The scenic drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo is one of the best things to do in New Zealand and one of my favorite rod trips on the South Island. Although you can reach Lake Tekapo in around 3 hours taking the shortest route, the scenic route over the Crown Range takes around 3.5 hours, and that’s without stopping (which you’ll be doing a lot of!)
Along the way, you’ll be tempted at every turn to stop and admire breathtaking views and enjoy the best attractions. It’s safe to say, you’ll spend the best part of a day truly enjoying this epic road trip!
In this road trip guide, I list the list all the best attractions and stops on the drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo, a massive 14 in total. With stops at viewpoints, in historic Cardrona, beautiful Wanaka, the impressive Lindis Pass, Omarama, Lake Pukaki, and Mount Cook this list has got it all! Be sure to bring your camera because the photography opportunities are endless.
About the drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo
The scenic drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo actually has two routes. The first takes visitors through Cromwell and along Lake Dunstan and State Highway 8. On some occasions when I’m just trying to get to Lake Tekapo I’ll take this route. Don’t get me wrong, there are beautiful things to see and do in Cromwell, however, for visitors, tourists, or those driving this route for the first time I recommend option two… via the Crown Range, Wanaka, and Highway 8a.
This scenic route through Wanaka is a 268-kilometer journey that takes just over 3 hours without the detour to Mount Cook and 372 kilometers with it. To enjoy this road trip and see many of the best sights including Mount Cook and Wanaka, you really need at least 4 days spending two nights in Wanaka and two nights in Mount Cook. Of course, if you skip stopping in both towns the road trip takes between 4 to 7 hours dependin on how often you stop.
On the way to Lake Tekapo, there are lots of great places to stop with some only taking a few minutes to enjoy and others that require more time and even some planning. This list breaks down the best stops so you can plan your perfect road trip stopping to enjoy the places you want. The best part is there’s something for everyone on this list and you’ll actually pass some of the best places to visit on the South Island.
The drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo is safe to complete all year round, however, in winter snow chains are required to be carried in your vehicle on Crown Range Road and also recommended on Lindis Pass. In bad weather, consider taking the Cromwell way to avoid the Crown Range. When it does snow, they often close the road because driving it can become dangerous. The highway is also single-lane the entire way so patience is required on the trip.
Queenstown to Lake Tekapo FAQs
14 Best Stops Between Queenstown and Lake Tekapo
1. Lake Hayes
As you say goodbye to Queenstown the first attraction you’ll pass only 15 minutes out of town is Lake Hayes. This beautiful lake is a favorite of mine and I have spent many evenings and sunny days enjoying the views. With such a long drive ahead of you this can either be a quick stop to admire the views or you can even walk the Lake Hayes Track!
The Lake Hayes Track is an 8-kilometer (5-mile) loop track that follows the edge of the lake. At a slow pace, it takes just over 2 hours to complete, and for the most part, the trail is flat. For those with less time, simply park up at this spot and take a short walk along the lake. This is one often considered one of the best hikes in Queenstown and is even a popular bike trail too!
Regardless, getting down to see Lake Hayes on a beautiful day is a must!
2. Arrow Junction Lookout
Arrow Junction Lookout is a very popular stop on the Crown Range route, it is especially popular with photography lovers because the views here are to put simply – stunning! Park your car here in the small parking lot and get out to enjoy the views. From here you will have an awesome vantage point over the Wakatipu Basin where you can spot the winding Kawarau river and the Remarkables Mountain Range.
Please be careful pulling your car over here and keep an eye out for oncoming traffic. Larger vehicles such as motorhomes may want to skip this stop and instead visit the viewpoint mentioned below!
3. Crown Range summit
At the Crown Range Summit, rugged tussock and rock cover the landscape and with looming mountains, in the background, it’s a fantastic spot for a photo. There is a large parking lot here on the side of the road and even larger vehicles can easily navigate it. Once parked you can enjoy the view from the parking lot or take a short walk.
