Rakiura National Park - Guide for Backpackers
Rakiura National Park - Guide for Backpackers

Rakiura National Park – Guide for Backpackers

© NZPocketGuide.com

Stewart Island’s National Park

By walking in the Rakiura National Park, you are actually exploring the majority of Stewart Island New Zealand’s third populated island. The national park makes up 85% of the southern island, encapsulating ancient forests and secluded beaches, except for the odd seal colony and penguins. As a scarcely populated island, it is more populated mostly by bird and marine life. This makes the perfect place to see some of those unusual New Zealand birds.

Many backpackers come to Stewart Island to have a real wilderness experience. The hiking tracks in the Rakiura National Park are so well-connected and have plenty of hut and campsite accommodation that you can find yourself hiking for 10 days or more! On the other hand, there are enough options for a quick hike in the national park and to return to civilisation by water taxi.

For more information on more things to do on Stewart Island, check out: Stewart Island – Guide for Backpackers.

Things You Can’t Miss in Rakiura National Park

  • Take on the Great Walk, theRakiura Track!
  • Or if you are fit as a fiddle, do the Southern Circuit Track
  • Do a short walk to one of the pristine beaches
  • Have close bird encounters at Ulva Island
  • Discover the underwater world by snorkelling or diving off the coast
  • And all of the stuff we mention in the 10 Best Things to Do in Rakiura National Park.
Rakiura National Park - Guide for Backpackers© NZPocketGuide.com

Rakiura National Park Hikes

The best way to make the most of your stay on Stewart Island is to take the multi-day walking tracks. The only way to see much of Stewart Island is on these tracks, as no roads reach this far into the national park.

Rakiura Track (3 Days Loop)

One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Rakiura Track, is a good insight into the landscape of Stewart Island without being too difficult. The walk is a 3-day circuit suitable to do all year round. Along the way, you’ll discover beaches, forest and historical landmarks, such as Port William, Maori Beach and Paterson Inlet. To get to the Great Walk you need to walk 5km to get to Lee Bay. The entrance to the national park is obvious from the chain sculpture.

North West Circuit (10 Days Loop)

A much tougher walk than the Rakiura Great Walk, make sure you are fit and equipped to walk through long stretches of deep thick mud. Not only that but the walk takes a whopping 10 days to complete! Nevertheless, you’ll be rewarded with an undisturbed trek through sandy beaches, sand dunes, rocky beaches, and forest. There are not any huge climbs as the highest you’ll go to is 400m (1,312ft). Start the North West Circuit from the national park entrance.

Southern Circuit (4-6 Days Loop)

The Southern Circuit gets off to an exciting start by taking the water taxi to Freshwater Landing. Remember to book the water taxi to pick you up at the end of your walk. This walk involves climbs to higher ground, Adams Hill and Doughboy Hill, to get awesome views of the landscape you just passed through. Watch the mighty waves crash against the rugged Doughboy Bay heads. If you take the track via the water taxi, it is 4-6 days.

Coast to Coast (1.5 Days One Way)

Shorten your walk in the Rakiura National Park and couple it with a flight and water taxi experience. Take a Stewart Island Flight to Mason Bay and stay in the Mason Hut overnight – a popular spot for seeing and hearing kiwi birds. The next day, hike from the Mason Hut to the Freshwater Hut, following the streams, wetlands and sand dunes of Stewart Island. From Freshwater, be transported back to Golden Bay (a 10-minute walk from Oban).

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Short Walks From Oban

If you are having a brief stay on the island, there are a number of short walks starting from Oban the town on Stewart Island. A quick 30-minute walk along the coast will bring you across a number of beaches with crystal clear water and high on the coastline for stunning views. We suggest heading north if you have limited time.

To explore the forests inland, head for the Fuchsia and Raroa walking tracks. To get there, turn left outside the national park visitor centre and left into Dundee Street where the walk is signed. This forested area is complete with 500-year-old rimu trees and the New Zealand fern.

For more details on walks in Oban, check out 10 Free or Cheap Things to do on Stewart Island.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara

A 7-minute water taxi brings you to this sanctuary island. It is a chance to see what New Zealand used to be like before human migration.

Not only is there a network of short walks to impressive lookouts and beaches, but the forested island is completely pest free.

Ulva Island is a safe haven for native New Zealand birds, such as tui, kiwi, weka, oystercatcher, fantail, New Zealand pigeon, kaka parrot and the colourful New Zealand parakeet. It’s a must-do in Stewart Island!

Max Pixel© Max Pixel

Snorkelling and Diving in Rakiura National Park

Uncrowded waters, except for fish, of course, can be found in the Ulva Island Te Wharawhara Marine Reserve. Diving is rewarding on the northeast side of Ulva Island. Make sure a dive knife and flashlight is included in your diving equipment.

Paterson Inlet, south of Oban, is another great place to snorkel and dive. Head to Sandhill Bay for a chance to see blue cod, blue moki, trumpeters, wrasses and butterfish.

In summer, do a spot of cage diving with the great white sharks.

If You Have More Time in Rakiura National Park…

  • Kayak to Ulva Island to see the fish below and explore the coastline
  • Watch the penguins come to the Oban wharf at night
  • Go kiwi spotting
  • Swim! That’s what people do at the beach, right?
  • Look out for the Southern Lights! Stewart Island is likely as far south as you will get to see the light display.


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in New Zealand over 10 years ago and with a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to travel New Zealand. She knows Aotearoa inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience New Zealand’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides and is the co-host of NZ Pocket Guide’s live New Zealand travel Q&As on YouTube.

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