To appreciate in just one tramp the sheer variety of New Zealand’s North Island beauty, nothing beats hiking full circle in the Bay of Islands. With stunning views across the bay and the opportunity to get deep in native bush forest, this cheery day hike from one Bay of Islands community to another links party town Paihia to Russell, popularly known in the 1800’s as the Hell Hole of the Pacific. Alas Russell is no longer a town of debauchery, but is nonetheless a pleasant little place to explore for an afternoon. A series of excellent walkways and two ferries join these two coastal towns on a marvelous hike through gorgeous Kiwi scenery.
I am not a huge fan of one-way-in-one-way-out trails, as I prefer to keep going forward than to backtrack. This glorious route means that you never backtrack but that you do end up in the same place you started, which in my eyes makes it a genius day hike.
The hike can be walked in either direction. Ferry connections are at Paihia – Russell and Opua – Okiato (or vice versa). I hiked from Paihia to Opua, took the ferry to Okiato, and continued the hike to Russell. From Russell, the ‘Happy Ferry’ takes you back to Paihia to complete the loop. I liked doing the hike this way for three reasons;
- I was staying in Paihia;
- The initial bit of the walk outside Russell town is unimaginative and either on or alongside roads. It is the most boring part of the walk, which thankfully doesn’t go on for long. There are plans to improve it. In my opinion, it is better to end this hike in Russell with a celebratory drink, rather than start the hike with a boring stretch;
- It is easier to time your walk so you are hiking at low tide (vitally important!) for the Paihia – Opua stretch when you start the walk at Paihia.
Time and Tide Wait for No One…
Before you do this hike, you have to consider one thing for two reasons: timetables. These are essential for the success of this hike, and are required for both tides and ferries. The first time I attempted this walk I hadn’t paid attention to the tides. The tides are incredibly important on the Paihia – Opua walkway. In places, this coastline does not appreciate walkers when the tide is high. Unless you want a cliff-face scramble, head out 2 hours either side of low tide or you’ll get wet feet – or worse. When the tide is low, not only is the walkway accessible, it is more fun, less scary and you’ll get to stroll along the beach rather than hang off rocks above the waves. The photo above is at high tide. The photo below is at low tide. What a difference!
The ferries are less of an issue; they run regularly throughout the day. The Russell – Paihia Fullers Ferry is every hour (though the Happy Ferry on the same route is approximately every 20 minutes). There are pubs and eateries on both sides so if you’re stuck waiting for a boat on this route you can grab something to eat or drink.
The Opua – Okiato vehicle Ferry runs every 10 minutes. There are amenities (read: toilets and a convenience store that sells coffee and slices of pizza) on the Opua side. There is nothing between Okiato – Russell apart from a gas station approximately 5km outside of Russell. However, these ferries are so regular you’ll only have time to pee and get an ice cream before the next one starts boarding.
Ferries on all routes run from around 7am to 9pm (please check timetables for current schedules).
From Paihia – Opua, the hike is a gentle, undulating stroll hugging the coast, with a few mangrove boardwalks thrown in for good measure. There is nothing too challenging, and this is a pleasant walk which tricks you in to thinking this is how the rest of the hike will be.
On the Okiato – Russell stretch, the hike is somewhat tougher. Hiker beware! For a variety of reasons, to go hiking full circle in the Bay of Islands you’ll need a decent level of fitness and good hiking shoes. There are numerous steps on this section, and if I’d known at the start there were to be so many, I would have tried to count them all. There are literally hundreds, going up, going down and spiralling around. Graciously, the path planners have included several benches, so you are never too far away from a rest stop. There are also a handful of stiles to clamber over on this section. The land is pretty steep in some areas and while there are breath taking views there are also breath taking climbs. These make the flat mangrove boardwalks later on in the hike all the more welcoming.
New Zealand is quite a damp country and rain + hikers = mud, so there are some slippery patches too, many of which tend to be inconveniently placed around other obstacles such as stumbly tree roots. On downhill sections these can be a bit daunting. If you do fall you’ll get a soggy bottom but that’s about it – there are no hideous drop offs or major cliffs you could slide down. But all this is well worth it for a jolly jaunt in the Kiwi countryside.
