The art of popular, mainstream cinema has undergone a shift in technique, style and execution over the past few decades. As the technology advanced, many films began to rely heavily on visual effects and CGI, with green screen taking precedence over shooting on-location. One modern franchise that never conformed to this changing dynamic was Sir Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Now, of course, these films used CGI for multiple sequences, but there was a huge emphasis on using hundreds upon hundreds of extras within real, tangible environments. Covering Tolkien’s detailed descriptions in the books, the best place that was likened to his fictional Middle-Earth was the outstandingly beautiful islands of New Zealand.
Almost all of the incredible locations in the films can be found and visited across New Zealand, and better yet, we have put together a definitive North to South list of destinations to take you on your adventures, just like Frodo and Sam.
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The Northern Island
Our adventure begins in the same place as our heroes, the quiet, rustic little settlement inhabited by Hobbits, known as The Shire. The picturesque environment and sweeping emerald hills of the Waikato district in Northern New Zealand served as the perfect, quaint spot for the Hobbits. The set of The Shire has since been recreated to the finest detail upon the exact spot where it was originally shot, providing the perfect pilgrimage for all Lord of the Rings fans, titled Hobbiton™. Not only can you explore the 12 acres of land and gorgeous Hobbit homes, but there is also the option to have an “Evening Banquet Tour” and feast inside the Green Dragon Inn!
From the beginning of Frodo’s journey to the end, the next geographical stop south of The Shire, ironically, is Mount Doom. The barren, grey landscape is the result of the active Mount Ngauruhoe, a young and extremely active stratovolcano that towers over the landscape covering everything in its radius in lava and ash. The perfectly triangular volcano with its almost black slopes, rockery and rusted, reddish peak acted as the absolute perfect location for Mount Doom. For those with a taste of adventure, there is a pass up the volcano that provides breathtaking views. However, as of 2017, local authorities have discouraged tourists from climbing a particular section toward the peak as it is a culturally sacred place to the indigenous Māori people.
We travel much further south to the city of Wellington, which has been aptly nicknamed 'Wellywood' due to the vibrant hub of filmmakers and studios based within the capital. One, in particular, is Weta who have worked on Avatar, King Kong, The Avengers and of course, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. They have even opened up to the public with their Weta Workshop where guests can learn about the detailed craft of filmmaking with guided tours, interactive workshops and traditional Kiwi cuisine!
The surrounding areas of Wellington are also full of abundant biodiversity with visually awe-inspiring landscapes. The tree-covered pathways up Mount Victoria played host to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, hiding in the undergrowth from the Ringwraiths. The stone valleys of Putangirua Pinnacles provided Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s pathway to the army of the dead and the lush Harcourt Park became Saruman’s exquisite gardens of Isengard.
Please see the full list of Wellington’s LOTR locations:
1) Mount Victoria - Hiding from Ringwraiths
2) Putangirua Pinnacles - Pathway to the Dead
3) Hutt River - Anduin River
4) Harcourt Park - Isengard Gardens
5) Kaitoke Regional Park - Rivendell Outskirts
6) Queen Elizabeth Park - Pelennor Fields
7) Dry Creek Quarry - Helms Deep and Minas Tirith
The Southern Island
Nelson Tasman is in the northern region of New Zealand’s Southern island, where our adventure continues atop Takaka Hill - part of the Abel Tasman national park. With stunning panoramic views, the ground is full of eroded marble stone, offering strange shapes that served as the perfect spot for Chetwood forest where Aragorn and the Hobbits flee from the Prancing Pony in Bree.
One of the trickier locations to visit on this journey is Dimrill Dale. This is because it was shot in two separate areas, both equally difficult to access. High-up in the clouds rests the two peaks of Mt Owen and Olympus. Olympus was used as south of Rivendell, where the fellowship hid amongst the jagged rockery from Saruman’s crows - the rough, serrated rocks were the perfect spot. If you don’t fancy the arduous all-day trek to the peak of Mt Olympus then Helicopters Nelson offer an aerial view of the scene and the stunning surrounding landscape! Mt Owen can be seen later in the first film, with our heroes escaping the mines of Moira, losing Gandalf to the Balrog along the way - spoilers!
If the filmmaking aspect is what you’re interested in, then one place to visit in Nelson in particular is Jens Hansen. This is not any jewellers, but the team that brought the one ring to life from the page to screen. They sell identical replicas of the world’s most notorious ring as well as the option to customise the elvish engraving too. Not only this, but they also have designed Elvish engagement rings in platinum, gold and red gold.
Right in the central realms of Canterbury, found deep within the Southern Alps is a relatively small hill, named Mt Sunday. The open expanse of yellowish grass and sweeping hills became the perfect place for Edoras, the main city in the fictional region of Rohan. Explorers can stand on the exact site where crew and creatives built the city from scratch. This undertaking took 8 months to build and was only used for the external scenes and sweeping shots! Regardless of the fact that the set was removed after filming, this gorgeous spot is still a must for both LOTR and wanderlust seekers alike.
Also part of the Canterbury region are the sweeping fields of Mackenzie country which were used for Pelennor Fields as they matched the book's description as well as having a level enough surface for galloping horses! The only bit missing is the CGI generated mega-city of Minas Tirith.
Travelling further south to the Otago region, the aptly named Paradise became the stunning Elven inhabited forest of Lothlórien. Described as a forest of gold where no evil can enter without difficulty, the stunning beech forest and winding paths of Paradise quickly became the home for Galadriel and her people. The exact filming spots are on private land, but Pure Glenorchy do provide approved tours to these sites, as well as photos in Elven attire and weaponry!
Other locations in the region include Closeburn, where Boromir made his final stand against the Uruk-Hai at the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring, during the battle of Amon Hen. Another is the twelve mile delta that became Ilithien, where Samwise, Frodo and Gollum continued their journey to Mordor, hiding as they spotted the legendary Oliphaunts from The Two Towers. Perhaps the most impressive, the Kawarau river and gorge cuts through the New Zealand landscape, with steep rock formations on either side, eventually opening out onto where the Pillar of Kings was filmed - sadly, the statues are not real.
Finally our journey comes to a close in the southern region of The Fiordlands, which are known for their unmistakable beauty with striking turquoise lakes and snowy mountain peaks. The expanse and scope is truly jaw-dropping. One area of the Fiordland is Te Anau, the mossy mounds became the Marshes of the Dead, where Gollum led Frodo and Sam safely across, avoiding the eerie graves of men, elves and orcs on an ancient battleground. Fiordland was also used as the iconic Fangorn Forest, home of the Ents and Gandalf’s reemergence to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. Many of the shots of Merry and Pippin riding the Ents were done inside a soundstage at Weta Studios, but a great deal of filming was done in the forest, attaching cameras on wires between trees. The moss cladded trees emanate nature and mysticism, a perfect place to end a fantasy-fuelled tour of New Zealand.