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11 BEST Stops on the Drive from Christchurch to Punakaiki

11 BEST Stops on the Drive from Christchurch to Punakaiki

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A road trip from Christchurch to Punakaiki is a popular route in New Zealand. At just under 300 kilometers (178 miles to be exact) it will take most drivers between 3 hours 45 minutes and 4 hours without stopping. With that said, this is one road trip you’ll want to take your time doing. In fact, I recommend renting a vehicle in Christchurch and then stopping to spend a night (or two) at a few of the gorgeous sights along the way – there is just so much to see!

To help you plan your trip, in this blog I’ll list all the best stops between Christchurch and Punakaiki. With stops at the very unique rock formations in Castle Hill Conservation Area, the stunning Arthurs Pass, and the remote Motukiekie Beach, there are some seriously epic places to visit on the road between Christchurch and Punakaiki that you aren’t going to want to miss!

The journey from Christchurch to Punakaiki can be an epic adventure if you do this road trip right, which is why I wrote this blog! It includes all the info you need to complete the drive from Christchurch to Punakaiki including the absolute best attractions along the way – so, let’s dig in!

Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY/Star RV because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. Plus, if you use my exclusive discount code DTRAVEL24, you’ll save 5%! You can browse JUCY and Star RV’s availability here and apply the discount code at check-out.

About the drive from Christchurch to Punakaiki

The drive from Christchurch to Punakaiki is a 286-kilometer (178 miles) journey that takes 3 hours and 45 minutes, without stops. I recommend allowing 6 hours for this road trip as there is so much to see and do on the way! Stopping for a night en route and turning this into an overnight road trip is also highly recommended especially if you stay on Arthur’s Pass (more on that below!)

There are two different routes you can take on this road trip, however, the best way to go travels through Castle Hill Conservation Area as well as the famed Arthurs Pass. This is both the fastest and most scenic option. Make sure to choose the correct route on Google Maps before you go (it should map you this way but check!) The second route takes you through Hanmer Springs. This option takes 4 hours 35 minutes and is 368 km (228 miles).

It is important to note that driving from Christchurch to Punakaiki is all on a paved highway, but, sections of this route can be a little slippery in the winter months. If you’re visiting New Zealand in winter, check the road conditions before you depart Christchurch. Snow can close the highway or make the journey dangerous. Be sure to always carry snow chains in the winter, especially on Arthur’s Pass.

During the summer the highway is usually completely fine to drive, however, always be prepared and watch conditions especially if heavy rain is forecast.

Hot Tip: A campervan is a great way to road trip in NZ. There are also some top-rated campervan rental companies in Christchurch that you might want to check out!

Related Read: If you’re traveling around the South Island you may also want to read my blog posts on the journey from Christchurch to Franz Josef and Christchurch to Hokitika!

Christchurch to Punakaiki FAQs

Scenic road on Arthurs Pass, New Zealand
Arthurs Pass is one of the most scenic roads in NZ!

Best Stops between Christchurch and Punakaiki

1. World Famous Sheffield Pie Shop

Bailey with a pie from the Sheffield Pie Shop in New Zealand
So good!
A pie from the Sheffield Pie Shop in New Zealand
So simple but so tasty!

Before you venture onto Arthur’s Pass, you should grab a bite to eat! Honestly, there isn’t much for food options along this drive, especially for the first couple of hours. So, my recommendation is to stop in the small town of Sheffield at the Sheffield Pie Shop.

Here, you can try a New Zealand pie. And trust me, the pies at Sheffield Pie Shop truly are the best! They offer your classic flavors like beef (mince), or steak and cheese, but also have some fancier varieties including my personal favorite, steak and garlic mushroom.

Even if you aren’t hungry now, grab a pie to go to have on the road later in the day. They also serve good coffee too!

Expect to pay about $7.50 NZD for one pie. This place is super popular, so aim to get here early to have the biggest selection! The last time I did this road trip, I left Christchurch first thing in the morning and ate breakfast here in Sheffield at the Pie Shop.

Hot Tip: Fuel up before leaving Sheffield. This is pretty much your last place to get fuel before Arthur’s Pass Village (where it is really expensive!)

2. Porters Pass Viewpoint

Porters Pass Viewpoint at sunrise
Watching the sunrise here is spectacular!

The first stop on our road trip from Christchurch to Punakaiki is a quick stop called Porter’s Pass Viewpoint. The viewpoint is located just 1 hour from Christchurch on Highway 73. You don’t even need to get out of your car to admire the stunning views as the view from the parking lot of the surrounding mountains is one of my favorite views in New Zealand!

