Skiing in Queenstown and Wanaka
The ski areas in New Zealand tend to be quite small, usually with only a handful of lifts and limited vertical drop. There is also an almost complete lack of trees on New Zealand’s mountains, so it definitely isn’t the place for off-piste tree-skiing! But still; New Zealand is an awesome country to visit in any season, truly one of my favourite travel destinations, and if it’s June, July or August and you want to ski, your options are New Zealand or Australia (or South America). The most popular part of New Zealand to head to for some skiing is the region around the South Island towns of Queenstown and Wanaka (also popular are Mt Hutt (aka Mt Shut, due to weather closures) near Christchurch, and North Island’s Ruapehu area – which is also famous for hiking Tongariro)
Skiing in Queenstown
I spent the 2006 Southern Hemisphere winter skiing in Queenstown. I rented a room in a crappy backpacker share house, and got a job behind one of the town’s many bars – although it’s a small town, it gets a lot of tourist traffic and so has a very active nightlife scene and lots of good bars & restaurants.
It was a very enjoyable way to spend a few months, and my commute involved a 10-minute walk down the hill while lapping up the gorgeous views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables range. Unfortunately it wasn’t actually a great season from a riding perspective – I was pretty broke at the time and couldn’t afford a (rather overpriced!) season pass, and furthermore the bus journeys involved to go riding (without having your own wheels) made it fairly hard to hit the mountain and get good value out of a day pass while making it back in time for a shift at work. So I ended up only riding once or twice a week on days off, which wasn’t ideal – Queenstown is a cracking little place, but the ski areas are set a little far from the town itself (if taking the bus, it’s cheaper to get a bus & lift pass combo; you can buy these from the NZSki Snow Centre in the middle of town)
The town has two ski areas – the closest is Coronet Peak, while the Remarkables are a little further away but worth the extra effort (a third option is Cardrona, which is closer to Wanaka but also doable from Queenstown by bus or car). I did most of my riding that season at the Remarkables, plus a few days each at Coronet Peak and Cardrona, and also hit Snow Park NZ half a dozen times as my brother was then based in Wanaka and riding Snow Park on a daily basis. The highlight of the season, though, was splashing out and treating myself to a little trip with friends for a day of heli-cat-skiing at Mt Potts, five hours north of Queenstown near Christchurch; this is a private mountain accessible only by helicopter, with a whole mountain full of ungroomed backcountry powder for the lucky few to ride. A real treat! (Mt Potts has unfortunately been closed since 2011, though hopefully this won’t prove to be permanent)
Homepage for NZSki (who run both Queenstown ski areas & Mt Hutt)
Piste map for Coronet Peak
Piste map for the Remarkables
‘Affectionately’ known as Concrete Peak, and for good reason in my experience. The snowfall, the prevailing winds, and the angles of the slopes to the sun, all combine such that it’s generally very icy. The terrain has little to offer and the park’s nothing to get excited about, but Coronet Peak is the most convenient place for skiing in Queenstown. Not really recommended except for beginners looking for a convenient place to take lessons.
A small ski area located a 45-minute drive (on a really quite sketchy road) from Queenstown. The Remarkables look absolutely awesome when viewed from town (they featured as the Mountains of Mordor in Lord of the Rings), so the fairly limited skiing available in them might come as a disappointment! But the views back down over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu (from the lookout at the top of the Shadow Basin chairlift) are equally impressive, and it is the better of the two ski areas immediately accessible from Queenstown.
It only offers 300m of vertical drop with just a handful of chairlifts accessing a fairly limited number of runs, and while it’s probably a decent place to learn (the ski area is quite sheltered and the conditions are rarely icy or windy), intermediate riders will quickly get bored; however, there are two sections of the Remarkables which do offer something for more advanced riders, as long as you’re willing to do a bit of hiking or hang around waiting for a shuttle bus. The first of these is the series of chutes you can see on the piste map to skier’s right from the top of Shadow Basin chair, called Elevator, Escalator, and Alta Chutes. You have both to hike over to the top of these, and hike out again from the bottom, so it’s a fair old effort; but if you’re bored of tame groomers and just want to hit a proper bit of steep, gnarly terrain, those chutes are genuinely challenging to ride and worth checking out if the snow’s good. The other good bit of terrain, the Homeward Runs, is also accessed from Shadow Basin chair, but this time to skier’s left; traverse over via Highway and you can get over the ridge to a wide open area of ungroomed piste at a nice gradient for just putting in some nice big turns in the powder (when there is any powder…), and it eventually deposits you at a small parking area on the access road where you’ll have to wait for the free shuttle to come and take you back up to the base station.
Throw in a well-rated park (which unfortunately wasn’t there when I was), and the Remarkables is the best choice for skiing in Queenstown for more advanced riders. I didn’t like Coronet Peak, and over in Wanaka Snow Park NZ has permanently closed and Treble Cone is a little far from Queenstown, but Wanaka’s Cardrona offers a decent alternative if you exhaust the riding at the Remarkables (which to be honest is quickly done)
Skiing in Wanaka
Wanaka is a 90-minute drive from Queenstown and is a smaller, more chilled out, but equally beautiful town. Since Snow Park NZ (which was located across the valley from Cardrona) sadly closed down in 2013, these days there are two options for skiing in Wanaka, Cardrona and Treble Cone. I never went to Treble Cone, but it has the best reputation for terrain and downhill skiing in the region; Snow Park NZ was the best park I’ve ever seen, but literally nothing else – they had a single chairlift giving access to a half pipe, big kicker lines, and a mix of lines offering a range of kickers, rails, and other features, with a step-up and quarter pipe at the bottom. It really was impressive, and so was the standard of riding – I was definitely the worst rider there every time I went! It had nothing to offer for non-freestyle skiers though, so while it will be missed by the freestyle skiers and snowboarders who constituted its regulars, that probably explains why it didn’t bring in enough business to keep going.
Probably the most impressive all-round resort in the Queenstown / Wanaka region. The installation of a new lift in 2011 gives it more terrain and greater vertical drop than the Remarkables and Coronet Peak (though still less than Treble Cone), while a decade of competition with Snow Park NZ on the other side of the valley saw Cardrona putting some real effort into its freestyle offerings. Since the closure of Snow Park NZ in 2013, Cardrona can probably claim to have the best freestyle offerings in the entire Southern Hemisphere, including an Olympic superpipe. Treble Cone has the best reputation in the Queenstown / Wanaka region for advanced downhill and off-piste skiing (though I can’t personally vouch for that as I never went to TC), and Cardona is going to be your best bet for any other level or style of riding, especially freestyle. Cardrona is about 30 minutes from Wanaka and 45 minutes from Queesntown, so easily done from either base. (Treble Cone is about 30 minutes from Wanaka, and almost 2 hours from Queenstown)
Resources and Useful Links for Riding in Queenstown & Wanaka
Travel insurance with snow sports cover from World Nomads. Their flexible insurance can be bought even if you’re already overseas – I once found out the hard way (in Thailand) how important this can be!
Homepage for Coronet Peak & Remarkables
Piste map for Coronet Peak
Piste map for the Remarkables
snow-forecast.com does exactly what it says on the tin, and is my usual go to for accurate snow forecasts:
Have you been skiing in Queenstown / Wanaka? What did you think? Are you a local who thinks I’m talking rubbish, or do you have a great tip to share? Does my information need updating? Leave a comment below and let us know.
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