Outdoor enthusiasts, backpackers, and luxury travelers alike are beginning to flock to New Zealand. The two-island country is an adrenaline-junkie and nature lover’s dream, covered in mountains, rolling fields, towering forests, and majestic fjords.
My time in Queenstown, the “Adventure Capital of the World,” made up the largest portion (8 days) of my recent trip to New Zealand, but I left feeling like I could have spent a month or more there and still not come close to doing everything I wanted to do. Although my husband and I had rented a car for our trip, I quickly realized that many people, especially backpackers on a budget, don’t have that luxury. Whether you only have a few days in Queenstown or you’re confined to destinations you can reach on foot, there are several fantastic hikes within walking distance of the town center. Here are some suggestions to get you started!
Easy: Sunshine Bay Walking Track
Starting along Lake Wakatipu just outside the town center, Sunshine Bay Walking Track is the perfect place to explore lakeside views without the strain of elevation change. The one hour return trip starts along Glenorchy Road just past the One Mile Creek Carpark to lead you along the shore of Lake Wakatipu and past a waterfall. Sunshine Bay Walking Track is suitable for the entire family and people of all fitness levels, and the well-maintained trail is suitable for strollers. Runners will also appreciate this trail, which provides softer terrain than the streets of Queenstown and some peaceful views. I especially loved running the trail at sunrise and watching the sun rise over the mountains.
Moderate: Queenstown Hill
Perhaps Queenstown’s most famous hiking trail, Queenstown Hill rises up behind the Queenstown town center and is easily accessible from the many hostels and hotels in the area. While the trail starts on Belfast Terrace, you’ll see signs pointing the way on Stanley Street (Route 6A – the main street leading into Queenstown), so it’s very easy to find. The moderate trek takes about 2 hours return and offers a totally different vantage point of Lake Wakatipu compared to what you see in town.
The trail initially winds through a scenic forest before spitting out onto the bald face of the hill, providing sweeping views of the Lake. From the hill, you’ll also have a unique view of Ben Lomond Peak, which is not visible from the town center.
My husband and I opted to do the Queenstown Hill trek on a day when bad storms were forecast to start midday. We had done many scenic and challenging full-day hikes during our trip by that point, and to be perfectly honest, we weren’t expecting to be terribly impressed by Queenstown Hill. Instead, we approached it as a way to be active for a couple hours before the rain came. We ended up enjoying the trek a lot more than we anticipated and agreed it’s an excellent option for people who want to experience the outdoors without committing to an all-day adventure.
We were lucky enough to make it to the top of the hill just in time to see the storm roll in. For the record – even though the name is “Queenstown Hill,” the trail still climbs over 500 meters in elevation. It’s not a walk in the park!
Challenging: Ben Lomond Peak
For those looking for a serious climb and the views to match, Ben Lomond Peak is not to be missed. The trail starts at the gondola station near the town center. Hikers have two options: take the gondola up to the start of the Ben Lomond track, cutting about an hour off the hike in each direction, or opt to hike the Tiki Trail to the Ben Lomond Track. I personally recommend taking the Tiki Trail up. While there are challenging sections and the trail can be muddy after it rains, you’ll get to experience hiking through a beautiful old-growth forest. You can always opt to take the gondola back down after your hike.
At the gondola station, the Tiki Trail joins the Ben Lomond Track, and you make your way to the other side of the first mountain. You might be lucky enough to spot some mountain goats on the trail, as we did. The goats are used to humans, and they will stand right by trail watching you go by. This alpine portion of the trail is exposed and does not offer any shade, so make sure to apply sunscreen regularly!
The terrain undulates on the way to the Ben Lomond Saddle and is a manageable grade with flatter portions and descents mixed in with the climb. You’ll have excellent views of Ben Lomond Peak – which at this point, will look very intimidating and perhaps seem impossible to climb – and Lake Wakatipu. There are signs along the trail that indicate the approximate hiking time to the next land mark, and we found these signs to be rather conservative. For example, we ended up making it to the Ben Lomond Saddle in less than an hour after passing a sign that said the Saddle was 1.5 hours away. However, we moved at a steady pace and took few, if any, breaks. The Saddle can be extremely windy, and although it makes a good stopping point, you might find it challenging to sit in the wind for too long. Look for a sheltered spot (look for a spot where the grass isn’t blowing, then sit there). From the Saddle, it’s about another hour to the peak.
In the interest of full disclosure, the climb to the top of the peak is very challenging. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a little intimidated as we stared up at the peak from the Saddle! However, no special skills are required – just a willingness to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We made it to the top in about 45 minutes (the estimated time was one hour) and were greeted by three Keas, which are native New Zealand parrots. They are definitely not afraid of people, so hide your food from them!
It’s a tough descent from the Summit back to the Saddle, but after that, it’s relatively smooth sailing. Overall, the Ben Lomond Peak hike is about 10 miles roundtrip and boasts a total ascent of nearly 5,000 feet. You’ll certainly come off the mountain with a sense of accomplishment and your thirst for adventure quenched!