In the heart of South Island, Lake Pukaki is one of the jewels of New Zealand. The intense blue color of the lake contrast with the surrounding mountains and the snow covered Aoraki / Mount Cook summit. Below is a guide with the top things to do at Lake Pukaki, some hiking options, accommodation suggestions and information about camping at Lake Pukaki.
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3 top things to do at Lake Pukaki
Let's start with my choice of the 3 best things to do at Lake Pukaki.
Admire the view of Mount Cook and the color of the lake - Shore Walk & Lookouts
Whatever the weather it is fascinating to walk a little on the South shore of Lake Pukaki.
On a clear day (as in the picture above) you have magnificent view of the Aoraki / Mount Cook summit, which is the highest mountain in New Zealand.
But even on a cloudy day, when Aoraki is not visible, the lake remains beautiful with fascinating colors and beautiful mountains. I even enjoyed waves one day, as you can see in the picture below.
It is some of the best scenery in New Zealand (see my Top 50)
Drive to Mount Cook on State Highway 80
Even if you don't do any hiking,
and even if Mount Cook is in the clouds,
I recommend driving towards Mount Cook. The road is along the West shore of Lake Pukaki. It offers stunning views with mountains, the lake and the glacial valley.
But it will be a once in a lifetime moment if Mount Cook is visible.
Complete 1 glacier hike
The area is a paradise for hikers.
There are many options for every fitness level: short 30min return walks, 3 hour non technical hikes or hikes for experienced hikers.
The 2 most famous are the Tasman Glacier Walk and the Hokker Valley Track. They both take you to lookouts over glacier tongues.
You will find more information further down in the article.
Planning Tips - Lake Pukaki New Zealand
Where is Lake Pukaki - Map
- Located in the Heart of South Island, it is a must stop of any NZ road trip
- Between Queenstown and Christchurch
- Queenstown to Lake Pukaki Visitor center =2h30 drive
- Wanaka to Lake Pukaki Visitor center = 1h45 drive
- Christchurch to Lake Pukaki Visitor center = 3h30 drive
- You can located Lake Pukaki on the map below - to see how to include it in your South Island itinerary (see my suggestions)
Be overwhelm by the beauty, not the planning!
Find out more detailed and practical maps to plan your trip in my eBooks:
Getting there and around
- To explore the area you would need a car
- Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki shore = 30min drive
- Twizel to Lake Pukaki = 10min drive
- Visitor Center to Mount Cook village = 45 min drive on the west shore of the lake
- From Christchurch
If you are staying in Christchurch and want to discover this jewel, you can do a day trip - check out the program and book
- From Queenstown
If you are staying in Queenstown, you can also book a day trip to the region - check out this small group adventure option and book
Planning to rent a car in New Zealand? Check out the local company Snap Rentals
I selected it myself and paid my rental in full.
- They were very nice and responsive, they pick you up and drop you off at the airport
- The car I rented was in perfect condition
- In addition, they have all-inclusive insurance packages with AAA roadside assistance, which means I didn't have to worry (I think it's worth the price)
Mount cook village and Twizel
There is no settlement on the shores of Lake Pukaki.
The closest village to the Lake are Twizel to the South and Mount Cook village (tourist hub) at the North end.
Lake Pukaki accommodations
I recommend staying nearby at least one night to increase your chances of seeing Mount Cook out of the clouds and also to enjoy the stargazing in the Dark Night reserve - Book your stargazing tour
- The closest option to the observatory is the town of Tekapo. Book early! - Check out the accommodation options
- Otherwise, Twizel, just South of Lake Pukaki is a good location to explore the region - See the best rated accommodations in Twizel.
I stayed at the Mountain Chalets Motel. The decor was tired but spacious, and the location was practical - Check out photos and availability
- For those into hiking, Mount Cook village is the best option to be close to all departure points - check out accommodation options and book
See section with more information at the end of this article
About the Blue Lake in New Zealand
About the Lake Pukaki colour
There are actually a few lakes called "Blue Lake" in New Zealand.
However most people who don't remember the name Pukaki refer to this one as the Blue Lake because of its intense color whatever the weather.
Have a look :
The intense color of the Lake (with variations of blue) is because it is a fed by glacial waters.
As they flow down the mountain the water brings glacial flour which is made of extremely fine rock particles.