Pahia – Opua
This was my most favourite section of the hike. Strolling along Kiwi beaches, admiring the many different colours in the rocks, watching the native bird life and just strolling by the seaside is lovely. There are a couple of slippity-bits and a random television stuck in a tree, but apart from that this section is absolutely delightful. The terrain is either flat or gentle hills, the track is decent and there are some lovely wooden boardwalks. Local fisherman cast off the rocks, oyster catchers (birds and people) go hunting for shellfish and all sorts of water sports are happening on – well, the water. It’s a very pleasant introduction to the hike, culminating in the ferry at Opua. Take a few minutes to grab refreshments and use the toilets is before jumping on the ferry. This is a vehicle and passenger ferry. A single fare is currently a bargainious $1 for passengers (and bicycles!) and the crossing is a mere 5 minutes.
Okiato – Russell
This stage of the hike is split in to 4 sections. You know you’re in for a slog when you first get off the ferry. A steep but short walk up the road leads you to a sign welcoming you to Okiato, New Zealand’s First Capital. Apart from the sign itself there’s not much to see. Further on up the road, another signpost points you in the direction of the walkway. Following that, you soon descend to a bay, and then a brief grassed track, followed by the entrance to a forest. This is where the fun begins. The forest is full of native bush, and is incredibly beautiful, but also very wet. The forest floor is flat(ish), but to get out of it you have to ascend multiple steps. Yes, this is where the entertainment of the steps begins, and they don’t end for several more kilometres!
The second stage has yet more steps, going through a different forest, and this time going downhill, before bringing you back uphill again. The third section tries to outdo the previous two, and has the steepest set of steps yet. But thankfully, once you have defeated them, the rest of the hike is along mangrove boardwalks, flat lands or along roads, so the going isn’t so tough.
The mangrove boardwalks are magnificent. On either side are mangrove swamps, and tide depending they are either deep and alive with jumping fish or low and reveal hidden manganese boulders, once mined for their ore. In the distance, the high cone of Mount Tikitikioure rears up, standing proudly against the skyline. These boardwalks really are a masterpiece of engineering. They are simple structures but make otherwise impassable places possible to access, along with the chance to see the plant, bird and wildlife they hold.
As mentioned before, it is the fourth and final leg of the hike that lets this otherwise delightful walk down. The last few km in to Russell is primarily on roads, and where it isn’t, is on tracks next to it where the peace and quiet of the countryside is destroyed by the heaving engines of vehicles close by. Russell is a welcome site at the end of all this. The ups and downs and steps do give your legs a hammering, and a pub – any old pub – with fries and a cold beer is well received! Talking of any ‘old’ pub, the Duke of Marlborough in Russell claims to be New Zealand’s oldest, though this is disputed by the Horeke Tavern in Horeke, Northland, which also claims the same title. The Duke burned down 4 times, so it has not continuously served beer, whereas the Horeke Tavern has. Despite its many burnings, The Duke does look old, but not in the romantic way you’d imagine. Old perhaps is too kind; tired and in need of an extensive overhaul would be more realistic.
After a few beers, the only thing left to do is catch the ferry back to Paihia. The journey takes approximately 20 minutes and costs $7 per passenger.
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For a full list of recommended hiking gear, check out my Ultimate Hiking Kit List Checklist.
For day hikes, it’s hard to beat a Camelbak bag. With a built in 3 litre hydration system and drink tube, this pack makes hikes on the trail as hands free as it gets. You can concentrate on the hike ahead instead of faffing around searching for unruly water bottles in your bag. Whenever you’re thirsty, just sip on the tube et voila! Fresh water. The bag also has ample room for those other essentials – snacks, waterproofs, camera etc – and is padded and comfortable.
