11 Cheap and Free Things to Do in Wanaka, New Zealand
Wanaka was the absolute jewel in the crown of my New Zealand adventure. For its immense natural beauty, abundant outdoor activities, chilled out vibes and friendly faces, it was this little town on South Island that made me feel most at home on the other side of the world. There’s something for everyone and, unlike other popular lakeside destinations around the world, many of the best things to do require little to no money! So, for anyone on a budget planning to spend some time in this incredible place, here are eight cheap and free things to do in Wanaka.
Swim, kayak or sail Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka is the focal point of the town, which is perfectly positioned on the banks of the Lake’s southern end.
In the warmer months of the year, there is nothing better than wandering down to the waterfront, soaking up the sunshine and going for a dip in the icy cool waters of the lake. No money is required for this sublime experience in nature, surrounded by mountains and distant glaciers, cooling off in clear, turquoise waters.
There are numerous platforms and piers to walk along, jump from, or just sit upon, gazing out over the breathtaking views.
Otherwise, if you fancy enjoying the lake in other ways it is possible (and awesome) to hire a boat, paddleboard or a kayak to explore further. Prices vary but for an hour’s kayaking, it’ll set you back around NZD $20 or so.
Visit the Wanaka Willow Tree
While you’re at the lake, you should also take the time to walk along the beach to the now infamous ‘Lone Tree’ (check out #thatwanakatree on Instagram).
This beautiful, lonesome tree, with the immense backdrop of beauty behind it, makes for a striking photo. It’s the perfect place to snap a picture as a memento of Wanaka!
Head to Lake Hawea
Lake Wanaka is incredible, but it can get busy in peak season. So, if you’re after a slightly quieter lakeside experience you could also consider the short, 15 minute drive out to Lake Hawea (exceptionally easy to hitchhike to if you don’t have access to a car).
There is plenty to do around the Hawea Township too, including many of the same Wanaka attractions. There are trails, water sports, picnic areas and campsites to enjoy.
The general vibe feels different here though and offers an opportunity to just chill out in relative solitude on the banks of a mind-blowingly beautiful beach, swimming and cavorting in crystal clear waters.
Wanaka and the surrounding area also has many great opportunities for climbing and bouldering (low level, ropeless climbing).
There’s some bouldering not far from the town itself, or drive an hour or so north (around the western side of the Lake) towards Diamond Lake (more on this coming up!) to find far more routes and varied climbing options.
Of course, to rope climb for free requires having your own gear (or knowing someone who has it) and some climbing know-how. However, the bouldering is totally free for everyone as no gear is required, but having a pair of proper climbing shoes to borrow from someone will be important!
Visit the Blue Pools
Again, this one is slightly outside of Wanaka, but drive an hour up Route 6 around the Eastern side of the Lake and you’ll get to the beautiful Blue Pools.
After a short walk (The Blue Pools Track) you get to the pools themselves: turquoise, glacial waters that seem miraculously clear and serene. Despite the chill factor people swim in the pools too, so take some swimwear!
However, beware of the sandflies! These pesky insects will nibble you to death if you let them, so be sure to take some good insect repellent with you.
Photo by AllWays Rental NZ / CC-BY
Motatapu Gorge swimming hole
This one’s a must do: the Motatapu Gorge swimming hole is an absolutely amazing place to spend the afternoon. The fact that it is entirely free makes it even more special.
The gorge and swimming hole isn’t signposted, so asking a local, or checking google maps, before you go is a good idea. Drive about 20 minutes from town heading around the western side of the lake until you get to Glendhu Bay Campsite.
From here there’s a left turn just opposite onto Motatapu Gorge Road, which you follow all the way along until you get to a sign saying private property. Park up on the right-hand side and follow the trail down to the river.
From here, enjoy the crystal clear waters, jump and dive from rocks into the pools below and explore upstream. It is a remarkable experience but one to be treated carefully: people get into trouble here occasionally with the rapid waters and there was even a recent fatality.
Don’t be put off though. Be sensible and this is sure to be a highlight of your trip.
Hike, Hike, Hike!
The hiking in Wanaka is second to none. The mountainous landscape in which it sits means the walking possibilities are absolutely everywhere. From easy to difficult routes, there’s something for all levels and interests.
Here are a three of my favourites:
The Rob Roy Glacier Track
The Rob Roy glacier is approximately an hour’s drive around the western side of Lake Wanaka, through wonderful landscapes, past waterfalls, farmland and mountains.
You rock up at Raspberry Creek Car Park and set off from there, across valleys, along rivers and through wooded areas, until you reach the glacier itself. The glacier rises high above you, waterfalls stream down from its face on all sides- a natural stadium like none other.
Roy’s Peak is a prominent mountain on the Western side of Lake Wanaka (you’ll pass it on the way to the Rob Roy glacier!). The hike to the top is a popular one among visitors and is a leg and lung buster of a trail. It is well worth the effort though.
Criss-crossing up the face you eventually come to the summit to be rewarded with 360-degree views over Wanaka and the stunning landscapes around. On a clear, sunny day there’s nothing but mountains and lakes all the way to the horizon. It is a staggering view.
Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain Walk
I mentioned Diamond Lake when I was talking about the climbing that’s on offer in and around Wanaka. The lake itself isn’t actually as picturesque as it sounds, but it is a great feature of a hike called the Rocky Mountain Walk.
It’ll take 45 minutes or so by car to get to the car park and the start of the hike. From there you head up and along a cool and relatively easy path to the top of Rocky Mountain, which provides more stunning panoramic views of the area, including the glaciers in the distance.
Photo by Esmée Winnubst / CC-BY
Watch the sunset at Mount Iron
So, technically this one requires a hike as well, but Mount Iron is such a cool thing to do I thought it deserved its own number!
This 250m knoll is only 2km out of town and provides an awesome activity for an afternoon and evening. Make the easy ascent to the top and enjoy fantastic views out over Wanaka and beyond.
Be sure to wait around until the sun sets too. The combination of mountains, lakes and a setting sun makes for an impressive spectacle to end the day with.
For anyone planning a trip to Wanaka in future, you’ll struggle not to have an amazing time. And, even better, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to do so.
Hopefully, this list of budget-friendly activities has provided you with some ideas for what to get up to! Go to New Zealand, head to Wanaka and enjoy the paradise on offer there.
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Do you know of any awesome free things to do in New Zealand? Add it to this list!