Top Lord of the Rings filming locations to visit on your own

One of the many reason I and many other choose to visit New Zealand is due to the incredibly epic franchise “The Lord of the Rings” which was filmed there. Not that New Zealand doesn’t have a million other reasons to visit it (and if you look through many of my love note posts about NZ you’ll see I found many of them) that doesn’t diminish any of the insane filming locations they used around both islands to shoot the movies. By filming all 3 movies (and all the Hobbit movies) in New Zealand, the director Peter Jackson really put New Zealand on a lot of travelers’ maps.

These sites are MUST SEES if you’re a big fan and really amazing sites to visit for hiking/ views even if you aren’t. They are all easy to visit on your own (if you have a car) so no tour needed!

1. The forbidden Pools – Tawhai Falls, Tongariro National Park

Up first is a short easy hike to the pools Gollum is seen swimming/ fishing in in the “The Two Towers”- the forbidden pools.

Directions:

TH adress: Manawatu-Wanganui 4691 in Tongariro National Park

The trail is located in Tongariro National Park however there are no fees for entering or hiking on this trail. The parking area will be on the left as you are heading down and can accomodate several cars. The trail starts opposite the driveway and is a flat leisurely trail until you get to the falls.

You can visit the top of the falls where there is an obvious right split off the trail to a viewing platform. This is also where you can jump from the falls into the pools below. (We saw some doing this but I’m not entirely clear on the logistics of rocks/ depth of water below)

The trail continues on to the bottom of the falls with great views of the pool used for filming. All in all the hike will take you less than an hour and is a fantastic foray into secret filming locations on the North Island. It also introduces you into our next major film star: Mount Doom.

2. Mount Doom – Mount Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park

Our next stop is right down the road from Tawhai Falls however it’s best scene from one of the many hiking tracks in the area, including the world famous- Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Mount Ngauruhoe served as the main inspiration for Mount Doom and appears in many of the background Mordor shots that were filmed all over the area. You yourself can even CLIMB Mt. Doom by accessing it from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing but be warned- it is a tough slippery slope and you’ll want good shoes and gloves to help you with the climb. We chose to simply view it in all it’s glory from the TAC track which you can read more about in my detailed post here.

3. Hobbiton – Matamata New Zealand

This one goes without saying- it’s a MUST DO for any Lord of the Rings fan. Like pilgrims flocking to a MECCA, there’s really nothing that equates a visit to Hobbiton for a lifelong fan. Unfortunately to visit the Hobbit holes you’ll have to book a tour in Matamata, online, or at the site itself, but you don’t have to book one to get yourself there! (Save some money and book yourself!) Our tour lasted 3 hours and included a fantastic Hobbit themed lunch on the site! There are many options for booking and I highly recommend a visit to see the holes with their incredibly detailed doors and learn so much more about the filming of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. You can read more details about visiting and my experience here.

4. Edoras- Mount Sunday

Hands down the COOLEST place on this entire list to visit (apart from Hobbiton of course) is Mount Sunday (aka Edoras in the Kingdom of Rohan). Holy smokes guys, this place is as epic and insanely gorgeous as the film portrays. No CGI, no tricks here. The valley and hill that Edoras is built on is exactly like in the films and it will TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY. They even built the set on top of Mount Sunday so they could film everything exactly as it was in the area. At only 2.5 hours from Christchurch, it isn’t a bad drive. It’s even easier to hit if you’re already driving south to connect to Queenstown.

This spot was so majestic, and so familiar. It was probably my favorite spot in New Zealand and is absolutely worth the bumpy gravel road to get to it. Bonus: It’s FREE, another easy walk/ hike, and you don’t need anyone to tell you what part in the movies it played, you’ll know. For more information on hiking Mt. Sunday and the general area, visit my post here.

5. The River Anduin- The Kawaru River, Queenstown

The scene at the end of the Fellowship where everything is breaking apart but Sam insists on continuing on with Frodo is iconic- between the filming of the boats floating down the Anduin river between the giant Argonath statues to the semi-traumatic death of Sean Bean, the ending scene on the Anduin river is a memorable one. Which makes visiting the filming location for it that much more special.

While the best way to see this film spot is unarguably by boat, you can opt for the free version by doing a gentle walk along the river’s canyon rim. To see it by boat as the fellowship would’ve done, you’ll want to book a rafting trip on the Kawaru River- I recommend this company. Be warned however that it will have sections of white water so make sure you are comfortable with a little extreme sport thrown in there.

If you’re wanting to save money or not up to white rafting though, check out my detailed post here on walking the trail for some of the ultra-special views of the magical river Anduin.

6. Isengard- Paradise, Glenorchy

Like Mount Sunday, the surrounding valley of Isengard is incredible. Tall snowcapped peaks almost completely surround the area and braided turquoise rivers float right down the middle of it. The best way to experience this area is by horseback on a tour specifically designed to get you close to the movie film location give you the inside scoop of filming in that area. (Not to mention does anything feel more “Lord of the Rings” than riding horses?)

