Epic Stargazing at New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserve

by | Apr 5, 2020 | 0 comments

Couple stargazing in Aoraki Mckenzie Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand

Imagine the sun has just set, and you step outside to find the sky ablaze with millions of stars. Located within easy reach of both Queenstown and Christchurch, The Aoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve is the perfect place to go stargazing. Don’t miss out on this unique activity while in New Zealand.

Note: All prices are listed in NZD and USD. As of February 2020, $1.00 NZD = $0.65 USD

What is a Dark Sky Reserve

Around the world the ability to see stars is dwindling thanks to light pollution (there’s approximately 7.8 billion people on this planet!) and regular air pollution. That’s where the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) comes in. Since 1988 they’ve been recognized as the leading authority on light pollution and are working to combat this around the world, protecting our dark sky for future generations.

Starry night in New Zealand Dark Sky Reserve

As part of the IDA’s efforts, they’ve begun designating dark sky places. These are locations that take special precautions to preserve the dark sky in their area, and must go through a rigorous review process to receive such a distinction. Once accepted, the location is then assigned one of six International Dark Sky Preserve designations.

Aoraki Mckenize has been designated as a Dark Sky Reserve. This means they have a large dark “core” zone, surrounded by a populated periphery. These populated areas have policies in place to strictly control their light pollution, helping protect the darkness of the core. Aside from Dark Sky Sanctuaries (which are often more remote and harder to get to), these Dark Sky Reserves are the best places in the world to stargaze.

Throughout the world there are only eight places with this Dark Sky Reserve designation, of which Aoraki McKenzie happens to be the largest AND the only one located in the Southern Hemisphere. Anyone looking for a unique experience should add this to their bucketlist!

Dark Sky Reserve Landscape Aoraki Mckenzie

How to Get to the Aoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve

The Aoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve is located in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. Smack in the center of the South Island, it’s likely you’ll already be passing through the area on your way to other sights, such as Mount Cook and Queenstown, so why not spend a a night and take advantage of this amazing opportunity?

Note: The directions provided take you to Lake Tekapo, which is on the outskirts of the reserve and a great jumping off point for stargazing.

Directions From Christchurch

  • Distance: 226 km (140 miles)
  • Drive Time: Approx. 3 hours

If you’re coming from Christchurch you’ll want to make your way to State Highway 1, heading South. You’ll stay on this highway for some time (approximately 110km / 68 miles) before turning right onto State Highway 79. Once you reach Fairlie, you’ll turn right onto State Highway 8, which goes the rest of the way to Lake Tekapo and the reserve.

Directions From Queenstown

  • Distance: 257 km (160 miles)
  • Drive Time: Approx. 3 hours

Leaving Queenstown, head east out of town on State Highway 6A toward Frankton. After than, continue onto State Highway 6 until you reach the turnoff for Cromwell. You should see a sign for Highway 8A. Follow that for approximately 2.6 km (1.6 miles), before turning Northeast onto Highway 8. Once on Highway 8, you’ll drive for about 196 km (122 miles) until reaching your destination.

Don’t forget to download our favorite FREE travel apps for your trip.

Astro photography New Zealand dark sky reserve

Stargazing Tips

Stargazing isn’t difficult. You just step outside and look up. Here are a few tips though to ensure you have a good experience.

Go on a Clear Night

Cloudy skies will easily ruin any stargazing you hope to do. Check the weather before making the trip to ensure it’s supposed to be a clear evening. We use AccuWeather as it gives a nice 24 hour breakdown forecast general look at the week ahead.

Target a New Moon

In addition to wanting clear skies, the best stargazing occurs when it’s darkest. Having a full moon means there’s a bright orb in the sky, drowning out the surrounding stars. Sure, you’ll still likely see more stars than back at home, but it won’t be the penultimate experience.

For the best stargazing, aim to go on a new moon (or as close to one as possible). A new moon is when the moon is at it’s “invisible” phase. This will ensure the darkest evenings and allow the stars to shine brightest.

