Learn when is the best time to visit New Zealand for seeing fall foliage and what are the 5 best places to visit to see autumn colors in New Zealand.
OK, so I’ve decided to spill the beans about the five best places to visit to see autumn colors in New Zealand, and in particular leaf peeping locations on the South Island of New Zealand. And here’s why…
The following comment I once received from a visitor of my nature and landscape photography website made me realize that there are many people out there who also want to enjoy the places I’ve traveled to:
I’m 82 years old, and have been taking care of two sisters for 13 years. I always wanted to travel the world before I die. I may not be able to, but your beautiful pictures make up for a lot of places that I may miss seeing. Wish I could paste them all on a wall. They give me great pleasure. Thank you.
In addition, I myself have been in the same position, where I’ve seen photos taken by other people and got the incentive and desire to visit those places, so I know personally what that’s like.
Back in 2004 before I visited New Zealand for the second time as a tourist and when New Zealand was still pretty unknown to me, I emailed a New Zealand photographer – who shall remain unnamed in this article – to ask him what the best time was to visit New Zealand for seeing the gorgeous fall foliage I had seen in some of his photos.
Photographers tend to be secretive and protective about the places where they’ve shot their images, so not surpringly, the photographer totally ignored my email and I never got a reply.
So, as usual, I went on to do my own research, visited places multiple times during the years, and came up with some of the best locations for viewing autumn colors in New Zealand, which I’ll share with you in this article.
I’ll tell you exactly where to go and when to come to New Zealand for fall foliage, whether you want to take your own pictures or just go for long scenic drives admiring the yellow autumn leaves.
This will hopefully save you some time from having to do the research for yourself like I did.
General info about seeing autumn colors in New Zealand
Trees in New Zealand turn yellow in autumn. While you will see occasional reds and oranges, those colors are most likely to be found on trees that have been planted in people’s front yards or in parks within cities and towns.
Many of the yellow autumn trees can be found next to water such as ponds, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, but there are many exceptions to this assumption.
For example, the sides of the hills surrounding Arrowtown light up in yellows and oranges during autumn unlike anywhere else in New Zealand.
As a general rule, you can expect the color of autumn leaves on trees to be better and more plentiful on the South Island than they are on the North Island of New Zealand.
If you’ve ever been to northeast America – Quebec and Ontario in Canada and New England in the United States – you’ll know how spectacular fall foliage can be.
We don’t have that kind of spectacular fall foliage here in New Zealand, though, but you’ll find the spectacular in the sharp contrast between mostly yellow and blue colors.
Best time to visit New Zealand for fall foliage
As mentioned in an article I wrote about the best time to visit New Zealand, the seasons here in New Zealand are opposites of the ones on the Northern hemisphere. This also goes for when the fall foliage season starts.
While predicting the exact start of autumn colors is as difficult as predicting an earthquake taking place because it’s up to mother nature to decide, you can follow the same rules as you would follow for the Northern Hemisphere.
Peak time for fall foliage on the Northern Hemisphere and especially in northeast America starts around October 7.
So if you were to translate this to a time for New Zealand, the peak time for fall foliage would start around April 7.
The peak generally lasts approximately 1 – 2 weeks, so this would give you a leaf peeping period from April 7 to April 21.
However, these dates are not set in stone. On one particular trip in April, the good autumn colors started to become visible around April 12, while the peak arrived after April 15. I attribute this somewhat late arrival of autumn to the variable weather conditions in the year leading up to autumn.
There have been times that I’ve gotten good colors up until April 25, but afterwards, the brown colors start to set in. March is too early to visit New Zealand for fall foliage and May is too late.
So your best bet for the best autumn colors is April. And if I had to choose one date to see autumn colors, it would probably be April 18.
There is a second rule about the peak moving from north to south on the Northern Hemisphere. There is some indication that the same thing happens here on the Southern Hemisphere, i.e., the peak moving from south to north.
For example, Central Otago and the Southern Lakes region – Queenstown, Arrowntown, and Wanaka – seem to peak earlier than, for example, a place like Christchurch, which lies higher up north than the former.
A third rule would be that colors set in first at higher elevations before they do at lower elevations. This might be the same here in New Zealand, because I’ve seen lower lying regions such as valleys display peak fall colors, while higher lying regions such as the Mackenzie Country were already past their peak.
You can take these two last rules into consideration when planning your trip, but I’d suggest making sticking with the optimum period for peak fall foliage your primary goal.
Best places to visit for autumn colors in New Zealand
1. Mackenzie Country
The area running from Tekapo to Lake Pukaki and further on to Twizel and Omarama is a good region to visit for leaf peeping in New Zealand.
