In a country with seriously amazing scenery, we think that one road trip in the South Island of New Zealand is one of the best in the world. Starting in the country’s oldest city, Christchurch, passing through some of the most divine glacial lakes, seeing the nation’s tallest mountain to ending in the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown. We’ve spent the last few weeks exploring New Zealand’s south island, and our favourite part: the Christchurch to Queenstown drive.
So whether you are joining many of the other tourists and looking to campervan and free camp throughout the journey, or are looking to pick up a rental car or use the Intercity bus service, our complete guide has everything you need to know, the must-see places and even a couple of hidden gems to make sure that you’re all set to hit the road!
Christchurch to Queenstown drive itinerary?
- Day 1 | Christchurch to Lake Pukaki (via Lake Tekapo)
- Day 2 | Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook National Park
- Day 3 | Mount Cook National Park to Wanaka
- Day 4 | Wanaka to Queenstown (via Arrowtown)
Can the Christchurch to Queenstown road trip be shorter?
So maybe four days feels like too much, or you’re short on time? If you’re going by the fastest route between Christchurch and Queenstown then the drive is actually only going to take you around 6 hours (without stops and weather dependent that is…). However, you’ll be missing out on some of the most stunning scenery, beautiful walks and interesting towns along the route. So make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to get the most out of exploring all these different locations!
Although we’ve made this Christchurch to Queenstown drive a 4 day road trip, if you’re desperate for time, you can definitely combine days 2 and 3 together, to provide yourself a 3 day itinerary. But trust us, make the time and you really won’t regret it!
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Day 1 – Christchurch to Lake Pukaki (via Lake Tekapo)
Driving time: 4 hours
So first thing to really point out is that the roads in New Zealand are different to most countries, and it’ll take you longer than you expect to get to places! There are no motorways like you’d be used to in most of Europe and the USA, but much more single lane highways, which are generally pretty windy and hilly in places. The times stated in Google Maps etc could always do with a generous 15-20% buffer.
For today, the idea is to set off from Christchurch and get as far as the spectacular Lake Pukaki, via Lake Tekapo. Just in case you haven’t already got your activities for Christchurch sorted out, we do have some suggestions at the bottom of this article, plus we have a full Christchurch itinerary in case you need some more inspiration!
You’ll set off on State Highway 1 from Christchurch, heading towards Ashburton and Geraldine. To be honest the first couple of hours aren’t the most exciting, but there are a few places to stop and rest along the way. Once you leave Geraldine, you’ll take State Highway 79 towards Fairlie, where the views start to become a little more beautiful.
From Fairlie you’ll hit the State Highway 8 which actually is the main road pretty much all the way to Queenstown! Just past Burkes Pass you’ll start getting some incredible views from the road of the Southern Alps, with their snow-capped peaks dominating the skyline. And before reaching Lake Tekapo, make sure that you make a stop in the fields of lupins – they make the perfect background for an Instagram photo! You’ll find these exotic (they’re unfortunately not native to New Zealand) pink, purple and yellow flowers dotted all around the country but we thought this particular field was definitely the best one.
We’ve highlighted the location of these fields in the interactive map below as it’s not sign-posted, although the other cars stopped in the road should make it easy enough to find!
Not much further down the road from the lupin fields you’ll soon arrive at one of New Zealand’s most famous lakes: Lake Tekapo. You’ll arrive at the southern end of Lake Tekapo, and while there are a few drives and walks surrounding the lake if you have time, we found it a great place to stop for some lunch on the shore. Stop in at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a very cute stone church from the 1930’s. Note, you can’t take photos inside the church, but it’s one of the most photographed building in New Zealand.
Make sure that you also make a stop at the Lake Tekapo lookout point, you’ll have gorgeous views down the lake towards Mount D’Archiac.
After refuelling your stomach, head on your way to Lake Tekapo’s sister lake, Lake Pukaki which in our opinion is more beautiful, but seemingly less well known. This is where, if you are lucky enough to be freedom camping (i.e. a self-contained camper van), you will find one of the best accommodation spots in the country! More about that later… but from the crystal blue Lake Pukaki’s edge, on a clear day you can see all the way down to the peaks in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park!
