What to visit in New Zealand Southern Alps?

As a part of our trip to New Zealand, we visited the Southern Alps on the South Island of New Zealand. I must admit that we were looking forward to it a lot, as we traveled the flat coastal Australia prior to visiting the South Island, and since we are a bit of hikers and bikers, visiting the mountains was something naturally attractive.

Here is how our route looked like, and what you may want to enjoy along the way, too:

East side of Southern Alps

From Christchurch, we drove to Lake Tekapo. The lake is very beautiful and the town, despite being touristic, is not so extremely touristy. There is one of the world’s best observatories of the Southern sky on top of a hill above the town, called Mt John. The observatory was made out of a radar station, used by the Army earlier in the past. Anyway, there is a nice circular trek that takes you from the town through the forest all the way to top, and the views are insane. You can make a full circle and return by the lakeside, but be aware that there is no shade of the trees. The whole trek is very easy and non-technical but will take some time. Next to the start/finish of the track, you can also soak in nice thermal pools.

Lake Tekapo
Heading down the Mt John, by the lakeside that’s the view you will get.

Our next destination was Mount Cook National Park, to which we drove by the Lake Pukaki. Driving by the huge and beautiful lake took some time, and offered amazing views in return. I couldn’t help myself but not to sing ‘country road’along the way. 🙂

Anyway, in Mount Cook camping, which is DOC operated, there are a few treks to do off various difficulties. You may walk to the glacier through Hooker Valley, which is supposed to be one of New Zealand’s most beautiful walks. It’s non-technical and heaps of people do it. You arrive to the melting glacier and get a glimpse of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. There are some multi-day options with sleeping in a hut as well, but you need proper equipment and know-how. While the camping itself is just as majestic as the mountains. You wake up with a view of the snowy mountains.

Mt Cook camping
Mt Cook camping place with a view.
Walk to Mount Cook glacier Hooker Valley.
Walk to the Mount Cook glacier through Hooker Valley.

From there, we moved on to Twizel, a town with a touristy beat and many offers of different adventures. Twizel may be a good base to explore Mt Cook area, but we moved onwards to Queenstown.

Queenstown reminds me of a classic resort town in the Alps. It has a lake in which you can swim in the summer, hills with gondola access, ski center in the winter, a lift-accessed as well as a pedal-accessed bike park with a crazy variety of trails, and a bunch of shops where you may get rentals, or buy equipment. From the lake, you may also take a jet boat ride to blast your adrenaline high, if you are that type of a person.

Queenstown city
Queenstown city with the gondola.

From Queenstown we moved down south and explored the other, west side of the Alps, on our way back.

West side of Southern Alps

On our way back, my personal favorite place in the Alps found it’s way to our menu. It’s a resort town of Wanaka, which – similarly to Queenstown – has it all: the lake, the hills for hiking, and a bike park. It seemed a bit less packed and busy than Queenstown, and we really enjoyed it – particularly the lake. If you have a wish to rent sea kayaks – doing it here is not a bad option. I really wanted to do it in the Fiordland, but finally got the opportunity for a 3-hour paddle on the Wanaka lake. We initially took 2 hours in the bay, but take 3 hours if you don’t want to rush. And it was crazy. We visited the Ruby island, did a small hike there, swam in the lake, and then paddles back. Scenic.

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Kayaking Lake Wanaka.
Kayaking towards Ruby island, on Lake Wanaka.

From Wanaka, we headed to the west part of the Alps.

Hint #1: Things like petroleum get expensive as you go to this area, so make sure you fill your car up fully already prior to Wanaka.

In the west side, we planned to take 2 or 3 days for visiting the glaciers, but we quickly found out that the glacier walks are well tracked and made for general tourist visits. Usually, you can get from parking to the glacier, and even back, in maximum an hour – so we did Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, and Lake Matheson walk, all in one day.

Lake Matheson circular walk.
The view. Lake Matheson circular walk.
Fox Glacier walk
Walking towards Fox glacier.

Since we camped in a tent, we found out that Franz Joszef is not a perfect town for pitching our tent as the ground was full of stones everywhere. So we did a bit of driving up north, just to discover one of The Most Amazing Campgrounds. Ever. 🙂 a small camping where we pitched our tent just above the lake, managed by the DOC: Otto/MacDonald’s campsite. No shower is needed as you can simply swim prior to going to sleep. Beautiful soft grass under our tent.

Camping Otto MacDonald's campsite
Camping at Otto/MacDonald’s campsite

Hint #2
: One thing we learned here the hard way is that in New Zealand, you need an insect repellent. There were many sandflies on that lake area, so we bought the repellent as soon as possible. They bite like musquitos – itchy stuff. And they are pretty much everywhere at the certain time of the day. So get the repellent, and your life will be better.

To finalize our trip in the west, we did an extra trek in the area of Okarito. Okarito is a small village and driving there, you will see many signposts of Kiwis by the road. There you can take a trek into the kiwi zone, a forest where kiwis live. But keep in mind that they are only active to be seen at dusk and dawn. During the day, your odds of seeing them are low.

kiwi zone forest
Entering into the kiwi zone forest.

At the start and end of a hike, we talked with a nice lady who prepares really amazing ice cream from frozen berries there. Mmmm.. recommended!

real fruit ice cream Okarito
Best real fruit ice cream we have tried in New Zealand was at J’n’J in Okarito village.

If you have any questions regarding New Zealand Southern Alps write in the comment below, we’ll do our best to answer it. 🙂

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New Zealand Southern Alps Itinerary

Author: Matic

Matic is tech startup guy who loves to spend time outside. In his free time he is an true outdoor freak – he tends to surf, run and ride a mountain bike, and in the winter time just loves powder skiing and snowboarding. Matic also loves to travel, often has to because of work, and even more often because he wants to 🙂

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10 thoughts on “What to visit in New Zealand Southern Alps?”

  • New Zealand looks absolutely incredible and I am still not sure why I have never been there! It would be perfect for me with all the awesome hiking and adventure actvities! Great post!

    • Hi, I’m glad we did 🙂 New Zealand is really worth to visit, and camping there is just a blast. And yeah they do have the Southern Alps, I found it strange as well that they use the same name for the mountains as in Europe, but I think it’s because when the first explorer came to New Zealand they found it somewhat similar to the ones in Europe.

  • Stunning! I love the views over the mountains from your tent. Was it very cold at night? It looks warm during the day but that snow…..Looks like an active part of your trip anyway. It is interesting that they are also called The Alps, but perhaps European settlers just stole the name!

    • Heh, yeah I think it’s because when the first explorer came to New Zealand they found the New Zealand Alps somewhat similar to the ones in Europe so they gave them the same name. Regarding the cold, nope it was actually not cold at night funny I know but the sleeping bag was enough. The coldest nights were in the south part of Southern Island.

  • I’ve only been to the north island but would love to get to the south island one day. Queenstown’s main street looks gorgeous and I didn’t know about the gondola. Beautiful views of the mountains and you got your hiking in. A beautiful part of the world that’s for sure.

    • Indeed, New Zealand is really a country worth visiting. I had high expectations, and boy I was not disappointed, contrary I was stunned by the beauty of nature and people friendliness.

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