A visitor guide to mountains in New Zealand
Depending on how you look at it, New Zealand is conveniently located on the Ring of Fire, a 40,000 km / 25,000 mile horseshoe shaped tectonic zone that circles the Pacific Ocean. On the one hand this means that we live with the constant threat of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. On the other hand it means that New Zealand has some pretty epic mountains and mountain ranges, formed by volcanic activity and the constant battle between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates.
We may not have the world’s tallest mountains but what we lack in height, we make up for in variety, from rolling greens hills to mighty snow covered peaks, some of which are active volcanoes. Our mountains are also home to an extensive network of walking and hiking trails as well as unique wildlife that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. So regardless of your fitness or experience level, you’ll definitely want to make the most of them in some way, whether that’s hiking, climbing or skiing, or simply taking in the views of our beautiful country.
A map of New Zealand Mountains
So just how many mountains are there in New Zealand? The short answer is 856 according to the New Zealand Alpine Club’s New Zealand Mountains list. We’ll go into this in more detail at the end of this article, but the point is, unless you’re a serious mountaineer, their list is probably a little over the top.
Instead, in this guide we’ll cover just some of New Zealand’s best known and most picturesque mountain peaks and mountain ranges. We’ve also included a few Mounts which, although referred to as Mounts (Mount Eden in Auckland as an example), in reality are just hills. But since they’re popular attractions, we’ve included them. Here’s a handy map that shows where all of these mountains are located.
The big 5
From a tourism perspective, these are some of our tallest mountains, and if you’re visiting our beautiful country, you really should make an effort to see them all.
1 – Aoraki / Mount Cook
The Southern Alps mountain range (officially known as Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana) is a dominant feature of New Zealand’s South Island, stretching some 500 km / 310 miles from Nelson Lakes in the north-east to Milford Sound in the south-west. It is home to arguably some of the most spectacular mountains in New Zealand.
Taking pride of place in this range is Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. The most recent GPS measurement by the University of Otago in November 2013 puts the summit at 3,724 metres / 12,218 feet.
Interestingly, New Zealand’s tallest mountain was originally recorded at 3,764 metres / 12,349 feet but around 13 million cubic metres of rock and ice fell from the northern peak on 14 December 1991, reducing the height by 10 metres / 33 feet. Since then, erosion has continued to reduce the height or our highest peak to what it is today.
Located in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, Mount Cook is about a 3 hour drive from Queenstown or 4 hours if driving from Christchurch. Nearby Mount Cook Village has ample accommodation and is a great place to base yourself if you want to spend a few days exploring the area.
So can you climb Mount Cook? The short answer is yes but it does require serious alpine mountaineering experience which puts it out of reach of almost all visitors to New Zealand. You can however get relatively close to the mountain on foot via the hugely popular and highly recommended Hooker Valley Track. We consider this to be a must do activity for anyone visiting the South Island. Whilst there, you should also visit nearby Tasman Glacier and if you’re up for a climb, spend a night at Mueller Hut.
Did you know that Mount Cook was an important training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary who in 1953, together with Nepali, Tenzing Norgay, became the first person to summit Mount Everest. Prior to this, in 1947, Hillary climbed Mount Cook with one of the most respected professional mountain guides of the day, Harry Ayres. While Hillary was already an accomplished climber, his experience with Ayres helped him to gain important technical mountaineering skills that would certainly have helped him on Mount Everest.
2 – Horokoau / Mount Tasman
A close neighbour to Mount Cook, and straddling the border between Aoraki / Mount Cook and Westland Tai Poutini National Parks, Mount Tasman is New Zealand’s second highest mountain at 3,497 m / 11,473 ft. Like Mt Cook, it’s also a mountain that most visitors will only be able to enjoy from a distance as it’s only accessible to experienced mountaineers.
Fortunately, Lake Matheson provides some spectacular views of both Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Known for its calm, dark water which makes for some mirror-like reflections, the short easy walk that circles the lake is a popular attraction as you travel along the West Coast.
3 – Tititea / Mount Aspiring
The small lakeside town of Wanaka is a must-do destination on any South Island itinerary. No visit would be complete without sundowners along the shore and as you sip your favourite drink, your eyes will undoubtedly be drawn to the snow covered peaks in the distance.
Unfortunately, you can’t actually see the summit of Mount Aspiring from Wanaka town itself. For that, you’ll need to take a drive along the lake’s western shore to Glendhu Bay or better yet, climb nearby Roys Peak. It’s a 15 km / 9 mile return hike to the summit of Roys Peak but it’s definitely worth it for the panoramic views, including Mount Aspiring in all its glory.
Mount Aspiring or Tititea (‘peak of glistening white’ as it’s known in local Māori), is located in Mount Aspiring National Park. The park has a long history of mountaineering and hiking and prior to that, rivers and valleys of the park were explored by Māori during hunting and fishing expeditions. Pounamu (greenstone) was also an important natural resource, and the park was used as a route across the Southern Alps (Main Divide) to collect and trade this highly valued stone.