Reaching an altitude of over 1100 meters, this high-altitude lookout point offers a fantastic opportunity to spot the native Kea parrots. These clever birds are said to be as smart as a 4-year-old child. Hold onto your belongings though as these birds have been known to steal them. There’s a reason they’re called “the clever clowns of the Southern Alps”. Also, a bronze plaque here at the summit claims the Crown Range as the highest road in New Zealand.
4. Cardona Hotel
This cream and bright red building is one of the most famous stops on the drive from Queenstown to Wanaka. It lies at the end of the Crown Range highway – which, if you’ve driven this road you’ll know it can be a tiring drive. It is the highest highway in New Zealand after all with lots of sharp twists and turns. This makes Cardrona Hotel a fantastic place to stop and refuel, before continuing on your journey to Lake Tekapo.
Established way back in 1863, it’s one of only two remaining buildings from the gold rush era (the other is the Cardrona Hall and Church next door) in this area. Today, Cardrona Hotel is an award-winning restaurant with an awesome beer garden. I highly recommend the Pulled Pork Cheeseburger. Or if you’re short on time why not have a coffee in the beer garden. They also serve some of the best craft beer from Queenstown and Wanaka but remember you need a designated driver!
Even if you don’t want to stop for a drink, get a photo at the very least. You won’t find a more historic building on this road trip to Lake Tekapo!
Want to visit one of the quirkiest attractions in New Zealand? As the name suggests, Bradrona is simply a ton of bras hanging from a fence on the side of the road, just a few minute’s walk from Cardrona Hotel.
Bradrona is much talked about amongst tourists to the area and is quite controversial to the locals here. It is believed the first bra’s appeared here back in late 1998 when 4 bras mysteriously appeared on the fence. Many were confused but as the days went by the bras continued to grow. In fact, the bras become so controversial many of them were cut from the fence under the cover of darkness one night.
But still, the number grew and the attraction became so popular it was moved from the main highway to a small gravel driveway so people could pull over safely to add to the collection or simply get a photo. Since then, Cardrona’s population of bra’s has grown to well over 800 (it could be much more but I ain’t counting them) and raised over $30,000 dollars for breast cancer research. It’s safe to say Bradrona is unique, quirky, and for a good cause so it’s a worthy stop in my opinion.
Would you dare to leave your bra here?
The gorgeous town of Wanaka sits on the shores of Lake Wanaka with the Southern Alps as a backdrop. Sometimes I think which is more beautiful, Queenstown or Wanaka? It’s a hard choice and one I’ve never been able to make. Wanaka is smaller, quirkier, and less busy than Queenstown. For some, this relaxed vibe is what draws them here and after only a few hours you’ll be addicted to it.
Wanaka is filled with quirky shops, excellent cafes and restaurants, and lots of fun activities to fill a few hours. Some of my favorite things to do in Wanaka include hiking Roy’s Peak, paddle-boarding on the Lake, jet boating, and relaxing at the very adorable Cinema Paradiso. But there’s lots more including skydiving, canyoning and a huge range of hikes!
If you’re traveling with kids then there are lots of family-friendly activities in Wanaka too. I loved spending half a day at Puzzling World, or alternatively, you can go on a kayaking tour and take in the gorgeous views from the water. If you’re on a budget then you need to check out my blog on the best free and cheap things to do in Wanaka too!
Top tip – you could easily turn the drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo into a multi-day adventure by spending a few nights in Wanaka. This is my personal recommendation!
Stay Overnight in Wanaka
You could easily turn the drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook into a few days with overnight stops in Wanaka, Omarama, and Twizel highly recommended.
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.
Holiday home rentals are also popular in Wanaka with lots of private houses to rent as well as apartments.
7. Lindis Pass Lookout
Driving Lindis Pass is truly a unique experience, the landscape and scenery here are unlike anywhere else in New Zealand. Huge tussock-covered mountains surround you on every turn of your journey. With a light sprinkle of snow, the area is even more spectacular. With that said, in winter the road conditions can be treacherous so do drive carefully.
At the highest point of Lindis Pass, you’ll spot a sign for a lookout, park in the parking lot here, and walk the short trail to the lookout point. The platform at the lookout point is 971 meters above sea level and gives an astounding vantage point of the unusual landscape of the Lindis Conservation area. You will also spot Longslip Mountain range, standing tall at just under 1500 meters.
