Queenstown is a mecca for outdoor adventure. Nestled as it is in the foot of the Southern Alps, tucked against the shoreline of New Zealand’s third largest lake, opportunities to hike through surreal landscapes, jump off mountains and frolic in fresh glacial waters abound. The majesty of the surrounding alpine lakes and rivers fires the imagination, inspiring one to rise to the call and seize the day. From paragliding to horseback riding, from heli-skiing to river rafting, there are hundreds of ways to get your blood pumping while taking in the breathtaking sights that Queenstown and the Central Otago region has to offer. Here are some of our personal favorites.
Ride the Queenstown Skyline Gondola
There’s no better way to get your bearings of a place than to get a bird’s eye view of it. In Queenstown, the easiest way to do this is to hop on the Skyline Gondola, said to be the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere. It will take you 450 meters up to the top of Bob’s Peak, where Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu unfold far below, and offer stunning views of Coronet Peak, Walter Peak, Cecil Peak, and the Remarkables off in the distance. (Take note of these locations, you’ll be visiting them later!) From here, you can undertake a variety of activities, including stargazing tours, fast-paced luge rides, mountain biking and nature-walk trails, bungee jumping and canyon swinging.
Bungee Jumping the AJ Hackett Ledge Above Queenstown
Speaking of bungee jumping, did you know that commercial bungee jumping was first founded in 1988 by New Zealand entrepreneur A.J. Hackett? After you’ve enjoyed your Skyline Gondola ride, you can up your adrenaline amperage even more by jumping off the nearby A.J. Hackett Ledge, also on Bob’s Peak. The A.J. Hackett Ledge is a 48-meter jump, 400 meters above Queenstown. You’re tied in at the waist, have the benefit of a small runway, and the views are out of this world. Not ready for quite so high a free fall? Consider the Ledge Swing, offered by the same company, or try starting at the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, where A.J. Hackett first opened commercial bungee jumping to the public.
Enjoy World-Class Skiing Across the Southern Alps
Queenstown draws snow-sport lovers from around the world, and for good reason. In winter, there’s backcountry skiing and the country’s most insanely vertical drops. Slopes for every skill level tower in all directions—from beginner to heli-skier. There are four main ski fields nearby: Cardrona Alpine Resort, located in the Crown Range between Wanaka and Queenstown; Coronet Peak ski field (tandem paragliding is also available here!), located on the west side of nearby Arrowtown; the Remarkables Ski Area, an easy 35-minute drive from Queenstown Center to a fantastic mountain range, and Treble Cone, the South Island’s largest ski and snowboard resort with the longest vertical drops of the four. Ski passes and equipment can be easily obtained all over Queenstown.
Ride a 100-Year-Old Steam Boat Across Lake Wakatipu
Built in 1912, the TSS Earnslaw is one of Central Otago’s oldest attractions. This coal-fired steamship is said to be the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying vessel of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. You can catch a ride on it across the majestic expanse of Lake Wakatipu over to Walter Peak, where you can then take a farm tour, go horseback riding through the wild terrain, or simply enjoy lunch before returning to Queenstown.
Pretend You’re Frodo in the Lord of the Rings
Remember that mind-blowing landscape in The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Much of that was filmed in Queenstown and its outlying areas. Paradise, near Glenorchy, at the head of Lake Wakatipu is one such location. A glaciated valley is formed by two rivers there, coming down between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountains. Transport yourself by taking the wetland walk across the river flats at Glenorchy. Stay in the magic of the place even longer by embarking on the round-trip, Rees-Dart Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The starting point is in Paradise, naturally.
Drive the Road to Milford Sound
Milford Sound is a pristine fiord deep within the Fiordland National Park. Bounded by steep cliffs and dense rainforest, it is the only fiord in New Zealand you can access by road. The ancient Maori traveled to Milford Sound in search of pounama (greenstone) a thousand years ago. Today the road to Milford Sound has some of the most spectacular scenery around. You can drive it yourself or take a tour. It’s about a four-hour drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, and the trip is an excellent way to spend the day!
Take a Jet Boat Down the Shotover River, Then Drive the Skippers Canyon Road
As its name suggests, the Shotover River is long and fast-flowing, with a number of rapids. You can enjoy it in numerous ways—from white-water rafting to inner tubing—but perhaps the most exhilarating is taking it by jet boat. Some companies boast speeds of over 85 kph as you make your way through the rapids, with the narrow canyon walls close on either side. Continue your exploration of the area by taking Skippers Canyon Road, a dangerous, mostly one-lane road that is narrow and steep, threatening sheer drops of hundreds of feet to the canyon floor below. Be advised that most car rental companies will not cover damages obtained by traveling this cliff-side route!
Hike or Bike Your Way Around the Mountains
The area around Queenstown is home to some of the world’s best hiking and biking trails. Examples of things to do include: Hopping on any one of the New Zealand Great Walks, popular and well-maintained tramping tracks through some of the country’s most scenic areas; exploring the multitude of hiking/biking trails around Ben Lomond, the Remarkable Mountains, or Queenstown Hill; or taking the Queenstown Trail which connects the towns of Queenstown, Arrowtown, and the area of Gibbston, through 110 km of scenic pathway which closely follows the terrain. You could also just enjoy a guided walk through 1,000-year-old forests on the Hollyford Track. Outlying lakes such as Wanaka, Hayes and Te Anau offer extensive trails as well.
It would seem that wherever you look, adventure is waiting to happen in and around Queenstown. The only real question is, how can you possibly do all the activities you want to in the time that you have available?