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Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook National Park are both some of the best places to visit on New Zealand’s South Island. And the best part? The distance between these two stunning destinations is only 104 kilometers (64.2) miles which only takes about 1.5 hours of driving. Although short, the drive from Lake Tekapo is stunning and often regarded as one of the best road trips on the South Island.
On this scenic drive, you’ll drive along the bright blue waters of Lake Pukaki before reaching the towering mountain peaks of Mount Cook National Park. The truth is, you’ll probably want to stop every two minutes to jump out and take pictures or just enjoy the views.
But there are a few noteworthy stops along this drive that you definitely don’t want to miss. Besides just the scenery, there are a few specific attractions that are worth checking out when driving from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook. By stopping at the right places on this drive, you’ll turn a short hour-long drive into an epic road trip you’re surely never going to forget!
In this blog, I’ll tell you all about the drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook including important tips and the best places to stop on the way.
About the Drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook
The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook is 104 kilometers (64.6miles) long and takes just over an hour without any stops. You’ll first leave Lake Tekapo town on State Highway 8 before turning right onto State Highway 80 (also known as Mount Cook Road.) This highway goes along the edge of gorgeous Lake Pukaki before entering Mount Cook National Park and continuing on into Mount Cook Village.
Driving from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook (or the reverse, from Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo) is a very common route on the South Island. These two destinations are beautiful and as such, very popular tourist destinations. In fact, many of the best things to do in New Zealand can be found in either Mount Cook National Park or Lake Tekapo.
Besides that, Lake Tekapo is a larger town than Mount Cook Village. This means that in Lake Tekapo you’ll find many more delicious restaurants as well as hotels. For this reason, many people actually stay the night in Lake Tekapo and visit Mount Cook on a day trip from there. Because the drive is only just over an hour long between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook, day trips are common and a popular way to visit one of NZ’s most famous national parks.
The road between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook is paved the entire way so it is suitable for 2wd cars and even larger motorhomes or campervans. It is important to note that it is a single-lane highway almost the entire way, and that if you get stuck behind a few slower-moving vehicles, it can take a little bit longer while testing your patience.
In the winter, this road is generally clear of snow and ice and safe to travel without snow chains. With that said, NZ’s winter weather can be unpredictable especially in the mountainous regions of Mount Cook National Park, so it’s best to have them with you just in case. Besides, if you’re continuing to drive to Queenstown from Mount Cook, then you’ll probably need them on Lindis Pass anyways, or if you’re going between Queenstown and Wanaka, on the Crown Pass.
Hot tip: If you’re renting a motorhome or any other vehicle in the winter, be sure that snow chains are included.
If you don’t want to drive yourself, you can take the Intercity Bus from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook with takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes (however, it is not always available.) Alternatively, there are plenty of guided tours available from Christchurch that stop in Lake Tekapo before heading to Mount Cook.
Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook FAQs
Related Read: Coming from Christchurch? Read my blog about the drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo for info about all of the best stops.
10 Best Stops on the Drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook
1. Lake Tekapo
The beautiful town of Lake Tekapo is where you’ll start your road trip to Mount Cook. There are tons of fun things to do in Lake Tekapo with one of the most popular being the Church of the Good Shepherd. This Church is especially popular with photographers as the altar window frames a perfect view of the Southern Alps and the milky blue lake.
Did you know – Lake Tekapo is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve meaning it’s one of the best places in the world to go stargazing. You can stargaze from a hot tub here at Tekapo Springs – what a way to enjoy the night sky all lit up with stars! You may be lucky enough to spot the Southern Lights too (the Southern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Northern Lights). If you want to get an even better view of the stars then you should definitely join a stargazing tour where you’ll head to Mount John Observatory to see them through a high-powered telescope.
Other activities in Lake Tekapo include going jet boating on the lake, wandering the lupin fields (colorful flowers) between October and January, and going for a coffee in town. There’s also an array of restaurants in Lake Tekapo including Our Dog Friday on Motuariki Lane for excellent burgers. Some of the most popular things to do on the South Island are actually in Lake Tekapo, so take some time and explore!
