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Hiking the Isthmus Peak Track at Sunrise

Hiking the Isthmus Peak Track at Sunrise

We pulled up to the Roys Peak car park at 3.30 am, mentally (if not physically) prepared to tackle the daunting climb to one of New Zealand’s most iconic viewpoints. It was shut, so we pulled up by the side of the road and used our last remnants of mobile data to search for a Roys Peak alternative. We found the ideal back-up — a sunrise hike to the top of Isthmus Peak, which promised sweeping views of Lake Hāwea and Lake Wānaka. It didn’t disappoint.

The Isthmus Peak Track is closed annually from November 20 – December 20 for fawning

Sunrise on the Isthmus Peak Track

After getting a bit lost (more on that later), we finally started hiking the Isthmus Peak Track, guided by starlight and weak torches. It’s mostly uphill all the way, but the warm spring weather and the promise of something special ahead kept us in good spirits. We didn’t make it to the top for sunrise but you don’t really need to as the views are incredible most of the way up. The transition between night and day painted Lake Hāwea and the surrounding mountains in various lights and colours.

Sunrise on the Isthmus Peak Track, Wanaka, New ZealandLake Hawea from the Isthmus Peak Track, Wanaka, New Zealand

Reaching the Summit

The Isthmus Peak Track is an expert in deception. Just when you think you’re minutes away from the top another climb emerges. We pushed on and eventually made it to the turnoff for the final viewpoint. We had to trudge through some snow but after three hours we had made it to the top. The wind was howling by this point and it was freezing, so we took a few photos of Lake Wānaka and quickly headed back down the mountain.

READ MORE: 18 Fun Things to Do in Wānaka (including more hikes, viewpoints, a vineyard and a famous tree)

The views over Lake Wānaka are great, but Lake Hāwea is the real star of this hike. We also had the entire experience all to ourselves — we didn’t see anybody else until we were halfway back down the mountain. Roys Peak can get crowded, so this is the perfect, more off the beaten path alternative.

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Walks in Wānaka

Snow on the Isthmus Peak Track, Wanaka, New ZealandView of Lake Wanaka from Isthmus Peak, New Zealand

Tips for Hiking Isthmus Peak

  • Go early: Seeing the sunrise at Isthmus Peak is a fun experience and is worth getting up at a crazy hour for. It was nice walking up in the dark and the track was easy to follow.
  • Wear good shoes: The track is muddy in parts and there is often snow at the top.
  • Bring warm clothes: Isthmus Peak is exposed and the wind at the top can be really cold.

  • When is the best time of year to hike Isthmus Peak? We did it in late September (spring) and there was a still lot of snow around. You can do it at any time of year (except between November 20 and December 20, when it’s closed for fawning), but it might be best to avoid doing it at sunrise in winter (the photos would be amazing though).

Getting There

The start of the Isthmus Peak Track is located past Hawea on the road to Haast / the West Coast, around 30 minutes from Wānaka. It’s just after the Lake Hāwea Lookout and isn’t well signed. Look out on the right hand side of the road (if coming from Wānaka) — there’s a small sign and a car park. The track starts on the opposite side of the road (again, there’s just a small sign for the track). We drove straight past it first time around and it’s very easy to miss, especially in the dark.

READ MORE: Wānaka Itinerary: How to Spend Three – Seven Days in Wānaka

Are you planning a trip to Wānaka? Check out our Wānaka travel guide!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.