When you talk to people about New Zealand they immediately start gushing about the beauty of the South Island and how you will be hard-pressed to find other places in the world that compare.
Now that’s a pretty tall standard if you ask me, so I came into our time in New Zealand hoping it would be amazing but bracing myself too.
New Zealand is undoubtedly a land of spectacular landscapes, and one of the most aesthetic spots to visit in this breathtaking country is Lake Tekapo. Surrounded by alpine scenery and resplendent in colorful scenery, Lake Tekapo New Zealand is a haven for outdoor lovers.
The glacial water is refreshingly cool in summer, while local hot springs provide much-needed warmth in the cold winter months. Hiking opportunities around the lake and through the nearby hills and mountains abound.
You can also trek on horseback, swim, or even tour the local astronomical observatories, which make excellent use of the dark night skies found here.
The gateway to the lake is the small community of Tekapo, and to help you to plan your trip to this South Island gem, here’s our guide to visiting Lake Tekapo New Zealand.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet New Zealand (Country Guide)
A Brief History of Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo New Zealand is found at an altitude of just over 700 meters, and the water flows down here from the Southern Alps, making for a cool, clean glacial lake.
The Maori were the first group of people to establish settlements in the area, and the current name of the lake derives from the local language. They lived here for several hundred years after their arrival from Polynesia.
Europeans didn’t arrive at Lake Tekapo until 1855 when a settler and sheep rustler named James Mackenzie from Scotland – for whom the wider Mackenzie Basin is now named – fled here with herds of stolen sheep to escape arrest by the authorities.
Today, tourism is the main industry at Lake Tekapo, and year on year it’s proving to be a more and more popular destination.
How to Get to Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo New Zealand is located on the South Island, roughly in the center of the island. The lake is part of the wider Mackenzie Basin region, which includes two other lakes in the vicinity. This is a remote part of New Zealand, with few nearby towns, but there are still a few ways to travel here.
The easiest way to explore the lake is to have your own vehicle and to really experience the area you may want to rent a car or even a campervan. Lake Tekapo New Zealand is found on Highway 8, with Christchurch a 3 and a half-hour drive to the north-east. The popular adventure destination of Queenstown is 3 hours to the south.
If you are flying in, Christchurch has the best connections, with international links and domestic links to major New Zealand cities such as Auckland and Wellington.
It is also possible to arrive via public transport, with several intercity buses calling in at Lake Tekapo New Zealand from Christchurch, before carrying on again to Queenstown. There are only limited departures each day, but you can secure some good deals if you book in advance.
Most of the best sights can be seen from the Lake Tekapo community, which is found right on the edge of the water at the southern end of the lake. It’s a very small town and it’s easy enough to get around on foot.
Best Time to Visit Lake Tekapo New Zealand
Lake Tekapo New Zealand can be a year-round destination, and you will find that the scenery looks very different depending on the time of year that you choose to visit.
The most popular months for tourism around the lake are the summer months, between December and February, when the weather is at its best and conditions are perfect for hiking, horseback riding, cycling or swimming.
Being a small town though, hotels can get booked out, so it’s best to try and book your trip in advance during peak season.
Winter, while cold, offers different opportunities to see the mountains covered in snow and the lake iced over. Winter sports are big in the area, and it can be a great time to visit. The winter months fall between June and August.
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11 Best Things to do in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Lake Tekapo New Zealand is a wonderful outdoor destination, and while the town itself is small, you are here to enjoy the scenery, the lake and the multitude of activities. Here are our favorite things to do in Lake Tekapo.
1. Lake Tekapo: The Town and the Lake
The town itself is home to just a small population of around 300 permanent residents, most working in the tourist industry. While there aren’t a huge number of sights as such within the town itself, it is found in a glorious location on the edge of the lake and is a beautiful base for exploring the area.
You can walk to the lake from the town, and of course, the highlight of your trip will be experiencing the lake, which is beautiful all year round.
2. The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Church of the Good Shepherd is the most iconic sight around the lake. Found right on the edge of the water in the town of Lake Tekapo, the church is the most photogenic spot in the area.