Unfortunately our tour was cancelled due to flooding of the riding tracks so instead we drove out to Glenorchy and Paradise to view from afar. The views are so beautiful along the drive that it’s a worthy half day adventure for sure. Just fill up with gas in Queenstown (it’s MUCH cheaper) and head down to Glenorchy.

Bonus: Weta Workshop- Wellington

While we didn’t have time on our trip to make it to Wellington, for the complete picture of filming of the trilogy in New Zealand, head to Wellington for a tour of the movie workshop where you’ll learn all about the special effects and see some of the crazy make up/ molds they made for the movies. See more details for visiting the Weta Worshop here.

Links to other related posts:

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Backpack to Red Castle Lakes

While almost everyone knows Kings Peak is “the” backpacking trip to do in the Uintas, Red Castle isn’t quite as largely known (though that continues to change with each passing year) I first heard about it and had a trip planned in 2016 but the trip was cancelled due to weather. Each year after I’ve tossed around the idea of going but something always came up! So this year was the year and all the hype from the last 4 years did NOT disapoint. 

Red Castle, which just happens to be one major drainage over from Henry Fork (trail to Kings Peak), is not just an incredible destination but a stunningly beautiful hike as well. Now that I’ve hiked both Kings Peak and Red Castle, I’d say the trail to Red Castle is more graded and overall more enjoyable. (could be my PTSD from Kings though, that was a bit of a rough trip) So with that here’s the deets:

Trail Information:

Total Distance: 26 miles RT to Red Castle Lake
Distance to camps: 20-24 miles RT depending on where you want to setup
Elevation: ~2,000 feet
Time:~5 hours to Lower Red Castle Lake (camp) each way
Fees: The parking lot is $5/day and recreation passes are NOT accepted. If you have more than 1 vehicle you can pay “additional vehicle” charges which is +$4/ car/ day so if you have 2 cars it would be $9/day instead of $10. This fee is CASH ONLY. Come prepared so you aren’t ticketed while out in the backcountry.

Trailhead:

While all trails connect and there are various ways to actually hike into Red Castle, China Meadows is the most popular route. The trail starts from the trailhead campground at the far end of all the campground loops. To get there, take exit 34 off I-80 and follow WY-410 E as it become Co Rd 283 and FR072 to FR125. Most of the roads are unpaved but still decent with only the last couple miles being a little more rough. As you pass China Meadows Campground and start the far loop, keep an eye out for a large parking lot.

Camping spot options:

Red Castle is not a terribly difficult hike but it is a LONG hike. It can done as an overnight but would be much more enjoyable with 2 nights. We actually worked most of the day Friday, drove to the trail head, and started hiking in at 6:30 PM. Just getting halfway in made our 2nd day that much more enjoyable. Once near Red Castle, the camping options abound:

Option 1- Camp at Lower Red Castle Lake

If you want that classic reflection of Red Castle on the lake and want the shortest hike with a pack possible, than camping around the lower lake is for you. (and for us) There are loads of places to setup all around the lake depending on the shore access and views you want. We got there Saturday afternoon and while it was busy we managed to still snag a great spot with some measure of privacy. (Just remember to camp 200 feet from water sources)

Option 2- Camp between lakes

As you head up from the lower lake there’s lots of beautiful forested areas to camp in near streams for water filtering and with Red Castle peaking out through the trees. If you have hammock sleepers, finding a spot in this stretch would be your best bet. This area will also provide more options for privacy and getting away from other campers however we did still see a lot of people camping along this stretch of trail. So while this may be the least crowded option, they area all pretty comparable.

Option 3- Camp at the pond just below Red Castle Lake

So, the main Red Castle Lake is huge and barren. It has no trees around it to break wind, hang water filters, or offer any privacy. (so I don’t recommend camping there). However there is a small lake un-named just below the basin for Red Castle Lake that offers plenty of shelter, water for filtering, and pretty gorgeous views to boot. This would mean you carry your pack 12.5 miles each way with about 1700 feet of gain so a longer harder hike, but definitely another worthy location to look for camp. 

All 3 options are great options with superb views and about equal levels of crowds. Just know if you don’t find a spot where you had your heart set on, you very well could find an even more brilliant spot just down the trail.
*It took us about 30 minutes of wandering along the side of Lower Red Castle lake to find our spot. We passed several already snagged spots that looked AWESOME but we were just as happy with where end ended up. Don’t lose hope

Packing list:

Gear:

  • Lightweight Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad + pillow
  • Jetboil or light stove
  • Long spoon and coffee cup
  • water filter
  • Solid backpack with rain cover
  • String for hanging packs when out hiking or at night
  • GOOD bugspray and sunscreen
  • luxury item: lightweight chair

Clothes

  • Puffy coat
  • Rain jacket
  • 1x shorts
  • 1 leggings/ light sweats
  • 1x fleece/ sweater
  • Socks and other underthings

*The weather can be super bipolar in the Uintas meaning you’ll want a full summer wardrobe during the day when it is hot, and warm winter gear for at night. In August we had a high of 70 (felt at least 75 in the sun) and low of 40 at night. Afternoon thunderstorms are common as well so rain gear is always a must.  

