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Top 12 Lakes in the South Island, New Zealand

Top 12 Lakes in the South Island, New Zealand

You’ll find some of the best scenery in New Zealand surrounding the lakes of the Southern Alps. From Fiordland National Park to the Nelson Lakes — here are the top 12 New Zealand South Island Lakes!

Lake Heron

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Hakatere Conservation Park, Lake Heron is beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. We visited in winter and it was pretty much deserted. There’s a small village there (including a camping ground) and there are heaps more lakes nearby on the road to Mount Sunday, including Lake Clearwater and Lake Emily.

Lake Marian

Located in Fiordland National Park, a short distance from Milford Sound, Lake Marian is a small lake surrounded by world-class scenery. It’s a bit of a walk to get there (three hours return) but you’ll be rewarded with one of the best lake views in New Zealand! The track takes you past Lake Marian Falls, a big set of rapids / waterfalls that are worth a visit even if you aren’t hiking the whole way to the lake.

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo (the town and the lake are both called that) has long been the most popular lake destination in the Canterbury section of the Southern Alps. It’s easy to see why — the lake is stunning and you’ll get nice views from the main beach in town.

You’ll want to see it from above as well though — for that I’d recommend Mount John Observatory (you can walk up for free or pay $5 per car to drive towards the observatory), the road to Lake Alexandrina and the Peninsula Walkway.

Lake Te Anau

The gateway to Fiordland National Park, Te Anau sits on the scenic shores of its namesake lake. Boat trips on Lake Te Anau are a highlight, especially the one that takes you to the start of the Milford Track.

Lake Te Anau looks great from town too, and a trip across a different section of the lake takes you to a glow worm cave. It’s a really fun tour, definitely worth splashing out on if visiting Te Anau (not an ad — we paid our own way). You’ve also got two Great Walks starting in Te Anau — the view of the lake from Luxmore Hut (Kepler Track) is a highlight.

Lake Mackenzie

This is by far the hardest lake to visit on this list as it’s located in the middle of the Routeburn Track, a three-day hiking trail starting near Glenorchy (Queenstown) and finishing on the road to Milford Sound.

You get an amazing view of Lake Mackenzie from the track, and you’ll sleep near it at Mackenzie Hut. Such a nice place to relax after a hard day of walking!

Lake Manapouri

Lake Manapouri has long been known as the most beautiful lake in New Zealand. I’m not sure who came up with that, but they weren’t far off the money.

It is a beautiful lake, whether you’re viewing it from town (Frasers Beach is one of my favourite NZ Lake beaches), a boat heading towards Doubtful Sound or from one of the hiking trails nearby (Circle Track / Kepler Track).

Lake Matheson

You can walk around this small West Coast lake in an hour or so, and if you’re lucky you’ll be treated to one of the best views in New Zealand. On a still day you’ll see the Southern Alps, including Mount Cook, reflecting in the calm waters of Lake Matheson.  Definitely a must-do when travelling around the West Coast!

Lake Pukaki

The road to Mount Cook follows Lake Pukaki for most of its length — it’s a huge reason why this is one of the most iconic scenic drives in the country.

Lake Pukaki is the “Bluest” of New Zealand’s large lakes and makes for a beautiful foreground to the snow-capped mountains surrounding it. One of those is Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in the country.

Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti, the northernmost lake on this list, loses points in most people’s eyes due to the rampant sand flies that call it home. Don’t let that put you off though, especially if you’re visiting in winter and are keen for a hike.

Lake Rotoiti, New Zealand

Some of my favourite lake views in New Zealand are found on the trails above Lake Rotoiti — check out our posts about the St Arnaud Range Track and the Mount Robert Circuit

Mount Robert Circuit Track, Nelson Lakes, New Zealand

It’s worth a visit just for the views in town though — the main pier is a popular place! There’s also an impressive waterfall at the other end of Lake Rotoiti (Whisky Falls).

Tasman Lake

This is one of the smaller entries on our list of the top South Island beaches. A short walking track takes you to a series of viewpoints overlooking Tasman Lake, with  Tasman Glacier and some of the tallest mountains in New Zealand as a backdrop. 

Head down to lake level for more views and icebergs!

Lake Wanaka

It was a tough choice between the top two lakes on this list, with Lake Wanaka just losing out. It’s definitely not a loser though — look at these views!

The lake looks awesome from the beach in town, and there are also several walks where you’ll see it all unfolding beneath you (Roys Peak / Isthmus Peak being the most famous).

Stunning view of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak, New Zealand

One of the most scenic vineyards in New Zealand has a great view over Lake Wanaka, and you’ll get plenty more views if driving towards Haast (and the road to Rob Roy Glacier). You can also head to Mou Waho Island for another awesome view.

Lake Wakatipu

Our top South Island lake is Lake Wakatipu! No surprises really, considering the quality and quantity of views you’ll see of it. There are day walks above the lake, scenic drives around it and there are three towns sitting on its shores (Queenstown, Glenorchy and Kingston), meaning you barely need to make an effort to see stunning views.

You can also head out on the water (jet boats, cruises, kayaks) or enjoy the view the balcony of your hotel. You’ll never get bored of Lake Wakatipu, and you’ll never run out of walking tracks and viewpoints to discover.


South Island Lakes that Missed the Cut

Lake Hawea, Lake Coleridge, Lake Clearwater, Lake Hayes, Lake Rotoroa, Lake Hauroko, Lake Alta and Lake Ohau.

Any of these eight lakes could be on this list — as could plenty more that I haven’t even mentioned. Of course I haven’t been to every South Island lake — there is always more to explore. One that probably would make this list is Blue Lake, high up in the Nelson Lakes National Park. It apparently has the clearest water in New Zealand — we’ll definitely get there one day!

What are your top South Island lakes? Let us know in the comments below!

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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.