With snow-capped mountains, beautiful lakes, and many picturesque hikes, the Wanaka region is without a doubt every landscape photographer’s dream. One can easily spend a few days in this amazing area and only get a taste of it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay more than one night before heading to Mt. Cook on the following day. This means I only had one sunset and one sunrise to work with. And while this might not sound like a lot, in this landscape photographer’s mini-guide to Wanaka I provide some tips on how to make the most out of this limited time.
Sunset at Wanaka Tree
For sunset, I recommend heading to the infamous Wanaka Tree. A lonely little tree growing in the water makes for a stunning composition. I know, I know – it’s one of those places that everybody and their mother photographs. Heck, it might even be the most famous landmark in New Zealand. Still, it’s such a lovely view that it would be a shame to leave without a picture of your own. As far as I’m concerned, if you could only have one shot from Wanaka, it should definitely be that of the Wanaka Tree.
Wanaka Tree is great for both sunset and sunrise, but I suggest coming here in the evening. That way you can have another attempt in the morning if the light isn’t ideal. Having said that, I think you can get a good photo here almost in any conditions. You just need to approach the scene a little differently depending on the weather. For instance, the image below was taken at noon the next day, shortly before we left for Mt. Cook. It was raining and the landscape looked nothing like it did at sunset. It was still beautiful though and I like how the photo turned out.
Wanaka Tree is super easy to find. Just park at the lakefront and walk a few meters until you see it. In my experience, long exposures work much better here, so make sure to pack a tripod and an ND filter. With faster shutter speeds the ripple of the lake becomes too much of a distraction in the photo. But don’t keep the shutter open for too long as the leaves shuffled by the wind may end up looking blurry.
Sunrise at Rocky Mountain
If you’re up for an early rise and a bit of exercise, I definitely suggest a sunrise photo from higher up in the mountains. Lake Wanaka and the surrounding hills look incredible from above. Getting to a good vantage point will require some hiking though. There are several good hikes in the area, but the simplest option is probably the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain trail. It’s an hour long journey to the top but the view from the Rocky Mountain summit is absolutely fabulous.
Make sure you’re up for the challenge, however. Rocky Mountain trail is a steep and demanding track, so you need to be reasonably fit. Some sections even involve a little bit of climbing, though nothing too complicated. I suggest hiking counter-clockwise, as it’s a little easier. Since you will be doing it in complete darkness, have a flashlight ready and allow yourself plenty of time. I started out somewhat late and had to push really hard to get to the top before the morning spectacle began. Even so, it took me about 50 minutes and I was completely out of breath when I finally reached the summit.
The view from Rocky Mountain, however, is worth all the sweat and effort. There’s plenty of goodness no matter where you look. To the west, snow-covered mountain ridge is catching the early morning glow. To the east, Lake Wanaka is beautifully illuminated by the sun rising from behind the mountains on the horizon. An absolutely astonishing sight, and New Zealand at its very best. Take an image but also allow yourself a moment to simply enjoy the lovely and peaceful morning.
If You Have More Time
Wanaka Tree and the Rocky Mountain are just the beginning. If your itinerary allows it, I highly suggest staying in Wanaka for a few more days. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful regions of New Zealand, amazing for both landscape photography and simply exploring. Below are just some of my recommendations on what to do if you have more time.
Roys Peak is, without a doubt, Wanaka’s best-known hike and for good reason. The views from up top are fantastic. It’s a long 5-6 hour trail, but an absolute must do. And if you can get to the summit for sunrise or sunset, you’re in for a real treat! Just check some amazing images of it over at Rach Stewart’s website. Roys Peak would definitely have been my first choice over the Rocky Mountain, had it not been closed for lambing in October when we were there. This still makes me upset. Dammit, why do they have to close it for more than a month every year?!
Isthmus Peak is an excellent hike in its own right and probably the closest alternative to Roys Peak if the latter is closed. It is a more demanding climb, but the views are fabulous. Especially if you muster the courage to tackle it in the darkness before sunrise. Honestly, though, you won’t be disappointed no matter when you go. Note that Isthmus Peak also closes annually in late November and early December.
Rob Roy Track
A little further north from Wanaka, Rob Roy Track in Mount Aspiring National Park is an amazing mountain trail with some astonishing vistas. Some even claim it to be one of the most picturesque trails of the South Island of New Zealand. Unfortunately, only the lower section of it is officially open during winter, which is a bit disappointing. Also, the dirt road leading to the track is prone to washouts, so watch the conditions before you go. Unless you have a 4×4, that is.
I was sad to leave Wanaka so soon, without having a chance to see everything it has to offer. But Mt. Cook was calling and with only two weeks in New Zealand, we had to make compromises. For now, I hope this landscape photographer’s mini-guide to Wanaka has been helpful. As always – if you have any comments and questions, let me know! And of course – check out my YouTube video from Wanaka to get a glimpse of what it felt like there.