Lake Tekapo travel guide

Lake Tekapo is the name given to both the lake itself and the small township on its shores (which is often just referred to as ‘Tekapo’).

You’ll find both in the Mackenzie region in Canterbury – near the middle of the South Island. They are situated roughly halfway between two popular destinations – Christchurch and Queenstown.

One of the largest lakes in the Mackenzie Basin, it Lake Tekapo is very impressive! It’s known for its breathtaking backdrop, gorgeous blue colour and for its stargazing opportunities.

For those looking to escape to the outdoors, Lake Tekapo is the perfect destination. Whether you’re travelling as a couple or with little ones, you’ll find plenty to keep you enterained outdoors.

Photographers (particularly astrophotographers), star gazers and aurora hunters will also love Tekapo. It is, after all, part of the Aoraki Mackenzie dark sky reserve.

This guide is going to take you through everything you need to know if you’re looking to visit Lake Tekapo.

The old Tekapo Church, sitting in the middle of a lake.
The Church of the Good Shepherd is a favourite amongst photographers.

An Overview of Lake Tekapo

Population~550 people (Tekapo Township)
RegionCanterbury, South Island
Area 4 km2
Elevation710 metres above sea level
Main attractionsLake Tekapo, Tekapo Springs, The Church of the Good Shepherd, walking trails, stargazing and skiing (during the winter)
Nearby destinationsMount Cook National Park, Timaru, Oamaru, Wānaka and Christchurch

The History of Lake Tekapo

Originanly Māori would head into the Mackenzie Basin to search for food; specifically for the emdemic moa which is now extinct.

At the time, this area was actually known as Takapō in te reo Māori. This translates to “to leave in haste at night”.

It wasn’t until 1855, that Lake Tekapo was discovered by European Settlers. James Mackenzie found this area, hence the name of the wider area, ‘Mackenzie Basin’. James was a sheep rustler, and to hide the sheep he’d often drive them to this area so they remained hidden. Of course, he was eventually caught.

English settlers soon moved into the area, mispelling Takapō. Ever since, it has been known as Tekapo.

In the 1930s, construction began on the Tekapo Hydro Power Station although it wasn’t finished until 1951 due to WWII. Then, due to the Upper Waitaki hydroelectric scheme (in the 1970s) water began to be fed through a canal to ‘Tekapo B’.

Tekapo B is located on the shores of Lake Pukaki which is just a 25-minute drive away, towards Aoraki Mount Cook.

A small log rests on the banks of a calm lake.
Pines Beach on the shores of Lake Tekapo.

The Geography of Lake Tekapo

Millions of years ago, Tekapo was actually part of a seafloor valley. Then, due to the movement of the earth’s plates, the seabed hardened and pushed upwards to form land.

During the last Ice Age, Lake Tekapo was covered by a huge glacier. Eventually, glacier deposits caused the damming of the valley, forming the famous Lake Tekapo.

Although these glaciers have since retreated, you can still them if you take a helicopter ride or head out on a 4WD adventure.

Today, the lake is fed by two rivers; Godley River and Macauley River – both of which start in the Southern Alps.

Surrounding Lake Tekapo is the Two Thumb Mountain Range. Mount John and Mistake Peak are located on the lake’s western side, and Mount Dobson also isn’t far away.

Lupins are a big drawcard in the summer season.

Things to do in Lake Tekapo

For such a small town, Lake Tekapo offers a lot of great activities and attractions.

Lake Tekapo

Of course, the main attraction in town is Lake Tekapo itself. There are plenty of fantastic lookout points in the area where you’ll be treated to epic views; our favourite is the Lake Tekapo Footbridge.

Tekapo Springs

Tekapo Springs is a major drawcard in this area. Boasting hot pools, a sauna, a steam room, and a kid’s area, these pools are equally equipped for relaxation and excitement.

In the summertime they put up a massive inflatable slide and in the wintertime they have an outdoor ice skating rink too.

The Church of the Good Shepherd

This is one of the most popular photography spots on the South Island as the backdrop is breathtaking. Just keep in mind that this icon can get busy.

If you’d like, you’re able to take in a service as this is an operational church. Outside of these, you’re also able to pop inside for memorable views out over the lake.

