Two Days in the Lake Tekapo Area
Hike, eat, and star-gaze all while taking in the crisp-blue views of Lake Tekapo.
Jump Ahead to a Section Below:
Start the morning hiking with views of Lake Tekapo.
The Mt. John Summit Track/ Mt. John Walkway is a 1.5 to 3-hour hike depending on which route you take back. It is 5 miles long if you do the full loop. The trail climbs straight uphill for the first 30-45 minutes until you reach the summit. Mt John University Observatory (an astronomical research observatory) and the Astro Cafe restaurant are at the top. Stop for a snack or lunch at the restaurant and enjoy stunning views during your break.
Then you have the option to go back down the same way (~30 minutes back down) or continue on to connect to the lakeshore path. The lakeshore path will take you back into town on a longer hike. I would recommend doing this full loop. After the summit, there is some up and down, but the rest of the trail does not have much elevation gain. The trail offers panoramic views of the region that make the extra hiking worth it!
The trailhead for the Mt. John Summit Track is right next to Tekapo Springs, it is well marked. There is limited signage once at the top though and no signage when you connect to the lakeshore path. Keep following the footpath and it will eventually turn back along the lake towards town.
When you return in the afternoon, walk around the town area and see the picturesque MacLaren Footbridge.
Also stop for the views and a photo opt from The Church of the Good Shepherd.
If you have time you could also relax for a couple of hours at the pools at Tekapo Springs ($30NZ per person for entry) or hang out at Pines Beach (free).
Lake Tekapo is located in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, so spend your evening taking in the stars. You can view them from your own lodging, or drive up to the Mt. John University Observatory at the peak of Mt. John. The Dark Sky Project offers star viewing tours and informational sessions at the observatory. You could also view the stars from the hot pools at Tekapo Springs.
Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park
It is an hour and fifteen-minute drive from Lake Tekapo to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. The drive winds around another brilliant blue lake, Lake Pukaki, with the addition of snow cap mountains towering in the background. Leave time to stop at a couple of roadside viewpoints. There are no stops for food or gas on the drive, there are bathrooms at the trailhead though.
Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park has the largest mountain peaks in New Zealand, so you will have snow-capped mountain views year-round in this park. There are many trail options, but I’ve outlined three below. They are the best options for day hikes that give a well-rounded perspective of the park. You can pick one depending on the level of difficulty you prefer.
Hooker Valley Track- A 6.8 mile out and back hike that will take 3 hours round trip. This was the most crowded hike I completed during my New Zealand trip, so be prepared for crowds. Start the hike as early as possible to avoid them. It is a popular trail for a reason, it’s accessible to inexperienced hikers, with almost no elevation gain, only 400 feet. The trail has multiple postcard-worthy swing bridges and clear views of snow-capped Mt. Cook and many glaciers in the area. It ends at Hooker Glacier Lake where there are often icebergs from Hooker Glacier floating in the lake.
Mueller Hut Hike- This is a 6.4-mile out and back trail that will take 7-8 hours to hike. You could also book this as an overnight hike to stay at the hut and split the hike into two 4-hour days. It is an advanced trail with 3,280 feet in elevation gain. Some sections of the trail require scrambling as well. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of the Sealey Mountain Range and numerous glaciers. There are toilets in the hut.
Sealy Tarns- If you want views from higher up than the valley, but don’t want to commit to 8 hours to Mueller Hut, this trail is another option. It is 3.6 miles long and will take 3 hours out and back. It is steep though, there is 1,795 feet in elevation gain. The trail is on stairs going straight uphill for the first hour. You’ll hike to views of the mountain reflections in the lakes, as well as views of the Sealy Mountain Range.
All three options start at the White Horse Hill Campground Carpark which has bathrooms, but no options for buying food or drinks. It is a short drive to Mt. Cook Village though, where you can buy food and drinks.
If you are planning to go to Lake Tekapo you’ll likely be driving to or from another New Zealand destination before or after. Check out my Building A New Zealand Road Trip guide for recommendations on the best stops along each route and more.
Build an Itinerary with a Lake Tekapo Stop
My Lake Tekapo stop was part of a month-long trip throughout New Zealand. I will post articles for all the other stops I made, so check back for them. There is no commercial airport at Lake Tekapo or Twizel, so this stop is best as an add-on to Queenstown, the West Coast, Christchurch, or Nelson. It is a three-hour drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo.
Lodging near Lake Tekapo
We stayed in an Airbnb home in Lake Tekapo. Staying in a home rather than a hotel was the best choice for us because we could make our own breakfast, easily pack hiking lunches, and do laundry regularly for our hiking clothes.
Our rental was on the top of a hill with clear views of Lake Tekapo. Affordable lodging options were limited in the area and seemed to book up sooner than in other areas in New Zealand. Book your lodging here as early as possible. The neighboring town, Twizel, is another option that had more options for affordable home rentals available when we went. It is 35 minutes to drive between Twizel and Lake Tekapo so you could stay in Twizel and explore the same areas in this itinerary.
Advanced Bookings for a Lake Tekapo Trip
Most activities and excursions in New Zealand can easily be booked online. Even during high season, we were able to secure spots with only a couple of days’ notice – helpful for activities that depend on the weather. However, if you plan to do one of the multiple-day treks near Queenstown like the Milford, Routeburn, or Kepler Tracks (not included in this itinerary), the huts for those need to be reserved months in advance.
What to Wear and Pack in Lake Tekapo
Check out my Packing List for more recommendations on specific gear.
Comfortable hiking clothes that you can easily layer.
A waterproof outer layer.
Wool hiking socks and waterproof hiking shoes or boots. I would not recommend regular sneakers for most of the hikes mentioned.
A hat for hiking. You can sunburn easily in New Zealand.
A lightweight daypack and a water bladder.
A small drybag for your wallet and phone in case you get caught in the rain.
(If you are susceptible to car sickness): motion sickness remedies. Many of the drives in this itinerary are on windy roads and can trigger car sickness.
What to Eat in Lake Tekapo
Salmon -- New Zealand’s mountain streams host alpine salmon, and it is some of the best I have ever had.
Lamb -- There is a reason you’ll see so many sheep during your drives: New Zealand is known for its lamb!
Roadside fruit -- If you travel during New Zealand’s summer, make sure to stop at one of the fruit stands that you’ll see by the road. Berries, peaches, and cherries fresh from the farm will Their produce straight from the farm will make it hard to go back to grocery store fruit at home.
Ice Cream -- New Zealand dairy products use milk from grass-fed cows that can graze year-round, which makes for creamy, fresh ice cream.
Cheese – New Zealand also produces a variety of cheeses locally. I routinely saw gouda, cheddar, brie, goat, and blue cheeses in restaurants. The blue cheese is uniquely mild – I had never had anything like it -- so be sure to try it.
Honey- New Zealand is known for producing a wide variety of delicious honeys. Check out the Manuka honey, which is reputed to have healing properties.
Craft Peanut Butters – New Zealand also produces a variety of artisan peanut butters with flavors like “smoke and fire.” Pic’s Peanut Butter was my favorite brand!
Snack Balls – At grocery stores, you can find date-based snack balls with additions like mango, salted caramel, chocolate, and peanut butter. These are great as healthy hiking snacks.
Passionfruit YoYos – Widely available cookies that consist of passion fruit frosting between two butter biscuits.
Afghan cookies – A local favorite and available in most grocery stores, these are made with chocolate and cornflakes.
Where to Eat near Lake Tekapo
Blue Lake Eatery and Bar- A casual dining option with a menu ranging from pizzas and chips to more upscale seafood and meat dishes.
Astro Cafe- Go for the views. It is located at the top of Mt. John and is accessible via hiking or car. The cafe is open for breakfast through early evening. The menu focuses on salads, sandwiches, and pastries.
High Country Salmon Farm/Floating Cafe- If you happen to stay in Twizel or drive through, this is a stop you have to make. They raise glacial lake king salmon and it’s some of the best salmon I have ever had. You can buy fresh or frozen salmon to take home and cook or they serve fresh sushi, sashimi, and other salmon dishes at their cafe. You can also feed the salmon while there.
Getting around the Lake Tekapo Area
The itinerary below requires a rental car. Reserve a four-wheel-drive SUV so you can handle any gravel roads, stream crossings, or wet conditions. The roads in New Zealand are well maintained and well marked, but I still recommend you download or print maps. We tried a GPS unit when we rented our car, but it often did not recognize trailheads as destinations – we often had to use Google on our phones to find them. I recommend you either set up a data plan for yourself or download offline maps ahead of each drive.
In New Zealand they drive on the left side of the road, and many of the roads are carved into mountainsides, so it's not easy driving. Add a buffer to the duration your GPS or Google predicts for the drive. Construction and animal crossings will frequently slow you down without warning.
When to Go to Lake Tekapo
December, January, and February are New Zealand’s summer high season. Summer wildflowers make hikes and drives even more colorful, and you don’t have to worry about coming across snow on hiking trails. Temperatures are in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day. However, summer also means crowded trails, overfull parking lots, and pricier lodging. The New Zealand summer holiday runs from late December to late January, so you will fight local tourism during those months as well. In spring and fall, the weather will be much more unpredictable; some trails could be snow-covered and you may encounter freezing temperatures.
Lake Tekapo is known for the purple Lupin wildflowers that will surround the lake in Spring. If your goal is to see the Lupins in full bloom, you should go between mid-November and mid-December. You can see these same flowers in other Southern parts of New Zealand as well, but Lake Tekapo is a picture-perfect background for them.
Other Tips for a Lake Tekapo Trip
Be ready to adjust your itinerary based on the weather. One advantage of road tripping is that the weather may vary in each location you are going. This allows you some flexibility to change your schedule at a moment’s notice to avoid hiking in the rain.
Credit cards are widely accepted in New Zealand. We only needed cash for farmer’s markets and roadside stands.
Entrance to New Zealand’s national parks for day hikes is free.
Parking at trailheads and parks is free.
Clean and modern public restrooms – occasionally even with music playing! – are easy to find in New Zealand.
Tipping at restaurants is not customary in New Zealand.
Trip Dates: February 10th-February 13th, 2020