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Driving from Queenstown to Wanaka really is an experience all on its own. This short journey can easily be turned into one epic road trip if you stop along the way to take in the spectacular views and visit some memorable spots. And that’s before you tuck into all the wonderful things to do in Wanaka!
But the drive from Queenstown to Wanaka (or vice versa) is a little more complicated than you might think.
First of all, there are two different routes you can take to reach Wanaka from Queenstown. And while one is more scenic, sometimes weather conditions may force you to go the other, dare I say “boring”, way. But in all seriousness, you can really enjoy both routes if you know exactly where to stop and what to do!
That’s why in this blog, I’ll tell you all the practical information you should know before driving from Queenstown and Wanaka as well as the fun stuff – viewpoints, attractions, and unique things to do along the way!
Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY/Star RV because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. Plus, if you use my exclusive discount code DTRAVEL24, you’ll save 5%! This discount is only valid for bookings made before June 30, 2024, with travel dates before Dec 21, 2204. You can browse JUCY and Star RV’s availability here and apply the discount code at check-out.
About the Drive from Queenstown to Wanaka
Wanaka is about an hour’s drive from Queenstown. With that said, in bad weather or if you stop along the way, this drive could take significantly longer. Depending on the route you choose to drive, the drive is 80 or 120 kilometers long (50 or 75 miles).
From Queenstown, you have two choices of routes when it comes to driving to Wanaka. You can either take State Highway 6, which goes through Cromwell, or take the more scenic (but somewhat daunting) Crown Range Road that drives past Cardrona.
No matter which route you choose, there are lots of things to see and do along the way. In fact, visiting Wanaka from Queenstown (or vice versa) could easily be a full-day trip when you factor in the drive there, exploring all of the different things to do in Wanaka, and then returning back to Queenstown.
Tip: Need some wheels for the trip? Make sure to give my guide on renting a car in Queenstown a read before you hit the road!
Queenstown to Wanaka FAQs
Related Read: For a longer, even more epic road trip, consider driving from Queenstown to Christchurch! Read my blog for all the best stops along the way (including spending a couple of nights in Wanaka!).
Choosing Your Route
If you’re driving from Queenstown to Wanaka, or Wanaka to Queenstown, the first thing you need to decide is which route you are taking. You have to choose between driving the Crown Range Road or the alternate route through Cromwell.
There are some things you should consider when making this decision:
Are you a confident driver?
If you didn’t answer “yes” to this question with confidence, then don’t go the Crown Range route. Crown Range Road is steep, with sharp hairpin turns. In the winter it can be icy, requiring snow chains, and in the summer, it is often packed with tourists (who may not be experienced in driving on NZ’s roads).
What’s the weather like?
If it is between the months of May and October, you need to check the weather and road condition report before heading to Crown Range Road. First of all, the road is likely to close when there has been bad weather (too icy or even mudslides).
Second of all, you might need snow chains to drive this way too. In the winter months, snow chains are sometimes required, so be sure to carry them and know how to use them!
Are you short on time?
Although shorter in distance (80 kilometers as opposed to 120 kilometers), the Crown Range Road is not the fastest way to get to Wanaka from Queenstown. This route is often busy, there can be accidents causing delays, and bad weather slows everybody down.
For the most reliable and fastest way from Queenstown to Wanaka, take State Highway 6 from Queenstown through to Cromwell.
Are you looking for the best scenery and stops?
Then go to the Crown Range! It’s simple, this road is stunning, and in terms of a memorable scenic drive in NZ, this is one of the best!
Related Read: For another epic road trip, read our guide to driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook!
Queenstown to Wanaka Road Trip via the Crown Range Road
In order of driving from Queenstown to Wanaka, below are the best stops along this scenic drive that you definitely need to check out!
1. Lake Hayes
Lake Hayes Estate is a suburb on the outskirts of Queenstown as you drive towards the start of the Crown Range Road. While this residential neighborhood might not sound that interesting, the lake (called Lake Hayes) which it is based around, is worth visiting.
