The Southern Alps of New Zealand boasts much of the country's most iconic and stunning natural scenery. They are by far New Zealand's largest mountain range and form the backbone of the South Island. In the Southern Alps, one can find Mount Cook (New Zealand's highest mountain), almost all the country's glaciers, all of the highest peaks, the most extensive forests, and much more.

The Southern Alps are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and have been formed by the Pacific Plate pushing westward and colliding with the northward-moving Indo-Australian Plate. The uplift has been the most rapid in the last 5 million years and they are still rising today.

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What To Know About The Southern Alps

It was the famous English explorer James Cook who first called these majestic mountains the "Southern Alps" on 23 March 1770 while admiring their "prodigious height".

  • Maori Name: Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, meaning "the Mirage of the Ocean"
  • Length: Around 500 kilometers or 310 miles
  • Highest Peak: Mount Cook At 3,724 meters (12,218 feet)

The Southern Alps run approximately 500 km northeast to southwest. In total there are seventeen peaks that exceed 3,000 meters or 9,800 feet with the highest being Mount Cook.

The many alpine lakes of the South Island are almost all filled in from Ice-Age lakes (in the North Island, the lakes are often volcanic calderas).

Crossing the Southern Alps is some of the most spectacular driving that one can hope to find in New Zealand. They are crossed by the Lewis Pass, Arthur's Pass, Haast Pass, and the stunning road to Milford Sound.

Related: New Zealand Vs. Australia: Why The Two Are Entirely Different

National Parks And Glaciers In The Southern Alps

In the region around Mount Cook are the famous glaciers - on the east side by Mount Cook is the Tasman Glacier (New Zealand's largest), and on the west side are the Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier - possibly New Zealand's most popular.

  • Largest Glacier: Tasman Glacier At 23.5 Kilometers or 14.6 Miles
  • Famous Glaciers: Tasman, Franz Josef, and Fox Glaciers
  • Number of Glaciers: Over 3,000 Glaciers Larger Than One Hectare

They are home to many of New Zealand's national parks - including Fiordland National Park which is the largest by far. The national parks include:

  • Westland Tai Poutini National Park: Is Very Wet And Includes The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers
  • Mount Aspiring National Park: Famous For Having Some Of The Southern Alps' Most Stunning Mountains
  • Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park: Has The Tallest Peaks and Longest Glacier
  • Lake Sumner Forest Park: Not Actually A National Park But A Stunning Protected Area
  • Fiordland National Park: The Southern Extreme of the Southern Alps And Is The Largest National Park In New Zealand

The Dramatic Rain Shadow Effect

The Southern Alps extend much of the length of the South Island and create a dramatic rain shadow effect. As the rain approaches from the west the weather fronts hit the ranges and dump the rain. The west coast is incredibly wet, while the inland and eastern regions can be dry or even arid.

Milford Sound (one of New Zealand's premier attractions and its most popular fjord) gets a massive 6,813mm (267 inches) of rain annually. It also rains there on average 182 days in the year. As the crow flies across the mountains around 100 kilometers or 65 miles away is the small town of Cromwell. This charming lakeside town only receives 396mm (15 inches) of rain annually.

Related: New Zealand Vs Norwegian Fjords: Which Is Better, And How To Visit

Exploring And Hiking In The Southern Alps

There are plenty of ways to see and discover the Southern Alps. New Zealand is the land of outdoor adventure tourism so the possibilities are endless. Mountaineering, water skiing, bungy jumping, sky diving, skiing, fjord cruises, flightseeing, and canyon swinging are just a few of the options.

  • Admission Fee For National Parks: In New Zealand All National Parks Are Free
  • Cost To Stay At The Huts: Varies $3-$10 Tokens Are Bought In Advance

Of course, one should also hike in the Southern Alps. There are many tracks (not called trails in NZ) with huts along the way. They also have three of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks.

  • Routeburn Track - Shortest Track And With Majestic Views In Both The Fiordland National Park And Mt Aspiring National Park
  • Kepler Track - Alpine And Circular Track In Fiordland
  • Milford Track - The Most Famous And Only One You Must Book In Advance

Remember many of these tracks cross alpine crossings and the weather can change rapidly. Always check the weather forecast, bring plenty of dehydrated food, and have plenty of warm clothing. Some of the tracks like the Milford, Pararoa, Kepler, and Routeburn Tracks cut through very very wet regions of New Zealand. Regardless of the weather forecast, you must be prepared for wet and windy weather.

Next: Hobbiton Is On New Zealand's North Island, And This Is Everything You Need To Know Before You Go