Early. It was VERY early. I was still half asleep when Jon and I approached the carpark of Roys Peak. Forgive me for taking advantage of the extra hour nap during the drive from Alexandra to Wanaka. Yes, I am lucky the lucky one. It was weirdly quiet. There were no cars in sight at this usually busy carpark. Then we saw the sign – the track was closed due to lambing season.
After all the anticipation from the night before, and the effort to wake up early to see the sunrise above a mountain, are we forced to turn back? Not willing to accept defeat (or plainly, we didn’t want to go all this way and not do anything), we quickly checked what alternative hikes we can do nearby. Luckily, Isthmus Peak was only a few minutes’ drive away and we have just enough time to get to the peak at sunrise too. We have read some great reviews of Isthmus Peak – some even claim they love it better than Roys Peak.
The Long and Windy Road to the Isthmus Peak Track
The start of the Isthmus Peak hike begins at State Highway 6, north of Lake Hawea and about 30 minutes’ drive from Wanaka township. It’s along the scenic road towards Haast – a familiar road. Maybe it was the time of day or the obscure location of the track marker but we missed the start of the track by a long way and there weren’t many safe places to maneuver to we had to turn back along the windy road towards Haast. It wasn’t a very enthusiastic start (for someone with motion sickness) to a long journey ahead but as usual, we venture on.
Hiking Under the Stars
With our dimly lit head torches, Jon and I started the hike towards Isthmus Peak. We were alone. It almost felt like an off the beaten track even though it’s so close to Wanaka. I had quickly forgotten the exhausting drive as we made our first few meters on the track. It was a nice clear night – the stars and the full moon shone brightly upon the track and from a distance, we could just see the lights from Lake Hawea. It was very special.
I’ve done a few sunrise hikes before and it’s always been a mix of emotions – it’s usually hard because you can hardly see anything, but it is also very exhilarating. It’s fun to take on these challenges especially after you’ve done one in the past. Your brain recognizes that all the hard work will pay off in the end and that your dark thoughts of hardship should be put in the back burner.
As with most hikes to peaks in New Zealand, the Isthmus Peak track is mostly uphill. The track goes along a 4WD track which seems to go on for ages. There are a lot of deceiving turns which make it look like you’re near the top but in reality, you’re not quite there yet.
A few hours later, we reached the final bit of the 4WD track and made it to a more natural, narrower terrain filled tussocks – in New Zealand, this meant we were were in high elevation. The cold wind brushed upon our faces. At this point, we were hoping the sun will come out sooner.
Sunrise on the Isthmus Peak Track
Given our late head start (due to getting lost looking for the start of the track), we welcomed the early morning sun along the track instead of at the peak. It was magnificent nonetheless as the views along the skyline ridges on the way up to the Isthmus Peak track overlooks the stunning Lake Hawea and the snow-capped southern alps.
Making it to Isthmus Peak
After savoring the views of Lake Hawea at sunrise, we ventured forward towards the top. The terrain was harder with parts of the track still covered in snow. This part of the track is a lot harder as you can pretty much go from anywhere since there are no clear markers along the track. We had to choose our path wisely and make sure we didn’t stray too far or lose our footing on the snowy parts.
Finally, we made it to the top. We made it to Isthmus Peak – this time, with spectacular view of Lake Wanaka and the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park. It was well worth it!
It was very cold and windy at the top of Isthmus Peak. While we wanted to stay and take a few more photos, the open terrain made it hard to stay warm enough while sitting down so we decided to catch a last glimpse of the lake and turn back early.
Isthmus Peak as an Alternative to Roys Peak
Isthmus Peak is great hike that equals that of Roys Peak. Majority of this track has expansive views of Lake Hawea (which you don’t see in Roys Peak) and Lake Wanaka. The Isthmus Peak track is also a lot quieter. We had the entire experience all to ourselves and we didn’t see anybody else until we were halfway back down the mountain. Roy’s Peak can get crowded, so this is the perfect, more off the beaten path alternative. In terms of hiking difficulty, they are roughly the same.
Travel Tips for Your Hike to Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak Track Details:
- We did the hike to Isthmus Peak in September (spring in New Zealand) and there was still a lot of snow around. The hike to Isthmus Peak (Elevation of 1,385masl) and distance of 16km took us about 6 hours return including taking lots of photos in between. The Department of Conservation (DOC) website notes the hike takes about 5 to 6 hours return.
- How close it it to the main town? The track starts at Stewart Creek car park is off SH6, north of Lake Hawea township and 30 minutes drive from Wanaka. Ideally, it’s best if you drive to the track with your own car.
- Is it difficult? It’s actually not too bad. The Department of Conservation notes this track as an advanced tramping track – meaning the track can be challenging at parts and also means this track is suitable for mountain biking. It’s quite hard on the legs as the trail is mostly uphill and steep in parts. There are also sections above the tussock that has ice so it is challenging but with a few breaks here and there, it’s doable. Note that there are parts where the marking is not so obvious, so some tramping experience is ideal.
When to Do the Isthmus Peak Hike:
- Time your hike right. You can choose to do this at sunrise like we did so you can take advantage of the cool mornings. You can check the time for sunrise at MetService. The light is amazing early in the day but if you want to see Lake Hawea from the start, a midday start is also a great idea. Note that the track also gets busy later in the day (as many who avoid the crows in Roys Peak go here) so best to do this hike early.
- Choose your season wisely. The terrain here is pretty all year round even without snow on the mountains. Note though that track is closed for fawning from the 20 November and 20 December each year. In winter and early spring, conditions are a lot harder different, you may need to carry and be able to use alpine equipment and have some avalanche knowledge when you reach avalanche terrain. Find out more about this on the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory website or check with the Mt Aspiring National Park Visitor Centre in town.
- Check the weather before you go. For weather updates across New Zealand, MetService is the most reliable website.
What to Wear:
- Wear appropriate clothes and footwear. The trail is in open terrain so make sure to wear appropriate clothes to keep you warm and dry (a waterproof / windproof jacket is a must when you reach the top). The weather changes rapidly in this region. Hypothermia is said to be real risk even in summer. Gloves and a hat will come pretty handy too to keep you warm. Wear sturdy footwear (possibly waterproof) as parts of the track are quite rough and uneven.
What to Bring:
- Protect yourself from the harsh sun. Wear sunscreen or bring one along with you as the track is exposed (New Zealand sun is quite extreme so it’s easy to get sun burnt).
- Bring a head torch (choose on with high lumens).
- Bring enough food and water with you. There is nowhere to fill the water along the whole track.
Other Travel Tips:
- I don’t recall any toilet facilities on this track so best to get sorted, drive to the nearest public toilet facilities before heading to the car park.
You cannot camp at Isthmus Peak.
- What other nearby hikes can I do? You can do Roys Peak, Diamond Lake and the Rocky Mountain Track or other walks in Mount Aspiring National Park.
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Do you have plans to do the hike to Isthmus Peak in Wanaka? Let us know.