New Zealand lakes are a great scenic feature

The Most Stunning New Zealand Lakes

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Travelling around New Zealand is an experience you won’t forget. Wherever you go, you are guaranteed to encounter some extraordinary landscapes. Mountains, lakes, glaciers, beaches and valleys form a dramatic and emotive landscape. Lakes, in particular, are quite unique in New Zealand, by their size or colour… Here is my list of the most stunning New Zealand lakes we have discovered on our South Island road trip.

The Most Stunning New Zealand Lakes

Our New Zealand itinerary took us to many great South Island destinations. We decided that renting a car in New Zealand was the best option for us and we also experienced some of the best walks in New Zealand.

New Zealand lakes can get very stormy
Lake Wanaka

We loved our New Zealand South Island itinerary and whilst there is still plenty for us to explore, we did visit some beautiful lakes.

Lake Matheson

The name of this lake may not ring a bell straight away but if you catch it on a good day, it can be amazing… Lake Matheson is just outside the small township of Fox Glacier, 6km from Cooks Flat Road. The lake was formed by the moraine left by the retreat of Fox Glacier. 

Lake Matheson has a very pleasant circuit walk
Lake Matheson

There is a circuit track around the lake, which takes about 1,5 hours. It’s a pleasant and easy walk, some of it through the forest, some of it on a boardwalk. We were hoping to do a helicopter tour at Fox Glacier but it was cancelled due to bad weather. So we went to Lake Matheson instead. 

Lake Matheson New Zealand is famous for its mirror effect. The snow capped peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman are reflected in the dark brown waters. When the water is very still, you can get some extraordinary photos. The best time to visit is early in the morning or in the afternoon, when the sun is low. 

You need to cross a bridge at the start of the Lake Matheson circuit walk
Lake Matheson

There was a slight wind and we didn’t get the mirror effect but the Lake Matheson walk is nonetheless pleasant with plenty of birdlife around the lake. Indeed, Lake Matheson was a “mahinga kai” or food gathering place for the local Māori people.

If you get your photos right, this could be one of your New Zealand South Island highlights.

Lake Pukaki

This is the largest lake in the MacKenzie region of New Zealand and it’s known for its stunning blue colour.

The closest town is Twizel, often used as a base for Mount Aoraki tours and Lake Pukaki accommodation. The Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park, is about 50km away and there is a lookout on the side of the road to admire the lake.

Mount Cook is visible in the background of Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki New Zealand has an intense blue colour, due to the glacial flour created by the rolling of rocks in the lake bed. On sunny days, the sky reflects in the water and gives this intense colour. It almost looks too eerie to be real… The colour of the sky can affect the colour of the lake so you might want to check the Lake Pukaki weather before heading out.

The road runs past the lake at its southernmost and there is a view of Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, in the distance.  I recommend taking a drive towards Breamar Station on the right bank of the lake. The road is unsealed but very flat and not difficult to drive. In dry weather, it does get very dusty but you will get closer to Mount Cook and the views are amazing. 

Lake Pukaki in New Zealand has an extraordinary blue colour
Lake Pukaki

We didn’t drive all the way to Braemar Station but past the Waitaki Hydroelectric Scheme. We also had some beautiful spring flowers on lakeshore, very photogenic! And the best thing was, we were completely on our own!

In my opinion, Lake Pukaki is more spectacular than Lake Tekapo and the colour is more intense. For other things to do in Mount Cook, I suggest a day tour where you’ll get beautiful views of the Tasman Glacier.

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is probably one of the most iconic. It was artificially created in 1953 by a hydropower scheme. Today, it’s a very popular bus tour stop and it can get quite busy. It’s true that the combination of the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo and the spring flowers is extremely photogenic.

The flowers are beautiful in spring at Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo

There are other things to do at Lake Tekapo. Don’t miss a drive to Mount John for some great views of the lake and maybe a relaxing soak in the hot springs. The region is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve and the Mount John Observatory hosts some Lake Tekapo night sky tours. Lake Tekapo stargazing is amongst the most impressive in the world.

The Church of the Good Shepherd is an icon of Lake Tekapo
Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo

A visit to Lake Tekapo hot pools is a great way to relax.

In spring, the Lake Tekapo flowers make for a very pretty photo prop!

Lake Wakatipu

The third largest lake in New Zealand, Lake Wakatipu is one of the best Queenstown attractions. The lake is 379m deep, meaning that the lake bed actually sits below sea level. Its water is deemed to be 99,99% pure by scientists but it’s also extremely cold. So swimming is not really an option and you must wear a life jacket for all on-water activities.

The lake is shaped like a cartoon lightning bolt or a dog leg. In the Māori tradition, the lake’s shape is the burnt outline of the evil giant Matau sleeping with his knees drawn up. In the legend, a local boy named Matakauri set fire to the bed of bracken on which the giant slept in order to rescue his beloved Manata, a chief’s daughter kidnapped by the giant. The fat from the giant’s body created a fire so intense it burnt a hole deep into the ground. 

