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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 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!
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.
Christchurch to Punakaiki FAQs
Best stops between Christchurch and Punakaiki
1. Porters Pass Viewpoint
The first stop on our road trip from Christchurch to Punakaiki is a quick stop called Porters 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 golden hour with a coffee in hand – just pick it up in Springfield (only 15 minutes away from Porters Pass) on your way.
2. Kura Tawhiti / Castle Hill Conservation Area
Your next stop is one of the most famous places to visit on the South Island. Castle Hill Conservation Area (also known as Kura Tawhiti) 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 formed and were then eroded away 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 (each way).
This is certainly one of the highlights between Christchurch and Punakaiki!
3. 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 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 who is 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 per person and never go alone. During winter the water is freezing so it’s not recommended to enter the cave.
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 but I myself just had to go inside! The cave is located only 5 minutes from Castle Hill Conservation Area.
4. Lake Pearson
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 $8 per night per person (adult). You must book in advance though.
5. 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
Avalanche Peak is the best hiking trail 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. 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 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
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 it is gradual and not too difficult. 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.
See the famous Devils Punchbowl
One of the most ferocious waterfalls in New Zealand is located in Arthur’s Pass 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 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
There isn’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 travelling 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 from Arthur’s Pass Village and sits on the edge of the Waimakariri River. The rooms here are lovely but the views are spectacular!
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!
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!
7. Point Elizabeth Lookout
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 5.5km one way – 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 April – 30 September strictly. That is 1hr before sunrise and 1hr after sunset.
8. Motukiekie Beach
One of the lesser-known gems on the South Island and accessible only at low tide, it 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 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!
9. Barrytown Knifemaking
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 9:30am and finishes at 4pm it costs $170 NZD per person.
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!
Where to Stay in Punakaiki
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
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.
- 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! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
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!