With the Southern Alps as a backdrop reflecting onto the azure waters, the picturesque views at Lake Tekapo New Zealand are exceptional. Add to that the aurora australis (southern lights) dancing in skies so clearly, they are recognized as an International Dark Sky Reserve. There is no shortage of things to do in Lake Tekapo.
I am not alone in thinking that Lake Tekapo is one of the most spectacular places in New Zealand.
Whether it is a quick photo stop between Queenstown and Christchurch, or a destination of its own, you will not regret your stop here. There is plenty to keep nature lovers and stargazers busy.
Below are our suggested things to do in Lake Tekapo.
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Daytime things to do in Lake Tekapo
Capture Lake Tekapo photos
For photographers like me, just standing on the Lake Tekapo shore is the start of a great day. We last visited in springtime, when the snowcapped Southern Alps created an impressive backdrop to the reflective water.
Visit the Church of the Good Shepard and the sheepdog monument
Standing at the lake’s edge since 1935, the Church of the Good Shepard is a stone structure against a backdrop of azure water and snowcapped mountains. One of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand, it is an active church with frequent weddings and services.
Nearby, the bronze sheepdog memorial statue stands in tribute to the dogs that helped shaped the surrounding farming communities. Scottish immigrants originally brought sheepdogs to New Zealand.
Lake Tekapo walks and hikes
However you explore the area, if you are visiting in summer (November to February) you will enjoy the colourful lupins growing around the lake. At sunset, they complete the colour palette.
Some of the popular walks include:
- Lake Tekapo Walkway: A one-hour easy (mostly flat) walk along the waterfront passing the church and hydro-electric outlet.
- Cowans Hill Walkway: A 1-2 hour easy hike to the top of Cowans Hill for panoramic views of Lake Tekapo.
- Mt John Summit Circuit Track: A 90-minute steep and challenging hike through exotic forest and tussock hills. Stunning views await those who make the trek. (If you don’t want the hike, you can drive to the top.)
- Check out this list of short walks in Lake Tekapo for more options.
Relax at Tekapo Springs
Lake Tekapo hot pools, filled with glacial waters, are the perfect solution to sore muscles. Alternatively, take an active approach on the water slides or in a cool pool.
Stunning views add to the fun any time of day.
Daytime hours end at 7 pm, but during winter, if you arrive late afternoon, you can enjoy the colourful sunset before the stars fill the dark sky.
Check for discounts on an all-day pass for the hot pools.
Enjoy Lake Tekapo, Mt Cook, and Fox Glacier from the air
At 3,754 metres, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain. On the other side is the country’s longest glacier. A 50-minute flight will let you enjoy it all, plus turquoise glacial lakes, unique rivers, and three massive glaciers (Fox, Franz Josef, and Tasmin). Commentary will help you identify the sights.
Check price on this 50-Minute Mount Cook and Beyond Scenic Flight
Dark Sky Experience
This 45-minute indoor experience is a world-first of its kind and is a family-friendly activity.
It is described by the Dark Sky Project as “a treat for the senses. It brings science, Māori heritage and fascinating multi-media installations together in a ‘Big Bang’ of awe and inspiration.”
There are no age restrictions and under 5’s are free.
Check reviews on TripAdvisor and book your Dark Sky Experience.
Evening things to do in Lake Tekapo
Take in a sunset
Whether from the waters of Tekapo Springs, from up a hill, or from the lakeside, be sure to stop and take notice of the sunset.
Things to do in Lake Tekapo at night – Stargazing will top your list!
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve includes Lake Tekapo. It has been recognized as an area of exceptional starry nights with limited light pollution by the International Dark-Sky Association. It is New Zealand’s only Dark Sky Reserve and one of only 18 worldwide.
Needless to say, it is an ideal place for stargazing. And, if you are lucky, you will be rewarded with the Southern Lights (aurora australis).
The skies can be enjoyed on your own, or with a guided tour.
Best time for stargazing in Lake Tekapo
Impressive starry skies reward visitors all year, although crisp, clear winter or autumn nights with little humidity when the moon is at its smallest sliver (or no moon) will give you the best reward.
Note that auroras are rare and only predictable a day or two in advance. Typically, in New Zealand, nature’s light show is only seen occasionally, and only between April and September.
Summit Experience at Mt John Observatory (University of Canterbury)
A highlight for many visitors to the region is the Summit Experience at Mt John Observatory. This nearly two hour Lake Tekapo stargazing tour gives you a closer look at the stars through a variety of telescopes.
You will want to dress in warm clothing for this outdoor experience. Although the weather varies, the observatory is over 1K metres elevation in a glacial region, plus there is often wind.
A warm outer layer coat is provided, but you will thank me for encouraging warm clothing underneath, even thermals in the winter.
The outdoor experience is dependent on the weather. Clear, cloudless skies and dry nights make a big difference. While the Summit Experience operates all year, if the weather is too bad, it will move indoors to their interactive venue.
Note that cars cannot be driven to the observatory at night, and the only option for getting there is with a tour.
Booking in advance is strongly recommended:
Check TripAdvisor reviews and book your stargazing tour
Crater Experience at Cowan’s Private Observatory
The Crater Experience is another option for stargazing and learning more about the Southern Skies. It is only available on weekend nights in the winter.
The big advantage here is the giant purpose-built crater that provides wind protection with minimal light pollution.
Booking in advance is strongly recommended:
Check TripAdvisor reviews and book your Crater Experience tour
Stargazing and Hot Pool Experience
If you will be in Tekapo in the second half of a week (Wednesday to Sunday), another option is to combine stargazing with a night hot pool experience. This is the same Tekapo Springs that we discussed above, only at night.
You will want warm clothes and closed shoes for the fully guided stargazing portion of the event. Here you will look through telescopes and learn about the night sky. Your guide will even stay poolside later, to tell you more about the stars.
Best of all, depending on when you choose to go, there are often discount tickets available.
Where to stay in Tekapo
The Mackenzie Suites (Apartments): A quiet and picturesque spot quite close to Lake Tekapo village, these suites feature fantastic views and luxury accommodation. With a kitchenette, laundry facilities, and a gas fire place, it’s spacious and comfortable.
Check price and reviews for The Mackenzie Suites.
Peppers Bluewater Resort: Another great accomodation with beautiful lake views, this 4.5-star hotel is in Lake Tekapo village. While most of the rooms don’t have cooking facilities, there is a restaurant on-site.
Check price and reviews for Peppers Bluewater Resort.
More about Lake Tekapo
- Lake Tekapo is one of four lakes in the Mackenzie Basin on the South Island. The other three are Lakes Ohau, Lake Pukaki, and Lake Alexandrina.
- It’s about halfway between the Christchurch and Queenstown Airports, making it an ideal stop to break up the six-hour drive, or a destination on its own. We have also added it as a side trip when driving along the South Island’s east coast.
- Māori were the original settlers. However, the region gets its name from a Scottish shepherd and alleged sheep thief, James Mackenzie. The area was intermittently inhabited by Māori and, in 1857, it was split into ranching stations.
- Water from the lake is used in the generation of hydroelectricity.
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