Choose to stay in a big tourist town – Queenstown, or the lesser known town of Glenorchy?
When New Zealand is mentioned, those who have been there often point to a mandatory visit to Queenstown. Most visitors hiking the Routeburn Track stay in Queenstown. It’s likely if you went to the Southern Alps, you stayed in Queenstown for at least 1 night. Our attitudes towards ‘Adventures in Style for Less,’ led us to Glenorchy instead.
So why choose Glenorchy?
Queenstown is often called the adventure capitol of New Zealand. It seems to be due the number of tour operators offering bungee jumping, jet boating, hiking, biking, winery tours, and skiing in winter. Queenstown is built up with hotels, motels, restaurants and stores along the lakefront. Still, Queenstown offers stunning scenery of mountains and lakes, situated in the Southern Alps.
Are there other choices in the area as a central base to access the Routeburn Track?
Are there better choices? Yes! We did not choose Queenstown; we passed through Queenstown, had a meal, and quick look around, but stayed in Glenorchy.
If there is a preference for more natural beauty, fewer people, no noise, and being in a place that feels like you are completely surrounded by nature, consider Glenorchy. Glenorchy is a spectacularly scenic 45-minute drive northwest of Queenstown, on the northern shores of Lake Wakatipu and adjacent to Mount Aspiring National Park.
Glenorchy, New Zealand is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, rivers and lakes. An outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, it’s a great starting point for a hikes, salmon and trout fishing, boating, biking, and horseback riding. Some Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia scenes were filmed in this area.
While Queenstown is the mecca for adventures, many of those adventures actually start in Glenorchy. There are two in particular that we, as baby boomer travelers with an adventurous spirit chose – hiking the Routeburn Track and a combo jet boat on the Dart River coupled with a Walking the Aspiring Wilderness adventure. Both pick up in Queenstown, but start from Glenorchy. After long hikes and wilderness activities, relaxing in the beautiful countryside is quite appealing rather than returning to the bustle of Queenstown. Glenorchy is a sleepy quiet town, with a few places to stay and a few places to eat and drink, unlike the tourist area of Queenstown.
There are some food and drink options available in Glenorchy. While there is a General Store, if you have kitchen facilities, do your food shopping in Queenstown.
Glenorchy is for those who love nature; while Queenstown is for those who want amenities close by.
The Routeburn Track Hike
Our main reason for visiting Glenorchy is the Routeburn Track. One of New Zealand’s popular ‘Great Walks,’ the Routeburn Track is a world renowned magnificent hiking experience on New Zealand’s South Island. Imagine viewing soaring mountain peaks, some with snow atop, vast valleys, multiple waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes. The Routeburn Track spans both Mount Aspiring National Park and Fjordland National Park.
It is easily accessible and can be done as a 1-day or 3 day/ 2 night walk, guided or self-led. Many people are transported from Queenstown to the Routeburn Track. We were lucky enough to be included in one of Ultimate Hikes 1-day trek up and down the mountain through the beech forest, crossing swing bridges, and lunching in a highland valley at one of the huts.
While we were invited guests by Ultimate Hikes, this is a totally independent and honest review based on my own experience.
We were picked up in Glenorchy by our guide/driver with other hikers in our group from Queenstown, and driven to the Routeburn Track carpark access point. Our guide told us about the area and mountains on our way to the Track – the history, geology, and cultural lore.
Upon arrival, our Ultimate Hikes guide provided options for our hike, and adjusted the hike to suit the group. Our hike had the potential of being 16 km – 10 miles, or more, depending on our pace and the time we chose to arrive back at the van.
Kana, our guide from Ultimate Hikes and originally from Japan 20 years prior, asked our group of 5 hikers to choose the focus of our hike. We chose to focus on interesting aspects of nature, unusual things – birds, flowers, trees. With our interest in birds and orchids, we stopped often to watch the birdlife, and when Kana found some very unusual orchids – potato, onion and greenhood orchids; we would not have noticed them ourselves. Of course, Kana made other stops to share knowledge and the local lore of the forest, the trees – Beech, Manuka, Tea trees, birds, other animals, flora and fauna. Kana shared the history of the area, other activities available, in addition to her naturalist knowledge.
- Lancewood Tree – its leaves are long and narrow as a juvenile and cluster at the top of a straight thin trunk, yet adult leaves are shorter and much wider, forming a rounded crown at the top of the tree.
- Various additional trails and tracks that access the waterfalls
- Tracks requiring helicopter access
- Manuka honey and its prized tree, plus medicinal uses
- Spice bush – leaves used for tea to calm an upset stomach; it worked for me!
- Storms – how they have changed the Routeburn Track and water flow
- Holes in Beech Trees that house birds
- Bird behavior – of the Rifleman and New Zealand Robin (differs from the US Robin)
- Jurassic Forest – with its moss covered forest floor, rocky walls, and native orchids
- Ferocious streams
Some of this forest was in Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit movies.
Ultimate Hikes provided a delicious lunch, customized to personal food requirements, and served at a large hut halfway through the day hike where Kana served us hot beverages. After clean-up, Kana pointed out the tracks that rose above us for the multi-day hikes, taught us about the fresh waterways, and environment on the mountain. An Ultimate Hikes guide is the transport driver, brings everyone’s lunch, guides and comments on the hike, and carries minor medical supplies and a radio for emergencies.
In addition to providing a good lunch, Ultimate Hikes serves a choice of drinks and soup at the hut. Overall, the hike was a good pace 12-13 km with a lunch stop in 5.5 hours. Ultimate Hikes made it a great outdoor day!
Many outdoor activities, from easy to strenuous, are accessed from Glenorchy, and there are several companies that lead them. The biggest names we came across were Ultimate Hikes and Guided Walks New Zealand.
Our original plan for Day 2 was to take a slightly different type of combined jet boat / Mount Aspiring Wilderness experience with Guided Walks New Zealand. I was looking forward to this experience more than any others. Aspiring Wilderness Experience (AWE) begins on a Dart River jet boat trip leaving out of Glenorchy (they will pick up in Queenstown), and making its way through the Southern Alps glacial waters on a 35 km journey to a secret spot where the hike begins. After the 1.5 hour boat trip, a 2-3 hour walk ensues on a gentle ascent through the beech forest, listening to local bird song. Unfortunately, we had to change our plans and did not do this tour. Check it out if an easy outdoor adventure interests you.
This adventure wrapped up with a beautiful drive back to Queenstown viewing the exquisite mountains and waterways. With many restaurants to choose from, we ate lunch near the medical center at a café with an overlook of Queenstown. I do recommend Bespoke Kitchen on the southwest side of the lake in Queenstown.
Our New Zealand adventure continues in Te Anau, another small town that is often accessed from Queenstown on the way to Milford Sound, which is the subject next week’s article – stay tuned.
Check out our previous adventures leading up to Glenorchy –