In Tekapo there are several lakes that are dotted with yellow trees during autumn. The most obvious lake is Lake Tekapo, of course.
There are lakes such as Lake Alexandrina and Lake McGregor that are a short drive from State Highway 8 and accessible via the Godley Peaks Road, where you’ll also find more yellow trees.
2. The Waitaki Valley
The area running from Omarama to Kurow is also a good region to visit for seeing autumn colors in New Zealand.
Again there are lakes that are surrounded by yellow trees. These lakes include Lake Benmore and Lake Aviemore in particular.
There is a loop road that takes you around the Benmore Dam and Lake Aviemore, which allows you to enjoy and get good views of fall foliage around the lakes.
You can also go for a walk on the Lake Benmore Peninsula to see more yellow trees on the hills around the lake above the dam. You can see Mount Cook from the trail if the weather is good, so I highly recommend this walk.
3. Wanaka and the Cardrona Valley
Next up as we move down south are Wanaka and the Cardrona Valley.
You’ll find poplars here and there and everywhere in Central Otago. The shores of Lake Wanaka in particular, especially near Roys Bay, are dotted by yellow poplars in autumn.
And a drive down the Cardrona Valley will also reveal some patches of poplars here and there.
Poplars are not native to New Zealand. Like many of the trees that display red, orange, or yellow colors in autumn, they were brought into New Zealand and planted either as decoration, for shelter, or for controlling erosion.
4. Arrowtown and Queenstown
Arrowtown is a small town with a distinctive character.
The trees in Arrowtown are a feast for the eyes and senses in autumn. Unlike anywhere else in New Zealand, you’ll find the most and richest fall foliage colors in Arrowtown.
The hillsides tend to get ablazed with autumn colors. You can see this colorful display all the way from the start of the drive up toward the Crown Range Road when driving from Arrowtown or Queenstown.
Every year, the Arrowtown Autumn Festival [arrowtownautumnfestival.co.nz] is held in Arrowtown toward the end of April. Not surprisingly, Arrowtown is then packed with tourists. So don’t expect it not to be busy when you visit. And if you are there as a photographer, you definitely won’t be alone.
If you have time to visit only one location in New Zealand for fall foliage, Arrowtown would be the best place to visit.
Fall foliage is also good around Lake Hayes, not too far from Arrowtown. And a lakeside walk in Queenstown is a joy in autumn. While not overly abundant or spectacular in autumn, there are yellow trees on the banks of Lake Wakatipu.
You can also take a short drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy and a little bit further beyond Glenorchy to find autumn colors. In Glenorchy, you can walk to the Glenorchy Lagoon, which should be surrounded by a couple of yellow trees.
5. Central Otago from Lake Dunstan to Roxburgh
Central Otago is the last region I’d recommend for leaf peeping. Starting from Lake Dunstan all the way down to Alexandra and Roxburgh, you’ll find good patches of colorful fall foliage.
I highly recommend driving to the Clyde Dam Lookout on the hill where you can look down upon Clyde and Alexandra.
You should get a nice overview of the abundance of autumn colors in this area.
The leaves on the many fruit trees in Central Otago add to the display of colors during autumn.
You’ll also find many farms lined with poplars and thus see more yellows.
If you do head to Central Otago, I’d suggest you stick with the line of towns I’ve mentioned and not venture more into Central Otago by traveling toward Dunedin.
While you will find patches of color here and there, it is not as good as it is from Lake Dunstan down to Roxburgh.
6. Bonus place: Christchurch
While I have not yet visited Christchurch in autumn, there is a good indication that it is a good place to see fall foliage.
You can visit Hagley Park. It has a couple of stands of maple trees, which are expected to turn red in autumn; or you can just drive around the suburbs to see trees in people’s yards or lining the streets.
A while back, a website visitor called Xin (thank you, Xin) visited Christchurch and reported seeing yellow, orange, red, and purple leaves in Hagley Park. So my guess is that there is a good mixture of tree species (and autumn colors!) to be found in Hagley Park.
The period of time to visit Christchurch and Hagley Park to see fall foliage would be the same as estimated previously in this article. However, based on the report left behind by my website visitor, I would make Christchurch my last stop.
So visit Christchurch after visiting Central Otago, Queenstown, Arrowtown, Wanaka, and Lake Tekapo. Go from south to north on the South Island, if that makes any sense.
Final words on the best places for fall foliage in New Zealand
Please help keep New Zealand clean by not littering and enjoy your scenic drives, the autumn colors in New Zealand, and take lots of fall foliage pictures.
I’ll now leave you with a video that contains a couple of images that were all shot in April in New Zealand. They should be able to give you a good idea of what autumn in New Zealand is like and of what you can expect to see.
This article falls under Travel Guide.
Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.