There are plenty of epic road trips on the South Island of New Zealand, however, the trip from Wanaka to Christchurch is easily one of the best. At a little over 400-kilometers-long (250 miles) point to point it’s one crazy adventure that has you exploring the Southern Alps and the beautiful lakes, rivers, and valleys that come with them.
Road trips are one of the best things to do in New Zealand and this one should be high on your bucket list.
Before you set off there’s a lot to know. From the best places to stop, how long the trip should take, and where to stay along the way this guide has it all. You may be thinking this road trip should only take a day, but as you read you’ll discover that if you truly want to explore properly you’re going to need more time than that. So sit back and relax while I guide you through one of my favorite road trips in New Zealand – Wanaka to Christchurch!
About the Drive from Wanaka to Christchurch
The scenic drive from Wanaka to Christchurch is a 424-kilometer (263-mile) journey that without stopping takes 5 hours. With that said, there are so many amazing places to visit along the way that you should allow 5 to 8 hours to truly enjoy the drive, and that’s without visiting Mount Cook National Park. A stop in Mount Cook adds an extra 117 kilometers (73 miles) to the journey and if you want to explore the park you’ll need to spend a few nights there.
In my opinion, you need at least 4 days to explore this road trip properly. With that amount of time, you could spend 2 nights in Mount Cook National Park and then another night along the road in Lake Tekapo or near Mt Hutt. Those who do will be rewarded with epic viewpoints, beautiful rivers, mountain passes, and more – it’s truly one of the best drives in New Zealand.
On the way from Wanaka to Christchurch, 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 attractions that way you can plan the perfect road trip for you. There’s something for everyone on this list and you’ll actually get the chance to see some of the best places to visit on the South Island.
When embarking on this road trip it’s important to drive to the conditions as bad weather, especially on Lindis Pass, can make driving dangerous. In the winter, be sure to allow much more time and be prepared for icy conditions on Lindis Pass. The entire highway from Wanaka to Mount Cook is also a single-lane road so take care when overtaking, and if you’re going slow, let others pass.
This guide does not include activities in Wanaka (aside from one of the way out of town.) For that reason, be sure to get out there and explore places such as Roy’s Peak, Diamond Lake, and more in Wanaka before you leave! Even if you’re on a tight budget there are plenty of free and cheap things to do in Wanaka too.
Related read: Another popular route that is similar is the drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo. Read my blog for more detailed info on this route!
Wanaka to Christchurch FAQs
Best Stops on the Drive from Wanaka to Christchurch
1. Wanaka Lavender Farm
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is the first stop on this list and is actually only a short 5-minute drive from Wanaka. In the summer, the Wanaka Lavender Farm is a popular place to visit as the lavender begins to flower. The entire farm turns into a sea of purple and with a mountain backdrop – it’s picture-perfect.
However, you don’t just come here for the beautiful views.
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is also home to a small petting zoo. Kids (and adults) can feed miniature horses, pigs, and even sheep and lambs. On top of that, the Wanaka Lavender Farm produces a range of lavender products including face creams, masks, soaps, and even manuka honey. My favorite though? The lavender flavored ice cream of course! All are available for purchase on the property in their boutique shop.
The farm does attract a lot of bees so if you’re allergic (like my partner) be careful! Aside from that, it’s a really cool place to visit and one of the best things to do in Wanaka.
Entrance to the Wanaka Lavender Farm is $10 NZD in summer for adults, $5 for children over 5, and kids under 5 go free making it a really cheap activity in Wanaka. In the off-season (March to November), it’s only $5 for adults and $2 for children. The best time to go to see the lavender is in January but I’ve been in early December and there’s still plenty to see (that’s when the photo above was taken.)
2. Red Bridge
As you leave Wanaka, you’ll be ready to explore the wide-open spaces and the more remote attractions in New Zealand. The first is simply a bridge. The Red Bridge is home to breathtaking views down the colorful Clutha River. Seriously, it’s absolutely stunning!
This bridge itself is also an attraction and was built in 1918. It’s one of the most historic monuments in the area and its steel trusses are over 100 meters long. The Red Bridge crosses the Clutha River and is actually a really neat attraction. You will have to cross the bridge on your road trip so you may as well stop to enjoy the views.
