Cairngorms Walks: The Seven Bridges Walk in Ballater, Aberdeenshire

Ballater, in Aberdeenshire, is a gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and a popular base for visitors looking to explore the Eastern Cairngorms and Royal Deeside areas. The picturesque town arranged in a grid around a large green on the banks of the impressive River Dee, has longstanding royal connections, a rich and interesting history, and good access to the more wilder parts of the countryside.

The view along the River Dee to the west of Ballater.

The River Dee rises high on the Cairngorm Plateau, tumbling around 137km (85 miles) down to the sea in Aberdeen. It has the reputation as one of the finest salmon fishing rivers anywhere in the world, and is a protected area for wildlife, like the salmon, otters, and freshwater pearl mussels found in its waters. The area on the south side of the river is also protected in recognition of its importance for golden eagles.

This walk shows off some of the most beautiful landscapes of the middle reaches of the River Dee, and had some excellent opportunities for spotting wildlife.

The Seven Bridges Walk from Ballater

  • Route length: 8.7km (5.4 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 126 metres (413′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2 – 2.5 hours
  • Difficulty: easy

A  circular walk along the River Dee to Polhollick suspension bridge from Ballater, with an optional diversion to Knock Castle. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

The Old Railway Station in Ballater, where the walking route begins and ends.

From the tourist information centre in the old railway station in Ballater, head through the town southeast along Bridge Street, towards the bridge over the River Dee onto South Deeside Road. The Royal Bridge, opened by Queen Victoria in 1885 and surviving a number of great floods on the river, is bridge number one on the walk.

The River Dee from the Royal Bridge in Ballater

Directly across the junction is a fingerpost sign marking a well-surfaced trail into the woods; follow that up a short rise then turn to your right to find the route towards Bridge of Muick, marked with blue waymarks. Do not walk along the roadside here, as it is a winding country road with no safe footway for at least one kilometre.

Follow the trail through the woods for a short distance to reach the huge pink granite edifice of the Mackenzie Monument, with views across the River Dee to Ballater. It commemorates Sir Allan Russell Mackenzie, 2nd Baronet of Glenmuick, who was closely involved in civic improvements in Ballater and a good friend of the royal neighbours at Balmoral.

The Mackenzie Monument overlooking Ballater and the distinctive pudding-bowl shape of Craigendarroch beyond.

After approximately 1km, the route joins the road for a short distance by the cottages to cross the second bridge, over Brackley Burn, before joining a track running parallel to the road for around 200 metres. At the end of the track, the route emerges on a bend in the road just before Bridge of Muick, the third bridge on the route. A large plaque on the corner notes that on this spot in 1899, Queen Vic, in the company of Sir Allan of the monument, inspected the local regiment, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, prior to their deployment to South Africa in the Boer War.

The route follows the straight road for around 700m to a junction with a gravel road just before Dalliefour farm, passing fields often used for grazing heilan coos, those photogenic shaggy-haired highland cattle, both with the more familiar red-dun and traditional black coats. At this point you can make a diversion to Knock Castle, a 16th century ruin with a colourful history, adding an extra 2km to the route, or continue along the gravel road towards Polhollick.

Highland cattle grazing on the riverside, with a view of Craigendarroch beyond.

The gravel road runs almost dead straight towards the forestry plantation of Dalliefour Woods (also spelled Dallyfour and Dalhefour within the space of two grid squares on the OS Map), passing another field of coos, and the tiny wee cottage that is my dream house. The track has great views over to Ballater, nestled under the oak-clad slopes of Craigendarroch, and is always a good location to look out for raptors, hares, and roe deer.

The route through the pine plantation wood between Dalliefour and Polhollick.

At the far edge of the wood the white-painted suspension bridge of Pollhollick comes into view, bridge number five (the fourth is an indistinct culvert on the forestry road, over a small burn running from behind Knock Castle). The bridge was fabricated by Abernethy and Co of Aberdeen in 1892, who produced several similar suspension bridges that cross the Dee, and gifted to the local people by Alexander Gordon of Kent. It was seriously damaged in the extreme flooding that followed Storm Frank in December 2015, but is now fully restored.

