Queenstown is truly a hiker’s paradise. There’s dramatic scenery in all directions, and the mountains are filled with well maintained hiking trails. And as a major adventure-tourism destination the area is well serviced and cosmopolitan.
Plenty of tourists visit the area, and yet it seems the majority of people choose not to go hiking. In fact, I’ve sometimes not seen a single other person on the best hikes in the area. So if you are willing to put in the effort, you can have New Zealand’s magical scenery mostly to yourself.
Where are the walks?
Queenstown is central to a number of great walking areas. An hour’s driving will take you to the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park near Glenorchy, to the wide open spaces of Central Otago, and to the attractive town of Wanaka. There are numerous options in these areas for day-hikes and multi-day ‘tramps’, including the world famous Routeburn Track. In fact, in ten trips to Queenstown I’ve done almost 50 separate walks as day-trips, and there’s still more to do.
In this article I’d like to share my favourite day-hikes within a 30 minute drive from Queenstown itself. I’ve chosen five walks: the Queens Drive – Wye Creek Circuit, Ben Lomond, Mt Crichton, Brow Peak, and Crown Peak. Of these only Ben Lomond is well known. These walks are all pretty long, so I’ve also included shorter alternatives for you to consider. And I’ve linked titles to my original posts so you can have more of a look at what’s on offer.
The Remarkables (2319m) are certainly well named, and I may be a little obsessed with them. The super rugged and sheer west face rises 2000m above the Wakatipu Basin, and is an arresting sight. Unfortunately climbing to the summit is beyond the casual hiker, but there’s an excellent circuit walk that I highly recommend…
This lesser known walk is a real humdinger, and will feel quite adventurous for all but the most experienced hikers. First up, a shortish climb to Shadow Basin Lookout from the ski field provides extensive views over Lake Wakatipu and surrounds. Next are stark cliffs and hair raising drop offs on Queens Drive, which runs across the western face of the Remarkables at 2000m of elevation. The walk then enters an extensive boulder field with the Remarkables summit cliffs towering overhead. From there you enter the picturesque Wye Creek Basin, and then return to the ski fields via Lake Alta.
This walk is best done in mid summer to autumn when there is little or no snow on the Queens Drive. If there is substantial snow on this portion then you’ll need your crampons and ice axe. Or consider giving this track a miss, and visit the Wye Creek Basin via Lake Alta instead.
Shorter Options in The Remarkables
You can you walk up to the attractive Lake Alta from the Remarkables ski field car park. There are some interpretive signs along the way providing interesting information on the alpine environment.
To reach the Queens Drive you first have to climb from the ski field car park to Shadow Basin Lookout. The walk itself is not so exciting, with all but the last bit along a vehicle track, but the views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu are extensive.
On our first aborted attempt at the Queens Drive we returned from the lookout to the car park via Lake Alta. This makes for a decent loop and has good views of the lake from above. It requires some boulder hopping and a steep descent to the lake, but is otherwise straightforward.
There’s a nice walk that starts at the bottom of Wye Creek Valley just off the road to Kingston. This track is the forested section of a potentially much longer walk in the Remarkables Conservation Area*. Ending the walk just above the tree line makes it a satisfying finish with views up the valley to high ground, and of rugged crags immediately above the creek. Picking your way carefully between lethal spear grass you can climb up the steep slopes from the creek to get partial views of Lake Wakatipu.
*You can walk all the way up (or down) the valley between the road and Remarkables ski field car park. You’d need to organise transport at each end, and it might take longer than a day walking up.
Queenstown & Lake Wakatipu
2) Ben Lomond
Standing on the summit of Ben Lomond (1748m) on a clear enough day, you can blindly point your camera in any direction and come away with an epic landscape shot. There are 360 degree views of the Southern Alps, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables.
The steep but steady 1400m climb to the summit is very satisfying if you like that sort of thing (as I do). There’s quite a variety of vegetation, starting in native beech forest, then non-native pine, and above the tree line it’s tussock grass. Even if you only make it to the saddle at 1316m of elevation the views over the Southern Alps are already excellent. And you can also turn off about half way up, taking a short side trip to point 1121m for great views of Queenstown Hill and the Remarkables.