Where to stay near Lake Pukaki
In a campervan?
When arriving at Lake Pukaki, take Hayman Road, which will be the first road on your right. You’ll find some amazing freedom camping spots, all the way along this road. And if you’re keen on stargazing on a clear night you’ll get some of the most impressive nights skies that you’re ever likely to see…
Note: New Zealand does have sand flies at many freedom camping spots and beaches that are pretty notorious for giving you a good chomp if you aren’t wearing insect repellent. So make sure you take some for the mornings and evenings, or wear long trousers, shirts and socks.
Needing a bed?
So if you’re not able to do the campervan/freedom camping experience, we’d actually recommend that you look at booking accommodation in Lake Tekapo, which has better options than the alternative in Twizel!
Budget: Located in the middle of Lake Tekapo village, Tailor Made Tekapo Packpackers is the best option for the budget traveller. Rooms are super clean and comfortable.
High-end: If you’re looking for more luxury accommodation, the Peppers Bluewater Resort offers rooms with lake views and everything you’d expect from a 4* hotel.
Interactive map for Day 1
Day 2 – Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook National Park
Drive time: 1 hour
So definitely not the most strenuous driving day today, but we’ve done that on purpose to give you the opportunity to explore the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park – not only home to the tallest mountain in New Zealand, but some phenomenal glaciers (that are in easy reach), along with some world-class hikes.
Just as you leave the end of Lake Pukaki on State Highway 8 heading southwards, turn right onto Route 80. And a little along the route is the perfect place to stop and grab some coffee and/or breakfast: Lavender Farm. Alongside the food truck, and you’ve probably guessed it by the name., there are perfectly symmetrical lines of lavender bush. Another great little photo spot.
Tasman Glacier Hike and Blue Lakes
Carry on along Route 80 and you’ll soon enter Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. You’ll then make your way past the Mount Cook Airport where, if you’re looking for an amazing experience and the best way to see the mountain range, you could check out these scenic flight options.
Just before you arrive into Mount Cook village, take a slight detour turning onto Tasman Valley Road. About 10 minutes along this road, you’ll find the car park for the Tasman Glacier View Track. This is very short, 15 minute hike (one way) and you’ll have amazing views of the Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes. We’ve actually written a full review here with what to expect, but allow yourself 45 minutes to visit both stops.
Insider Tip: Either heading towards or on return from the Tasman Glacier, make sure you stop at the bridge, it’s a really great place to take a quick snap!
Hooker Valley Hike
And so onto our final activity for the day, and one of the best hikes to do in New Zealand. The most ‘famous’ in the area: the Hooker Valley Track. You’ll experience breathtaking views, traverse three suspension bridges, and you’ll also pass right near to the beautiful Mount Cook itself. Allow around 3 to 4 hours to complete the hike, however it’s actually quite an easy hike, almost no elevation so you’re on flat terrain for most of it.
Where to stay near Mount Cook
Camping of caravanning?
We’d suggest that you book yourself into the Glentanner Holiday Park, which is between Lavender Farm and the Mount Cook airport. Apart from the location, it has great facilities, and you’ll probably be looking for a hot shower after the hiking…
Needing a bed?
Mid-high end: So if you’re looking to stay up near Mount Cook Village, the Mt Cook Lodge and Motel is the best option in the area.
Interactive map for Day 2
Day 3 – Mount Cook National Park to Wanaka
Driving time: 2 hours
Again, another day where it’s not too long a drive, so you can easily combine Day 2 and 3 of the Christchurch to Queenstown drive to make it a 3 day itinerary, but you’d probably have to skip the Hooker Valley Track.
So set out from Lake Pukaki and head back on State Highway 8 south towards Twizel. It’s not the most exciting of places, but another spot to refuel, and they have dump station facilities if you require it.
The drive along Route 8 takes you through the Lindis Valley; a gorgeous valley where the terrain is a little different to the other areas you’ve driven through as it’s mainly wheat-coloured tussock grasslands. At the top of Lindis Pass you should definitely make a stop at the Lookout. It’s a short walk to the summit which offers exquisite views back down both sides of the valley.
Note: In winter the valley and pass can be quite snowy, so make sure that you have snow chains if you’re travelling at this time of year.
