Queenstown, New Zealand is a mountain lover’s paradise. The quaint town sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by towering mountains that seem to rise directly out of the water. Driving through this portion of the South Island of New Zealand, you will regularly have your breath taken away by the snow-capped, jagged peaks and stunning views. Luckily, there are hikes for people of all different abilities, and AJ and I tried our fair share during our time in Queenstown. Get your virtual hiking boots on and your trekking poles ready!
What to Bring on your Queenstown Day Hike:
There are a few things that you definitely don’t want to leave without when you’re hiking in Queenstown!
- Sunscreen: There is a hole in the ozone layer over New Zealand, and the sun is extremely strong. Combine that with the mountain elevations and limited shade on most mountains, and you’ve got trouble. Apply early and often!
- Waterproof jacket/windbreaker: The weather can (and does!) change in an instant in New Zealand, especially during the summer. Do not leave home without something that can protect you from the strong winds you’re likely to encounter, especially if you are hiking to a summit. Be prepared for rain, too!
- Water: Even though the weather in Queenstown was absolutely delightful and quite cool while we were there, you need water if you’re hiking. Period. You will sweat while hiking and you need to rehydrate. We usually brought 2.5 liters each for a 6-8 hour hike.
- Snacks: We packed lunches with us for each of the 3 full day hikes that we did. Some people might just pack a protein bar and some snacks, and that would be fine too. Just make sure you have some fuel!
- Trekking poles: Do you absolutely need trekking poles? No. But they are definitely an asset, especially on the steep descents. Save your knees! If you don’t have your own, many of the outdoor stores in Queenstown will rent them to you for $5 NZD per pole per day.
Roys Peak, Wanaka, New Zealand (16 km, challenging): Roys Peak, located about an hour away in the town of Wanaka, came highly recommended and was first on our list of mountains to try. Now, I need to point out here that AJ likes hiking, but he doesn’t do a lot of long hikes. He doesn’t do a lot of physical activity in general. He also doesn’t always listen to me when I speak, so when I told him that the hike was 5 miles up to the summit and 5 miles back down, he just heard “5 miles.” This became important later, when he nearly murdered me upon realizing that the hike was a lot longer than 5 miles.
Roys Peak offers incredible views of Lake Wanaka right from the very start of the hike, which starts at the Roys Peak parking lot at the foot of the mountain. The entire mountain is exposed, so there is no shade – apply sunscreen regularly! The sun was really powerful and I put sunscreen on 4 times. There is a fairly steep grade much of the way up, and it’s all switchbacks – you just walk back and forth, steadily climbing the mountain. The nice part about this is the views of Lake Wanaka are breathtaking. The bad part is it can be a little monotonous, according to AJ. Walking at an average pace, you can expect to reach the Saddle in about 2.5 – 3 hours. This is where the vast majority of people decide to stop. However, before we started the hike, I made AJ promise me that we would go all the way to the summit and that there would be no whining. There was definitely whining, but we did go all the way to the summit, and he did not divorce me thanks to the unreal views. There was an amazing sense of accomplishment and honestly, by the time you’ve climbed to the Saddle, you’ve done most of the hard work anyway.
If you’re not used to descending steep declines, Roys Peak can be a bit rough on the knees. I highly recommend bringing trekking poles for this reason. We had ours and I’m not sure AJ would have made it down without them – I think he would have just thrown himself down the mountain instead. Take that into account if you have knee issues!
One thing to note about Roys Peak is that because of the views, it’s a very popular hike. The fact that it is popular seems to make people think it will be less challenging than it actually is. This is a tough hike and you need to be adequately prepared! We saw several people hiking without any water (I honestly don’t know how they lived) or wearing wedged (yes, wedged) sneakers. You don’t need high-tech trekking gear, but leave your wedged sneakers at home, preferably forever.
Queenstown Hill, Queenstown, New Zealand (7 km, moderate): Queenstown Hill is located right in the heart of Queenstown (the track started literally a block away from our hostel) and is about 4 miles round trip. I’ll be the first to admit that I initially poo-pooed the idea of hiking Queenstown Hill because it’s a shorter hike, it’s listed as “moderate” in terms of challenge, and I thought we had already seen the views it offered. I take it back! This is a great hike and absolutely perfect for someone who wants to experience the gorgeous views of Lake Wakatipu but isn’t quite up for summiting a mountain. The track is well-defined and easy to locate thanks to all the signage in town, and it goes through a variety of landscapes, including both forests and alpine terrain.
AJ and I decided to climb Queenstown Hill on a day when we knew it was going to start raining and continue to pour relatively early. We didn’t want to end up on the top of a huge mountain in the wind and rain, but we still wanted to be active before we hit the winery circuit that afternoon. As luck would have it, we got to the summit literally 2 minutes before the light rain started and we got to watch the storm roll in over the lake. It was definitely an experience to remember, and the views were a lot better than I thought they would be! The total hike took us a little under two hours with some breaks to read the educational signs along the way and take some pictures at the top. It’s the perfect hike if you want a doable challenge that will leave you feeling accomplished without draining all your energy!
