Skipper’s Canyon is a stunning gorge in the backcountry of Queenstown, slicing through an area of important historical significance. The area is defined by its gold rush history. In November of 1862 four ounces of gold was discovered in the space of three hours, leading to one of the biggest gold rushes in Otago. The area was swarming with miners, who referred to the Shotover River as “the richest river in the world” – although there’s no official record of how much gold was actually found in the region. However, that didn’t stop the gold rush defining the region – most of the sights there today are remnants of the golden era.
The way in and out of the region is Skipper’s Road. The road was hacked by hand into the hard cliff face as mining in the region boomed – until the road was completed in about 1890, most miners tackled tiny mountain trails on horseback to get in and out. Today, Skipper’s Road is one of New Zealand’s best-known scenic roads, offering stunning vistas across the mountains and down into the canyons, with narrow lanes winding atop cliff edges before falling quickly into sheer drops of several hundred metres. Skipper’s Road inevitably leads to Skipper’s Bridge, first built to enable miners to safely reach townships on the opposite side of the canyon. The bridge is about 100 metres long and is wedged between two sheer rock faces on either side of the gorge some 90 metres above the river, and is a spectacular sight to behold.
There’s two main settlements to visit in the region, Charlestown and Skipper’s Point. Both were birthed from gold discoveries in the mid-1800s, and both were abandoned at the end of the rush, leaving ruined ghost towns standing today. There’s not a lot of buildings still standing, with only a few remains of schools and homesteads to be seen, but both are definitely worth visiting if the history of the area is of interest.
The best way to explore Skipper’s Canyon is on a guided heritage tour from Queenstown - companies offer the chance to spend anything from a few hours to a few days exploring the awe-inspiring back country.