The Isthmus peak track is one of the incredible hikes near Wanaka. With stunning views on Mount Aspiring National Park, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, the Isthmus peak track is a must do. The trail is easy to follow and a well maintained wide gravel path. But with 16 kilometres out and back and 1250 meters vertical incline you will have to put in some effort to get to the summit! Before setting off to Isthmus Peak it’s important to prepare yourself which is why we share this complete guide with all the things you need to know about hiking Isthmus peak.
→ Important note: Isthmus peak is closed each year from 20 November until 20 December for lamb season.
If you’re in Wanaka and want to do a similar hike, then Roys peak is great alternative.
Take note that Roys peak is closed from 1 October to 10 November each year for lamb season.
Watch this video from our experience of Isthmus Peak Track!
Isthmus peak track key facts
Before we dive into the details about the Isthmus peak track, let’s first have a look at the key facts of the trail so you can decide if this is a hike for you!
Isthmus peak distance and duration: Isthmus peak track is 16 km (9.9 miles) out and back and takes about 6-7 hours to complete. You will walk the same way back as you came.
Isthmus peak difficulty and incline: The total elevation gain is 1250 meters (4,100 feet) over 8 kilometres which is quite the climb. Therefore I would say Isthmus peak track is difficult, however the well maintained gravel path is easy to follow and clearly signed. If you are used to hiking and incline you might say it’s a moderate hike. But definitely not a walk in the park, especially on a hot, sunny day as there is not much shade along the path.
Best time to hike Isthmus peak
Before setting off on the Isthmus peak track you need to check the weather forecast. It would be a pity if you hike all the way to the summit and won’t be treated with the incredible views. If it is rainy or there are low hanging clouds, then chances are high you won’t see the beautiful lakes and mountain peaks of Aspiring National Park. Which is basically the whole point of hiking to Isthmus peak isn’t it?
Considering the best time of the day to hike Isthmus peak, my answer will always be before sunrise or sunset. But that’s because you’ll get the best light for photography. Hiking before sunrise does mean you will have to start the hike in the middle of the night depending the season. And of course you will need a torch with both sunrise or sunset hike. Another thing to keep in mind is that during the summer months it will be too hot hiking up in the scorching sun. There is almost no natural shade along the trail so I won’t recommend starting late in the morning with the hike during summer.
In the winter months there might be snow or ice around the summit which makes the hike a lot more harder than it already is. If you have experience hiking in the snow and want to give it go, then make sure to ask the DOC about the current situation.
As mentioned before, Isthmus peak is closed each year from 20 November until 20 December for lamb season.
Looking for an alternative activity instead of hiking?
Check here the best tours around Wanaka
How to get around in New Zealand
To experience New Zealand to the fullest and at your own pace, renting a car, campervan or motorhome is the best way to get around. Which one of these options you choose depends on your preference and budget. If you love camping, being outdoors all day and you don’t mind a smaller living space, then renting a camper van is the way to go. It also gives you the freedom to sleep at some of the most beautiful camping spots, but for some of them you’ll have to make a reservation and plan your trip accordingly. The same goes for a motorhome which is bigger than a campervan and fits about 4-6 people. Here’s what you need to know about renting a car, camper van or motorhome in New Zealand.
Car rental New Zealand
Renting a car in New Zealand is the easiest and cheapest rental vehicle available. It will get you to all the best destinations with ease and gives you the freedom to stop for a break wherever you want. However, you should keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand are still gravel or that you have to cross shallow rivers to some destinations in National Parks. Therefore we personally recommend a mini SUV or SUV model to have enough clearance for these kind of roads. We rented for 6 weeks a Mitsubishi ASX model and were super happy with this car!
The best place to book your rental car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare different car models, prices, companies and terms and conditions. Make sure to secure the booking of your rental car as soon as possible to have the lowest price possible. Prices go up the closer you get to the pick up date.
Campervan rental in New Zealand
Traveling around in a campervan is one of the most popular ways for a roadtrip in New Zealand. With a bed, small kitchen and seating area you will have all the (basic) needs on four wheels. Make sure to check if your campervan has a shower or not because this might influence where you want to camp. A campervan allows you to camp at plenty of beautiful places, sometimes for free, sometimes for a fee. It will you give you a true feeling of freedom and connects you with nature.
