The drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook is one of my favorite scenic drives in New Zealand, it’s also one of the most popular road trips on the South Island! That’s because Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island, and where most tourists start their New Zealand vacation because of the large International Airport there. Mount Cook, on the other hand, is the tallest mountain in the country and one of the most bucket-list-worthy places to visit in New Zealand.
Although the drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook will take you about 4 hours direct, once you do this drive you will understand why it’s necessary to allow at least two full days for this road trip. That’s because you will literally want to stop every 5 minutes and take in the stunning scenery!
In this blog post, I list 12 of the best places to stop on the drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook. As well as telling you all about the drive itself. It’s your ultimate road trip planning guide, and after reading this blog, you’ll be ready to hit the road.
About the Drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook
The drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook is 330 kilometers (205 miles) and will take just under 4 hours without stops. The route follows the SH1 and SH8 and is considered an easy, although busy, drive. You are likely to encounter traffic leaving Christchurch towards Ashburton as well as on Mount Cook Road – so allow for delays especially if driving during the busy summer months.
I recommend allowing two full days for this road trip and stopping to spend the night in Ashburton and Lake Tekapo if time permits. There is just so much to see between Christchurch and Mount Cook! Some of my favorite stops include the bright-blue Lake Tekapo and quirky Burkes Pass, where I felt like I had stepped back in time to the 1950s.
As mentioned, it is a pretty easy drive however Mount Cook Road is particularly windy and in bad weather, it will be necessary to drive slower. Also, beware of cars in front suddenly braking and pulling off the road to take the iconic Mount Cook road photo. It’s important to note this is a single-lane road so if you get stuck behind a slow-moving car it can be frustrating, just remember to relax and keep your distance.
Before your road trip, I highly recommend spending a few nights in Christchurch, there’s just so much to do in Christchurch!
Best Stops on the Drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook
1. Rakaia Gorge
The first stop on your drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook should be Rakaia Gorge – it’s arguably the prettiest stop too with the bright blue waters of the Rakaia River looking especially spectacular on a sunny day.
Why not stretch your legs and walk the 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) Rakaia Gorge Walkway, which follows along the edge of the gorge. It should take approximately 2-3 hours to complete. The track passes through native bush and then climbs uphill to join the historic ferryman’s track. There’s a stunning lookout point not far from where the two tracks join, so be sure to have your camera ready. After this, the track goes downhill to the site of the former Snowdon coal mines – where you can see many coal mine tunnels and even some old mining extraction equipment.
There’s a second viewpoint, a 45-minute walk from the coal mines. After this, you can choose to extend your walk slightly and walk down to the river.
Many locals go swimming in the river under the top bridges of the Rakaia Gorge but the water is startlingly cold – it averages about 13 Celsius (55 Fahrenheit).
2. Mount Hutt
If you plan to drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook in the winter months then why not consider stopping at the iconic Mt Hutt to ski. This ski resort is very popular with New Zealanders and it was voted the country’s best ski resort every year between 2015 to 2019!
There’s over 364 hectares of skiable terrain on Mt Hutt and it boasts long ski runs and stunning views across the Canterbury Plains. It also gets a surprisingly high amount of snowfall, which is unusual among New Zealand ski resorts. One of the runs has a whopping 686-meter vertical drop (2,251 feet), so, on that note, I would recommend Mt Hutt for intermediate or advanced skiers because of the steep terrain here.
Mt Hutt is not only popular with skiers but also with snowboarders and freestyle skiers, that’s thanks to the terrain parks on the mountain. These parks are suitable for all skill levels and have medium, large and extra-large rails. It’s a great place to learn some new skills in the snow.
Worth noting – the ski season in New Zealand is different from the U.S and Europe and it starts in early June and typically ends in mid-October, depending on the snowfall. Mt Hutt has rentals available and the closest town to the ski resort is Methven. I recommend spending a night or two in Methven if you’re planning for a few days of hitting the slopes.
If you’re driving this route in the summer, you can drive up the access road to the ski field to admire the stunning views!