Tramping/hiking

You’ll find tons of awesome hiking trails in and around Lake Tekapo. Some of the best options include the Mount John Summit Track, the Richmond Trail and Cowan’s Hill Walkway.

Stargazing

Lake Tekapo is in one of only two Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand. It is also one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Simply admire the night sky or head to the Mount John Observatory to join a star gazing tour [promo code NZTTPLAY], looking through powerful telescopes.

Lupins

If you head to Lake Tekapo during lupin season, you’ll be treated to a breathtaking scene. Thousands of pink and purple lupins line the lake and make for the ultimate photograph opportunity.

Expect to see them November to February, with the best displays on offer from early December until mid January.

Skiing

During the wintertime, Lake Tekapo is popular with skiers. The best place to go is the Roundhill Ski Area. This relatively small skifield offers epic views and a family-friendly feeling.

Save Money on Your Visit

As a reader of NZTT, you’re entitled to a range of discounts in the region.

Pick up a bargain through BookMe (no promo code required), or save 10% on anything sold through Klook using the following promo codes:

  • Accommodation – NZTTSTAY
  • Activities, attractions, transport and SIM cards – NZTTPLAY
  • Rental cars – NZTTROADTRIP (pay upfront, not on collection).

Places to Eat in Lake Tekapo

There are a number of great dining options in Lake Tekapo. As it’s a small town, we recommend making reservations in advance, particularly during peak season.

Kohan Restaurant

Kohan Restaurant is Japanese eatery specialises in sushi, bento boxes, and donburi so there’s a lot on offer. It’s a surprisingly authentic find and is one of the highest ranking restaurants in Lake Tekapo.

Blue Lake Eatery & Bar

If you’re looking for delicious food that’s cooked with fresh, local ingredients then Blue Lake Eatery & Bar is the place. Their menu changes with the season to ensure you’re getting the best quality.

The Greedy Cow Cafe

The Greedy Cow Cafe is another popular option in Lake Tekapo. It’s known for its delicious breakfasts, coffee and fantastic vegetarian selection. If there’s one cafe you visit, make it this one.

Astro Cafe

Astro Cafe is the perfect place to dine if you’re looking for epic views from the summit of Ōtehīwai Mount John. There’s an observation deck up there and a hiking trail nearby (which you can use to walk up, if you’d rather not drive).

Ramen Tekapo

Ramen Tekapo (which is also known as Thai Tekapo) is another Asian restaurant that specialises in Japanese and Thai food. So, if you’re looking to try delicious ramen or pad Thai then this is your place!

A woman drinking coffee in front of a lake and huge mountains.
Visit the Astro Cafe for lovely views and food in Tekapo.

The Best Places to Stay in Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.

For the best experience, we’d recommend spending at least one night here so you’re not rushing. This will also allow you to head out on a star gazing tour at night.

Luckily, there are plenty of fantastic accommodation options for you to choose from.

Budget: YHA Lake Tekapo

This property offers stunning views of Lake Tekapo and has dormitory beds, private rooms and studio rooms. The facilities are modern and clean, making it a great budget-friendly choice.

Check availability: YHA Lake Tekapo.

Mid-range: Skyrim Lodge

Although this lodge is located a little outside of town, it’s the perfect option for those travelling in a group and looking to stargaze.

Check availability: Skyrim Lodge.

Luxury: Three Rivers Lodge

This is one of the most beautiful private properties you’ll find in Lake Tekapo. It offers stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains, with a homely atmosphere.

Check availability: Three Rivers Lodge.

5* Hotel: Galaxy Boutique Hotel

This gorgeous hotel is known for its beautiful suites, fantastic location, and excellent facilities, making it a great base. It also has epic skylights, perfect for stargazing.

Check availability: Galaxy Boutique Hotel.

Self-contained accommodation: Stellar Apartment

Take your choice of one-bedroom apartments that sleep up to three people. Each one features a private kitchenette and living area.

Check availability: Stellar Apartment.

Nearby Towns and Attractions

When you’re ready to move on from Tekapo, you’ll find a number of exciting spots nearby.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

If you’ve got the chance then we highly recommend heading over to Mount Cook National Park.