Just after Tarras, take State Highway 8A towards Wanaka. Just before you enter into the town, there is another Lavender Farm to stop at in case you missed the similar one at Lake Pukaki. At the far end of town (or the most southernly part of the lake) you’ll find the lone tree in the lake, also known as #thatwanakatree! For most people, this is definitely a top photo spot.
There are a bunch of good accommodation options in Wanaka, however, we’d suggest that after taking a few photos of the lake, and maybe stopping for some lunch actually heading on Route 6 towards Albert Town and along to Lake Hawea.
Lake Hawea Lookout
Along the route, you’ll come to Lake Hawea Lookout, which provides a great view of another crystal blue lake. Continue on this road towards ‘The Neck’ where there is another great lookout spot of Lake Wanaka to stop at. But if you are looking for camping, and a decent hike, take Meads Road, a small dirt track that will take you to Kidds Bush Reserve Campsite.
Note: Route 6 continues up to the Haast Pass and down to the West Coast, so if you’re doing a loop of New Zealand’s south island, this is the best way. However, when we were there at the end 2019, the heavy rains had washed away the road and it was closed. So good to check on conditions before taking on this route.
Where to stay near Wanaka
Camping or caravanning?
We’d definitely suggest that you book into Kidds Bush Reserve Campsite. It costs 8 NZD per person provides good flush toilets and basin for washing dishes. The water is pretty chilly, but if you’re happy to brave it, a great place to have a dip. Once again, this is an incredible place to see the stars at night!
Looking for accommodation?
Budget: With great dorms, rooms and facilities, combined with a social atmosphere, if you’re looking for the perfect backpackers, check out YHA Wanaka.
Mid-range: Looking for something completely different? Why not try a stay in a Yurt… Oasis Yurt Lodge in Wanaka gets great reviews, so well worth considering.
Interactive map for Day 3
Day 4 – Wanaka to Queenstown (via Arrowtown)
Drive time: 90 minutes
So your final day on our road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown, and although it’s a short drive, there are so many places to stop along the route and activities to do. So make sure that you give yourself ample time!
Firstly, make sure that you head from the Wanaka region via the State Highway 6 route. There is a more direct route on the Cardona Valley Road, which takes about an hour, but you’ll miss out on many great sights and stops.
Kawarau Gorge and Roaring Meg
After driving along Lake Dunstan, you’ll soon get to the Kawarau Gorge, with the road winding along the turbulent Kawarau River. Take a break at the Roaring Meg lookout to fully appreciate the power of the water and discover a hydropowered gem. You’ll then continue your drive, and you’ll soon reach one of the most famous adventure spots in the world: the AJ Hackett Bungy Jump at Kawarau Bridge.
The first commercial bungy jump in the world, and something James did almost 20 years ago! So, get ready to stand on a platform on the bridge 43m above the river, and try out one of the most extreme activities in the world. Or if it’s not for you, stop into the café, grab a snack and watch others throw themselves off the bridge. It’s a little too fun to watch other fearful travellers doing their first bungy…!
After you’ve had your adrenaline fix, continue on your way to Queenstown with one final slight detour, to the old mining town of Arrowtown. Hang a right at Arrowtown Junction and 10 minutes down the road you reach this really quaint town, with many buildings still looking like when they were built in the late 1800s.
We’d definitely recommend that you stop into the Museum, and rent a gold pan (for about 3 NZD), head down to the river to try and find your fortune. We didn’t have any luck, but it’s a really fun, cheap activity and if you’re not in luck, you can still buy a vial of gold and claim it as your own.
Insider tip: Make sure you get yourself a pie at the town’s bakery, it’s the best we had in New Zealand.
So you’ll finally arrive into Queenstown after 4 rewarding days on the road from Christchurch. But there is not time to rest, as you’ve now arrived at the adventure capital of New Zealand (if not the world). And luckily, we’ve put together the perfect Queenstown itinerary, to make sure that you’re in the know on what to do!
Where to stay in Queenstown
In a campervan?
When we picked up our camper, we were recommended to stay at Creeksyde, and it ticked all the boxes. Although a touch out of town it’ close enough to walk to the town centre. And it’s right next to the Skyline Gondola, which is super handy.
