A woman stands under Nikau palm trees showing the scale of the trees around her.

An Ultimate Guide For Tramping The Heaphy Track

by Jonny Marc Baker
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The Heaphy track, located in Kahurangi National Park, is the longest of New Zealand’s Great Walk tracks and in my opinion one of the most exciting.  It has everything you could ask for, fascinating forests, captivating coastlines, an abundance of wildlife and New Zealand’s only native palm species, the Nīkau palm.

In this guide I will be covering all that you need to know before setting out on the trail.  I will explain how to book the walk, the options for transport to and from the finish, details about the track and area and everything else in between.  So if you want to learn more about this amazing walk, keep reading!

Despite the distance of the Heaphy track it is actually a relatively easy walk, especially if you spread it out over 5 days.  The track is a total of 78.4km and will take most people 4-5 days to complete.  We did however meet some people that were walking it in 3 days, so, if you fancy a challenge, it is possible to complete it in less time.

The track is one-way which means it starts and ends in different places.  This means you will need to organise travel to the start and from the finish but we will talk more about this later.  As it is a one-way track you will have the choice of where you would like to start and finish.  You can either start at the east end of the track, which is situated in the Golden Bay area, or the west end near the Kōhaihai River mouth.

If you decide to walk north to south, the first day is almost all uphill with an approximate elevation of 800m.  The incline is, however, extremely gradual so isn’t too challenging.  The rest of the track is either flat or downhill with some small areas of elevation.  The most challenging part of the track is at the end near Kōhaihai campsite where there is a solid 30 minutes of elevation.

A vibrant sunset with the sky lit up with clouds with an extremely orange colour.
Beautiful sunset looking towards the Kōhaihai River mouth.

Best Time To Do The Heaphy Track

The Heaphy Track is open throughout the whole year to anyone wanting to hike it.  The track is also used by mountain bikers but this is only permitted from 1st May to 30th November each year.

The summer period is when the track is most popular for fellow trampers, the busiest time is from Christmas all the way through Easter.  We walked the track late February which was quite busy, most huts were fully booked but fortunately most of the huts are quite large so it didn’t feel too crowded.  If you fancy quieter tracks you could walk the Heaphy in Autumn before the mountain bikes decend on the tracks in May. 

How To Book The Heaphy Track Great Walk?

If you are planning on completing the entirety of the Heaphy Track, you will need to book either huts or campsites to stay in.  There are no fees to enter Kahurangi National Park or to walk the actual track itself, the fees only apply to the booking of accommodation.

If you are planning on walking the track during the summer period it is essential that you book well in advance.  Bookings for both huts and campsites fill up incredibly quickly especially around the weekends.

There are 6 huts in total located on the track.  It costs NZ$34 per person for adults 18 and above to stay in the hut.  If you are 17 years or younger and an international visitor, the cost is NZ$17 per person per hut.  If you are a New Zealand citizen or ordinarily an NZ resident the hut is free of charge for those 17 years and younger, however bookings are still required.

If you prefer to camp, there are 9 campsites available for use on the track.  It costs NZ$14 per person, per night to camp for adults 18 years and over.  For international visitors 17 years and younger it costs NZ$7 per person, per night.  Again if you are a New Zealand citizen or ordinarily an NZ resident, campsites are free of charge to those 17 years and younger.

To book your hut or campsite place you can visit the Department of Conservation website; you can find the bookings page for the Heaphy here.

Where Is The Heaphy Track?

The Heaphy track is located in Kahurangi National Park, which is situated in the upper northwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island.  The track itself is a one-way track meaning it starts and finishes in different places.  Brown Hut in Golden Bay is the eastern end of the track and Kōhaihai on the West Coast is the western end of the track.

Nelson is the nearest city to the eastern end of the track, Brown Hut is 156km from Nelson, approximately a 2 hour and 30 minute drive.  Westport is the largest town close to the western end of the track, it’s 110km from Kōhaihai, approximately a 1 hour 45 minute drive.

A woman walks along a path through tropical trees with a large red bag on her back.

How To Get To The Heaphy Track?

There are a few ways to access the Heaphy track, the most obvious is to drive there yourself.  Both ends of the track are relatively easy to drive to but it is worth noting that at both ends of the track the final stretch of the journey is on an unsealed road.

