Top trail running spots in the South Island of New Zealand

It’s a crisp, still morning on the edge of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and you’re preparing to hit a fresh trail – one with new discoveries, changes in altitude and views to die for. The world’s your oyster as you lace up your trail running shoes and slip on your running vest.

It’s time to tackle one of the best trails the South Island has to offer.

Abel Tasman Coast Track – Abel Tasman National Park

If you’re looking to get into trail running, the Abel Tasman Coast Track is a superb place to start. Sun, sand and native bush foliage will follow your footsteps as you undulate between idyllic beaches and open saddles with stunning views.

Lush beech forest, large kānuka trees, fur seals and native birds dominate much of the landscape while you’ll have options to cross estuaries (if you catch the low tide) or skirt around the edges.

The Abel Tasman is a very popular Great Walk that’s probably best started at Wainui Bay or Tōtaranui in the north – to finish at Marahau in the south where there just happens to be a top place to have a bite and a drink.

Transport can be an issue getting to Wainui Bay and the entire track is a long way, so another option is grabbing a boat from Kaiteriteri north to Bark Bay, Onetahuti Bay or Awaroa – and running back to Marahau.

Distance – 60 kms (37 miles)

Trail conditions – compacted dirt, sand, bridges and swingbridges

When to run – early mornings before it gets too hot (taking the tide into account)

Abel Tasman landscape - jagged rocks
Stunning coastal formations will help keep your feet moving

Old Ghost Road Trail

A long forgotten gold miners’ road has been brought back to life on the South Island’s west coast – or simply ‘The Coast’ as the locals coined it.

The entire Old Ghost Road trail is fairly long and you’d need to break it up into a few days. But the rewards include passing through native forest, traversing open tussock tops, crossing river flats and exploring long forgotten valleys.

The trail surface is generally firm underfoot, having recently been reformed with a mixture of compacted, crushed rock and other natural materials. Be aware that it’s also a popular route with mountain bikers.

You can either start from the north or south while Westport is your ideal base on the coast. Four ghost towns populate the route so it really a step (or trail run) back in time.

Distance – 85 kms (52.8 miles)

Trail conditions – compacted dirt, gravel, rocks and swingbridges

When to run – when it’s not raining (it’s often said to always be raining on The Coast!)

Four trail runners passing over some tops
Layering up is important when trail running at altitude

Lake Rotoiti Circuit – Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoiti was formed from a bunch of glaciers that occupied this area some 15,000 years ago. It’s an iconic lake in Nelson Lakes Nelson Park, right in the middle of the mountainous South Island.

The series of trails that create the Lake Rotoiti Circuit twist through dense beech forest, green moss and ferns. You might also bypass native tui and kaka birds.

The trail itself is well trodden with only a key decision to be made as you reach the head of the lake and the Travers River – is it low enough to cross? If not, a swingbridge lies roughly four kilometres upstream.

The Circuit is a relatively easy trail run to complete on your own as you can loop the lake back to your vehicle.

Distance – 23 kms (14 miles) with the river crossing or 31 kms (19 miles) via the swingbridge

Trail conditions – compacted dirt and gravel

When to run – mid morning

Two trail runners circumnavigating a lake
Trail running by a lake will help you find that extra energy when tiredness sets in

Te Ara Pataka (Summit Walkway) – Banks Peninsula

Right on Christchurch’s doorstep is an outdoor playground quite unlike any other in the country. Banks Peninsula is home to the Summit Walkway which leads to the Hilltop on the Akaroa Crater.

The beauty of this track – that’s a joy to trail run – is you can start and finish in a number of places. We’d suggest getting transport to the Hilltop end of the trail and running back to Diamond Harbour – where you can take a ferry across the harbour to Lyttelton and indulge in a few refreshments.

You’ll encounter a giant 2,000 year old totara tree, the highest peak on the peninsula and views of Lyttelton and Akaroa harbours as you sweat it out.

Some of the trail’s other main access points are:

  • The Bridle Path – below the Christchurch Gondola with easy access to Lyttelton
  • Sign of the Kiwi – at the top of Dyers Pass Road over the Port Hills
  • Kaituna Valley – only a short distance to the Packhorse Hut and some steep elevations
  • Port Levy Saddle – isolated but a great starting point if you want a shorter run to the top of Mount Herbert and back

Distance – 26 kms (16.2 miles) from Hilltop to Diamond Harbour

Trail conditions – compacted dirt and gravel

When to run – when there’s little or no wind

Restrictions – closed for lambing August to October

A couple running up a hill track
Running on undulating city trails is good training for longer, mountainous runs

Ben Lomond Track – Queenstown

This popular walking track which rises beyond the gondola from the heart of Queenstown is a winner with locals. It’s a demanding rise in elevation – more than 1,400 metres (4,593 feet) – so expect a tough uphill training run.

There are a few starting points:

  • The Tiki Trail – near the bottom of the gondola
  • One Mile Creek Track – beginning near the Fernhill roundabout
  • Skyline Access Road – at the top of the gondola if you prefer a shorter run

From Ben Lomond Saddle the trail gets steeper and rockier while rising to the summit. Depending on your trail running experience, you may decide to turn back at the saddle.

Your reward will be a tussock covered peak with spectacular panoramic views over Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountain ranges. The Ben Lomond Track summit is at 1,748 metres (5,735 feet) so it’s not a place to linger for too long.

Distance – 13.9 kms (8.6 miles)

Trail conditions – compacted dirt and gravel

When to run – spring, summer and autumn with good weather

Two people running on a hilltop in the distance
Why stay still when you can trail run

Rakiura Track – Stewart Island

For a true trail running adventure, take the short flight or ferry to Stewart Island.

Although not technically part of the South Island, the environment is similar yet extremely isolated. As such, the Rakiura Track gives you the opportunity to spot rare native birdlife when you’re on the trail.

Classed as a Great Walk, you can expect an undulating track through plenty of bush with beach sections, some uneven surfaces and possibly a little mud.

You’ll likely only meet hikers on the trail, who’ll probably think you’re mad for running it in less than a day. But if you spot indigenous weka or kiwi during your journey, it’ll be all the more worth it.

Distance – 32 kms (20 miles)

Trail conditions – compacted dirt, gravel, sand and swingbridges

When to run – early morning for a better chance to see kiwi

Forest on Stewart Island
Expect a different kind of trail run on Rakiura - Stewart Island

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