Polhollick Suspension Bridge

Over the bridge, the track dog-legs away from the river towards the main A93 road. Cross the road, and follow the waymarking to pick up a track that runs along the top of the embankment parallel to the road. Descend the steps to cross the A939 at the junction, and continue on the track for another 250 metres, emerging on the side of the A93 at Bridge of Gairn. Cross the road, then the sixth bridge on the walk, to find a waymarked track between the houses and farm buildings.

The narrow footpath becomes a wide, well-surfaced track leading the last kilometre and a half back into Ballater along the riverside. It was intended to hold the final stretch of the Deeside railway line towards Crathie and Braemar, but due to Victoria’s objection, it was never constructed. The final bridge on the route is a small wooden bridge that crosses a steep drop down to the water, known as Postie’s Leap. According to local legend, a postman fell or leapt to his doom after being jilted the night before the wedding. It’s a beautiful viewpoint back along the River Dee.

Looking back along the final section of the trail through the oakwood at the foot of Craigendarroch.

From the edge of town you have two options: continue on the riverside footpath around the back of the golf course towards the caravan park, or follow the track towards the houses to meet the roads that will lead you back towards the Old Railway Station.

There are several cafes and coffee shops in Ballater where you can find post-walk refreshments, such as The Bothy and the Bridge House Cafe, though some close for winter. There’s also the Balmoral Bar, if you’re in need of something stronger, and Shorty’s Ice Cream Parlour, for a sweet treat on a hot day.

Knock Castle Extension:

Knock Castle is a ruined, but still imposing, 16th century towerhouse, in a commanding location below the Crag of Knock, overlooking the River Dee and guarding the entrances to Glen Muick. Knock was home the Gordon family, who held a longstanding blood feud with their neighbours, the Forbes family. It is typical of the homes of the landed gentry of the time, and visible beneath the windows are shot holes for defensive pistol fire to deter raiders.

The ruins of Knock Castle.

On one winter trip to cut peats for fuel, the sons of the families met in a violent clash, which left all seven of the Gordon lads dead. Their severed heads were displayed on their peat cutters as a warning to those that might think to cross the Forbes’. Overcome on hearing the news, their grief-stricken father tumbled down the turnpike staircase to his death, ending the family line.

Rather than following waymarks at the junction near Dalliefour Farm, continue along the road for around 400m to where the road bends to the left. Follow the rough grassy track leading uphill into the woods, where it meets a gravel road and you’ll have a first glimpse of the castle. Follow the gravel road westward for around 300m to find a stile that gives access to the field surrounding the castle. Retrace your steps back to Dalliefour to resume the circular walk. The diversion adds around 2km to the total length of the walk.

What to look out for around Ballater

In town: Impressive buildings constructed from local granite; royal accreditation on shop fronts; numerous connections to Queen Victoria; the sweet scent of Deeside Confectioners, an old-fashioned sweetie shop near the Old Railway Station; the sound of bagpipes.

On the hills: A glimpse of dark Lochnagar beyond the hills that guard the entrance to Glen Muick; the bellowing of rutting red deer stags in autumn; distant golden and white-tailed eagles; the steep track up Creag Dubh used in the Highland games hill race.

In the fields: Charismatic heilan coos (highland cows), both with the familiar red-dun coats and more traditional long black coats; big, glossy black Aberdeen-Angus cows; the flash of white that signals roe deer scarpering into the distance; red kites hovering overhead and buzzards perched on fence posts.

The rounded hilltop of Craigendarroch seen from the Seven Bridges walking route.

In the forest: Old oaks at the foot of Craigendarroch; jays and red squirrels making acorn stashes for winter; fantastic fungi formations; plantations of Scots pine at Dalliefour; buzzards resting on high branches; blaeberries and lingonberries among the heather in the understory.

By the river: Salmon making their way upstream, especially between August and November; ospreys fishing; riverside birds like dippers and kingfishers; sand martin roosts in sandy riverbanks.

Getting to Ballater

Ballater is approximately 40 miles west of Aberdeen and 18 miles east of Braemar. The 201 bus service from Aberdeen bus station connects towns and villages along the A93 as far as the village of Braemar.

The view upriver from Royal Bridge in Ballater

There is a large capacity for free parking in the town, making it an ideal base to leave vehicles and explore further afield by bicycle and on foot, especially into rural areas with limited parking like Glen Muick. Electric vehicle charging is available in Ballater.