Obviously the track ends in different places, this means you will need to somehow get your car to the other end ready for when you finish.  Fortunately there are a few companies locally that offer a car relocation service especially for the Heaphy.  This service varies in price depending on where you are starting and finishing the walk, but prices range from $300-$400.  Check Heaphy Track Help and  Trek Express for more details and up to date pricing.

If you don’t have a car, it is possible to book shuttles to and from the finish of the track.  Trek Express offers shuttles departing Nelson to the start at Brown hut and also a service back to Nelson from Kōhaihai.  When I walked the Heaphy this was the option that I chose as it seemed to be the most reasonably priced.  I highly recommend this service, it’s a great alternative if you don’t have a car.

It is also possible to travel by air to the start and from the finish of the track but this does obviously come at some cost.  If you were interested in this option you can check out Air Charter Karamea and Adventure Flights Golden Bay for more information.

Accommodation Before and After The Walk

Your plans for the walk will determine where you base yourself; if you are going to be catching the shuttle, then Nelson is the best place to stay.  If you are driving yourself, you may want to stay a little closer to the start and finish.

When we were walking the track we stayed at Bridge Backpackers in Nelson the night before and the night after our walk.  If you are going to be staying in Nelson, definitely stay away from this place.  We really didn’t enjoy our stay, the communal areas are lovely but as soon as you get to the rooms it is a different story.  I won’t go into specifics but my partner and I chose to sleep in our sleeping bags because the standard of cleanliness was so poor.

Depending on your budget there are plenty of options in Nelson. There are holiday parks if you want to camp, backpacker hostels, motels and luxury hotels.  Check out the plethora of options here.

If you want to stay near the Kōhaihai end of the track you could stay at Last Resort in Karamea, just 17km from the start/end of the track.  I haven’t stayed here myself but talked to a fellow tramper who stayed here and she said it was a nice place.  If you want to check out Last Resort you can find more information about it here.

 

How To Get To The Heaphy Track Trailhead

If you are driving yourself to the trailhead you will obviously need to know where you’re going.  If you are catching a shuttle to the start and from the finish you don’t need to worry about this.

If travelling to Brown Hut in the Golden Bay area, take State Highway 60 all the way to Collingwood.  At Collingwood you will need to take the Collingwood-Bainham Main Road which will then take you onto Aorere Valley Road, this takes you all the way to the start of the track.

If travelling to the Kōhaihai end of the track from Nelson, take State Highway 6 until you get close to Westport.  You then want to take State Highway 67 from Westport to Karamea.  At Karamea, take Kōhaihai Road all the way to Kōhaihai Conservation Campsite.  This is where the other end of the track starts from.

A woman walks along a wooden path through a forest of trees on the Heaphy Track.

Huts and Campsites on The Heaphy Track

Brown Hut

This hut is situated right at the start of the track at the Golden Bay end.  It has a capacity of 16 people, its facilities include heating, untreated tap water, and flush toilets.  Something worth noting if you are deciding to stay here is that there are no gas cooking facilities.  This isn’t the best hut on the track but might be a good place to stay if you want to get started early during the first day of the walk.

Perry Saddle Hut

Perry Saddle Hut was our first experience of the amazing huts along the Heaphy.  The hut was built in 2012, so as you can imagine it is still nice and new.  There’s plenty of room in the hut for 28 people, both in the communal cooking area and bunk rooms.  The hut has lots of gas cookers, heating, untreated tap water and two long drop toilets with toilet paper provided.

There are three sleeping rooms, which almost feels luxurious for a backcountry hut.  Each room has separate bunk beds, which means you don’t have to sleep directly next to someone else.  The mattresses on the beds are extra thick, unlike most of New Zealand’s backcountry huts.  Another amazing feature of the rooms, are individual shelves big enough to store your packs.

If you fancy a quick dip after your day of walking you can head down to the mountain spa located near the hut, although this is actually more of a creek than a spa.

