hotels. Rooms are double-occupancy; a roommate will be provided for solo travelers. We will travel in an air-conditioned minibus. All meals (starting with lunch on day one, and ending with lunch on day 11) are included in the cost of the trip. Generally, the lodge will provide breakfast. For lunch and dinner we will have a mix of dining at local cafes and restaurants or picnicking/cooking for ourselves. While the leaders will do most of any cooking, help is always appreciated. Many restaurants offer some vegetarian dishes and will attempt to satisfy special dietary needs. However, there may be occasions when vegetarian or special dietary meals are not available. You should inform the leader of any dietary restrictions when completing your application.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is suitable for both the very active traveler and those seeking a more relaxed vacation. It is open to all ages, so long as you are in reasonably good health, get regular exercise, enjoy the wilderness, and enjoy blending hikes with natural, cultural, and historical touring. Sea kayaking is included, but there are attractive alternative activities for those who don't want to kayak.

New Zealand weather is unpredictable. It can rain at any time, which makes for slippery trails. Expect temperatures ranging from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. We will be exploring lowland to alpine regions.

Equipment and Clothing

This trip is suitable for both the very active traveler and those seeking a more relaxed vacation. It is open to all ages, so long as you are in reasonably good health, get regular exercise, enjoy the wilderness, and enjoy blending hikes with natural, cultural, and historical touring. Sea kayaking is included, but there are attractive alternative activities for those who don't want to kayak.

New Zealand weather is unpredictable. It can rain at any time, which makes for slippery trails. Expect temperatures ranging from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. We will be exploring lowland to alpine regions. 



  • King, Michael, The Penguin History of New Zealand, 2003.
  • Moon, Geoff, The Reed Field Guide to New Zealand Birds, 1992, Reed Books.
  • Dougherty, Ia, Heart of Gold: The People and Places of Otago.
  • Coates, Glen, The Rise and Fall of the Southern Alps, 2002, Canterbury University Press.


  • Fiordland Parkmap 273-03, 1:255,000, Department of Conservation
  • Mount Aspiring Parkmap 273-02, 1:150,000, Department of Conservation



  • Whale Rider (2002) An excellent movie about a 12-year-old Maori girl who wants to become the chief of the tribe. Her grandfather believes that this is a role reserved for males only. You get a glimpse of the Maori culture.


Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward environmentally understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad.

Originally, New Zealand was a land with all bird, and only two mammal, species (not sheep -- it was two species of bats). After Maori and European settlers introduced non-native mammals, many of New Zealand's indigenous bird species became extinct or threatened. The Australian bushtail possum, introduced in the 1900s, is the most serious threat to the environment. The possum has no natural enemies and can now be found throughout the country. It is causing serious destruction to vegetation, especially fuchsia forests at high altitude. European goats, meanwhile, strip vegetation and cause erosion.

In general, New Zealanders favor vigorous protection of endangered and threatened plants and animals. The Department of Conservation is very active in relocating endangered species to islands and areas that have been cleared of pests. Rigorous standards for camping and hiking are in place in all national parks and reserves in an effort to lessen impacts on the environment and to maintain high water quality. All coastline is in public ownership.



Margie Tomenko has been a Sierra Club member for more than 20 years, and has led trips for more than 15 years. New Zealand holds a magic for her because of all the diverse terrain and outdoor opportunities in such a small area -- hiking, kayaking, glacier walks, and more! The Kiwis (as New Zealanders call themselves) are friendly, the islands are beautiful, the food is great, and the languages is English (well, sort of!). One of her favorite hobbies is scuba diving, so she truly enjoys viewing wildlife both above and below the water! We won't be doing any diving this trip. She is very excited to share this fascinating place with you. "It is so incredible to go from beaches to glaciers so quickly!" If you have questions, or just want to chat about New Zealand, please feel free to contact her.

Associate Leader:

Kath Giel has been leading trips for the Sierra Club for over 12 years. Her educational background in botany and natural history and early introduction to hiking has led to a life-long love of the outdoors. Kath has traveled extensively, and her passion for conservation and wildlife has taken her to many of the last wild places in the world. When Kath is at home in the northern California foothills, she's often hiking with her Labrador retrievers, gardening, or planning another adventure.

Contact the Staff

Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture.
Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.

Try Another Trip

By Date