Gigantic glaciers created the neighbouring lakes of Hāwea and Wānaka over 10,000 years ago, long before humans entered into the history of Wānaka. The joining point of those glaciers is now a kilometre-wide expanse of land named the Neck.
The first human settlements near these lakes were Maori summer campsites known as 'kainga'. The Maori fished and hunted for birds around Wānaka, before heading to the 'pounamu' (greenstone) deposits on the South Island's west coast.
The Wānaka area was a cross road where the trails to the West Coast and the Wakatipu diverged. The Maori name for the trail that leads through Haast Pass is Tiora-patea, which means 'the way is clear'. The pass was first used by Maori on their way to the pounamu (jade) rivers of the coast. The Cardrona Valley led to the natural rock bridge "Whatatorere", which was the only place that the Kawarau River and Mata-Au (the Clutha River) could be crossed without boats.
A gold prospector called Charles Cameron is believed to be the first European to find the pass. He crossed over in January 1863, burying his powder flask to the west of the pass. Close behind him came Julius von Haast, who named the pass after himself and claimed to be the first European to have travelled through it, however the discovery of Cameron's flask discredited this claim. It took Julius von Haast and his party over four weeks to complete the journey, after being shown the start of the trail by Maori.
A Maori chieftain named Reko guided the area's first European visitor, Nathaniel Chalmers, in 1853. Another Maori chief, Te Huruhuru, sketched a simple map of the region at this time, which remains today.
European settlement began in the Upper Clutha River Valley in the 1850s, with the establishment of sheep stations by runholders. The first station was at Albert Town, the only place where settlers could ford the Clutha River. The world's first sheepdog trials were reportedly held in Wānaka in 1867.
The first gold rush started in 1863 with the discovery of gold in the Lindis River and Cardrona Valley and by 1870 Cardrona was the region’s largest town with a permanent population of 400 people. The population of Wānaka wouldn’t reach 400 until nearly one hundred years later in 1960.
The present site of Wānaka was first surveyed in 1863, and settlement increased in Pembroke (the old name for Wānaka) during the 1870s because of timber milling in the Matukituki and Makarora Valleys and the use of Lake Wānaka for transport.
Wānaka is believed to be named from the word Wānaka which is a South Island form of wānanga, meaning sacred knowledge or a place of learning. Residents changed the named from Pembroke to Wānaka in 1940.
Tourism in the town began in 1867 with the opening of the first hotel, by Theodore Russell and in 1883 the Theodore, a paddle steamer, offered cruises for tourists on the lake.
Mt Aspiring was first climbed by Major Bernard Head in 1909. Mt Aspiring National Park was gazetted in 1964 and then became part of the Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand World Heritage site in 1990.
The Haast Pass Highway was finally completed in 1965, after 30 years of work, linking the West Coast and Otago but wouldn’t be completely sealed for another 30 years.
Treble Cone Ski Area opened in 1968 and in 1978 the Cardrona Alpine Resort also opened.
Wānaka proved a very popular tourist destination because of its borderline continental climate and easy access to snow and water.