Food- For a 2 night trip here is what we packed per person:

  • 2x dehydrated meals (backpacker’s pantry) + 1 dehydrated dessert
  • 2x oatmeal cups (no dishes needed, just cook in the cup and pack out trash)
  • 3x flavored tuna packets + several handfuls of crackers for lunch
  • 3x larabars
  • several handfuls of goldfish for snacking
  • 2x hot chocolate packets for colder evenings

Trail Description: 

As previously noted we started in the evening on a Friday and just planned on hiking in as far as we could make it (which was several miles) The start of the trail is really easy, with the first almost 7 miles having little to no noticeable elevation gain. It wasn’t too rocky and was pretty easy going with our 2 dogs. Bonus- starting later we had the trail to ourselves.

There’s a beautiful bridge 2 miles in and a random fence that you have to move logs out of the way about 3 miles in. After that you may notice some trail splits but they are all signed making the trail very easy to follow. You’ll just keep on the trail to Red Castle lakes.

Around 8:30 we found a great little camp spot that even already had a fire ring so we called it a night and waited for our friends who started hiking even later than us. We were right near a stunning section of creek which made amazing sunset and sunrise photos and provided a very convenient spot to filter water from. 

Day 2

Starting in the morning we got a later start (around 9:30) and already noticed several groups hiking by as we cleaned up our camp. (so note Saturday a lot of people start hiking in) The trail again was pretty nice starting out moving between open meadows and trees (usually the climbs in elevation happen in the trees)

At about 8 miles in you get your first look of Red Castle as you cross your 2nd solid bridge of the hike. Then you’ll reach the switchbacks – which normally would strike fear in the hearts of people not wanting to go uphill- fear not, these are pretty mild. 

After finishing the switchbacks the trail opens back up with really nice views of Red Castle as you hike towards it. We were enjoying beautiful weather however it was HOT. The water along the way was very tempting to hop into.

Time to pick a camp spot

After the switchbacks you’ll reach a fork in the trail. This is where you decide where you are going to try to setup camp. If you want to camp by the lower lake, take the left fork which will go a couple yards and then at the unsigned fork you’ll go right. The trail crosses several streams but eventually leads you right to the lower lake where you can start scouting a good spot. This will be about 10 miles in. 

Otherwise take the right fork to climb up a hill that will take you around (and quite above) the lower lake. You can pick you way through some unmarked areas to this trail from the lower lake at later points- but it can be very muddy and overgrown. If you take the right fork, you will look down on the lower lake and hike on by where you’ll then come to some beautiful wooded meadows with creeks to filter water from. (camping option 2 about 11-12 miles in)

Continuing on past the lower lake you will start to notice quite a bit more elevation gain through the trees until you reach a beautiful unnamed lake with a waterfall and nice reflections of the side of Red Castle about 12.5 miles in. (camping option 3) This lake is the LAST viable camping option as from here on out you will be above tree line and subject to wind/ lack of privacy.

My experience

We dropped our stuff at the lower lake, had lunch and a dip in the lake, followed by a little nap and were ready to hike to main Red Castle lake. We started up about 4:30 PM and it took about an hour each way. (It was SO nice being free of our packs) We noticed as we hiked up that almost all the camping options felt about the same level of crowded… so really it just comes down to what kind of a view you want.

Again we had pretty incredible weather (if a little hot) After taking photos at the upper lakes, we headed back down for our dinner and sunset views from our own campsite (which were pretty unparalleled in my opinion) 
We collected fallen dead wood again (do NOT collect wood from live trees) for a small fire and had a nice evening before hitting the tents under a nice full moon. 

*Be aware of fire restrictions in the areas you are camping. Some don’t allow fires close to the water and some don’t allow fires at all. It may also be seasonal- be fire aware.

*The bugs were AWFUL- since we had such nice weather without wind, they were all over for several hours in the evening. Make sure you bring GOOD bugspray (100% deet) 

The hike out:

We had an easy going morning again, leaving camp around 10. It took us about 4.5 hours hiking back with about a 30 minute break. The hike back was nice as we noticed a lot of the groups left earlier so we had the trail to ourselves again. One of the great things about how long this trail is that people really get spread out along it. There may be a lot of people recreating in the area, but it never really felt all that crowded. Which is awesome for a weekend around here! 

Wrap up:

This backpacking trip is a total MUST DO. It is so incredibly scenic all along the trail with a breathtaking destination. Plan at least 2 nights so you can really enjoy the area and come prepared! Leave no trace as well so everyone can continue to enjoy the spot for years to come. 

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