A sunrise to remember, dream conditions on a winter hike to Wanaka’s most-loved peak.
Those hiding under a rock – or rather not sucked into the social media world – may have never heard of Roy’s Peak, but if you’ve visited New Zealand or live here, there’s a good chance you’ll associate the name with its iconic image.
The trailhead is located just 10 minutes outside Wanaka, a lakeside resort town with marvelous mountain views. Thousands climb this favoured peak every year and it’s easy to see why. The track follows a 4WD gravel path, but don’t let the simplicity of the path mislead you. The constant switchbacks climb higher and higher and seem endless at points, but I promise your hard work will be rewarded gradually as you climb. Lake Wanaka stretches below the trail, weaving through the mountainous land of Mount Aspiring National Park, and will often leave you breathless.
On a clear day, Mount Aspiring – New Zealand’s second tallest mountain
– peeks out in the distance. On an overcast day, your visibility might be all clouds and zero views, but if you’re lucky, you’ll experience a rare, dream-like scenario as we did one cold, winter morning.
No matter the season, the South Island and its dramatic mountains is always my favourite place to be. In winter, it’s truly incredible. When the sun shines down on the snowy peaks, it makes my adventure heart sing. The crisp, cold air feels refreshing to breathe and all I want to do is hike up to be amongst it.
My husband Ryan and I have hiked Roy’s Peak before, on the last day of the year of 2016 for sunrise. Alcohol still swimming in our blood from the family fun night before, it was a grueling climb up, but that all passed when we reached the top. It was a warm summer day, and while we loved the hike, we knew we needed to experience it in its winter coat.
Fast forward to 2020, post New Zealand lockdown when Ryan, our toddler daughter, Lia and myself took a campervan holiday on the South Island. Roy’s Peak was on the cards, but thanks to the country’s constant, unpredictable weather, we were unsure if the hike would happen.
The forecast in our two-day hiking window showed endless cloud and freezing temperatures, but on the second morning around 4am, we decided to take our chances, hoping that we would climb higher than the low cloud and be greeted with a morning of mountainous views.
Five of us, including Lia, drove in silence to the start of the track. We left the lights of Wanaka and winded along the lake, half-awake wondering how the day would unfold. The dark sky was starless as dense clouds hovered above us, indicating no sign of abandoning its grim outlook. With Lia strapped to Ryan’s back, we switched on our torches and noted the time. We had just under three hours to reach the famous outstretch of land as the sun rose above the mountains. We stepped over the cattle fence and began. Every step forward slowly woke us from our slumber state and warmed our bodies from within. Our heads turned in every which way hoping for a gap in the clouds, and the only sounds we heard were our boots sinking into the icy mud and the occasional baaa from the residents of the farmland.
Forty-five minutes in, we reached the snowline and strapped on our crampons. The trail was icy and thanks to the metal spikes now connected to our boots, we moved steadily up the path. We climbed and weaved amongst the switchbacks like dutiful donkeys on a never ending journey.
Then a sign of relief appeared. Above us, a single star shone in the night sky. Our hopeful woes turned into shouts of excitement, our chance of reaching the cloud line became possible. The cloud thinned out with every step we climbed. More stars appeared as birds began to sing us good morning.
We parted ways with the clouds saying we’ll see you soon, and continued ahead to a clear night sky. Smiles stretched across our faces as we giggled with eagerness knowing the unimaginable was within arms reach. The land below disappeared. We were now above the clouds, a world rarely visited except by birds and the odd adventurous soul. As blue hour began to gently seep into the shadowy figures, snow-capped mountain peaks thrusted through the clouds like floating islands – it was hard to find words to explain this undeserving gift from mother earth.
With minutes to spare we reached our destination in absolute awe. A sea of clouds lay before us and it felt as if we reached nirvana. Another world high in the sky where fictitious heroes in folklore lived. The sky began to dance leaving soft hues of pink in its wake. The first rays of sun touched our skin and erased any sign of the cold night. We took turns walking out on the skinny ridge line to what felt like the edge of the earth. The swirling, soft clouds below looked enticing, like a bed of cotton candy we could slowly float away on. It felt powerful; the purest kind of moment within this living, breathing piece of rock we call home.
It’s an experience that moves through you. Filling up every inch of your soul, mind and body. Reaching what I’d call a sense of ecstasy. The raw beauty makes every worry and wonder disappear. It brings you to the moment and keeps you there, still and grateful. We laughed, ran around, and greeted friends who we unexpectedly met at the top. We shared the moment together and we snapped away religiously as if the moment was too good to last a second longer.
Interactions such as this with the world’s natural beauty will always be my most treasured. If you have yet to experience nature like this, I urge you to get outdoors. Go camping somewhere beautiful and peaceful, wake up for sunrise and let the moment overtake you. I promise it will be worth it.
For any tips on hiking the Roy’s Peak track, please feel free to reach out to me. If you do hike in winter, please don’t underestimate the weather and make sure to pack plenty of warm clothing, enough food and water, and I highly recommend wearing crampons or spikes in icy conditions. You can find more information on the track here.
The photos included are not at the summit of Mount Roy, but 25 minutes below at the iconic ridgeline. For more details on where to stay, camp, park, shower, as well as other things to do around Wanaka, use your Campermate app.
Thanks for reading, happy adventuring.