New Zealand’s soaring mountains, temperate rainforests and remote river valleys all fueled Sir Peter Jackson’s creative spirit when he was crafting the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. Journey through Middle-earth in the southern hemisphere to discover spectacular locations for some of history’s highest-grossing movies, and because this is New Zealand – population just five million – don’t be surprised if a few of your authoritative guides have personal stories of being extras and actually working on the films.
New Zealand's North Island
No scenes from the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit were filmed around Auckland, but before leaving New Zealand's biggest city to head south, spend a morning at Weta Workshop Unleashed. Special effects magic from the Wellington-based studio that brought to life both trilogies is showcased in immersive 90-minute experiences exploring three exciting cinematic genres. Of most interest to fans of Middle-earth is how a fantasy epic – including scripts, storyboards and digital world-building – is crafted seamlessly for an exciting movie-making experience.
Secreted amid the rolling pastures of the Waikato region, the Hobbiton Movie Set is the most-popular of New Zealand's Tolkien-inspired destinations. Guided walking tours explore a leafy hillside dotted with 44 colorful hobbit holes, actually dismantled after filming was completed on Lord of the Rings, but then rebuilt for The Hobbit. Tours of the Shire conclude with a drink at the lakeside Green Dragon Inn, and special Evening Banquet and Second Breakfast experiences are also on offer. If you're driving, park your car near the Middle-earth-inspired i-SITE information center in nearby Matamata, and catch Hobbiton's complimentary bus to the site. Don't forget to grab a selfie with the statue of Gollum in Matamata's main street.
Two hours drive southwest of Hobbiton, the rural district of Pio Pio is the location for Hairy Feet Waitomo. The farm’s rugged scenery, especially the craggy limestone profile of Denize Bluffs featured significantly in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and owners Warrick and Suzie Denize have plenty of stories about what it was like to have Sir Peter Jackson and his team on location for eight months. Booking tours ahead by email is essential.
Tongariro National Park
One of three active volcanoes punctuating the rugged Central Plateau of New Zealand's North Island, Mt Ngauruhoe's cinematic claim to fame is its role as Mordor's Mt Doom. For excellent views of the mountain's conical profile, embark on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Renowned as one of the world's best one-day hikes, the 19.4km adventure skirts the northern slopes of the mountain. Much less strenuous is combining high tea and Mt Ngauruhoe views at the historic Chateau Tongariro Hotel.
Continue Middle-earth meanderings in New Zealand's compact harborside capital, first visiting Weta Workshop to learn more special effects wizardry behind Sir Peter’s two blockbusting trilogies, and then embarking on a tour of film locations around the city. Capital Tours' full-day Lord of the Rings tour includes Wellington's Mt Victoria – the Outer Shire in the Lord of the Rings – and also a visit to Weta Workshop. Other tour highlights include exploring the Hutt Valley, incorporating the movie locations for Helms Deep (The Two Towers) and the Gardens of Isengard (The Fellowship of the Ring). A final tour destination is nearby at Kaitoke Regional Park. A replica elvish archway celebrates the riverside's starring role as Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring, and information boards showcase Middle-earth movie memories. Another Wellington film location worth exploring is the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve two hours southeast of the city on Cape Palliser. The other-worldly, wind- and rain-eroded landscape was featured as the foreboding Dimholt Road in The Return of the King.
New Zealand's South Island
There are two highlights for Tolkien travelers in and around the regional South Island city of Nelson. Local jeweler Jens Hansen designed the original One Ring for the Lord of the Rings, and his family’s business now sells replicas of the Ring, and wedding and engagement rings inscribed with elvish calligraphy. One hour east of Nelson, the Pelorus River was the location of the barrel-riding scene in The Desolation of Smaug, and is a brilliant spot for kayaking. Havelock-based Pelorus Eco Adventures offer a Hobbit Kayak Tour exploring this location known as Forest River in the film.
For The Two Towers, director Sir Peter Jackson and his team transformed Canterbury’s Mt Sunday into Edora, the capital of Rohan. It’s a drive of around three hours west of Christchurch to Mt Sunday, located in the Hakatere Conservation Park, and the Department of Conservation-run Mt Sunday Track is a good 1.5km return hike to the top of the squat peak. The area can also be visited on guided tours from Christchurch with Hassle Free Tours. Full-day 4WD tours also take in the Misty Mountains, location of the Helms Deep battle scene in The Twin Towers.
Also in Canterbury, just south of the glacial turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki, is the Pelennor Fields, the location of the climactic battle in The Return of the King. The tussocky plateau is visited by Red Carpet Tours as part of multi-day New Zealand itineraries exploring Lord of the Rings and Hobbit locations across both the North and the South Island. Red Carpet’s 14-day tour is the ultimate Middle-earth adventure for traveling Tolkien fans.
New Zealand’s spectacular Southern Lakes region is where many scenes for both trilogies were filmed, and the area features some of the country’s most experienced Tolkien-focused tour operators.
Based in Queenstown, Nomad Safaris offer exciting experiences combining offroad 4WD adventures with Middle-earth locations including the Misty Mountains and the Kawarau river setting for the Pillars of the Kings (both from The Fellowship of the King). Across the Crown Range in Wanaka, Eco Wanaka Adventures’ Misty Mountain Heli Hike experience gets travelers up high in Mount Aspiring National Park for views of multiple trilogy locations, while a flight with Queenstown-based Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters could see visitors flying with Alfie Speight, the principal film pilot for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
Cruising high above locations including Lake Alta (Dimrill Dale) and Skippers Canyon (the Ford of Bruinen), both featured in The Fellowship of the Ring, Alfie’s the ideal guide to Southern Lakes’ Hollywood stardom, as he’s also worked on X Men Origins: Wolverine, Mission Impossible, King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia.
A final Southern Lakes destination for Middle-earth fans is the village of Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Pure Glenorchy offers tours exploring the Dart River Valley and Mt Aspiring National Park with film locations including Paradise (Lothlorien Forest in The Fellowship of the Ring), and Twelve Mile Delta on Lake Wakatipu (Ithilien in The Return of the King). Pure Glenorchy also has exclusive access to Arcadia Station in the Paradise Valley, a private location where Beorn’s house was built for The Desolation of Smaug in the Hobbit trilogy. For movie-making completists, other Lord of the Rings scenes and sequences from X Men Origins: Wolverine and The Chronicles of Narnia were also filmed at Arcadia Station.
Queenstown-based Lord of the Rings Tours also offer a range of experiences around Queenstown, Wanaka and Glenorchy, as well as adventures further north to Mt Sunday and Edoras.