Lake Hayes offers mirror-like reflections of the surrounding mountain ranges and a quiet escape from the hiking trails in Queenstown. You can walk around the perimeter of the lake on Lake Hayes Walkway. It’s an 8-kilometer long (5-mile) flat trail perfect for walking or biking that only takes around 2 to 3 hours to walk.
2. Crown Range Viewpoint
Along the drive from Queenstown to Wanaka, the main attraction is the Crown Range Road, also known as the highest main road in New Zealand! Just after Lake Hayes, you’ll see a sign to turn left onto the Crown Range Road, here is where the adventure begins.
You’ll begin by driving up the steep road, changing directions in switchback-like formations climbing to 1121 meters (3,678 feet)! It is dangerous to stop along the Crown Range Road, so don’t do it. Instead, wait until you reach an allocated viewpoint with a pullover bay.
This is definitely one of the most beautiful lookouts in Queenstown, and possibly all of New Zealand.
3. Cardrona Hotel
Rumored to be New Zealand’s most photographed building, the Cardrona Hotel is a historic icon and can’t be missed! Established in 1863, the hotel has managed to keep its original charm and is a great place to grab some photos of your own.
But don’t just take a picture here, go inside and have a bite to eat or even a beer. Their beer garden is perfect for having a pint, and they have tons of locally brewed craft beer from Queenstown, Wanaka, and across New Zealand. As one of my favorite restaurants near Wanaka, they also serve lots of tasty food throughout the day, so it’s a great spot to stop for lunch or dinner.
The Cardrona Hotel is a real operating hotel today where you can actually spend the night if you want. Their rooms are boutique and each has its own historic charm. Plus, it’s the perfect location if you plan on going skiing at Cardrona Ski Resort the next day!
This popular Arrowtown and Wanaka highlights tour from Queenstown also features the Cardrona Hotel as one of its top stops. If you don’t fancy driving yourself to Wanaka to see the sights, this pre-planned itinerary is a fantastic alternative. Joined by a knowledgeable local guide, all transport is included, so you’re free to relax as you learn about the area’s amazing history over the course of about 6 hours.
Tickets for this experience cost $209 NZD per person, which is pretty good value considering you don’t have to worry about hiring out your own transport! Capped at just 11 people per tour, the entire experience also feels super personal. You can check out available dates and book your spot online here.
Related Read: You can also drive up the hill to go skiing at Cardrona Alpine Resort! Skiing in Queenstown is one of the best winter activities!
4. Cardrona Distillery
Just down the road from the Cardrona Hotel is the Cardrona Distillery. Here you can see how pure alpine water is used to make fine spirits and liqueurs.
Cardrona Distillery has a cellar door that is open every day where you can shop for their products. If you’re driving, make sure to grab a bottle (or two) and enjoy them once you’re back in Queenstown!
Alternatively, for $25 NZD you can join a classic distillery tour which starts every hour on the hour from 10 am to 3 pm daily and lasts for around 75 minutes. They also offer an upgraded tour for $350 NZD for the spirit and liqueur connoisseurs among you! Both of these tours also include a tutored tasting, though again, it might be best to stay the night in Wanaka if you’re planning to enjoy these.
If you love the idea of going on a local tasting tour but don’t want to worry about arranging transportation, then this Queenstown wine and Cardrona Distillery experience might be just what you’re looking for! This jam-packed and private full-day tour is perfect for groups or couples looking for a fun day out while learning all about the local wine and liqueur scene.
At $875 NZD per person, it’s not the cheapest tour, but it does have all wine tasting fees, transport, and your professional guide all included within your ticket. So if you’re celebrating something special, this can be tons of fun! You can check out available dates and book your private tour online here.
A minute further down the road from Cardrona is probably the most unique attraction you will see in all of New Zealand – Bradrona! The Cardrona Bra Fence, or “Bradrona” (as it was named in 2005 after raising a significant amount of money for Breast Cancer Awareness), is a pretty weird but undeniably memorable stop on the way from Queenstown to Wanaka.