Did you know – this lookout is actually right next to the state border between Otago and Canterbury.
If you want to get an even better view of the valley then you can also walk the unofficial trail that starts from the parking lot up the hill. As you can see in the picture above, you get one amazing vantage point!
8. Hot Tubs Omarama
Imagine yourself soaking in a hot tub of pure mountain water with the stunning Mackenzie Country scenery surrounding you. The views here are gorgeous – majestic mountain ranges contrasting the flat tussock grass. These tubs are an ideal way to relax and break up the drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook.
There are a lot of hot pools and springs around NZ but the Hot Tubs Omarama has to be one of the best. Not only are all their tubs private but the views and feeling of being out in nature you really can’t beat it! You may choose to visit the hot tubs at night to soak in the views of the night sky. An extra special way to unwind.
A 90 minute session costs $49 NZD per person, based on two people sharing. They also have larger tubs for groups of up to 8 people!
Stay Overnight in Omarama
If you want to visit the hot tubs without being rushed, consider spending one night in Omarama. Although somewhat limited in terms of accommodation, Omarama TOP 10 Holiday Park is a great option with various rooms and apartments available as well as campsites.
9. Omarama Clay Cliffs
Just 10km outside the small town of Omarama (which is the town at the end of the Lindis Pass) are the Omarama Clay Cliffs. These cliffs are a must-stop on your journey from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo.
The clay cliffs are like something from another planet. The cliffs are made up of layers of gravel and silt, which were formed by the flow of water from ancient glaciers over a million years ago. There is a short walk along the clay cliffs and you can also venture into them and explore. Kids love it and so do I!
Getting to the clay cliffs can be a little tricky and you do have to drive on a gravel road. With that said their location is on Google Maps. Just make sure you drive past Omarama and turn left onto Quialburn Road and then left again onto Henbrun Road. Worth noting is that the Omarama Cliffs are located on private land. At the entrance on Henburn Road, you will see a donation box to pay the $5 admission fee per vehicle.
The alpine town of Twizel surrounded by the Southern Alps is a very popular stop on the road from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo. Especially in the Summer months when the population of this small town almost triples in size.
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. You can actually do tours here by booking a Lord Of The Rings tour with a local tour operator in Twizel.
Another thing I love to do in Twizel is head to the shores of Lake Ruataniwha. On a calm day you get the most beautiful reflections of the mountains. I love to bring down a bottle of wine and some cheese and just enjoy the peace and quiet!
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.
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.
11. Lake Pukaki
Next up is one of my favorite lakes in New Zealand. Lake Pukaki is a stunning lake that’s just as, if not more, vibrant than Lake Tekapo. This lake sits within Mount Cook National Park and is fed from the glaciers in the park including the Hooker, Mueller, and Tasman Glacier. Hence the blue color from the rock flour in the glacier melt.
You have a few options when it comes to exploring Lake Pukaki. The first is to stop at the Lake Pukaki freedom camping spot and admire the views from the edge of the lake. Here you can also enjoy the Lake Pukaki Lakeshore walk that leads to a viewpoint of the lake. This is the perfect place for a picnic lunch!
The other is to enjoy Lake Pukaki as you drive into Mount Cook National Park. The picture above is from the side of the road and as you can see the views are spectacular. Regardless, there is no town at Lake Pukaki just the roads around it. So stop, enjoy and get moving because we got mount cook NP to explore!
12. Mount Cook Road Photo
No visit to Mount Cook is complete without an obligatory photo on Mount Cook road. This is a favorite stop for photographers on any road trip from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo.
This stop is about 10km from Mount Cook village, before the airport. When you start to see Mount Cook’s peak in the distance, slow down as you’re nearly there. You will come to a long stretch of road that has four small streams in a row on it. It will be difficult to spot the streams from the car so use Google Maps or Maps.me to find them. After the first stream, you will see the road curve to the right with Mount Cook in the background. This is your spot!
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.