The name of the church not only references the biblical idea of the Good Shepherd but is in fact also a dedication to the pioneering European shepherds who first settled the area, and in particular, James Mackenzie, the outlaw who rustled his sheep to the lake.
The church is rustic, made from weathered stone, and is very much a functioning place of worship, despite its popularity amongst tourists and photographers.
3. Mackenzie Sheep Dog Statue
Another memorial to the shepherds of Lake Tekapo is found in the Mackenzie Sheep Dog Statue. Local legend has it that even after James Mackenzie was eventually caught by the colonial authorities.
They couldn’t bring in all the sheep he’d rustled with them, and his faithful dog Friday escaped, only to continue shepherding the sheep without his master.
The statue is located on the shores of the lake, close to the Church of the Good Shepherd, and is a wonderfully charming piece of local history to discover.
One of the best things to do in Lake Tekapo New Zealand is to hike. The landscapes are perfect, and the outdoor air supremely refreshing. From the town, you can take on short hikes along trails around the water.
The truly adventurous will want to experience the ultimate 3 day Tekapo Trek, which takes you high into the surrounding mountains – summiting a peak found at over 2000 meters – and giving you the chance to see the best of the lake and the alpine scenery.
In winter, experienced mountaineers can even experience the trek with snowshoes and ice picks, to see the lake in all its wintery glory.
5. Horse Trekking
Horse trekking is a popular alternative to hiking at Lake Tekapo, and it offers you the chance to cover much more ground than you ever could by walking.
There are treks for all levels, and you don’t even need to have ridden before to get into the saddle, with well-trained horses and experienced local guides ready to take tourists out around the lake.
6. Mountain Biking
The lake’s rugged coastline and mountains offer mountain bikers a world of opportunity. You can easily hire a bike in the town if you don’t have your own, and there are some great trails leading around the lake and into the mountains that make for excellent day trips and excursions.
7. Earth and Sky Astronomy Tours
Being a remote destination, with few towns in the area, Lake Tekapo has some of the darkest skies in the world, and there are even laws controlling the level of light pollution allowed. That makes it perfect for astronomers and stargazers, and there are several observatories around the lake too.
The most famous is found atop Mount John, one of the highest peaks around the lake, and an Earth and Sky Astronomy Tour will give you the opportunity to visit the observatory, to stargaze and to learn more about the night sky.
Embark on a journey through time and space with this ticket to the Dark Sky Experience at Lake Tekapo. This indoor exhibition draws on Māori astronomy and recent discoveries to tell the story of our skies. This kid-friendly attraction offers multimedia exhibits and hands-on activities offering something for everyone.
8. Visit the Tekapo Springs
At Tekapo Springs you can enjoy hot water all year round, with several spas and pools providing a beautiful opportunity to relax and enjoy the lakeside surroundings in a sublime setting. The hot springs are also the sight of the local ice skating rink, so after skating around you can take a warming dip in the pools.
9. Kayaking on Lake Tekapo
What better way to experience Lake Tekapo New Zealand than from the very water you’ve come here to see?
Kayaking is a great activity that gives you the chance to see the lake from another perspective and to enjoy the calm serenity of the tranquil greeny-blue water as you paddle gently over Lake Tekapo.
10. Winter Visit to the Roundhill Ski Area
In winter, Lake Tekapo comes alive with winter sports activities, as people flock here from across the nation to enjoy the slopes. Roundhill Ski Area is the most famous ski resort in Lake Tekapo, offering great skiing and snowboarding opportunities in the winter months.
The slopes are great for beginners, and it’s a beautiful place to learn the ropes, while experienced skiers can take on the other more challenging runs too.
11. Visit Lake Pukaki
If you are traveling to Lake Tekapo from Queenstown, you will be passing right by the equally famous and beautiful Lake Pukaki. Personally, this lake offers much brighter water. You can safely rely on a bright teal when you visit this lake.
It is possible to hike, fish and recreate along the shores of Lake Pukaki, but you will not find the infrastructure (albeit small) like you have in Lake Tekapo. Regardless, it is well worth planning some time to enjoy this lake.
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