Staying Overnight in Lake Tekapo
Staying a night or two in Lake Tekapo is highly recommended. This place is just too beautiful to simply pass by.
One place I always love to stay is the YHA Lake Tekapo, it’s perfect for budget travelers and the location is right in town. If you have a higher budget then consider staying at the Mantra Lake Tekapo. It has a pool and the reviews speak for themselves.
There are also a huge range of Airbnbs in Lake Tekapo that range in price, size, and comfort level. Personally, if you’re traveling in a large group this is what I’d do!
2. Lake Pukaki Viewpoint
You may recognize Lake Pukaki from your Instagram feed – the bright blue lake with Mount Cook as a backdrop. Honestly, if you’re a photography fan you must stop here! But even if you’re not, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy this view?!
There are lots of different places you can pull over to enjoy the view with a few unmarked spots on the road into Mount Cook National Park. However, one place that’s perfect for a stunning view is this particular Lake Pukaki Viewpoint. Located only about 25 minute drive from Lake Tekapo town, this viewpoint is on the shore of Lake Pukaki and you can see Mount Cook in the distance.
This is just a quick stop for a photo, unless you’re in a self-contained certified campervan, in which case you can actually freedom camp here from the night.
3. Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk
After the viewpoint, continue driving towards Mount Cook on State Highway 8 for a couple of minutes until you reach the Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk. This is a great stop on the drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook where you can stretch your legs.
The Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk is actually a longer walk at 13 kilometers return. However, you don’t have to complete the entire track to enjoy it. Walk for as long as you feel before turning around and returning via the same track. You’ll enjoy beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains. I recommend just wandering for a couple of hundred meters before turning back – save your legs for the next stop on this blog or some of the incredible hikes in Mount Cook National Park.
4. Lake Pukaki Kettle Hole Walk
Just down the road from the parking lot of the Shoreline Walk, you’ll find the parking lot for the Lake Pukaki Kettle Hole Walk. This walk is 4 kilometers long and takes you to a kettle hole that was formed by melting glacial ice. There is an information board here that explains the process.
Along this trail, you’ll get spectacular views of Lake Pukaki. It is a fairly easy trail that takes most people around an hour to complete. It is probably rhe best hike of the drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook and well worth checking out.
5. Twizel (slight detour)
The alpine town of Twizel surrounded by the Southern Alps is a very popular stop on the road from Queenstown or Wanaka to Mount Cook. However, when you’re driving from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook it isn’t actually on the way, and instead, you’ll have to drive an extra 11-kilometer detour to reach Twizel. If you’re planning to drive from Mount Cook to Queenstown or Wanaka then skip this stop and instead visit Twizel once you leave Mount Cook.
The landscape surrounding Twizel has a very ‘Lord of the Rings vibe’. In fact, nearby Ben Ohau Station is where the Battle Of Pelennor Fields scene in The Return Of The King was filmed. Worth noting is that Ben Ohau is privately owned. You can access it by booking a Lord Of The Rings tour with a local tour operator in Twizel.
Twizel is a popular destination for those interested in rock and mountain climbing, cycling, and fishing. There are also a few great cafes and restaurants in the town including the awesome Poppies Café on Benmore Place. Also, be sure to head out to Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel at sunset to capture amazing relfections!
Stay Overnight in Twizel
Twizel is a place many people choose to spend the night. In fact, if accommodation in Mount Cook National Park is fully booked, Twizel is your next closest option.
For a luxury stay, check out the Mountain Chalets Motel. For something a little cheaper, 34 Mackenzie Apartments are perfect! There are also tons of Airbnbs and holiday homes to choose from in Twizel.
6. Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat
This stop is perfect for anybody looking for a little luxury! Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat is a beautiful place to spend a night or two surrounded by the serenity and beauty of Lake Pukaki. This place is seriously gorgeous and offers private villas with lake views and private hot tubs! It’s probably the most luxurious place to stay near Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki and is well worth it if you’re looking to spoil yourself a little.
