Southland’s lakes are undoubtedly beautiful, but alpine lakes are just that extra bit special. Fed by melting ice and rain, the waters are bright aqua blue, clear, and unpolluted. The surrounding mountain peaks add to the splendour of the views that can completely take your breath away, especially when combined with icy winds.
The most stunning alpine lakes I’ve encountered have generally been discovered after several hours of strenuous tramping up a mountain. Although that’s incredibly rewarding, it was a real treat to discover the short walk to the hidden gem of Lake Alta near Queenstown.
Heading to higher altitudes
Flying in to Queenstown mid-morning meant we had the afternoon to start exploring the area. And with the sun shining and the clear blue skies, what better way to start than by heading to higher ground?
The track to Lake Alta starts on the road behind The Remarkables’ ski field buildings. Driving the road that leads to the ski field is an experience in itself. The tarmac twisted its way around the edge of the mountain range and the sheer drops in places were somewhat daunting, but the views were amazing. A couple of stops were needed to take them in. Needless to say, I was pleased there was no snow or ice to contend with.
Soon after the road turned to gravel, the base of the ski field was reached. Having driven up in a station wagon, we were impressed to see a couple of campervans that had made the journey.
Rocks, tussocks, and wetlands
From the carpark we walked up through the ski field. Bare of snow, the terrain was barren and rocky with a cloak of golden tussock. We quickly donned our warm and windproof jackets; despite the sunshine, the wind chill was harsh. Following a ski field run, we ascended steadily and curved around a bend where the track veered off across over an alpine wetland.
Alpine wetlands are my favourite. These fragile ecosystems are a major tourist attraction. There are different fascinating discoveries to be made, such as tiny native sundews—New Zealand’s very own carnivorous plant—which catch small insects with their sticky leaves before devouring them. We also spotted many cushion plants, which, with their delicate patterns and flowers, are gorgeous. Being careful to keep to the track, we wandered through this area, occasionally spotting the alpine crickets that survive at this cold altitude.
Reaching Lake Alta
After the wetland, the climb steepened and we clambered up to a rocky face. Reaching the top of a ridge, the views once again spread out before us, and behind us was Lake Alta.
The lake changes its colours as the clouds move above. Initially, it looked dark blue and dull, but as the sun snuck out from behind the cloud, its vivid blue-green colour became more apparent.
Tall peaks surrounded the lake on the far side, with loose scree slopes making their way to the edge of the lake. We could see other trampers high above on a saddle leading down through The Remarkables to a far off destination.
But for us, the lake was the destination of the day and we reached the shore 45 minutes after leaving the car park.
Finding the perfect rock to rest on—sheltered from the wind—was a small victory that allowed us to soak up the quiet remoteness. But realistically, it was too cold to sit for long, and after discovering a small patch of snow to clown around in, my youngest tramping companion was ready to head back to the car.
On our way back, we passed several other walkers heading up. As we journeyed the windy road back down, I reflected on how lucky we are in New Zealand to be able to reach such special places. Definitely a walk to bring the rest of the family back to do.