The Heaphy Track Great Walk (My Recommendations)

Tristan Balme complete guide to hiking the heaphy track great walk of new zealand

I had the opportunity to hike the Heaphy Track in 2017 and again, partially in 2023. The beauty and variety of the track never cease to amaze me.

(I got to meet awesome people along the way) 

The Heaphy Track is one of the most diverse and scenic Great Walks in New Zealand, spanning 78 km across the Kahurangi National Park. It takes you from Golden Bay to the West Coast or vice versa, passing through tussock grasslands, beech forests, alpine meadows, and nikau palm groves. You might also encounter a variety of native wildlife like takahe.

In this blog post, I will share with you my recommendations for embarking on the track, so you can make the most of your adventure.

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The Heaphy Track Highlights

The Heaphy Track is diverse, stunning, and memorable in every way. Here are some of my favorite highlights:

  • Crossing the longest swing bridge in New Zealand over the Heaphy River
  • Exploring limestone caves and arches 
  • Admiring the views of the Tasman Sea and Kahurangi coastline
  • Relaxing at the luxurious Heaphy Hut 

Partial Track Closure In 2022

Because of the damage caused by storms in February 2022, the track is partially closed between Heaphy Hut and James Mackay. But you can still enjoy it from either end because there is little to no damage between Brown Hut and James Mackay or between Kohaihai and Heaphy Hut. You also have the option to book a helicopter transfer over the closed section to complete the entire trip.  

Route Options

You can walk (4-6 days) or bike (2-3 days) from Golden Bay to the West Coast or vice versa. It took me 4 days to complete; but your fitness level and pace determine the duration.

Note: This is the longest great walk in New Zealand at ~80km long. If attemping this in 4 days, be aware that 4x 20km days i a lot of walking. if you’re unfit or not used to the distances i’d recommend taking an extra day.

Golden Bay to West Coast (Easier)

The route from the Brown Hut in Golden Bay is the most common option because it offers a gradual ascent and a dramatic finish at the beach. The track is open for walking all year round, but mountain biking is only allowed from 1 May to 30 November. Though not intense or extremely demanding, I recommend you have some experience biking for at least 6 hours on a technical track because it does involve steep and challenging sections. 

West Coast to Golden Bay (Harder)

Hiking from the West Coast to Golden Bay is more challenging and involves more uphill sections. Similar to the above option, it’s open for walking all year round, and bikers are only allowed from May to November. 

How To Get There

OptionFromToTransportDuration (hours)
1Nelson Brown Hut or KohaihaiBus3 to 4
2WestportKohaihai or Brown HutBus1½  to 2
3Elsewhere in NZNelson or Westport FlightVaries
4Elsewhere in NZTakaka or KarameaFlightVaries
5Takaka or KarameaBrown Hut or KohaihaiShuttle or taxiVaries
6Own carEither end of the track Car, shuttle, or car relocation service+-2½  hours

Complete Guide To Hiking The Heaphy Track

On both occasions, I walked from Golden Bay to the West Coast. Here’s what you can expect on each section of the track.

Day 1: Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut

The first day of the Heaphy Track hike begins at Brown Hut, a short drive from Karamea.

The track climbs gradually on an easy gradient through podocarp and beech forest to reach Flanagan’s Corner, which is a viewpoint roughly 30 minutes prior to Perry Saddle Hut.

You’ll need to decide whether to stop at Perry Saddle Hut, a distance of 17.5 kilometers or 10.9 miles. or continue on to Gouland Downs Hut. It sits at an elevation of an elevation of 880 meters.

We opted to do this as it made for a massive first day, but made our second day easier.

Perry Saddle Hut to Gouland Downs Hut

This is the shortest and easiest part of the track, which descends gradually through beech forest and tussock grassland. It then extends across the Aorere valley for another 2 km, leading you to Gouland Downs hut. Once you’ve settled in, you can explore the nearby pinnacles–home to some of the rare plants and wildlife.

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Day 2: Gouland Downs Hut to Saxon Hut

I enjoyed this part of the walk because it’s mostly flat and was sort of a build-up to the steep parts. The track crosses several streams and bridges, and I even spotted some giant snails. After about 4 km, you’ll encounter a junction where you can take a short detour to Lewis Hut. If you decide to skip this section, continue along the main track until you reach Saxon Hut.

