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Driving from Queenstown to Franz Josef is an absolute must-do during your time in New Zealand. It’s easy to turn this 350 kilometer-long drive into a whole-day affair. There is just so much to see! In fact, I highly recommend stopping and spending the night in some of the towns along the way and turning this into an overnight or multi-day adventure. Some of the best places to visit on the South Island are on this route and it’s easily one of the best road trips you can do on the South Island!
The only problem with the drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef is that it can be confusing to know exactly where and when to stop. With such windy roads, attractions creep up on you and before you know it, you’ve passed them! It’s a problem I had the first few times I did this epic road trip.
So in this blog, I’ll list 19 of the best stops on the drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef. With stops at the gorgeous Blue Pools, three different waterfalls, and no less than two glaciers, this list has got it all! And the best part? You won’t miss a thing!
Related read: Spending time in Queenstown before you set off? Check out my guide to the 65 best things to do in Queenstown!
About the Drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef
The drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef is a popular route in New Zealand used to explore the stunning West Coast of New Zealand. From Queenstown, Franz Josef is 351 kilometers away (218 miles) and the drive without stopping taking between 4.5 to 5 hours. The road is windy and it passes lots of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and viewpoints making it one of the best drives in NZ.
A common mistake most travelers make is not allowing enough time for the drive. 4.5 hours is the quickest you can go if you don’t stop or get stuck behind traffic. For most though, the drive will take much longer and to do it properly requires enough stops to make the trip take a full 7 to 10 hours. Of course, if you want to go on a hike, enjoy the best things to do in Wanaka, or spend time relaxing at the river, spreading the journey over 2 to 3 days is a great idea.
It’s important to know that the highway to Franz Josef is single lane the entire way with very sharp bends and blind corners. In bad weather, you should take it slow, and during rain, be sure to check weather reports as major slips do happen on this route. These can cause flooding and close the highway from time to time.
If you don’t want to drive yourself or don’t have a car, don’t worry, you can book a coach tour from Queenstown to Franz Josef. This 8-hour coach tour is super affordable and not only gets you from point A (Queenstown) to point B (Franz Josef) but it also stops at the best attractions along the way. A full-day tour and transport all in one!
The West Coast is a wild place and for those who love adventure it’s going to be one road trip you remember for the rest of your life!
Queenstown to Franz Josef FAQs
You don’t necessarily need your own car to enjoy the drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef, you can book this super affordable one-way coach tour. It stops at some of the top attractions along the way and is the best alternative to driving yourself.
19 Best Stops on the Drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef
1. Crown Range (summit and lookout)
Crown Range Road, which brings you from Queenstown to Wanaka, is the highest main highway in New Zealand and is known for its narrow twists and turns and steep hills. So, I highly advise only experienced drivers to drive this route. As you can imagine though, the highest road in the country is filled with epic views.
Especially worth stopping at is Arrow Junction Lookout and Crown Range Lookout for stunning views of the surrounding mountains. At the Arrow Junction lookout, park your car at the small pullover bay and enjoy the views over the Wakatipu Basin (pictured above.) Then, continue up the road to Crown Range Lookout for views over the entire valley. You car park here and walk the short narrow path to Crown Range Summit too. It’s quite steep but will only take you under 20 minutes.
Further up the Crown Range road is the Summit lookout, which at over 1,100 meters offers exceptional views of the Crown Range Valley. You may even spot a cheeky Kea (New Zealand’s own alpine parrot) as they are notorious at this beautiful spot.
2. Cardrona Hotel
Said to be the most photographed building in all of New Zealand, stopping at the Cardrona Hotel for a photo is a rite of passage for most travelers in New Zealand. I also recommend taking a photo next door at the Cardrona Church and Hall which too dates back to the late 1800s.
Cardrona Hotel is one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels, built back in 1863 during the gold rush era. It houses an excellent restaurant, award-winning in fact. I highly recommend their pulled pork burger or nachos. But if you don’t have time to stop for a full meal then I recommend a coffee in their awesome beer garden (or a cheeky beer if you’re not driving.) In fact, the Cardrona Hotel is famous for its huge selection of craft beer from around the area.
Related read: Love craft beer? Check out our guide on where to drink the best craft beer in Queenstown!
A short walk or drive from the Cardrona Hotel is what is locally known as “Bradrona“. Yep, you guessed it, there are lots of bras here. There are over 800 bras (at last count) hanging on this fence – this tradition is said to have been started by passing tourists in late 1998 and has raised lots of money for breast cancer research.
