Located on the northwestern edges of South Island, the Heaphy Track is the longest of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, which were designated by the Department of Conservation. It is also generally considered the best Great Walk because the track traverses several completely different landscapes as hikers journey through Kahurangi National Park. Despite its length, it is not a particularly difficult or steep route—in fact, most of the trail is relatively flat.
As rewarding as the Heaphy Track is, it does require a considerable amount of planning before hikers depart into the bush. Backcountry camping is prohibited except at huts or the campsites surrounding the huts. These reservations must be booked far in advance through the Department of Conservation. Arranging a car shuttle is also a challenge. The two trailheads may only be 72 kilometers apart via the Heaphy Track, but the two are separated by 450.5 kilometers of windy mountain roads! Guides alleviate the challenges of transportation and reservations, but they are very costly.
This hike takes at least four days and three nights hiking from west to east. It is not uncommon for hikers to take longer than this, and most hikers prefer to hike in the opposite direction in an effort to get the steep section out of the way on the first day.
The first section of the Heaphy Track does not appear to be too exciting from a geographic perspective. In reality, it is one of the most beautiful sections of trail anywhere in New Zealand in good weather (although in rough weather and in high tides, parts of the trail may be inaccessible for a few hours). Graced by cheerful nīkau palms on one side and the thunderous Tasman Sea on the other, the trek from the Kohaihai River mouth to the Heaphy River mouth, where Heaphy Hut is located, is the easiest section of the Heaphy Track. A lucky hiker may encounter an elusive kiwi at night, and all hikers will encounter fearless wekas trying to eat anything of yours that they can. Sandflies are also most prevalent here, especially in the summer. Many hikers choose to walk on the beach for portions of this section, especially on the home stretch to Heaphy Hut.
For eastbound hikers, this is probably the most difficult section of the Heaphy Track. Around 640 meters of the roughly 822 meters of elevation gain will be in this section of the trail. Still, the first half of this section is flat, as the trail parallels and eventually crosses the Heaphy River via the longest suspension bridge in New Zealand. The nīkau palm jungles turn into more diverse forests of tree ferns and grasstree enroute to Lewis Hut. A humongous rata tree is also to the right of the trail just before Lewis Hut.
From Lewis Hut, the trail starts the climb up into the Kahurangi highlands. Over the next 11 kilometers the trail gains about 594 meters in a consistently gradual climb. There isn't one section that is noticeably steeper or more flat than the rest of this section. This part does not offer many sweeping views of the landscape; however, the forest probably changes in this section more than any other part of the trail.
The section of the Heaphy Track from Mackay Hut to Perry Saddle Hut is the longest section of the trail. With the exception of a climb up to Perry Saddle, this section of the hike is relatively flat, except for a few rolling hills. Saxon Hut is located about halfway between Mackay Hut and Perry Saddle. Saxon Hut is a much smaller, more rustic hut. It is a popular stop for lunch, or a place to stay the night for hikers who want to split this section into two days.
Beyond Saxon Hut the trail crosses many creeks that are prone to high water. Some of these creeks run right down the trail itself. Hikers can expect to be up to their knees in swift-moving water in the spring and summer or after a heavy rain. After a couple of creek crossings, when your boots are soaking wet, the trail opens up and you will descend into the Gouland Downs, a tussock grassland with gentle, rolling hills and expansive vistas in every direction. Just before passing the Gouland Downs Hut, the smallest hut on the trail with beds, the trail will enter a section of beech forest called the Enchanted Forest. Look for limestone caves below the trail for a fun side trip. From this hut, the trail will reenter a grassland environment and climb about 1.8 kilometers to Perry Saddle. If you still have energy left by the time you arrive at Perry Saddle, the climb up 1,132-meter Mount Perry (a 332-meter elevation gain from Perry Saddle Hut) is well worth the climb. Expect very windy conditions on the exposed scramble to the top.
At 915 meters, Flanagan's Corner is the highest point on the Heaphy Track, located only about 1.9 kilometers beyond Perry Saddle. Other than the hike to this viewpoint, the trail throughout this section descends switchbacks gradually and consistently, similar to the section of trail between Lewis Hut and Mackay Hut. The trail passes through beech forest that gets increasingly more diverse the more one descends. At the bottom of the descent is Brown Hut, which marks the northern end of the Heaphy Track.
There are a few viewpoints in this section of the Aorere River Valley as well as the aptly named Aorere Shelter. However, most of this section of the trail is relatively uninteresting compared to the rest of the Heaphy Track. From Brown Hut it is about a three-hour drive to Nelson and an arduous 6.5 hours back to Karamea where the trail begins.
The huts on the Heaphy Track offer an overnight experience that is much different from those in North America. Whereas most long North American trails have backcountry campsites or possibly a lookout or shelter, the Heaphy Track, like the rest of New Zealand's Great Walks, involves camping in a hostel-like hut complete with common areas, kitchens with gas-powered stoves and sinks, coal- or wood-fueled stoves, and even bathrooms with full plumbing in some places!
The kitchens include lighters and/or matches, dish soap, gas toasters, crockery such as pots and pans, and might include things such as spatulas and ladles. However, cutlery such as knives, forks, and spoons are not provided. There is no garbage service either; make sure to pack out what you bring in. Clean mattresses are provided at each hut, but hikers must bring in their own sleeping bag. A propped-up mattress means the bed has not been claimed for the night. There is no listed check-out time at any of the huts, but most huts are empty by around 9:00 a.m.
Tent campers staying in campsites are not permitted to use the facilities in the huts. Still, in many places, campers have separate toilet and bathroom sink facilities. In places where this is not the case, such as Perry Saddle, campers may use the hut toilets and adjacent sinks. This rule is noticeably enforced by Department of Conservation rangers at all of the major huts.
There are seven huts and ten places to camp along the Heaphy Track. They are as follows (major huts where DOC rangers reside are in bold):