Gouland Downs Hut

If you have an interest in New Zealand birdlife, then Gouland Downs is a must stay for you.  In 2018 the Takahē Recovery Programme released 30 Takahē into the Gouland Downs area in the hopes of establishing the first wild Takahē population outside of Fiordland.  So far it has been a successful project, which means if you’re lucky you might be able to see this native flightless bird.  We also met a family who saw the Whio or Blue Duck, which is another of New Zealand’s endangered species, while staying in this area.

The hut itself is a lot older than many others on the track but is full of character.  It has room for just 8 people, has heating for those cold nights, non-flush toilets supplied with toilet paper and untreated tap water.  The hut doesn’t have any cooking facilities so if you are planning on staying here you will need to bring along a backpacker gas stove.

Saxon Hut

This was a nice place to stay, while we stayed here there was only one other person staying in the hut with us.  It seems most people miss this hut out and head straight to James Mackay hut from Perry Saddle.  Like all the huts on the Heaphy, it’s situated in a stunning location and with very few people around you can really take in the beauty of the area.

The hut sleeps 16 people, has heating, gas cooker facilities, two long drop toilets with toilet paper provided and untreated tap water.  Unlike most of the other huts on the trail this one has platform beds with four people to a platform, however these do have nice thick mattresses.  The communal cooking area and sleeping space are all in the same room, which could be problematic if you were trying to sleep whilst others were still up.  This wasn’t a problem for us as so few people were staying at the hut, however this might be different if the hut was fully booked.

A wooden path leading towards Saxon Hut on the Heaphy Track.
Saxon Hut

James Mackay Hut

Similar to what you get with Perry Saddle Hut, in James Mackay the luxury hut life continues.  The hut was opened in 2014 so as you’d expect, it is very new and a nice place to be.  It is located at the edge of Mackay Downs, from the hut you can see down to the Heaphy River mouth and out to the Tasman sea.  Views from this hut are pretty spectacular, especially if you’re lucky enough to catch a vibrant New Zealand sunset from the balcony area of the hut.  If you have the time to explore, there are a couple of paths near the helipad that take you down to a small creek.

This hut’s facilities are amazing, it has two flush toilets that are connected to the hut and, of course, supplied with toilet paper.  It has heating, lighting, untreated tap water and plenty of gas cookers so that all 28 occupants can get their dinner served on time.   Again there is a large cooking communal space and three bunk rooms with separate bunk beds.  James Mackay is definitely a must stay on the Heaphy.

Heaphy Hut

The last hut, or first if you’re walking towards Golden bay is Heaphy Hut, this is a state of the art hut that was built in 2013.  In my opinion this is the best hut on the track, not only because of how nice it is, but also how incredible the surrounding area is. 

The hut is surrounded by tropical forest with tons of Nikau palms, which are very eye-catching.  It is located right in front of where the Heaphy River mouth meets the Tasman Sea.  I’d really recommend you go for a refreshing swim in the water after your day of hiking, although beware of the sandflies, there are lots.  If you do go for a swim make sure you are far enough inland, stay away from where the river meets the sea as being swept out to sea is a real possibility here.

The Heaphy is a 32 bunk hut, which has one large communal cooking area and four bunk rooms.  It has two flush toilets connected to the hut, heating, lighting and untreated tap water.  Similar to James Mackay Hut, it has plenty of gas cookers for everyone to use.  Again, this is a must stay hut on the Heaphy track, you definitely won’t regret staying here.

A hut positioned between the tropical trees behind it and a sandy beach in front. This is the Heaphy Hut on the Heaphy Track.
Heaphy Hut

Campsites

There are 9 campsites along the trail, all the huts have campsite facilities so if you prefer a bit more privacy this may be a good option for you.  Obviously this means you will have to carry a tent with you and a sleeping pad or mat.  Although camping can be a good option, towards the end of the track when the sandflies are particularly bad, the huts are somewhat a safe haven.  Keep this in mind towards the end, as you will be sharing your campsite with the sandflies.

Heaphy Track Great Walk Itinerary

There are a few different ways you can walk the Heaphy track.  If you’re a fast tramper you could finish the track in 3 days, however I’d advise the majority of people to take the 4 or 5 day option.