To this day, tourists continue to stop and leave their bra as a souvenir for the fence while popping a small donation in the box. It’s a unique attraction, but well worth checking out.
Known for its gorgeous views of Lake Wanaka and with Mt Aspiring National Park on its doorstep, Wanaka is one destination on this road trip you don’t want to miss. It’s extremely popular with tourists and has recently been giving neighboring Queenstown a run for its money in the popularity department. Wanaka’s popularity has risen in recent years as more and more travelers look for that slightly less chaotic travel experience.
Wanaka is where I recommend stopping for AT LEAST lunch on the road from Queenstown to Franz Josef. There’s a heap of excellent restaurants here including Francesca’s Italian Kitchen on 93 Ardmore Street or the very popular lakefront restaurant Big Fig on 105 Ardmore Street. But, my personal favorite is the food truck park at 51 Brownston Street, here you have a choice of Mexican food, southern fried chicken, as well as organic food options.
After lunch, stretch your legs and walk along the lakefront to #thatwanakatree – a must visit in Wanaka. This tree is so popular with photographers that it even has its own hashtag.
Although stopping for lunch is better than driving through, you should consider spending a night in Wanaka. Seriously, there are so many amazing free and cheap things to do in Wanaka including hiking the famous Roy’s Peak. This is a great place to split your journey up with an easy day on Crown Range Road before jumping on a hiking trail or going for a swim in the lake.
Stay Overnight in Wanaka
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Wanaka the Ramada Resort is a great luxury option. For budget travelers, you can’t miss Hawea Hotel. Altnertaviely, I have often stayed at Manuka Crescent Hotel and find it to be a good middle-ground in terms of comfort and price.
Airbnb and holiday homes are also popular in Wanaka with lots of private houses to rent as well as budget bedrooms.
5. Lake Hawea
Lake Hawea, a 15-minute drive from Wanaka, is your first stop when driving from Wanaka to Franz Josef. It’s New Zealand’s 9th largest lake. A truly stunning landscape with high mountain ranges and bright blue water, it’s very popular with keen fishermen as well as kayakers and kite surfers.
There’s a great 3-4 hour loop track here that starts in Lake Hawea township and follows the Timaru river to Timaru Creek. The track ventures through native beech forest and along the braided Timaru river. Bring a picnic to have at the picnic benches at Timaru Creek.
Alternatively, you can just stop at viewpoints along the way including the one pictured above. There’s also a famous hike along this road known as the “other Roys Peak” called Isthmus Peak. It’s one of the best hikes on the South Island and well worth checking out if you have time.
6. Lake Wanaka Lookout
There’s a fantastic lookout point over Lake Wanaka, located just after what is locally known as “the neck”. This is where Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea once connected and are now separated by a narrow piece of land known as an isthmus or “the neck” as it’s more colloquially known.
There’s a little parking lot to pull your car into, this is just a quick photo stop and offers a different viewpoint of Lake Wanaka. This stop can get very busy in the summer months, so there may be limited parking.
7. Blue Pools
About 30 minutes from “the neck” is one of the most popular stops on the road from Queenstown to Franz Josef. The Blue Pools are known as one of the most beautiful places to visit on the South Island and are accessed by a short walk. The hike to the blue pools is a short, easy walk through native forest to the Makarora and Blue River. The walk will take you over two swing bridges, the second giving you a prime view over the bright blue water below.
If you’re feeling brave (or if it’s a particularly hot day), you may want to cool down in the freezing cold waters. The average water temperature here is just 9 degrees Celsius or 48 degrees Fahrenheit. My partner always goes for a swim, but if I’m honest, I can never get myself in!
There are an obscene amount of annoying sandflies at the Blue Pools so be sure to wear insect repellant as well as long pants to keep them at bay. Their bites are super itchy and can last weeks on some people.
8. Haast Pass Lookout
Just under a 10-minute drive from the Blue Pools is the Haast Pass Lookout. There’s a popular walking track here which is a short 2 kilometer-return track and should take you about 20 minutes or so. The trail leads through native beech forest to the viewpoint at the end which offers the best views of Mt Aspiring National Park.
It’s a short walk thats great for stretching the legs on your road trip from Queenstown to Franz Josef.
9. Fantail Falls
Continue driving from the Haast Pass Lookout to Fantail Falls which will take under 5 minutes. A short two-minute walk from the car park here will bring you to this waterfall standing at 23 meters tall. Similar to the Blue Pools, I highly advise wearing bug spray here to deter the sandflies.
