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New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track

Kahurangi National Park

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New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track

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  • Kohaihai Beach in the morning. This view is steps away from many campsites at Kohaihai Campground.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The Kohaihai River.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Thick jungle near the Kohaihai River.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • A stream near the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Scotts Beach, looking south.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Sea foam reflects the sun as if it were snow.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Carnivorous land snails can be seen along the first part of the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Nīkau palms are abundant on the route to Heaphy Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Flowers of the nīkau palm.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Heaphy Beach, a little more than 0.8 kilometers south of Heaphy Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Campsite area on the Heaphy Hut grounds.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Sunset at Heaphy Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Nīkau palms in golden hour.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • A spectacular Heaphy Hut sunset.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The inside of Heaphy Hut at night. Other modern huts like Mackay and Perry Saddle look very similar to this inside. The three doors each lead to a bedroom with eight bunk beds per room.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The forest of the Heaphy Track north of Heaphy Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The most primitive suspension bridge on the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • A newer suspension bridge.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • A giant rata tree.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • This suspension bridge, just before Lewis Hut, is the longest in New Zealand.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Lewis Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Ascending the Heaphy Track to Mackay Downs.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Thick forest along the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • James Mackay Hut. In the background is the private residence of the Department of Conservation ranger on duty.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Looking down at Mackay Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The Mackay Downs on the way to Saxon Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Overlooking the Gouland Downs just after Saxon Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Mountains of New Zealand near the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Clean, cold water flows through the Gouland Downs.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • A bridge in the Gouland Downs.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The Enchanted Forest.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • One of many limestone caves in the Enchanted Forest.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Limestone caves in the Enchanted Forest.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Gouland Downs Hut is one of the older huts on the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The Heaphy Track on the ascent to Perry Saddle, about 0.8 kilometers from Gouland Downs Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Boot Pole Corner, on the way to Perry Saddle.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • One of the best views of Gouland Downs. This is the first good view of the downs if one hikes from north to south. Gouland Downs Hut is visible in the distance at center-right.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • A waterfall near Perry Saddle.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Perry Saddle Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • As this picture shows, Perry Saddle Hut  lives up to its name. It is located right at the saddle of two mountains. This picture is taken halfway up Mount Perry.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Looking up Mount Perry (1,132 m) about halfway up the scramble.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The view from the summit of Mount Perry looking west toward the Gouland Downs.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The view from Mount Perry looking toward the northeast. Golden Bay is visible far in the distance.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The night sky as viewed from the Perry Saddle deck.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Flanagan's Corner in the early morning.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Thick brush leading up to Flanagan's Corner.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Hikers descending to Brown Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Overlooking a valley near the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Ferns and tree ferns are very prevalent from Perry Saddle to Brown Hut.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • The Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
  • Brown Hut marks the northern end of the Heaphy Track.- New Zealand Great Walks: Heaphy Track
Overview + Weather
Pros: 
Longest of the Great Walks. Several different landscapes and ecosystems. Beautiful scenery. Well-maintained trail and facilities.
Cons: 
Logistical challenge. Huts are often crowded. Sandflies.
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Region:
Other,
Congestion: 
Low
Pets allowed: 
No
Net Elevation Gain: 
3,001.97 ft (915.00 m)
Parking Pass: 
Hut lodging fee (per bed per night, in NZD)
Preferable Season(s):
Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
Suitable for:
Hiking, Biking
Total Distance: 
45.67 mi (73.50 km)
Trail type: 
Shuttle
Current Local Weather:
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Hike Description

Hike Description

Contributor

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.

Section 1: Kohaihai Trailhead to Heaphy Hut (15.5 kilometers)

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.

Section 2: Heaphy Hut to Mackay Hut (19 kilometers)

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.

Section 3: Mackay Hut to Perry Saddle Hut (24 kilometers)

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.

Section 4: Perry Saddle Hut to Brown Hut (15 kilometers)

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

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):

  • Kohaihai Campground: Dozens of campsites at the south trailhead, the only drive-in campground on the Heaphy Track.
  • Scotts Beach Campground: nine campsites less than a couple of miles from the Kohaihai Trailhead.
  • Katipo Shelter: Five campsites halfway from Kohaihai Trailhead and Heaphy Hut with no other amenities besides a roof over some benches, toilets, and a sink.
  • Heaphy Hut: The largest and probably the nicest hut on the Heaphy Track, with 32 beds in four different rooms, as well as numerous spacious campsites with excellent views of the beach. The sundeck and the kitchen in the hut also have awesome beach and sunset views. The bathrooms, which are equipped with flush toilets, are connected directly to the back of the hut.
  • Lewis Hut: Eight kilometers from Heaphy Hut and 17.8 kilometers from James Mackay Hut, Lewis Hut can technically sleep 20 people, but the space is remarkably confined. There are no campsites at Lewis Hut, but it does have gas-powered cooking facilities inside.
  • James Mackay Hut: Built in 2014, Mackay Hut is the newest hut on the Heaphy Track, high above the Mackay Downs. This hut has 26 beds in several rooms and four campsites. The restrooms (with flush toilets!) are also directly connected to the hut, similar to how they are at Heaphy Hut.
  • Saxon Hut: About 12 kilometers from both James Mackay Hut and Perry Saddle at the beginning of the Gouland Downs when hiking from Mackay. Saxon is a very small hut with all of the amenities (except toilets) in one room. It has 16 bunks in pods of four and five wood platforms for tent campers to place their tents. 
  • Gouland Downs Hut: Located just after the Enchanted Forest 5 kilometers from Saxon Hut and 6.9 kilometers from Perry Saddle. A relatively primitive hut with no lighting and no kitchen but eight bunk beds and a couple of tent sites.
  • Perry Saddle Hut: A modern, very spacious hut with incredible views in every direction. At 801 meters in elevation, it is the highest hut on the trail. Perry Saddle has 28 beds in several different rooms and five tent sites between the hut and the toilets. Fair warning: The toilets are quite a ways away from the hut.
  • Aorere Shelter and Campground: Very similar to Katipo Shelter in regards to amenities, with five campsites. It is about two-thirds of the way to Perry Saddle when hiking in from Brown Hut.
  • Brown Hut: A very rustic hut with 18 beds very close to one another (similar to Saxon). Offers vault toilets and a wood stove but no kitchen amenities.
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