Where you start the walk will probably depend on where you are based, if it’s possible I would recommend you try to start from the Golden Bay end and walk towards Kōhaihai.  The reason I recommend walking it like this is firstly, the inclines are more gradual this way than the other.  Secondly, the route is far more interesting in this direction as the surrounding landscapes get better and better, especially on the last day which is mind blowing at times.  I’d much rather have the best of the landscapes towards the end of my trip rather than all at the start as I feel it makes the whole trail feel more special.

Below, I have chosen a 4 day itinerary as I found this was the most popular route taken by other trampers.  With this itinerary, Day 2 from Perry Saddle to James Mackay is 24.2km, which may be too far for some people.  If you feel that this is too long for one day I’d advise you to stay at Saxon Hut as this splits this long day into two days.  Also, if you would like a chance to see the Takahē, stay at Gouland Downs as this will give you a far greater chance of seeing them.

Day 1 – Brown Hut – Perry Saddle Hut

This first section of the Heaphy is 17.5km and takes approximately 5 hours to complete.  Almost the entire day is spent climbing elevation, roughly 800m in total but the incline is extremely gradual so it’s not too taxing.  Almost the entire route is under the cover of trees, however there are a few places where the cover opens up and you can see the amazing landscapes of Kahurangi National Park.  The trail is well pathed as you would expect on a Great Walk, however there did seem to be a lot of loose rocks in places which is something to be careful of.

The highlight of the day is a quick 5 minute detour to Flanagan’s Corner, this is the highest point on the track at 915m.  A short path leads to a viewpoint where you can take in the breath-taking views.  This viewpoint is about 30 minutes before you reach Perry Saddle Hut so once you reach Flanagan’s Corner you’re not too far from the hut.

A large green mountain range which can be found at Flanagan's Corner on the Heaphy Track.
View from Flanagan's Corner

Day 2 – Perry Saddle Hut – James Mackay Hut

The journey from Perry Saddle to James Mackay hut is 24.2km and takes approximately 6 hours and 30 minutes.  As I said earlier, if this sounds too far for you, there are two huts en route that you can stay at to split the one day into two easy days.

The day starts under the cover of trees with lots of little creeks, a lot of these are bridged so are easy to cross.  As the day goes on the cover starts to open up which is great as you get to see more of the vast landscape you are walking through.  Make sure you have plenty of sunscreen on during sunny days, as you will be very exposed to the sun’s rays.

After a while you will reach Boot Pole Corner, this is a large pole where trampers have left their old and broken boots hanging.  Not long after Boot Pole Corner you will reach Gouland Downs Hut, which is a good place for a break. 

A pole stands high with lots of old walking boots attached to it. This is boot pole corner found on the Heaphy Track.
Boot Pole Corner

Close to the hut is The ‘Enchanted Forest’ which is well worth a visit.  You can leave your pack near the hut for this side trip, just make sure you have everything secured as the local Weka will steal anything they can get their beaks on.  In The ‘Enchanted Forest’ you will find several limestone arches and old caves where you can go exploring.  There is a small waterfall that flows out of a cave passage that you can find if you walk through to the other side of the forest until the cover opens up again.

From Gouland Downs to Saxon Hut the route is fairly open and exposed with lots of tussock covered fields and a few rivers which are very picturesque on a nice day.  After approximately 1 hour 30 minutes you will reach Saxon Hut which is situated in a nice secluded area.

The trip from Saxon Hut to James Mackay starts under cover but quickly opens up again.  I distinctly remember the tracks were extremely well formed with gravel, which was really nice to walk on.  After a long day of walking you will finally reach James Mackay Hut, the views from here will make all your hard work worth it.

Day 3 – James Mackay Hut – Heaphy Hut

This day starts much the same as the other days under the cover of the forest trees.  The total time walking from James Mackay to Heaphy is approximately 6 hours over 20.5km, so again it’s a long day of walking.  Fortunately the first half of the day is all downhill and the remainder of the day is almost all flat.  Coming down the track the decline feels quite gradual, however if you were heading up towards James Mackay I’m sure the incline would be a little challenging.

Before you reach the bottom of the ascent there are a few places where the cover clears and this allows great opportunities to capture some photos of the Heaphy River.  Once you reach the bottom you will have an opportunity for a swim in the river but beware the sandflies are pretty brutal here.

