Isthmus Peak Track | Is This Hike Better Than Roy’s Peak?

Located smack bang in the middle of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, Isthmus Peak offers incomparable views of both breathtaking lakes and the endless line of snowy mountain peaks that dominate the horizons in every direction.

But perhaps the best thing about the Isthmus Peak Track is the fact that it’s void of the unbelievable horde of hikers that flock to Roys Peak every day! While that’s not to say you’ll have the views all to yourself, you will share the trail with considerably fewer hikers.

The Isthmus Peak Track quickly became one of our favourite hikes in Wanaka, surpassing Roys Peak for many reasons, and is a must when you’re visiting this incredible mountain town in New Zealand’s South Island.

In this post, you’ll find all the details you need to hike the Isthmus Peak Track, including comparisons to Roys Peak and inspiring images to back up our claim that Isthmus Peak is better than Roys Peak!

Hiking to the summit of Isthmus Peak in Wanaka

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Essential Information About Hiking The Isthmus Peak Track Near Wanaka

Quick Statistics For The Isthmus Peak Track

Distance
16 km return

Time
5 – 7 hrs

Navigation Difficulty
Easy – See details below

Trail Difficulty
Easy – Moderate – See Track Notes for more detail

Physical Effort
Hard

Elevation Gain
1,175 m

Highest Elevation
1,390 m 

Entrance Fees
None

Facilities
Trailhead: car park
On The Trail: toilet near the start and another near the peak

Where Does The Isthmus Peak Track Start?

Cars Parked at the Isthmus Peak Trailhead

Found in the Matatiaho Conservation Area, the Isthmus Peak Track leads to the most northern peak in the mountain range that rises between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. The trailhead begins on SH 6 (Haast Pass – Makarora Rd), roughly 30 minutes north of Wanaka.

The trailhead is nothing more than a small car park located on the opposite side of the track, easily located by the signs on the road. The closest toilet to the car park is just past the beginning of the Isthmus Peak Track.

How To Get To The Isthmus Peak Trailhead

There are no public transport or tour options for hiking the Isthmus Peak Track, meaning the only way to get to the trailhead is by self-driving. If you’re in need of a hire car, we highly recommend booking through Discover Cars. They offer the best rates and have great customer service.

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By Car

To reach the Isthmus Peak trailhead from Wanaka, you’ll leave town via SH84 (Wanaka-Luggate Hwy) heading east. Just past Mt Iron, you’ll turn left onto SH6 (Albert Town-Lake Hawea Hwy) and follow it through Albert Town towards Lake Hawea.

You’ll continue along the SH6, driving alongside Lake Hawea, for roughly 15 km before you’ll see a sign directing you to the Isthmus Peak Car Park. The trailhead is located on the opposite side of the road, just next to the guard rail.

Click Here For Directions To The Isthmus Peak Car Park

How Hard Is The Isthmus Peak Track In Wanaka?

4wd switchbacks up the Isthmus Peak Track overlooking Lake Hawea

I won’t sugarcoat it. The trek up to Isthmus Peak is a slog! You’ll ascend 1,175 m in elevation over 8 km, with very little respite. However, the saving grace is the fact that the trail is very easy, mostly consisting of a wide 4WD track that zigzags up the steep mountainside.

As long as you pack plenty of water and snacks, take breaks when you need to, and utilise any shade you find along the way, then you’ll make it to the peak without any issues. We highly recommend starting early so that you can get most of the climb out of the way before the midday sun beats down on you!

Isthmus Peak Vs Roys Peak

Looking down to Lake Hawea from the Isthmus Peak track in Wanaka
Isthmus Peak
Watching sunrise from Roys Peak in Wanaka
Roys Peak

Ok, so I know that most of you who have stumbled upon this post will be deciding which trail to choose between Isthmus Peak and Roys Peak. The short answer is that we like Isthmus Peak way better than Roys Peak – for a number of reasons. However, that’s not to say that Roys Peak isn’t worth it…

Here is a quick list of the positives and negatives of both Isthmus Peak and Roys Peak so you can easily choose which hike is best for you.

Positives For Roys Peak

  • A short 10-minute drive from Wanaka
  • The iconic Instagram location is just as stunning as you would expect
  • You can see Mt Aspiring on a clear day
  • Very easy trail to walk (almost all of it is on a 4WD track)

Negatives For Roys Peak

  • EXTREMELY BUSY – like nothing I’ve ever seen before, unless you get there before sunrise, you’ll be standing in line to get that iconic Instagram shot
  • The track is monotonous with very little changing scenery as you climb
  • The views are arguably better from Isthmus Peak, especially on the walk up

Positives For Isthmus Peak

  • Incredible views of both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, with more rugged scenery
  • Far less crowded compared to Roys Peak
  • The first 2 km of the trail offers a bit of excitement before stepping onto the 4WD track
  • You can mountain bike the Isthmus Peak Track, making the descent far quicker and more enjoyable
  • Slightly less elevation gain than Roys Peak

Negatives For Isthmus Peak

  • The track is still quite monotonous, especially if you’re used to more rugged trails
  • A little further away from Wanaka compared to Roys Peak
  • There isn’t that perfect location for a ‘perfect Instagram shot’

Navigation On The Isthmus Peak Track

The Isthmus Peak Track is well-signposted throughout the entire trail, making navigation a breeze. Where needed, you’ll find orange-tipped poles to mark the trail and signposts at any track junctions.

