Beep. Beep. Beep. There are few things in the world I like as little as alarm clocks. For a moment I was tempted to snooze it, but then I remembered why I had scheduled it so early, and immediately I was alert. The sky outside was pitch black; my phone read 3:30 am. Today was the day. I was going to hike Roys Peak for sunrise.
Already convinced you want to hike Roys Peak for yourself? Jump down to the bottom of this post for everything you need to know to plan your hike. But if you want to learn more about the experience itself (and read some anecdotes along the way!) read on my friends.
Hiking Roys Peak for Sunrise
I awkwardly scooched my way out of my sleeping bag (it turns out sleeping in the back of a hatchback doesn’t offer much space) and woke up Lexie beside me. I maneuvered to the front seat and unlocked the car. The three other girls we were with were awake and packing up their tent. We were all eager to get moving.
We scarfed down protein bars and fruit, pulled up the backseats of my car and drove 10 minutes from our campsite to the trail head. The sky was still pitch black; the starts still visible. We would have approximately three hours to make it to the top. I turned into the parking lot and stopped the car. Backpacks on, headlamps lit, hiking boots tied – we set off on our hike.
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Wait, what is Roys Peak?
Roys Peak is a popular day hike from the tiny town of Wanaka. You may be familiar with Wanaka, for it is home to the famously photographed Wanaka Tree as one of the dreamiest destinations in the world. See below:
The hike requires 5-6 hours round trip and a high level of fitness. The Department of Conservation describes the tramp romantically, “Walk through alpine meadows and grassland“.
In reality the hike is consistently steep (alpine) and you’re surrounding by literally grass the whole time (grassland). Truth of the matter is you don’t hike Roys Peak for the hike itself, you do it for the view. The jaw-dropping, blow-your-mind, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming view. A view I wanted to see at sunrise.
Endless switchbacks are better in the dark
The hike is a series of infinite switchbacks. Two hundred steps to the rights. Pivot. Two hundred to the left. Pivot. Now repeat approximately six hundred million more times. As I said, you don’t hike Roy’s Peak for the hike itself. You do it for the view. To keep myself from going crazy, I repeated this as a mantra all the way up.
The darkness is actually one of the benefits of hiking up so early in the morning. You can’t see much beyond the light of your headlamp, so you can’t see how much further you have to go.
So there we were, hiking switchback after switchback after yet another mundane switchback. Lexie and I chatted; I rambled on about who knows what while impatiently rubbing my hands together (because who knew you would need gloves in New Zealand?) (Everyone actually, everyone but me.)
We were about halfway up when we started passing (or being passed) by other people. This surprised me. It was even 5:00 am yet. Why were there so many people?
Avoid the crowds at New Zealand’s newest Instagram hot spot
Roys Peak, it turns out, has this iconic photo spot that has blown up on Instagram. You’ve probably seen it. What was once an unknown peak in a little-known town is now a serious tourist destination. Everyone and their grandmother is making the trek to take this photo. If this is how busy it is before the sun is even up, I can’t imagine how busy it is in the afternoon.
Having other people on the trail, however, proved to be helpful. When at last we’d reached the end of the seemingly endless switchbacks, we came to what appeared to be a three-pronged fork in the trail. Of course, we didn’t notice this in the dark. The only thing that prevented us from going in the completely wrong direction was seeing what everyone else was doing.
Looking back, I’m amazed at my sense of direction. On possibly the most straightforward hike in all of New Zealand, I somehow managed to choose the route? Seriously?
Unintended ridge traversing
Later, on the way down, we’d learn the trail appears to come to a three-pronged fork. One prong – the one we almost went down – ventured off in the completely wrong direction.
The second prong was an indirect, makeshift route to the top – one which traversed over a narrow ridge and was likely only forged into a trail by a few rouge hikers looking for a better shot, but then trampled further by repeatedly being incorrectly taken.
The final prong was the true route that when straight to the top. Can you guess which route we unknowingly took? If you’re thinking of the one with the narrow ridge, you’d be correct.
This is also when the sun’s light began to reach us from behind the faraway mountains; blue hour began as Lexie and I scrambled to stay afoot while traversing the ridge.
You would think this would provide some comfort, but instead, it just made me even more aware of just how narrow this section was. To make an annoying situation worse, the wind was picking up and threatening to knock me over. Also, my hands were really, really cold.
Perhaps I was being melodramatic; perhaps the situation felt intensified after a night of too little sleep. Whatever the reason, I guess it is possible I am remembering this event with far more life-or-death gusto than the reality.
But then the sunrise made everything worth it
Finally, we made it to the top, where we joined about 30 other young people (almost all of whom, it appeared, were international students on exchange at the University of Otago like myself). That is when the sky explodes in colours.
For thirty minutes I watched in awe as the sky changed from purple to pink to golden. This is the perfect time to get your iconic Instagram-worth-photo taken. Beware that even in the morning you may encounter a line to get your shot.
But despite that minor inconvenience, the entire experience was beautiful. This was easily one of my favourite sunrises of my life (probably in the top three!).