We personally recommend to book your campervan with Travellers Autobarn as they have a wide range of Stationwagons, 2-berth campervans & 3-5 berth campervans to hire for all budgets. All Travellers Autobarn campervan hires in New Zealand come with free unlimited kilometers, 10% discount to premium campgrounds, 24/7 road side assistance & long term rental discounts. Check the availability and prices today to secure your campervan for a New Zealand dream roadtrip!
How to get to Isthmus peak trailhead
Isthmus peak trailhead is a 30 kilometre drive from Wanaka along Lake Hawea. Having your own rental car would be the best option to get there.
There are two car parks across the street from the trailhead so there will be enough space if one of them gets full. One of them is a small car park and another one a bit further down the road is much bigger. From the car park the trail is clearly signed. The first 200 meters you will walk along the road but you’ll quickly get to the sign of entering Matatiaho Conservation Area where the stunning hike begins.
What to expect during the Isthmus peak track
Make sure to have your expectations right for Isthmus peak track. Although the hike starts off gently with little incline and a flat stroll through farmland, this is just the warming up. For the most part during the track the incline is continues with no flat parts until you almost reach the summit. Let’s share some more details of the hike so you’re well prepared!
The start of Isthmus peak track
The first part of the track is relatively flat and a good warming up for what’s coming. You are walking along Glen Dene station which is private property and will pass cows and sheep along the way. These first few hundred meters are partly through forest, which is the only natural shade you will get during the hike. If you look around you’ll see some nice mountain and lake views which only get better the higher you get.
Around 1.5 kilometre you will get to a rocky slab which you have to scramble a bit up. Be careful when it’s slippery after rain. After this part you’ll have to go trough the fence and close it behind you. Here is where the farmland begins and where you can encounter sheep and cows.
(Our pictures are taken on the way down because we hiked up in the dark before sunrise. The rocky slab can be seen on the first picture).
The path here can get quite muddy after rain, so mind your step. There is one part where you have to cross a small river stream, so carefully choose your path as you don’t want wet boots for the rest of the hike. After this part the real fun begins… The incline without ending!
Once you’ve made it through the forest part you are about 2,5 kilometres into the hike. This is where the switchbacks begin and the real incline starts. The paths stays wide and gravel throughout the hike to the summit and is very easy to follow.
You might see some cows, sheep and deer along the way. We were lucky to see a pack of deer with sunrise and it was absolutely magical!
The views are getting better and better the higher you climb. Jagged mountain peaks, stunning Lake Hawea and green farmland makes it a picture perfect New Zealand hike.
The false summits of Isthmus peak
A couple of times along the hike you will think you’re almost at the summit. There are quite some so called ‘false peaks’, a peak that look like the summit of the mountain but upon reaching, it turns out the final summit is higher. Well, that’s the hike up Isthmus peak. If you think you’re there, look again…
Only if you get to a flat section between tussock grass with a sign pointing towards Isthmus peak with its height on it, you’re almost there. That’s the final leg of the hike and the last bits of incline.
Reaching Isthmus peak
Okay so the hardest part of the hike is done at this point, Isthmus peak summit is in sight and it’s only a final push to get to the top!
Seeing the summit pole feels like such a relief, and the breathtaking views make up for the hard climb. Isthmus peak really is worth going up and I would recommend everything taking the trip from Wanaka.
With views over Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park in front of you with its snow capped mountains and behind you Lake Hawea surrounded by jagged mountain peaks really makes you feel small. What a world we live in, truly magical!
Isthmus peak vs Roys Peak
If you’re short in time and need to make a decision between hiking Isthmus peak or Roys Peak, then you might ask yourself which one is better. Although I don’t like to call places ‘better than the other’ because every spot has its own beauty, there are always pro’s and con’s about one or the other.
Let’s first compare the facts:
Isthmus Peak: 16 km out and back with 1250 meter incline.
Roys Peak: 16 km out and back with 1240 meter incline.
So both are the same length and same amount of incline. This means in terms of difficulty you can expect the same at both hikes. Also the gravel path is the same, so the only difference in going to be the view and amount of people.
Roys Peak is a famous hike in New Zealand so you can definitely expect more crowds than at Isthmus peak. However, Isthmus peak has gained popularity and is definitely not a ‘hidden gem’ anymore.
Regarding the views, from the summit of Isthmus peak you’ll have stunning, unobstructed panoramic views over Lake Wanaka with Mount Aspiring National Park and its snow capped mountains as backdrop.
Lake Hawea is at the other side which you have a great view at during the hike itself, but not from the summit of Isthmus peak.