However, I highly I recommended getting out of your car to stretch your legs and even take a short walk. My top tip would be to leave Christchurch in the early morning so that you get to Porters Pass for sunrise. That way you can enjoy a golden hour with a coffee in hand – just pick it up in Springfield (only 15 minutes away from Porters Pass) on your way.

Related Read: Spending some time in Christchurch? Check out the best areas and hotels in Christchurch for your stay!

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3. Kura Tawhiti / Castle Hill Conservation Area

Bailey walks on a path at Kura Tawhiti Castle Hill Conservation Area
Bailey walks on a path at Kura Tawhiti Castle Hill Conservation Area
Kura Tawhiti Castle Hill Conservation Area
It’s an easy walk!

Your next stop is one of the most famous places to visit on the South Island. Kura Tawhiti (also known as Castle Hill Conservation Area) is a unique attraction in New Zealand that should be added to every New Zealand bucket list. Kura Tawhiti even has Tōpuni status!

Fun Fact: Tōpuni status means a chief has placed a cloak over the area. Tōpuni status, therefore, means Ngāi Tahu values on the conservation area are upheld. You can read more about it here.

The rock formations at Kura Tawhiti formed many years ago and were once under the ocean. Over the years limestone rocks developed and eroded into the unique shapes you see today.

Visiting Kura Tawhiti is easy and is only 10 minutes from the car park at Porters Pass Viewpoint. This attraction is well signposted and hard to miss. From the parking lot, there is a well-defined, easy walking track you can enjoy that leads through the boulders. It takes anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes to explore the area and is 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) each way.

This is certainly one of the highlights between Christchurch and Punakaiki!

Related Read: Before you leave Christchurch, be sure to read about the fun things to do in Christchurch – there’s more to do in this city than you might think!

4. Cave Stream Scenic Reserve

Bailey at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve on Arthurs Pass New Zealand
Cave Stream Scenic Reserve!

If I’m being honest, I was a little nervous before visiting the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. This stop is exactly as the name suggests a 594-meter (1,949 feet) cave with a stream running through it. This really is one of the coolest attractions in the Canterbury Region and one you won’t read about on many blogs.

Although unique, it’s more suited to the adventurous traveler as it involves some difficult terrain. As a result, it’s not suited to children or those with knee/hip problems. Accessing the cave is done by following a stream and if there’s been wet weather the water can get up to waist-deep in some places. Along the way, you must climb over rocks, and having someone fit and strong is recommended to help others (I had my partner with me and he helped others in the cave).

There are two entrances so if you plan on walking through be sure to walk against the current. It takes around 1 hour to navigate the cave and there are some ladders to climb. It’s also important to bring one flashlight (headtorch is recommended) per person and never go alone.

During winter the water is freezing so it’s not recommended to enter the cave. Also, please follow all directions on posted signs as sometimes the water is too high and it is not safe to enter the cafe.

Thankfully, you don’t need to walk through the cave to enjoy it, and instead, you can walk to the entrance and just enjoy the first part of the cave. This is what a lot of people did while I was there. The cave is located only 5 minutes from Castle Hill Conservation Area.

5. Lake Pearson

Bailey at Lake Pearson on Arthurs Pass, New Zealand
Picnics here are so peaceful!

Another quick stop on the road trip from Christchurch to Punakaiki is Lake Pearson. This is a beautiful place to stop to stretch your legs or for a picnic. Sit on the shore of Lake Pearson and enjoy the magnificent views of the mountains and even some wildlife. If you’re visiting on a sunny day the reflections on the lake surface are stunning! There are public toilets here, so keep that in mind!

For those with a campervan, tent, or motorhome, there is a DOC campsite at Lake Pearson. You can camp here for $10 NZD per night per person (adult). You must book in advance though.

6. Arthur’s Pass National Park

Arthur’s Pass National Park is a bucket list place to visit in New Zealand. There are a ton of awesome things to do in Arthurs Pass! Below I’ll mention some of the best you can do on your road trip from Christchurch to Punakaiki!

Hike Avalanche Peak

Bailey at the summit of Avalanche Peak in New Zealand
I made it to the summit!
Bailey climbs Avalanche Peak in New Zealand
I spent sunrise on the way up!

Avalanche Peak is one of the best hiking trails on the South Island. But this 6-kilometer (3.7 miles) trail is NOT easy, in fact, most people take 5 to 6 hours to walk the 6 kilometers! The reason for this is the steep terrain and huge elevation gain of over 1,110 meters (3,642 feet). Those who do complete this difficult hike, get to witness arguably the best panoramic view of the Southern Alps!

Avalanche Peak sits at 1,833 meters (6,014 feet) above sea level and the hike up to the summit is not advised for inexperienced or ill-prepared hikers. Please do not attempt this hike in high winds, winter, or rain!

