Insider’s Guide to Wanaka: 10 Things to See & Do

Is Wanaka the new adventure hub of New Zealand or is it fast on its way to becoming the next Queenstown? Opinions among locals will vary, but our insider Andy, feels it still has plenty to offer to adventurers.

Queenstown is the self-dubbed ‘adventure capital of the world’, and while the range of activities on offer certainly are all-inclusive, it’s become a challenging – if not impossible – place for budget travelers to enjoy (NZ $25 for a tent site?! Really?!).

Wanaka, however – a mere geologic stone’s throw away – hasn’t succumbed to the influences of tourist-dollar chasing that, in my opinion, have made Queenstown a less appealing adventure destination for anyone on a shoestring... well, at least not yet. 

Here’s why you should head to Wanaka before it’s too late – and without blowing your budget in a few days.

Get Your Adrenaline Pumping in Wanaka

Although Wanaka doesn’t have the high-octane, high-priced attractions of its neighbor (bungy jumping, jet boating), it covers all the bases in terms of outdoor adventure activities.

Climbing & Biking

In the summer there’s rock climbing, with plenty of routes in all grades scattered off of the Aspring Road. Mountain biking trails, including Dean’s Bank, and the nearby Cardrona Bike park that offersworld-classs lift-accessed downhill trails. 

Paddle & Swim

Then there’s the lake itself. Make the choice between kayaking and SUPing, and go for a guided or self-guided paddle with Paddle Wanaka.

A bevy of swimming spots are around, my favorites are Eely Point and Devil’s Elbow, an eddy in the Clutha river (just wear a lifejacket, the river is one of the most powerful in New Zealand).

Blue Pools

Looking for an Instagram worthy swimming hole? Just a short drive from Wanaka is Blue Pools, near Makarora. But be warned, it’s cold!

To get to the Blue Pools, you’ll walk through moss-covered trees along a gravel pathway and over a wooden walkway, before you reach the first of two suspension bridges.

If it’s been raining, chances are these Blue Pools will be closer to murky green – but it’s still an awesome spot.

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Winter in Wanaka

Winter in Wanaka is equally awesome, with two ski fields – Cardrona and Treble Cone – less than an hour away.

Treble Cone and Cardrona

Treble Cone offers some of the most difficult terrain in New Zealand (as well as the largest vertical drop in the area), but both offer great back-country skiing and ‘flexi-pass’ options where one ticket provides access to both fields.

Snow Farm

On the other side of the Cardrona Range Road, there’s the Snow Farm, which offers more than 30mi (50km) of epic cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, as well as gear rental. It also has two trail accessed back-country huts for those wanting to experience a real winter wonderland. 

Costs are affordable, with a one-day trail pass, rental, and night in a hut coming in at just over US $70 (NZ $100) – about the same cost as a day on the slopes.

The best part about Wanaka is that on a nice winter’s day, most of the summer time activities can still be enjoyed – you might just need to wear a puffy.

Hiking Around Wanaka

Hiking around Wanaka is top notch. Take on the classics such as Roys Peak, Mount Iron, and many lakeside tracks – including the short walk from the car park to ‘That Wanaka Tree’.

You know, that tree… that Wanaka tree? Photo credit: Milly McGrath

Mount Aspiring National Park

For those of you that want to find less crowded trails, there are plenty –, particularly in nearby Mount Aspiring National Park. 

The trailhead at Raspberry flats, a scenic 31mi (50km) drive from the city center, offers some of the region’s best tramping. The Rob Roy track is a 6mi (10km) return trail that sidles up a steep valley for unparalleled views of a hanging Rob Roy glacier.

Kea are often seen cavorting in the alpine cirque, and sometimes pieces of the glacier will calve away and thunder down onto the rock races below.

Better yet, for those with the time and gear are tracks that lead further up the main Matukituki Valley to Aspiring Hut and beyond. The well-equipped hut costs US $20 (NZ $30) per night.  The smaller and more rustic Cascade Hut (US $7/NZ $10 per night) is an alternative for those wanting to explore the region.

Hardcore trampers can tackle the Liverpool or French Ridge Tracks for a night at the huts, or add a round trip ascent to Cascade Saddle via the Pylon route, above Aspiring Hut. The latter route is one of my personal favorites, as it ascends over 4,265ft (1,300m) in a little over 2.5mi (4km) – but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The trails leading to the top of Roys Peak. Photo credit: Parinaz Bilimoria

Camping & Accommodation Around Wanaka

Perhaps the best part about spending some time adventuring in the Wanaka region, is that low-cost accommodation can be found. There’s the standard ‘holiday park’ fare that offers a range of options from two-person cabins to powered sites, and non-powered sites suitable for tents or small vehicles.

Then there’s the Albertown campground on the shores of the Clutha, my go-to option when I’m staying in the area. At US $7 (NZ $10) per person, it provides little more than a place to park or pitch a tent (with bathroom and sink access), but if you can get a spot, set up your tent along the riverbank in the towering pines – it’s magical.  Do your bit to keep these campsites clean by following the ‘no trace’ camping rules – take pictures, leave no rubbish behind. 

There is also a free option for those extra thrifty and traveling in self-contained camper vans, an overnight parking area at Diamond Lake Conservation area, roughly 11mi (18km) along the Mt. Aspiring road. 

Although there’s a toilet on site, it’s located near the adjacent Diamond Lake track – so please don’t use this in violation of the self-contained rule.  

All in all, Wanaka offers Nomads the ability to check out a wide range of adventures for half the price you’d find in Queenstown.  It’s less crowded, less expensive, and lower key than its big brother just over the mountains to the south – at least for now.  And I for one, hope it stays that way a bit longer.

Lead image was taken by Parinaz Bilimoria

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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