There are hundreds of glaciers locked in the Southern Alps, slowly grinding their way down to lower altitudes and melting into running rivers of uncanny blue-green hues. These conspire with the vast brown grasslands of the Mackenzie Basin and ancient green forests of Fiordland to humble you with their imposing presence, leaving you feeling very small and temporary. Nothing is permanent though–-the freeze-thaw cycle constantly refreshes this mighty landscape making it feel absolutely alive.
Aoraki, or Mt. Cook, at 12,218 feet, is New Zealand's highest mountain, and 22 other peaks in this alpine chain are higher than 10,000 feet. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Area, and the alpine region around it contains the Tasman Glacier, at 27 km (17 miles), New Zealand's longest.
The Southern Alps region is great for hiking. Terrain varies from high alpine tundra to snow-covered peaks, heavily forested mountains, and wide, braided river valleys. A good network of trails and marked routes are throughout the mountains, but be well informed before venturing into them. Always make your intentions known: go to the Adventure Smart website for details (www.adventuresmart.org.nz); Aoraki/Mt. Cook is the only DOC office where you still sign your intentions in person.
There are many easier options for exploring the foothills and less arduous parts of the Southern Alps. On the southwest corner of the island, glaciers over millennia have cut the Alps into stone walls dropping into fjords, and walking trails take you into the heart of the wild Fiordland National Park. The Milford Track is the best known—it has been called the finest walk in the world since a headline to that effect appeared in the London Spectator in 1908. If you're not keen on walking to Milford Sound, hop on a boat and take in the sights from on deck. Most river valleys with road access have well-marked walking trails leading to scenic waterfalls, gorges, and lookout points.
Floods of tourists have come to see the otherworldly landscape used in shooting The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings film trilogies, and Hollywood directors have been drawn to the area for the magnificent backdrops that depicted Tolkien's Middle Earth. The vastness of the region keeps it from feeling crowded, even with all the new visitors. Queenstown, often billed as an adventure-sports hot spot, is perhaps the best-known destination in the Southern Lakes district. It and the nearby town of Wanaka are steeped in gold-rush history and surrounded by stunning mountain scenery.