Not up for an overnight stay? No problem! You can just stop here at their highly-rated restaurant for a bite to eat and glass of wine with a view before hitting the road again. You’ll find Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat located on Highway 80 as you make your way towards Mount Cook National Park.
Worth noting is that Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat often hosts ticketed events. Keep an eye on their calendar in case one of them interests you!
7. NZ Alpine Lavender
Imagine walking through a purple field full of lavender with three Southern Alps as your backdrop – it’s breathtaking! At NZ Alpine Lavender you can do just that. Here, you’ll find a huge field of lavender that you can explore and photograph. There is also a gift shop and even some accommodation available here. My personal recommendation is to try the lavender ice cream, it’s to-die-for!
It costs $5 NZD per person to visit the lavender field. Opening hours are 10 am to 4 pm from Dec 5-18 and Feb 16-Mar 15, with extended hours from 9 am to 5 pm from Dec 19-Feb 15. The lavender field is closed from mid-February to mid-December annually when the lavender is not in bloom.
8. Glentanner Park Centre
Glenntanner Park Centre is located within Glentanner Station, with merino sheep. Here, you visit the center and learn about all the fun things to do in the area. The centre also offers accommodation including rooms and campsites. There are various activities you can book here including helicopter rides, kayaking, 4wd tours and so much more.
If staying the night or booking a tour isn’t your thing you can instead just stop in at the Tasman Delta Cafe. Here, you can find an all-day menu including sandwiches, coffee, baked goods, and more. The cafe is open daily from 8:30 am and also offers WiFi (which you might need since cellphone data is very limited on the road between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook.)
9. Mount Cook Road Photo
A popular thing to do on the drive to Mount Cook is to snap a photo on the road! Hear me out – about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Mount Cook Village and just before the airport is one of the most stunning photo opportunities in Mount Cook. Pull your car safely off the road and stand in the middle of the road, behind you the winding road, and Mount Cook makes for an epic backdrop. It’s sure to make your friends at home jealous.
This is a quick stop, of course, pull your car safely off the side of the road. Watch out for cars and turn your hazards on. The speed limit on this road is 60km/h so the cars can come upon you pretty quick.
10. Mount Cook Village
Finally, you’ve arrived! Mount Cook Village is your final destination on this epic road trip. Here, you’ll find a few hotels and restaurants. It’s where you can begin to explore all of the best things to do in Mount Cook National Park!
Mount Cook National Park is named after Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, standing tall at a whopping 3,724 meters! It is of course a must-see on any New Zealand itinerary. There is lots to do in Mount Cook from undertaking one of the famous walks in the area to indulging in a stunning helicopter ride over glaciers.
The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular walking tracks in Mount Cook and well worth the 10-kilometer round trip (6.2 miles). It is a very flat, easy track. There are three swing bridges on the track, each with stunning views of Mueller Lake, Mount Sefton, and the Mueller Glacier in the far distance. 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!
Some shorter walks here include the Bowen Bush Walk, Glencoe Walk, and Governors Bush Walk.
I definitely recommend staying the night at Mount Cook, the famed Hermitage Hotel is the largest in the area with 164 rooms. It’s a stunning building with even more stunning views of Mount Cook. Smaller hotels in the area include Mt Cook Alpine Lodge and Aoraki Court.
For the thrill-seekers, why not try kayaking on Tasman or Mueller Lake, this allows you to get up close to the glacier. Or if you’re after a true bucket-list experience then a helicopter ride over Mount Cook has to be done. This tour includes a landing on Tasman Glacier, and from the air, you’ll spot Mount Cook (how can you miss it!), Franz Josef, and Fox Glacier.
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, YHA Mt Cook is a must with dorm rooms and a communal space to cook (and they have a sauna!)
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 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.
- 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!
And there you have it, the 10 best stops on the drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook. If you even stop at just a couple of the stops I mentioned then you’re sure to have a great time on this road trip.