This national park is home to the tallest mountain in the country, Mount Cook, and the longest glacier in NZ, the Tasman Glacier.

Aside from visiting the charming Mount Cook Village which acts as the gateway to the park, you’ll have endless opportunities for hiking, stargazing, skydiving, helicopter/skiplane rides and glacier heli hiking.

If you love nature and stunning vistas, you’ll find plenty to do at Mount Cook. Because of this, we recommend an overnight stay if possible.

Aoraki/Mount Cook is a 1-hour and 15-minute drive from Lake Tekapo.

>>> Explore Mount Cook.

Looking over the icebergs in Mount Cook.
Magical Mount Cook.

Timaru

Timaru is the second largest city in the Canterbury Region and it’s just a short drive from Lake Tekapo. Located along the coast, not only is this little city beautiful but there are quite a few things to do there too.

Firstly, Timaru is famous for its resident blue penguin colony so make sure that’s at the top of your itinerary! There’s also Māori rock art and if you’re lucky enough to visit on Boxing Day – the iconic Boxing Day Festival.

If you’ve got some extra time why not walk part of the South Beach Coastal Track?

Timaru is a 1-hour and 20-minute drive from Lake Tekapo.

>>> Explore Timaru.

Three little blue penguins on the sand in Timaru, New Zealand.
Three little blue penguins on the beach in Timaru. Photo: Timaru Penguins.

Oamaru

If you head further south from Timaru you’ll come across Oamaru, the largest town in the Waitaki District.

Although it’s a fairly small town, you’ll find plenty of things to do there like admiring the historic buildings and taking in the striking views of the Pacific Ocean. Many also enjoy visiting Steampunk HQ and the Victorian Precinct.

However, the local blue penguin colony is the main attraction. Just 5 minutes from the town centre you’ll find them, along with a seated grandstand to sit in.

Oamaru is a 2-hour and 5-minute drive from Lake Tekapo.

>>> Explore Oamaru.

A couple walking along the road of Oamaru Victorian Precinct.
Explore the Victorian Precinct in Oamaru. Photo: Tourism Waitaki.

Wānaka

Wānaka is a gorgeous area, full of breathtaking landscapes, adventurous activities and unique attractions. Nestled between Lake Wānaka and the mountains, this place is incredibly picturesque.

Whether you’re looking to relax at the lake, enjoy a local eatery, hit some of the nearby walking trails, or try skydiving [promo code NZTT] – Wānaka has something for everyone!

For more quirky experiences, head to Cinema Paradiso or ride the Cardrona Mountain Carts.

Wanaka is a 2-hour and 15-minute drive from Lake Tekapo.

>>> Explore Wānaka.

View of snow-capped mountainous range and a lake beneath them in Roys Peak.
Incredible views from Roys Peak, Wānaka.

Christchurch

Christchurch is the largest city in the Canterbury region – and in the whole of the South Island, for that matter. Located on the banks of the Avon River, the ‘Garden City’ has so much to offer.

In Christchurch, you’ll find a wealth of things to do including admiring the old colonial architecture, taking a ride on the Christchurch Gondola [promo code NZTT], and exploring the local museums. We also recommend a visit to the International Antarctic Centre [promo code NZTT].

Though some fly into Christchurch and move right on, we definitely recommend a few days if you can spare the time.

Christchurch to Lake Tekapo is a 2-hour and 45-minute drive.

>>> Explore Christchurch.

Pole boating ride in Avon River.
Punting down the Avon River in Christchurch. Photo: Graeme Murray.

In addition to these locations, we also recommend checking out Omarama (and visiting the clay cliffs and hot tubs), Burke’s Pass, Fairlie (for amazing pies from the Fairlie Bakehouse) and Methven.


Whether you’re looking to admire the night sky or try some of the nearby hiking trails, Lake Tekapo is one of our favourite sleepy little spots in New Zealand.

Not only that, but it’s well-positioned to explore other beautiful parts of the South Island.

Hopefully, this Lake Tekapo guide has given you a good idea of what you’d like to do, where you’d like to eat, and maybe even where you’d like to base your trip.