Glenorchy: High Country Heaven

With its native beech forests, towering mountain ranges and pristine rivers, Glenorchy is a destination for thrill seekers and nature lovers alike. Claire Smith took a trip to this tiny but mighty township to find out more.

It’s often said in the motorhoming community that ‘the journey is the destination’. That is certainly the case on the 45km drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy. And while getting there is half the fun, there’s also plenty to see and do once you’re there.

Famous for its iconic little ‘red shed’, the tiny town of Glenorchy is one of those magical spots that reminds you how lucky we are here in New Zealand. It has some of the most sublime scenery anywhere on the planet – snow-capped mountains, deep blue lakes, waterfalls, walking tracks, and birdlife galore…it’s all there waiting to be enjoyed. It’s also well known for being a movie set favourite; Glenorchy and nearby Paradise featured extensively in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. The area’s movie credits also extend to X-Men Originals: Wolverine, and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

Because it’s less than an hour’s drive from Queenstown, it’s easy to think Glenorchy would make a great day trip – but don’t cut yourself short. This little gem shouldn’t be rushed; plan for several days and take your time. You’ll be glad you did. After all, the drive there alone – described as one of the world’s most beautiful drives – can end up taking hours if you make the most of it and enjoy the breathtaking scenery along the way.

The famous red shed was rebuilt in 1999 after flooding

The first stop worth factoring in is at Wilson Bay, just 10km out of Queenstown. The clear waters of Lake Wakatipu backdropped by the Humboldts mountain ranges make for impressive photos. It’s a nice spot for a picnic or a cooling swim in summer too; northerners, brace yourselves for South Island lake temperatures!

Travel a bit further (about 24km from Queenstown), and you’ll reach Bennett’s Bluff Lookout. This popular stop has breathtaking views looking down over the length of Lake Wakatipu. It used to be quite tricky to stop here, but the local council has recently developed a new car park, toilet block, picnic area and a walking track, which makes it a lot safer and more enjoyable for visitors.

Canterbury tales

The next stop, just before you reach Glenorchy, is the Little Paradise Lodge and Garden. After driving past this gem many times previously, we decided to stop and take a proper look recently. And it was so very worth it. As its name suggests, the lodge offers accommodation for those looking for somewhere beautiful to stay, but the gardens are also open to the public. They are simply magical, with a 700-metre walking track winding past water features, sculptures, and beautiful fauna and flowers including 3000 roses.

Little Paradise Lodge Glenorchy
Little Paradise Lodge and Garden, home to 3,000 roses

Glenorchy itself has a population of just 370 (ish) people. It has just two pubs, a café, and a handful of small shops. As you drive into the township, stay on the main road (Oban Street) and you’ll soon find Mrs Woolly’s General Store, which some say is the best gift shop in the country. We spent a good hour just browsing through the huge array of goodies, from kitchenware and hiking gear to artisan foods, souvenirs, gifts, and fresh produce. But best of all, they make the most amazing gelato and are famous for their indulgent ‘Full Monty’ sundae – a sinfully good treat that is best enjoyed sitting outside under one of the sun umbrellas or as you take a wander along the lakefront.

If you fancy a spot of lunch, I can recommend the Glenorchy Café (The GYC), just around the corner on Mull Street. Their food is delicious, the coffee is great, and they’ve got a big outdoor area where you can relax in the sunshine or under the shade of their huge walnut tree and take in the magnificent mountain views.

Once you’re in Glenorchy, you’ll want to stay at least a few nights, and my top recommendation would be the Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat. This campground was named one of the World’s 100 Greatest Places of 2019 by TIME Magazine, and one of 44 “must visit” accommodation destinations in the world. The camp is New Zealand’s first Net Zero Energy accommodation, having been built according to the Living Building Challenge – the world’s most rigorous standard for green buildings. Having stayed at the campsite several times, I always come away feeling not only reinvigorated, but reinspired to step up my sustainability goals.

Camp Glenorchy - lounge room
Take the weight off in the Camp Glenorchy lounge room

A popular attraction for walkers is the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. The track stretches for around 32km through the Southern Alps and past some of New Zealand’s most jaw-dropping scenery. Hiking the full track obviously takes a bit of planning and preparation, but there are also shorter day hikes in the region.

Hundertwasser Art Centre: Art of the North

For a selection of shorter but equally beautiful walks, head directly to Paradise, about 20 minutes’ drive from the township along Glenorchy-Paradise Road, and spend a few hours at the Paradise Trust Homestead. Hidden up an insignificant-looking driveway, it’s one of those ‘blink and you’ll drive straight past it’ locations, but it is worth hunting out. There are a number of short walks and hikes from the property, including a 2.2km loop that will take you past scenery used in The Lord of the Rings.

Prefer to use a different set of legs? Glenorchy is a horse rider’s mecca, with thousands of acres of pristine countryside available to riders of all levels. There are multiple trekking and riding options in the area, including rides through river systems, lupin fields and more, all backdropped by spectacular mountain scenery. Whether you’ve never been near a horse before, or you’re an experienced rider looking for a multi-day option, this is the place to get the most memorable ride of your life.

Water babies will love some of the options available on the river too; take a jet boat or kayak and explore this World Heritage site for yourself.

With its abundance of beauty, lack of crowds, and a relaxed atmosphere that demands a slower pace, Glenorchy is all about appreciating nature at its best. And there is certainly plenty to appreciate. My advice – take your time and enjoy as much of it as possible. This little slice of New Zealand is truly paradise, and worthy of an extended visit. I’m sure the locals would love to see you.

Mrs Woolly's store
Mrs Woolly’s store offers a bit of everything


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