Drive to Lake Heron Ashburton Lakes

Ashburton Lakes: A Guide to New Zealand’s High Country

Last Updated: 22nd September, 2023

Nestled in the breathtaking Canterbury high country of New Zealand’s South Island, the Ashburton Lakes are a hidden gem waiting to be explored! In this travel guide, I’ll introduce you to this raw and remote high-country wonderland, revealing its stunning lakes, magnificent mountain vistas, and incredible variety of outdoor activities.

Lake Heron Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

Exploring the Ashburton Lakes

Where are the Ashburton Lakes?

The Ashburton Lakes are located in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island, northwest of the town of Ashburton. These lakes are found in New Zealand’s incredible high country, and are nestled in the foothills of the magnificent Southern Alps.

This area is found in the heart of the incredible Hakatere Conservation Park, which stretches nearly 60,000 hectares of rugged mountain country between the Rakaia and Rangatata Rivers.

This area is an incredible hidden gem, and is not on many tourist maps! Its raw and magnificent high-country beauty is still largely untouched, with no shops or hotels in sight – making visiting this region an incredibly unique experience.

What is the Best Time to Visit?

The best time of the year to explore Ashburton Lakes is during late Spring to early Autumn (November – March). During this time the weather is typically warm and sunny, with temperatures ranging from 15°C- 27°C – making it the perfect weather for swimming in the lake or hiking around the area! This is also the time of the year when it has the warmest average overnight temperatures (around 7°C – 14°C), which is ideal if you are wanting to camp overnight in this incredible region.

We visited the Ashburton Lakes in the middle of January, and it was the perfect time to come and spend a night away in this gorgeous, remote part of New Zealand. Even though this is peak tourist season, it still felt incredibly quiet and secluded, and we had a huge section of campground at Lake Camp all to ourselves!

Ashburton Lakes Canterbury in winter

That being said, visiting the Ashburton Lakes during the winter months is a completely magical experience! As it is located in the high country, there is often snowfall, turning the region into a winter wonderland and creating incredible reflections of the snowy mountains in the glassy lakes – a photographers dream!

Top tip: It’s important to be aware that the Ashburton Lakes are part of the Canterbury High Country, and the weather can fluctuate and change very quickly! Check out the weather forecast here before heading off, and pack a few extra layers of clothing.

How to get to the Ashburton Lakes

The Ashburton Lakes are about an hour (63km) from Ashburton, and just under two hours (133km) from the heart of Christchurch. Once you reach Mt Somers, head northwest out on Ashburton Gorge Road and off you go! If you are looking at heading to Lake Clearwater, continue along this road as it turns into Hakatere Potts Road, and it will take you directly past Lake Camp and Lake Clearwater.

driving through Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

Know Before You Go!

There is almost no cell phone service within the Ashburton Lakes District , with the last decent signal being in Mt Somers – so its a good idea to download a map of the area before you head off. You will find bits of service at the top of some of the hills, as we found out when we went for a hike and our phones started buzzing!

There is also no food shops or other amenities around the lakes, with the closest fuel station being in Mt Somers, and the closest supermarket being in Methvan! Its a good idea to plan ahead and stock up before heading into Ashburton Lakes.

The Ashburton Lakes

The Ashburton Lakes District includes several lakes and surrounding mountains within the heart of the Hakatere Conservation Park, and is flanked by the roaring Rangitata River to the south.

Map of Ashburton Lakes: Places of Interest

1. Lake Heron

Lake Heron, one of the largest lakes in the Ashburton Lakes region, is breathtaking to see with its deep turquoise waters set against the backdrop of the Southern Alps. This high country lake is easy to access and very secluded, so you will rarely find it busy! This lake is the perfect base for a variety of outdoor activities, including fishing, kayaking, or hiking.

Lake Heron in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

You can also visit the Lake Heron Kettle Holes – a part time wetland that was formed by chunks of ice falling off a retreating glacier! This creates a unique habitat, and the flowering plants that live there are mostly very small and rare.

How to get here:

From the township of Mt Somers, follow the signs towards the Ashburton Lakes. After around 20 minutes (23km) you will reach the historic Hakatere Historic Town, where there is a right-hand turn onto Hakatere Heron Road. From this point, the road becomes a classic kiwi gravel road, although its smooth and pretty manageable to drive. Follow this road until you reach the shores of Lake Heron!

2. Lake Clearwater

Lake Clearwater is one of the most popular lakes to visit in the Ashburton Lakes District, and is a great spot for the classic kiwi summer holiday! This area is popular with locals, and there is around 100 permanent holiday homes along the shores of the lake (including some you can rent!). There is also a campground at Lake Clearwater located right on the lakefront, which uses an honesty box at the gate and costs $5 per person per night. This is an incredible place to stay, but can get quite busy in the summer months as it is first in, first served!

