Mackenzie Winter: 11 Must Do's With the Kids
There’s no time like snow time to visit the Mackenzie! The region transforms into a magical winter playground during the cooler months, creating the perfect getaway. Whether you’re avid skiers, hitting the slopes for the first time, or keen for some off-mountain fun, the Mackenzie has something for every family.
Here are 11 activities that will keep the whole gang entertained this winter:
1. Ski Your Heart Out
The Mackenzie is home to three boutique ski fields which each offer a relaxed family-friendly atmosphere, great learner terrain and classes, and unbeatable views: Mt Dobson, Roundhill and Ōhau. Stay in Fairlie, Tekapo or Twizel and you’ll be hitting the slopes in no time.
If you’re looking for ‘once in a lifetime’ family ski experience, put skiing the Tasman Glacier at the top of the list. Intermediate (green-blue) runs make it the perfect family day out. Take a ski plane or helicopter up, and then explore incredible ice formations and caves as you make your way down New Zealand’s longest ski run (8-10km) and largest glacier. It’s the ultimate bucket list family experience.
2. Snow, Skate & Soak
If hitting the slopes isn’t your thing, the Mackenzie has a great range of off-mountain experiences that keep the family happy. Tekapo Springs is known for its hot pools but many aren’t aware they also have an international-sized ice skate rink and snow tube park in the cooler months.
Experience the fun and freedom on the spacious outdoor rink which is surrounded by picnic tables and an open fire, then take a thrilling ride down the 150m snowy slope in the snow tube park. Finish off the day with a soak in the hot pools and a bite to eat by the fire at their indoor café.
3. Discover New Zealand's Largest Glacier
The mighty Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest, lies in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The glacier can be explored through a variety of ways however if the budget doesn’t stretch for a landing, heli-hike or ski experience, take a short easy walk to the viewpoints instead.
The Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View walk is 40 minute return and takes you to a stunning viewpoint on the moraine wall. There are good views of the lower glacier and lake, ice bergs and the mountains at the head of the valley.
The slightly longer (one hour) Tasman Glacier Lake walk leads to a viewpoint of the glacier’s terminal lake.
4. Hit the Trails
Family holidays are all about reconnecting – and there’s no better place to do so than amongst some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery. The Mackenzie offers an array of walking trails, with something for all ages and fitness abilities.
The popular Hooker Valley track in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is world-famous for its alpine views, glacial lakes and swing bridges. At roughly three hours on flat terrain, it is manageable for most families.
The region also has a huge range of other family-friendly walks – our top picks are:
• Pioneer Park walking tracks (20 mins from Fairlie)
• Pukaki Kettlehole (Lake Pukaki)
• Mt John Summit (Lake Tekapo)
• Twizel River Trail (Twizel)
• Jack Lovelock Memorial Track (Fairlie)
• Lake Tekapo Regional Park (Lake Tekapo)
• Peninsula Walkway (by Lake McGregor)
5. Get Rural
Steeped in agricultural history, there’s no better place to get up close with furry and feathery friends than in the Mackenzie.
Just north of Fairlie, the Farmbarn Café offers panoramic views, fantastic food, children’s play area, a great gift shop and the opportunity to “meet the (furry) locals”. The newly opened Skipton Animal Park is also a must stop. Located on the main highway from Geraldine to Fairlie, the petting park is a great place to get up close and learn about a range of animals. You’re even welcome to bring your own picnic and set up next to the playground.
Those after an authentic high country station experience will not be disappointed. Lake Tekapo Farm Tours offer small group tours, Tekapo Adventures provides incredible 4WD experiences through the iconic Glenmore Station, and the Glentanner High Country Heli-Hike has been hailed as the South Island’s most spectacular new walk.
6. Discover the Night Skies
There is no better time to stargaze than winter. Not only can you have the kids in bed at a reasonable hour, but the skies are at their clearest and the galactic core is at its brightest. The Mackenzie is home to the world’s largest gold status dark sky reserve, and are widely regarded as pioneers in astro-tourism experiences.
There’s an incredible array of stargazing experiences that will suit all astronomy appetites – check out Dark Sky Project, Tekapo Star Gazing, Lakeland Explorer, Big Sky Stargazing, Chameleon Star Gazing and Silver River Stargazing to name a few.
