Rakaia Gorge Walkway, New Zealand

Rakaia Gorge Walkway: Hiking Canterbury’s Hidden Gem

Last Updated: 19th September, 2023

Nestled in the picturesque Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island is the breathtaking Rakaia Gorge. Here, the vibrant Rakaia River winds its way through towering limestone cliffs, with the Southern Alps acting as a backdrop. The Rakaia Gorge Walkway, a well-maintained hiking trail, is the perfect way to explore this beautiful landscape! In this blog, I cover all you need to know before hiking the Rakaia Gorge Walkway.

Rakaia Gorge, Rakaia Gorge Walkway

Visiting the Rakaia Gorge

Rakaia Gorge is a stunning natural attraction located in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand’s South Island. It is nestled inland along the Rakaia River, near the base of the magnificent Southern Alps. This is an absolute hidden gem as it is a little way off the beaten path, however makes for an incredible stop on your South Island roadie!

The highlights of the Rakaia Gorge is its incredible scenery, characterized by towering limestone cliffs that frame the river. The most distinctive feature is the vibrant blue colour of the Rakaia River – created by glacial silt that is carried down from the Southern Alps! This area is filled with outdoor activities, including hiking, fishing in the river, or exploring it by jet boat!

Getting there

The Rakaia Gorge spans an inland section of the beautiful Rakaia River, in the South Island of New Zealand. It is nearby to the small farming township of Windwhistle, and is just over 1 hours drive (87km) from Christchurch City – making it the perfect place for a day trip from Christchurch!

Best Time to Visit the Rakaia Gorge

The best time to walk the Rakaia Gorge walkway is during the late spring and early summer months (November – January). The weather during these months is mildly warm and sunny, with an average high of around 23°C (73°F ) – making it perfect hiking weather!

This is a beautiful time to visit, with the trees and flowers out in bloom and the path surrounded by vibrant greenery. It may even be warm enough for a swim and a picnic beside the river!

There can be a high number of wasps around in the summer months from January – March, so its a good idea to wear light coloured clothing and carry antihistamine cream or tablets.

Hiking the Rakaia Gorge Walkway

Rakaia Gorge Walkway Trail Stats

  • Trail Distance: 10.4 km return via the same track
  • Walking Time: 3-4 hours return
  • Trail Difficulty: This is an easy walk along a well-maintained track

The Rakaia Gorge Walkway is a fairly easy hike that follows the gorge rim. The path is relatively smooth and well-maintained, with a gentle climb along the cliffs. At the looped section of the walk, there is a short-but-steep climb up a hill to a fantastic lookout point, with incredible views over the river.

How long will it take to walk the Rakaia Gorge Walkway?

Full Rakaia Gorge Track: This out-and-back track took us just over 3 hours to complete, including a number of photo and snack stops. I would allow around 3-4 hours to do this walk comfortably, as it is quite undulating and you’ll work up a sweat!

Rakaia Gorge Lookout Point: If you fancy a walk around Rakaia Gorge but don’t have time to do the full thing, then you could walk to the first lookout point! This is a beautiful spot that gives you some of the best views of the walk, and will take around 30-45 minutes each way.

Rakaia Bridge View from the Rakaia Gorge Walkway
View from the trail back at the Rakaia Gorge Bridge

What to Expect when Hiking the Rakaia Gorge Walkway

The Start of the Rakaia Gorge Track

The Rakaia Gorge Walkway can be a little difficult to find if it’s your first time here! Here is a run down of how to find the trail head:

  • As you drive down into Rakaia Gorge, park in the car park for the Discovery Jet Boat just before the bridge (on the Christchurch side).
  • Walk through the carpark towards the bridge, and you will see the official sign for the track.
  • One you reach the Highway, look across and to the right. Here, you should see the start of a small trail into the bush – and this is the beginning of the Rakaia Gorge Track!
View from the first lookout on the Rakaia Gorge Walkway, Canterbury

The First Lookout

The walkway begins by winding its way through dense forest, before emerging high above the vivid-turquoise river. The track is narrow and lined with bright-yellow gorse, with a gentle incline as it follows the natural curve of the river bend. After about 30 minutes, the path turns slightly away from the cliff edge, before emerging from the trees at the first lookout point! This spot is stunning, with views stretching out over the Rakaia River and the surrounding snow-capped Southern Alps.

