I don’t miss many things about my former life in the US beyond friends and family. Living in an area that snows is the exception. Sure I can drive to it and play in it often and the Rimutaka Ranges across the harbor from our home in Welly will get a dusting every so often, but I haven’t felt snow fall on me for three years.I miss this magic. Although snowfall was not happening anywhere in NZ for the Queen’s birthday holiday, we were ringing in the winter season on lots of fluffy white stuff in Queenstown.
I can’t really figure out how I feel about Queenstown. The Remarkables rising above Lake Wakatipu creates one of the most scenic city backdrops in all of NZ. However, the city is growing exponentially with poor planning practices and being a tourist hub creates a downtown that is dominated by businesses offering wild adventures. The traffic is absolute madness and the fast growth rate has made everything a bit same-same, void of much character. BUT… then you look back to the Remarkables and none of that matters and the reality is because this place is all about tourism there is heaps to do at all hours of the day and night. We also discovered on this trip that Queenstown is one of the few places in the area that doesn’t see the May-June inversion cloud, which means lots sunshine!
Flying in and out of QT is a gorgeously terrifying experience. We had lovely views of the city and surrounding lakes on both our arrival and departure.
With a noon arrival we didn’t plan much for our first day; grab a bite to eat, go grocery shopping, and enjoy an easy hike around Moke Lake. I have been inspired to see this area since watching the Netflix series Top of the Lake. This hike is off the tourist track so you won’t be dodging traffic. It is listed as a 2-hour walk, but can easily take half that time for fit hikers. On a sunny, calm day with snow-capped peaks, it is a real stunner.
A wee little detour to the town of Arrowtown is a great place for leisurely stroll and for us, a post hike. This charming little town tucked into the mountains is the complete opposite of QT. It is quiet and chock full of historical buildings established during the gold rush. We found a great little pub, Fork and Tap, with plenty of outdoor seating and a warm fire and lively bar inside. That strong NZ sun allows us to sit outside even during the cold winter day, but once it tucked behind the mountains we found refuge by the fire. There is a great local vibe at this place, sprinkled with a few tourists like ourselves/
We happened to be visiting during the winter light festival Luma, which brightens the city with creative colorful light installations…totally necessary during the dark days of winter. There is something for everyone here, after passively strolling through the installations face painting seemed to be quite popular with the kiddos, while the adults gravitated to the beer tent.
We spent most of trip hiking through the snowy goodness, but the only hike we did in QT was up Ben Lemond. This classic walk rises just above the city and can be accessed either from the edge of town or at the top of the gondola. We chose to take the cheater gondola way.. Despite it being touristy and over priced, I like riding it. The views from the restaurant at the top provide the simplest way to get a bird’s eye view of the city.
For those interested in getting up a bit higher there is well formed track up to the ridgeline saddle or further up a bit more rugged track up to the top of Ben Lomond. This track can get pretty darn busy as the day goes on, so hit it early if you want the summit to yourself. It is helpful that QT is a bit of a party town so hikers tend to start a later here in comparison to the surrounding area. While I am more drawn to hiking in the wilderness, this city hike is an endless stunner and was a nice contrast to the rest of our time in the mountains.
Ain’t no shame in this ride down. It was a quickie way to get to our recovery meal at Yonder. Not only is the food great at this place, but their heated outdoor seats are amazing!
If you are looking for a little relaxation in QT, head over to the fairly new Onsen Hot Pools up in Shotover Canyon. Here you can spend an evening enjoying a private onsen overlooking the canyon by day or stargazing by night followed by a massage. A complimentary snack and beverage is included. For us, it was the perfect way to unwind at the end our three day hiking adventure.
Or maybe beer or wine tasting is more your style. There are a bunch of great wineries and breweries not far from town. During this trip we tried Amisfield Cellar Door (excellent wine) and Wet Jacket (good wine, great tasting experience, and Winstone cheese tasting is right next door.
