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If you are looking for a multi-day hike in the Auckland area, I highly recommend hiking the Hillary Trail. Here is my experience…
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, both in physical size and population, with 1.65 million people residing in this thriving metropolis.
There are numerous big-city benefits of living in Auckland such as world-class dining, fantastic entertainment options, and great shopping. But that is not why I love it.
In my opinion, it is in the surrounding nature that Auckland’s charms lie.
One of my favorite places in Auckland is the West Coast, home to the 16,000-hectare Waitakere Ranges Regional Park and some of the most beautiful black sand beaches you will ever see.
Nature is still wild there.
Hiking the Hillary Trail in Auckland
The 77km trail Hillary Trail is the best way to discover this primeval wonderland. The trail opened in 2010 and was created by connecting a network of pre-established hiking trails. It generally takes four days to hike, with basic camping grounds to overnight at along the way.
The trail is named for one of New Zealand’s most famous sons, Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who was the first to conquer the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest.
The Waitakere Ranges were Sir Edmund’s backyard and he spent a lot of time hiking the numerous trails linking rugged black sand beaches to lonely waterfalls in the untouched coastal rainforest that looks like a set out of Jurassic Park.
I only had two days to hike the Hillary Trail and I didn’t want to attempt to hike 77km in such a short time so after a bit of research, we picked a section of the trail that seemed do-able over a two-day period and encompassed arguably the most scenic section of the hike.
We planned to hike from Huia to Piha – section 2 to section 4 of the track. Only sections 2-5 are currently open with the rest of the trail planned to be reopened sometime in 2023. Check the Auckland Council website to keep up to date with which sections of the track are open.
Hiking the Hillary Trail: Day One – Huia to Pararaha Valley 16.5km
My Dad dropped us off in Huia where we were beginning the trail.
I had never been to Huia before and I was instantly struck by how beautiful it is and how much it reminded me of Milford Sound. Huia is a tiny settlement located in a large bay of Manukau Harbour.
It exudes tranquillity as it doesn’t receive the visitor numbers that some of the other West Coast beach towns get as the beaches in Huia are tidal.
We had fun playing around on the swings in the kid’s playground then found the trail marker, a small orange triangle with a small picture of Edmund Hillary on it, and we were on our way.
The marker was a bit misleading and we weren’t sure if we should be walking up a grassy trail that looked like someone’s driveway (it was) or along the tidal grey sands of the Huia Bay foreshore.
We tried our luck with the foreshore and after being chased by crazy oystercatcher birds that were protecting their nest, we found another marker and knew we were on the right track.
We quickly found the Karamatura Valley Campground, where most people completing the full Hillary trail would spend their first night after hiking from Arataki.
More confusion abounded as we tried to figure out which of the three trails leading off from the campground was the right one, and after a lot of back and forth, we picked the one we thought was most likely correct.
Luckily we picked right but we didn’t know that until we saw another marker about an hour later. Phew!
Hiking through the pristine native bush, we were accompanied by native bird song – grey warblers, tuis, and wood pigeons. New Zealand native birds may not be very colorful but they sure can sing.
We only saw two other people in the three hours that we were in the dense forest. It was just us and the birds. The air was cool and moist, a refreshing temperature perfect for hiking.
We stopped for a snack by an overhanging waterfall, taking much relief from removing our packs.
Despite doing quite a few multiple-day hikes in North and South America, this was the first where I had to carry all my food, cooking utensils, and bedding.
It was hard.
Setting off again, the trail started emerging out of the forest and finally gave us a glimpse of the coast below. More of the coast was revealed as we started hiking along a ridge and then we slowly started the descent down to Whatipu.
I have been to the West Coast many times but I had never seen anything quite like the scenic feast in front of our eyes. It was, simply put, some of the most spectacularly wild scenery I have ever seen.
It felt prehistoric, utterly unchanged from what it was when giant lizards roamed the earth before people ever came to New Zealand. When it was a Kingdom of Birds. The only other place that came close to this contrast of black sand and deep forest green is Iceland, another of my favorite countries.
Whatipu sat far below, two curves of rocky coastline connected by a volcanic island fortress, battered by the milky, emerald waves.
It was hard going down the steep and slippery trail with a big pack on my back and my knees felt jolted and weak.
We rested at a picnic table in the sunshine once we reached the bottom, not having the strength to walk out to the beach we had seen from the mountain heights.
Further exploration of Whatipu will have to be conducted on another occasion.
Our strength flagging, we continued on, rising up to heights again that afforded more stunning coastal views.
After a couple of hours, the narrow trail finally began to flatten out then we started descending into the Pararaha Valley, where we were spending the night in the backcountry campground. We were looking forward to resting our weary bones.
Within 1km to our stop for the night, disaster struck.
Robbie and I were walking a few meters behind Trav when we saw him suddenly lurch to one side and then fly off the cliff, superman style.
We quickly ran to where he went over, expecting to see the worst.
Trav was lying on his side, a few meters down the bank, held in place by a tiny tree. He was in pain and wasn’t able to get up because his massive pack was weighing him down.
He had slipped on an exposed root on the trail and the combination of the weight of his massive backpack and gravity had pushed him over the edge.
