Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook is one of the most beautiful drives I have undertaken. It’s easy to turn this 3.5-hour (or 275-kilometer-long (171 mi)) drive into a whole-day affair. There is just so much to see and do!
The drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook is listed time and time again as one of the greatest drives in New Zealand and one I recommend every tourist to New Zealand to do for themselves. Be sure to bring your camera because the photography opportunities are endless.
But where should you stop and which is the best route to take?
Well, after driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook and back again countless times myself, I know exactly how to answer that question. There are some seriously epic places that you really don’t want to miss along this scenic drive!
So for that reason, I’ve written this blog that includes 13 of the best stops on the Queenstown to Mount Cook road. With stops in historic Cardrona, quirky Wanaka, Lindis Pass, Omarama, and Lake Pukaki, this list has got it all! I’ve also included essential info to know before you hit the road with safety tips and more. It’s your ultimate guide to driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook National Park!
About the Drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook
Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook National Park is one epic road trip on the South Island! Along the way, you’ll pass fun and interesting towns as well as plenty of amazing viewpoints. Since the drive is about 275 kilometers (171 miles) long, it can be done in as little as 3.5 hours. However, with so many amazing places to stop and check out along the way be sure to give yourself an entire day (or even two or three!)
There are two different routes you can choose between when driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook. The first is the fastest, and that’s via State Highway 8 through Cromwell. While this is a great route if you’re simply just trying to get from point A to point B, in terms of a scenic road trip I’d recommend the next option.
The second route is through Wanaka. The drive from Queenstown to Wanaka is scenic in itself with lots of viewpoints to offer. Plus, there are lots of things to do and see in Wanaka too! The stops mentioned in this blog cover this route as I think it is the best way to go.
It is important to know that while driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook is all on a paved highway, it can sometimes be a little slippery in the winter months. If you’re visiting Queenstown in the winter and planning to drive to Mount Cook, check the road conditions before you depart on both Crown Range Road and Lindis Pass. Also, be sure to carry snow chains just in case!
Also, if you want to make the most of this road trip and turn it into a multi-day adventure then that is totally possible too. You can always spend a couple of nights in Wanaka (be sure to hike Roy’s Peak), and then also spend a night in Omarama or Twizel too!
Related Read: Spending some time in Wanaka? Check out the best free and cheap things to do in Wanaka!
Queenstown to Mount Cook FAQs
13 BEST Stops on the Drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook
1. Arrow Junction Lookout
The 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 stunning! Leave your car in the small car park and get out to enjoy the beautiful views. This stop only takes around 5-10 minutes but is totally worth it. From this viewpoint, you will have an awesome vantage point over the Wakatipu Basin and down to the valley where you’ll Lake hayes and The Remarkables Mountain Range.
In the winter months, be careful get pretty icy and there is a steep drop near the edge onto the road. Also, be careful pulling over here as it’s right on a corner.
2. 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!
Reaching an altitude of over 1,100 meters (3,609 feet), 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 Keas have been known to steal them. There’s a reason they’re called “the clever clowns of the Southern Alps”.
A bronze plaque here at the summit claims the Crown Range as the highest road in New Zealand. There is a car park here so you can safely pull off the road and admire the scenery. If the weather permits you can even take a short 10-minute walk to the official Crown Range Summit. You can find the trail on Google Maps and it leaves right from the parking lot.
3. Cardrona 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’s the highest highway in New Zealand after all, with lots of sharp twists and turns. So, this makes Cardrona Hotel a fantastic place to stop and refuel, before continuing on your journey to Mount Cook.
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). 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 (or a beer if you’re not the driver!)
The Cardrona Hotel is said to be the most photographed building in all of New Zealand!
Related Read: The Cardrona Hotel has lots of the best craft beer in New Zealand on tap. If you want to know more, find out where you can drink craft beer in Queenstown and the area including local breweries and pubs.
Three-quarters of the way from Queenstown to Wanaka and at the end of the Crown Range road is one of the quirkiest attractions in New Zealand. As the name suggests, it 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. Hence the name!
Bradrona is much talked about amongst tourists to the area and is quite controversial to the locals here. It is believed the first bras appeared here back in late 1998, and since then, Cardrona’s population of bras has grown to well over 1,000.
Would you dare leave your bra here?
