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Autumn Awakening to Winter Wonderland

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Although the changing of the leaves can signal the reluctant end to another quintessential New Zealand summer, it also welcomes in the uniquely stunning Autumn season and Winter soon to follow. In addition to crisp air, clear days, and leaves stained different shades of a sunset, Autumn is made even more beautiful by its tendency to be fleeting and temporary – and early Winter is the perfect time to see all that the area has to offer.

There is no bad time to visit Central Otago or travel to more remote areas like Milford Sound, with each season providing a special charm. However, if you want to experience that brief moment of magic from May until the ski season kicks in, there are a few key must-do activities in Queenstown and the surrounding areas. Here are our top three picks!

1. Hikes in Fiordland

Although Fiordland National Park and surrounding areas are dense with native trees that keep their green leaves year-round, Autumn in Fiordland has some of the mildest weather for outdoor adventures. You still need to be prepared for any weather in the mountains, but May through  June can see you get lucky with clear days and less crowds on the tracks. Be sure to take a few extra warm layers to keep you comfortable. From day hikes to multi-day Great Walks, an Autumn hike in Fiordland should definitely be on your list.

Great Walks:
The two most popular Great Walks of New Zealand in the area are the Routeburn Track and Milford Track with both ranging from two to four days in length. The Great Walk season ends April 31, but from May until October well-equipped trampers can enjoy peaceful huts and minimal trail traffic.

Day hikes in Milford Sound:

As an add-on to your Milford Sound visit you can walk the easy 400m Milford Lookout Track. At only 20 minutes, it’s the perfect leg stretch in fresh air before making your way back to Queenstown.

If you’re up for something a little longer and more challenging, take the Routeburn Key Summit track to experience a highlight of the longer Routeburn Track as a three-hour half-day hike.

If you’re looking for other ways to escape to nature in Queenstown, read more here.

2. Scenic flights to Milford Sound

The speckled and varied colours that Autumn adds to Central Otago’s landscape can be hard to fully take in unless you have a glimpse at the bigger picture. By taking a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound during this season, you can have a birds eye view to it all; dramatic mountainscapes, braided rivers, and lush flora and fauna. Opt for a small plane or helicopter and plan your trip around you. Scenic flights can be combined with a Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise to maximise your time and opportunities for unreal views. The later in the season you go, the more magnificent snowfall you’ll see on the peaks – an otherworldly experience.

Considering your travel route to Milford Sound? Read about your options here.

3. Arrowtown Bike Staycation

Not every day of your trip to Central Otago needs to be spent racing out to the most remote locations. Plan a staycation day around Queenstown by visiting the historical gold mining village of Arrowtown. In Autumn and early Winter, Arrowtown really comes alive with trees of all hues lining the streets to enhance the (already impressive) mountain backdrop of this quaint town.

During the gold rush, miners travelled to New Zealand to settle and work in Arrowtown and introduced species of trees that were planted with the arrival of other cultures. Today, these exotic tree species now provide a stark difference to the evergreen native trees of New Zealand.

The best way to see Arrowtown in all its glory is to fall in line with the mellow atmosphere of the area and slow down with a nice walk or relaxed bike ride. There’s plenty of options to choose from, but here’s our favourites:

Arrow River Trail

Walk or bike this easy 4.2km trail that takes you along the Arrow River, up through the lush forest with few chances to peek over the township, and past a gentle waterfall from the Sawpit Gully Stream. This trail begins and ends amongst amazing cafes, bistros and sweet shops for a post-adventure nibble or tipple.

Lake Hayes Walkway

Lake Hayes is a hot spot for swimming and picnics in Summer, but when the weather cools down in Autumn the popular activities turn to walking or biking the Lake Hayes Walkway. With all of the usual stunning views with the added bonus of minimal crowds, this trail is the perfect lakeside look at the season’s warm colours.

Keen for more bike riding? Here’s some of the best bike trails in Queenstown

Whether you’re packing your walking shoes, your aviator sunnies or bike helmet, chasing the changing colours of Queenstown and Fiordland during Autumn and early Winter is one of the best things to do in the off-season before the Coronet Peak and The Remarkables open up for ski season.

Visiting Milford Sound during your holiday and considering other seasons for your visit? Read our year-round guide to visiting Milford Sound.

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Cycle trip Day Trips Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Family trips