After multiple visits to New Zealand’s South Island, I am 100% convinced that the place is heaven on earth. And one of the things that has truly blow me away is the lakes.
Because most of them are fed by the melting snow, the colours are simply breathtaking, bluer and greener than any body of water we’ve seen to date in our travels.
If you’ve got plans to travel around New Zealand, I highly recommend that you visit as many lakes in the South Island as you can. I’ve found that each one is slightly unique but more stunning than the next.
To help you decide which ones to visit, I’ve put together this list of the most stunning New Zealand South Island lakes. I hope this will inspire you visit this awe-inspiring part of the world soon.
Most Stunning Lakes on New Zealand’s South Island
Location: Glacier Country
Famous for its reflected views of Mt Cook, Lake Matheson is my favourite of all the lakes on New Zealand’s South Island. The walk around the lake takes about one and a half hours and the track is mostly flat as it winds its way through dense rainforest around the lakes edge.
It’s located not far from the Fox Glacier and was formed some 14,000 years ago when the glacier retreated leaving a depression in the ground which later filled with water and become the lake you see today.
Read more about the walk around Lake Matheson here.
For the best chance to see the famous reflection, visit the lake early in the morning on a calm day.
Location: Mackenzie Basin, Canterbury
Located not far from one of New Zealand’s most well known lakes (Lake Tekapo), Pukaki is probably one of the most underrated of all the lakes in New Zealand South Island. As you drive over the rise on the road from Tekapo, Lake Pukaki appears out of nowhere and stuns drivers to instantly slow from travelling at 100km/h to 60km/h.
The powdery blue colour of the lake is created by glacier flour, silt-sized particles of rock caused by erosion. But it’s not just to colour that makes this lake so impressive, at the far north of the lake is New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook, in all its glory.
Take a drive along the lake out to Mt Cook Village. It takes about 50 minutes and is one of New Zealand’s most amazing drives.
The town of Wanaka and it’s beautiful lake is quite possibly my favourite place in the world (yep, big call!). The fourth largest lake in New Zealand, Lake Wanaka is completely surrounded by towering snow capped mountains for much of the year and this contrasts with the brown hues of the bare mountains.
The drive along the lake (and it’s sister lake, Hawea) is quite spectacular, and a must do when exploring the area. There is also a a few popular walking and cycle tracks around the lake that take in the beauty at a slower pace.
If you want to get out on the lake, you can do just that on a number of different tours that range in length and bonus activities. Here are few for you to consider. Click on the links to read more about each tour and make a booking.
- Water Taxi & Mou Waho Island Tour
- Happy Hour Cruise
- Stevensons Island 2 Hour Cruise and Nature Walk
- Ruby Island 1 Hour Cruise and Photo Walk
- Mou Waho Island 3.5 Hour Cruise and Nature Walk
Driving in from the north coming out of Haast Pass will give you the most spectacular views of the lake. One minute you’re in dense rainforest and the next the landscape opens up and Lake Wanaka appears before you.
Read more about all the things to do in Wanaka here, the best tours in Wanaka here and where to stay in Wanaka here. Or check out my comprehensive Wanaka Itinerary here.
New Zealand’s longest lake at 80 km, Lake Wakatipu is famed for the Remarkables mountain range that lines its south-eastern. The biggest city in the region, Queenstown, also lines the lake and is a great place to base yourself for exploring the lake and the surrounding mountains.
There is a road that winds all along the lakes edge from Kingston in the south to Glenorchy in the north. There is also boat trips available up the arms of the backwards N shaped lake on a historic steamboat.
There are a number of great tours that range in length and bonus activities you can take on Lake Wakatipu, all leaving from Queenstown Wharf. Here are few for you to consider. Click on the links to read more about each tour and make a booking.
- TSS Earnslaw Cruise with Walter Peak Gourmet BBQ
- TSS Earnslaw 1.5 Hour Cruise
- Spirit of Queenstown Scenic Cruise
- 15 Minute Ride in a Semi-Sumbersible
Read more about all the things to do in Queenstown here, or the best adventure activities on the lake here, or check out my 5 day Queenstown Itinerary here or find my list of top places to stay on Queenstown here.
The drive to Glenorchy from Queenstown along Lake Wakatipu is said to be one of the top drives in New Zealand and we’d have to agree.