Route 195 of the National Cycle Network connects Ballater to Aberdeen and other towns and villages on Deeside, on a largely off-road route along the Deeside Way. The multi-use long distance trail follows the route of the old Deeside railway line from Aberdeen to Ballater.

What else do you need to know?

The route is marked along its length, so a map isn’t essential, however it’s good practice to have one with you for longer walks. Simple maps with the route can be picked up from the tourist information centre at the Old Railway Station in Ballater, or you can use OS Explorer 388: Lochnagar, Glen Muick and Glen Clova.

While out walking in the countryside, you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and local landowners on any signs.

Want to try this walking route for yourself? Find the details on ViewRanger.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking

A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.

A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.

*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.

So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.

Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking”

The Two Lochs Walk in Abernethy Forest

The Caledonian Forest once covered much of the highlands of Scotland, spreading over the land as the last glaciers retreated and eventually disappeared. But over many thousands of years of human activity that manipulated the wildland, only around 1% of the original temperate rainforest coverage remains in Scotland.

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In the cool freshness under the pine canopy in Abernethy Forest.

Remnants of the Caledonian Forest are unique habitats, home to some of the rarest species in the British Isles, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, secretive pine martens and wildcats, and the majestic capercaillie. In fact, around 5,000 species have been recorded in areas of old-growth forest, ranging from the towering Scots pines to the tiny beetles living under the bark of the trees, with plants, lichens, fungi, and other wee beasties in-between.

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Exploring the woodland on an autumn morning.

Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve on Speyside protects a huge area of Caledonian Forest, as well as rivers, lochs, moorland, and montane plateau. The nature reserve in Cairngorms National Park extends all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1,309m (4,295′), the second-highest summit in the British Isles.

Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are beautiful forest lochs, fringed by granny pine trees on three sides, with views of Bynack More and the Cairngorm plateau in the southeast reflected in the dark water. In spring and summer, the lochs are excellent for watching ospreys fishing.

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Gnarled pines and dark water in Loch Garten

Abernethy Forest Two Lochs Walk from Boat of Garten

  • Route length: 10km (6 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 118 metres (387′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 2.5 – 3 hours
  • Difficulty: moderate

A walk to Loch Mallachie and Loch Garten from Boat of Garten. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.

From the steam railway station in Boat of Garten follow signage for the Speyside Way trail towards Nethy Bridge, crossing Garten Bridge over the River Spey on the way out of the village. Across the junction of the road is a small carpark with interpretation panels and maps of waymarked routes into the forest.

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Forested islands in Loch Mallachie, with the view to Bynack More behind.

Follow the red route for approximately 1km, then take the right-hand track at the fork, heading south for a further kilometre. At the next junction, take the narrow left-hand fork, and head in an easterly direction.  The path undulates and sweeps round to the southeast through the trees, towards Loch Mallachie. Ignore the myriad paths along the lochside, turning sharply north when you reach the last one, to lead to Loch Garten, the bigger of the two lochs.

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Loch Garten, famous for its fishing ospreys in the summer months.

From the carpark alongside Loch Garten, it’s possible to make a diversion along the road at the top of the loch for around 700m to the RSPB Osprey Centre. It’s a must-do in spring, while the birds are sitting on their nest. Otherwise, follow the blue waymarking northwest alongside the road for a couple of kilometres to meet up with the Speyside Way.

Cross the road to follow a wooden walkway for just over 150m. This was constructed on the edge of a small forest lochan, to give a closer view of the habitat. Look out for spawning frogs and tadpoles in the spring and darting dragon and damselflies in summer.

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Woodland walks in Abernethy Forest

From here you have two options: continue to follow the Speyside Way alongside the road back to the forest carpark, or pick up the forest trail with red waymarking just as you reach the first cottage on the road. The red route is just under 2km through the trees, and returns to the carpark where you entered the forest.

Retrace your route back over Garten Bridge and into Boat of Garten. There are a few cafes and coffee shops in the village where you can find refreshments, such as the Gashouse Café and Cairngorm Leaf & Bean, though some will close for the winter. There’s also the Boat Country Inn if you need something stronger after your walk.

Getting to Boat of Garten:

  • The village of Boat of Garten is connected by a scenic stream railway to Aviemore (nearest mainline railway station) and Grantown on Spey.  Trains run between the Easter and October school holidays.
  • The bus service between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey will stop in the village, and on the roadside approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the RSPB Osprey Centre.
  • Route 7 of the National Cycle Network connects Boat of Garten to Aviemore or Carrbridge, with options for on-road or largely off-road cycling.
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Even in late autumn, the forest is filled with interesting sights, sounds and scents to explore.