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Saxon Hut to James Mackay Hut

From Saxon Hut, you can follow the uphill trail through a beech forest. Though this section is the most scenic and diverse, it’s also challenging because it requires you to climb an altitude of about 915 km above sea level. From the James Mackay Hut, you can take a side trip to visit Crayfish Point, where you’ll see rock pools and marine life at low tide. Alternatively, you can relax at the hut and enjoy the sunset over the mountains. 

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Day 3: James Mackay Hut to Heaphy Hut

The path leading to Heaphy Hut starts with a gradual descent through the alpine meadows and joins the Heaphy River. It follows the river downstream, crossing several swing bridges, which lead you to the coastal forest. You’ll be greeted by the infamous nikau palms along the way, cross the longest suspension bridge–the highlight of the section–and wind up at Heaphy Hut. 

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Day 4: Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai River mouth

As mentioned earlier in the post, when you head toward the West Coast, you’ll experience the most stunning views! The trail follows the coastline and has the clearest and closest view of the Tasman Sea. It climbs to a lookout point at Kohaihai Bluff, where you can see the Kohaihai River valley and the end of the track. From here, you move downhill to the mouth where you can catch your transport back. 

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Mountain Biking The Heaphy (MTB)

The track is open for mountain biking from May 1 to November 30 each year. Biking is extremely challenging and can sometimes feel like you’ve undergone a vigorous workout. But it’s very doable. And if you’re experienced, you’ll have little difficulty maneuvering the trail. Similar to walking, you can take on the track from either direction. 

Parking at the trailhead

Golden Bay (Brown Hut) has a car park with plenty of space for vehicles and campervans. From here, you can take a shuttle or bus to your starting point. The car park is relatively safe and secure, but you should still lock your car and remove any valuables.

Transportation and Logistics 

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Option 1: Drive to one end of the track and bus back

You can drive to either Brown Hut or Kohaihai River mouth, park your vehicle for free, hike, or bike the track in either direction. Then you can catch a bus back to your vehicle: the shuttle service is operated by Karamea Express or The Heaphy Bus, which runs daily on a fixed schedule. The fare starts from $75 per person, and you need to book your seat in advance. 

Option 2: Drive to one end of the track and fly back

Though expensive, flying is the best way to enjoy the scenery over the national park. You can drive to one end of the track, leave your car there, and fly back to your car when you finish. New Zealand is notorious for its unpredictable weather, even more so in Kahurangi; so you may have to deal with weather delays or cancellations. You might also experience a short and bumpy flight, especially in windy conditions. Flights take about 20 minutes and cost around $200 per person. 

Option 3: Fly to and from both ends of the track

If you decide to go this route, be prepared to incur double the cost of the above option. You can fly from Nelson or Westport to either end of the track, depending on which direction you want to start. You can then fly back from the other end when you finish the track. Each flight takes about 20 minutes and costs around $200 per person per flight. 

Option 4: Bus to both ends of the track

This is another budget-friendly option if you don’t have a car or don’t want to drive at all. You can take a bus from Nelson or Westport, which will take you to your starting point. When you finish your track, you can take another bus to the other end. 

Option 5: Drive to one end of the track and get your car relocated to the other end

This option is more flexible because you’ll have your car waiting for you at the other end of the track. You can hire a car relocation service to move your vehicle for you while you’re hiking. The relocation starts from $300 per car.

What To Expect On The Heaphy Track

Endangered Takahe

The track is home to some of the rarest and most endangered birds, like the takahe, weka, and kea. You may be lucky enough to see them on the track, especially near the huts and campsites.

We got accosted by tahake at our Goulan Downs hut on the first night. See picutre below

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Camping

There are 9 campsites along the track located near the huts or at scenic spots. Camping can be a great way to enjoy nature and save money, but it can also be uncomfortable. To make the experience bearable, I suggest you bring a good tent, sleeping bag, mat, ground sheet, and cooking equipment. 

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The Hut Options

There are 7 huts along the track, ranging from basic to luxurious. The ones I stayed in were a bit on the luxurious end with gas cookers, mattresses, and clean drinking water. On any other day, the huts book out fast but when I visited the second time around, they weren’t fully booked. Also, staying in huts meant I got to meet other walkers and bikers and enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep. Here are the huts on offer: 

  • Brown Hut; has 16 bunks.
  • Perry Saddle Hut; contains 28 bunks.
  • Gouland Downs Hut; small and cozy with 8 bunks.
  • Saxon Hut; has 16 bunks. 
  • James Mackay Hut; contains 28 bunks. 
  • Lewis Hut, with 20 bunks. 
  • Heaphy Hut; has 32 bunks.

