New Zealand Road Trips: Three Stunning Options for Day Trips from Queenstown

Birds-eye view of Queenstown, New Zealand | Photo by Michael Amadeus
Photo by Michael Amadeus

Some people really hate Queenstown, New Zealand.

I mean, there’s no place everyone loves, is there? The lines are too long at Disneyworld; people pickpocket you in Barcelona; everything is trying to kill you in Australia. But Queenstown is, in my experience, a particularly polarizing little location.

It’s not the “real” New Zealand, they say. It’s so overhyped and touristy, they whinge. It’s full of drunk backpackers who just want to get drunker and trash everything, they proclaim!

Look, despite all its potential downfalls, I love Queenstown and always will — but I’m not here today to convince you of its virtues. Regardless of your opinion towards New Zealand’s “adventure capital,” we can probably agree on one thing: its surroundings are stunning. The town sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, flanked by the Remarkables mountain range and surrounded on all sides by a region known as the Southern Lakes.

Which just leave us with one question: where should you go?

Lake Hawea in Otago, New Zealand

A better question might be: where shouldn’t you go? I’ll let you know if I think of an answer to that one. In the meantime, here are my top picks for day trips from Queenstown by car — which very well might be a few of the best New Zealand road trips in general.

Day Trips From Queenstown

Wanaka

There are two routes you can drive from Queenstown to Wanaka: through the Crown Range (shorter, but sometimes inaccessible during the winter months), or around it, via the town of Cromwell.

If weather permits, and/or you’ve got a decent vehicle with snow chains on the tires, the Crown Range Road is my chosen option: it’s the highest public road in New Zealand and offers some great views of the valley below. Depending on the season, you might even come across some snow, if that’s the kind of thing that excites you. (Me? I’m staying in the car.)

Plus, if you take the Crown Range route, you’ll pass through Cardrona, where you can stop off at the adorable Cardrona Hotel and have a drink in their picturesque country garden. (Now that will get me out of the car.)

View from the Crown Range Road between Queenstown and Wanaka, New Zealand

Back garden of the Cardrona Hotel in Otago, New Zealand

However you make your way there, you’ll find that Wanaka is just as beautiful as Queenstown — or more, depending on who you ask. It’s a bit smaller and more mellow, but still offers a perfectly respectable array of activities and attractions.

Something I never did and am still kind of sad about was visit Cinema Paradiso, famous for its comfy couches and fresh cookies. You can also skydive over the lake, head to Treble Cone for some skiing, or relax near the lakefront with an ice cream. You might think those last two are best done in completely different times of the year, but the weather in the Southern Lakes can be a bit strange. You might find yourself doing them on the same day.

Boats on Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Main street in the town of Wanaka, New Zealand

The instagram-famous tree in Lake Wanaka | Hamish Clark via Unsplash
Photo by Hamish Clark

And, of course, there’s Puzzling World: “Wanaka’s Wonderful World of Weirdness.” There are pictures that require a triple-take, floors where you can “slide uphill,” and one of those freaky rooms with skewed perspective that make you look giant or tiny, depending what side you’re on.

If you’ve got some serious time to kill, there’s also an outdoor maze (I recommend taking water and photos of people you love). And before you leave, it’s basically mandatory to have someone take a photo of you pretending to “hold up” the leaning tower outside of the building.

Distance from Queenstown to Wanaka via Crown Range: 67 km (60 minutes)
Distance from Queenstown to Wanaka via Cromwell: 112 km (90 minutes)

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Glenorchy and Paradise

Though Queenstown is a relatively small town (14,000 or so inhabitants), its fast turnover rate and focus on tourism can easily make it seem as busy and hectic as a major metropolis. A day out to Glenorchy and Paradise might help remind you that you are, in fact, in the middle of the bloody wilderness.

View of Lake Wakatipu from the Queenstown/Glenorchy Road in New Zealand

Glenorchy is a small village about 45 km away. The Glenorchy/Queenstown road (which, as you can probably imagine, runs between the two) is one of the top places to spot Lord of the Rings filming locations in New Zealand. Go on, take out that guide book I know you packed. No one’s judging you here.

Aside from the road itself, you’ll find very few signs of civilization along the way, so plan accordingly. (In other words: pee before you leave.)

