Queenstown Backcountry

Heading off the beaten track through some of New Zealand’s most remote backcountry presents the perfect opportunity to truly experience the real un-touched beauty of New Zealand.  Queenstown and its surrounds provide some of the best backcountry routes this country has to offer.  Exploring these by rental car not only gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace but also to choose your own hand-picked destinations.

The wide variety of activities, destinations and experiences on offer in the Queenstown region provide an abundance of good choices for the backcountry traveler, all within easy driving distance from Queenstown.  Discovering these sometimes elusive encounters can be tricky in an unfamiliar location so here are a few to get you started, they are definitely well worth the effort!

Doubtful Sound

Considered one of the most pristine untouched wilderness areas in the world, Doubtful Sound is the hidden gem of the lower Fiordland National Park area.  Less popular than the famous Milford Sound due to accessibility issues (you can only gain access by boat) Doubtful Sound is best suited to those who perhaps prefer a bit of peace and tranquility.

Cruise tours are available from the Te Anau Township, approximately 2 hours’ drive from Queenstown.  Look out for Fur seals, Bottlenose dolphins and Fiordland Crested penguins or if you are lucky you might see a Southern Right or Humpback whale.  Formed tens of thousands of years ago, Doubtful Sound is ten times bigger than the more well know Milford Sound.

doubtful sound - Queenstown Backcountry


Situated at the head of Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy is an easy 45 minute drive from Queenstown.  Glenorchy lies between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountain Ranges and it offers some fantastic wilderness immersion opportunities not to be missed.  You can gain access to the famous Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, where you will find the Routeburn Track, one of the New Zealand Great Walks, the Greenstone and Caples Tracks and the Rees and Dart Tracks.

The Dart and Lees Rivers enter Lake Wakatipu next to Glenorchy and also provide some unique water based options when exploring the area.  The Glenorchy Township has a good range of cafes, accommodation and shopping opportunities if you need to take a break or stock up on supplies.

glenorchy jetty sunset - Queenstown Backcountry


A little further up the road you can stop off in Paradise… yes Paradise.  The fittingly named paradise is 20 km from Glenorchy with the last few kilometres along an unsealed road, so take care when driving, and go slow.  You will travel past Diamond Lake on the way and have the chance to explore the Paradise Trust Property grounds for a small fee if you wish.

Mount Earnslaw looms impressively overhead, made famous worldwide when it was used for The Misty Mountain Paths in popular film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  If you happen to be a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan, there are various other filming locations for Orthanc, Lothlorien, Isengard, and Amon Hen in this area too.

Skippers Canyon

Way back in the Goldrush days, there wasn’t a road into Skippers Canyon, gold miners traveled by horse to make the perilous trip to various promising gold mining sites.  A road was eventually formed around 1890 and much of it is still in use today.  Skippers Road as it is known today consists of a mostly one-way gravel road with very narrow stretches and steep sheer drops of several hundred metres to the sides.

Rental vehicles are prohibited on Skippers Canyon Road, however, there are a plethora of tour options which allow you to traverse the canyon by jet boat, 4WD, helicopter or by foot. Upon arrival at Skippers Canyon you will find an area rich in historic significance, simply breath-taking views and many opportunities to walk, raft, hike, camp, kayak, mountain bike, and picnic.

A highlight is the historic Skippers Suspension Bridge which first opened in 1901.  The bridge is 100 metres in length and extends across the canyon with sheer cliff faces on either side, the most spectacular of its kind in New Zealand.  Please note: Extreme care must be taken when travelling this route.

skippers bridge - Queenstown Backcountry

Nevis Valley

The Nevis Valley is a remote valley deep in the high country of Central Otago.  With a diverse range of terrain the valley is best explored by four-wheel drive vehicle, horseback or mountain bike.  First used as a trail route by Maori, then later farmed by early European settlers, gold was discovered in 1862 which led to a prosperous gold mining development for a time.  Many of the gold mining relics are still intact and able to be enjoyed today.

To the west lays The Remarkables mountain range and Hector Mountains, with the Nevis River winding its way along the valley floor – great for a spot of trout fishing.  The famous Nevis Bungy is also based here offering the highest bungy jump in New Zealand at 134 metres above the Nevis River.  Please note: the 4WD only road through the Nevis Valley is closed for the winter months from early June through to the end of September.

Like all backcountry adventures in New Zealand, whether hiking, biking or just sightseeing, it is important to make sure you are fully prepared.  Weather and road conditions are unpredictable and harsh at times, all within challenging surroundings.  Always make sure you have the appropriate knowledge and equipment to ensure the safe passage for yourself and members of your group. 

Using the services of local guiding companies is a good way to make use of regional knowledge of the area, while also finding the best spots for that perfect photo op.  When travelling through the New Zealand backcountry by rental vehicle, always be sure to check that the areas included in your journey are covered by your rental agreement terms and conditions. 

Queenstown Travel

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