Related Read: Want to hit slopes while you’re in NZ? Read about the best time to visit New Zealand to learn about the weather all around the country all year round.
Just an hour’s drive from Christchurch is the large town of Ashburton. In fact, this is the biggest town between Christchurch and Mount Cook so you can stock up on supplies here. The town itself is surrounded by lush green farmland. Most of the best things to do in Ashburton involve the great outdoors like fishing or waterskiing at nearby Lake Hood or walking around the Ashburton Domain which is home to over 37 hectares of pretty lawns and gardens.
Lord of the Rings fans can drive to Mt Sunday (aka Edoras from Lord of the Rings.) It’s an easy 2-hour drive to Mt Sunday from Ashburton and once you get here it’s an easy 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) walk from the parking lot. You can also visit the film location on a tour from Christchurch!
In the town itself, why not pay a visit to the Ashburton Art Gallery and Heritage Center which details the town’s history and also has lots of unique (mostly local) art on display. If you’re a shopaholic like me, or just want to pick up a few cool souvenirs to take home, then, drive out to Ashford Village, which is set on the grounds of an old Mill. There are lots of quirky gift shops here as well as a Cafe.
Did you know – Ashburton was an aviation training base during World War Two, and the Ashburton Aviation Museum (near the airport) is a great place to see historic and modern aircraft.
About halfway between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo is the small town of Geraldine – there’s not a whole lot to do here but there are several grocery stores and gas stations as well as cafes and restaurants. For food, you can’t miss Barkers, one of my favorite cafes in New Zealand. It’s a large cafe that looks over a river and they also sell their own products on-site. Barkers is a popular brand in New Zealand and you’re likely to spot their products in supermarkets across the country, they specialize in homemade drinks and sauces.
The Geraldine Orchard Farmshop and Cafe is another great place to stop and you can buy local fruit and veggies here. They also have a bakery as well as a deli featuring local producers. The Geraldine Honey Shop is also worth a visit if you want to purchase some high-quality local honey.
The tiny town of Fairlie is a very popular stop with drivers driving the route between Christchurch and Mount Cook, that’s because it’s home to the best pies in New Zealand. Yep, the humble pastry pie, typically filled with meat is a staple in the Kiwi diet and many people come from far and wide to taste the award-winning pies from Fairlie Bakehouse on Main Street. The mince and cheese pie and the pork belly pie are two of the most popular pies here! You can also buy freshly-baked cakes and sandwiches here.
Other than the famous pies, there are a few small stores, restaurants, and a supermarket in Fairlie.
Just outside of town there’s an Alpaca Farm, which the kids are sure to love. At Gem Alpaca Stud Farm you can pet and feed these cute animals, and join a farm tour to learn all about the alpacas, as well as have your photo taken with them!
Tour times vary with the season, so, please check their website for the most up-to-date times. Prices start from $20 NZD per adult and $10 NZD per child for a farm tour. They also have a large retail space where you can buy unique goods and souvenirs.
6. Burkes Pass
One of my favorite stops on this road trip from Christchurch to Mount Cook is the colorful Burkes Pass, which feels like you’ve stepped back in time to the 1950s. You can easily spend an hour or more getting lost among the treasures and takings lots of photos.
The quirky St Patrick’s Church, which is in fact, the oldest union church in New Zealand, was the catalyst for the local residents to transform this tiny town into a tourist destination. They came to realize the area’s potential as a tourist destination and in 2000, they purchased the church and began restoring it as well as all of the old buildings in the area into what they are today.
The Burkes Pass Heritage Walk offers a great insight into the area’s rich history. This short walking path passes the church, the gallery, a musterer’s hut, the old school house as well as the many stone houses and cob cottages (which are very photogenic!). At the end of your walk, browse in Three Creeks Arts and Craft Store for some unique souvenirs to take home.
It’s just a 15-minute drive from Burkes Pass to your next stop Lake Tekapo.
7. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the South Island – that’s because the lake is so pretty – think turquoise blue water with Mount Cook in the background. Not only that but there are loads of amazing activities on offer as well as quality restaurants in Lake Tekapo!