Glenorchy’s main draw is, perhaps predictably, its location and scenery; trekking, kayaking, jet boating, and horseback riding are just a few of the outdoor activities on offer. There aren’t a ton of businesses to be found — a shop here, a cafe there — but if my Instagram feed is any indication, this little red shed is downright world-famous.

Glenorchy | Irwandy Mazwir
Photo by Irwandy Mazwir via Flickr

Glenorchy is often called “the Gateway to Paradise.” That’s not just talk: there really is a place called Paradise, and it sits just up the aptly-named Glenorchy-Paradise road.

You won’t find any buildings there; for that matter, you might not even come across any other people. Getting to Paradise is not really the point, and you probably won’t even notice if you do. This bit is all about the drive.

The road to Paradise in Otago, New Zealand

On the way to Paradise in Otago, New Zealand

Distance from Queenstown to Glenorchy: 46 km (45 min)
Distance from Glenorchy to Paradise: Don’t worry about it

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Arrowtown

You wanna talk cute and charming? Let’s talk cute and charming.

Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town with a population of only a few thousand people. At a distance of 20 km from Queenstown, it’s the shortest drive on this list, making it a perfect choice for lunch or a quick afternoon trip.

Arrowtown, New Zealand by Fill My Passport
Photo by Fill My Passport

Arrowtown, New Zealand by Fill My Passport
Photo by Fill My Passport

The town center is a gallery of lovely old-fashioned buildings, ready to transport you back in time to the 19th century. There’s an abundance of shops and cafes to choose from, as well as the Lakes District Museum — a great stop for anyone with an interest in the area’s history and culture (including pre-European).

Inside the Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown, New Zealand

Inside the Lakes District Museum in Arrowtown, New Zealand

Naturally, there’s also plenty for the more active or outdoorsy among you — including multiple nearby cycling paths, walking trails, and golf courses.

On the way back to Queenstown, make a quick detour to the Lower Shotover Bridge. You’ll get a gorgeous panoramic view of the river and surrounding mountains, and you might even catch a glimpse of a jet boat as it goes flying over the water below.

View from the Lower Shotover Bridge of the river and jet boat near Queenstown, New Zealand

Distance from Queenstown to Arrowtown: 20 km (20 min)

Note: If you don’t drive or have access to a vehicle, you can also travel from Arrowtown to Queenstown by bus. Click here for the timetable (Camp Street is the bus stop in Queenstown’s center).

Ideas for Longer Trips from Queenstown

All of the above are easily suitable for day trips from Queenstown or each other. If you’re looking to get a little further away (say, for a weekend trip), consider the following ideas:

• Invercargill (~190 km) – One of the world’s southernmost cities and a great base to explore the Southland region.
• The Catlins (~250 km) – A conservation area full of [almost] untouched natural beauty, great for hiking and camping.
• Dunedin (~280 km) – New Zealand’s fourth-largest city, home to the Speight’s brewery as well as some great architecture.
• Milford Sound (~290 km) – Part of the amazing Fiordland National Park, with lots of options for cruises, hikes, and scenic flights.

Feet in red socks resting on the dashboard of a car as it drives around New Zealand's South Island | Photo by Paula May
Photo by Paula May

If all else fails: close your eyes, point, and go that way. In New Zealand, you’ll usually be just fine.

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Any photos not attributed otherwise are my own.

Queenstown, New Zealand: love it or hate it, you shouldn't forget about the rest of the Southern Lakes region. Here are three options for day trips to take from Queenstown -- each one a beautiful drive, but also a worthwhile destination in its own right.

Queenstown, New Zealand: love it or hate it, you shouldn't forget about the rest of the Southern Lakes region. Here are three options for day trips to take from Queenstown -- each one a beautiful drive, but also a worthwhile destination in its own right. | Photo by Michael Amadeus

Queenstown, New Zealand: love it or hate it, you shouldn't forget about the rest of the Southern Lakes region. Here are three options for day trips to take from Queenstown -- each one a beautiful drive, but also a worthwhile destination in its own right. | Photo by Hamish Clark

Queenstown, New Zealand: love it or hate it, you shouldn't forget about the rest of the Southern Lakes region. Here are three options for day trips to take from Queenstown -- each one a beautiful drive, but also a worthwhile destination in its own right.