When it comes to hiking near Wanaka it’s Isthmus Peak’s time to shine. For years (and still to this day) everyone hikes up Roys Peak for sunrise and sunset to get the iconic view overlooking Lake Wanaka.

And while that is an incredible hike for sure, it is also one of the most crowded hikes in all of New Zealand!

What we recommend also doing (or doing instead depending on how much time you’ve got in Wānaka), is hiking on the other side of the lake instead to the top of Isthmus Peak!

This hike is equally as amazing but with a lot fewer people which makes for a way cooler experience in our opinion.

Isthmus Peak is a lot less known to tourists and it really feels like a hidden gem when hiking in Wanaka.

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Everything you need to know about Isthmus Peak near Wanaka

Quick breakdown of your trip:

  • 🚗 Getting there: The trailhead to Isthmus Peak is located 25-30 minutes from Wānaka. The easiest way is to go by car. If you need a car rental, check out DiscoverCars for the best rates from Queenstown (or another airport city).
  • 🏨 Where to stay: The best place to stay near Isthmus Peak is in Wanaka. There are plenty of great hotels as well as hostels if you’re on a budget (we recommend Adventure Wanaka Hostel to get the most bang for your buck).
  • 🎟️ Fees: You do not need a permit to do this hike & parking is free.
  • ☀️ Best time to visit: January through March (peak summer)

If you want to avoid massive crowds while still getting awesome views near Wanaka then this is the hike to do!

One day we’ll write a post comparing Roy’s Peak and Isthmus Peak but this post is going to be focusing only on Isthmus Peak – the local gem that not many tourists and travellers know about.

This is a relatively challenging hike but you get some absolutely incredible 360-degree view from the top overlooking Lake Wanaka and Lake Hãwea.

Besides the crazy wild wind we had, we loved this hike. If you’re looking for a hike near Wānaka with some incredible views without big crowds, this is a must-do!

Please note: You’ll be hiking on private property for a section of this trail. So just like any other hike make sure to respect the land you’re hiking on! 

Practical information about Isthmus Peak 

Distance: 15.8 km return / 9.81 miles return
Elevation: 1155 m / 3789 ft. elevation gain
Type: In-and-out trail
Length: 6-7 hours return
Difficulty: Hard (this is an absolute leg burner of a trek)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Click here to see a trail map for Isthmus Peak

Hiking Tip: Look up the trail on AllTrails before starting your hike 🗺️. You can find important trail information such as recent wildlife sights and trail closures. Check out the free version here or get a 7-day free trial of AllTrails+ here.

Here’s a picture of the beginning of Isthmus Peak

Starting the hike at the Isthmus Peak trailhead 

The trailhead for Isthmus Peak isn’t that obvious when driving down Highway 6 towards The Neck and we actually drove past it while looking for it.

However, once you know where it is, it makes sense (so don’t think it’s impossible to find).

The best advice we can give is to add the directions into your Google Maps and once you get close, start slowing down slightly.

You’ll see a little car park on the right-hand side (if you’re driving from Wanaka or Lake Hawea) just before reaching a corner, likely with a few cars parked, and that’s the best place to stop.

Once you’ve found the parking lot though, it’s pretty straightforward from there.

Just walk along the road in the direction of Wanaka for a few minutes and then on the right-hand side (so opposite the lake), you’ll see a trail marker.

It’s quite fun because as you’re starting the hike, you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into… You see some mountains but you can’t see Isthmus Peak! We promise you, you’re in for a treat though.

It’s very New Zealandesque with these nice-but-not-extreme mountains (compared to Canada where Dom grew up) that are quite lush and green with sheep grazing and deer roaming around. 

Prepare yourself for a bit of an uphill

Very quickly you’ll notice there’s going to be a ton of elevation on this one! But to get the amazing views, you’re going to have to battle through a little (or a lot) of elevation to get yourself to the top! 😉

We’re not saying it to scare you off but just to prepare you as there are over 1100 meters of elevation gain over the span of less than 8 km which is a lot.

Even for us, we were quite surprised with how much there was. Thankfully, the trail is easy to follow and easy to walk on. As long as you take your time and put one foot in front of the other, you’ll be fine.

There’s one little stretch early on on Isthmus Peak where it feels like a bit of a scramble but it’s very short and really not hard if you have the proper footwear!

We read a lot of reviews about this section with people saying it’s sketchy and everything but it is a wide surface with some rocks and boulders you have to walk up and they’re really not as bad as people say.

Unless it’s raining and the surface is slippery, there’s nothing to worry about.

Up the zig-zags towards Isthmus Peak

Yes, some more uphill! I’ll tell you what though. At least for us, these zig zags felt different than a lot of other hikes we’ve done around the world.

The main thing being that you’re hiking in the complete open on these grassy trails. The whole way up you continue to get a better and better view of Lake Hāwea.