Personal Story: Due to poor weather conditions, we had to plan our trip on a full moon. This meant we had very limited time when only the stars were out, before the moon rose. Now don’t get me wrong, it was awesome to witness the moon blaze across the sky as it rose that evening (it was so bright, it easily could have been mistaken as the sun!), but it did hamper how much we could see from that point on.

Couple stargazing in Dark Sky Reserve New Zealand South Island
Snuggled up in our extra blankets.

Dress Warm

Not only will you be out at night, but you’re high up in the mountains (Lake Tekapo is 710 meters / 2,330 feet above sea level). Needless to say, it can get cold in the evenings. If you plan to be out for any length of time, wear warm clothes, pack hand warmers, or wrap a blanket around you to stay warm.

Pack a Telescope

If you’re really into stargazing, this is the perfect time to get some closeup views of the galaxy. We didn’t do this, but consider packing your telescope from home. Sadly we didn’t find any for rent in town.

Bring Your Camera and Tripod

This is also a great time to work on your nighttime photography skills. You’ll want a good camera and tripod though as a long exposure is ideal for capturing all the stars and colors.

Turn Off Your Lights

If you’re staying at a campsite, or head out on a stargazing tour, then it’s likely you’ll be with others also interested in marveling at the cosmos. Be courteous and keep your artificial light to a minimum. This way everyone can enjoy the sights.

Tree with stars in background

Other Dark Sky Reserve Activities

Besides stargazing, there’s plenty of activities you can do inside the Aoraki Mckenzie Dark Sky Reserve.

Where to Stay Inside the Reserve

There’s plenty of lodging options for travelers, so pick whichever best fits your vacation style. We’ve provided a few recommendations for each type of accommodation below.

Sign pointing the way to a nudist camp.

Freedom Camp

If you’ve rented a campervan or RV and are on a road trip across the South Island, then this is the perfect spot to freedom camp for a few nights. Here were our favorite locations.

Pattersons Ponds Camping Ground

  • Address: Off Canal Road
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for SCS vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~25+. There’s just a dirt carpark without designated parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: One outhouse is available onsite.
  • Notes: There is no potable water on site. Make sure to bring some with you.

Lake Pukaki Reserve

  • Address: Tekapo-Twizel Road
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for SCS vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 30+. There’s just a large gravel lot without designated parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: A block of outhouses at the entrance.
  • Notes: Maximum stay of 1 night permitted.

Be prepared by knowing all the ins and outs of freedom camping.

Couple with campervan in Akoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve

DOC / Low Cost Campsite

With amenities a little above freedom camping, but less than a holiday park, this is a good middle of the road option.

White Horse Hill Campground

Located at the Mount Cook National Park, it’s a bit of a drive to make if you’re just parking overnight. We only recommend this route if you have plans to also see/hike in the national park itself. Otherwise just make a day trip of it.

  • Address: At the end of Hooker Valley Road off State Highway 80
  • Cost: $15.00 NZD ($9.69 USD) per person, per night.
  • Number of Sites: 60
  • Amenities: Potable water, day use eating area, flushing toilets
  • Notes:
    • Payments accepted in cash only.
    • Bring exact change. There is no collection agent on site to provide change.

Lake MacGregor Campsite

  • Address: 157 Lake Alexandrina Road, Tekapo 7999
  • Cost: $10.00 NZD ($6.46 USD) per person per night
  • Number of Sites: Unknown. This is just a grass lot without designated parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Dish washing sinks, hot showers, outhouses.
  • Notes:
    • There is no potable water, so make sure to bring your own.
    • Nice views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
    • This campsite is closed over winter.
Aoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Holiday Parks

For those looking for some creature comforts, consider staying at a Holiday Park. They offer both parking spot for campervans/RVs, as well as cabins and tent pitches.

Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park

This is the place to stay in Lake Tekapo town. Located right on the lake, next to the hot springs and Mt. John walk, you’ll have everything within easy reach.

  • Address: 2 Lakeside Drive, Lake Tekapo 7999
  • Cost: Starting at $54.00 NZD ($34.88 USD) for powered and $50.00 NZD ($32.30 USD) for non-powered per night
  • Number of Sites: Unlisted
  • Amenities: Hot showers, flushing toilets, communal kitchen, BBQs, laundry facilities and picnic tables.
  • Notes:
    • The rates listed are for two adults per site. Children aged 4-14 year old are an additional $15.00 NZD ($9.69 USD) per night.
    • WiFi is available for purchase.

