All Articles An outdoor lover’s guide to Queenstown

An outdoor lover’s guide to Queenstown

Take a break from the adrenaline-spiking adventures with these treks.

Petrina Darrah
By Petrina Darrah5 Apr 2024 4 minutes read
Man crossing bridge over the West Matukituki River, Mount Aspiring National Park near Wanaka, New Zealand
West Matukituki River in Mount Aspiring National Park
Image: David Madison/Getty Images

Queenstown sits at the elbow of the lightning-bolt-shaped Lake Wakatipu. On your flight in, you’ll float past the imposing peaks of the Remarkables mountain range bordering the lake. Within easy striking distance of Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks, as well as the golden hills of Central Otago, there’s natural beauty in Queenstown every way you turn.

The peaks, crags, rivers, and canyons surrounding Queenstown have caused it to become the heart of adventure tourism in New Zealand. This is the birthplace of bungy jumping, after all, but there’s plenty to do that doesn't require a liability waiver. Though I live in Auckland, I’ve been drawn back to Queenstown time and again—and I still haven’t ticked off every hike on my list. My favorite way to explore Queenstown’s nature is with my hiking boots, but you can also cycle, jet boat, horse ride, or zip line through the landscapes.

For outdoor adventure in some of the most impressive landscapes New Zealand has to offer, be sure to visit these spots.

Summit Queenstown Hill

Bench with a view on Queenstown Hill
The view from Queenstown Hill
Image: Boy_Anupong/Getty Images

The temptation to climb a peak in Queenstown is nearly impossible to resist. A relatively easy start is the Queenstown Hill Track. This trail sets off from Belfast Terrace, a 15-minute walk from Camp Street in the center of town, and ascends around 1,312 feet in elevation over 1.6 miles, climbing through pine forest before emerging above the treeline. The reward for huffing up the hill is views of the Remarkables mountain range, stretches of Lake Wakatipu, and the Kawarau River. The 360-degree summit views make all the sweating and swearing worthwhile.

This hike takes around 1.5 hours to reach the top and roughly one hour down again, if you’re going at a leisurely pace. The well-maintained trail is accessible all year round and suitable for even reluctant hikers.

Tip: Tackle the hike in the wee hours to make it to the summit for sunrise. This is when the trail is quietest, and you’re most likely to get a parking space at the trailhead.

Strap in for a full-day Ben Lomond hike

Mountain views from Ben Lomond Track in Queenstown
View from Ben Lomond Track
Image: tobiasjo/Getty Images

The Ben Lomond trail isn’t for the faint-hearted, but if you’re game for a full-day hike, the panoramic views from the 4,717-foot-high peak are some of the best views in Queenstown.

The Ben Lomond hike officially kicks off from Bob’s Peak, which is at the top of the gondola and the site of Queenstown Luge. To get up there, first walk the Tiki Trail, which starts from the Skyline Gondola station at the bottom of the hill. After walking up to Bob’s Peak, the sign-posted Ben Lomond track heads off above the treeline into alpine tussock. The trail is for intermediate to advanced hikers, so you should be prepared for a relentless climb through steep and rough terrain.

The track is mostly well-formed, but in some of the higher sections, it gets narrow and there are steep drop offs. You can expect some rock scrambling and you’ll need to watch your footing. This is a tough hike that takes between six to eight hours. It's also high enough that you’ll be exposed to cold temperatures and changeable conditions, so pack warm layers, wear good footwear, and take enough water and snacks for the whole day.

Tip: To shave some time off the hike, take the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak, where you can stop by the Market Kitchen Cafe and enjoy a coffee with a view. It'll save you around an hour and 1.3 miles of walking. (It also cuts out the section of the trail with the least views.)

Take an outdoorsy day trip to Glenorchy

Red Glenorchy wharf shed in front of mountains on a sunny day, New Zealand
The historic Glenorchy Wharf Shed
Image: Naomi Rahim/Getty Images

Glenorchy, a small town on the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu, is one of the best day trips from Queenstown, and it’s just a 45-minute, ultra-scenic drive away. Once in Glenorchy, your first stop is the famously picturesque red boat shed on the waterfront for a photo op. But don’t expect to spend too much time in the small town itself; what makes Glenorchy remarkable is its role as a jumping off point into Mount Aspiring National Park.

From Glenorchy, you can take a jet boat up the bright blue Dart River and paddle back down in a funyak, a beginner-friendly inflatable canoe. You could also horse trek along braided rivers, zipline over blue rapids, or hike trails like the Routeburn, one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks, which are regarded as some of the best treks in the country.

Tip: One stop you should make in Glenorchy itself is Frank’s Corner, a small store selling New Zealand–made goods. My favorite things to buy here are the Merino Frank socks, perfect for keeping feet cozy on hiking adventures in the area.

Get on the water in Milford Sound

Bowen Falls in Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, Southland, New Zealand
Bowen Falls in Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park
Image: Peter Unger/Getty Images

No visit to Queenstown is complete without a pilgrimage to Milford Sound, the fjord at the end of lonely Highway 94. The road to Milford Sound cuts deep into Fiordland National Park, and the four-hour drive is punctuated with places to stop and enjoy short walks and spot kea, the world’s only alpine parrots. In Milford, boat cruises like those run by Cruise Milford set sail on the indigo-dark water, idling under the spray of waterfalls and paying visits to the local residents: seals, dolphins, and penguins.

If you’d rather skip straight over the long and winding road, a scenic flight can whisk you more directly to the sound, over waterfalls, lakes, and mountain peaks.

Tip: Milford Sound is a rare place in the sense that it’s beautiful in all weather. If the forecast says rain—and given it’s in Fiordland, that’s highly likely—don’t fret. More rain means more waterfalls and more spectacular scenery.

Bike along Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail

Lake Dunstan Trail
Lake Dunstan Trail
Image: andreasbening/Tripadvisor

The Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail is the newest of New Zealand’s Great Rides, a network of sublime cycle trails across the country. This 34-mile trail connects the historic townships of Cromwell and Clyde, alongside Lake Dunstan and the Kawarau River. It takes a leisurely three to four hours to cycle one way.

Hugging the water’s edge, the trail at some points clings to the sides of sheer granite cliffs, trundling along platforms cantilevered above the water. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, making this one of New Zealand’s most advanced bike tracks. On other parts of the trail, you’ll pedal across a 282-foot-long suspension bridge, and have the option of stopping for a coffee at Coffee Afloat & Burger Afloat, a floating cafe and burger bar.

The easiest way to tackle the trail is to rent a bike. NZbiketrails offers e-bikes and a return shuttle, making the logistics seamless.

Tip: The cycle trail passes through Bannockburn, one of Central Otago’s best vineyard areas, and directly past the gates of Carrick Winery, an organic vineyard. I recommend stopping in for a tasting—the bean bags strewn across their lawn make for great spots to admire the lake.

Petrina Darrah
Petrina Darrah is a travel writer from New Zealand with a passion for outdoor adventure. Her writing has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler. To see more of her work, check out her portfolio or follow along on Instagram.