Nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps just an hour’s drive from Queenstown (New Zealand’s adventure capital), the little town of Wanaka is emerging as another fantastic trekking destination on the South Island. Best known in the area is the steep climb up Roy’s Peak— you’d surely recognise photos of hikers, arms outstretched, posing over dramatic Lake Wanaka, but what you might not have seen is the long queue of people waiting to take this iconic shot. Captivated by the scenery, yet greatly put-off by the crowds, I wanted to find a good alternative to Roy’s Peak in Wanaka, a track with equally breathtaking scenery and without all the hype. Isthmus Peak is 100% that hike.

All the details: Isthmus Peak

GETTING THERE

The Isthmus Peak trailhead is a 30min drive from Wanaka

STARTING POINT

Stewart Creek car park

ENDING POINT

Ascend Isthmus Peak and return to the car park

TOTAL DISTANCE

16km return

WALKING TIME

4-5hrs return

DIFFICULTY

Moderate; most of the track is an unrelenting climb up to Isthmus Peak, with multiple false summits in the latter half of the hike, and an even more brutal descent

MY RATING

9/10 for beautiful views of Lake Hāwea, Lake Wanaka, and the Southern Alps

Amazing view up to Isthmus Peak

The initial ascent 

After parking our crappy little hire car just off the main road around Lake Hāwea, Callum and I set off towards the Isthmus Peak trail, loaded up with lots of water, rain jackets, and a pack full of snacks. We got a pretty late start today (largely due to the litre of boiling water I spilled in my lap while trying to cook breakfast— my thigh now looks like melted wax), so it’s around 2pm and the sun is at maximum intensity. Thankfully, though, the first section of the trail is delightfully shaded, winding through forest and gently undulating across the base of the mountains. A deceptively easy start, as it turns out.

Before long, our “gentle” trail magnifies in intensity until we are on an unrelenting uphill climb, which is to continue all the way to the summit. We’re a touch sweaty, sure, but there’s a nice breeze, we’ve got a good rhythm going, and the scenery is truly spectacular— so it’s absolutely impossible to complain (although Callum does give it a solid try).

 

The winding trail to Isthmus Peak

Lake Hāwea 

As we climb higher, our view over vibrant Lake Hāwea only improves, the wind scattering clouds across the sky and amazingly jagged rocks adding a spectacular texture to the landscape. We allow ourselves a short snack break on a particularly scenic patch of grass just off the trail, but soon get back to climbing, suspecting we can’t be too far off the summit.

As it happens, the Isthmus Peak Track actually has a number of false summits, each appearing JUST ahead of us and giving the impression that we’re only about 20min from the top. Somewhat discouraged by the constant feeling of being almost at the summit (where he’s been promised unlimited Oreos), Callum motors off ahead, leaving me to quickly snap some photos from a fantastic rocky ledge overlooking Lake Hāwea.

The summit of Isthmus Peak

Isthmus Peak

Finally, after crossing half a dozen false summits and muttering a number of very unsavoury words under my breath, I am on top of Isthmus Peak. With Lake Hāwea sparkling behind us and the Southern Alps framing Lake Wanaka directly in front, we sit on the summit and try to take it all in. It’s hard to imagine sharing this moment with a hundred other people, but thankfully we don’t have to.

A bit of afternoon cloud cover and a lot of chilly NZ wind forces us to rug up slightly, but we enjoy a week’s worth of sugary treats on the summit, telling ourselves it’s practically medicinal after the uphill slog we’ve done. Despite reports that the hike is anywhere from 5-8hrs return, we’ve made it to Isthmus Peak in just over 2hrs— needless to say, we’re feeling a little impressed with ourselves.

That feeling does soon fade as we make the long and agonising descent back to the car (which actually takes longer than the ascent because of my grandma knees), but even with our joints aching, there’s no denying this has been a phenomenal afternoon and another favourite hike to add to our growing list.

Looking over Lake Hāwea

Overall impressions: Isthmus Peak

The climb up to Isthmus Peak is pretty demanding, a never-ending series of steep switch backs winding up the mountain and over multiple false summits, but the rewards are spectacular. Practically the entire trail looks out over Lake Hāwea and then, from Isthmus Peak itself, you are surrounded on all sides by snow-capped peaks and blue lakes.

There isn’t a single boring moment on this hike, which really does make me wonder how on earth it isn’t more popular?! While queues of people clog up the Roy’s Peak trail, nearby Isthmus Peak is still amazingly under-rated and uncrowded, leaving you to enjoy all this sensational scenery without feeling like you have to wait your turn.

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