4 – Mount Ruapehu
Mount Ruapehu is most notable for being the highest mountain in the North Island at 2,797 m / 9,977 ft. Ruapehu is an active (but carefully monitored) volcano that marks the southern end of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. There are in fact a number of summits on this mountain with Tahurangi being the highest point. Tahurangi overlooks Turoa ski field, one of three ski fields on the mountain, the others being Tukino and Whakapapa which is actually the largest ski field in New Zealand.
Outside of winter, Mount Ruapehu is still a popular adventure destination with numerous walks and hikes to enjoy on and around the mountain. The hike to Dome summit overlooking Ruapehu crater lake is particularly popular in summer (December to February) but is best for experienced mountaineers in winter months.
Mt Ruapehu and the Tongariro National Park is approximately 4 hours drive from Auckland and around 3 and a half hours from Wellington and the closest towns are Ohakune to the south and Turangi to the north. There’s also the small nearby village of National Park which has lots of accommodation to choose from.
Looking for inspiration? Check out some of our own Mount Ruapehu adventures.
5 – Mount Taranaki
Like Ngauruhoe, Mount Taranaki (or Mount Egmont as it’s also known) is a distinctly cone shaped mountain. This dormant volcano is the second highest mountain in the North Island at 2,518 m / 8,261 ft. Located in the Egmont National Park and just a short drive (less than 30km / 19 miles) from the coastal city of New Plymouth, Mount Taranaki and the surrounding park is a very popular hiking destination. There are a number of huts available for overnight stays including Syme Hut which is considered to be one of the park’s best overnight spots at approximately 1,960m / 6,430 ft.
While you can climb to the summit of Mt Taranaki, it should only be attempted in good weather as, being close to the coast, conditions can change very quickly. Summer and early autumn (December to April) are the most popular months to climb and frankly the only time you should consider climbing Mt Taranaki unless you have alpine mountaineering skills and equipment. From May to November, snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures makes for a very challenging experience, that’s not to be underestimated.
Other mountains in New Zealand worth visiting
Outside of the big 5, there are numerous mountains in New Zealand that are worth visiting. Here is just a small selection based on some of our personal experiences.
Also in the Tongariro National Park and situated to the north-east of Mt Ruapehu is Mt Ngauruhoe, made famous by being the real world stand-in for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. This active volcano is the second highest peak in the park and stands tall at 2,287 m / 7,503 ft and is a prominent feature on the hugely popular Tongariro Crossing, one of the best day hikes in the country.
While it’s now discouraged for both safety and cultural reasons, we’ve climbed to the summit of Ngauruhoe in the past and you can read about our adventure here, climbing Mount Ngauruhoe. It’s also worth mentioning that we haven’t specifically listed Mount Tongariro which, although it’s not the highest peak in the area, gives its name to the park.
If you walk the Tongariro Crossing, you will in fact walk past Mount Tongariro but, like Mount Ngauruhoe, climbing to the very top is discouraged. But don’t let that stop you from doing the Tongariro Crossing. When the weather conditions are good, the views are spectacular.
At just 1,284 m / 4,213 ft, Mt Tarawera may not be very tall but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in uniqueness, certainly here in New Zealand. If ever you wanted to see and understand how a mountain can tear itself apart then a visit to this dormant volcano is an experience you won’t want to miss. The incredible colours alone are an impressive sight. You can read about our experience here, climbing Mount Tarawera. Note that unlike other mountains in New Zealand, you can only access Mt Tarawera as part of a guided tour.
Rahotu /Mitre Peak
Located in the southwest corner of the South Island, Fiordland is undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s most breathtakingly beautiful regions. A World Heritage area, Fiordland National Park is home to Milford Sound, with its lush forests and towering peaks. Of all those peaks, Mitre Peak is undoubtedly the most iconic, its summit dominating the skyline… assuming it isn’t raining. Which it does there. A lot.
At 1,683m / 5,522 ft, Mitre Peak towers above Milford Sound and for most, a leisurely boat cruise is the best way to get up close to the mountain. While it is possible to climb to the summit, there is no formed track and the route is extremely technical and not advised without serious climbing experience.
You can’t talk about Wanaka without mentioning Roys Peak, a rather unassuming ridge to the west of this lakeside town. The 15 km / 9 mile return hike to the summit of Roys Peak is long but not particularly challenging which makes it very popular, and understandably so as there are incredible views from the summit. Just don’t expect to have this place all to yourself, especially in the high season (December to February, our summer months). You can read about our experience here, climbing Roys Peak.
Most visitors to Queenstown will catch the gondola up to the popular Skyline Queenstown complex on Bob’s Peak with its gift store, restaurant and impressive views over the town. But if you’re anything like us, you’ll be looking for opportunities to stretch your legs in which case, a hike to the summit of Ben Lomond is just what the doctor ordered.