What To Pack For The Isthmus Peak Track

Looking over Lake Hawea from the Isthmus Peak Track in New Zealand

The hike to Isthmus Peak took us roughly 5 hours return, not including a long lunch break at the summit. It generally takes walkers between 5 – 7 hours so we suggest packing lunch or plenty of snacks to help you keep your energy levels up.

Here is a list of gear we packed with us for the Isthmus Peak Track:

  • 2 – 3 litres of water each – there weren’t any spots to fill your water bottle up along the trail
  • Loads of snacks
  • Trail runners – for the most part, the track is gravel so light hiking shoes or trail runners are best
  • Hat and sunscreen – there is barely any shade along the entire trail
  • First aid kit – we always carry a small first aid kit whenever we hike
  • Rain jacket and/or warm fleece jacket for the summit – even in summer, it can get quite cold at the peak if there is a strong wind

Best Time To Hike The Isthmus Peak Track

Lake Wanaka from the summit of Isthmus Peak

For the easiest conditions, the best time to hike the Isthmus Peak Track is between October or January – February. However, if you’re confident hiking in the snow, then the most magical time to summit Isthmus Peak is from June to September. Hiking the trail in winter will also guarantee that you’ll pass fewer walkers.

Isthmus Peak Track Seasonal Closure

Because you’re walking through private farmland for the majority of the hike, there are seasonal closures. The Isthmus Peak Track is closed from the 20th of November to the 20th of September for fawning.

Furthermore, the Glen Dene Station, which you’re travelling through, has an annual hunting season from March to May. The track isn’t closed at this time, however, you must stay vigilant and visible to ensure your safety while there are hunters present.

Best Time Of Day To Hike The Isthmus Peak Track

Standing on the false summit on the Isthmus Peak Track in Wanaka

If you’re comfortable walking in the dark, then we recommend summiting Isthmus Peak for sunset. This allows you to watch the setting sun dip beyond the rugged peaks that pierce the western horizon.

Sunrise would also provide a magical show, however, it’s a little more of a mission to start at 2 or 3 am to get to the peak in time!

If you’re not keen to make the mission for sunrise or sunset, then we recommend avoiding the middle of the day. The midday sun is not only hot at this elevation, but it also provides a harsh light that isn’t ideal for photos.

Isthmus Peak Track Notes

Isthmus Peak Car Park To The Switchbacks

Begin the walk to Isthmus Peak by crossing the road from the car park and walking south towards the trailhead. You’ll find a track sign beside the road before the trail dips down into the shrubs.

Isthmus Peak Trail Head

Soon after beginning, you’ll find a toilet on the side of the track before the trail begins to loosely follow alongside a fence.

The path is slightly rocky and rooty, making it a little more interesting than the Roys Peak track already. You’ll follow the winding path for 700 m before arriving at a stile. The track begins to ascend from this point, passing through another gate, and gradually gets steeper until you reach the 1.5 km mark.

Hiking through the forest on the Isthmus Peak Track in Wanaka
Walking over the Stile at the beginning of the Isthmus Peak Track

This is where you’ll encounter a short steep rock slab section beside a plunging gully. It doesn’t last very long and is relatively easy to clamber up, however, it may get a little more challenging in wet or icy conditions.

Walking through the rocky forest on the Isthmus Peak Track in Wanaka
Hiking up the steep Rock Slabs at the beginning of the Isthmus Peak Hike

After the rock slabs, you’ll step over another stile and begin traversing along a narrow dirt track through farmland for a kilometre until making a right turn and merging onto a gravel farm road. The gradient begins to steepen once again, with short respites at the switchbacks.

The Switchbacks To The False Summit

Hiking up the 4wd switchbacks on Isthmus Peak Track

The switchbacks continue for 4 km without much change. But although the climb is slightly monotonous, you’re afforded breathtaking vistas of Lake Hawea and the mountainous region beyond that continues to unravel as you walk.

Hiking up the steep 4wd track on the Isthmus Peak trail

After 6 km and 844 m elevation, you’ll arrive at what you may have thought was the summit, but you’ve still got roughly 2 km to go. The track will skirt around the rocky ‘false summit’, allowing you to catch your first glimpse of the majestic peaks that form the Mt Aspiring National Park.

