Updated September 28, 2020
Day hike: 4-6.5 hours
If there is one place in New Zealand that holds a special place in my heart, it’s an island called Aotea. More commonly known as Great Barrier Island or ‘The Barrier’.
Located about 100 kms off the coast of Auckland, it is completely off the grid. And it is one of the most beautiful, sustainable and eco-friendly communities that I’ve found in New Zealand so far.
As the sixth largest island in New Zealand and with a population of less than 1000 people, the majority of the island is untouched and incredibly pristine.
Think white sand beaches, turquoise waters, sand dunes, mountains, wetlands, hot springs and rivers. Spot dolphins, orcas, and many native birds including tuī, banded rail, fantail, pukeko and morepork.
Great Barrier Island has also been awarded with a Dark Sky Sanctuary status; one of only nine locations in the world to receive this.
As you can probably imagine, there are many stunning hiking opportunities on The Barrier, including the Aotea Track. The whole track is a 3 day hike, with stops at Mt Heale Hut (described here) and Kaiaraara Hut. But you can also do sections of the track as a one-day hike if you’re short on time.
My favourite Great Barrier Island day hike was undoubtedly Windy Canyon to Kaitoke Hot Springs. We loved it so much that we did it twice!
Here’s my detailed walk-through of this stunning trail.
Great Barrier Island day hike Part One: Windy Canyon to Mt Heale Hut
The first thing to note before starting this day hike is that there is nowhere to park where the trail begins. If you can, it’s best to get a lift or hitchhike along Aotea Road to the top of Whangapoua Hill.
We got a lift from Tryphena to Claris with our Workaway hosts both times we did this hike. We then started walking north along the road with our thumbs out. Although we did get picked up each time, we found that we had done quite a bit of walking before we even started the track.
If you hitchhike, be aware that the traffic depends on where you’re starting and if the ferry is running. When there is traffic, you are pretty much guaranteed to get a ride as the locals are so friendly and almost always stop.
When you join Palmers Track from Aotea Road, ensure you brush and disinfect your shoes. There is a cleaning station provided to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease.
The track ascends steadily for the first few minutes. Then, as you reach the canyon, it continues up multiple stairways through Windy Canyon to the top. From here you can enjoy stunning views across Okiwi Basin and Whangapoua Beach in one direction and Kaitoke and Medlands Beaches in the other direction.
Palmers Track then continues along the ridge with spectacular views all the way for about one hour, before ascending to the summit of Mt Hobson on a long series of stairways. Don’t miss the ‘Wooden Horse’ on the ridge; a relic from the logging days used to winch logs up from the eastern slopes and send them rolling down the other side towards the sea.
As you start ascending the steps, you’ll notice that you’re now climbing through an area of mature forest very different to the area you’ve just left. This is because the forest at this altitude was unreachable for logging or by fire. You’ll see plenty of native plant life and hear the native birds all around you!
About 50 metres from the summit, the path forks; the track up and to the left leads to the summit, while the track to the right heads towards Mt Heale Hut and the top of the Kaiaraara Track.
As you’ve made it so close to the summit, do climb the last set of stairs to enjoy the hugely rewarding view from the highest point on the island. We sat at the summit for a while, resting, eating lunch and taking in the beauty of Great Barrier Island.
Once you’ve taken in the views, head back down the stairs and turn left to continue along to the hut. You will see Kaiaraara Track fork down to the right; ensure you keep going straight ahead, unless you’d like another 3 hour hike to Kaiaraara Hut instead!
You will soon start descending another long, steep staircase, bringing you out at a clearing with Mt Heale before you. Follow the track through the clearing and back into the trees as it leads you around the side of this smaller mountain. The track is quite narrow here and there are rocks that you will need to climb around or over.
As the track rounds the mountain, you may catch a glimpse of the hut through the trees. Shortly afterwards you’ll reach a small sign directing you to the right off the main path.
The first time we hiked this trail, we decided in advance to spend a night at the hut to split up the trek and give us some relaxation time.
The second time, however, we did the whole trail in one day.
Mt Heale Hut is well equipped with 20 bunks, a large kitchen with gas hobs, two large tables with benches and two compost toilets. On the website it is recommended to bring cooking equipment; however, when we arrived we found that a kettle and various pans of different sizes were provided. This could change in the future, though, so please keep it in mind.
The front veranda boasts marvellous views across to Little Barrier Island, and the night sky is spectacular on a cloudless night.
If you haven’t booked the hut in advance (this can be done on the Department of Conservation website and is recommended), please ensure you leave your fee in the box provided. Fees at time of writing are Adult $15, Child (age 5-17) $7.50, Child (under 5) free.