What to look out for in Abernethy Forest:

Spring: Red squirrels; crested tits, siskins and endemic Scottish crossbills; frogs and frogspawn in pools and puddles; and the arrival of the first ospreys in mid-March.

Summer: Ospreys fishing on the lochs; great spotted woodpeckers, tree pipits, and redstarts; tree-nesting goldeneye ducks; woodland wildflowers; and dazzling dragonflies and damselflies.

Autumn: The roar of rutting red and roe deer; wild greylag and pink-footed geese coming in to roost at dusk; wildfowl like teal, wigeon, and whooper swans; and incredible fungi formations.

Winter: Gnarled, lichen-encrusted ancient pine forest, with views of the sub-Arctic tundra plateau of the Cairngorm Mountains across the iced-over lochs.

Tips for Responsible Watching Wildlife in Abernethy Forest:

The Two Lochs walk is a popular route in Abernethy Forest, especially during the osprey season, so to help protect the forest and wildlife you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB on any signs.

If you’re hoping to see capercaillie, the best way is to walk on the forest trails in the early morning as they will often come to the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that for this part of Scotland that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July. Avoid leaving the paths in the forest as you could be disturbing ground-nesting birds.

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The edge of the Cairngorm plateau from Loch Garten.

In drier areas of the forest, you’ll see big mounds of pine needles, which are the nests of wood ants. These can grow up to a metre high, and can be home to well over 100,000 individual ants. Standing deadwood is as valuable to wildlife as living trees, especially the invertebrate life of the forest, and a good indication of the quality of the habitat.

Wildlife refuge areas should be given a wide berth if you choose to go wild swimming in either of the lochs; these are the sheltered bays, particularly at the southern and eastern sides of the lochs, especially in the autumn when the lochs are important roosts for migratory birds.

Want to try this walking route for yourself? Why not pin this post for later?

Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain

At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.

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The view from the western end of Schiehallion, looking along Loch Rannoch to Rannoch Moor and Glencoe. In clear conditions, it’s possible to pick out Ben Nevis.

Schiehallion

In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion. Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”

Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight

I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger.  As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds.  Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

Continue reading “Three Winter Walks on the Isle of Wight”

What I loved this season | Spring 2019

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done:

Freelance work kept me busy through March, but I was able to spend a week away in the South Downs National Park leading a walking holiday.  Wild, windy weather made some of the routes quite challenging, but I was excited to explore a new area.  My favourite walks were on the downs around Arundel, and along the Cuckmere valley to the famous Seven Sisters viewpoint.

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The famous Seven Sisters view from just above the Coastguard Cottages on Seaford Head.

At the beginning of April, I moved south to Devon, to start work as part of the crew of the traditional sailing ketch Irene of Bridgwater.  We spent the first part of the season based out of Dartmouth, visiting the nearby ports of Brixham and Salcombe regularly, with a one-off trip to Weymouth, where we disappeared into the fog.  Taking the lookout on the bow with only around 20 metres visibility, in a 38 metre (124′) ship, is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done.

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Leading the way out of Weymouth harbour in the fog in the tender, with Irene following close behind.

If you ever plan to visit Dartmouth, be aware that it’s much easier to reach with a boat than on public transport or even by car.  As soon as my leave began in May, it was a rush to head north.  I had to pick up my backpacking kit and make my way to Oban, the starting point I’d chosen for the TGO Challenge.

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A glorious day to go for a walk.  Starting the TGO Challenge in Oban on the 11th of May.
Continue reading “What I loved this season | Spring 2019”

10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails

You could walk for 500 miles, and then you would walk for 500 more. That’s just how beautiful Scotland is.  Wide-open moors, historic castles, picturesque lochs (what we call lakes) ancient forests, and sweeping mountains are the hauntingly beautiful backdrop for some of the finest long-distance walks in the UK.

But enough havering; Scotland’s long-distance routes are a fantastic way to get outdoors, and explore some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes on foot.  Not only that, you’ll also be treated to close encounters with nature, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being out in wild and remote areas.

