The Southern Alps, with its snowy peaks and glistening lakes and rivers, is the star attraction for nature loving visitors to the South Island. Full of hiking trails below, over and around mountains of all shapes and sizes, the Southern Alps has 11 entries on our top 12 mountains in the South Island list, the other being one you can drive to the top of in Dunedin.
Top 12 Mountains in the South Island
I’ve organised these by how easy they are to summit. You can drive to the top of the first two, the next seven you can hike up while the final three are for proper mountaineering only.
Mount Cargill (676 m)
Drive to the top of Mount Cargill for beautiful 360-degree views of Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula and the coastline stretching north from Blueskin Bay.
There are a couple of tracks up to the top, one which goes via the Organ Pipes and Buttars Peak. If you’re looking for views and adventure in Dunedin Mount Cargill is hard to beat.
Mount John (1031 m)
Mount John is another South Island mountain you can drive to the top of, or you can walk up from Lake Tekapo village. Go during the day and you’ll get to enjoy a coffee with a grand view over the lake along with some short tracks and viewpoints. After dark you can go on a stargazing tour at Mount John Observatory. The Mackenzie Basin is a Dark Sky Reserve — there are few better places to see the night sky come to life!
Mount Robert (1421 m)
Mount Robert is an easy mountain to climb in Nelson Lakes National Park. This area is famous for sandflies, so you may want to head for the mountain tops to escape them!
Conical Hill (1515 m) + Key Summit (918 m)
A detour from the Routeburn Track takes you to the summit of Conical Hill, which overlooks the Hollyford Valley and many of Fiordland’s peaks. It’s a good detour if you have the energy, but don’t worry too much if you skip it as the Routeburn Track is pretty much just spectacular view after spectacular view.
Key Summit is on the Fiordland side of the Routeburn Track and can easily be done as a day walk when visiting Milford Sound.
Mount Peel (1743 m)
Towering above the plains of South Canterbury, Mount Peel makes for a fun and challenging hike. There are three peaks (Little, Middle and Big), with most people happy to call it a day at Little Mount Peel. Even that exhausted us.
I first hiked Mount Peel when I was a kid growing up in Timaru. After struggling up it as an adult I’m pretty sure there’s no way I would have made it as a kid — our teachers probably just took us to the first viewpoint!
Mount Roy (1578 m)
Mount Roy, better known as Roys Peak, is a popular hiking spot in Wānaka. It gained a reputation on social media (not surprising when you see photos of it) and soon became one of those trails people avoid because it’s too busy and full of influencers.
We did in 2018 for sunrise, right at the peak of its Instagram fame. It wasn’t that busy (the early start helped) and we had a perfect morning. It’s still one of our top New Zealand hiking experiences.
Isthmus Peak (1385 m)
Isthmus Peak is the other popular mountain hike near Wānaka — we hiked it in 2017 after realising Roys Peak was closed for maintenance. It was a great backup, with a more interesting track and better variety of views than Roys Peak. You can see Lake Hāwea, Lake Wānaka and countless mountains surrounding them. We did it at sunrise (in winter) — so cold but we had it all to ourselves.
READ MORE: 10 of the Best Walks in Wānaka
Alex Knob (1303 m)
The summit of Alex Knob provides the best view of Franz Josef Glacier — you’ll have to work for it though! The track heads steadily up through the forest for hours (with a couple of openings along the way) until you get to the bush line where you’ll be treated to some of the best mountain views New Zealand has to offer.
READ MORE: 11 of the Best Things to Do in Franz Josef
Ben Lomond (1748 m)
Ben Lomond is a short walk (or gondola ride) from downtown Queenstown. The track starts above the gondola, with Lake Wakatipu a constant companion.
It’s an easy enough walk for most of the way but gets steep towards the summit. We did on first day of spring and there was heaps of snow up there — tough climbing but what a reward!
READ MORE: 14 of the Best Walks in Queenstown
Mount Aspiring (3033 m)
At over 3000 metres, Mount Aspiring is the tallest South Island mountain outside of the Mount Cook area. It’s close to Wānaka, with Aspiring Hut the launch point for climbs as well as other hikes. Apparently you can see it from various places around the region but it’s not really one that stands out — the photo below was taken on the Wānaka – Mount Aspiring Road — not entirely sure if it’s the right mountain though. The one below that is from the Rob Roy Glacier Track.
Mount Tutoko (2723 m) + Mitre Peak (1683 m)
Mount Tutoko is highest peak in Fiordland, a region famous throughout the world for its alpine scenery, native bush and fiords. You’ll get a good view of Mount Tutoko from the Tutoko Valley Track — definitely not our favourite hike but the views at the end are incredible.
You’ll see Mitre Peak when visiting Milford Sound — it’s one of the most instantly recognisable South Island sights and surely one of the most photographed mountains in the South Island.
Aoraki Mount Cook (3724 m) + Other Nearby Peaks
The giant of the South Island, Aoraki Mount Cook looms over all else. The highest point on the most beautiful island on Earth is a special place for Kiwis and tourists alike.
You’ll see it from the road through Mount Cook National Park, from the various tracks (Hooker Valley Track especially) and from the other side of the Southern Alps on the West Coast (Lake Matheson Track).
Nearby peaks include Mount Sefton and Mount Tasman, both giants clocking in at well over 3000 metres, as well as heaps of other slightly smaller ones that are far taller than most other mountains in New Zealand. A proper list like this should probably include at least three or four of these mountains, but I wanted to include a wider range. The main point of these posts is to show you around the island and give you some places to add to your travel plans.
I was flicking through some old textbooks of mine the other day and came across a diary entry I made about Mount Cook. I was six at the time — who knew more than 30 years later I’d still be writing about Mount Cook — check out the excerpt below.
“Mount Cook is the biggest mountain in New Zealand. There is not only one Mount Cook there are two there is the mountain and there is the village. The top of Mount Cook fell off on Saturday. The people have to measure it again but they still think it’s the biggest mountain in New Zealand.” (fixed a few spelling mistakes).
Other Top 12 Lists
Did your favourite South Island mountains make it to our list? Let us know in the comments below!
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