I mean, where else in the world can you see thousands of bras hanging from one fence?!
Stopping here is simply a photo opportunity, but be sure to leave a small donation in the donation box too!
Bradrona is also one of the stops on this Arrowtown and Wanaka platinum tour from Queenstown. Lasting the entire day, this is an experience that I’ve tried and had a blast on! Joined by your friendly and fun local guide, it’s perfect for those who would rather spend time out enjoying the beautiful views the area has to offer rather than being cooped up in a car.
5. Cardrona Quad Biking
When I first visited Cardrona, I heard from a friend about this 2-hour quad biking experience, and I knew I had to try it out. I’ve been on quite a few quad tours on my travels, and it’s safe to say, this one didn’t disappoint! I mean, with views like these, hitting the dirt tracks with the power of four wheels feels like a pretty natural step if you ask me.
This tour also leaves from a departure point just past the Bradrona fence – right on this road trip route!
Tickets for this experience cost $359 NZD per person, with late morning and early afternoon time slots available. With a maximum of 8 travelers per group, this can’t be missed if you’re the adventurous type looking for a new activity to try! You can check available dates and book your spot on the tour here.
Related Read: I also recently tried mountain carting at Cardrona and had a blast!
Queenstown to Wanaka Road Trip via State Highway 6
If you want to drive to Wanaka from Queenstown taking State Highway 6 through Cromwell, there are a couple of great places to stop. Below, I’ve mentioned all of the best stops for this drive.
1. Lake Hayes
You’ll also pass Lake Hayes if you’re driving to Wanaka via State Highway 6. As I mentioned above, this is the place where you can walk one of the best easy trails in Queenstown, Lake Hayes Loop.
There’s also the Thomas Brown Art Gallery nearby, which features an impressive selection of pieces that I won’t spoil- but it’s safe to say that it’s easily worth a stop! I’d say you could tour the gallery in about an hour or so, making this the perfect stop on your trip from Queenstown to Wanaka.
Another spot that’s just next to Lake Hayes is Amisfield Winery and Restaurant. This is the perfect place to go wine tasting or have lunch! They’re open from 10 am to 6 pm Sunday to Tuesday and stay open until 11 pm for the rest of the week.
2. Gibbston Valley
As you continue on Highway 6 past the Crown Range Road turnoff, you’ll reach the world-famous Gibbston Valley. The Gibbston Valley is the place to go if you love wine!
Now, I hope you have a designated driver if you’re planning to stop in at wineries because, let me tell you, there’s a lot to check out, and their tastings are all pretty generous!
Kinross Winery is one of my favorite boutique wineries in the Gibbston Valley and they actually have beautiful accommodations here where you can book and stay a night amongst the vines.
Also, be sure to head to Gibbston Valley Winery, where you can check out New Zealand’s largest wine cave! In order to enter the cave you must join this guided tour. On the tour, you’ll get the chance to sample four premium wines and learn all about how they are made here in the valley. The tour costs $38 NZD and must be booked online in advance here (they have very limited spaces, and if you just show up, chances are it will be fully booked.)
Related Read: For more info on wineries in the area, check out my blog about the best wineries in Queenstown.
3. Kawarau Gorge
The Kawarau Gorge is located about 30 kilometers (18.6 mi) from Queenstown. The aptly named Kawarau River flows through the gorge, and back in the day, this was a popular site for gold mining.
While you won’t be finding any gold here now, Kawarau Gorge is still a beautiful sight and stopping point along State Highway 6. You can stop at the Kawarau Suspension Bridge and enjoy the scenic views while watching bungy jumpers!
That’s right, Kawarau Gorge is home to one of Queenstown’s famous bungy jumps. If you dare, you can try it for yourself! Plus, this is the only bungy jump near Queenstown that allows tandems, so it is actually one of the few adventurous, romantic things to do in Queenstown!