The track continues and you will soon reach the Heaphy River bridge, a 148.8 metre long deck suspension bridge, it’s actually the longest one the Department of Conservation has ever made.  Not too long after the suspension bridge you start to notice how your surroundings completely change.  Instead of the beech forest that you have been used to, you are now surrounded by a diverse forest full of many different tree species including Rimu and Rata.  This is where the walk started to become really interesting for me, I was amazed by how rugged and untamed the forest was.

As you get closer to the river mouth, Nikau palms start to appear and at times it seems like you’re in a tropical rainforest.  As you get closer to Heaphy Hut the roar of the sea is quite distinct.  Finally after a long day of walking, you will arrive at the hut which seems like an absolute paradise.  The sandflies here are pretty bad, but if the wind is strong enough they seem to stay away for a bit.

A large river flows away from camera towards the mountains ahead. This is the Heaphy River which is found on the Heaphy Track.
The Heaphy River

Day 4 – Heaphy Hut – Kōhaihai Shelter and Campsite

The trip from Heaphy Hut to Kōhaihai Shelter is unforgettable, this was by far my favourite stretch of the trail.  The track takes approximately 5 hours to walk the remaining 16.2km, each and every kilometre of the trail is just unbelievable.  One thing to keep in mind is that the Nikau palms do shed their leaves about twice per season.  These leaves can be pretty heavy so when walking near or under these palms, proceed with caution.

The first part of the trail once you leave the hut is fairly open, it’s not too long until the track is right next to the beach.  For most of the day the track follows the sea and beach which is just absolutely unreal at times.  There are a few places where you can easily access the beach to walk on, make sure you’re aware of the tide times though, you don’t want to get caught out.

As you travel further down the coast, the sound of the waves crashing on one side and the insects on the other, is deafening at times.  There are a few bridges along this section of the track; once you get towards the centre of these bridges have a look around, the views are immense.

The majority of the track is quite easy and flat, towards the end though you will reach Kōhaihai Saddle.  This is about a 30 minute climb and is actually probably the most challenging part of the entire track.  Once you reach the top there is a viewpoint that looks back towards where you have just walked from.  The track then starts to head back downhill until you reach the Kōhaihai River Bridge.  Once you cross this bridge the shelter and campsite isn’t much further, and just like that, you have finished the Heaphy Track.

A beautiful beach with turquoise blue waters. This particular beach is found along a stretch of the Heaphy Track in New Zealand.
Beautiful coastal views during the last day.

What To Pack For The Heaphy Track

As with any backcountry trip, it pays to be well prepared, but you don’t want to fall into the trap of overpacking.  If you’re new to tramping and are unsure of exactly what to take, you can check out my Great Walk packing guide for all the best advice.

The Heaphy Track is pretty well equipped which means you could go lightweight on your gear if you wanted.  All huts are supplied with toilet paper and untreated tap water, also most huts do have gas cooking facilities.  If you’re staying at Brown Hut or Gouland Downs Hut however, you will need your own gas cooker.

Insect repellent and sunscreen are two items you really don’t want to forget.  The sandflies towards the end of the track are pretty fierce so insect repellent is vital.  A fair amount of the track is pretty exposed so you also need to make sure you are properly protected from those strong New Zealand rays.

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Final Thoughts on the Heaphy Track

Before I share my thoughts on the Heaphy I will tell a story that was told to me by our shuttle driver, who actually used to be a ranger on the track.  While he was driving us to the start of the track he was telling us the story of an 80 year old woman who walked the track.  She was from the United Kingdom and had walked the track when she was younger.  When she had first walked the track she loved it so much she decided if she was still alive when she was 80 she would walk it again.  And amazingly she did, the Heaphy track was the best experience of her life and she wanted to experience it again.

The reason for the story is to help try to illustrate just how good this track is.  When I heard the story I was amazed but thought it can’t be that good surely?  After walking the full track I can safely say it is that incredible and I too want to walk it again someday.  I thoroughly enjoyed my experience on this track and truly believe this is a must do New Zealand trail.

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The Heaphy Track is an unbelievable trail set in the heart of Kahurangi National Park in New Zealand. Click here to learn more about this incredible track.

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