If you have an extra day or two and are after a unique adventure on the road from Queenstown to Franz Josef, then I highly recommend hiking from Fantail Falls to Brewster Hut. This track is considered an advanced hike, so experience is advised. The track will take about 6-8 hours return. You will have to cross the Haast River on foot (but it’s not that deep in summer), and climb through the forest. Staying the night at Brewster Hut is a unique experience and must be booked in advance, it sleeps a maximum of 12 people and costs $20 per adult.
10. Thunder Creek Falls
A well-known stop on the route from Queenstown to Franz Josef, Thunder Creek Falls sure is tall at 28 meters (92 feet.) A short 5-minute walk from the car park will bring you to this very photogenic viewpoint of the falls. Surrounded by native bush and with the blue waters of the Haast River running below, it sure makes for a pretty picture! It’s also one of the top attractions in Mount Aspiring National Park.
11. Haast River Lookout
A beautiful but quick stop along the route of the Haast River is this lookout point with gorgeous Mount Aspiring as a backdrop. The scene here is especially beautiful on a cloudy or rainy day when the clouds float midway between the brightly colored river and the mountain.
There’s a small gravel pull-off here for you to safely get off the road. It’s also a great place for a bite to eat without the crowds!
12. Roaring Billy Falls
Another waterfall on the beautiful west coast is Roaring Billy Falls. An easy 25-minute walk along this fern-lined track will bring you to the famous falls and the blue river to accompany it. You will also encounter some more rare trees including the miro, matai, and silver beech trees along the track.
Roaring Billy Falls is a typical example of a cascades waterfall and is 30 meters (94 feet) tall. There’s a viewing platform here, and the track itself is considered easy without many uphill climbs or stairs.
13. Haast town
A short stop in Haast town is a great opportunity to fuel up or grab some lunch or a snack. I recommend Fantail Cafe on Marks Road or The Craypot at Jackson’s Bay for yummy seafood. If you’re feeling tired after the drive from Queenstown, then Haast is a great place to spend the night with a variety of accommodation available.
Also, worth seeing in Haast is the Haast River Bridge, a narrow one-lane bridge surrounded by stunning scenery.
14. Knights Point Lookout
Knights Point is a breathtaking viewpoint that pears over the cliffs out into the vast and unforgiving Tasman Sea. From the viewing platform, you will have a 180-degree view of the small reefs in the ocean. It can get pretty windy here so you’re likely to see big waves crashing in the ocean below.
There is a large car park and toilet facilities so it’s worth stopping here to take some photos and stretch your legs.
15. South Westland Salmon Farm
South Westland Salmon Farm is an operating salmon farm and cafe about a 50-minute drive from Fox Glacier. It’s a unique stop on your journey from Queenstown to Franz Josef and a great place for lunch, especially for seafood lovers! South Westland Salmon Farm is a pond rearing farm and they farm Chinook, King, Spring, and Quinnat salmon here. All originally found in the Sacramento River in California.
Of course, at the on-site café salmon is the specialty but they also have a host of counter foods like cakes and sandwiches if you’re after something lighter.
16. Fox Glacier
On the drive to Fox Glacier you will notice the landscape slowly change and it will soon become obvious that you are now in glacier country.
Tucked away at the foot of the majestic Southern Alps, the cute town of Fox Glacier is very popular with tourists. There’s also glow worm caves a short walk from the town center that are well worth a visit.
Fox Glacier (the glacier, not the town) descends from the Southern Alps down into the rain forest. It’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world as it’s just 300 meters above sea level. A whopping 12 km in length, Fox Glacier is the West Coast’s longest glacier. You can arrange an ice-hiking adventure here or book a scenic flight to see the stunning glacier from above. Worth noting is it’s not as steep as the neighboring Franz Josef Glacier, so, is a better ice-hiking option for those less-experienced.
If you want to see the glacier for free you can hike the Fox Glacier Valley Walk. This 1 hour return track gets you as close as you can to the glacier without a tour. The picture above was taken from this viewpoint!
Back in the town of Fox Glacier, there are a few options for food if you’re hungry including The Last Kitchen on Sullivan Road and The White Pub on Cook Flat Road. There are also a few accommodation options here if you fancy spending the night to break up your journey.
17. Lake Matheson
Just a 5 minute (or 5-kilometer drive) from Fox Glacier town is one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand. On a clear day, Lake Matheson reflects New Zealand’s highest mountain – Mount Cook! This is because the water in the lake is a dark brown making it the perfect surface to reflect.