Every zig and every zag you conquer, the view starts to get better and better.

That might also mean that the wind doesn’t get stronger and stronger (we had crazy winds when hiking Isthmus Peak) but the views make up for it!

It’s a continuous and steady uphill climb but it’s worth it. You’ll be hiking on a combination of packed rock/dirt and also through some nice lush grass with sheep and deer roaming next to you.

It’s truly the most New Zealand experience you could imagine!

Continue to the T-intersection 

Follow the trail markers to Isthmus Peak

As you get past the zig-zags the landscape starts to change a bit as you get closer to the peaks. 

It starts to become a bit more rough and rocky like you expect the mountains to be. You still get a bit of the bush and greenery but it’s a lot less as you gain elevation.

Good news! There’s actually a toilet on this stretch of the trail (or a porter potty we should say). We can’t promise that it’s in the best condition or that it doesn’t smell, but it’s there!

Once you’ve passed the “toilet”, you’ll start to get a good sense of where Isthmus Peak is and now it’s not that much further to the top.

There is only one trail you don’t want to miss and it’s when you get to the ridge you’ll see a T-intersection.

When you get to the T-intersection, make sure to turn right! That will lead you to Isthmus Peak.

Last stretch to Isthmus Peak

The last and final stretch is pretty chill as it’s mostly a ridge walk and you can see the top of Isthmus which is really motivating.

This ridge section is probably one of our favourite parts of the whole hike. You have Lake Hāwea on one side and Lake Wānaka on the other and it’s just breathtaking.

On a clear day, you’ll get an incredible view of both lakes and all of the mountain peaks surrounding you. 

With views on both sides and Isthmus Peak in front of you, it makes for a pretty epic view!

The only downside for us was the amount of wind but it sure wasn’t stopping us from making it to the peak! And it is not windy like that every day – so just make sure you check the weather before going!

We probably could have spent all day taking pictures and enjoying the view but we had to get down and back to Wanaka before the cafes closed for the day! 😉

Take in the view from Isthmus Peak

As soon as you get to the viewpoint from the top of Isthmus Peak you’ll have some time to catch your breath and enjoy the views. All the elevation, zig-zags, and sore legs are now worth it!

The view from the top offers a crazy panoramic view of the whole area and on a clear day, you can really see everything! 

You should also be able to see Mou Waho island in the middle of Lake Wanaka (this is an awesome day trip by the way).

Make sure to pack some snacks to enjoy up at the viewpoint as well as your camera so you can snap some cool pictures because the views truly are breathtaking. 

Lake Hawea as seen from Isthmus Peak

I mean it’s something we say about so many of the hikes in New Zealand but it’s so true.

The landscapes all around the country are just magical. We’re definitely biased because we love the country but man, the views you get on some of these hikes are epic.

Honestly, out of all the hikes we’ve done around Wanaka, we wouldn’t be lying if we said Isthmus Peak takes the cake! 

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Back down the mountain to the parking lot

The view on the way down is pretty epic too!

Since this is an in-and-out hike, you just head back down the same way you came up!

The good thing is you’ll end up getting down the mountain about 2-3x faster than the way up (we did at least).

Except for a few sections, the descent isn’t too crazy so you can make your way down quite quickly.

You also get the view of Lake Hāwea the whole way down which is pretty awesome.

In a way, it’s like hiking down from Wye Creek near Queenstown where you have a view of a beautiful lake the whole way down.

Soon enough you’ll be back walking amongst the lush green grass and, before you know it, you’ve completed the hike!

What to bring on the Isthmus Peak hike

When someone asks if you want a picture together, of course you say yes!

Other than Wanaka and the small town of Lake Hawea, there really isn’t anything near the hike, so you’ll want to make sure you pack everything you need before you leave!

It’s a good 6-7 hour hike so you’ll want to make sure you come prepared with water, food and snacks for the whole trek.

Even on a sunny day, it’s worth bringing some extra clothes up near the peak. It can be warm as you start the hike but up near the peak it can get quite windy and cold.

And even if it is cold at the top, the sun can still be really sharp. There’s almost no coverage on this entire hike, so make sure you bring a hat and some sunscreen to protect yourself from the sun!

You can see the weather for Isthmus Peak here.

Packing list for the Isthmus Peak hike:

  • Water! We always bring our LifeStraw bottles before hikes and day trips (and even during them when we can). On this hike, you’ll have to fill up your bottles(!) beforehand as there is no running water you can refill it in. We suggest bringing at least 2 litres (0.5 gallons).  
  • Sunscreen!! There have been multiple occasions when we’ve been hiking in New Zealand and the UV index has shown between 8-10. 
  • Since this hike has a lot of incline (over 1100 meters) we highly recommend bringing hiking poles on this trail!
  • A power bank is also good to bring on this hike – especially if you’re planning to use your phone both for taking photos & videos as well as navigation back to Wānaka (or towards Haast) after.
  • Definitely bring some snacks or food to enjoy at the top of Isthmus Peak. There are a few other good viewpoints along the way where you can snack as well!
  • Any extra clothes in case it gets a little chilly up at a higher elevation (even during the summer) and a sunhat to protect yourself from the strong UV. 

