Wanaka has a reputation for being the lower-key sibling of Queenstown, and there is much to recommend the area. Many excellent day-walks are one of these things. I had only done a few until quite recently, but on my last two trips down that way I fit in a few others that were real classics. So now I feel ready to compile a best-of list, although I’m sure there are others to add.
The walks on this list can be broadly be split into two groups – those around Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and those in Mt Aspiring National Park. The land around the lakes is generally lacking forest cover, whereas the national park is a bit lusher. There are some tall glaciated peaks in Mt Aspiring National Park as well, so the scale is grander.
From Wanaka these walks are roughly ten minutes to an hour’s drive away. I actually did all of these as day-trips from Queenstown, which adds roughly an hour onto drive times.
Mt Aspiring National Park
Hard: long & mostly off-track
This is probably the best of the day-tramps around Wanaka. The walk starts on the Mt Shrimpton Track, which takes you from lush broad-leaf forest, through beech to the bushline. For the big payoff on a long and fabulous day walk continue off-track to the ridge at about 1900m. There are spectacular alpine views of rock spires and numerous teal blue tarns, down into the Makarora Valley to the west, and the upper High Burn Valley to the east. I let out a slight gasp of wonder when I first saw the tarns and spires from the ridge.
This is a fairly hard walk and half of it is off track. But moderately fit and experienced trampers will be amply rewarded for their effort. Starts on the Haast Highway at Makarora.
Hard: steep and mostly un-tracked
For some time I have contemplated doing the highly rated Cascade Saddle walk as a day trip from Raspberry Flats. But the length (~32km?) and reputed danger of descending the route has put me off a bit. I may still get to this classic walk, but in the summer of 2020 I settled instead for this lesser known but excellent day-tramp.
It starts in the very scenic West Matukituki Valley, then climbs steeply along a poled route to Shotover Saddle, and then off track up to Red Rock (1858m). You get spectacular views up and down the valley, of multiple peaks in Mt Aspiring National Park including Rob Roy and its glacier, and nearby Mt Tyndall. A great way to sample the spectacular Mt Aspiring National Park Scenery on a day walk and without undue risk.
Moderate to Brewster Hut; ‘hard’ beyond the hut
Starting at the frigidly beautiful Haast River, the track climbs steeply through attractive beech forest to the tree line. It then climbs onto a narrow ridge and up further to Brewster Hut at 1400m of elevation. There are views of many high mountains to the west, and up towards Mt Brewster (2516m) and its glacier.
Stopping at Brewster Hut would be enough, but on our first ascent a party recommended we continue up to a ridge below Mt Armstrong for views east over more mountains. We did this our second time up and weren’t disappointed. This extension makes it a long walk, and you could walk further still to visit the summit of Mt Armstrong. That will be my target for next time.
I haven’t done this walk for a while and it shows a bit in my lacklustre photography from those times. Nevertheless, it is a classic day-walk, so I’m sure you’ll be impressed. And you can stay in the pleasant Brewster Hut if you want to extend your time in the area.
The Rob Roy Glacier Track was one of the first walks we did in New Zealand, and provides access to excellent views of the Rob Roy Glacier. There are impressive waterfalls along the way, as well as picturesque scenes in the West Matukituki Valley. The drive in is also nice, and it’s not a long walk, so there’s lots to recommend. Note though that it is fairly popular, so it probably won’t be a wilderness experience.
Lake Wanaka & Lake Hawea
Hard: long & mostly off-track
Some years ago we did a shortish walk to Sawyer Burn Hut, starting at the Kidds Bush Reserve campsite. I had read at that time it was possible to keep going upwards to climb Sentinel Peak (1814m). However we weren’t experienced enough at the time to attempt that. We finally got around to doing this walk four years later, and it is probably my pick of the walks around the lakes.
There are views of various mountain peaks, rugged slopes, and both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. One of the highlights for me was the very attractive summit – both looking at it, and the views from it.
This is a walk for the more adventurous hiker, as there is some navigation required, and a couple of places with mild exposure. Nothing too serious though – we’re no mountaineers!
Moderate: longish but tracked
I first learnt of the track to Breast Hill (1578m) from an Instagram follower who used to live in Wanaka. It was his favourite day walk in the area so I wanted to give it a go.
It is indeed an excellent walk, especially once you hit the ridge. And it improves again when you get out of sometimes smelly farmland and into Hawea Conservation Park. There are great views of Lake Hawea the whole way, of golden tussock grass hills, and of the steep rugged slopes of Breast Hill itself, as well as various mountain peaks all around.
An apparently similar but longer walk to this is the route to Corner Peak (the link is to limited free articles in Wilderness Magazine). That’s on my to-do list.
Easy to Moderate
This walk near Wanaka offers good views for only mild to moderate effort. It’s an easygoing alternative to the famous but much longer Roys Peak Track that starts down the road a bit closer to town (see below for this one). You can do a figure of eight taking in the picturesque Diamond Lake, and then climb higher to the summit of Rocky Mountain (775m). There are very nice views over Lake Wanaka and towards snow capped mountains to the north. My wife did this walk in winter with her sister and said the views were even better.
Roys Peak (1578m) has become a favourite destination for Instagrammers, attracted by the prospect of epic views over Lake Wanaka. The views are really excellent, but as a hike it can be lack lustre. At least half of it is through unattractive pasture, and it’s along a vehicle trail the whole way. Still, on a clear day it’s worth joining the crowds of walkers making their way either to the summit, or else to that particular spot about two thirds of the way up where you get a picture of yourself or your friend backed by the best bit of Lake Wanaka.
The Isthmus Peak Track (summit at 1386m) is a much less crowded alternative to the now super famous Roys Peak Track. (Although I’ve heard it’s getting more popular). There are excellent views of both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and a good portion of the walk is on high ground in a conservation area.
There’s still a fair amount of time spent in farmland on the lower slopes, but I don’t remember this being quite as smelly and weed ridden as on Roys Peak. But this was in 2015, so things may have changed.
After coming to live in New Zealand in March 2020 we were soon hit with increasingly severe restrictions due to the Covid 19 epidemic. Before the complete lock-down we snuck in a final tramp to the summit of Grandview Mountain (1398m) at the southern end of Lake Hawea. The views from the top were indeed grand, although I most liked the views into Grandview Creek Conservation Area that we passed along the way. Overall not the most spectacular of the walks in this selection, but still goodie.
I’ve done lots of walks in Otago that might also be to your liking so have a browse through my blog. One short option in town is the Mt Iron Circuit. There’s more information on activities around Wanaka on the DOC website. I’ve also written best-of compilations for nearby Queenstown and Glenorchy. Enjoy!