The gorgeous town of Wanaka sits at the base of Lake Wanaka and has the Southern Alps as a backdrop. It’s often compared with neighboring Queenstown. However, Wanaka is smaller, quirkier, and less busy than Queenstown.
Wanaka is filled with boutique 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, and relaxing on a boat cruise.
If you’re traveling with kids then there are lots of family-friendly activities in Wanaka too. We loved spending half a day at Puzzling World, or alternatively, you can rent a pedal boat from the lakefront and take in the gorgeous views from the water. Like Queenstown, there are also some great adventure activities in Wanaka including skydiving and riding in a jet boat.
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 Club Wyndham 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/bach holiday home rentals are also popular in Wanaka with lots of private houses and apartments to choose from – perfect for families or groups traveling together!
6. Lindis Pass Lookout
Driving through Lindis Pass is truly a unique experience, the landscape and scenery here are unlike anywhere else in New Zealand. At Lindis Pass, huge tussock-covered mountains surround you at every turn of your journey.
Driving through Lindis Pass in winter is particularly special as the mountains have a light dusting of snow, but the road conditions can be treacherous during this season so be careful. Be sure to carry snow chains just in case.
At the highest point on the Lindis Pass, you will spot a sign for ‘Lookout’. Park in the car park here and take the short trail to the lookout point. The platform at the lookout point is 971 meters (3,186 feet) above sea level and gives an astounding vantage point of the unusual landscape of the Lindis Conservation Area. You will also spot the Longslip Mountain range here, standing tall at just under 1,500 meters (4,921 feet)!
Did You Know – this lookout is actually right next to the state border between Otago and Canterbury.
For an even better view, you can duck under the animal fence and walk up the hill a little. As you can see from the picture above, the views are even better!
The Lindis Pass road is 63 kilometers (39 miles) long in total and is similar to the Crown Range road in that it has lots of sharp twists and turns. So, I recommend being an experienced driver to drive this road.
7. Omarama Hot Tubs
Imagine yourself soaking in a hot tub of pure mountain water with the stunning Mackenzie Country scenery surrounding you. The scenery here is gorgeous – majestic mountain ranges contrasting the flat green farmland. These tubs are an ideal way to relax and break up the drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook.
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 $54 NZD per person, based on two people sharing. You should book your visit to the Omarama Hot Tubs in advance to avoid missing out.
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.
8. Omarama Clay Cliffs
Just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) outside the small town of Omarama are the must-be-seen-to-be-believed Omarama Clay Cliffs. These cliffs are a must-stop on your journey from Queenstown to Mount Cook. These cliffs are favorite among photographers on the route.
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.
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 Mount Cook. Especially in the summer months when this small town’s population 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. 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 reflections!
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.
10. Lake Pukaki
A stunning bright blue lake which is less-visited than its famous neighbor Lake Tekapo. Lake Pukaki, in my opinion, is much prettier than Lake Tekapo.
In lupin season you will spot a couple of these colorful flowers on the lakefront. This makes for an awesome photo with the bright blue water and New Zealand’s tallest mountain Mount Cook as a backdrop.
There’s a large car park with public toilets here. A little further down the road is the Visitor Information Center for the area. There are no stores or restaurants at Lake Pukaki with the closest being 20 minutes away in Twizel.
11. 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 scenery 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!
12. Mount Cook Road Photo
No visit to Mount Cook is complete without an obligatory photo on Mount Cook Road. A favorite stop for Instagram lovers, this is a must-do on your journey from Queenstown to Mount Cook.
This stop is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) 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 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 (37 mph) so the cars can come upon you pretty quick.
13. Explore Mount Cook!
Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, standing tall at a whopping 3,724 meters (12,218 feet)! 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 the area.
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.
Related Read: Continuing on the Lake Tekapo? Read my blog about the drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook for the best stops on this epic road trip! Another popular road trip on the South Island is the journey from Queenstown to Franz Josef. The wild West Coast has a ton of different attractions to offer travelers!
Queenstown to Mount Cook Tours
The alternative to driving yourself from Queenstown to Mount Cook is taking a tour. There is no public bus that operates on this route, so a tour is your only option. Here are the different tours you can choose from:
Bus from Queenstown to Mount Cook Guided Day Trip
If you only want to visit Mount Cook on a day trip from Queenstown, then you can book this tour. Although a long day, this small-group tour is in a comfortable luxury mini-van which will allow you some time to relax on the drive there and back. The tour includes exploring Mount Cook National Park with a knowledgeable guide as well as stopping at some of the best attractions along the way.
