Having moved from sub-tropical Auckland to the Olympian-ridden ski-resort town of Wanaka a couple of years ago – lured by Middle Earth-terrain hiking and mountain biking opportunities – I’m conscious that in winter everyone in Wanaka (and neighboring Queenstown) seems to be a competent skier or snowboarder. With no snow sports experience, I feel like an imposter.
I often feel a pang of FOMO when overhearing skiers’ and snowboarders’ conversations in Wanaka cafes and bars. Their snow-speak is alien to me, but what I can surmise is that they’re having a hell of a good time in the mountains.
So, when local ski bunny friends suggested I join them to try cross-country skiing at Snow Farm, I felt excitement tinged with trepidation. I’d heard Snow Farm described as a pristine alpine environment and a great place to experience the snow as it’s not busy like the downhill ski-fields can sometimes be.
Snow Farm has 34mi (55km) of trails to explore as well as three backcountry huts you can ski or snowshoe to. (In summer, you can hike or mountain bike there.) The huts have great character and are well-equipped for backcountry huts. You can book an overnight stay if you want a more immersive mountain experience. I did this recently with a group for a friend’s birthday during the summer. We booked out the whole of Meadow Hut – it was a very fun night, and the star gazing was next-level.
Snow Farm’s Lodge has a great view of Mt. Aspiring (the Matterhorn of the South) and the chance to learn to ski on untouched snow in a peaceful place sounded idyllic. But, with zero snow sport skills, I figured it was no place for a snow virgin.
My friends told me I’d be fine, that it was fun, and that cross-country skiers were a friendly crowd, so I went for it. I don’t have ski gear, but some thermal running tights, a couple of warm layers, a puffer jacket, gloves, and beanie worked just fine.
On the morning of our adventure, we drove the scenic 35-minute drive from Wanaka through the Cardrona Valley up into the Pisa mountain range to Snow Farm, elevation 5250ft (1600m), taking in the pink hues of the morning light that cast shadows accentuating the ridges and rolls of the mountains.
The Snow Farm road is steep and it’s mandatory to carry snow chains and fit them when conditions are slippery. A 4WD vehicle is preferable, but you can get up there with a 2WD if conditions aren’t too icy. It pays to check the website first thing on the day you’re planning to go as the road is sometimes closed due to weather.
Arriving at Snow Farm, we admired the view of Mt. Aspiring, New Zealand’s highest mountain outside of the Mt. Cook region. Around us was a glistening snowy landscape, punctuated with neatly fenced trails, groomed snow, and gentle gradients. It was so visually pleasing; wilderness but not intimidating – terrain quite unlike anything I’d seen before.
We were warmly greeted at Snow Farm Lodge (the base building) by the team who set us up with skis and pole rental. Cross country skis are longer, thinner, lighter, and more flexible than alpine skis, allowing you to ski up as well as downhill. My friends had suggested we book a lesson, which I highly recommend, although you can just turn up and have a go.
Our instructor was young, skilled, Canadian, and good-humored. She explained that there are two different styles of cross-country skiing: classic and skate. She demonstrated the classic technique which involves the skis staying parallel, while you stride and slide through the grooves of a pre-groomed track. It was great fun gliding up and down.
We progressed to skate skiing, where you keep the skis moving in a V-shape motion, as if ice skating. This was harder to do but a lot more satisfying – it felt more natural. We practiced a few drills and laughed our heads off as we tried to coordinate our arms, legs, and poles. I didn’t manage any consistent coordination, but that didn’t matter – I was gliding along feeling the brisk cool air against my face and having a blast in between faceplants.
After our lesson we explored the beginner trails for a while. I was finally able to let go of the snow FOMO. It was quite a rush learning to propel myself in a completely different way.
After some serious calorie burning, the cafe was calling. We ordered a hot chocolate and to my surprise, there before me, chatting to a group of women, was former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark. She’s a keen hiker and cross-country skier, when she’s not otherwise engaged chairing the United Nations Development Group. Suitably wowed, I headed back out to the trails to try and practice some more of what I’d learned.
I found that a half-day was enough for the first visit, but I was hooked. I loved the freedom of being out in the mountain snowscapes and able to experience it on skis without the steep slopes to contend with.
I haven’t tried snowshoeing at Snow Farm yet, but I plan to. Snow hiking on the trails and to backcountry huts a few kilometers from the base is something I’d love to do.
For families and young children who don’t want to ski or snowshoe, there’s a dedicated Snow Play Zone where kids can go tubing down gentle gradient slopes or throw snowballs, make snow-angels, and build snow people. Dogs are allowed at Snow Farm too – they love playing in the snow and it’s a joy to watch.
Snowshoeing is growing in popularity. Besides Snow Farm, you can try it in the South Island at Lake Tekapo and in Queenstown, where there are a range of experiences including heli-snowshoeing. In the North Island, there are snowshoeing experiences at Tukino, a ski field on Mount Ruapehu. The staff will take you above the ski fields in a Snowcat for the best views and a more peaceful experience.
Dog sledding is another unique snow experience that you can try at Cardrona, close to Snow Farm, and in the forest at Naseby, Central Otago, (a two-hour drive from Wanaka). Naseby (a tiny town, population 150) also has an Olympic Curling Rink! It’s a superb facility and open to the public.
Don’t let lack of experience put you off. There’s so much fun to be had in the snowscapes of New Zealand.
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