Facilities

  • Bunks with mattresses
  • Wood burners/heating
  • Gas cooker
  • Lighting
  • Toilets 
  • Cold running water 

The Brown Hut and Gouland Downs Hut don’t have gas cookers and lights, so bring your own portable stove, fuel, and candles. Also, none of the huts have cooking utensils; be sure to bring these along if you prefer hot meals. 

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Campsite

There are 9 campsites on the track. 8 are located near the huts and one is at Scotts Beach. The fees are lower than the huts but they also need to be booked in advance. All campsites come with a toilet, water supply, and sink. Some even have cooking shelters and picnic tables.

Here’s a list of the campsites.

  1. Brown Campsite
  2. Aorere Campsite
  3. Perry Saddle Campsite
  4. Gouland Downs Campsite
  5. Saxon Campsite
  6. James Mackay Campsite
  7. Heaphy Campsite
  8. Katipo Creek Campsite
  9. Scotts Beach Campsite

How To Book

Follow these steps to book a hut or campsite.

  • Check the availability and prices of the accommodation on the Heaphy Track booking page.
  • Choose the direction and dates of your track.
  • Select the huts and campsites you want to stay at. 
  • Review your booking details and proceed to payment. Once payment is verified, you’ll receive a confirmation email with your booking reference number.

Don’t forget to print your booking confirmation and take it with you on your walk. 

Weather

The weather on the track can be unpredictable. You can expect rain, wind, fog, hail, sun, heat, and sometimes snow, at any time of the year. And when it rains, it pours! This makes it even more important to be aware of potential hazards, like floods, because the water can overflow onto the tracks. You might even find yourself calf-deep in water. Make sure you pack for all weather. But nothing too heavy to slow you down or hurt your back. Also, check the weather forecast and track conditions before embarking on your trip.

Water

While the water is generally safe and plentiful, it can vary in quality and quantity. You can find water sources at the huts, campsites, streams, rivers, lakes, and tarns along the track. But, to prevent any bacteria-related illnesses, like Giardia, you should always treat or boil the water at the huts before drinking it. You should also carry enough water with you between water sources, especially in hot or dry conditions. 

Food

There are no shops or restaurants on the track so you’ll need to bring enough food with you for the duration. I suggest you choose lightweight, nutritious, easy-to-prepare, and long-lasting food. My go-to includes dried food, trail mix, energy bars, pasta, noodles, canned food, cereal, and crackers. 

Rubbish

Maintaining the cleanliness of the trail and the surroundings you interact with is your responsibility. Bring enough rubbish bags for the duration of the track. You should pack out what you pack in and leave no trace behind. 

Navigation

Navigating the track is relatively easy and straightforward. There are plenty of signs along the way and I didn’t need a map or navigation device. 

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend The Heaphy Track Great Walk to anyone who loves the outdoors. It’s a challenging track, but you’ll be rewarded with epic views and a unique landscape. I strongly suggest you plan and prepare for every single detail of your trip. This includes packing appropriate gear that caters to the constantly changing weather, booking your preferred accommodation well in advance, and packing enough long-shelf life food. But most importantly, enjoy every minute of your trip. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to walk the Heaphy Track?

It takes 4 to 6 days to walk the Heaphy Track, depending on your fitness level and pace. 

How hard is the Heaphy Track?

The Heaphy Track is an intermediate to advanced track. It’s a combination of steep, rugged sections and long, exposed parts. I found that it requires good fitness and skills and adequate preparation.

Is the Heaphy Track currently open?

The Heaphy Track is meant to be open all year round for walkers, and closed for mountain bikers from December 1 to April 30 each year. At the time of writing this, it was partially closed for everyone because of a major storm in February 2022. For the latest update, you can check out the Department of Conservation (DOC) website.

How much does it cost to walk the Heaphy Track?

Walking the Heaphy Track is free, if you plan to complete it within a day. But, if you choose to stay in huts along the way, you can expect to pay around $32 per adult and $16 per child per night or $14 per adult and $7 per child per night to stay in the campsites.

Can you swim on the Heaphy Track?

You can swim on the Heaphy Track in certain areas like the Gorge Creek near the Perry Saddle hut, the swimming hole near James Mackay, and Scotts Beach. 

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