If you want to enjoy even better views, you can actually enjoy two short hikes from the bridge. The first is the Upper Clutha River Track. Although the trail is 18.5 kilometers long (11.5 miles) you can just walk for a few minutes to enjoy the edge of the river. The second is the Luggate Creek Track. It’s much shorter but the official length is unknown. Just get out and stretch your legs, you’ve got plenty of driving ahead of you!
3. Lindis Pass
The South Island is home to a few breathtaking mountain passes and one of my personal favorites is Lindis Pass. Lindis Pass is located in the Lindis Valley and the landscape here is that of orange tussock grass and snow-capped mountains. It’s truly one of the most breathtaking places on the South Island.
As you drive Lindis Pass you’ll come to the highest point on the road at 971 meters (3185 feet) above sea level. Here, you can park and take a short walk to a viewpoint. The viewpoint is only minutes from the parking lot via a flat trail and from the platform, you’ll be able to spot the Longslip Mountain Range, Lindis Conservation Area, as well as the famous views of the valley everyone comes to see.
This is only a quick stop, however, for those who want to explore further you can hike up the hill via a short but steep unofficial trail to get a better view. The above photo is taken from this spot and below me, you can see the parking lot for Lindis Pass. I highly recommend this, especially for photographers. Seeing the highway wind through the valley is memorizing!
4. Omarama Hot Tubs
The most relaxing stop on the road trip from Wanaka to Christchurch has to be Hot Tubs Omarama. Here, you can treat yourself to a soak in mountain waters with epic views of the Southern Alps – the best way to break up a long drive. The best part is that all of the tubs are private so you can enjoy an intimate setting with your family, loved ones, or friends.
Warm-up first in the sauna before venturing out to your private cedar hot tub. If you fancy an extra treat why not indulge in a massage – available in their private treatment rooms. Oh boy, I want to transport myself to the hot tubs right now!
A soak at Omarama Hot Tub lasts 90 minutes and starts from $49 NZD based on two people sharing. They have larger tubs too for groups of up to 8 people. To ensure you get a tub it is best to book a few days in advance so you don’t miss 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.
5. Omarama Clay Cliffs
I think it’s fair to say the road from Wanaka to Christchurch is filled with unique stops, and the Omarama Clay Cliffs may just be the most unique of them all. An unworldly collection of tall pinnacles each separated by narrow ravines, the Omarama Clay Cliffs are one attraction I bet you didn’t think you’d see in New Zealand. When I first laid eyes on the clay formations I instantly thought of Mars!
The Clay Cliffs were formed over a million years ago by flowing glacier waters. You can explore the clay cliffs via a short walking trail and also venture off the track to wander the deep ravines. In total, I’d allow around 30 minutes to an hour for this stop.
The Omarama Clay Cliffs are just a 10-minute drive from the town of Omarama and you can easily reach them by turning left onto Quialburn Road and then left again on to Henburn Road. Part of the drive to the cliffs is via an unsealed road so do take your time. Important to note is these cliffs are located on private land, so, a $5 NZd vehicle admission fee is to be paid at the donation box at the gate. This must be paid in cash and no change is given since it is an honesty box system.
6. High Country Salmon
Located just off State Highway 8, only a few minutes South of Twizel, is High Country Salmon – a classic New Zealand salmon farm, cafe, and shop all in one convenient location. All of the salmon from High Country Salmon is sold here in New Zealand with around half served at the on-site restaurant and floating cafe and the other half to local restaurants and stores around the country.
The floating cafe serves up everything from sushi to salmon breakfasts. All freshly caught from the farm only hours earlier. It’s easily one of the best places to get your salmon fix and after such a long drive I’d say you’re likely hungry! Breakfast starts at 9 am until 11 am and lunch starts at 11 am until 4 pm.
For the young kids (or big kids) you can throw fish feed pellets into the salmon pen and watch them go crazy! This is completely free and a cool experience that gets the kids excited. For a more unique experience, you can actually cast a line into the farm and catch a salmon for $15. The salmon you catch can then be bought by you at a rate of $30 per kilo. It’s a great way to go fishing where you’re guaranteed to catch something!