I wasn’t sure how to help. I tried to hold on to his leg because I was scared that the tiny sapling that was holding his weight would snap and he would fall further down the bank.
Unfortunately, the pain was in that knee and I hurt him more. His knee had twisted when he fell.
Robbie helped Trav get his bag off then we pulled him back onto the path. Luckily the intense pain in his knee eased and he was able to hobble on it the rest of the way to the camping ground.
The Pararaha Valley was stunning. A clearing of lush green grass and nikau palms with a clear mountain stream running through it. Jagged, rocky peaks surrounded us. It was a sight for sore eyes (and legs and knees).
After hiking for 16.5km with heavy packs on our backs, we were ready to chill out for the rest of the evening. We set up our tents, cooked a simple dinner in the cooking shelter then retired to our tent to play cards while the wind whistled through the valley.
Hiking the Hillary Trail: Day Two – Pararaha Valley to Karekare 5km
Because Trav was still feeling some pain in his knee and wasn’t able to walk on it properly the next morning, we decided to finish our hike at Karekare beach, which was only about 4-5km, rather than continuing on to the beach settlement of Piha where Dad was meant to be picking us up from.
We figured that we could ring him once we got to Karekare and organize to be picked up from there instead. Simple. Or not.
The hike to Karekare took us about two hours and was primarily along the windswept beach, past marshland and giant black sand dunes. It was easygoing and relatively flat after the tough trail the previous day.
The long, black sand beach seemed to stretch on forever. It felt as if we were at the end of the world. I loved the feeling of isolation.
Finally, we arrived at Karekare beach. We walked inland, crossing the knee-deep waters of Karekare stream and along a short trail to the beautiful Karekare Falls.
We sat and ate lunch in the calm surroundings and paddled in the cold waters of the falls.
There was no cell reception so after lunch, Robbie walked a kilometer further up the road to try getting a signal. No luck.
It was starting to look like we might have to continue on to Piha after all. Robbie suggested we try calling Dad from the phone at the surf club and set off back to the beach to do so. Unfortunately, they only allowed local calls and Dad wasn’t at home.
We decided to give it another try and I went back about an hour later, crossing a perilous tree trunk bridge to avoid walking around the long way. Luckily this time Dad was home. I arranged for him to come and pick us up and we waited in the car park for his arrival.
Summary of My Experience on the Hillary Trail
So things didn’t turn out exactly how we had planned but when do they ever? I very much enjoyed my taste of one of New Zealand’s newest multi-day hikes and I would like to return in the future to do the entire trail. Maybe with lighter gear.
Auckland continues to surprise me with the incredible natural beauty that can be accessed so close to the city. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: there is much more to Auckland than the slightly seedy Queen Street.
Did you know that there is a rainforest in Auckland? Would you hike the Hillary Trail?
Planning Your Hillary Trail Hike
Camping on the Hillary Trail
We stayed at the Pararaha Valley campsite for our two days on the trail. It costs $9 and you can book it online here, or drop into the Arataki Visitor Centre and they can help you book it as well as give you information about the trail.
Closure of the Hillary Trail
Sections of the Hillary Trail remain closed due to Kauri Dieback Disease. For up-to-date information about trail closures, drop into or ring the Arataki Visitor Centre.
Where to Stay in Auckland
Chances are you will be staying in Auckland City before and after your Hillary Trail hike so here are my top picks for accommodation.
If you are on a backpacker budget, Verandahs Backpackers Lodge in Ponsonby is an excellent choice. It’s within walking distance of the city and K Road and offers comfortable dorm and private rooms. In the city center, Haka Lodge is a great choice too.
For solid mid-range hotels in Auckland, I would recommend The Convent Hotel, a unique boutique hotel in Grey Lynn that is housed in a former nunnery, Nesuto Stadium which has sleek apartments in the heart of Auckland City, and Auckland Rose Park Hotel across from the rose gardens in Parnell.
If you are looking for luxury, there are fantastic options in Auckland too. Stay at The Hotel Britomart near the Viaduct, the stylish boutique Hotel De Brett, or The Grand by SkyCity, a classy hotel in the SkyCity complex downtown.
For vacation rentals, Auckland has a lot of choices. Here are the best picks for affordable, centrally-located, and highly-rated vacation rentals in Auckland:
- Parnell Suite in Secluded Garden Setting
- Downtown Apartment in Heritage Hotel With Rooftop Pool
- Central Devonport Garden View Apartment
- Classy Downtown Studio in Art Deco Hotel With Rooftop Pool
- Central Apartment in Heritage Landmark Hotel With Harbor Views
The Best Insurance for Your Auckland Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with – it auto-renews every month unless you turn it off so you don’t have to think about it for longer trips
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
If you liked this post, check out some more of my Auckland and North Island content:
- The Best Cheap Eats in Auckland
- Fun Things To Do in Matakana, North Auckland
- 26 Fun Things To Do in Auckland To Best Experience the City
- Fun Things To Do on Waiheke Island: A Subtropical Island Paradise
- The Ultimate Northland Road Trip: Auckland to Cape Reinga
- 12 Fun Things To Do in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand
- Hiking the Tongariro Northern Circuit: One of New Zealand’s Great Walks
- My Experience Glamping in Wairarapa, New Zealand
- Exploring Hobbiton: My Dad’s Home Town