The freezing cold wind whipped around us as we tried to keep our footing at the top, holding on to the summit marker for a little more stability. We had spent hours clambering up seemingly endless inclines and what lay all around us was our reward. A vast blue lake opened up below, so large that we couldn’t quite make out where it ended. Above, the sky was divided up by the formidable row of mountains, the peaks of which still carried a layer of snow.
I’ve been on many hikes before, but this was easily one of the most beautiful summits I have ever seen.
Chris and I knew that we wanted to do a number of hikes while we were in New Zealand but we had been a bit unlucky in these pursuits. We tried to do the Tongariro Crossing on two separate occasions, only to be told, both times, that the track had to be closed due to bad weather. To make ourselves feel better, we vowed to do one of Wanaka’s most famous hikes instead. When we arrived in Wanaka, however, we found out that the Roys Peak track had just been closed due to the start of the lambing season.
By this point, we had plenty of reason to feel sorry for ourselves but, thankfully, someone at the Wanaka Tourism Office had a solution. She suggested that we try out Isthmus Peak, which is just a short drive away from central Wanaka. She gave us plenty of information about the track itself, and warned us that it was one of the area’s more strenuous options. But, after the disappointment of Tongariro and then Roys Peak, there was no way that we were going to leave Wanaka without having done any hiking.
And I can’t express how glad I am that we went with this decision!
Before I get to the actual experience of the hike itself, here are some tips and things to note for anyone who’s planning on hiking Isthmus Peak.
– Before you go –
These will all seem fairly obvious, but they’re essential for hikers going up a trail that might feature adverse weather conditions. If Isthmus Peak is part of your New Zealand itinerary, remember to:
- Choose the right gear. Bring along sturdy shoes with decent grip. Secondly, even in summer, it’s a good idea to take a few different layers. Our trip fell in the spring, and much of the track is completely exposed to the elements. I brought along a thermal upper baselayer, a breathable sports top, as well as my North Face Triclimate 3-in-1 jacket (read my full review of this jacket); on the bottom I had my long hiking tights and thick woollen walking socks. If you’re after more packing tips, I’ve already written a guide to packing for an adventurous holiday.
- Bring enough water and food. This hike takes, on average, six hours to complete. Even if it’s cold, take plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated, as well as some lunch for a summit picnic. At the time of writing, there were no shops near the track’s parking lot and definitely none up on the mountain itself!
- Take along a small first aid kit, containing plasters, painkillers and a bandage (just in case). If you get into some serious issues, the number for New Zealand’s emergency services is 111.
- Always, always tell someone where you’re planning to hike and when you expect to return. This is just good hiking practice generally – and I just know that my mum loves getting messages like these in the middle of her evenings!
- Make sure you time your hike correctly. Check the weather the night before, and start your hike early so that you’ll have plenty of time to complete the trail safely.
– Climbing Isthmus Peak –
The parking lot for the track is about a 30-minute drive out of Wanaka. Driving with Lake Hawea on your right, you’ll come across a small space on the right-hand side of the road and a sign for Isthmus Peak. Note that there are no toilets located here, so it’s best to have your last toilet stop in Wanaka. There are also no toilet facilities on the trail. Once you’re ready, though, park up the car, leave anything unnecessary behind, and then cross the road to get to the start of the Isthmus Peak track.
The start of the Isthmus Peak walk is nice and gradual, taking you alongside fences until you find yourself strolling in farmland. There will be sheep and these parts of the trail will be grassy but this is where we started to get our first glimpses of the magnificent views that this hike is known for. At the start of the trail, Lake Hawea is in the spotlight, with views over the massive blue lake as you ascend the narrow farm track.
Isthmus Peak is memorable thanks to these views, but, for me, I can’t help but also instantly think of the variety of terrains this hike leads you on. There’s everything from grass to fine soil to rocks – hence my warning about bringing along good, sturdy shoes. Also, once you leave the sheep and paddocks behind, this is when Isthmus Peak becomes a lot more challenging. Expect steep gradients and long, long (LONG) uphills. I used to hike a lot with my Dad when I lived in South Africa, and I haven’t taken on a hike as challenging as Isthmus Peak since those regular hiking days.