My friend Katie did this hike with me, in what can only be described as unsuitable footwear. By the end of it, she had considerable pain in her legs and was tired. Hiking boots are key to preventing injury and fatigue on the trail, and boots that are as lightweight as possible whilst still retaining support are ideal. These Salomon boots tick all the right boxes and come both in women’s and men’s versions. (If you’re a male, click the link and search for the men’s version).
While Katie didn’t have the right footwear, she did have the right sunglasses. These lightweight Oakleys are made with the outdoors in mind. Polarized lenses reduce the glare from light which reflects off surfaces – for instance snow ad water – so these are perfect for a hike around the Bay of Islands (there’s no snow, but plenty of H2o!) These sunglasses also have soft grips which keep them in place, so they won’t be falling off your snout.
As it’s New Zealand, expect the unexpected when it comes to weather. Always pack rain gear as this is the land where you’ll have 4 seasons in one day – on repeat. I was lucky enough to arrive in Auckland when Marmot were doing a sale, so treated myself to a new waterproof for my journey through the Land of the Long White Cloud. I haven’t been disappointed in this ridiculously lightweight, uber obvious (mine is a lurid colour of yellow) jacket which has been mountain-tested by guides. It’s so light (6oz!) I hardly notice I’m carrying it. Click here for my full review of the Marmot Essence Jacket. For alternatives, consider the Marmot PreCip Jacket. I’m not a Marmot ambassador, I just think they have the edge when it comes to rain wear!
You Can Do It!
- A leaflet with a map of the route is available at the i-Site Tourist Information office in Paihia.
- Take snacks and plenty of water – the only places to stock up are in Paihia, Russell, and the ferry terminal at Opua.
- There are public toilets in Paihia, Opua ferry terminal and Russell.
- There are no rubbish bins on the hike. Please carry your trash out with you.
- Hiking poles may be useful for muddy and steep sections.
- The Bay of Islands is very popular in the summer (mid October – beginning February). Book accommodation in advance.
- The weather is extremely changeable in New Zealand. It is not uncommon to have intensely hot sun followed by wind and rain, followed by intensely hot sun, followed by wind and rain…Pack a raincoat, a hat, sunglasses and swim wear.
- Pack sunscreen – the sun in NZ is more dangerous in this part of the world due to the hole in the ozone layer. There are sunscreens specifically made for the NZ sun, which can be purchased in the pharmacy in Paihia.
If you don’t want to do the whole hike, you can do sections of it. If you’ve only got a few hours, Pahia – Opua is a 5.8km walk, so you could walk one way and catch a taxi back, or hike it both directions for an 11.6km round trip. This is certainly the most scenic part of the walk and is also a lot easier. The Okiato – Russell part of the hike is divided in to 4 stages:
Stage 1 – Pipiroa Bay to Aucks Road – 1.3km
Stage 2 – Aucks Road to Te Wahapu Road – 1.3km
Stage 3 – Te Wahapu Road to Hirst Reserve, Orongo Bay – 1.3km
Stage 4 – Orongo Bay to Russell – 5km
All these stages are easily accessible from the road, so you could park up and do a return hike on any of these.
Paihia and Russell have a ton of places to eat at. In Paihia, Rays on the Bay is a sunny spot with good beer and fish and chips, whilst Greens is an excellent Indian and Thai restaurant. Russell has a coffee shop called Hell Hole, which not only has a great name but also serves good coffee and bagels.
En route there’s an oyster farm and a vineyard, but the things most worth seeing are the scenery along the hike. Keep an eye out for signs telling you about the native flora and fauna which are scattered along the trail.
Paihia and Russell have plenty of accommodation options, from hostels to boutique hotels. The Top 10 Campsite, a few km outside of Paihia, is right on the waterfront by along the Paihia – Opua walkway and is a lovely spot.
On Stage 3 of the Okiato – Russell hike is the historical Orongo Bay Homestead (built in 1860) which has award winning accommodation.
You can use my TRVL site to find your perfect accommodation. I get a small commission when people book accommodation through this site, so would appreciate it if you do!
Refer to my Ultimate Hiking Kit List Checklist for help you with your packing.