Glentanner Holiday Park Mount Cook

  • Address: State Highway 80, Mount Cook 7999
  • Cost: Starting at $27.00 NZD ($17.44 USD) for powered and $23.00 NZD ($14.86 USD) for non-powered per person, per night.
  • Number of Sites: 60 powered, 100 non-powered.
  • Amenities: BBQ area, free WiFi, communal kitchen, hot showers and flushing toilets.
  • Notes:
    • 30 minutes of free WiFi per device, per day. Some reports, however, said it was very slow and hard to use.
    • Reception hours are 8:30 am – 9:00 pm, 7 days a week.
    • All Glentanner guests receive 10% off scenic flight booking with The Helicopter Line.
    • NZMCA members receive a 10% discount on nightly rate.
Woman standing alone gazing up aDark Sky in New Zealand

Backpacker Lodge / Hostel

There are quite a few backpackers lodges or hostels to choose from in the reserve. Here are the ones with the best reviews.

YHA Lake Tekapo

There are a few hostels and backpacking lodges in Tekapo town. We recommend this one though as it’s got views of the lake, is with easy walking distance to shops and is a newly built facility.

  • Address: 5 Motuariki Lane, Lake Tekapo 7999
  • Cost: Starting at $31.00 NZD ($20.03 USD) per person, per night.
  • Number of Beds: Unlisted
  • Amenities: Free WiFi, communal lounge, onsite food options, full communal kitchen and laundry facilities
  • Notes:
    • Reception hours 7:00 am – 10:00 pm.
    • Check in at 2:00 pm.
    • 24 hour guest access.
    • Is part of the YHA network offering discounted rates to members.
    • 5 GB of free WiFi provided per guest, per day.

YHA Mount Cook

For those wanting to be closer to Mount Cook, then this is the place to stay.

  • Address: 1 Bowen Drive, Mount Cook
  • Cost: Starting at $36.00 NZD ($23.36 USD) per person, per night.
  • Number of Beds: Unlisted
  • Amenities: Free WiFi, communal lounge, communal kitchen, hot showers and free sauna, laundry facilities, BBQ and picnic area.
  • Notes:
    • 2 GB of free WiFi provided per guest, per day.
    • Small convenience store on site. There’s no supermarket in the village, so if you want specific foods, you’ll need to bring them with you.
    • Is part of the YHA network offering discounted rates to members.
Dark starry night with wisps of clouds

Hotel Rental

If luxury and having a place to fully unpack is your preference then there’s a few nice high-end hotels you can rent in the area.

The Mackenzie Apartments & Suites

A mountain apartment with kitchenette near the Mount John Observatory. Perfect for longer stays.

  • Address: 67 D’Archiac Drive, Lake Tekapo 7945
  • Cost: Prices starting at $326 NZD ($211 USD) per night.
  • Number of Beds: 1 bedroom, sleeps 2 people. They have 3 apartments total.
  • Amenities: Free parking, kitchenette with cookware and dishes/utensils, WiFi, air conditioning.
  • Notes:
    • This is a non-smoking facility.
    • Breakfast is available, pay at the property.
    • About a 20 minute walk to Lake Tekapo.
    • Pets not allowed.
    • Book through Hotels.com and save money!

Mantra Lake Tekapo

A mountain apartment with fireplace near Lake Tekapo.

  • Address: 1 Beauchamp Place, Lake Tekapo 7945
  • Cost: Prices starting at $314.50 NZD ($203 USD) per night.
  • Number of Beds: 2 bedroom (sleeping 4 people) and 3 bedroom (sleeping 6 people) apartments available. They have 19 apartments total.
  • Amenities: Outdoor pool, free WiFi, laundry facilities, BBQ, kitchen with cookware and dishes, fireplace in room.
  • Notes:
Thousands of stars in sky at New Zealand's Dark Sky Reserve

Planning a trip around New Zealand? Check out our perfect 2-week itinerary for the North Island.

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