The best affordable camera for beginners

The Sony Alpha a6000 mirrorless camera

If you’re looking for the best and most affordable camera for beginners, check out the Sony Alpha a6000 Camera.

This is the camera we’ve been using for years and still use to this day.

It’s perfect for travelling and super easy to use – even if you’re a beginner.

Before you make your way up to the peak

Check the weather

The main thing before considering hiking to the peak is to check the weather in the area – especially since the peak is located at 1390 m and is quite exposed!

If the forecast looks clear and there’s no precipitation or crazy winds, then you should be good to go.

You can see the weather for Isthmus Peak here.

Wear hiking shoes

We wear hiking shoes or trail shoes (as long as they have a good grip) on pretty much every hike we do in New Zealand.

This is a proper trek and even though the track is quite well maintained you’ll want good grip and support for this in-and-out trail in the mountains.

If you don’t have any hiking shoes, we highly recommend the Newton Ridge hiking shoes from Columbia. Jo just got these recently and she loves them!

Leave no trace

When you go hiking (and do other outdoor adventure activities), always remember to follow the 7 principles of leaving no trace.

This means:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of others.

Rent a car in New Zealand 

The SUV we rented from Queenstown Airport (at Wye Creek Hike)

For this specific hike, a car is required since you have to make your way from Wanaka to the trailhead.

We’ve had a car hire here in New Zealand for our whole trip and it’s been really nice and convenient, especially getting to some of these lesser touristy hikes like this one.

We usually book our rental through DiscoverCars since it’s an award-winning car rental booking app with over 100.000 positive reviews on Trustpilot.

We’ve probably used them close to 10 times at this point and have never had any issues.

The longer ahead you book your rental, the more likely you are to get a better price. You can look into car hire in New Zealand here.

Queenstown Car Rental widget.

When is the best time to hike up to Isthmus Peak?

On a clear sunny day! No, but seriously this hike is quite exposed so you really want a nice clear, sunny, and not windy day to do it – otherwise it can feel quite extreme.

You’ll be very exposed on the mountain and it’s a lot nicer to hike up to the peak on a good summer day!

Of course, you don’t want to go when it’s too hot either because, as we said, you’ll be very exposed. If the forecast is looking super hot, consider going early in the morning to avoid being on the peak mid-day.

If the weather isn’t looking promising it’s maybe best to stay around Wanaka and check out the Mount Iron Track or another trail in the area.

Mount Iron is a lot shorter and if the weather turns bad, you can quickly get off the “mountain”! 

How to get to the Isthmus Peak trailhead

The trailhead is a short 25-30 minute drive from Wanaka. You’ll be driving north along the beautiful Lake Hāwea which you’ll get awesome views of while hiking up the zig-zags along the hike.

The parking lot can be missed (at least we did at first) but, hopefully, this post helps guide you there – and there will likely be some other cars parked there as well.

If you use these Google Maps directions, it will also lead right to the parking lot of Isthmus Peak.

From the parking lot, the trailhead is basically right across the road. There are a few signs pointing in the right direction toward the trailhead!

📍 Want to know about all the best spots in Aotearoa New Zealand?
Then check out our New Zealand Maps with +200 locations around the country that we have visited during our 8 months of living and travelling in NZ! 🗺️

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Recap of hiking Isthmus Peak near Wanaka

I think we can all agree that the hikes and mountains around Wanaka are incredible!

There’s so much outdoor stuff to do in the Otago region of the South Island and the Isthmus Peak will give you a good taste of how awesome this area is.

Make sure to plan accordingly based on the weather and know it can change quickly in the mountains.

Otherwise, enjoy this epic hike and let us know what you think of Isthmus compared to Roy’s Peak if you’ve now done them both!

If you have any questions about hiking Isthmus Peak, how to get there, what else to do in the Wanaka area, or anything else related to New Zealand, feel free to DM us on Instagram or leave a comment below!

We hope you have an amazing time on this hike near Wanaka and in New Zealand. It’s one of our favourite places in the world!

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2 Comments

  1. lita on May 9, 2024 at 1:30 am

    Wait I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about this hike, it’s SO GORGEOUS!! I am definitely saving this, I hope to go back to New Zealand sometime soon and there is no way I don’t do that hike.

    • Josefine Mai Kraemer on May 9, 2024 at 9:44 am

      Hey Lita,

      It’s such a fun hike and I love that you get away from all the crowds and everything. You also get stunning views of both lakes which is a huge plus!

      -Dom

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