Take in the views on Bealey Spur Track

Bailey on the Bealey Spur Track on Arthurs Pass, New Zealand
The views are incredible!

The Bearly Spur Track is one hike road-trippers with adequate time should not miss. This 6-kilometer (each way) hiking trail takes you high above the river valley to the Bealey Hut. It will take approx. 4 to 5 hours to complete. Although the trail has an elevation gain of over 600 meters (1,969 feet) it is gradual and not too difficult in terms of the terrain.

You can stay in the Bealey Hut free of charge and it operates on a first-come, first-serve basis. With that said, it’s an old hut so there are only very basic facilities. It’s more like a shed.

See the famous Devils Punchbowl

bailey stands on the viewpoint at the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall along Arthurs Pass, NZ
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall
Bailey looks out at the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall on Arthurs Pass
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall on Arthurs Pass

One of the most ferocious waterfalls in New Zealand is located in Arthur’s Pass National Park and the Devils Punchbowl Walking Track will take you to it. The name alone should get you excited but if that doesn’t, then the fact it’s a 131-meter tall (430 feet) waterfall should!

The trail to the falls is short and sweet with a small elevation gain and it takes around 20 minutes each way. Once there, you’ll be amazed at the falls and might even get a little wet!

Where to stay in Arthur’s Pass

Avalanche Creek Campsite on Arthurs Pass, New Zealand
Avalanche Creek Campsite on Arthurs Pass, New Zealand

There aren’t a whole lot of accommodation options on Arthur’s Pass, however, there are a couple of places to stay that I recommend. The most budget-friendly option is the Arthur’s Pass Alpine Motel. This cute motel right in the heart of Arthur’s Pass Village offers basic facilities at a very affordable price. If you’re traveling with a group/family they have well-reviewed family Chalets!

Another great accommodation option is The Nook, located near the village. This is an Airbnb-style apartment that has fantastic reviews. There is only one room here though so you do need to book well in advance!

If you’re looking for more of a luxury option, consider staying at The Bealey Hotel. It’s around 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Arthur’s Pass Village and sits on the edge of the Waimakariri River. The rooms here are lovely but the views are spectacular!

Alternatively, there are a couple of places to camp nearby too. For a basic tent-only site check out Avalanche Creek Campsite in Arthur’s Pass Village.

Related Read: Learn more about all of the different national parks in New Zealand!

7. Greymouth

Greymouth Clocktower, New Zealand
The Greymouth Clocktower! Photo credit – graf.florian@gmx.de Depositphotos

Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast and one of the best places to visit on the South Island.

In town be sure to pay a visit to the History House Museum which showcases the town’s mining and jade-hunting past. To the south of town, Shantytown Heritage Park is a replica gold rush town with a museum and steam train – a great family-friendly activity. Also, be sure to stop into the many galleries in the town that sell Pounamu. Note Pounamu should not be bought for oneself as it’s ‘bad luck’ but instead as a gift for someone!

There’s also an off-road rainforest tour that takes you in an all-terrain vehicle through mud, creeks, and over other obstacles. Great for the adventurous spirit!

Local brewery Monteith’s is located in Greymouth and is something of a New Zealand legend; it runs tours that include a tasting session. If you’re a beer lover this is a must-do!

Related Read: Make sure to check out my blog about the drive from Greymouth to Franz Josef – a very popular road trip on the South Island!

8. Point Elizabeth Lookout

sea view on the Point Elizabeth Walkway
What a stunning sea view in the Point Elizabeth Walkway!

North of Greymouth, the Point Elizabeth Walkway winds along coastal clifftops to the forests of Rapahoe Scenic Reserve, home to abundant birdlife. It’s a great walk for families due to its mostly flat nature and it also boasts stunning sea views. In fact, the track follows an old water race that miners used to sluice their gold.

It’s an easy walking track at 5.5 km one way (3.4 mi) – which should take you about 1 hour 45 minutes to complete.

One of the best parts of this walk is the exposed rocky point lookout, which has views of Mt Cook and the Paparoa Mountain Range. Offshore ‘sea stacks’ remain as a reminder that the point once extended much farther out to sea. Towards the end of the track, the path descends toward Cobden’s North Beach.

Mountain biking is allowed at night time only here and between 1 April – 20 September strictly. That is 1hr before sunrise and 1hr after sunset. 

9. Motukiekie Beach

Motukiekie, on the West Coast of the South Island, New Zealand!

One of the lesser-known gems on the South Island and accessible only at low tide, Motukiekie Beach is a wonderland for both photographers and geology lovers. It is a 20-minute drive from Greymouth via State Highway 2.

