Driving from Queenstown to Wanaka is an activity all on its own. This short journey can easily be turned into one epic road trip if you stop along the way and take in the spectacular views.
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 inclement weather 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!
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 a variety 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.
Queenstown to Wanaka FAQs
Related read: For a longer, 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 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 the Crown Range Road. First of all, the road closes on occasion 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!
Related read: Visiting Queenstown in winter? Find out about all of the best winter activities in Queenstown!
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 through Cromwell.
Are you looking for the best scenery and stops?
Then go 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, the 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) in 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 miles) flat trail perfect for walking for 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, or 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! 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. My favorite is this one near the top! Here, you can carefully pull off the road and park in a large parking lot with views of the valley below, Arrowtown, and The Remarkables.
This is definitely one of the most beautiful lookouts in Queenstown, and possibly all of New Zealand.
3. Cardrona Hotel
The Cardrona Hotel is a historic icon of the area. Established in 1863, the hotel has managed to keep it’s original charm and is a great place for a photo stop!
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.
The Cardrona Hotel is a real operating hotel today that you can actually spend the night there if you want. Their rooms are boutique and each have their own historic charm. Plus, it’s the perfect location if you plan on skiing at Cardrona Ski Resort the next day!
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 which is open every day where you can shop their products. Alternatively, for $25 NZD you can join a distillery tour which starts every hour on the hour from 10 am to 3 pm daily.
A minute further down the road from the distillery 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), is a pretty weird 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!
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.
2. Kawarau Gorge
The Kawarau Gorge is located about 30 kilometers from Queenstown. The Kawarau River flows through the gorge, and back in the day, this was a popular site for gold mining.
Today though, Kawarau Gorge is simple a beautiful sight 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!
If you want to bungy jump be sure to book it in advance! They often get fully booked and can’t take any walk-ins.
3. 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 and Bald Hills Cellar Door are some of my favorite boutique wineries in the Gibbston Valley. Also, be sure to head to Gibbston Valley Winery where you can check out New Zealand’s largest wine cave!
Okay, so I know what you’re thinking, what is there to do in Cromwell?! Well, in all honesty, 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?!
I wouldn’t stay in Cromwell overnight, 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, stopping to check out the Luggate Grandview Bridge (also known as the Red Bridge or Grandview Bridge.) 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. It crosses the Clutha River and is actually a really neat attraction. 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. This farm is full of lavender which makes for 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 $10 NZD for an adult to visit the farm and $5 during the offseason.
Personally, I love visiting the Wanaka Lavender Farm! Not only is it beautiful, but the animals are really cute and it’s one of the cheapest things to do in Wanaka!
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 below accommodation options:
Hawea Hotel – This is the perfect budget option for anybody looking to save a few dollars. Although really comfortable, clean, and offering incredible views, Hawea Hotel is super affordable with budget dorms rooms as well as double rooms and family rooms. It is likely the best value for money hotel in Wanaka!
Manuka Crescent Motel – When I travel, I often like to stay in apartment-style hotels so that I can cook my own meals. Manuka Crescent Motel offers studio apartments, one-bedroom apartments, as well as two-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 a only short drive from town in a peaceful area.
Ramada Resort by Wyndham – If you’re visiting Wanaka to relax and spoil yourself, then there’s no question that you should stay at the Ramada Resort! This hotel is located right in town only minutes from Lake Wanaka and features an outdoor heat pool, waterslide, hot tub, sauna, and an onsite bar and restaurant! All rooms come with a kitchenette or full kitchen, and many offer lake views!
You can also choose from a huge selection of Airbnbs and bach holiday home rentals in Wanaka. These are typically better for groups or a family traveling together. Or, simply anybody who wants to have their own kitchen!
For more detailed information, check out my blog all about where to stay in Wanaka! It includes different areas to stay 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 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!
If you really want to hit all of these attractions in this blog, then drive to Wanaka on one route, and then drive 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!