Location: Mackenzie Basin, Canterbury
Lake Tekapo is one of the most photographed lakes in South Island New Zealand, mostly because of its powdery blue colour on blue sky day. It is situated in the Mackenzie Basin near Lake Pukaki (mentioned above) and has a small township of the same name located on the south end of the lake.
In the township, on the lakes edge, is the famous Church of the Good Shepherd. Built in 1935, this tiny church features an altar window that frames stunning views of the lake and mountains. you’ll find many avid photographers trying to get that perfect shot of the church and the lake on a nice day.
Read more about all the things to do in the Lake Tekapo and surrounds here or find out what the best tours in Lake Tekapo are here or let me help you find the perfect place to stay in Lake Tekapo here and finally check out my 2 day itinerary here.
Tekapo is in the heart of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning it is one of the darkest places on earth and perfect for night time star gazing. On a clear night, head up to the Mt John Observatory at night or find a dark spot away from the towns lights to see more stars than you could possibly imagine.
Lake Te Anau
Gateway to Fiordland and the incredible Milford Sound, Te Anau is a small township located on the lake of the same name. Lake Te Anau is the second largest lake in New Zealand and largest on the south island with a massive surface area of 344 km².
Two of New Zealand top walks start from this South Island lake. The Milford Track begins at the northern tip of the lake and the Kepler Track starts and ends at the southern tip at the Waiau River.
Check out these great lake cruises you can take from Te Anau to experience the lake in all its glory. Click on the links to read more about each tour and make a booking.
A tour to the glowworm caves includes a cruise on the lake at dusk. Its a great way to see the changing colours of the mountains while also enjoying the chance to see these unusual creatures.
Located not far from Lake Te Anau, this Fiordland lake has a very interesting Maori legend attached to it. It is said that the lake was created by the tears of two sisters who were daughters of an old chief in the region. Koronae journeyed deep into the forest one day only to become stranded after a fall. Her sister Moturua went looking for her and when she found her she realised that Koronae could not be rescued. Moturua lay with Koronae until they died, their tears creating Lake Manapouri.
A cruise on Lake Manapouri is the first leg of the journey to Doubtful Sound. Tours to the sound cruise across the lake to get to a coach that takes them over the Wilmot Pass to the sound.
Lake Hawea is one of the deepest lakes in New Zealand and lies in a glacial valley which was formed during the last ice age. The nearby Lake Wanaka lies in a parallel glacial valley to the west and at their closest point, a rocky ridge called The Neck, the lakes are only 1 km apart.
The Neck lookout is one of our favourites in New Zealand. Make sure you take a photo stop there on the drive through.
Lake Dunstan may be small (only 26 km² surface area) but this man made lake is one of the prettiest we’ve come across in New Zealand. The creation of the lake caused a lot of controversy because of geological problems during its construction, but today it is used by locals and visitors for recreation activities like fishing, waterskiing and boating. Plus it is a source of irrigation for the many orchards in the area.
A great way to see the lake is to take a drive through the Cromwell Gorge along the lakes edge from the town of Cromwell to the Clyde Dam.
On your drive through Cromwell make a stop at the Cromwell Heritage Precinct located right on the edge of Lake Dunstan. Buildings from the 1860’s gold rush have been rebuilt here and are now shops and cafes, perfect for a tea or lunch stop.
Location: West Coast
10 km south of the West Coast town of Hokitika is Lake Mahinapua, a coastal lake just 500 metres from the ocean. The area was established as a scenic reserve in the 1907 and is home to make species of bird life like black swans, grey and mallard ducks, parakeets and tui.
There are a few walking track around the lake that offer the chance to see the birds up close and also showcase beautiful reflective views.
Read more about driving New Zealand’s Wild West Coast here.
This is an excellent place to stop to stretch your legs as a half way point driving up or down the West Coast.
Where to Stay on New Zealand’s South Island
This list of South Island lakes are spread all over. If you wanted to visit them all, a road trip is easy to do. And of course along the way you will need to find accommodation. I use and recommend Booking.com for all of my accommodation bookings around the world. Check out Booking.com for the best available accommodation on New Zealand’s South Island.
Over to you!
Have you visited any lakes in New Zealand? What was your favourite? If not which of these are you most keen to visit someday?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.