If you’ve got a budding photographer in the family, there’s a range of astrophotographers in the region who can help you to get that perfect night shot.
7. Explore Lake Tekapo's Regional Park
Just a short walk or drive from the township, the Lake Tekapo Regional Park is a favourite amongst the locals, and arguably one of the town’s ‘best kept secrets’. Thanks to some amazing work by local volunteers, you can explore 165 acres of land along the eastern shores of the lake. You’ll find picnic spots, an enclosed dog park, 24 kms of cycling and walking tracks, and a new disc golf course which provides great entertainment for the whole family.
The tracks are graded easiest, easy and intermediate, all are two-way and are shared with walkers and joggers. There’s a pump track suitable for children and adults which will have the whole family testing their skills and having some fun.
8. Fish With the Family
There’s nothing more satisfying than cooking your own catch – and where better to do it than the Mackenzie, a region renowned for its fishing. The region boasts plenty of awesome spots for the experienced fishing family, and licences and bait are easily available throughout the region.
Twizel’s High Country Salmon ‘Catch A Fish’ is the perfect activity for those dipping their toes in for the first time. All gear is provided and you can take home a whole or filleted salmon for dinner that night.
More info on fishing guides and supplies here.
9. Get High (With a Flight-Seeing Adventure!)
For those wanting to add some extra ‘wow factor’ to their family holiday, take in the spectacular, iconic views from the air with a scenic fixed wing or helicopter flight.
There’s a range of operators in the region with flights departing from Tekapo, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Pukaki – check out Air Safaris, Helicopter Line, Heliventures NZ, Heliworks, Mount Cook Ski Planes & Helicopters, Red Cat Biplane Flights, and Skydive Mt. Cook.
All provide great commentary and history of the region, and some even offer the opportunity to land on New Zealand’s largest glacier, the Tasman Glacier.
10. Get Off the Beaten Track
There’s so many jaw-dropping hidden gems in the Mackenzie that it’s hard to point out just a few. Here are some of our favourite quieter spots to pack a picnic and take the family to:
• Lake Alexandrina and Lake McGregor: often overlooked by its famous neighbour, these lakes are a short drive from Lake Tekapo, and a quiet refuge for locals. The area is simply breath-taking and well worth the trip.
• Pioneer Park: the 390 hectare conservation area between Geraldine and Fairlie features two walking tracks, picnic spots and a campground. Dogs are allowed under effective control.
• Lake Ōhau: borders both the Mackenzie and Waitaki districts, offering picturesque picnic spots and a range of trails including the popular Alps 2 Ocean trail which is great for cycling and walking.
• Lake Pūkaki: offers a range of great viewpoints to park up and take the iconic ‘instagram pic’. Kettlehole Track will take you through native forest to a unique ‘kettlehole’ (shallow body of water created by retreating glaciers now filled with sediment) with great views over the lake.
• Lake Opuha: the 700 hectare man-made lake hidden away is approximately 12km from Fairlie. The lake offers great fishing, and is a great quiet spot to head for a walk.
11. Stay Indoors
The Mackenzie is known for it’s epic outdoor experiences and landscapes, but there’s so much to do inside too:
• Fairlie Heritage Museum: stop off in this fascinating local heritage museum which reflects the bygone days of life in rural New Zealand
• Burkes Pass Three Creeks: there’s a world of fun to be discovered in this special place that Lonely Planet describes as a ‘must see’. American retro-collectables, artwork, furniture, great coffee, classic cars, kiwiana memorabilia and much more.
• Kimbell Garage Gallery: once a mechanic shop, it is now a collection of high end New Zealand art and an icon in the Mackenzie region.
• Aoraki/Mount Cook National Visitor Centre: is an attraction in itself, you can easily spend half a day exploring the artwork collection, exhibits and watching DVDs about the local area and national park.
• Fairlie’s Bobby’s Square – grab a pie at the famous Fairlie Bakehouse and head next door for a retail hit. Bobby’s Square offers a range of fashion boutiques, homeware products and art galleries.
• Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre – a tribute to one of the world’s greatest explorers, the centre showcases the Aoraki/Mount Cook region, its people and its place in the universe. It also features a 3D theatre and planetarium. A must see.