Ben Lomond Peak, Queenstown, New Zealand (16 km, challenging): Another very convenient (but much more challenging) Queenstown hike is Ben Lomond Peak. Visitors to Queenstown will notice a gondola that goes up one of the mountains right next to the town itself; the trail starts at the gondola station. Incidentally, you actually can’t see Ben Lomond from most of Queenstown because it is blocked by other mountains, so the mountain I thought we were climbing and the mountain we actually were climbing were two totally different things.
If you choose to take the gondola up and down, you can cut about an hour off the hike in each direction. We chose to hike up, but I promised AJ that we could take the gondola back down if he made it all the way to the top of the mountain without complaining, although I secretly hoped he would decide to hike back down. Anyway, you take the Tiki Trail up through a beautiful old-growth forest for about an hour, until you reach the top of the gondola. This portion of the trail features some challenging and steep sections and can be muddy when it rains, but it was overall very manageable. There were several portions where the trail flattened out or even briefly descended, and AJ really enjoyed the variation in scenery.
After arriving at the top of the gondola, you begin hiking on the actual Ben Lomond track itself. We had heard that you might spot goats on the trail, and sure enough, we did within about 10 minutes of being on the track! They weren’t scared at all and stood right by the trail, munching away. It was incredible! We were now on a more alpine portion of the trail, and therefore exposed.
Although we were mostly climbing, the grade was very manageable and offered some great views of Ben Lomond itself and Lake Wakatipu. At some point on this section of the trail, we came to a sign that said there were 1.5 hours left to the Ben Lomond Saddle and 2.5 hours left to the Summit. I looked up and realized that the summit of the mountain I thought we were climbing definitely could not be 2.5 hours away, but the other mountain we could see looked impossible far away and too tough to climb. Guess which one we were climbing?
Still, we made good time on this portion of the trail and took few, if any, breaks. We made it to the Saddle in less than an hour and were overwhelmed by how windy it was! We had to find a sheltered spot (hint: look and see where the grass isn’t blowing, then sit there) to eat lunch before making our way up the Summit! AJ was in great spirits and really enjoying the hike, but we knew the toughest part was yet to come.
The trail to the Summit was challenging, but we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. The mountain was so imposing and impressive that we couldn’t believe we were actually climbing it! It was also extremely windy. We made it to the top in about 45 minutes (they estimated 1 hour) and were shocked to find three Keas – native New Zealand parrots – waiting to greet us at the top! As much as I’m totally terrified of birds, they were beautiful, and they mostly left us alone while we took some awesome pictures!
The descent from the Summit to the Saddle was challenging, but after that, it was smooth sailing. We did end up taking the gondola back down and ended up with a total of 10 miles from the front door of our hostel to the summit and back, with a total ascent of nearly 5,000 feet. Not too shabby!
Routeburn Track Day Hike, Glenorchy, New Zealand (Various distances, easy to moderate): One thing that we definitely feel like we missed out on in New Zealand was doing one of the “Great Walks.” There are 8 Great Walks in New Zealand, and during the summer, you need to book your accommodations (mountain huts along the trail) for them well in advance. Most tracks are one-way only and do not allow day hikers, which we were really bummed to find out when we arrived. Then, one of the people in our hostel told us that we could do a day hike on the Routeburn Track, the start of which is located about an hour away from Queenstown in the town of Glenorchy. Sold!
The nice thing about the Routeburn Track is that there are lots of different options for day hikes depending on how much or how little you want to do. Just go out however far you want to go, then turn around and come back! We had initially planned to hike all the way to the Harris Saddle and back, but I ended up getting caught up with an emergency for work in the morning and we left later than planned. We also had plans to meet up with our friends that night, so we needed to be back at a reasonable hour. If there is one recommendation I would make about this trek, it would be to go early and don’t make any plans for later! It is breathtaking and you might want to stay out there for a long time!
Although this would be AJ’s longest hike ever at about 12-13 miles, depending how far we went, the grade was mostly quite easy. If you hiked only to the Routeburn Flats Hut, which is still a good length walk and beautiful scenery, you would barely have any elevation change at all – great option for people who don’t do a lot of hiking! We decided to go at least to Routeburn Falls, which required some good climbing and is moderate in difficulty.
It’s hard for me to overstate how stunningly beautiful this hike is. The early portion of the hike follows the river, but it’s not just any river – it’s a hypnotizing seafoam green powerhouse churning its way past giant boulders and impossibly tall trees. Nearly the entire hike is inside a beech forest, so there is very little exposure and it is nice and cool. Don’t worry, though – there are still great view points along the way! We stopped and took pictures at all of them, because how could you not?
You can see the Routeburn Falls from very early on in the hike, so it was exciting when we finally reached them! This is a great spot to have lunch and relax because, in addition to the stunning falls, you are also looking out at one of the most incredible valleys I’ve ever laid my eyes on! I felt like I was looking at a painting. It was absolutely surreal and high on my list of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
I can’t say enough good things about the Routeburn Track. It’s really manageable for pretty much every level of fitness and no high tech gear is required! We can’t wait to come back one day and do the entire thing.
Get Out There: No matter where you choose to hike in the Queenstown area, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some amazing views and challenge yourself! If you’re looking for what is, in my opinion, the best way to experience Queenstown (and definitely the cheapest), just pick one of these hikes and GO!
LEAVE A COMMENT: What’s your favorite hike you’ve ever done? What was your longest or toughest hike?