For more info, this guide on finding the exact photo location will get you there!
13. Mount Cook National Park
Mount Cook National Park is my favorite national park in New Zealand. Seriously, I love this place so much and every time I visit a part of me is left behind. What I love so much about the park is the sheer beauty and the huge amount of awesome things to do.
One of the best is simply staring up at Mount Cook from anywhere within the park. Mount Cook is 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 and located within the park.
Other things to do Mount Cook include enjoying one of the famous walks in the area to indulging in a stunning helicopter ride over the area.
The Hooker Valley Track is the most popular walking track here and well worth the 10km round trip. It is a very flat, very easy track. There are three swing bridges on the track, each with stunning views of Mueller Lake and 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 harder hikes include the Mueller Hut Route and the Sealy tarns Track. Some shorter walks in the park include the Bowen Bush Walk, Glencoe Walk, and Governors Bush Walk.
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. You’ll also get to go on a heli-hike and the tour lasts 3 hours!
Where to stay in Mount Cook
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.
14. Lake Tekapo
Finally, after a fun journey from Queenstown, you’ll arrive at the beautiful Lake Tekapo. This road trip may have taken you all day (only if you skip Mount Cook) or it may have been a week-long adventure but regardless the fun isn’t over yet!
It’s really not hard to see why Lake Tekapo attracts so many visitors the scenery is just so spectacular. But once you dig beneath the surface you’ll discover there are so many amazing things to do in Lake Tekapo. First, I’ll start with what Lake Tekapo is so famous for, its night sky! Lake Tekapo is located within one of the only Dark Sky Reserves in New Zealand and the stars here are out of this world. So, it’s no wonder a stargazing tour is one of the best activities to do.
Next, you simply must visit the Tekapo Springs and soak in the warm water with stunning views of Lake Tekapo and the surrounding scenery. A visit to the hot springs can be done during the day or night depending on the experience you want. At night you can see the stars but during the day the views are the highlight.
There should also be a visit to the Chruch of the Good Shepard and even some of the awesome short hikes in the area. All these and more are detailed in my things to do in Lake Tekapo blog.
The end destination of this road trip was Lake Tekapo but as you can see from the list of awesome stops, this really is more about the journey than the destination.
Essential Info to Know Before You Go
- The route is 300 km in total, which should take you 3 hours if you drive direct. Considering all the stops I recommend taking this is likely to be a whole day to multi-day affair especially if you want to explore Wanaka and Mount Cook National Park.
- During the winter months (May to September) you will need to carry snow chains for the Crown Range and Lindis Pass.
- Take lots of snacks – besides the towns of Wanaka, Omarama & Twizel there aren’t a lot of restaurants, cafes, and stores on this route.
- The same goes for gas, make sure you’re fuelled up as there are limited gas stations on the route. You will find gas stations in Queenstown, Wanaka, Omarama, Twizel, and a small gas station in Mount Cook itself.
- Bring a camera – as mentioned, the photograph opportunities are epic on the Queenstown to Lake Tekapo route.
Where to Stay in Lake Tekapo
In Tekapo town, there are lots of great hotels to choose from. For budget travels I recommend the YHA Lake Tekapo – these hostels are just that good, and for how little you spend, you get a lot. They have a range of rooms from dorms to privates and although you’d think it’s for a younger crowd this hostel actually attracts a mix of age groups.
If you want something a little more upmarket the Peppers Bluewater Resort is my favorite. the hotel has magnificent views, 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.
When it comes to picking a place to stay in Lake Tekapo you really are spoilt for choice – if you book in advance that is. Unfortunately, Lake Tekapo is another place in NZ where accommodation is hot property, especially in summer. For that reason try to book as far in advance as you can.
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 in 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 Lake Tekapo should be added to every New Zealand itinerary. Whether you stop at just a few or all of the above stops, it’s certain to be a road trip to remember.
Thanks so much for reading! I hope this guide has helped shape your road trip to Lake Tekapo. If it did, stick around and browse more of my blogs. I’m sure you’ll find more to help plan your trip to New Zealand including blogs on road trips, Queenstown, Wanaka, and more!