Part Two: Mt Heale Hut to Kaitoke Hot Springs
The track from the hut to the hot springs continues to your right when you exit the hut, away from the summit of the mountain.
After a few minutes you will reach a junction where, at the time of writing, a temporary DOC sign describes the South Fork Track to Forest Road as being one hour to the right and Peach Tree Track to Tramline Track one hour to the left. Take the left onto Peach Tree Track.
The path starts descending the hill with incredible views towards Awana, Kaitoke Beach and Medlands.
The track curves down and round to the right. After crossing a small stream, it gradually evens out with a few slight ups and downs along the way. But it is generally fairly easy-going, with a final descent down to join the Tramline Track. This part of the walk took us exactly an hour to complete, as the sign at the top had suggested.
Another sign at the Tramline Track declares 45 minutes to the Kaitoke Hot Springs. This track is much wider than the Peach Tree Track and continues along flat until it joins the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track. It took us 20 minutes to reach this point, where another sign confirms the Hot Springs are only 15 minutes away.
A long set of stairs follows to the top of the final hill of this walk; from the top you can enjoy great views over the Kaitoke wetland system. Finally, a short descent brings you down to the Hot Springs.
This is a great way to end your Great Barrier Island day hike. Perfect for soaking those weary muscles!
For the final part of the trek towards Whangaparapara Road, follow the track to the left after the small bridge. This will take you steadily around the wetlands to the road in about 25-30 mins.
Don’t forget to brush and disinfect your shoes again before leaving the track!
This route makes for a strenuous day hike, leaving you feeling accomplished and full of awe at the beauty of the island. Of course, if you’d rather take a more relaxed pace, you can spend a night in Mt Heale Hut.
The sunset from the hut is incredible, as is the night sky once the stars come out. There is absolutely no light pollution so it feels like you can see every star in the Milky Way. And you can’t miss the Southern Cross!
At 627m, the summit of Mt Hobson is certainly not one of the most difficult climbs in New Zealand; but I love this peaceful day hike for its natural beauty and diversity. How many other hikes include climbing through a canyon, hiking along a ridge, gazing at mature native forest, reaching a mountain summit, soaking in hot pools and meandering through wetlands all in one day?!
And this is just a small slice of what Great Barrier Island has to offer. You won’t believe you’re still within a day’s reach of Auckland!
Did you enjoy this Great Barrier Island day hike walk-through? Are you planning to visit this unique island? Get in touch through the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- Day hike essentials: what to pack
- Workaway: an introduction to work exchange
- Top 7 awesome things to do in Auckland
All images in this post are the property of lastminutewanders.com
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Tanya H says
Hi Sarah! this looks amazing!! Looking to spend christmas this year over there and want to stay overnight in the hut. How many hours does it take to get to the hut? Thanks!
Hi Tanya! Yes it really is wonderful.
It takes around 2-3 hours to get to the hut from the road via Windy Canyon.
I hope you have a fantastic time on the island! 🙂
Katharina Hueneburg says
Beautiful! NZ is amazing!
Thanks Katharina! It’s gorgeous isn’t it? 🙂
This looks like a great way to spend the day!
It really is! 🙂
That sunset is WILD. New Zealand seems like such a pure and beautiful place. Do those hotsprings have any sulphur smell? I’d love to visit them regardless. Looks like heaven on Earth.
It was gorgeous 🙂 the springs don’t have a strong smell at all!
NZ has been on my bucket list for a while and for this reason exactly – mountains, hiking, and gorgeeeouss landscapes! Didn’t realize the Great Barrier Island was SO beautiful!!
Me too! I’d never even heard of Great Barrier Island before I got to NZ but I’m SO glad I went there 🙂
NZ looks so beautiful – it has never been on my list, but it is now! Kayaking with dolphins sounds like an amazing experience!
Kayaking with dolphins was incredible! And completely spontaneous! I highly recommend NZ if you get the chance 🙂
This all looks amazing!!! I would love to go into the hot springs!
It is so nice, especially when you can soak your muscles after a day of hiking 🙂
This is fabulous. We are planning our trip there and this will be so helpful!
I’m glad it’s helpful! Definitely add Great Barrier Island to your itinerary if you can! 🙂
Wow!!! Looks so beautiful. I would love to go to NZ!!! The vistas are spectacular!
It’s hard to explain how incredible they really are!
This is making me crave the mountains so badly!! I live in Florida so I don’t get to come across them too often :/ I’m doing a road trip through the Carolinas though in a couple of weeks so I can get my fix! 🙂
Oh I’m the same! I’m missing them so much too but I’m glad you’ll get your fix soon 🙂
The huts look great to stay in and any hike with hot springs is good in my book!
Hot springs are always a win! And yeah, the huts are great 🙂