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking, what exactly is there to do in Cromwell?! Well, I know this might be shocking to hear, but there are actually a few fun things to do in Cromwell! Sure, this small town is underwhelming when compared to its neighbors of Queenstown and Wanaka, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out even for an hour.
In Cromwell, be sure to wander the historic precinct and take in the historic architecture. Take a stroll along Lake Dunstan, and, did you even go to Cromwell if you didn’t get a selfie with the massive fruit?!
If you’re a fan of cars or somebody with a “need for speed,” then you simply cannot pass on the opportunity to visit Highlands Motorsports. Here, you can try the high-speed try go-karting, ride in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo, or even drive a formula 1 racecar yourself!
I wouldn’t stay in Cromwell overnight necessarily, but you could at least stop off here and do a little exploring on your Queenstown to Wanaka road trip.
5. Luggate Grandview Bridge
After Cromwell, the next town you’ll reach is Luggate. Although there isn’t much to do here, the Luggate Grandview Bridge (also known as the Red Bridge or Grandview Bridge) is worth a stop. This bridge was built in 1918 and is one of the most historic monuments in the area!
It’s a steel truss bridge that is over 100 meters long (328 feet). It crosses the Clutha River and is actually a really neat attraction to grab a photo or two. The bridge is clearly marked on Google Maps so, you can’t miss it.
6. Wanaka Lavender Farm
Just before arriving in Wanaka, you’ll drive past the Wanaka Lavender Farm. As the name handily suggests, this farm is full of lavender, which makes for some beautiful photos. They also have a petting zoo on-site as well as a boutique shop and café that sells all things lavender!
You can visit the farm all year round, but the lavender is only blooming in the late spring and summer. During the summer months, it costs $15 NZD for an adult to visit the farm and $7 NZD during the off-season.
Personally, I love visiting the Wanaka Lavender Farm! Not only is it beautiful and a grab space to snap a pic, but the animals are really cute, and it’s one of the cheapest things to do in Wanaka!
Related Read: Be sure to lace up your boots and check out some of Wanaka’s best hikes while you’re here!
Other Things to do in Wanaka
So now you’ve made it over to Wanaka – congrats! There’s so much to get involved with here. Wanaka almost feels like a second home to me now, and even on a day trip, I’m sure you’ll see why. I’ve included some of my favorite things to do here including the best tours in Wanaka, so you can pack your itinerary full of awesome experiences. Let’s go!
- Enjoy a scenic flight and cruise: Nothing screams “memory-maker” to me more than a scenic flight. These are some of my favorite tours to go on, and as you can expect, the views are just insane! This 4-hour glacier flight and cruise definitely doesn’t disappoint, with some of the funniest and friendliest guides I’ve ever met.
- Head out on the ultimate lake tour: With Lake Wanaka now on your doorstep, it would be a shame not to make the most of this chance to visit! This half-day 4×4 lake and mountain explorer tour is extremely popular and for a good reason too – you’ll get away from the crowds and get an intimate look into what makes Wanaka the truly special nature destination it’s known to be.
- Go skydiving: This Wanaka skydiving experience is for my fellow adrenaline junkies! Here in Wanaka, you have the chance to do a 9000 ft (2,743 m), 12,000 ft (3,657 m), or 15,000 ft (4,572 m) skydive, with flexible jump times available that can work around your schedule. Whether you’re a skydiving pro searching for a brand-new spot to conquer, or a first-timer, this is sure to be one unforgettable experience.
- Give mountain biking a go: After the drive across from Queenstown, why not put those legs to work exploring Wanaka’s incredible trails by bike? This half-day bike rental experience provides you with suggested routes, all the equipment you need, as well as the choice between a regular mountain bike or an e-bike. It’s a fantastic option for families or adventurous folks looking to get out and explore!
Things to do Before You Leave Queenstown
While in Queenstown there are plenty of other activities that will keep you busy… Honestly, there are so many it’ll be hard to choose which ones to do! Below are some of my favorites.