Lake Pukaki Visitor Center
On the South Shore of Lake Pukaki, you can find a large carpark and the visitor center.
Have a look inside, there are interesting information boards about the Hydro power from the lake, the fauna, the history of the local Maori tribes and the mountains.
The Nhai Tahu are the people who hold authority over this land. It was a central location to gather food.
To them, this lake is 'The Hole in the middle'.
Lake Pukaki has a dam. It is the primary storage lake for the hydro scheme. The others are Lake Tekapo and Lake Ohau. Together they provide "over half of NZ 's hydroelectric storage capacity" according to the info board.
About Mount Cook / Aoraki
On a clear day you have a perfect view of Mount Aoraki, also known as Mount Cook, from Lake Pukaki. This is what males this lake so famous.
It is the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3724m (12218ft).
It is snow capped all year round and the surrounded summits as well.
Inside the visitor, you can seat and enjoy the framed view.
And as it is written: "If you must bow your head, then let it be to the lofty mountain Aoraki".
The Tahr Statue
Outside of the visitor center, you will find the statue of a Thar. I love the look against the mountains and the lake.
In the 1900s dthe New Zealand Tourism developement began introducing game animal to complement the local deer species.
In 1904 5 Himalayan thar were introduced and then 6 other.
Today NZ has the largest population outside of the Native Indian/Nepal region.
Mount Cook Walks and Hikes
The region is famous for its walks and hikes around Mount Cook.
There are options for every fitness and technical levels for just 30min return to full day hikes.
Below are 2 of the most famous walks.
Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker valley track is one of the most famous.
- 3h return walk
- Relatively flat
- several suspended bridge
- You can also do a short version by walking to the Mueller Lookout and back (30min loop)
- It takes you to the Hooker glacier lake where you may be able to touch small iceberg.
- Learn more in my article about the Hooker Valley Track
Tasman Glacier walk
Another easy one with grandiose views is the Tasman Glacier walk.
- You have to drive a few kilometers in another valley
- 30min walk return to the lookout - I counted 333 stairs
- Views of the glacial valley from the staircase and few of the Tasman lake and the Tasman glacier from the lookout (at a distance)
Learn more in my article about the Tasman Glacier Walk
Climbing Mount Cook
Even if you are not an avid climber you may be wondering if it is possible to climb Mount Cook.
It is possible but very difficult since the mountain is heavily glaciated. There are no easy routes. And it is New Zealand's deadliest peak.
The route takes 6 days.
Other activities at Lake Pukaki
Swimming in Lake Pukaki
If you are brave enough, I recommend a refreshing swim in the lake.
The glacial waters were not very warm, but what a place to swim!
Lake Pukaki Stargazing in the Dark Night Reserve
Both Lake Pukaki and Tekapo are beautiful to explore during the day. They are glacial lakes surrounded by mountains.
But they are also located in the Dark Sky Reserve. There is no light pollution at night and, if it is not cloudy, you can enjoy some magnificent views of the stars.
You can even do a tour that includes the observatory near Lake Tekapo - Book your stargazing tour
Or you can just get outside and look up. I am not good at taking pictures of the stars so I don't have any for you. Sorry.
Flights with or without snow landings
Another unforgettable adventure to have is a flight over the area with or without a snow landing.
I wish I had seen those magnificent mountains from the sky!
There is an aerodrome not far from Mount Cook where those flights take off.
Tasman Glacier Boat Tour
One of the Hotels also organizes boat tours with Glacier Explorers from their hotel. It is open to non-guests.
You take a bus to the Tasman valley carpark, then walk to the shore (mostly flat).
And then you hop on a boat to get close to the Tasman Glacier.
I almost did it but was a bit too short in time.
At the South End of Lake Pukaki, you can also learn more about Lavender farms and salmon farms.
The brother Lake - Lake Tekapo and its famous church
If you are going to Lake Pukaki. You should not miss its brother lake Tekapo.
It is only 30min away by car. Yet it offers a very different experience.
It is a 83 square kilometres (32 sq mi) lake at an altitude of 700 metres (2,300 ft) above sea level.
The color is a deep blue.
It is famous for its Church of the Good Shepherd. It opened in 1935. Learn more about it
It can be visited from 9am to 5pm in Summer and 10am to 4pm in Winter
Things to do not far from Lake Pukaki - my favorites
The region is stunning. Simply driving around will fill you with awe.