It’s a fairly demanding hike, particularly as you get closer to the summit but the views over Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountain ranges are hard to beat and make the climb well worth the effort.
These are mostly hills really, some of which you can simply drive to the top of, but they all offer panoramic views of the surrounding area so are worth visiting.
Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, sits on top of a ‘hot spot’ of magma called the Auckland Volcanic Field which consists of over 50 separate volcanoes. Don’t worry, these volcanoes are all dormant and unlikely to become active again although the field itself is still considered to be young (in geological terms) and active.
The most recent eruption, around 600 years ago, was on the island of Rangitoto, 10 km / 6 miles northeast of downtown Auckland. At 260 m / 853 ft it’s the largest volcanic remnant in the city and the short ferry ride and climb to the summit is a popular attraction. You’ll also want to visit nearby Waiheke Island while you’re at it, the perfect place for a spot of wine tasting.
Another of Auckland’s dormant volcanoes, like Rangitoto, this really is more of a hill than a mountain but it’s a very popular spot overlooking the city. While it used to be possible to drive to the summit, public vehicle access has been restricted but it only takes 5 – 10 minutes to walk to the very top.
No visit to Tauranga would be complete without visiting the seaside suburb of Mount Maunganui, and no visit there would be complete without climbing the hill that gives this suburb its name. There are a number of different walking tracks to the summit and it’s an easy walk that will take you 40 minutes or less. Well worth it for the stunning views along the coast.
Te Mata Peak
The east coast Hawke’s Bay region is known for its wines and gentle wine touring cycle routes. While the region’s western border is dominated by the Ruahine mountain range, near the coast, there’s not much to speak of in the way of mountains apart from Te Mata Peak.
Located in a community owned and managed park, Te Mata Park, Te Mata Peak offers some great views of the Heretaunga Plains and surrounding area.
What about ski fields?
While skiing, particularly heli-skiing, is popular on the slopes of some of our tallest Southern Alps peaks, most visitors in winter will want to make the most of our ski fields. Here is a list of some of the main ones, all of which, apart from Mount Ruapehu are on the South Island:
- Mount Ruapehu (Whakapapa, Turoa, Tukino)
- Kawarau (The Remarkables)
- Mount Cardrona
- Coronet Peak
- Treble Cone
- Mount Hutt
Major North Island mountain ranges
There are a number of mountain ranges on the North Island and while they all offer some form of adventure, mostly hiking and mountain biking, from a tourism perspective they would be considered a little off the beaten track. But if you’re looking for more of a challenging or backcountry experience, check out these links:
- Aorangi Range
- Remutaka Range
- Tararua Range
- Ruahine Range
- Kaweka Range
- Kaimanawa Range
- Huiarau Range
- Raukumara Range
Major South Island mountain ranges
We’ve already mentioned the Southern Alps and a few other South Island mountain ranges throughout this guide. Here is a list of other notable ranges that you’ll want to consider exploring when visiting New Zealand:
So what exactly defines a mountain?
The definition of a mountain is somewhat subjective but for us personally, the New Zealand Alpine Club’s (NZAC) definition seems as good as any. They define a mountain as:
- reaching an altitude of 1,400 metres (4,593 ft) or more and
- are at least 300 metres (984 ft) above the lowest saddle between them and the adjacent ‘mountain’
Based on this definition, according to the NZAC there are 856 mountains in New Zealand, of which 34 are in the North Island and 822 are in the South Island. If you’re interested to see their full list, you can order it online here.
How were New Zealand’s mountains formed?
Until around 60 – 85 million years ago, New Zealand and Australia were connected as part of the Gondwana supercontinent. When New Zealand and Australia parted ways, the single landmass of Zealandia was relatively flat. It’s only been in the last 5 million years that New Zealand’s present mountain ranges have formed. This has been as a result of volcanic activity and tectonic uplift as we straddle the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates.
That makes the New Zealand’s mountains relatively young by geological standards, and being young, they are still very dynamic. In fact, the Southern Alps are one of the most rapidly rising mountain ranges in the world. So why then are our mountains relatively small compared to say the Himalayas or even the European Alps? The answer – erosion.
New Zealand, particularly the South Island, is right in the path of moisture-laden westerly winds which, on reaching the mountains, dump huge amounts of rain, causing massive weathering and erosion. So while parts of the Southern Alps such as the Aoraki/Mt Cook region continue to rise at around 10mm per year, erosion is keeping us from reaching our full potential epicness.
As we mentioned earlier, volcanic activity has also played, and continues to play an important part in shaping our mountainous landscape. This is most noticeable on the North Island. While remnants of the South Island’s volcanic past remain, for example the Banks Peninsula on the east coast, it’s on the North Island where our volcanoes are still very much alive and kicking.