View over river, Rakaia Gorge Walkway, Canterbury

Snowdon Coal Mine

The walkway then continues on winding around the river, while slowly climbing higher above the gorge until you are at the rim. The gorge gradually becomes narrower, lined with spectacular white cliffs and tree-covered hills. The path then veers inland and descents into a mossy gully under shady forest canopy, where there is a short side-track that leads to the old Snowdon coal mines. You can see the entrances to several coal mines here – which are a little bit creepy!

the view from the last lookout over the Rakaia Gorge Walkway, Canterbury
The view from the bench at the Last Lookout!

Loop Lookout

The track crosses over a small stream, and comes to a sign-posted junction, which is the beginning of the loop section of the Rakaia Gorge Walkway. We turned to the left, following the track through the thick bush before having a steep scramble up the hill and out of the tree-line to the lookout point. The landscape opens up to tussock-grassland, with a small bench at the lookout point so you can rest and soak up that view!

From the lookout, the path descends through the tussock-covered terraces and back into the bush, zig-zagging down until it reaches the junction. From here, the walk heads back along the same path, until you reach the Rakaia Bridge!

Heading back home along the Rakaia Gorge Walkway

Things to Do around Rakaia Gorge

1. Walk the beautiful Washpen Falls

Washpen falls

The Washpen Falls Track is an incredible forest track hidden in the Volcanic Canyon Reserve, and is only a few minutes drive from the Rakaia Gorge! This walk takes you through lush forest to the hidden Washpen Falls.

  • Trail Distance: 3.1km loop
  • Walking Time: 1.5 – 2.5 hours return

2. Visit Lake Coleridge

Lake Coleridge is a stunning alpine lake that is nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps, and is only a 30-minute (30km) drive from the Rakaia Gorge Walkway!

The lake is beautiful, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, lush forests and rolling hills. The water in Lake Coleridge is a stroking turquoise-blue, creating an incredible contrast with the rugged alpine terrain and making for some incredible photos! There are number of walks around the area, giving you different viewpoints to admire the lake the and the surrounding mountains!

3. Hit the Slopes at Mt Hutt

For snow enthusiasts, hitting the slopes at the nearby Mt Hut Ski Field is a must-do in the winter months! Located just a short drive away from the Rakaia Gorge, Mt Hutt offers pristine slopes and world-class facilities perfect for skilled skiers or beginners looking to learn. This is one of my favourite ski fields in New Zealand, with beautiful powdery snow and breathtaking alpine vistas making it an incredible day out on the slopes!

4. Explore Castle Hill

Castle Hill, in the Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area, is a renowned geological wonder located in Canterbury, only an hours drive from Rakaia Gorge! This is an awesome place to visit and be amazing at the incredible limestone rock formations that characterise the area! These towering limestone boulders and outcrops have been sculpted by nature over millions of years, to create a surreal and otherworldly landscape that it fantastic to explore.

5. Adventure through Cave Stream

This is an incredible and exhilarating walk in the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, only a few minutes drive from Castle Hill in the Canterbury region. This passage follows an incredible underground waterway as it meanders and twists in the pitch-darkness for nearly 600 meters, before emerging from the cave at the second exit. This is an amazing experience and a fantastic day-trip from Christchurch City!

FAQs – Hiking the Rakaia Gorge Walkway

What is the Rakaia Gorge Walkway, and where is it located?

The Rakaia Gorge Walkway is a scenic hiking trail located in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island. It runs alongside the Rakaia River, offering breathtaking views of the gorge and the surrounding landscapes.

How long is the Rakaia Gorge Walkway?

Is the Rakaia Gorge Walkway suitable for all fitness levels?

When is the best time to hike the Rakaia Gorge Walkway?

Do I need any special equipment for the hike?

Are there any facilities along the Rakaia Gorge Walkway?

Can I bring my dog on the Rakaia Gorge Walkway?

What region is Rakaia?

Can you walk across Rakaia Bridge?

Why is Rakaia Gorge so blue?

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