Lake Pukaki

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

Last Updated: 25th September, 2023

Nestled in between the iconic landmarks of Aoraki Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo in Canterbury is the stunning Lake Pukaki. This alpine lake is a must-visit destination on your South Island road-trip, with vibrant turquoise water and incredible views over the surrounding Southern Alps! In this post, I will tell you all you need to know about visiting Lake Pukaki, including how to get there, the best time to go, and what you should do once you’re there!

Lake Pukaki Viewpoint

Where is Lake Pukaki?

Lake Pukaki is located in the Canterbury region of the South Island of New Zealand, right in the heart of the stunning Mackenzie Basin. It is the largest of the three alpine lakes in the area, with Lake Tekapo to the east and Lake Ōhau to the west. The closest town to Lake Pukaki is Twizel, which is around 10 minutes drive south, and acts as a fantastic base for those exploring this incredible region!

What sets Lake Pukaki apart is its proximity to some of New Zealand’s most iconic natural wonders. Just a short drive away, you’ll find Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, home to the country’s tallest peak, Mount Cook (Aoraki).

Map of Lake Pukaki

The Best Time to Visit Lake Pukaki

In my opinion, the best time to visit Lake Pukaki is in the late spring/ early summer months (November – January). During this time, the weather begins to warm, and the landscape gradually comes back to life! This is just before the peak tourist season, and so you can enjoy the peaceful lakefront without tour buses and screaming kids ruining the tranquil surroundings. This is also the perfect time for hiking and exploring Mt Cook, with daytime temperatures averaging 13°C – toasty!

Driving from Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook

Getting to Lake Pukaki

Getting to Lake Pukaki is one of the most scenic journeys in New Zealand, as the trip travels through the stunning Mackenzie Basin and around the foothills of the magnificent Southern Alps. There are several options for travels to choose from, depending on their preferences and starting point:

By Car

Renting a car is one of the most popular and flexible ways to reach Lake Pukaki. State Highway 8, also known as the Southern Alps Scenic Route, provides a picturesque road-trip from major cities like Christchurch (about a 3.5 hour drive) and Queenstown (about a 3 hour drive). The road winds through incredible high-country landscapes, through charming towns and past alpine lakes, making the journey itself an unforgettable experience.

Public Transport

There is no public transport directly to the shores of Lake Pukaki, however there are a number of services that operate routes to nearby Twizel or Mount Cook, and often include stops at Lake Pukaki. InterCity has a route travelling between Christchurch and Queenstown, which includes stops at Twizel and Lake Tekapo. If you are looking for a longer tour, then check out the half-day tour with Great Sights from either Christchurch or Queenstown – with fantastic guides and lots of stops to explore along the way, this is a great way to make the most out of the journey!

Lake Pukaki New Zealand

All you Need to Know about Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki is a beautiful alpine lake renowned for its surreal turquoise-blue waters and stunning mountain backdrop. The lake covers an area of approximately 178.7 square kilometers (111 square miles) and is fed by glacial waters from the nearby Tasman and Hooker glaciers – making it absolutely freezing!

What makes Lake Pukaki truly distinctive is its vibrant blue color, which is a result of fine glacial sediment, known as “rock flour,” suspended in the water. This natural phenomenon creates the vivid turquoise hue of the water that make these lakes so famous!

6 Awesome Things to Do at Lake Pukaki

1. Soak up the Incredible Scenery!

Honestly, one of my favourite things to do at Lake Pukaki is just sit on a rock and stare at the view. And I could do this for hoooours. The contrast of the vibrant-turquoise water with the golden high-country tussock and the craggy snow-capped mountain peaks is breathtaking, and one of my favourite landscapes in New Zealand! Thankfully, there are a number of incredible lookouts around the shores of Lake Pukaki, giving you the best possible views over this magnificent lake!

Picnic and Lake Pukaki Viewpoint

Map of the Best Viewpoints around Lake Pukaki

  1. Hayman Road Lookout: This is the first viewpoint you will come across on the drive from Lake Tekapo, and is an incredible place to stop and take in the view! With views all the way up the lake, as well some basic facilities (a picnic table and a toilet), this is an awesome spot to have lunch and enjoy the scenery.
  2. Visitor Center: Just a little way on from the Hayman Road Lookout is a large carpark, alongside the Mt Cook Alpine Salmon Shop and the Punatahu Visitors Center. There is a number of benches here where you can sit here and take in the view (while tucking into some delicious fresh salmon!) before having a wander around the Visitors Center. There are also some well-maintained toilets.
  3. Mountain Reflections: This viewpoint is a lot quieter than the others, and so is fantastic for getting photographs of the lake! The spot is perfect to visit on a calm, sunny day, where you can see the incredible reflections of the mountains in the glassy lake surface.
  4. Peter’s Lookout: This is quite possibly one of the most popular lookouts around Lake Pukaki – and for good reason! This viewpoint gives you 180° views over the lake, including the incredible snow-capped peak of Aoraki Mt Cook. This viewpoint is designed to handle lots of visitors, with a good-sized car park, basic toilets, and a few picnic tables where you can sit an enjoy.
  5. Aoraki Mt Cook Scenic Lookout: Along this section of road is the famous view of the Mt Cook road, and popular photographers destination! With the winding road, the vivid Lake Pukaki and the magnificent Mount Cook National Park in the background, what more could you want! Top Tip: This section of road is not an official viewpoint, and so there is no designated carparking. Be careful when you stop here, and pull over safely before hopping out to take some photos!
Mountain Reflections at Lake Pukaki

2. Walk around the shoreline of Lake Pukaki

There are a number of walking and hiking tracks around Lake Pukaki, ranging from short strolls around the lakefront to longer hikes into the beautiful Mackenzie High Country! This is one of my favourite areas to hike around, as you are guaranteed to enjoy amazing views over the lake, and nothing feels better than breathing in that fresh alpine air!