Just because these routes take multiple days to complete, don’t be put off by the thought of not having enough time.  The trails don’t have to be completed in one go and can be broken down into bite-sized chunks to fit into weekends and single days that are just as enjoyable.

Here are, in my opinion, the greatest of the long-distance trails in Scotland.  The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked cross-country trails like the ever-popular West Highland Way to unofficial, often pathless, challenges aimed at experienced backpackers, like the Cape Wrath Trail.

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Buachaille Etive Mòr, at the head of Glen Etive, has one of the most distinctive mountain profiles in Scotland. Photo Credit: Phelan Goodman Flickr on cc

Continue reading “10 of Scotland’s Greatest Long Distance Trails”

Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in an adventurous coast-to-coast trek across Scotland. The TGO Challenge invites participants from across the globe to explore some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual hiking event crossing the Highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east. The essence of the challenge is to experience the remote parts of the country, including many areas which can only be accessed on foot. Wild camping is a big part of that experience, and requires participants to be self-sufficient. Nothing beats unzipping your tent door to a brand-new wild view each morning.

Continue reading “Taking on the TGO Challenge”

8 of New Zealand’s Greatest Long Distance Tramping Routes

The most outstanding long-distance tramping routes you’ll find in New Zealand.

I love hiking when I travel. It’s an affordable way to see some of the most magnificent places in a country, and a great way to meet like-minded people when you’re travelling solo. In New Zealand, multi-day hiking is referred to as tramping, and is popular with both Kiwis and visitors from further afield.

From seemingly endless beaches and surf-crashed coastlines, through rolling farmland and forested ranges of hills, to lunar volcanic landscapes, soaring peaks and high mountain passes, the country is spectacularly diverse for such a small area. New Zealand has thousands of kilometres of tramping trails, including ten that are known as the Great Walks and journey through some of the most iconic Kiwi landscapes.

Tramping allows you to get outdoors and explore the country in a way that no other travel experience can match. Not only that, but you’ll also be treated to incredible nature encounters, the freshest air, and the freedom that comes with being wild and remote. But which route should you choose? I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the most outstanding hiking trails in New Zealand, some I’ve walked for myself, and others which remain firmly on my to-do list for when I next return.

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New Zealand has some of the best hiking anywhere in the world. Photo Credit: Jose Luiz Gonzalez via cc

The routes vary greatly in character, from waymarked hut-to-hut trails like the ever-popular Queen Charlotte Track and Tongariro Northern Circuit to epic challenges aimed at experienced backpackers with plenty of time on their hands, like the Te Araroa Trail.

These routes all take multiple days to complete, and due to the remote nature of the country they cross, there’s usually little opportunity to break them down into single days or weekends trips. Once you start a route, you’re often committed to seeing it through. However, most of the routes have excellent facilities, and there’s plenty of advice and information available from the Department of Conservation (DOC) to help you prepare.

If you aren’t quite ready for the challenge of a multi-day walk, or just fancy a taster of what New Zealand tramping is all about, have a look at my list of the best day hikes for inspiration.

Continue reading “8 of New Zealand’s Greatest Long Distance Tramping Routes”

11 Great Day Hikes in New Zealand

A selection of some of the best one day tramping tracks in New Zealand, plus a couple of options for overnight hikes.

Few places in the world can top New Zealand for stunning, dramatic scenery. A little bit of everything, from rolling hills and lush forests, to majestic rivers, raw volcanic landscapes, sweeping coastlines and soaring mountains tempt hikers from around the world to pull on their boots and explore the great Kiwi outdoors.

Known as tramping by New Zealanders, hiking is the best way to explore the country in a way no other experience can really match, and available whatever your travel budget. Routes are generally well waymarked, the quality of mapping is excellent, and people are welcoming and glad to provide advice. And the best part is that wild land is easily accessible in New Zealand, and it’s possible to feel a sense of remoteness just a couple hours from cities and towns.

Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life outdoors, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places. My experience of hiking in New Zealand is you never quite know exactly what to expect, or where the trail might eventually lead you.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

But which tramping trails are right for you? I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the best short hiking trails in New Zealand, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting. Or add them to your plans for an epic New Zealand road trip. Some I’ve walked for myself, and others I’ve added to the list for when I return next. My suggestions for multi-day tramping routes can be found here.

Continue reading “11 Great Day Hikes in New Zealand”