Lake Clearwater Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

This is a fantastic spot to get out on the water and enjoy the tranquil surroundings. Motor boats aren’t allowed on Lake Clearwater, and so its perfect for a gentle kayak or paddleboard around the glassy lake, especially on a calm day.

3. Lake Camp

The beautiful Lake Camp is located right opposite Lake Clearwater, and is the first lake you will see as you drive down Haketere Potts Road. This is one of the smaller Ashburton Lakes, however it is extremely popular as it is the only lake in the area that permits motor boats! During the summer months, it is busy with people water skiing, biscutting, and kitesurfing!

Lake camp foreshore in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

There is also an area for freedom camping at Lake Camp, and this was one of the best spots I’ve stayed at in New Zealand. Although the lake was busy during the day, there was almost no-one there overnight, and so we had the whole place to ourselves! There is also a new toilet block available, with very clean and modern toilets.

Camping at Lake camp in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

How to get here:

From Mt Somers, turn onto Ashburton Gorge Road heading northwest toward the Ashburton Lakes. The road will take you past the historic buildings of Haketere Historic Town, before turning into Hakatere Potts Road. From here, the road becomes gravel, and travels for 10km until you reach Lake Camp (to the left) and Lake Clearwater (to the right).

4. Lake Emma and Lake Roundabout

Lake Emma and Lake Roundabout are two smaller lakes is nearby to the popular Lake Camp and Lake Clearwater, and are fantastic spots for mountain biking or just enjoying the serene landscape. They are usually a lot less busy than the other lakes, as they are only accessible by a 4WD road leading from Hakatere Potts Road. This is best accessed in the summer months, when the ground is more likely to be solid and not too muddy!

Lake Emma in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

5. Maori Lakes

The Maori Lakes are a collection of beautiful, small lakes that you will see on the left along the drive to Lake Heron on Hakatere Heron Road. They are best to visit on a still day, when you can see the incredible reflections of the surrounding mountains in their depths! They are a lovely place to stop on your drive to Lake Heron.

Awesome Short Walks in Ashburton Lakes

There are a number of incredible trails throughout the Harakeke Conservation Area, ranging from short walks around the lakefront to overnight tramps deep into the surrounding mountains. Here is a short list of some of the best short walks that you can do when visiting the Ashburton Lakes!

1. Mt Guy Summit Walk | Lake Clearwater

  • Walking Time: 3 hours one way
  • Walk Distance: 4.3 km one way
  • Trail Difficulty: A moderately difficult tramping track, with some steep scree sections near the summit

Standing above Lake Clearwater is Mt Guy, a steep mountain that summits at 1319 m. This is quite a challenging track, but the panoramic views over the Ashburton Lakes district are worth every second!

Mt Guy Summit Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

The walk starts near the campground, and follows the shoreline of Lake Clearwater to the base of Mt Guy. This section is lovely and flat, with a well-maintained trail heading through open tussock and grassland. At the eastern point of the lake, the trail crosses over a bridge, and slowly but surely begins the ascent up the mountain.

Mt Guy Hike Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

This is a pretty steep climb that heads almost straight up the side of Mount Guy! It starts out along a clear path through tussock, before turning into a scramble up the rocky scree until you reach the summit. Be prepared for burning legs and lots of rest stops, as this is a challenging uphill! All this is forgotten once you reach the summit however, as you stunning panoramic views over the brilliant blue lakes and craggy Southern Alps!

2. Lake Clearwater Circuit | Lake Clearwater

  • Walking Time: 3 hours
  • Walk Distance: 10.3 km loop track
  • Trail Difficulty: An easy walk around the lake shore, perfect for walking or mountain biking
Lake Clearwater Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

Another (much easier) walkway that you can do from Lake Clearwater campground is the Lake Clearwater Circuit Track. This is an easy loop track that follows the shoreline, with incredible views of the lake and surrounding mountains the whole way! The track is easy to follow and well-maintained, though quite narrow in places. It also takes you past some beautiful and secluded spots along the shoreline, perfect for a picnic or a private swimming spot on a warm summer day!

3. Mt Sunday Summit Track | Mount Sunday

  • Walking Time: 1 hour return
  • Walk Distance: 1.5 km return
  • Trail Difficulty: An easy walking track

This short walk takes you up one of New Zealand’s most famous mountains (though you may not recognise it yet!). The spectacular, sheer-sided Mt Sunday is one of the filming locations in Lord of the Rings, as it was the perfect setting for Edoras – the capital city of Rohan. Even though all of the film props have been removed, it’s not hard to imagine this place as the bustling city in Middle Earth!

