Backpacking Stewart Island’s National Park
By backpacking (or 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 kiwi. As a scarcely populated island, Stewart Island is 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.
Things You Can’t Miss in Rakiura National Park
- Take on the Great Walk, the Rakiura Track
- Or if you are fit as a fiddle, do the Southern Circuit
- Do a short walk, such as the Garden Mound Track to one of the pristine beaches
- Have close bird encounters at Ulva Island
- Discover the underwater world by snorkelling or diving off the coast.
Backpacking Rakiura National Park – Multi-Day Hikes
The best way to make the most of your stay on Stewart Island is to take the multi-day walking tracks – if you’re new to multi-day hiking check out Multi-Day Backpacking Trips in New Zealand: A Complete Guide. The only way to see much of Stewart Island is on these tracks, as no roads reach this far into the national park.
Learn about how the huts work along the trail in our guide, New Zealand Hut to Hut Hiking: What is it Like to Stay in a Hut?
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 the Paterson Inlet. To get to the Great Walk you need to walk 5km (3 miles) to get to Lee Bay or take a taxi with Aurora Cab Company. The entrance to the national park is obvious from the chain sculpture.
North West Circuit (9-11 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 9-11 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 at Lee Bay.
Southern Circuit (4-6 Days Loop via Water Taxi/6-10 Days from Oban)
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. If starting from the end of Main Road in Oban, this adds another 2-4 days.
Coast to Coast (1.5 Days One Way)
Shorten your walk in the Rakiura National Park by coupling it with a flight and water taxi experience. Join Stewart Island Flights for a flight to Mason Bay and stay in the Mason Bay 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) with Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi.
Short Walks from Oban
If you are having a brief stay on Stewart Island, there are a number of short walks starting from the island’s town, Oban.
Oban to Bathing Beach (30 Minutes Return)
A quick 30-minute walk along the northern coast (take Horseshoe Bay Road then Kamahi Road) will bring you to Bathing Beach with crystal clear water and high on the coastline for stunning views.
Fuchsia and Raroa Tracks (1 Hour Return)
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 onto Dundee Street where the walk is signed. This forested area is complete with 500-year-old rimu trees and New Zealand ferns.
Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara
A must-do backpacking Rakiura experience is visiting Ulva Island. A 7-minute water taxi brings you to the sanctuary island where you have 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. See other wildlife sanctuaries like this in the 10 Best Bird Sanctuaries in New Zealand.
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.
How to Get to Ulva Island
Either visit Ulva Island independently (i.e. walking the trails yourself) or with a guided tour.
To visit independently, take the Ulva Island Ferry & Water Taxi from Golden Bay, approximately 1km (0.6 miles) from Oban (just walk over the hill). Tickets are approximately NZ$20 each.
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. If you are a certified diver or into snorkelling, make that part of your backpacking Rakiura experience.
Diving is rewarding on the northeast side of Ulva Island off Sydney Cove Beach. Make sure a dive knife and flashlight is included in your diving equipment. Also note that a thick wetsuit is mandatory, as the average summer water temperature is 12°C (54°F) dropping to 8°C (46°F) in winter. Although there are no dive operators on Stewart Island, charters like Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi and Rakiura Adventure can take experienced divers to their desired site.
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. Stewart Island Adventures offers guided snorkelling tours with all of the gear included.
In summer, do a spot of cage diving with the great white sharks. While in the waters of Stewart Island, the tour with Shark Experience departs from Bluff, a ferry ride away. Find out more about the tour in the 20 Best Things to Do on Stewart Island.
If You Have More Time in Rakiura National Park…
- Kayak with Phil’s Sea Kayak to see the fish below and explore the coastline
- Watch the penguins come to the Oban wharf at night
- Go kiwi spotting after dark or in the morning
- Look out for the Southern Lights – Stewart Island is likely as far south as you will get to see the light display
- Swim! That’s what people do at the beach, right?
And there’s a lot more where that came from in the 10 Best Things to Do in Rakiura National Park.
More About Rakiura National Park
That’s it for our guide to backpacking Rakiura National Park. For more backpacking advice, check out the following guides:
- The Travel Guide to Stewart Island on a Budget
- 5 Best Budget Accommodations in Stewart Island
- 16 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Stewart Island
Finally, for more ways to stick to the backpacker budget during your travels, check out the 50 Best Free Things to Do in New Zealand.