Lake Pukaki Foreshore Walkway

  • Walkway Distance: 6.5 km
  • Walking Time: 2 hours
  • Trail Difficulty: An easy stroll along a well-maintained path

The Lake Pukaki Foreshore Walkway is a fantastic half-day walk around the southern end of Lake Pukaki, and is an amazing way to enjoy the sights of the lake and the Southern Alps! It begins at the Visitors Center carpark, and follows a series of 4WD and grassy tracks around the foreshore, all the way until you reach the Haymans Road lookout and picnic area.

walking the foreshore at Lake Pukaki

This is an awesome walk to do no matter your timing, as you can basically join onto the trail anywhere between these two points! There are a number of car parks off the State Highway 8, and so you can just walk as much as you fancy before turning back and returning the way you came.

Location: Lake Pukaki Car Park, 5098 Tekapo-Twizel Road

3. Take a Day Trip to Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park

One of the best things to do around Lake Pukaki is to take a day-trip into the magnificent Mount Cook National Park. This stunning alpine reserve is home to the highest mountains and longest glaciers in New Zealand, including the famous Aoraki Mount Cook!

The park is named after Aoraki (Mount Cook), which is New Zealand’s highest peak, standing at 3,724 meters (12,218 feet). The iconic mountain dominates the skyline and is a major attraction for mountaineers and tourists!

The drive from the southern shores of Lake Pukaki to the Aoraki Mount Cook Visitors Center takes just under an hour (57km) along the SH80, and is hands down one of the most beautiful drives in the South Island. There are a number of fantastic viewpoints along the route (see above), where you can stop and take in the incredible scenery and the views over Mt Cook!

Mt Cook view at Lake Pukaki

The route leads to Aoraki/ Mt Cook Village, which is a small alpine village nestled at the base of the Southern Alps, and provides a comfortable base for exploring the national park! Start by visiting the Mt Cook Visitors Center for information on the area (including the all-important weather forecast) before heading out into the alpine tarns on one of the many incredible short walks in the area! There are also a number of cosy cafes and restaurants in the village, which are perfect to visit after a day of exploring this stunning region.

Location: 1 Larch Grove, Canterbury 7999, New Zealand

4. Try some of the Best Salmon in New Zealand

Calling all seafood lovers! If you want to try some of the best freshwater salmon in New Zealand, then this is the place for you. The Mt Cook Alpine Salmon Shop is found right beside the visitors center on the southern shores of Lake Pukaki, and serves up some absolutely incredible salmon sashimi!

What makes this salmon special (and so damn tasty) is that it is raised in the swift, cold currents of the Tekapo Canal only a few kilometers from the shop! In here, the water is fresh and flows constantly, creating a pure and natural environment without the use of pesticides and antibiotics.

If you are keen to try some of this incredible salmon, but are looking for a more fine-dining experience, then you can head over to Lake Tekapo and have dinner at the Blue Lake Eatery! They have a focus on using locally-sourced ingredients, and have created some pretty incredible dishes with Mt Cook Alpine Salmon.

5. Frolick through a Lavender Farm

Wandering through fields of lavender is a delightful experience, and a great place to stop and relax (and take some stunning photos!). Located along the drive from Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook, NZ Alpine Lavender Farm is the largest organic lavender farm in the Southern Hemisphere! It costs $5 to enter the fields, where you can enjoy the incredible floral smell, and take some incredible photos of the lavender with the Southern Alps in the background!

The best time to visit is in the summer months, when the purple lavender is in full bloom, and creates a stunning contrast with the blue of the lake. They also have a shop on site that offer home-made good, such as oils, soaps, and fresh lavender ice creams – bliss!

Lavender Farm Lake Pukaki
© 2023 New Zealand Alpine Lavender®

Location: 657 Mount Cook Road, Ben Ohau

6. Visit Lake Tekapo

If you aren’t absolutely sick of stunning scenery and vibrant blue glacial lakes by this point, then an awesome day-trip from Lake Pukaki is visiting the nearby Lake Tekapo! This is another alpine lake in the Mackenzie Basin

Lake Tekapo near Lake Pukaki

Lake Tekapo is approximately a 30-minute drive (39km) from the Lake Pukaki Visitors Center, and is a great place to base yourself while you’re exploring this incredible region!

The highlight of visiting Lake Tekapo is exploring Lake Tekapo Village, a small township that is nestled right on the southern shores. This small village offers a number of things to do and see, as well as having some fantastic restaurants and cafes to visit!

Lake Tekapo Foreshore near Lake Pukaki

Things to Do in Lake Tekapo:

  • Lake Tekapo is renowned for its clear night skies, making it an excellent spot for stargazing. The nearby Mount John Observatory offers guided stargazing tours and is a must when in the area!
  • There are some awesome short walks and hikes around Lake Tekapo, taking in the fantastic views over the lake and the Mackenzie Basin.
  • If you are looking for something a little more luxurious, then take a moment to relax in the popular Tekapo Springs hot pools!

Dining and Accommodation:

  • Lake Tekapo has a range of dining options, from casual cafes to restaurants with lakefront views. It’s a great place to enjoy local cuisine while taking in the scenery.
  • Accommodation options in Lake Tekapo include hotels, motels, holiday parks, and even stargazing cottages. Be sure to book in advance, especially during the peak tourist season.

FAQs: Visiting Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

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