Want hostels or hotels?
Budget: Easily the best backpackers in town is the YHA Queenstown Lakeside. The Queenstown branch also has amazing views, a great atmospher and even a drying room for ski equipment in winter.
Mid-range: There are loads of great apartments in Queenstown and our pick of the bunch would be the Closeburn Lake.
Luxury: The well located, well-appointed Novotel Queenstown would be our pick every time… it even has spa pools!
Interactive map for Day 4
Read next: Head to Hanmer Springs from Christchurch!
Bonus activities around Christchurch
As mentioned above, we’ve put together the perfect Christchurch itinerary, along with all the information you’d need when visiting this awesome city. But just in case you’re looking for our top picks of things to do when in Christchurch, these are our three must-do experiences:
Christchurch City Tram Tour
Operating since 1995, Christchurch’s main attractions are best seen from the seat of one of their gorgeous vintage trams! You’ll be transported back in time while you take in a very modern, new city and see all the key sights this bustling city has to offer. Your best bet is to ride the tram for the full 17 stops (it takes 45 minutes) to get your bearings, and then decide where to get off on your next round. Our picks include the Botanic Gardens, the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Cathedral and New Regents Street for lunch.
It’s the number one attraction in Christchurch for good reason, and so you have to go on the Christchurch Gondola. This one kilometre journey in cable car ‘bubble’ sees you taken up to the top of Port Hills where you will get the best views of Christchurch but also of the Banks Peninsula. There are also some walking tracks near the gondola, plus a nice little restaurant at the top.
The gondola is actually 15 minutes out of town so either drive there or catch the shuttle, which leaves from Cathedral Square.
Did you know that 6 million years ago, a huge volcano erupted near Christchurch? The remains of that is now the Banks Peninsula with Akaroa, a small town, as one of the ‘eruptive centres’. It’s an absolutely charming town with heaps to offer, plus the drive out there is really beautiful too.
There are two ways to get there from Christchurch and we’d advise you take the ‘long’ way via Lyttelton first and then return via the highway. Key points include stopping at the Lyttelton Harbour Lookout, to see the other eruptive centre and then taking the coastal road from Lyttelton to Akaroa. You’ll pass through a number of small, quaint towns most notably Governor’s Bay, where we’d suggest you pull over to take a photo or two.
On the way between these points is also the arty little enclave of Little River. Again, you could stop here and get some crafts from the Visitor Centre or just take a snap with the old red train on the withering tracks.
Once you’ve arrived in Akaroa, spend time walking the main streets, checking out the pier, dining at the restaurants (we’d recommend the Sweet As Bakery for crepes and paninis) or taking a dolphin safari!
Bonus activities and trips from Queenstown
So, we’ve given you a hugely comprehensive Queenstown itinerary, to make sure you get the most out of your time in this alpine town. But, you might ask, what are the absolute not to be missed activities in and around Queenstown? Here are a few of our favourite activities within Queenstown but also a couple of options for day trips to Milford Sound and Glenorchy.
Skyline Gondola, Bob’s Peak and the Luge
The Skyline Complex is just five minutes from the centre of Queenstown and offers heaps to do! You can go up the cable car / gondola for about 450 metres to take in the exhilarating views of Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. You can attempt one of the five walking tracks, like the Loop track or Ben Lomond Track, starting at the gondola upper station. Or you can take the hair-rising twists and turns of the mountainside luge, complete with a chairlift to take you back up again for more. The Skyline complex is a definite one to add to your list!
Jetboating or white-water rafting
Since jetboating was invented here in New Zealand, you have to give it a try! Queenstown offers some of the best, as you’ll be strapped into the jetboat and zoomed down the Shotover River at high speed; it’s quite the thrill! Alternatively, adrenalin junkies who want to get in on the action can do white-water rafting, which is a bit more strenuous. The river offers Grade 3 to 5 rapids so definitely not child’s play!
It’s one of the most famous landmarks in New Zealand and a pretty unmissable place, particularly if you’re already in nearby Queenstown. The Milford Sound is actually a fiord (or fjord) since it was created by a glacier but, regardless, is a spectacular place to explore. Situated in the Fiordland National Park it probably warrants at least an overnight stay but if you’re short on time, you can do the 4 hour drive or a tour originating out of Queenstown.
