For nature lovers on a New Zealand South Island road trip, stopping off in Wanaka is a must. Many the best things to do in Wanaka revolve around the great outdoors. Nature has blessed the Wanaka area with some of the most beautiful and diverse landscapes you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Wanaka is just an hour from Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. Many tourists head straight for Queenstown instead of stopping off in Wanaka, a mistake by all accounts.
Almost completely surrounded by mountains, Wanaka is well known for its tranquil lakes and snow-capped peaks. It’s situated on the boundary of the Mount Aspiring National Park and close to three ski resorts in the Southern Alps. One of them, Cardrona, is the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. From Wanaka, you can also access New Zealand’s loveliest landscapes through chartered flights, hiking & biking trails, jet boat rides—and even on horseback!
Whether you plan on staying on South Island for a week or a month, don’t miss out on some of these best things to see & do in Wanaka, New Zealand…
What to see & do in Wanaka
Roys Peak Track
In an area boasting dozens of hiking trails, Roys Peak is one of the best. It’s easily one of most popular places to visit in Wanaka.
Be warned: Roys Peak Track is not an easy hike. It’s uphill most of the way and rather steep. It’ll take the better part of a full day to complete. In the winter months the slopes will be covered in ice and snow; you’ll need the appropriate equipment to tackle it.
If you’re hiking in the summer, set out bright and early. The slopes around Roys Peak Track get hot quickly. There are several stretches with little shade.
The prize for summiting the peak is a spectacular view of Lake Wanaka and the verdant valleys & craggy peaks that surround it. On the top of Roys Peak, people queue to get that once in a lifetime snapshot.
If the thought of a six-hour hike is too much for you, go for the 45-minute hike up to the top of Mount Iron instead. Pack a lunch and enjoy the 360-degree panoramic views of the lakes & snow-capped peaks from its 240-metre-high summit.
Mt Aspiring National Park
Mount Aspiring National Park is within an hour’s drive of Wanaka. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has everything a nature lover could look for.
At Mt Aspiring National Park, waterfalls splash down tree-covered mountains against the backdrop of the glacier-capped Rob Roy Peak. The beautiful Blue Pools boast crystal clear glacial water that attracts visitors year-round.
Mount Aspiring National Park is enormous. If you really want to get the most out of the outdoor activities in the park (like the Rob Roy Glacier), plan a multi-day hike.
Huts for picnics and overnight stays are scattered around the park near its various access points. You can even choose to enter the park by helicopter on a Mt Aspiring and Glaciers Scenic Flight and marvel at its glorious views from the air.
The sparkling glacial water of Lake Wanaka dominates the landscapes in the area. The lake is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, often reflected in the pristine waters of the lake.
Lake Wanaka comprises three islands, some of which are worth exploring. There’s also a lakeside walking trail that meanders for kilometres alongside the pebble beach.
Whether you’re an adventurer or a nature lover, there’s plenty to do on Lake Wanaka. Take a thrilling jet boat ride up the Matukituki River or Clutha River. It’s a great way to tour the Wanaka region.
If you’d rather get along on your own steam, you can hire a kayak or a paddleboard on the banks of the lake. You’ll love spending a gentle afternoon enjoying the lake waters.
Parasailing is another popular pastime on Lake Wanaka. Take a view from the air and enjoy the exhilaration of free flight.
That Wanaka Tree
Wanaka is home to New Zealand’s most famous tree, That Wanaka Tree. Unusually, That Wanaka Tree grows in solitary in the middle of the waters of Lake Wanaka. It’s one of the most unique & most photographed scenes on New Zealand South Island!
To snap your perfect postcard photo of That Wanaka Tree, prepare to battle the tourist hordes. If big crowds aren’t your thing, plan your visit in the early morning.
Mou Waho Island
You can’t leave Wanaka without a visit to the Mou Waho Island. There are regular boats to the island and if you’re fit enough you could hire a kayak and paddle to the island. At two kilometres long, Mou Waho Island is the largest of Lake Wanaka’s islands.
You’ll want to take the 20-minute to the unique Arethusa Pool. The lake-within-a-lake is 150 metres above the waters of Lake Wanaka. If you climb to the summit, the two lakes meld into one another.
Because there are no predators on the island, it’s the perfect place for bird lovers to view the indigenous birds in their natural habitat. The weka has been extinct on the mainland for more than one hundred years but stills lives on the island.
If you prefer quieter waters, one of the best day trips from Wanaka is out to the banks of the tranquil Lake Hawea. It’s just 20 minutes away from town and offers plenty of water activities for visitors.
Also surrounded by mountains, the azure Lake Hawea is less populated and just as beautiful as Lake Wanaka.
Be sure to bring your fishing tackle along: The area is famous for its fly-fishing. You may want to find yourself a lakeside cabin or a glamping site and enjoy the tranquil beauty of the lake for more than just one day.
Cardrona Alpine Resort
Wondering what to do in Wanaka in winter? Spend time carving the slopes at Cardrona Alpine Resort, New Zealand’s largest ski resort.
The family-friendly alpine resort is just 30 minutes away from Wanaka. Don’t let a lack of skiing experience put you off: These popular ski fields have a full range of slopes ranging from beginner to expert.
