If you’re looking for an alternative hike to the infamous Roy’s Peak, with similar stunning views, Isthmus Peak might be just what you’re looking for. Located about 30 minutes drive from Wanaka, Isthmus Peak is a great substitute for those looking for a challenging hike with rewarding views, but less people.
We’ve all seen the magnificently stunning (and classic) photo of travellers with their arms spread wide, at the top of Roy’s Peak. It’s almost overdone and yet, it’s so beautiful. Who could possibly argue with one’s motivation to want their very own ‘Roy’s Peak photo’.
Why we Chose Not to Hike Roy’s Peak
First, I want to preface this post by explaining why we chose Isthmus Peak over Roy’s in the first place. We always find ourselves wanting to do something a little different, especially if it allows us to steer away from ‘crowded’ spaces. However, there was something else on Brandon’s mind that started the whole process…
Our search for an alternative hike to Roy’s Peak began when we learnt how busy it gets at the top… even during early Spring. I’m sure you’ve all heard about the line-up to get ‘that photo’. I wasn’t too fussed about lining up with others to get the photo, but Brandon didn’t want us to feel rushed or pressured and wanted the perfect shot. Fair enough.
The truth is, Brandon was originally going to propose on this hike 😍. He wanted to have the area basically to ourselves, set the drone up and catch it all on camera. Romantic! 😱. But also, completely impossible at Roy’s Peak. Of course, I didn’t know all this when I set out on my search for alternative hikes, and as it happens, he chose his moment at Mount Cook, which I am forever grateful for. Our moment in Mount Cook was so private and special, you simply could not top it.
Getting There & Starting Point
The Isthmus Peak trailhead is about 30 minutes drive from Wanaka. You can park at Stewart Creek carpark, and you’ll see the start of the trail slightly back up the road.
Total Distance & Walking Time
16km return, over 1,000 metres elevation gain 😬 it’s a long, long steep way.
It should take somewhere between 4 to 7 hours, depending on how fit you are and how many stops you need along the way. The descent actually took us longer than the ascent. It was almost more agonising than the way up.
It was the hardest physical thing I’ve done in a very long time. I am a pretty fit person in general, but the continual uphill climb was so, so tough, I’ll never forget it. Experienced hikers or trekkers have labelled it anywhere between moderate to advanced so 🤷🏼♀️, maybe I’m just a baby.
Views on Offer
This hike easily gets a 10/10 for views 👌🏼. Climbing Isthmus Peak will see you rewarded with stunning views of Lake Hāwea, rolling green countryside, Lake Wanaka, and the Southern Alps.
I mean seriously… is this real life? ⬇️⬇️
Snacks to Bring
Be sure to bring plenty of water. I didn’t see any chance to refill our drink bottle along the way. We also took some sandwiches to eat at the top, fruit, muesli bars, packets of chips, and some jelly snakes for some energy.
As much as you don’t want to be carrying too much, pack whatever snacks you can imagine wanting when all you want to do is turn around and give up. I was at that point, hands down 😂.
Overall Summary of our Hike
Now that you have all the important information, let me tell you a little bit about our hike.
We started off nice and early, around 8:30am. Bag packed full of snacks and Brandon’s camera gear, and excited for the hike ahead. It was a beautiful clear day, perfect for hiking.
The trail starts off lovely and gentle, winding through the shady forest. Before long, we are climbing up what feels like a super steep rock face, and are thinking ‘What the hell have we gotten ourselves in to?!’. This part doesn’t last too long and our panic starts to ease.
The path winds over undulating paddocks at the base of the mountains, past somewhat friendly cows trying to eat their grass in peace. Looking up across the land, it’s hard to tell where the path may lead. At this point, we are thinking, ‘Okay, we can manage this, this is easy’. Yeah right.
The True Ascent Begins…
Before long, the gentle part is over and we are locked in a relentless uphill climb, or battle if you will. We kept thinking to ourselves, surely the trail flattens out a bit soon, surely. We were basically begging with Mother Nature to miraculously change the gradient of the walk before our very eyes, for our sanity.
You may think I am being dramatic, but we went through many, many emotions over our 2.5 hour climb to the top. I think the part that got us the most, is that there are literally at least 7 false peaks.
Each time, you’re in the middle of a particularly steep section, and up ahead, you think you’re seeing the summit. You push yourself onwards to the ‘top’ and bam, another climb to be made. Heartbreaking 😭.
Reaching the Summit
Eventually, after plenty of bargaining with ourselves and plenty of jelly snakes for moral support, we reach the summit 🎉. It is a relief if I’ve ever felt one.
Of course, we are so glad that we didn’t quit (like we could have anyway!). The views from the summit are more beautiful than you could have anticipated, and it’s hard to know which way to look. The summit boasts 360 degree views of Lake Wanaka, Lake Hāwea and the Southern Alps. And, we see only one other person at the top, who is leaving anyway – crazy right?
It’s quite windy at the summit so we have to rug back up over our sweaty shirts 🤮, and we sit to eat our lunch. We are in awe of the views, and that we have this moment to ourselves.
‘I live here now’ is a joke that we often say to one another when we are stuck in an awkward or tough position – normally when we are skiing and fallen over. This was said many times over the hike up, and certainly at the summit. Not a bad place to live though right 🤷🏼♀️.
After spending about 40 minutes at the top, we are cold and wind blown. I don’t want to leave the stunning views behind, but we know the way down will take just as long. Plus, we are refreshed now and ready to start again.
We stop a lot on the way down to take lots of photos and videos and try and enjoy the process a bit more than the way up 😬. The descent does take a little bit longer than the ascent even without the stops, as it’s quite tough on the knees.
We joke and wonder whether we’d be in different spirits if we had’ve gotten engaged at the summit, or if we would still be finding the slow descent agonising. We are in agreeance that Mount Cook was still the best decision 😂
Would we Hike Isthmus Peak Again?
If I’m completely honest, probably not 😬. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Despite the fact that it was excruciatingly challenging for us, the views were spectacular and we felt a sense of accomplishment reaching the summit. I don’t regret doing this hike one little bit, I just wouldn’t put myself through that torture (knowingly) ever again.
I can’t help but wonder if we would’ve tackled it differently if we’d had some insight into just how challenging it was going to be. Who knows 🤷🏼♀️. That’s why I wanted to be so blatantly truthful and even a little overdramatic in this post. So that maybe, you will go in prepared for the ultimate torture, and find it to be a pleasant adventure.
We like to think that we are adventurous, and we are. But this was our first ‘real’ hike. And we particularly prefer adventures with some help to remove some of the hardest parts – like chairlifts and snowcats to help us reach the top of the mountain 😂.
In any case, if you’re fit and love to hike, you will no doubt love Isthmus Peak. Secluded from the crowds of Roy’s Peak, you will likely have the trail mostly to yourself. I think we passed only a dozen other people during the whole 5 hours. Isthmus Peak is challenging, incredibly scenic and stunningly beautiful – what else could you want from a hike?
Have you hiked Roy’s or Isthmus Peak? Or both? Which one did you prefer and why? I’d love to know! Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below ☺️