The Sound is best explored via boat – check out options for boat trips here.
Do the Queenstown scenic drive by getting out of the town and into the smaller village of Glenorchy. It’s an absolutely beautiful drive of about an hour which will see you pulling off the road for a photograph at least every 15 minutes! You’ll have views of the Humboldt and Richardson mountain ranges as you go, and then arrive at a quaint little enclave which has become a little Instagrammable due to it’s red boat shed. Glenorchy is a great place to just relax by the water, do one of the hikes or even go for high tea at one of the hotels or restaurants!
Our Christchurch to Queenstown drive map
What’s the best time to go to New Zealand’s south island?
There’s never really a bad time to make the journey from Christchurch to Queenstown, as you’ll be in for an incredible road trip whenever you go. But if you’re looking for the best weather, then New Zealand’s summer months from December to March are your best bet. Although definitely watch out for the holidays in December and January as accommodation and experiences are much busier. Our only tip for this time (which is when we did it), is book well ahead.
Both spring and autumn offer their own benefits, from gorgeous floral displays to autumnal colours. However, if you’re looking to make the most out of the skiing opportunities in the Crown Range or The Remarkables, you’ll want to look at the winter months from June to August.
So what do you think of our Christchurch to Queenstown road trip? Let us know in the comments below or drop us an email here, especially if you’ve got anything else that we should add to this itinerary!
What camera equipment and other gear do we use?
We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.
- Main Camera: Panasonic Lumix FZ1000
- Drone: DJI Mavic Air – Fly More Combo
- GoPro: Hero 7 Black
- GoPro Dive Case: Go Pro Housing
- GoPro Case: Smatree GoPro Carry Case – Small
- Packing Cubes: Eagle Creek Packing case
- Backpack: Osprey Farpoint 70
- Powerbank: Anker Powercore
- Phone: Xiaomi Mi 9
- Hard drive: Transcend Slim Storejet 2TB
- Laptop: Lenovo IdeaPad 720s
- Headphones: Bose Quiet Comfort 35
- Wifi Hotspot: GlocalMe G4
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the distance between Christchurch and Queenstown?
Going by the most direct route, the drive from Christchurch to Queenstown is 483 km, and will take you around 6 hours if you’re keeping to the speed limits, and there aren’t traffic or weather issues. At certain times of the year, especially in winter, the drive will take you a bit longer.
What’s the best way to drive around – campervan or rental car?
Well, this really depends on your travel style. A campervan gives you all the freedom of just pulling up wherever you like and parking up for the night. However, campervans can be a little slow and difficult to manage on the roads. If you are looking to book a campervan, we suggested using a large operator like Britz, since they have bases in both Christchurch and Queenstown.
A rental car is quick and easy but you’ll need to do more planning to secure accommodation ahead of time, with those added costs. Our pick of rental companies is always RentalCars since you get can get some great deals!
How much do I need for this trip in New Zealand?
Now New Zealand is definitely one of the pricier countries we’ve visited – and no wonder, since they are quite isolated and so have high costs of production! To be honest, doing New Zealand on a budget is quite difficult but not entirely unachievable.
It’s difficult to really estimate how much you need, since that depends hugely on your travel style. For us, this particular itinerary cost us about 5,200 NZD (3,370 USD / 2,570 GBP) since we took a very high end camper van.
What are the must-see Christchurch to Queenstown drive attractions?
For us, the must-see attractions between Christchurch and Queenstown are:
- Lake Tekapo
- Lake Pukaki
- Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
- Lake Wanaka (and Lake Hawea)
- Kawarau Bridge and Bungy Jump
Is it possible to do the Christchurch to Queenstown drive in winter?
Yes! In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful times to do the drive and so one of the best road trips! The majority of the roads will be well gritted, but take it slowly and especially watch out for icy shaded parts in the mornings. It’s always worth having snow chains in your vehicle in case there is some decent snowfall. But if you’re like us and love to ski, then get down to Queenstown as you definitely won’t regret it.
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