I would not recommend this tour to anyone who does not want to be in a vehicle for a significant amount of time. It takes 4 hours to drive there, and then another four hours back – it’s a long day!
Bus from Queenstown to Mount Cook One-Way
If you just want to get to Mount Cook Village to spend a few nights, you can book this one-way bus. This bus is operated by GreatSights (a tour company) and you will have a guide on board to tell you about attractions as you pass them. Since it is just a one-way bus, you need accommodation booked in Mount Cook Village in advance. From there, you can also book the bus to return to Queenstown in a few days’ time, or head on to Christchurch.
Scenic flight from Queenstown to Mount Cook Guided Day Trip
The absolute best way to explore Mount Cook from Queenstown on a day trip is with a scenic flight! The flight is only an hour long so you cut off the long drive and get to enjoy views from above while you’re at it. This guided tour includes your scenic flight from Queenstown to Mount Cook and back again, along with 3 hours to explore Mount Cook.
The downsides to this tour are the price and the fact that you’ll miss out on the best stops along the road from Queenstown to Mount Cook.
Multi-day Tours from Queenstown to Christchurch via Mount Cook
The last option is to book a multi-day tour that takes you from Queenstown all the way to Christchurch with a stop in Mount Cook. This particular tour spends one night in Franz Josef near Mount Cook and accommodation is included. It is a 2-day journey via coach and the scenic TranzAlpine Train that includes most of the stops mentioned in this blog. You’ll have a mix of free time and guided tours on your journey.
Essential Info To Know Before You Go
- There is no public transport between Queenstown and Mount Cook – only organized tours so I recommend renting a car.
- The route is 275 km (171 mi) in total, which should take you 4 hours if you drive direct. Considering all the stops I recommend taking this is likely to be a whole day affair.
- 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, and 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 (although it is usually more expensive.)
- Bring a camera – as mentioned, the photography opportunities are epic on the Queenstown to Mount Cook route.
Must-do Things in Mount Cook
Once you arrive at Mount Cook there are a few different activities you can do to see the full beauty of Aoraki/Mount Cook! Check out my favorites below.
- Mount Cook Helicopter Flight Explorer – This bucket list experience over Mount Cook lasts for 35 minutes and stops on top of a snowfield above Richardson Glacier and showcases some incredible views of the Tasman Valley. Priced around $435 NZD per person it is not cheap but if you have the money it’s something you shouldn’t leave New Zealand without doing!
- Skydiving from 15,000 feet – What better of a location could you choose to jump out of a plane? If you want to face your fear or are always seeking an adrenaline rush this is the opportunity for you! After your 45-second freefall, you can gaze out at the mountains, lakes, and glaciers as you gradually descend with your parachute.
- Glacier Kayaking – This is the only place in New Zealand where you can go glacier kayaking so it’s definitely a unique thing to do in Mount Cook. You’ll get the chance to get up close to the glaciers floating on the lake and stop halfway for serene lunch on shore. For this 4-6 hour tour, you can expect to pay $250 NZD per person.
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 you can drive 17 minutes outside of Mt Cook Village and stay at the Glentanner Park Center, it’s a must with dorm rooms and a communal space to cook (and they have an on-site cafe!)
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 NZD 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 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 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. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- 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! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
A road trip from Queenstown to Mount Cook, in my opinion, 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.
I hope my blog has helped you prepare for your journey from Queenstown to Mount Cook (or vice versa!) I have tons more info to share about road trips from Queenstown as well as just general blogs about enjoying different places on the South Island – so browse around! Or check through these guides I have personally selected for you here:
Most beautiful places in New Zealand
Monday 12th of April 2021
Thanks , have just booked an early December 2021 trip in South Island for 2 weeks , I have also booked the Mt Cook glacier flight / heli flight.. On my Bucket list as is the Milford sound cruise etc. So the info and drive is well received. have hired car . Qantas points and cash is good now , lots of opportunities. Tip for you Aussies note school holidays and book outside of that. Prices and availibilty go higher than Mt Cook Booking.com gives free cancellation . Hope the virus doesn't interfere with my plans . have had my first AstZ shot . George Aka Clooney. Adelaide SA 74 and not dead yet , got there by being a little astute