The South Island's Best Lakeside Camping
February 14, 2021 • Goose Ellen
7 min read
It's pretty safe to say that New Zealand can't be beat for absolutely stunning campsites. While there are a tonne of seaside camps and secluded bush spots, we've always found ourselves gravitating towards the lakeside campsites. With there being so many to choose from, we've made it easy for you all and put together a list of the most primo lakeside camps in the South Island. Leshgo!
1. Lake Pukaki
Although we could say this for most of the spots on this list, it's safe to say that Lake Pukaki has to be one of the best campsites in New Zealand. With views of New Zealand's tallest mountain Aoraki/Mt Cook, and so many secluded spots to choose from, Lake Pukaki is hard to beat! If you're wanting to stay as close to the Mt Cook road as possible, the designated free camp at the southern end of the lake is your best bet (this is also the only camp spot with public toilets). For those wanting a little more privacy or to set up for an extended time, head down Hayman Rd on the eastern side of the lake and take your pick of the private shorefront sites.
2. Lake Ohau
This is definitely our favourite spot at the time of writing this (who knows what other gems we'll find as we travel), and for a few very good reasons. First up, it's in the middle of nowhere but still has full phone coverage. When you live and travel on the road, being able to set up the 'office' in a place like this is a game changer! Just roll in and pick a spot at one of the campsites (some paid, some donation and some free), park your rig up on the shoreline and run straight down into the water. Ahhh bliss! Check out our Instagram reel (@gooseandellen) of Goose jet skiing here in the most ideal conditions!
CamperMate's maps make it super easy to find the perfect spot for your next lakeside adventure.
3. Lake Lyndon
Yet another beautiful lake nestled in the mountains, Lake Lyndon is a perfect spot to camp up in and explore the area from. As long as your vehicle is self contained, you can park up anywhere around the lake and have access to toilets at the rest area on the main road. While the lake itself isn't the best for playing around in (it's always absolutely freezing!), there's still heaps to do in the area.
Keep travelling west on HWY 73 and you'll come across Castle Hill, a Stonehenge-like area with towering rocks and endless crevasses to explore. It's a rock climbers paradise! Up the road a little further is Cave Stream, where you can battle your way up waterfalls inside an underground cave system. Please check the weather conditions thoroughly and do not attempt after heavy rain! Bad decisions have been fatal here.
4. Lake Camp
As the name suggests, you can certainly camp here! As one of the three lakes in the Hakatere Conservation Park this area definitely has you covered for lakeside campsites. We've spent a fair few nights beside this lake and have been blown away by the sunrise and sunset every time. Also, whether you're a big Lord of the Rings nerd or just appreciate the movies, it's well worth the trip to Mount Sunday where you can visit the film location of Edoras (Rohan) from The Two Towers.
5. Lake Heron
Another lakeside camp in the Haketere Conservation Park, Lake Heron provides its own unique but equally stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Of the three lakes in the area, this one is definitely the most inviting for a refreshing dip. There's a paid DOC campsite which gets busy with locals in the summer, and the option to free camp at the bottom end of the lake as well.
6. Lake Wakitipu
With well-known Queenstown lining the banks of Lake Wakitipu, this is the ultimate spot for adventure seekers in all seasons. The area boasts some of NZ's best skiing, mountain biking and other adrenaline-fuelled sports. With Queenstown being as popular as it is, there are heavy restrictions on where you can camp in the area. Our go-to spot is the Kingston freedom camp 35mins out of town where we have a little cell coverage and there are new toilets. You can also travel approx 30 minutes up the road towards Glenorchy (one of NZ's most scenic drives) and will find a couple of secluded camping spots there too.
7. Lake Opuha
With a boat ramp and couple of freedom camping options for self-contained vehicles around Lake Opuha, it's the perfect family campsite to stay for a few days. It's only five minutes out of Fairlie where you can grab your supplies, but feels as though it's super remote tucked away in the mountains. A must do for a camp out or park up for a quick picnic with your Fairlie Bakehouse pies (the best in the country).
8. Moke Lake
Nestled in the hills near Queenstown, Moke Lake is a serene little spot perfect for a getaway for a few nights. It’s a DOC run campsite so there is a fee of $15 per person, make sure you take cash in! Spend the days chilling by and swimming in the lake, take the loop track for a gentle stroll, or climb the hill at sunset for some epic views. You really can’t go wrong!
9. Lake Kaniere
Located on the wild West Coast of the South Island, Lake Kaniere is popular with locals and tourists alike. The area features a tonne of short walks, waterfalls, and also overnight hikes to back country huts. Again this is another DOC campsite so fees do apply to stay here - although this is on the cheaper end of the scale at only $8 per person. Bargain!
10. Lake Hawea
Just as beautiful as Lake Wanaka but without crowds, Hawea is our go-to for staying in the Wanaka area. What it lacks in shops in restaurants, it makes up for it with sheer peacefulness. The large paid campground (The Camp) at the bottom of the lake is perfect for families or those who prefer glamping instead of roughing it. If you have your own self-contained camper, drive around to the eastern side of the lake and you’ll be able to park up on the bank and spend the night by a campfire under the stars.
11. Lake Rotoiti
Finally a lake on the list that isn’t in the far south! While the most well-known lakes are down in the Southern Alps, the Nelson Lakes area deserves its own spot in the limelight. Lake Rotoiti is definitely the main drawcard of the area, with several jetties at the water's edge it’s hard to take a bad photo here. Just watch out for the hungry eels if you’re dangling your feet in the water! Although there are no free camps on the lake, paying a few bucks to stay in absolute paradise is well worth it. We recommend the West Bay campsite for secluded little bush pozzies.
Just a quick note worth mentioning to wrap this article up, make sure you pack LOTS of insect repellent and sunscreen for these spots. Arriving unprepared could turn a dream trip into a nightmare! And always remember to practice Toitu Te Whenua / Leave the Land Undisturbed.