The False Summit To Isthmus Peak

Lake Hawea from the false summit on the Isthmus Peak Trail

You’ll skirt around the peak, passing by an epic viewpoint that’s worthy of a quick break, before enjoying a short descent. Sadly, the descent only lasts for 400 m, ending at the second public toilet along the trail. 

Note: Don’t forget to bring toilet paper on the hike with you as there aren’t any in the toilets.

From here, the trail begins to climb again towards another rocky outcrop. You’ll pass beneath this second peak before arriving at a track junction after 7.2 km

Hiking along the ridge line between a high point and Isthmus Peak in Wanaka

You can either walk straight ahead towards a high point that overlooks the southern peaks or continue right along the ridgeline towards Isthmus Peak. We chose to walk to Isthmus Peak first, leaving the high point for later. 

As you begin to walk along the undulating ridgeline towards the peak, you’ll finally catch your first glimpse of Lake Wanaka. This section of the trail is simply breathtaking, allowing you to gaze out upon both Lake Hawea on one side and Lake Wanaka on the other. It’s at this point that you’ll realise just how incredibly turquoise the water of Lake Hawea is compared to Lake Wanaka!

Exploring Isthmus Peak

Hiking to Isthmus Peak in New Zealand

Finally, after one final short burst of ascending, you’ll arrive at the summit of Isthmus Peak 8 km later. The 360-degree panoramic views from the long peak are 1,000 times worth the 1,085 m elevation that you’ve just climbed.

We spent a good chunk of time sitting at the peak, hiding behind some rocks to avoid the howling wind, and gazing out at the incredible peaks that cut a jagged line across the horizon in every direction you turn.

Returning To The Trailhead

Hiking down from Isthmus Peak overlooking Lake Hawea

Once you’ve finished exploring the bare grassy summit of Isthmus Peak, return along the dirt track that cuts across the ridgeline to the track junction. From here, you can take a quick detour to gain a new perspective of the majestic landscape before you.

Lake Wanaka from Isthmus Peak in New Zealand

After snapping a few photos, return to the track junction and begin the long descent back to the car park. The return journey took us 2 hours and the ascent took us 3 hours, making a total 5-hour hike to Isthmus Peak.

Other Important Information For Summiting Isthmus Peak Near Wanaka

Leave No Trace

The Isthmus Peak Track meanders through private farmland, where the owner of the land is kind enough to allow walkers to enter. To repay the kindness, it’s important that we follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and ensure we leave the track in the same condition – or better – than we found it.

It’s as easy as staying on the marked trail and packing out all of your rubbish – including tissues and food scraps.

Where To Stay Near Isthmus Peak

The Isthmus Peak Track is located a short 30-minute drive north of Wanaka, which is one of our all-time favourite destinations in New Zealand. We highly recommend basing yourself in this adventure town while you’re exploring the nearby peaks.

The Hidden Spring in Wanaka
The Hidden Spring

Here is a list of our top 3 suggested places to stay in Wanaka:

  • The Hidden Spring – We stayed in one of these affordable studios on our visit to Wanaka and loved it
  • Kirimoko Lodge – A stunning eco-friendly house that’s perfect for a family or group of friends travelling together
  • Wanaka Luxury Apartments – Another eco-friendly option that is centrally located and offers extra amenities such as a pool

Camping Near Isthmus Peak

There are plenty of prime camping locations between Wanaka and Isthmus Peak. You’ll find a wide range of holiday parks, equipped with hot showers and laundry facilities, as well as freedom campsites for self-contained campervans.

Here is a list of our top 5 suggested places to camp near Wanaka:

  • Albert Town Camping Ground – This is a great spot that offers basic camping close to Wanaka. It’s affordable and located right beside the Clutha River.
  • Lake Hawea Holiday Park – A little more expensive, but this holiday park, located halfway between Wanaka and Isthmus Peak, is beautiful with great access to the lake.
  • Red Bridge Camping – This is a popular spot for freedom campers. You need to be self-contained certified but there are two toilets here as well.
  • Mt Aspiring Holiday Park – This is a budget-friendly holiday park located out towards Roys Peak. It has everything you need at a much cheaper rate compared to the Top 10 Holiday Park.

Final Thoughts

Standing on the summit of Isthmus Peak overlooking New Zealands Southern Alps

While the Isthmus Peak Track does require a good level of fitness to conquer the 1,175 m elevation gain, the views that you receive from the peak are worth every step. This is a fantastic hike for many levels, with easy navigation and a mostly gravel trail. However, if it is icy or has been raining, the rock slab within the first 2 km can become quite slippery.

We hope that this post has helped you decide whether you should hike Roys Peak or Isthmus Peak – or both! If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment or reach out to us via our Instagram.

Happy Hiking 🙂