An easy walk from the car park brings you over the Clearwater River suspension bridge. The track continues through tall rimu and kahikatea trees, to a pontoon that is the ideal spot for a photograph. Long-finned eels can be found in the dark water of Lake Matheson too.
The walk from the car park takes 40 minutes to the pontoon or 1.5 hours on the loop track around the lake. If you want, you can even join a guided nature walk to Lake Matheson.
Did you know – Lake Matheson is a traditional mahinga kai (food gathering place) for the native Maoris.
18. Franz Josef Glacier
The snowfield at the head of Franz Josef Glacier is over 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) above sea level and 20 square km in area. It is one of the only known glaciers that drops so quickly to low altitudes – it descends to 300 meters above sea level in just 11 km!
A 1.5-hour easy walk on the Franz Josef Valley Walk will take you to within 750 meters (2,450 feet) of the glaciers terminal face. The trail navigates through native forest for the first 15 minutes or so and then along the rocky riverbed where you’ll find two small waterfalls. The end of the hike involves a short but steep climb to the viewing platform. You will notice the glacier constantly moving and may even spot rock and debris falling. Appropriate hiking boots are recommended for this walk as you do have to cross a small stream.
To see the glacier truly up close you can either take a guided ice hike or a scenic helicopter flight. Whatever option you chose will truly be a bucket-list-worthy experience.
19. Franz Josef Town
5km from the glacier is the small but lively town of Franz Josef and the final leg of this epic road trip from Queenstown. Franz Josef is only a small town but it’s a lively place that makes for the perfect place to spend a night or two.
From Franz Josef, there are lots of different things to do. You can partake in cycling, beautiful walks, and even action-packed adventures like rafting or skydiving. If you’re after something a little more unique then why not take a guided tour to the white heron colony at Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve. Or, visit Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary to see the Rowi – the world’s rarest kiwi, there’s only 600 of these left in existence in the country.
Another activity I love in Franz Josef is a visit to the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. These beautiful hot pools are so relaxing especially after a long drive or hiking adventure. There are three public pools that are all at different temperatures as well as private pools.
After all that driving and exploring you’re sure to be hungry so grab some food in the highly recommended Alice May or Monsoon restaurants both on Cron Street in the town. If you love craft beer and pub food go to Snakebite Brewery, it’s my favorite place to go for a hearty meal and delicious beer.
Related read: To keep busy in Franz Josef, read my blog about the best things to do and see in Franz Josef!
Essential Information to Know Before You Go
- The Queenstown to Franz Josef route is 350 km (218 miles) in total, which should take you just over 5 hours but considering all the stops I’ve listed it will be a full-day affair. Ideally, I recommend taking 3 days for this route.
- In the winter months (May to September) you will need to carry snow chains for the Crown Range Road as it can get pretty icy.
- Be sure to bring appropriate clothing – the West Coast (Haast, Franz Josef & Fox Glacier) is notorious for its high rainfall. So, bring good wet weather gear as well as suitable footwear if you plan on walking to the glacier
- Fuel up before you leave Queenstown as there are limited gas stations along the route. There are gas stations in Wanaka, Haast, Fox Glacier town as well as Franz Josef town.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
The small town of Franz Josef is a really beautiful place to stay. Despite being small, there are lots of lively restaurants, bars and other attractions in town along with a huge range of accommodation to choose from.
For budget travelers, Glow Worm Accommodation is a great choice. Its located within walking distance of everything and offers dorm and private rooms at really affordable prices. I actually stayed here on my first ever trip down the west coast and had a social night with other travelers.
For those with a slightly larger budget, the Aspen Court Franz Josef is a good mid-range option with outstanding reviews. The hotel is located on the outskirts of town but is only a short walk from the best restaurants and bars. They also have apartments and studios so its perfect for those who like to prepare their own meals or those traveling in a group/family.
If you’re a luxury traveler the Te Waonui Forest Retreat is pure happiness. The entire retreat is surrounded by lush forest and from your balcony, you’ll be able to hear the sound of nature. Rooms are also large and well decorated. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the beautiful west coast – if you can afford the hefty price tag that is!
There are also a few great holiday home rentals and Airbnbs to choose from in Franz Josef town.
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!
A road trip from Queenstown to Franz Josef, in my opinion, should be added to every New Zealand itinerary. Whether you stop at just a few or all of the above attractions it’s certain to be a road trip to remember.
Thanks so much for reading! I hope you loved this blog and now have a huge list of places to visit between Queenstown and Franz Josef. If you did enjoy it browse around I have so many more in-depth blogs on New Zealand.