Hidden amid towering mountains and nested on the southern end of New Zealand’s fourth largest lake, Wanaka is a much adored South Island town and a true paradise for the outdoorsy kind. In summer, it is a great spot for hiking, water sports and all types of leisurely activites, while in winter it becomes a popular ski resort.
Whether you plan to make this picture-perfect alpine town a short stop on the way or your home base for a longer stay, here is a list of the best hikes in Wanaka, ranging from a 5-minute walk to a whole-day trip. Make sure to do at least one!
WANAKA WAR MEMORIAL
Although not really a hike per se, we decided to include Wanaka War Memorial because of its location and views well worth seeing. If you’re not into hiking at all and at the same time want the best panoramic views of Wanaka you can possibly get, this hill is for you. A 5-minute walk uphill from Lake Wanaka brings you to a memorial and a nice little bench, where on a sunny day you can enjoy the views of the township beneath you and all the mountain peaks surrounding the lake. World Wars memorials are common in New Zealand and since they are usually set on a hill, they make for a good viewpoint as well.
Mount Iron is the locals’ choice for a morning workout or an afternoon grab-your-dog-and-a-friend walk, where a return trip takes around 1.5 hours. The main track to the top starts a few minutes’ drive from town and a parking lot can be found just before Puzzling World. The track is fairly easy to hike and there are wooden benches on the way, perfect for taking a breather. At the top, this impressive glacier-made hill in a form of an iron offers panoramic views of lakes Wanaka and Hawea along with heaps of mountains as far as the eye can see.
DIAMOND LAKE AND ROCKY MOUNTAIN
Standing at 775 meters high and being easily reached by 20 minutes’ drive from Wanaka, Rocky Mountain makes for a perfect half-day trip. To make the best of the hike, follow the 3-hour loop track and pick the east track on the way up and the west one when you descend. Upon reaching Diamond Lake, climb a set of wooden stairs to get to the observation deck and see how the lake got its name. The views from atop Rocky Mountain are mesmerizing, with mighty Southern Alps on one side and diverse Lake Wanaka on the other. Don’t forget to wear proper hiking shoes; some parts can be muddy and slippery.
The king of one-day hikes in Wanaka is without a doubt the famous Roys Peak. The base parking lot is a short drive from Wanaka towards Mt Aspiring National Park and the track itself is a fairly pleasant zig-zag path with many great spots to stop and take a picture. Although the sign at the parking lot recommends taking up to 5 or 6 hours for the hike, it can be done in less, depending on your level of fitness and how many stops you take. The views from the top are jaw-dropping, making you stop and stare. On one side there’s the mighty Mt Aspiring standing tall among other mountains and on the other Lake Wanaka with its rugged coastline, islands and peninsulas. During winter, start your hike in the morning to avoid walking down in the shade or even dark.
Although almost 200 meters lower than Roys Peak, Isthmus Peak makes for a slightly more challenging hike. To reach the starting point, follow the road towards Lake Hawea and the West Coast and after some 20 minutes of scenic drive there’s a parking lot on the right side of the road. While sheep, cows and rabbits are your usual companions on many hikes in Wanaka, here you’ll also come across deer and birds of prey. Along the way you’ll notice a field of big sharp rocks rising out of the ground and looking otherworldly. A return hike usually takes around 5 to 6 hours. The track is less crowded than Roys Peak and nature is more intact, perfect for enjoying complete silence and watching falcons fly over the mountain ridge.
Personally, we prefer Isthmus to Roys Peak, but if you’re an outdoor type, do both and let us know which one is your favorite!