Driving across New Zealand, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery and spectacular landscapes, so when I read that the famous Haast Pass is THE most scenic highway in the country I had my doubts – but it didn’t take long for me to completely change my mind. This 140 km section of State Highway 6 starts at the Tasman Sea and winds its way along rugged coastline, skirting lush rainforests, passing through steep mountain ranges, crossing tumbling rivers and finally ending at Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, two of New Zealand’s biggest mountain lakes. The road follows an ancient trail used by the Maori people.
The Haast Region, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Area, is situated on the western edge of Mount Aspiring National Park and is famous for its dramatic landscapes. There are plenty of short walks and magnificent lookout points throughout the road. The scenic drive from Glacier Country to Wanaka usually takes about 3.5 hours, but be sure to factor in lots of extra time for stops along the way. Believe me, there are many photo-worthy opportunities.
Our first stop after leaving Fox Glacier was Bruce Bay Peninsula, the place where the dense rimu forest meets the temperamental Tasman Sea. There is a rawness beauty that defines this place. Even though it is voted as one of the top 10 beachs in New Zealand, there were not many people around, making it the perfect place for some quiet reflection. The wind is strong here, whipping across the open water and almost knocked me off my feet. The strong ocean current crashes on shore, inching closer to the tall trees. It’s such a lovely place and unlike anything I’ve seen so far.
Our next stop on the Haast Highway was the highly rated Monro Beach Walk. The 1.5 hour return walk takes you through a peaceful rainforest ending at a lovely secluded beach. This popular walk is well maintained. Starting off, you cross over a swing bridge and enter a dense forest filled with fern and moss. Here and there, dappled lights shine through the crevasses brightening up the forest floor. The only sound you hear is that of the burbling brook. This path goes on for awhile until you reach the point where the trees start to thin out and you can start to hear the waves and smell the salty air. One second we’re in a rainforest and the next we are suddenly on a low dune by the coast.
Monro Beach is also the home of the nesting Fiordland Crested Penguin, one of the rarest penguins in the world. They usually come in the winter months between August and November to nest on the beach. We came in the afternoon and didn’t see penguins on shore, but we saw one in the ocean. It was struggling against the waves, his head bobbing up and down in the water. We stood there mesmerized, trying to watch its progress as it made its way onto to shore, but the tide was too strong and kept dragging him back out.
There are many short walks along the pass that begin at the road’s edge, weaving through the rainforest to hidden waterfalls. If I could, I would have stopped at every one, but we were running late, so we picked the best two – Thunder Creek Falls and Fantail Falls, both of which are a short 10 minute walk from the pass. These falls were formed after the last glaciers receded 10,000 years ago. The roaring water comes hurtling down to the Haast River, and you can hear it well before you even see it. It was a beautiful sight and the only thing keeping us from lingering there longer were the annoying sandflies.
The next stop, Blue Pools, is not too far from Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls. The Blue Pools are deep river pools that are located where the Blue River joins the Makarora River. The short 30 minute return walk takes you to a pool at the base of the mountain . The path takes you through silver beech forest, and across a swing bridge that goes over the Makarora river where you can go to a viewing platform above the pools. You can continue on to the Blue Pools bridge for views directly over the river gorge. The glacier-fed water is an unbelievable shade of aquamarine, so transparent you can see all the way to the bottom where you can spot large trout who call this place home.
After a few weeks in New Zealand, we were getting a bit jaded, having seen just about every shade of blue and green, but I have never ever seen water this clear and this blue. The blue color is a result of light refracting on the clear and icy cold water. Even though the water was freezing, there were still people attempting to jump from the top of the bridge.
As you get closer to Wanaka, you’ll notice two massive glacial lakes surrounded by towering mountain ranges. Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka were formed by glacial erosion during the last ice age. They are separated by a narrow strip of land called an isthmus. There are many lookout points along the way where you can pull over and admire the view and take pictures. It’s important to remember to pull over at a safe spot, before jumping out of the car. No matter how pretty the view, it’s not worth causing an accident. Some of our favorite spots for a perfect view of the lake are the Wanaka Lookout and the Neck Lookout. Boundary Creek is also another great place to get out and stretch your legs and walk along the water. It’s a great DOC campsite if you don’t mind being further away from town.
From the first moment that I saw the town of Wanaka nestled between the bluest lake and the most magnificent snow-capped mountains, I fell head over heels in love. It’s hard to imagine a place this beautiful exists on Earth. The afternoon sun shines down on the mountain, creating this misty halo effect. Driving through Haast Pass, we got to experience the raw beauty of New Zealand, from the glacial landscape to the lush forest to the unbelievable mountain lakes. The drive was supposed to take 3.5 hours ended up taking us 7 hours with all the stops in between. But I am so glad we did not rush through the pass.
- Distance: 225 km from Fox Glacier to Wanaka
- Accommodation: Hawea Lake campervan park– $17 NZD per person
- Pit Stops:
- Bruce Bay Peninsula
- Monro Beach
- Thunder Creek Falls
- Fantail Creak
- Wanaka Lookout
- Neck Lookout