Lake Wakatipu, South Island, New Zealand

Welcome to the ultimate guide for history, statistics, local fun facts and the best things to do at Lake Wakatipu.

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Lake Wakatipu visitor and community guide

Lake Locations: New Zealand - South Island - Central Otago -

Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand is fuel for myths, a backdrop for Hollywood movies and a destination for adventure seekers. The depths of Lake Wakatipu reach below sea level where native people believe a giant’s heart beats. Its waters were the setting for the movie “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.” The mountains that rim the lake provided the scenery for the movie “Vertical Limit” and just like in the film cliff climbers scale the mountains in search of the ultimate thrill.

A huge glacier carved out what is now Lake Wakatipu 15,000 years ago. It is a narrow lake, three miles at it widest point. Lake Wakatipu is surrounded by mountains that run straight into the lake creating a gorge that is 1,309 feet at its deepest spot. Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand’s longest lake at 50 miles; it is the country’s third largest in overall size. The Dart River feeds Lake Wakatipu at its northern end. It is drained by the Kawarau River which flows out just east of Queenstown.

Lake Wakatipu is unusual for a lake in that it has a tide. Actually it is a large seiche or standing wave. The water rises and falls about four inches in roughly 25 minute cycles. Maori legend states this change is due to the heartbeat of a giant named Matau.

The legend tells Matau was burned to death in his sleep after kidnapping a chief’s daughter. The fire created a massive hole in the ground and melted the ice and snow on the surrounding mountains forming the lake. Lake Wakatipu, which means “hollow of the giant” in Maori, is shaped like a curled-up giant. The head rests at the north end of the lake in the town of Glenorchy. His knees are at Queenstown, and Matau’s feet are at the south end of the lake at Kingston. The legend goes on to say a giant’s heart cannot be destroyed and the beating of Matau’s heart causes the rise and fall of the water. Science attributes the change to variations in atmospheric pressure.

Lake Wakatipu is in an area of extreme changes, from the high elevations of the surrounding mountains to the plunging depths of the lake. It is those extremes that draw many tourists to the area. They come to mountain climb, ski, bike, boat, fish and just sightsee.

The main lake communities at Lake Wakatipu are Glenorchy, Queenstown and Kingston. Glenorchy is at the north end of the lake. Glenorchy and the surrounding Dart and Routeburn Valleys are also where a unique grey-green greenstone is found. This stone is important in the Maori culture, traveling a great distance in search of the stone.

Glenorchy, a tiny village of 200 residents, is called the “Gateway to Paradise” because of its famous hiking trails or as they are called in New Zealand, the tramping tracks. Routeburn, Greenstone and Caples are several well traveled trails near Glenorchy. The town is also the heart of the South Westland World Heritage area. This area was granted World Heritage status because of its universal natural and cultural value. Two parks in this area border Glenorchy and are a must visit when traveling to Lake Wakatipu. They are Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park.

Mount Aspiring National Park is named after one of New Zealand’s highest peaks. The Routeburn Track runs through the park and into Fiordland National Park, and in the summer you can travel it for a valley walk (a walk that takes you from valley to valley using mountain passes). A visit to the park promises alpine lakes, glaciers and views of the Southern Alps. Rock forms are a striking feature of this park. The “great divide” of the Southern Alps is a breathtaking example. Jet boating, mountaineering, and heli-skiing are some of the activities park goers enjoy.

The Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest park, occupying most of the land on the south island’s west coast. The scenery in Fiordland is some of New Zealand’s most dramatic. The soaring jagged peaks of Mitre Peak are juxtaposed to the depths of Milford Sound. Doubtful Sound is known for its serene atmosphere of the deep fiord. It is still “practically untouched by man.” Hiking and mountain climbing are activities park visitors enjoy. Kayaking and chartered cruises are popular water activities. Tourists also come for the diving and underwater exploring. Plant life is as varied as the topography. You might also catch a glimpse of the Fiordland crested penguins, bottlenose dolphins, and New Zealand fur seals.

Fiordland National Park can be easily accessed by Queenstown which is on the east side of Lake Wakatipu. In this land of extremes, Queenstown has earned the moniker “Adventure Capital of the World.” If your idea of adventure includes bungee jumping, skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, water rafting or skydiving, Queenstown should be on your list of destinations. Queenstown is the third largest city in the Otago region of New Zealand. It has about 10,400 residents. One of the town’s famous landmarks is actually a century old steamship. The TSS Earnslaw took its maiden voyage in 1912. Originally it carried cattle, sheep and people to the high country. Now the refurbished steamship carries tourists on tours of Lake Wakatipu. Vacation rentals offer lake and mountain views and if you are looking for something more permanent, there is real estate available at Lake Wakatipu as well.

29 miles south of Queenstown on the southern most tip of Lake Wakatipu you will find the little township of Kingston. It is named after a rural town in Ireland. It was a major crossroads during the New Zealand gold rush. Now a backwater town, Kingston reached its peak population in the 1860s when 5000 people waited at the town for boats to take them to the Wakatipu goldfields. Kingston offers a restful atmosphere in contrast to the busy, high adventure scene in Queenstown.

Lake Wakatipu is in a land of extremes from the sky scraping heights of the surrounding mountains to the plunging sub-sea level depths of Lake Wakatipu. If you are not seeking the adventure of a mountain climb or paraglide, then the views of a pristine lake against a dramatic mountain backdrop are sure to suit your fancy. The views and adventure opportunities are in abundance no matter what the season.

Custom Lake Wakatipu house decor

Read our full review of these personalized lake house signs.

Things to do at Lake Wakatipu

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking
  • Mountain Climbing
  • Biking
  • Snowboarding
  • Horseback Riding
  • National Park

Best hotels and vacation rentals at Lake Wakatipu

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Lake Wakatipu photo gallery

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Lake Wakatipu statistics & helpful links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Not Dammed

Surface Area: 71,908 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 1,017 feet

Average Depth: 755 feet

Maximum Depth: 1,378 feet

Water Residence Time: 12 years

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