- TSS Earnslaw Steamship Cruise – This scenic and relaxing cruise in Queenstown is an activity great for any afternoon. The ship you will be cruising on is the Historic TSS Earnslaw and you will get to watch crew members add coal to the flames that power the vessel. Take in the mountain ranges and lush green valleys of Otago. You can also upgrade this tour here to include dinner at Walter Peak High Country Farm.
- Queenstown Canyoning Adventure – Climb and jump off waterfalls, rappel, swim, and trek your way down a part of a Queenstown canyon with a qualified guide. This thrilling full-day activity is perfect for those who love adventure and exploration! As long as you aren’t afraid of heights and have a basic swimming ability you won’t need any other skills.
- Day Trip to Milford Sound With Picnic Lunch – This tour will give you the ultimate ability to explore the beauty of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. Not only will your guide stop at several impressive viewpoints on the way from Queenstown but there is also a cruise in Milford Sound included. This small-group tour goes for $249 NZD a person and I think it’s a really great value for a more personalized experience.
- Extreme Jet Boating – Looking for a thrill? Jet Boating is one of New Zealand’s most unique activities. On the tour out of Queenstown, you’ll be able to zoom up the Shotover River through narrow canyons at high speeds and make 360-degree spins. Trust, me it’s epic!
Where to Stay in Wanaka
There are tons of places to stay in Wanaka. Seriously, you’ll have so many options that it can be overwhelming. Luckily, I’ve stayed in Wanaka countless times and can recommend the accommodation options below:
Hawea Hotel – $
The Hawea Hotel is the perfect budget option for anybody looking to save a few dollars. That said, the rooms are really comfortable, clean, and offer incredible lake views! It is likely the best value for money hotel in Wanaka, with all rooms including a flat-screen television, a private bathroom, and a balcony too.
A one-night stay here starts from around $180 NZD per night, with budget dorm rooms as well as double rooms and family rooms available. You can check your dates and reserve your room here on Booking.com.
Archway Motel & Chalets – $$
When I travel, I often like to stay in apartment-style hotels so that I can cook my own meals. The Archway Motels & Chalets offers studio apartments, one-bedroom apartments, as well as two and three bedroom apartments for really reasonable prices! These are great for families or people traveling in groups (I stayed here last time I traveled with friends).
The motel is located only a short drive from town in a peaceful area – talk about holiday bliss! Room rates start at around $200 NZD per night, averaging around $350 NZD in the high season. You can check availability and book your stay online on Booking.com here.
Club Wyndham Wanaka – $$$
If you’re visiting Wanaka to relax and spoil yourself, then there’s no question that you should stay at Club Wyndham! This hotel is located right in town only minutes from Lake Wanaka and features an outdoor heated pool, waterslide, hot tub, sauna, and an onsite bar and café.
All rooms here come with a kitchenette or full kitchen, and many also offer lake views. You’ll also have access to their fitness center too if you fancy working up a sweat before hitting the sauna! Rooms here at Club Wyndham start at around $300 NZD and can be booked here on Booking.com.
For more detailed information, check out my blog all about where to stay in Wanaka! It includes different areas to stay in and the best hotels for all budgets!
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’s what most budget travelers use 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…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- 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. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
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Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
If you really want to hit all of these attractions in this blog, then drive to Wanaka on one route, and then I’d suggest driving back to Queenstown on the other. This way, you can check out all of the fun things to see and do!
I hope this blog helps you enjoy your road trip from Queenstown to Wanaka. These two towns are some of my favorites, and the attractions that connect them on the road between them are just as exciting! If you want to continue on road-tripping, consider doing the epic drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook – it never disappoints! Otherwise, check out all of the best South Island road trips you can do!
Be sure to browse around more on this blog. I’ve written a ton about Queenstown, Wanaka, and tons of other places on the South Island! Below you’ll find some of my most popular guides that you may also find helpful: