New Zealand Part 2: Queenstown, Wanaka, & Mount Aspiring National Park

Following my brief visit to Christchurch and Akaroa, I flew to Queenstown where I met up with Kyle. The next day, we drove to Wanaka for hiking in and around Mount Aspiring National Park.

This post is part of a series of posts on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Our full itinerary included:

  1. Christchurch and Akaroa
  2. Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park (this post!)
  3. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
  4. Lake Tekapo, Ohau, Blue Pools, and back to Queenstown 
  5. Glow worms, Te Anau, and the Routeburn Track (Packing List)
  6. Milford Track (Packing List)

Note: when possible, booking through links in this post will earn us a commission. If you find this information helpful, please consider using them to make your reservations. 

Queenstown Friday, February 22

The flight from Christchurch to Queenstown passed quickly. For the first part of the flight, clouds obscured the Southern Alps (Kā Tiritiri o te Moana). As the plane approached Queenstown, the clouds parted, giving views of Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, Lake Ohau, Lake Hawea, Lake Wanaka, each different, vibrant shade of blue. On the flight, they also served as cookie whose marketing appeared to be a combination of Pride and the Philly Flyers’ mascot, Gritty.

Finally, we descended over the Crown Range and followed the Kawarau River to Frankton Airport, landing amid stunning scenery. From the airport, a quick bus ride brought me downtown and just a short walk from our hotel, Juicy Snooze Queenstown (Booking.com | Hotels.com | TripAdvisor).

I was early for check in, so I dropped my bags and went for a walk. My bag had torn on the flight, so I stopped to buy a sewing kit. I then visited the main harbor and then along the lake. Along the way, I decided on Mrs. Ferg gelato (TripAdvisor) for lunch: their lemon meringue was fantastic. By the time I reached the One Mile Car Park, it was almost check-in time, and so I turned around to the hotel.

After checking in and fixing my bag, I headed to the grocery store. My goal was to buy most of the lunch, snacks, and breakfast supplies we would want for hiking in Wanaka. I found everything I needed at the Four Square Alpine (a two minute walk from the hotel), though the larger Fresh Choice (a ten minute walk from the hotel) would have been a good backup.

Kyle arrived shortly after I returned to the hotel. By the time he was sorted out, we were ready for dinner. We decided to check out Fergburger (TripAdvisor). By Fergburger standards, the line was short, at only about 10 minutes. After getting our burgers — A Little Lamby for me and a Sweet Bambi for Kyle — and fries, we walked to the lake to eat them. We each agreed they were good burgers and fries, but neither was a standout.

After dinner, we had a welcome glass of wine at the hotel’s rooftop bar (lovely) and repacked for the next day. Then it was time to sleep.

Wanaka and Rob Roy Glacier Track Saturday, February 23

In the morning, we woke up and went to Vudu Café & Larder (TripAdvisor) for breakfast. We each had long blacks. For food, Kyle had a tasty veggie hash, but my brioche french toast–with carmelised banana–stole the show. It was fantastic.

Well-fed and happy, we went back to the hotel, got our stuff, and walked a block to Avis’s downtown location. Check-in was quick and we were soon on our way to Wanaka.

The Drive to Wanaka

At Arrow Junction, not long after leaving Queenstown, the road climbed steeply to the Crown Range. We stopped at two different viewpoints: once looking back at Queenstown and once at the summit, for more expansive views of the mountains.

From the summit, the road descended into a valley, passing through Cadrona. A bit more than an hour after picking up our car, we reached Wanaka. To make the most of the day, we headed directly for Mount Aspiring National Park.

Roy Roy Glacier Track

For our hike, we chose the Rob Roy Glacier Track, about 10km (6 miles) round trip. The drive to the Raspberry Flat trailhead provided many opportunities to enjoy the scenery. In addition to the expected herds of sheep, we were surprised to see large herds of domesticated deer. For two people used to seeing deer individually or in small groups in the woods, seeing large numbers of them just grazing made for a curious sight.

From the Raspberry Flat carpark, the trail followed the wide West Matukituki down the valley for a ways. After about 15 minutes, the trail reached a junction and a swing bridge that marked our turn off. From there, the trail climbed to a view of the West Matukituki valley. It then entered the woods, paralleling the beautiful blue Rob Roy stream.

With the stream to enjoy, the distance passed quickly. We soon started getting glimpses of the peaks, the glacier, and waterfalls flowing from it. After a bit more climbing, we broke out into a clearing with 360º views. We found some comfortable rocks and took a break for lunch.

After lunch, we explored a bit further up the valley to gain different views. Eventually it was time to head back to Wanaka, and so we retraced our steps back to the car.

Wanaka and Dinner

Back in Wanaka, we went to our hotel, the Lakeview Motel (Booking.com | Hotels.com | TripAdvisor), to check in. We found it above the town, overlooking the lake. On arrival, we realized that we had remembered the  wrong check-in cut off. Fortunately, the hotel staff had left a note with clear instructions. The room was spacious, with a comfortable living area, kitchenette, and views of the lake.

After we were cleaned up and checked in, we were ready for dinner. A lit staircase meant that we were only a 10 minute walk from the main area of restaurants and grocery stores. Among several appealing options, we selected an Italian restaurant, Francesca’s Kitchen (TripAdvisor). There, we shared roast carrots, beetroot ravioli, beef cheeks gnocchi, prawn pasta, limoncello panna cotta, and chocolate budino. Everything was good, particularly the gnocchi.

West Matukituki Sunday, February 24

We woke up to a mixed weather forecast, which made planning for the day difficult. We had hoped to get up high somewhere in Mount Aspiring National Park for views, but with clouds and rain in the forecast, the option became less appealing. In addition to limited visibility, many of the higher hikes ascend slopes of snow grass, which becomes treacherous when even a bit wet.

Over a delicious breakfast at Relishes Café (TripAdvisor), we debated options. We decided on the West Matukituki Track. If the weather cleared, we could branch off from it to climb Shotover Saddle or Cascade Saddle. Cascade Saddle seemed particularly unlikely: based on descriptions we read, even if the sun came out, the snow grass would probably not dry enough for us to feel safe. Alternatively, if the weather stayed poor, we could explore further up the West Matukituki valley, as far as Pearl Flat, Shovel Flat, or beyond.

West Matukituki Track

To start the West Matukituki track, we drove back to the Raspberry Flat carpark, where we had started the previous day’s hike. Rainbows appeared all along the drive in and along the trail, up to the swing bridge for Rob Roy Glacier Track. Here, instead of turning, we continued up the valley.

The track followed the West Matukituki river, at times close to it, at times up above it, and at times further from it across flats and fields. Much of the route was along an ATV track, which made for easy walking aside from some mud. We also met local cows. Because the initial part of the trail was on grazing land, we generally had good views of the valley, though peaks were obscured by clouds. The rain persisted in the form of light showers.

Nearer to Aspiring Hut, the trail meandered in and out of wooded areas. Just before we reached the hut, the rain intensified, so we were happy to arrive and dry off. We ate lunch in the hut’s dining room, overlooking the valley though large windows. The ranger came through to check in evening guests. We chatted a bit about options, and she concurred that it was not a good day for either of the saddles. She noted, though, that the rain would make the waterfalls visible from Shovel and Pearl Flats particularly beautiful. So, once the rain broke, we set off further up the valley.

This led us through the woods and across Cascade Creek. We then intermittently hiked through brush and more open sections before reaching Shovel Flat. On this section, we started to encounter the incredible diversity of New Zealand’s birds, though we did not yet know how to identify them.

A short further descent brought us to the start of Pearl Flat, where we were surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. Through the clouds, we could glimpse the Liverpool and French Ridge huts. Destinations, perhaps, for a future trip.

With no sign of further clearing, we headed back down the valley. Later, as we approached the junction with the Shotover Saddle route, spots of blue sky grew to offer sunny windows. We climbed a short ways up the Shotover route to get more expansive views of the valley. Even this short stretch of snow grass affirmed our decision not to do something more ambitious that day. Still, we were glad for the bit of clearing and the views we got here.

On the drive back to Wanaka, we stopped briefly for views of the aptly named Wishbone Falls. Further along, we stopped on the shore of Lake Wanaka for views of Mount Aspiring through the clouds.

Dinner

Back in Wanaka, we cleaned up and walked to dinner. After the previous night’s delicious yet pricier dinner, we sought somewhere lower priced. We decided on Big Fig (TripAdvisor). When we arrived, we saw that food was served cafeteria style, and so we did not get our hopes up for quality. However, everything we ate was fantastic and freshly made. The choices were great and the portions were generous, so we walked back to the motel happy and full.

Isthmus Peak Monday, February 25

That Wanaka Tree

In the morning, we got up early to visit “That Wanaka Tree”: a willow growing in Lake Wanaka, with the Southern Alps as stunning backdrop.  You’ve probably seen photos, on social media, on a screensaver, or an a desktop. Since visiting, I’ve been trying to decide whether to post about it and what to say. It’s a splendid tree, but it’s been abused and damaged by tourists. If you’re visiting Wanaka, it’s well worth a stop as part of a lakeside walk. As with everywhere in nature: please, if you visit, practice leave no trace principles. You can enjoy all of this tree’s beauty from the rocky lakeside beach.

After our morning walk along the lake, we headed to Federal Diner (TripAdvisor) for breakfast. Over excellent eggs Benedict and scones we debated hikes for our last day in Wanaka. We were considering two different hikes near the lake: Isthmus PeakRoy’s Peak, each quite similar in distance and elevation. As we finished up the last of our coffee (also excellent), we decided on Isthmus Peak. It seemed like the less crowded and more interesting option of the two.

Isthmus Peak

The drive to the trailhead, on the land that divides Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, took about 30 minutes. From the carpark, the trail led through the forest and over some farm gates. It then began climbing, steeply, along a ravine.

Within another half hour, we broke out of the forest and joined a 4WD track. From here, the views got better and better the more we climbed. The day also grew hotter. Eventually, we reached a ridge that brought us the last bit to the summit. From the summit, we had 360º views of the lakes, back to Wanaka, and into Mount Aspiring National Park. We also could see parasailers overhead — and below.

After a summit lunch, we descended to the car. Most hikers ascending looked uncomfortable in the heat, making us glad for our early start. Once back at the car, we drove back into Wanaka, where we stopped at the large New World supermarket to restock our lunch and breakfast supplies. We also stopped in at Black Peak (TripAdvisor) for some gelato.

As we planned our drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook, we decided that we did not want to rush the drive to make dinner. So, we decided to get dinner in Wanaka, deciding on some savory pies and sandwiches from The Doughbin / Bakery (TripAdvisor). By chance, we lucked into their end-of-day specials. We ate the pies there (very good!), saved our sandwiches for later, and set out for Aoraki / Mount Cook.

Read more about planning our hiking trip to New Zealand’s South Island. We’ll have posts on the rest of the trip soon.

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