One of the best things to do in Lake Tekapo is to visit the small but stunning Church of the Good Shepherd. This Church is a popular stop for photographers because the window behind the altar inside the church frames the perfect view of the Southern Alps and the turquoise Lake. Some of the other activities on offer in Lake Tekapo include getting your thrills and seeing the mountain scenery on a 4WD tour and going kayaking on the lake.
There are more relaxed things you can do here too, like grabbing a coffee at Jack Rabbit or taking photos of the colorful lupins during lupin season, which runs from mid-November to the end of December. The best place to see the lupins is at the ‘lupin field’ which is just a 2-minute drive from town on the road to Christchurch.
Did you know – Lake Tekapo is officially a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve which means that it’s one of the best places in the world to go stargazing. One of the most unique ways to enjoy the stars is from a hot tub at Tekapo Springs – you may be lucky enough to spot the Southern Lights from the comfort of your hot tub (the Southern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Northern Lights). For an even better view of the Tekapo night sky then consider booking a stargazing tour where your guide will take you to Mount John Observatory to see the stars through a high-powered telescope.
Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo:
If you have time, I recommend spending a couple of nights in Lake Tekapo town to enjoy all the fun activities on offer.
In Tekapo town, there are lots of great hotels to choose from. For budget travels I recommend the Lakefront Lodge Backpackers – they have a range of rooms from dorms to privates. If you want something a little more upmarket the Peppers Bluewater Resort is my favorite, the hotel has magnificent views with beautiful rooms, and the best part is it isn’t actually that expensive!
On top of the hotels, there are also lots of small B&Bs around town that you can browse on Booking.com. Holiday home rentals are also popular in Lake Tekapo and there are many you can choose from. Holiday homes are perfect for groups or families who all want to stay together.
8. Lake Pukaki
One of the most popular stops on the drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook is Lake Pukaki, also known as the ‘bluest lake in New Zealand’. It’s just over a 40-minute drive from Lake Tekapo and is, in my opinion, one of the most photogenic places to visit on the South Island. Unlike Tekapo, there is no town and no facilities (just toilets) at Lake Pukaki.
Walk along the lake’s shore and take lots of photos. On a clear day, you can even spot Mount Cook in the distance. Here at Lake Pukaki is one of the best places in the country to see the lupins in bloom. From late November to early February you can spot thousands of these colorful flowers along the edge of the lake.
If you want to stretch your legs before driving the Mount Cook road, you can walk the 13 kilometers (8 miles) Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk, which will take about 4 hours in total to complete. But, if you don’t have enough time you can just walk a small section of the walk. It’s a lovely, flat walking track that takes you to a viewpoint over the lake which is perfect for viewing the turquoise lake and Mount Cook.
Top tip – if you have a self-contained campervan or motorhome you can park for free at the freedom camping area on the lake. It operates on a first come first serve so be sure to arrive early to secure a spot!
9. Ben Ohau
The next stop, is a firm favorite with Lord of the Rings fans – Ben Ohau Station is where the Battle Of Pelennor Fields scene in The Return Of The King was filmed. In fact, on the day of filming, there were over 1000 crew members and 280 horses here!
Worth noting is that Ben Ohau is privately owned and is a working Merino Sheep Station, you can also spend the night here in a cute cottage. If you’re not staying overnight, you can access the filming location by booking a Lord Of The Rings tour with a local tour operator in Twizel. Ben Ohau Station is just over a 7-minute drive from Lake Pukaki.
Fun fact – Disney’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, which stars Oprah Winfrey and Reece Witherspoon was also filmed at Ben Ohau Station!
10. NZ Alpine Lavender
One of the most unique stops between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook is NZ Alpine Lavender, it’s exceptionally pretty with bright purple lavender fields in contrast to a backdrop of the Southern Alps. At NZ Alpine Lavender you can explore the fields and take lots of photos. There is also a gift shop where you can try some delicious lavender ice cream! If you fancy spending the night, they have some quirky accommodation options a few minutes drive from the lavender fields.