Roys Peak has an iconic ridge where everyone is taking pictures. So in terms of creativity this isn’t the most challenging place for photographers. Everyone is taking the same kind of pictures, and especially in high season and later during the morning you can expect queues for taking pictures on the ridge.
All in all, there isn’t really an obvious winner. Both are the same kind of hikes, with slightly different views. But we personally enjoyed Isthmus a bit more because it’s lesser known than Roys Peak.
Isthmus Peak after sunrise
Roys Peak with sunrise
Best tours around Wanaka
Wānaka is a popular ski and summer alpine town which is the ultimate hub for outdoor adventures. Closely located to Mount Aspiring National Park there are plenty of tours going from Wanaka to explore this dreamland of mountains, glaciers, river valleys and alpine lakes. From scenic flights, jet boating, parasailing to hiking and biking, there is an activity for everyone. Find here the best tours in Wanaka.
Scenic flight Self-guided Hike and Jet Boat Ride
This action-packed tour lets you explore Mount Aspiring National Park by plane, boat and on foot. Soar over the snow capped mountains during a scenic flight, hike along the banks of the Siberia River, then hop aboard for a thrilling jet boat ride along the Wilkin River.
Wine Tour with Wine Tasting and lunch from Wanaka
On this afternoon tour you will visit four boutique wineries in one of New Zealand’s most popular wine regions. You will learn the secrets behind these wines from the winemakers themselves, and stop at one winery for a gourmet food with wine matching. Transport from your accommodation in Wanaka is included.
Wanaka Lake boat ride and 4×4 jeep Mountain Adventure
Get away from the crowds on this boat ride and 4×4 day trip from Wanaka. Start with a boat ride across Lake Wanaka and then you’ll hop aboard the 4×4 vehicle and drive up into the mountains. Your guide will tell you stories from Otago’s pioneer history and the gold rush era. Enjoy a delicious picnic with spectacular lake and mountain views.
Half-Day Level 2 Waterfall Climbing from Wanaka
Get the adrenaline pumping with this half day adventurous tour. Climb steel ladders and cross high, narrow bridges over waterfalls, swim in hidden natural pools and enjoy a picnic lunch beside beautiful falls. While no experience is required and full safety briefings are given, this trip is best suited to active travelers who are sure-footed and unafraid of heights.
Jet Boat and Wilderness Walk Tour from Wanaka
Speed along the Matukituki River in Mount Aspiring National Park during this exhilarating jet-boat ride. Admire spectacular landscapes, then hike past forests, waterfalls, and glacier-fed streams before ending your tour.
Feel free like a bird and fly high above Lake Wanaka during this single or tandem flight.
Riverside Biking Tour Lake Wanaka
Go on a stunning guided bike ride along the banks of one of NZ’s most beautiful and powerful rivers. Beautiful vistas and plenty of photo opportunities make this a must do trip for hike and nature lovers. A medium level of fitness is required for this 10 kilometre ride.
Best places to stay in Wanaka
Wānaka is a super nice alpine town to stay and a great base to explore the beauty of Mount Aspiring National Park. With stunning views on Lake Wānaka and the surroundings mountain peaks, there is plenty of choice in self contained apartments, vacation homes or hotels. Find here the best places to stay in Wanaka.
Lakeside Luxury 2 Bedroom Apartment
This gorgeous 2 bedroom apartment is a home away from home with all the amenities you need and a stunning view on Lake Wanaka. With a fully equipped kitchen including dishwasher, a patio with incredible mountain and lake views, a shared indoor pool and closely located to Wanaka town, this luxury apartment is everything you need.
The Edgewater Hotel is great value for money with studios that have stunning mountain and lake views. With a day spa, sauna, tennis court and a a restaurant and cafe, there is nothing you will miss during your stay at the Edgewater Hotel.
Located on a 15 minute drive from Wanaka town, Hawea Hotel is a great budget friendly option. You can still stay close to Wanaka and have lake views, but then on Lake Hawea. All hotel rooms, as well as the on-site restaurant and bar, feature beautiful lake and mountain views. The rooms include a flat-screen TV, private bathroom, a desk and a small seating area.
More New Zealand travel guides
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about the Isthmus Peak hike. Make sure to put this awesome hike on your New Zealand South Island itinerary!
There are many amazing other things to do and places to visit on the South Island of New Zealand. So if you’re looking for more inspiration and ideas, head over to our other New Zealand travel guides and read more!
Fiordland National Park
Matai Falls – The Complete Guide