You will likely be one of the only ones on the beach, adding to its ‘special’ feel. Spot impressive sea stacks and the many rocks all of the different shapes and colors dotted along the beach. The best time to visit this beach is at sunrise or sunset, which can be difficult to do considering the beach is only accessible at low tide – so, be sure to get your timing right!

10. Barrytown Knifemaking

barrytown knife making on the South Island of New Zealand
An example of the knives you will hand-make at Barrytown Knife Making!

This is certainly an unforgettable stop on your journey from Christchurch to Punakaiki – at Barrytown Knifemaking you can create your own knife blade from red hot steel, and add to it with a native timber handle, brass bolsters, and pins. Other activities included in this full-day tour include axe throwing, target practice, and a huge swing. Lunch is provided, keep in mind it’s usually toasted sandwiches. So, pack more food if you think you’ll need it,

One of the most unique activities in New Zealand for sure! The tour starts at 9:30 am and finishes at 4 pm it costs $190 NZD per person.

11. Punakaiki

pancake rocks in Punakaiki on the South Island of New Zealand
Enjoying the stunning scenery at the famed Punakaiki Pancake Rocks!

And finally, you’ve made it to Punakaiki! This small town is your last stop on this epic road trip, and luckily, it’s filled with plenty of awesome things to see and do.

A quick walk along the Pororari River Track (one of the best hikes on the South Island) will have you surrounded by nature and even spotting lots of weka birds. Lots of people mistake them for kiwis but they’re much more common and you’ll likely see one!

Pancake Rocks is what people really come to Punakaiki for though, and this old rock formation is really unique. As the name suggests, the rocks appear like pancakes stacked on top of each other and there is a large boardwalk that navigates the rock formation for visitors. Wandering this boardwalk is one of the best things to do on the South Island – it really is impressive!

Along that boardwalk is also the famous Blow Hole. At high tide, you can see the huge power of water beneath the rock that shoots up the hole – it’s impressive to see!

If you have more time be sure to hike the Truman Track. This short 20-minute hike leads to a secluded beach where you can spot penguins and find starfish in the water. Just be sure to go at low tide as the beach isn’t safe to access at high tide!

Related Read: Another great road trip is the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin. From here, you can continue and drive through the Catlins from Dunedin to Invercargill.

Where to Stay in Punakaiki

view of the punakaiki
The beautiful Punakaiki Beachfront Motels is a great place to stay in Punakaiki after your road trip! Photo Credit: Punakaiki Beachfront Motels

Punakaiki is such a cute town that I bet you won’t want to leave – so don’t! Plan to stay a night or two in the beautiful and peaceful Punakaiki to fully enjoy it. There are a few different places you can choose from to stay in Punakaiki and something for every budget!

For travelers on a tight budget, you can’t go wrong with the Punakaiki Beach Hostel. Offering dorm beds and private rooms at an affordable price, this hostel is the perfect choice. It comes highly rated with beach views and plenty of communal spaces including a kitchen. And for a hostel, let me tell you, this place is super clean!

For something a little nicer than a hostel, a great mid-range price option for a hotel in Punakaiki is Punakaiki Beachfront Motels. The biggest drawcard to this property is the distance from the beach – only 30 meters! It is also only a 5-minute walk from Pancake Rocks. Besides the location, the rooms at Punakaiki Beachfront Motels are all self-contained featuring private kitchens. The price is really reasonable too and they even have larger family units available.

If you’re looking for luxury, then look no further than the Tasman Sea Retreat. This is the nicest place to stay in the area with impeccable reviews and plenty of amenities. It is actually a holiday home that features two bedrooms, ocean views, and a spa tub! This is the perfect place for a quiet escape in one of the most beautiful places in all of NZ. In fact, it makes a perfect romantic getaway destination in New Zealand for couples (imagine relaxing in the spa under the stars!)

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

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 rent 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’s what most budget travelers use 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…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the camera on the Avalanche Peak Trail
Thanks for reading!

As you can see the road trip from Christchurch to Punakaiki is one epic adventure with lots of beautiful stops and attractions. Without a doubt, I’m sure you’ll find many more places to stop and take in the views of Arthur’s Pass and the many other sights on this trip.

Thanks so much for reading. I hope this guide has helped plan your upcoming road trip. If you found this guide helpful, be sure to browse around some more! I have so many road trip blogs as well as guides about Queenstown, Franz Josef and so much more! Also, feel free to check out these popular guides below:

Best cafes in Christchurch

Epic South Island road trip

Guide to Visiting Hokitika

Free and cheap things to do in Queenstown

Phil Hosie

Sunday 23rd of July 2023

Great Blog re ChCh to Punakaiki....Reall helpful!!! Its this route I'll be doing in a months time....Thank you