Lake Tekapo / Mackenzie Basin

16 Fun Things to Do in Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin

If you’re travelling through the mountain areas of the central South Island, then you’ll almost definitely end up in Lake Tekapo at some point. It’s one of the most popular South Island tourist towns and the surrounding area, known as the Mackenzie Basin (or Mackenzie Country), is full of interesting sights. Mountain vistas are the name of the game in these parts and I’ll aim to show you some of the best places to see them. Keep reading for all the best things to do in Lake Tekapo (the town) and the Mackenzie Basin!

The Best Things to Do in Lake Tekapo

These places are all either in Lake Tekapo itself or a very short drive away. Lake Tekapo is a good place to base yourself if you’re spending a few days in the area and there is quite a bit to do in town.

Church of the Good Shepherd

The Church of the Good Shepherd is surely New Zealand’s most photographed church, which means it can get overrun. It’s best to see it either before or after the tour buses arrive, with sunrise being the perfect time. The church sits right next to the lake and is located in town, so it’s very easy to visit.

Things to do in Lake Tekapo -- Church of the Good Shepherd

Mount John Observatory

This small mountain overlooking Lake Tekapo is either a short drive from town or an hour’s walk. The views at the top, and from the road up there, are stunning – if you’re short on time and can only do one or two things in Lake Tekapo I’d highly recommend going to Mount John Observatory. There’s a cafe up there too — such a cool spot for a coffee!

Lake Tekapo attractions -- Mount John Observatory, New Zealand

This is also one of the spots where you can stargaze in Lake Tekapo. Tours start from town and take you up the hill where (assuming the sky is clear) you’ll get front row seats to the galaxy. Lake Tekapo is a dark sky reserve, meaning there is little to no light pollution – stargazing in New Zealand won’t get much better than this.

Photo provided by Dark Sky Project

The Peninsula Walkway

The Peninsula Walkway is another one of my favourite things to do in Lake Tekapo. It’ll take around two hours to complete and the views, especially in winter, are as good as you’ll see in the region. If you’re feeling a little lazy you can drive to a small car park (just before Adrian’s Place, which is marked on Google Maps) and walk up the hill, which is the end point of the hike.

Things to do in Lake Tekapo -- the Peninsula Walkway

Lupins

Lupins are big plants (part of the legume family) with bright purple and pink flowers and they can be found in Lake Tekapo in summer. The best time to see them is late November / early December and they do make for an interesting foreground to the mountains beyond.

Lupins in the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand

Tekapo Springs

You’ll likely be doing some hikes if visiting this area (including Mount Cook National Park), so a relaxing hour or two in a hot pool could be just the ticket. Tekapo Springs is one of the most popular Lake Tekapo attractions and is located a short walk or drive from the main part of town.

Tekapo Springs hot pools, New Zealand

The Lakefront

The Lakefront area in Lake Tekapo (the town) makes for a good spot to grab some takeaways and eat your dinner or lunch. You can get a view of the lake from a couple of the cafes and bars, but the town is set back quite far from the lake – so much room for development, I guess! There are also tracks which take you all the way from Tekapo Springs to the camping grounds at the northern end of the foreshore.

Lake Tekapo foreshore area, New Zealand

Lake Alexandrina / Lake McGregor

These twin lakes both feature camping grounds and are a short drive from town (past the turnoff to Mount John / the Peninsula Walkway on Godly Peaks Road). It’s worth going for a quick look after visiting those place – there are a couple of short tracks above the Lake Alexandrina which offer up great views of both, as well as Lake Tekapo in the background.

Lake McGregor and Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Scenic Drives

The drive out to Mount John and Lake Alexandrina is highly recommended, but the other side of the lake (the road to Double Hill Ski Area) is also fun to drive. You’ll see plenty of lake and mountain views and you won’t have to share them with many others!

The scenic drive to the top of Mount John, New ZealandA scenic drive near Lake Tekapo, NZ

Things to Do in the Mackenzie Basin

The Mackenzie Basin / Mackenzie Country region starts close to Fairlie (2.5 hours from Christchurch) and goes as far as Lake Ohau (I think – the borders are a bit confusing) and includes some of the prettiest (and bluest) lakes in New Zealand.

Lake Opuha

Lake Opuha, near Fairlie, is a man-made lake / dam and is especially scenic in winter. You can drive the gravel road to the dam for some of the best views in the region, or head to the lake front where hopefully you’ll see snow-capped mountains reflected in the calm water.

Lake Opuha, one of the best places to see in the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand

Fairlie Bakehouse

New Zealand doesn’t have a massive food culture, but pies are the exception. We love our pies in New Zealand and Fairlie has some of the best in New Zealand. Try the roast pork and apple sauce pie, or any flavour from Fairlie Bakehouse – so good!

A Fairlie Bakehouse pie -- one of the best pies in NZ!

Burkes Pass

Located between Fairlie and Lake Tekapo, the tiny historic settlement of Burkes Pass is home to some cool old buildings and Three Creeks, a little shopping area which looks straight out of a long-lost era. It mainly specialises in vintage products (with a big car theme) and is a fun place to wander.

Burkes Pass, Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand

Lake Pukaki

You’ll pass by Lake Pukaki, New Zealand’s bluest lake (I imagine – I haven’t quite seen them all) when driving between Lake Tekapo and Twizel or Mount Cook. There are lots of places to stop and enjoy the views, with the best section being along the scenic road to Mount Cook.

Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Twizel

Twizel makes for a good (aka cheaper) alternative to staying in Lake Tekapo. The town itself is alright but isn’t quite as pretty as its more famous friend. It is a lot closer to Mount Cook though, so if you’re planning to do some hiking in that area and then continue to Queenstown via Lindis Pass it’s a good option. There are a few walks in and around town, with my favourite being the tracks around and above Lake Ruataniwha.

Twizel -- one of the main towns in the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand

Lake Ohau

The drive to Lake Ohau is one of the most scenic in New Zealand, assuming you do it in winter when there is snow all around. I haven’t done it in summer but I’m sure it’s still nice. The lake itself is stunning and there are a few walks to do. There’s also a ski field if you happen to visit in winter or early spring.

The scenic road to Lake Ohau

Lake Poaka

Lake Poaka is the closest freedom camping spot to Mount Cook and is the perfect place to stay if you want to save some money (and have a car or tent to sleep in). It’s a short drive down a rough gravel road and there is heaps of room to park up – it’s a very peaceful spot!

Lake Poaka, a nice freedom camping spot in the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand

Mount Cook National Park

Don’t visit the Mackenzie Basin and not visit Mount Cook National Park! Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand and the national park features some incredible places to see in such a small area. The best way to see this area is on one of the many hikes. The Hooker Valley Track is the most famous but also check out the Red Tarns, Mueller Hut and the Kea Point Track.

The Tasman Glacier Track is another short walk I highly recommend. It goes up to a viewpoint overlooking Tasman Lake and Glacier and then down to the edge of the lake where you should see some icebergs. Such a pretty spot!

Ahuriri Valley

We haven’t been to this place yet but it’s on the list. It seems like a really nice place to drive and camp if you have a self-contained vehicle. It’s pretty off the beaten path but I’ll let you know more about it in the next few months.

After reading this post (or let’s be honest, just looking at the photos) I’m sure you’ll agree that this region is one of the most iconic in the country and should be close to the top of your South Island itinerary. If you need more help planning your trip or want to ask me anything about travelling in New Zealand, leave a comment below or shoot me an email.

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.
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