Isthmus Peak Hike Guide PLUS Isthmus Peak vs Roys Peak

Isthmus Peak
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New Zealand is home to some of the best hikes in the world and Isthmus Peak is no exception. This stunning trail is near Wanaka and leads you to incredible views of both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. The hike is still relatively unknown which makes it a lot more peaceful than the nearby Roys Peak. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about the Isthmus Peak trail including which is better: Roys Peak or Isthmus Peak.

I had been in New Zealand for almost six months before hiking Isthmus Peak. It had long been on my list and it really didn’t disappoint. The biggest question on my mind was ‘will the views be as breathtaking as Roys Peak?’. The answer was yes! This hike is a must for anyone who loves hiking and is easily one of the best day hikes in New Zealand

How to get to the Isthmus Peak trail?

The Isthmus Peak trail is just outside of Wanaka on State Highway 6. You’ll need to drive North out of Wanaka towards the West Coast.

Parking lot at Ithsmus Peak
Parking lot at Ithsmus Peak

You’ll drive alongside the beautiful Lake Hawea and eventually reach a small parking lot on the right-hand side (or left if driving towards Wanaka). The car park is very small and can only fit around 10 vehicles. Head there early to guarantee your spot. The trailhead is across the road.

Isthmus Peak Trail Summary

Length: 9.7 miles (15.6km)

Elevation gain: 1385 metres (4500ft)

Difficulty: Moderate

Terrain: Dirt path with some rocks/gravel

Note: the track is closed annually from 20th November to 20th December for lambing season.

How difficult is the Isthmus Peak trail?

The Isthmus Peak track is doable for anyone with a good fitness level. There is a steep incline the whole way up, but there is a well-maintained path which is clearly marked.  

If you’ve done some big hikes in the past, you shouldn’t find this too difficult.

When is the best time to hike Isthmus Peak?

In terms of the seasons, the best time to hike Isthmus Peak would be late spring/summer/early autumn before the snow and ice comes. Once there is snow and ice on the track, it can be very difficult (and even dangerous) to hike.

One thing to note is that there is little shade on the path (similar to Roys Peak). This means on a sunny day, the trail won’t be very forgiving, so be sure to carry plenty of water, a cap and use plenty of sunscreen. 

Snow on trail - Isthmus Peak
Snow on trail - Isthmus Peak

For the weather, there’s little point hiking Isthmus Peak when there’s rain or low cloud (unless you just want the workout). The views will be obstructed, and you’ll be in the cloud. Choose a day where the sun is shining or there is high cloud.

In terms of the time of day, this really varies. The hike is very popular for sunrise, but this means an early start and hiking up the mountain in the dark. If you’re confident in doing this, it’s a fantastic option (as is sunset).

If you like hiking in the daylight, then I’d suggest going early in the morning once the sun has risen. Wanaka is notorious for having clouds in the afternoon so the earlier you go, the more likely you are to avoid this.

Note: the track is closed annually from 20th November to 20th December for lambing season.

Isthmus Peak trail description

The trailhead is located just down the road opposite the car park. Don’t let the first few hundred metres fool you, this hike is STEEP.

The gradient quickly begins and for about 40 minutes, you’ll be climbing up a steep gravel/rock path through a forest. At around 1.5km in, you’ll need to climb up a steep bit of rock. This is fine when it’s dry, but I can imagine it would be lethal in the rain/wet. It’s only a short part though so don’t let this put you off the hike.

Rock on Isthmus Peak
Rock on Isthmus Peak

Thankfully, there’s a brief break and the incline flattens out and takes you through the rolling countryside. Enjoy this, it’s the last bit of flat gradient for a while!

The switchbacks soon begin and they are pretty relentless. I don’t have much advice for this, other than keep moving. The views are fantastic and they only get better as you walk up. Remember to look behind you too. There will be some beautiful rocks/ridges that come into sight and provide one epic photo.

Brief flat part - Isthmus Peak
Brief flat part - Isthmus Peak

Once you see the toilet, you’re roughly 1.5km from the peak. There’s more one steep climb to go, but the views from the top are breathtaking and well worth the effort.

Can you hike Isthmus Peak in winter?

It’s possible to hike Isthmus Peak in winter but you’ll need to be prepared. It’s not uncommon for snow and ice to cover the tracks which could be dangerous. If snow or ice are present, you’ll need to be an experienced hiker with the correct winter equipment.

I hiked Isthmus Peak at the end of August. There was a tiny bit of snow and ice on some parts of the trail but it was manageable.

Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak

You can contact the Department of Conservation to check the current trail conditions and if the hike is safely doable.

Which is better: Isthmus Peak or Roys Peak?

Roys Peak vs Isthmus Peak: which has better views?

This is almost impossible to answer. Both have very similar views, both incredible. I’d argue Isthmus has a little more variation. On the way to the summit, there are fantastic views of Lake Hawea. Once you reach the summit of Isthmus Peak, you’ll also get breathtaking views of Lake Wanaka.

Roys Peak offers incredible views of Lake Wanaka and has *that* famous viewpoint. The views are a little less varied than those of Isthmus Peak however.

The one thing Isthmus lacks is that one standout viewpoint. But there are plenty of fabulous photo spots on the Isthmus Peak hike.

Roys Peak
Roys Peak

Roys Peak vs Isthmus Peak: which is busier?

Without a doubt, the busier of the two trails is Roys Peak. Roys Peak is one of the most famous hikes in New Zealand as thousands of hikers try to get *that* famous photo. This often means a busy trail and queues for the viewpoint.

When I did the Roys Peak hike, I left at 7am to get ahead on the trail. Once I reached the viewpoint, there were already a few people there and I had to wait my turn for the photo.

On the way down, I couldn’t believe the amount of people heading up there. If you’re planning to hike Roys Peak, I’d recommend leaving as early as possible.

I’ve written all about hiking Roys Peak here.

Roys Peak vs Isthmus Peak: which is harder?

Both Roys Peak and Isthmus Peak are of a similar level.

The full Roys Peak track is 10 miles (16km) with a 1300 metre (4200ft) elevation change.

Isthmus Peak is 9.7 miles (15.6km) with a 1120 metre (3700ft) elevation change.

If you opt to only hike to the Roys Peak viewpoint and avoid the summit (like most people do), the hikes are pretty much the same.

The Isthmus Peak track is arguably slightly more forgiving in that there are a couple of flatter spots, but it’s uphill the whole way. Roys Peak is also a steep uphill hike.

Honestly, I wouldn’t base your decision on which is easier/harder, they are both very similar and incredibly steep in parts.

Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak

Roys Peak vs Isthmus Peak: which is better?  

I don’t like comparing natural wonders, but if I had to say one, it would be Isthmus Peak. The views easily rival Roys Peak, if anything, they’re slightly better as they’re more varied. The trail itself also has a little more variation.

But the main reason Isthmus Peak comes out on top is the fact very few people know about it. Most hikers rush to Roys Peak instead meaning the track is often crowded.

If you’re looking for a peaceful hike with magnificent views which rival that of Roys Peak, I’d highly recommend Isthmus Peak.

Are there toilets at the Isthmus Peak trail?

Yes, there is a toilet at the start of the trailhead. You’ll also find one towards the summit. You need to bring your own toilet paper.

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