If you’re looking for an off the beaten path area in New Zealand with stunning mountain views, lonely gravel roads stretching into the distance and way fewer tourists than you’d find in the more popular regions, consider a road trip through the Hakatere Conservation Park. Located only a couple of hours from Christchurch (or four hours from Dunedin), this area is full of short hikes, tiny lakes and opportunities for everyone’s favourite type of photo – the road photo!
There are so many scenic roads in New Zealand that it’s kind of hard to rank them, but this one is definitely in my top five. This mostly gravel road is flanked by snow-capped mountains and barren farmland / tussocks while occasionally passing by shimmering lakes and the Rangitata River. We drove this road as far as Mount Sunday (actually, a little further before turning around) and the scenery just keeps getting better. We stopped at heaps of places along the way, so keep reading!
Lake Emma / Lake Roundabout
These small lakes, located down a short road off the main Hakatere-Potts Road, make for a nice place to get out and stretch your legs after a long drive. You can walk to both lakes and the views here offer a glimpse of what’s in store for the rest of the drive.
Lake Clearwater / Lake Camp
The small settlement of Lake Clearwater looks like some kind of hipster trailer park. It seems like a great place for a bach (holiday home) and I’m guessing almost no one lives there permanently. We hiked a bit of the Lake Clearwater Circuit Track and saw some great views. Unfortunately the water was a little rough for reflections, but I’ve seen some amazing photos of this place in the right conditions. Lake Camp is right next to Lake Clearwater and has a nice beach area.
Lord of the Rings fanatics will instantly recognise Mount Sunday as the fictional city of Edoras in the Kingdom of Rohan. The rest of us will struggle to recall that information but will be blown away by the scenery nonetheless. It takes around 90 minutes to walk to the top of Mount Sunday and back and you’ll struggle to find a more scenic walk of that length. Mount Sunday is located 48 km from Mount Somers (the turnoff from the main road) and is as far as most people go. We did continue driving for a while, but the nagging petrol gauge meant we soon had to turn around.
We drove back the way we came and took Hakatere-Heron Road (an offshoot of Ashburton Gorge Road / Hakatere-Potts Road) which leads to Lake Emily and Lake Heron. We first passed by the Maori Lakes before parking the car up and starting the hike to Lake Emily. If you have a FWD you can drive most of the way, but it’s a rough road and not suited to cars like ours. The hike to Lake Emily and back took us around two hours and offered up some awesome views. It was also incredibly quiet – we saw one other person (towards the end of the hike) and we both felt it was one of the more off the beaten path hikes we’ve done in New Zealand.
The final stop for the day was at Lake Heron, a small lake once again surrounded by snow-capped mountains. You’ll never get sick of the views in the Hakatere Conservation Park! We explored the lakeside areas for a bit and drove around the top of the lake to get a different angle. There’s a camping ground at Lake Heron and it would be a good place to stay. Instead we drove to Methven, the largest town in the area.
We stayed at the Methven Camping Ground ($29 for two people). It was the first time we’d slept in the car for months and it meant we finally got to trial our new car-sleeping set-up. I bought some sun lounger cushions from the Warehouse a few months earlier and they were so much more comfortable than our old airbed. I think they cost about $10 each and I recommend anyone sleeping in a station wagon (which is very common for people travelling New Zealand) to consider it. It was the best night sleep we have had in our car so far. We ate dinner in Methven (Dom’s Pizza and Kebabs — it was good!) and got an early night.
The Rakaia Gorge Walkway
This place isn’t in the Hakatere Conservation Park, but it’s close enough and it’s something you should consider doing while in the region. It took us around 3.5 hours to walk the whole way and the views of the gorge and surrounding mountains / farmland are beautiful. It’s a fairly easy walk and if you’re in a hurry you can just walk to the first viewpoint (one hour return), although the views keep getting better the further you go.
Other Places to Visit
There a several walks we missed in the Hakatere Conservation Park. You can walk between most of the lakes and could spend days hiking in this area. There’s no point trying to cram everything in though as there’s always something you’ll miss. We had planned to visit Lake Coleridge and do the Peak Hill Track (I heard it’s one of the best hikes / viewpoints in the Canterbury High Country), but it was really windy and it would have been a bit miserable. We did some research and saw there is heaps to do in the Lake Coleridge area, so we put it on hold for a while. Skiing and snowboarding is popular in this part of New Zealand. Mount Hutt is close to Methven and we considered driving up there for the views, but it was closed (I’m guessing due to the strong winds).
Are you planning a road trip through New Zealand? Which places are you most excited about visiting? Let me know in the comments below!
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Saturday 18th of January 2020
If you had to choose between Rakaia Gorge walkway or mt Sunday, which would you choose? Thanks.
Wednesday 22nd of January 2020
Hey Stephen, I'd probably go with Mount Sunday -- you'll see more on the way there too.