Entrance costs just $5 NZD per person to visit the lavender field. Opening hours are 10 am to 4 pm from Dec 6-19 and Jan 16-Mar 31, with extended hours from 9 am to 5 pm from Dec 20-Jan 17.
Related Read: There is another stunning lavender field in Wanaka and taking photos among these beautiful flowers is one of the best things to do in Wanaka.
11. Mount Cook Road Photo
Many tourists to New Zealand drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook simply to take a photo of the Mount Cook road, it sounds strange but hear me out, if you manage to time the photo right it will easily be your favorite photo from your New Zealand vacation. About 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) before you reach Mount Cook Village, and just after the airport is the location for the famous Mount Cook photo.
Be sure to pull your car safely off the road and walk ahead, have your photographer stand at least a couple meters behind so that the whole scene is captured. Stand on the line in the middle of the road, behind you the winding road, and Mount Cook makes for the most amazing backdrop! Make sure to remain alert at all times, after all, you are standing in the middle of the road. It’s important to note that the speed limit on this road is 60km/h (37 mph) so the cars can come upon you pretty quick.
12. Mount Cook
You have reached your destination, Mount Cook Village! The tallest mountain in the country which stands at a whopping 3,724 meters tall (12,218 feet) is right in front of your eyes! It’s a bucket-list place for most tourists to New Zealand and it can get incredibly busy, especially during the summer. Thanks to its popularity, there is a lot to do in Mount Cook from hiking the gorgeous Hooker Valley Track to treating yourself to an epic helicopter ride over glaciers.
You can even indulge in heli-skiing on unspoiled ski runs here as well as try out the unique sport of glacier kayaking, which, yep, you guessed it – gets you up close to some pretty impressive glaciers and icebergs! Interestingly, there are more relaxing activities on offer here too, like visiting the informative Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center to learn about the history of the area and having dinner at one of the most scenic restaurants in New Zealand!
If you’re a keen hiker, there’s no better place to be than Mount Cook National Park – there are loads of great hiking tracks that range from short and easy to difficult tracks that will take a few days to complete. My personal favorite hike here is the Hooker Valley Track, which is one of the most popular walking tracks in Mount Cook. It’s a 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) round trip and is rated as easy – so it’s suitable for the whole family. On your walk, you will come across three very-photogenic swing bridges which each have stunning views of Mueller Lake, Mount Sefton, and the Mueller Glacier. At the end of the track and worth the wait is Hooker Lake, which depending on the season can be home to numerous icebergs. It’s easily one of the best hikes on the South Island!
Another personal favorite hike of mine in Mount Cook is the Sealy Tarns Track, which, interestingly is nicknamed the ‘stairway to heaven’ because you need to take on a mammoth 2,200 steps to reach the Sealy Tarns lake at the top. But, it’s worth the many steps and the 600-meter elevation gain (1,969 feet) for the epic views of the Hooker Valley as well as the majestic Mount Cook along the way!
Some shorter walks here include the Bowen Bush Walk, Glencoe Walk, and Governors Bush Walk.
Whether you have a couple of hours or a couple of days in Mount Cook you will be sure to have a memorable time, it’s definitely one of the best places to visit in New Zealand!
Where to Stay in Mount Cook
There aren’t a ton of places to stay in Mount Cook if I’m being honest. All of the accommodation is in Mount Cook Village, and in the summer months, the best places to stay are fully booked.
The most popular (and luxurious) place to stay is the Hermitage Hotel. For something a little more budget-friendly consider Aoraki Court Motel, or for the budget backpacker you can drive 17 minutes outside of Mt Cook Village and stay at the Glentanner Park Center, it’s a must with dorm rooms and a communal space to cook (and they have an on-site cafe!)
If you want to camp, you can stay at White Horse Hill Campground in Mount Cook Village. Bookings in advance are now required for this DOC-operated campground and it costs $15 NZD per adult per night or $7.50 NZD per child.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to book a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
And there you have it 11 of the best stops on the drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook, I’m sure after reading this you’ll understand why this is one of my favorite drives in the world! After all, there are turquoise lakes, mountain scenery, and a stunning lavender farm along the way, and not forgetting the best pies in New Zealand!
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