We also made a stop at Cargo Brewery which is known for their beer, but also makes wine as well. You can mix up your tasting platter to include both. Sit on the nice sunny lawn or enjoy a seat in the historic Wangaloa Presbyterian Church. We loved the experience, but didn’t really enjoy the beer. The place gets excellent reviews though so maybe our palate wasn’t cooperating.
The city really has it all. See my post about campervanning the South Island for more about jet boating and jumping off stuff…the later being what QT is best known for. Since we weren’t doing any of that, we used the other days of travel to hike some tracks in the Wanaka and Glenorchy areas.
Isthmus Peak – Wanaka Area
Technically this is in the Lake Hāwea area, but the closest larger (more well known) town is Wanaka. If you are driving from Queenstown, head over the Crown Range Highway for views of the valley (most of the time). As you can see there is this thing called an inversion that keeps the area free of sunshine for most days in May and June. The clouds had cleared upon our return to QT.
The inversion can make for some pretty spectacular hikes as we learned as we climbed Isthmus Peak (1385 m). This 16km hike follows a four-wheel drive track through grazed land to a single track along a ridgeline between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hāwea. Typically this hike is popular because you can see both lakes from the summit with backdrop of some of the most beautiful peeks in the Southern Alps, including Mt Aspiring. While we wouldn’t be seeing the lakes today with a thick cloud cover cloaked the surrounding valleys, we ended up being treating to something quite special.
However, first we would spend an hour climbing through dense fog without knowing if we would ever reach a point that we could see a thing.
I was starting to regret suggesting this hike, but we patiently continued filled with hope. Eventually the blue sky began breaking through the cloudy haze and when we popped above the cloudy plane we shrieked with excitement. It was magic. The entire hike above the clouds was.
In all of my days of mountain hiking, I have never had a day like this. My heart was filled with so much joy!
One will never forget their first fogbow!
Glenorchy and Routeburn/Rockburn Valleys
Glenorchy is one our favorite places in NZ. The towering mountains, narrow valley, and relatively undeveloped landscape of this town located at the end of the road is often described as God’s Country. The town is located at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu and is the gateway to beech forests and glacier fed streams in Mt Aspiring National Park, as well as the beginning (or end depending on direction) of the Routeburn Great Walk. We still have only scratched the surface here and have yet to be here in the warmer months to reach the Earnslaw Burn Track made famous by the Lord of the Rings.
The drive into town is a real stunner, especially during the calm days of early winter.
The town itself is quite small. With less than 400 people there are only a handful of cafes, a general store, and a tourist shop or two. Most places close for the winter, but you can grab and pint and food year round Glen-Roydon Lodge & Restaurant. The edge of the lake and the famous willows are always worth a visit.
Having already hiked the Routeburn, we thought we would check out its often overlooked sister valley, the Rockburn. This valley can be reached by either the Sylvan Lake Track or the Sugarloaf Mountain track that begins at the same point as the Routeburn. Worried about time after a late start we chose an out and back to Sugarloaf rather than the loop along Sylvan. This track generally goes straight up with little relief. In the winter it gets super icy too so some microspikes make it a far more pleasurable experience. That snow and ice really creates a lovely winter scene.
After about 2.5 miles through the beech forest, you will reach a clearing that allows you to look back at the Routeburn Valley. An unexpected surprise for us.
Just over the saddle views of the far more narrow Rockburn Valley are exposed. The light at this time of the day just didn’t capture the beauty of this valley. I imagine dropping down to walk along the river during the winter months doesn’t provide much sun if any, but I am still curious to return to other hikes through this valley.
No trip to Glenorchy would be complete without the slow drive-bys to admire the braided glacier melt Dart River and sheep stations.
Queenstown and the surrounding area is such a diverse winter playground. You have the choice to chill in town, drive by some lovely landscapes, indulge with wine tasting, or get your heart rate up tramping in the mountains….and of course soon, the slopes will be open. My snowy desires were satiated here, at least for a few weeks anyhow.