Not many people visit Glenorchy, I don’t think. The sleepy little town of 200 is certainly out of the way. Past the tourist mecca of Queenstown, at the end of a winding road, it is practically the last town at the end of the (paved) road. You’d be forgiven for giving Glenorchy a miss. But you would be missing out on a real gem of New Zealand.
Most visitors probably stop at Queenstown and go no farther. And Queenstown is a fine tourist town. But that’s exactly it — it is a tourist town, just like any other hundreds of lakeside tourist towns, filled with rental apartments/condos, souvenir shops, and tourists milling about. There’s definitely a good energy about it (in contrast to the usual laid-back Kiwi lifestyle) and good restaurants and shops. The setting, right on the shore of Lake Wakatipu is beautiful too. But even greater treasures await those who continue southwest out of Queenstown on the Glenorchy-Queenstown Road. After four days at Aoraki/Mount Cook, we did just that.
Be forewarned — the road is very twisty — rivaling the roads along the Italian coasts. But the view along Lake Wakatipu is worth stopping for.
The town of Glenorchy is really tiny. It has two small hotels and about four restaurants/cafes. It is definitely not the place for a lively urban scene. No, the reason you come to Glenorchy is for the natural setting. And what a setting it is. Glenorchy sits on the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, at the mouth of the Rees River.
A large waterfront park showcases the beauty of the location. The water here is a brilliant blue, reminiscent of the lakes of northern Italy. Snow-capped peaks rise up from the far side of the lake, indeed, all around the town.
One of the key attractions of Glenorchy, photographically speaking, are the well-known willows in the water — a series of willow trees growing in the water near the shore. Their fantastic shapes, along with the way they rise out of the water, make for a fascinating study.
As beautiful as Glenorchy is, there’s only so much scenery you can take in from one spot. To really take advantage, you need to head north out of town. The area was used for many scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, including Isengard, Lothlorien, Amon Hen, etc. So even if you remember/don’t care for the movies, you know the scenery is good. Some great views can be found in the nearby aptly named village of Paradise. The road to Paradise winds through the forest which was the setting for Amon Hen (where the Uruk-Hai attack the Fellowship and Boromir is killed).
The nearby area is recognizable as Wizard’s Vale, the setting for Isengard (obviously the tower and other things were added digitally). Even without knowing that it was used for Isengard, the wide-open sheep pastures are worth taking in.
Of course, no trip to Glenorchy would be complete without a visit (or two) to the world-famous Routeburn Track, a 32-km trail that takes 2-4 days to complete. The northeastern terminus of the track is northwest of Glenorchy and is a must-do if you’re in the area. The primeval forest of giant beech trees covered in moss make for a magical atmosphere. The forest of Lothlorien was filmed nearby and you almost expect elves to come marching through. The lush forest is filled with waterfalls and streams all over. With a 7-year old, we did only a 9.5-km day-hike.
The Routeburn Track is not the only hiking option in the area. There are many other options, from easy to hard ones. We did one of the easy ones the following day to Lake Sylvan. It was similar to the Routeburn Track, in that we went through a giant beech forest. But the trail was quite waterlogged and flooded in places due to the torrential rains earlier in the week. The lake itself was not much to be honest. But the journey itself was its own reward (we did the longer tramline loop).
Given that it’s so far out of the way, Glenorchy does take some effort to get to, but if you’re interested in the outdoors, it is not to be missed.