If you want to save time and energy, a gondola takes you to 812m above sea level from where there are also grand views. You could then walk from the gondola to meet up with the main track to the summit.
The climb up Mt Crichton near Queenstown was one of our best walks to date. And even if you don’t visit one of the summit peaks you’ll still feel a sense of achievement and wonder by going as far as the minor peak at 1723m. Be prepared for quite a work out though, as much of it is steep and on a sometimes obscure route.
The walk starts in attractive beech forest, and you can expect great views as soon as you’re above the treeline. At the turnaround point there are 360 degree views taking in a variety of rugged and picturesque scenery, including the summit of Mt Crichton, Lake Isobel (just a glimpse), Twelve Mile Creek, Lake Wakatipu, and various peaks and ridges in all directions. And to top it off we didn’t meet a single person all day.
Shorter Options Near Queenstown & Lake Wakatipu
The Queenstown Hill Walk provides excellent views for moderate effort, and it starts just on the edge of town. The track first ascends steadily through a forest of wilding pines, some of them humongous. After emerging above the tree line it’s a short but steep ascent to the summit at 907m. The 360 degree views include the Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, Cecil and Walter Peaks, and Ben Lomond.
The Mt Crichton Loop Track is an undulating circuit on the foothills of Mt Crichton. It passes through native beech and manuka forest, by waterfalls and bare rocky hills, and visits a historic miner’s hut. You can also take a side trip to nearby Lake Dispute. Nothing spectacular but nice variety.
The Jacks Point Track runs along the foreshore of Lake Wakatipu between Kelvin Heights and Jacks Point. It provides good views of the area’s most impressive mountain peaks, including the Remarkables and Cecil Peak.
It’s a well formed track, and with the circuit at the Jacks Point end it’ll take roughly 3 hours. You could even stop at the Jacks Point golf course club house for fancy pants food.
There’s a good network of tracks at the back of Arrowtown, just a short drive from Queenstown. Some of the shorter options are just okay, however in 2019 I discovered two really good full-day hikes.
4) Brow Peak
Brow Peak (1456m) is an accessible mountain near Arrowtown, and climbing it provides excellent views of wrinkly mountains to the north, and of the Wakatipu Basin to the south. I first did this walk mid afternoon in high summer, and then again in winter. Lighting conditions on both occasions accentuated the already interesting contours of the land.
It starts on the fairly well trodden Sawpit Gully Circuit, but once off this you might not meet another person. The approach to the summit along a sometimes narrow ridge feels just a little adventurous, adding to the appeal of this walk. There’s also a very pleasant stand of beech forest on the way to Big Hill Saddle.
5) Crown Peak
The walk up Crown Peak (1735m) from Arrowtown is yet another underrated hike near Queenstown. The views slowly open up as you ascend, culminating in 360 degree views from the summit rocks. Probably best done in winter, as the scenery was certainly enhanced by snow, and there was no shelter for the whole walk.
Shorter Options Near Arrowtown
A bit past Arrowtown is the turn off for Crown Range Road, New Zealand’s highest sealed road. The drive to Wanaka along this road peaks at Crown Saddle (1070m). This is the start of a walk to Rock Peak (1490m) through the tussock-grassed Pisa Conservation Area. It’s fairly easy walking along a vehicle track, and there are views the whole way over the Crown Range, Wakatipu Basin, back of the Remarkables, and the Gibbston Valley wine region.
We were at first joined by holiday-makers who had stopped on their way between Queenstown and Wanaka. But as our local friends promised, everybody turned back after less than a kilometre, leaving us to enjoy some easily accessed solitude.
The drive from Queenstown is a little over 30 minutes (Google tells me about 37 minutes), but you’ll probably enjoy the slightly hair raising descent back down the Crown Range Road. Or you can continue on to Wanaka through the scenic Cardrona Valley.