Below are my 3 absolute favorite places to visit around Lake Pukaki.
The Mt John Observatory
It is a great place at night to see the stars. But even during the day it is worth the climb.
You can either climb on foot from Lake Tekapo or pay the fee to get to the carpark by car (small carpark, so you may have to wait before being allowed inside).
The views of Lake Tekapo and the mountains are breathtaking.
The Omarama Clay cliffs
This was a fantastic surprised.
The clay cliffs of Omarama are colorful and like needles.
You need to drive 7km on a gravel road but then the walk is easy. And you can reach an area where you enter inside the cliff.
More photos and info on my article about the cliffs.
What a surprise to be almost alone on the shore of this stunning lake.
Another glacial lake with blue color and surrounded by mountains but hardly any tourists. What a change from Pukaki and Tekapo.
It deserves the detour (and the road is easy and sealed).
Where to stay at Lake Pukaki - Accommodations
I strongly recommend staying overnight in the region and even 2 nights if you can.
This way you increase your chances with the weather so that:
- you can see Mount Cook out of the clouds
- you can enjoy the stars at night
The small town of Twizel is a practical option to explore the region. You can find accommodation that is cheaper than in Tekapo because you are not on the shore of a lake. It is only a 10min drive from Lake Pukaki and there is a supermarket.
Check out the best rated accommodations in Twizel.
I stayed at the Mountain Chalets Motel.
The decor was tired but the chalet was spacious, and the location was very practical with easy parking - Check out more photos and availability
Mount Cook accommodations
Mount Cook village is purely for tourists and hikers.
It is at the foot of those giant mountains and will allow you to beat the crowds on some of the hikes.
Book early as options are limited and it is very in demand.
Lake Tekapo accommodations
Otherwise if you want to stay by a lake, you should opt for Tekapo. It is only 30min from lake Pukaki.
However this is a location very in demand, so book early!
Check out the accommodation options
Camping at Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki is one of the most appreciated spot to camp in New Zealand.
There are several campsites around lake Pukaki.
The best options are on the South shore to enjoy views of Mount Cook but you can only stay with self contained vehicles now.
So my photo below is not possible anymore. I am sorry.
Camping at Lake Pukaki with certified self-contained vehicle
- My favorite - the Overnight Campervan parking - only of self contained certified vehicles and only for one night - 44°10'58.3"S 170°09'08.0"E
- at the South, a little bit more to the East end, there are Freedom camping areas where only certified self contained vehicles can stay for a limited time (rules of freedom camping)
- On the East shore, The Pines is also a Freedom camping area - so again for self-contained vehicles only - it is often listed as a favorite by travelers - 44°08'04.3"S 170°12'46.2"E
- South of Lake Pukaki, you will also find the Lake Wardell Rest Area
Camping at Lake Pukaki with a tent or any vehicles
- If you have a tent, sadly it does not seem possible anymore to do what I did and camp on the shores of the lake, as there are no facilities and you must be self-contained (fines apply)
- You can head a little south to the Lake Poaka campsite - it is a DOC campsite with toilets but no running water
- And a little bit more South you will find more campgrounds around Twizel which are private with facilities : Twizel Holiday Park and Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park
Camping around Mount Cook
You can also opt to stay at the Northern end of Lake Pukaki, closed to Mount Cook is order to go hiking (see my suggestions above in the article).
- At the North end, you have the Glentanner Park Center - private campsite with facilities - powered and unpowered site
- And 2km North of Mount Cook, niched in the mountains the White Horse Hill Campground, managed by DOC offer fantastic mountain views - tents and campervan options - 43°43'06.1"S 170°05'36.0"E at the beginning of the Hooker Valley Track.
Planning a road trip around New Zealand ?
Check out my eBooks that facilitate the planning of your itinerary:
Be overwhelm by the beauty, not the planning!
Extra Photos of the Pukaki Lake
And let's finish with some extra pictures of the magnificent Lake Pukaki.
This was taken as you drive from Lake Tekapo and you discover the Blue Lake:
Near the overnight campervan parking, you can fin some white rocks of various shapes and sizes:
And look at this one! As I woke up one morning the clouds were low and there was only silence.
Because of the strange light, the water looked like milk. What a unique moment!
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