All the info you need to hike Roys Peak yourself!
Information about the Roys Peak trek
The trailhead is 200 m above sea level, while the summit lies 1500 m above sea level. That means you gain 1300 m (or ~4300 feet) of elevation on your way to the top. With all the switchbacks, the trek itself is about 8 km… each way. Throughout the entire trek, the route is very well maintained.
Super speedy hikers will reach the summit in ~2 hours. It took Lexie and I three hours to reach the top. Going down is much quicker. Budget 5-6 hours for the entire trip.
Where is Roys Peak? Is there parking at the trail head?
Roys Peak is a 5-minute drive from the town of Wanaka, located in the Otago region. It is a one-hour drive from Queenstown and a five-hour drive from Christchurch.
The trailhead is on Google Maps so you can easily locate the start of the hike. If you’re more analog or don’t have data, follow these instructions to reach the car park:
- Starting from the town of Wanaka, take the main road west (if you’re facing the lake, west is to the left). The street starts as Ardmore Street but turns into Mount Aspiring Road.
- After about five minutes you should see a sign on the left-hand side of the road for the Roys Peak car park.
Now, parking is pretty limited. One of the benefits to hiking for sunrise is there should be plenty of available parking at 4 am. If you come in the late morning or early afternoon, however, you may be forced to park on the side of the road. Alternatively, you could walk or hitchhike from Wanaka to the trailhead.
What facilities are there at Roys Peak?
The only facilities are two drop toilets – one in the parking lot and another near the viewpoint toward the top of the hike.
What is the best time of day / year to hike Roys Peak?
As I hope you gathered from reading this post, the best time of day to hike Roys Peak is most definitely sunrise! The best time of year, however, isn’t so clear-cut.
January and February are the warmest months, but also tend to be the busiest. If you’re hiking in the afternoon, make sure to bring lots of water because it will get toasty (and there’s no shade along the endless climb of switchbacks!).
November, December and March to May are ‘shoulder seasons’. It won’t be as warm, but it isn’t full-on winter either. If you’re climbing for the sunrise I recommend bringing a pair of gloves and a puffer jacket.
I did the hike in early March and found the winding hike up to be quite chilly. One benefit to hiking in the shoulder season is it won’t be as busy.
June to October offer snow-covered mountains but are also the coldest. This would be an absolutely beautiful time to hike Roys Peak, and you could start your sunrise hike much later in the morning.
It will be really cold and the trail will be slippery from snow and ice. Bring lots of warm clothing, warm hiking boots and (recommended, though I guess not required) some ice spike for your hiking boots.
What should I bring on the hike?
- Hiking Boots – In the summer you could get away with sturdy running shoes, but I recommend wearing hiking boots.
- Water Bottle – There isn’t anywhere to get water once you arrive at the trail head. Definitely bring a 1-L bottle of water, but consider even bringing a second if you’re hiking during the day in the summer.
- Headlamp: Only necessary if hiking for sunrise.
- Insulating Layer (like a fleece or a puffy jacket): Bring something warm if hiking in the winter / shoulder seasons or for sunrise. It gets chilly.
- Rain Jacket / Shell: For rain or wind protection, any time of year!
- Hat and sunscreen: Only necessary if hiking in the afternoon. There is absolutely no shade. Don’t get a sunburn!
- Ice spikes: Only necessary if hiking in the winter.
Where to stay around Wanaka / Roys Peak?
There are absolutely no camping/accommodation options at the top or bottom of Roys Peak. There are several options in the town of Wanaka and in the surrounding area.
Camp Ground: Glendhu Bay Motor Camp is a really nice campground that advertises itself as the only lakeside campground (the photo below was taken from the car while I was swimming). It’s $19 NZD per person per night.
- Base Wanaka: The Base is a chain of hostels in New Zealand catering to budget travelers. It’s especially good for solo travelers looking to me other people. A dorm bed starts at $30 NZD.
- YHA Wanaka: YHA is also a chain, and tend to be really nice with an relaxed atmosphere. They’re priced slightly higher than the Base. A dorm bed starts at $40 NZD.
Airbnb was my favourite source of accommodations throughout my entire six months in New Zealand. You meet locals, get great recommendations and learn more about Kiwi life. They also can be very affordable if there are two people, or can be insanely luxurious if you want to splurge!
Hotel: Wanaka Haven Check out this place if you’re feeling fancy! A ranch-style home converted into a B&B, it has big windows, a swimming pool and everything is made of wood. The views are fantastic too.
Have you hiked Roys Peak for sunrise? Does it seem worth it to you? Let me know in the comments below.
How does Roys Peak fit into a South Islands itinerary?
- Ultimate Itinerary – 2 Weeks in South Island, New Zealand
- Ultimate Itinerary – 3 Weeks in South Island, New Zealand
Want to read about other underrated New Zealand activities?
- A Guide to Exploring Wanaka – New Zealand’s Outdoorsy Mountain Town
- Kayaking with Baby Seals in Abel Tasman, New Zealand
- Swimming with Dolphins in Kaikoura