Lake Wakatipu is great for Queenstown activities
Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

There are many ways to enjoy Lake Wakatipu, the first being a lakeshore stroll in Queenstown. There is also a beautiful lakeside drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, which take only 45 mins, and is one of the best things to do in Queenstown. 

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy along Lake Wakatipu is a New Zealand South Island highlight
Lake Wakatipu near Glenorchy

You can also experience some great views from the top of the Queenstown Gondola. And if you are into hiking, head to Ben Lomond, which is one of the best day hikes in New Zealand and has stunning views of the lake.

The lake is sided by steep dark mountains, the highest being Mount Earnslaw at 2,819m. For Queenstown tours, a Lake Wakatipu cruise is an option

Lake Wanaka

The fourth largest lake in New Zealand (Otago), Lake Wanaka is a glacial lake, 42km long. The township of Wanaka is a popular adventure destination in New Zealand. Indeed, there are many things to do in Wanaka, including skiing and hiking in the surrounding mountains. 

Climb to Roys Peak to get the best views of Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak

The famous Lake Wanaka tree is a very big attraction and most popular on Instagram. Unusually, this willow grows inside the Wanaka lake and attracts photographers from around the world. I found the scene a little disappointing, although I got some good photos at dusk.

The Lake Wanaka tree is a photographic icon on Instagram
Lake Wanaka tree

Apparently the best photos are taken at dawn on a clear day… Some of the best hikes in New Zealand are in Wanaka and there are some beautiful views from Roys Peak.

Lake Hawea

We discovered Lake Hawea, New Zealand on our South Island itinerary and on our way to our Queenstown adventure. The ninth largest lake in New Zealand is only 15km from Wanaka and if you drive from the West Coast of New Zealand via the Haast Pass, you will get some great views. There is a Lake Hawea lookout on the way.

You can cycle from Lake Hawea to Lake Wanaka
Lake Hawea

The lake is 35km long, 392km deep and 348m in altitude, which means the lake bed is below sea level.

Lake Te Anau

This is the second-largest lake in New Zealand and the largest one in the South Island, at 65km long. Most of the lake is in the Fiordland National Park and it has an unusual shape, seemingly following that of the fjords.

Lake Te Anau is full of mystery and quiet beauty
Lake Te Anau

Sitting at an altitude of 210m, it’s actually 410m in depth, which a lake bed much below sea level.

Some of the “New Zealand Great Walks” start at Lake Te Anau: Kepler Track and Milford Track. One of the things to do in Te Anau is to take a local tour to see the Te Anau glow worms cave on the other side of the lake and it’s the only place in the South Island where you can see glow worms during the day.

Te Anau is also a good place to book a Milford Sound cruise. Driving to Milford Sound is very scenic but I found that taking a bus might be just as good. Here is what to expect when going from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

Lake Manapouri

The second deeper lake in New Zealand (440m) is often described as the most beautiful New Zealand lake… According to Māori legend, the lake was created by the tears of two sisters, daughters of an old chief. Koronae went into the forest and became stranded after a fall. Her sister Moturua went to look for her but realised she couldn’t be rescued. They lay together until they died. Lake Manapouri means “sorrowful” because of the grief of the two sisters.

Lake Manapouri is said to be the most beautiful lake in New Zealand
Lake Manapouri

Generally, Manapouri is less busy than Te Anau. It’s also the gateway to Doubtful Sound. We took a Doubtful Sound cruise for our first New Zealand South Island tour in 2010.

Which Lake in New Zealand?

Lakes in New Zealand will blow you away by their beauty and mystique. Your New Zealand travel itinerary should certainly include one or several.

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What is your favourite New Zealand lake? Tell me in the comments below!

Save these stunning New Zealand lakes to Pinterest!

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10 thoughts on “The Most Stunning New Zealand Lakes”

  1. The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the lakes are just stunning. We visited all of these lakes on our visit in 2014 and your images and stories make me want to go back so bad. I agree with you about the road on the right of Pukaki. It is beautiful. We wild camped along that road in our motorhome when we visited.

    1. Hi Matt, I’m pleased you like this post. These lakes are really beautiful and it’s too easy to drive past and not pay attention, but it’s really worth spending time there!

  2. My husband lived in New Zealand for a bit and is so eager to go back. I love lakes and appreciate this guide! Thank you!

  3. Give me mountains and lakes any day! Lakes Pukaki and Tepako are my two favorites, I think. So gorgeous! I was surprised to see lupines as I associate these flowers with the alpine landscape but it does make sense given the tall mountains of New Zealand.

  4. Yep, I agree with all of these. Wanaka’s my favourite, purely for having Mou Waho Island – the island with a lake, in a lake on an island.

  5. These are all so stunning! I love the intense, bright blue of Lake Pukaki. And the story behind the shape of Lake Wakatipu! I come from a place known for our beautiful lakes, but they just can’t compare to these. I would absolutely love to visit every one of these gorgeous lakes.

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