Those uphills were tough and, honestly, at times it felt like they would never end. After we finished the hike, Chris even told me that he had wanted to tell me to go on without him, as he didn’t think he could carry on going up those inclines. But, with a few strategic breathers, it’s still completely doable. We spotted fellow hikers using walking sticks (actual sticks or the more professional variety too) but I think that the only way to get up Isthmus Peak is to find a pace you’re comfortable with and take breaks when you need to.
Plus, the views really start to get even more breathtaking the higher you go. We found ourselves walking past green paddocks, large fields of bushes and mountains that looked as though they were made of folds of fabric instead of solid ground. Up until this point, the lake took up most of the landscape, but once we had covered more ground, we turned a corner and the sky opened up. In the distance, we spotted mountain range upon mountain range of snow-capped peaks. Completely exposed to the elements, the way to the summit can be windy and cold, but, for most of that section, I felt like I couldn’t really believe that I was seeing these kinds of landscapes with my own eyes.
More variety awaited us up here, where the vegetation now took on hues of red and orange, which, when contrasted with the snowy mountains in the background, looked like an almost-alien terrain. Within the space of the almost three hours it took us to get up Isthmus Peak, I felt like we had seen all of the scenery for which New Zealand has become famous. These were the sorts of terrains I had seen in the Lord of the Rings films, which I readily admit were the visual catalysts for me wanting to travel to New Zealand in the first place.
The hike has one significant moment of deception, where you’ll think you’re approaching a summit, but this only leads on to a far-reaching path to the real track conclusion. If you stumble upon the sign below, though, I’m happy to confirm that you’re on the final stretch.
The rest of the track does have more steep uphills but, and I cannot emphasise this enough, all of that muscle pain we endured while on this hike was worth it, even if you’re only considering the Isthmus Peak summit in isolation. Ascending the last hill, we were at the top of Isthmus Peak. We could see Lake Wanaka, the second lake you can experience on this hike, as well as icy mountains as far as our eyes could strain into the distance. The freezing wind at the top took my breath away, and I can’t remember how long we stood at that summit marker, desperately trying to take it all in.
We settled down for our lunch of pies (a staple of our New Zealand road trip), fruit and chocolate bars. While we were sitting there, I thought back on the trail we had just experienced. Many of the hikes in the area allow walkers to see a lake, but Isthmus Peak is unique in that you can see both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka on a single track. Not only this, but we had felt completely rewarded for the physical exertion required to take on this hike. Yes, there were plenty of uphill climbs, but the surrounding scenery was some of the most stunning I’ve seen on any of the hikes I’ve completed before.
With our muscles suitably rested, we took a few more photos from the summit before starting the way back down. This hike isn’t a loop circuit, so you’ll be taking the exact same route as your return. But this means that we got to enjoy the reverse perspective on the views that we had so enjoyed on the way up.
Mercifully, I always find going downhill a lot easier than the ascent, but, after another two hours of stomping down steep paths, our legs were feeling a bit shaky. For those that are truly brave, the Isthmus Peak track is open for mountain biking but this is only advised for experienced cyclists. We spotted a couple zooming down one of the steeper gradients, and I knew that I would never be courageous enough to follow suit! I think I’ll always prefer having my feet firmly on the ground.
Before we knew it, we were back in the farmlands and then on the path to the parking lot.
Isthmus Peak is, without a doubt, one of the best and most spectacular hikes I’ve had the pleasure of taking on. If you’re in Wanaka and are looking for a challenging hike, I hope that this post – and specifically the photos – convince you to choose Isthmus Peak.
In the end, it may not have been the hike we had initially planned to do, but I’m so happy that fate intervened and we got to see the many wonders involved with a visit up Isthmus Peak.
It was as we were making our way back to the parking lot that I realised how much I had missed hiking. I used to hike every Sunday when I lived in Cape Town and, when I moved to London, this activity was no longer a part of my regular routine. After experiencing Isthmus Peak and other hikes in New Zealand, I have decided that, in the future, I will be making hiking a part of my life again, even if it means that I have to travel a bit to do so. So, you can expect to see more hiking posts from me in the future, including those surrounding a multi-day UK walking route that I’m planning to do in the summer of 2017.
Do you have a favourite hiking route? Or do you have a favourite track in New Zealand? Let me know in the comments below!
* Pin it for later: *