Everyone agrees that Queenstown is a stunning city and a hot spot for thrills and adventure. What you may not know is that it’s the starting point for what is considered one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives.
It’s only 46 km from Queenstown to Glenorchy. If you drove straight through, it would take you less than an hour to get from start to finish. But that would be such a waste, because there are so many spots to stop along the way where you can take in the views of cloud-capped mountains, Lake Wakatipu – the road follows the eastern edge of the water – and ancient forests. Here’s what to do and see on your South Island day trip to Glenorchy.
Just beyond Sunshine Bay, the Little Thailand lookout gives you not only a great view of the lake but also, if your timing is right, the TSS Earnslaw, a coal-fired steamer built in 1912 that still ferries passengers across the water on scenic cruises from Queenstown. Got your togs with you? Follow the path to a cliff and leap off into the chilly water, about 7m below.
Ready for a walk? Leave the rental car in the Bob’s Cove car park and follow the path through beech forest and manuka groves. Listen for the calls of bellbirds, tui and kereru, and look for the remains of a kiln from when limestone was quarried here in the 1800s. At one point in the trail, it gets steep, but when you get to the top the panoramic views of the lake and mountains are sweet reward.
There are places to pull over all along this stretch of road to admire the scenery, but Bennetts Bluff is a must-do. There’s a very easy, short walk from the car park to the viewpoint, where you can look out and see Pig and Pigeon islands in the middle of the lake, the Humboldt Ranges, and Mount Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi.
If you’ve left early and have plenty of hours in the day, turn off the Queenstown–Glenorchy Road just after Five Mile Creek and head north along Moke Lake Road. When you arrive, it’ll be obvious Moke isn’t nearly as big as Lake Wakatipu. But because it’s slightly off-the-beaten track, and the last part of the drive is along an unsealed road, you’re unlikely to run into too many other travellers.
One reason to visit is to take on the 6.5 km Moke Lake Loop, but in-the-know locals much prefer to hike up to a ‘secret’ viewpoint high above the water. It’s not an official trail, but there are plenty of directions on how to find and follow it on the internet. It’s very steep, only suitable for tackling in dry conditions and you’ll need to be fit, but when you get to the top, the entire lake will be set out in front of you completely surrounded by rugged hills.
Unless you’ve really taken your time stopping everywhere on the way here, you’ll arrive with plenty of time to explore Glenorchy. Which is lucky, because this pretty town, sitting on the northern shore of Lake Wakatipu where the Dart and Rees rivers meet, is the sort of place you’ll want to linger. Lots of tramping tracks start around here, or pass through, so you’ll likely run into hikers ready to set off on a two-foot adventure, but you don’t need to be that hardcore.
Start by buying a coffee then taking a wander along the Glenorchy Lagoon Walkway. This boardwalk overlooks wetlands, where you can spy wading birds like black swans and pied oystercatchers. That’s if you can tear your eyes away from Mount Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi, which has a hanging glacier, Mount Alfred/Ari and all the other peaks in the distance.
Pick up the pace with a jet boating adventure on the Dart River. With Dart River Adventures, you’ll head deep into Mount Aspiring National Park, with plenty of commentary on the surrounding wilderness and Māori history. You can even take the jet boat up the river and float back under your own steam on a funyak (inflatable canoe).
If you recognise the landscape around Glenorchy that’s because it doubled as Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, this is a really popular place to shoot films and TV shows. If you want to delve into how it all happened, join the Lord of the Rings Scenic Tour from Queenstown, which is the only way to get access to the actual filming locations from The Hobbit, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Plus, you can dress up in costume in Lothlorien Forest, and visit this spectacular part of the South Island again.
Keen to explore the scenic drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy? Hire a rental car for the journey.