This is an easy walk that begins at a car park off Hakatere Potts Road. It travels across flat open grassland, before crossing the Mt Sunday Swing Bridge over an small, swift-moving river. The trail then heads up the side of the hill until you reach the summit of Edoras!

Location: The track begins at a car park off Hakatere Potts Road, around 15 km on from Lake Clearwater. It is well signposted, so just look out for the arrows!

4. Lake Hill Track | Lake Heron

  • Walking Time: 45 minutes
  • Walk Distance: 1.5 km one way
  • Trail Difficulty: An easy walk with a gentle climb up Lake Hill

This is an easy short walk up Lake Hill, which offers incredible views over Lake Heron and the surrounding mountains! This is a very gentle and easy stroll along the lakefront, which takes around 45-minutes one way. There are plenty of awesome spots for photos, especially on a calm day when the lake is glassy and reflecting the mountains.

Location: The track starts at the far car park on the south shore of Lake Heron. As you approach Lake Heron from Mt Somers, take a right-hand turn and follow the road along to the car park at the end.

walks in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury

The Best Accommodation in Ashburton Lakes

1. Lake Heron Station

Lake Heron Station is an iconic working merino farm, located right in the heart of Canterbury’s High Country. This accommodation is nestled at the northern point of Lake Heron, and offers guests a spectacular retreat in the remote Ashburton Lakes!

There is a number of unique and characterful accommodation options at Lake Heron Station, found in lovingly restored historic station buildings. The charming Fishermans Hut is perfect for a romantic weekend escape, while the Lake Heron Cottage is a spacious and comfortable self-contained option for families or groups looking to explore the area! Each accommodation option is stylish and modern, and in-keeping with the beautiful remote surroundings, creating a memorable stay in the Ashburton Lakes District.

Location: 2504 Hakatere Heron Road, Ashburton Lakes

2. Arrowsmith Lodge

Nestled between the rugged Arrowsmith Range and Lake Heron is one of Ashburton Lakes original stations – Arrowsmith Station. This incredible accommodation gives you the opportunity to stay on a high-country working farm, with Merino sheep, Angus cattle and red deer.

Arrowsmith Station accommodation in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury
© 2023 Arrowsmith Station

There are a number of accommodation options available around the Arrowsmith Station, from a luxurious lodge to a rustic campground located right on the shores of Lake Heron. The highlight of the Arrowsmith Station is the Arrowsmith Lodge, former shearers’ quarters that has been converted into luxury accommodation right on the lakefront. Offering a private deck with secluded spa pool and BBQ, 3 bedrooms with modern bathrooms, and a fully equipped kitchen, this accommodation is your home-away-from-home in the magnificent Canterbury high country!

Arrowsmith Station accommodation in Ashburton Lakes Canterbury
© 2023 Arrowsmith Station

Location: Hakatere Heron Road, near the south end of Lake Heron

3. Mt Potts Lodge

Staying at Mt Potts Lodge in the Ashburton Lakes District is the closest you can get to spending a night at Edoras – the fortress city of Rohan! This rustic lodge, situated just south of the the majestic Mt. Sunday, offers a cozy and tranquil retreat in the remote high country.

Mt Potts Lodge offers a variety of different accommodation types, located on the working high country station. These range from a basic campground or rustic bunk rooms for budget-conscious travellers, to modern and comfortable lodge studios and charming self-contained cottages for those looking for a more luxurious getaway.

Location: 2131 Hakatere Potts Road, Ashburton Lakes

4. Lake Clearwater Campground

There is a basic campground located on the southern shores of the beautiful Lake Clearwater. This campground operates on a first come, first served basis, with an honesty box placed at the gate where you can pay the camping fee pf $10 a night.

This campground is incredibly basic, with no power. There are toilets and running water available.

5. Red Cottages Staverley

A little way out of the Ashburton Lakes District, these incredible cottages are a great place to base yourself if you are looking at exploring more of the area! This charming accommodation is located in Staveley, only 40-minutes from Lake Clearwater and the Hakatere Conservation Park.

Red Cottages Staverley are the perfect accommodation option if you are looking for a romantic weekend away. They have options to suit every preference, with the Alford Cottage being charming and rustic, while the Somers Cottage has a more modern and luxurious feel. Each cottage has a comfortable lounge area, including a fireplace for those chilly winter evenings, an outdoor bath, a modern en-suite, and a fully-equipped kitchen.

Location: 4323 Arundel Rakaia Gorge Road, Staverley

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