Cardrona Alpine Resort offers both skiing and snowboarding along more than 40 kilometres of slopes. You can hire ski equipment at the resort and book lessons if you’re new to skiing.
The resort also boasts the first express chondola, offering a lift capacity of 11,000 people per hour. At this resort, you’ll never waste good skiing time waiting for a ride up the mountain.
For a unique experience, book a ride on a dog sled through the highest paths of the snow-covered peaks.
Treble Cone and Snow Farm
As an alternative to Cardrona, the closest ski resort to Wanaka, Treble Cone, offers visitors 22 kilometres of ski slopes. It’s the largest ski field on the island with the longest vertical rise in the area.
The slopes at Treble Cone Ski Area are not overly beginner-friendly. There is, however, one uncrowded slope and a beginners’ lift.
Wanaka also offers a 50-kilometre cross country ski experience at Snow Farm. You can also choose to go ski-skating or snowshoeing at Snow Farm.
Rippon Vineyard is Wanaka’s oldest vineyard. Rippon doesn’t just top the list of the best wineries in Wanaka; it’s one of the best wineries & vineyards near Queenstown, the undisputed queen of South Island tourism.
Rippon Vineyard is located just two minutes from Lake Wanaka. The Southern Alps provide a magnificent backdrop to your wine-tasting tour. The surrounding valley is also painted with lavender. As you look out onto the lake, you’ll enjoy a lovely view of nearby Ruby Island.
Rippon boasts some of the Central Otago region’s oldest & best wines. You can taste them free of charge. On a wine tour, you’ll learn about the wine industry in the area and the history of the vineyard. The Mills’ family has run the farm for more than a century, practicing bio-dynamic farming to create a world-class final product.
Wanaka Lavender Farm
Finishing your Wanaka wine tour? The Wanaka Lavender Farm offers another great option for continuing your afternoon.
Stare through the purple door in the middle of one of the fields to get the best views of the fragrant fields of lavender at the farm. Aside from gawking at its colourful scenes, take time on your visit to the Wanaka Lavender Farm to play giant Jenga and pétanque.
Got afternoon to spare and looking at what to see in Wanaka? The bizarre Puzzling World deserves a visit.
You’re not likely to find anything quite like Puzzling World anywhere in the world. This popular Wanaka attraction features a handful of family-friendly activities including rooms full of illusions, a tricky outdoor maze, and other weird & wonderful buildings.
Other activities in Wanaka
Chase an adrenaline rush
Looking for more adrenaline-pumping activities while visiting Wanaka? On your quest for figuring out where to go in Wanaka, you’ll run across more than a few exciting options.
Wanaka bristles with activities fit to get your heart pumping. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, here are a few ideas for your trip:
- Rock Climbing: Wanaka is home to the most concentrated sports climbing areas in New Zealand. Outfitters like Wildwire Wanaka offer climbing adventures up to waterfalls, clifftops, and canyons. Their 4-Hour Waterfall Climbing Adventure is a great option for intermediate climbers.
- Jet Boating: With major rivers like Matukituki River and Clutha Rive snaking off of Lake Wanaka, jet boating is one of the most popular water activities for travellers visiting Wanaka. A great place to start exploring the rivers is on the Jet Boat Ride on the Clutha River.
- Skydiving: Wanaka offers one of the highest skydives in the country. Ultra-adventurous travellers can attempt a tandem skydive up to more than 4,500 metres (15,000 feet) down to the earth below with the NZONE Tandem Skydive Experience. Or for something (a least slightly) less intense, opt for a paragliding adventure.
- Scenic Flights: Among the most popular Wanaka tours is seeing the area from above on a scenic flight. Aspiring Helicopters offers a couple great tours including the Wanaka Scenic Flight with Glacier Landing and the Mt Aspiring and Glaciers Scenic Flight. You can even catch scenic flights to South Island destinations further afield like Milford Sound.
Enjoy relaxing outdoor activities
If you prefer a more tranquil approach to adventure, there are so many other things to see in Wanaka—and so many ways to see them!
Let’s face it: New Zealand’s South Island is endowed with nature’s greatest blessings. Seek out some of the best of Central Otago on your trip with these fun outdoor activities:
- Horseback Riding: Seeing Wanaka by horseback is among the nicest ways to connect with nature on your visit. Interesting options for horse trekking in Wanaka include gentle rides through mountains of the Cardrona Valley or through the vineyards.
- Mountain Biking: The Wanaka area is home to some of the best mountain biking trails in New Zealand. There’s something here for bikers of all skill levels. You can cycle through verdant forest tracks like the Stick Forest Track or enjoy longer, more advanced rides like the Glendhu Bay Track.
- Hiking & Walking: Like much of New Zealand, the Wanaka area is a hiking paradise. The best hiking trails in Wanaka include the family-friendly Gladstone Track and the scenic Waterfall Creek Track. To get a little further afoot, check out the Diamond Lake Circuit Track and the Rocky Mountain Summit Track.
- Boat Tours: If you feel the jet boat rides are a little too intense, there are plenty relaxing & family-friendly boat cruises on Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Or you can rent a kayak and paddle your way to relaxation on the lake.
- 4×4 Tours: Wanaka’s rugged surroundings make it the perfect place to explore by 4×4. The Mount Burke 4×4 Explorer & Boat Tour is a popular off-road adventure among visitors.