The small town of Twizel is a rather unknown stop on the road trip from Wanaka to Christchurch. Most people simply drive by without stopping but I find this to be such a shame.
You might be taking a look around and be thinking Twizel looks familiar. That is because some scenes from the Lord of the Rings movie franchise were filmed here. One of the most popular, the Battle Of Pelennor Fields scene in The Return Of The King, was filmed at nearby Ben Ohau Station. You can actually do tours of the film location. Unfortunately, it’s located on private property so you can’t visit it on your own and must book a guided tour.
You may want to fuel up in Twizel or stop off for some food. My recommendation for food in Twizel includes Poppies Cafe on Benmore Place for their awesome Venison Pie or Fishtail restaurant for some yummy Indian food.
Twizel is actually a nice place to spend the night especially if the nearby towns of Mount Cook Village and Lake Tekapo are fully book (which happens a lot in the summer months!) A lot of people don’t know this but it’s also a lot closer to Mount Cook National Park than Lake Tekapo. If you do stay you’ll be able to explore the area even better. My favorite thing to do is to head to Ruataniwha Lake to watch the sunset. On a calm day, you get amazing reflections and the sky turns into cotton candy!
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 a few Airbnbs and holiday homes to choose from in Twizel.
8. Lake Pukaki
There are two lakes that hold the title of bluest lakes in NZ and one of them is Lake Pukaki. This stunning lake is fed from the glacier melt in Mount Cook National Park from glaciers such as the Hooker Glacier, Mueller Glacier, and the Tasman Glacier. That glacier melt is filled with fine particles of rock commonly known as rock flour. It is this flour that reflects the light giving the lakes their Gatorade blue color!
On your journey from Wanaka to Christchurch, even a quick stop is a must at Lake Pukaki and the best part is you can do it right from the main highway. In fact, just past the turn-off into Mount Cook National Park is a stunning freedom camping spot and also a scenic walk to a viewpoint. The Lake Pukaki Lakeshore Walk takes visitors along the lake to a small viewpoint overlooking the lake. It’s short, stunning, and a must-do! For those in a campervan or motorhome, you simply must consider spending a night here too. It’s one of the most beautiful freedom camping spots in all of NZ!
The views of Lake Pukaki don’t stop there either and as you drive into Mount Cook National Park you’ll enjoy the lake the entire way in. Just look to your left!
9. Mount Cook
Mount Cook National Park is without a doubt the most epic stop on the drive between Wanaka and Christchurch. Majestic Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, standing tall at a whopping 3,724 meters (12,217 feet) tall. Surrounding it is one of the most beautiful outdoor playgrounds for hikers, photographers, and just nature lovers in general.
A popular thing to do among travelers to Mount Cook is to snap a photo on the road! Hear me out – about 10km from Mount Cook Village, and just before the airport is one of the most stunning photo opportunities. Pull your car safely off the road and stand in the middle of the road, behind you the winding road, and Mount Cook makes for an epic backdrop. It’s sure to make your friends at home jealous. Of course, it goes without saying to watch out for oncoming cars when taking your photo here.
In the village of Mount Cook, you may wish to walk the popular Hooker Valley Track. It’s easy and flat and at just 10 km round-trip it won’t take too much time from your day. The track provides gorgeous views of Mueller Lake, Mount Sefton, and Mueller Glacier. It’s easily one of the best hikes in Mount Cook.
There are some much shorter walks here too – including the Bowen Bush Walk, Glencoe Walk, and Governors Bush Walk. If you want a longer trail I love the Mueller Hut Route. This epic hike should be completed over two days with a night spent at the remote alpine hut. It’s a bucket list experience in NZ and one of the most beautiful huts in NZ.
Stay overnight in Mount Cook
Why not spend the night at Mount Cook so that you can experience some of the awesome activities on offer – like a helicopter tour or kayaking on Tasman or Mueller Lake. There are not many hotels in Mount Cook Village so you need to book in advance. A few favorites of mine are the luxurious Hermitage Hotel the Mount Cook Alpine Lodge and budget-friendly YHA Hostel.
10. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is a hugely popular stop in New Zealand and a great place to spend a night because it’s located around halfway between Wanaka and Christchurch. It’s also only an hour’s drive from Mount Cook National Park.
One of the most popular activities in Lake Tekapo is to visit the tiny but stunning Church of the Good Shepherd. This Church is especially popular with photographers as the altar window frames a perfect view of the Southern Alps and the milky blue Lake. Nearby is also a famous statue of a sheep herding dog.
Lake Tekapo is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve meaning it’s one of the best places in the world to go stargazing. You can stargaze from a hot tub here at Tekapo Springs – what a way to enjoy the night sky all lit up with stars. You may be lucky enough to spot the Southern Lights here (the Southern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Northern Lights). The best way to enjoy the stars is on a guided tour either to Mt John Observatory or through the Tekapo Springs.
There’s an array of restaurants in Lake Tekapo including Our Dog Friday on Motuariki Lane for excellent burgers. Or for amazing views visit the Dark Sky Diner. I love going at sunset!
There is lots more to do so be sure to read my guide on the best things to do in Lake Tekapo. It includes hikes, tours and lots of free activities.
Staying Overnight in Lake Tekapo
Staying a night or two in Lake Tekapo is highly recommended. This place is just too beautiful to simply pass by.
One place I always love to stay is the YHA Lake Tekapo, it’s perfect for budget travelers and the location is right in town. If you have a higher budget then consider staying at the Mantra Lake Tekapo. It has a pool and the reviews speak for themselves.
There are also a huge range of Airbnbs in Lake Tekapo that range in price, size, and comfort level. Personally, if you’re traveling in a large group this is what I’d do!
11. Mt Hutt
Doing this road trip from Wanaka to Christchurch in Winter? Why not add skiing to your itinerary! Mount Hutt was voted New Zealand’s best ski resort from 2015 – 2019 and I personally love skiing here!
Wide-open terrain, long runs, high snowfall, and gorgeous views over the Canterbury Plains. Skiing Mount Hutt is definitely a bucket list experience in NZ. With 364 hectares of terrain, the runs on Mount Hutt are most suitable for intermediate or advanced skiers. A 686-meter vertical drop means it’s also a great mountain for off-piste skiing.
There are also terrain parks making Mount Hutt ideal for freestyle ski enthusiasts and snowboarders. Featuring lots of jumps suitable for all skill levels as well as medium, large and extra-large rails – the parks here are a great place to learn some new skills in the snow. I myself do not hit the jumps but I know there are some crazy people who read my blog!
The ski season in New Zealand runs from early June to mid-October. Mt Hutt have rentals available and the closest town to the ski resort is Methven.
Note: Mt Hutt is run by the same company as The Remarkables and Coronet Peak ski fields in Queenstown. So if you’re skiing in Queenstown, then you can get a pass that’ll also allow you to ski at Mt Hutt for a discounted price!
12. Rakaia Gorge
You won’t find this next stop in many blogs online. To be honest, though that’s why I love it so much. It’s quiet, relaxing, and stunning! Rakaia Gorge is the perfect stop for those who like to get off the beaten path and with such epic views why wouldn’t you stop!?
Exploring the gorge is done via a 10 km return walking track that traverses the edge of the Rakaia Gorge. It should take most walkers 3- 4 hours to complete. The walkway passes through native forest, then climbs the historic ferryman’s track. From here, continue along one of the water-carved terraces to a fantastic lookout point.
The track then leads downhill to a gully to the site of the former Snowdon coal mines. Here you will spot several coal mine tunnels and even the remains of mining extraction equipment. There’s another lovely lookout point about a 45-minute walk from here. Further along, you may also choose to go slightly off the track and down to the river.
Swimming at the river beneath the top bridges on the Rakaia Gorge is a popular activity among locals, but beware, the water is very cold.
Important information – be careful of wasps here from January to March. My advice is to wear light colored clothing and carry antihistamines.
All good things must come to an end and as you drive into Christchurch your road trip will be coming to an end. But that doesn’t mean the fun has to end, Christchurch is a beautiful city and a place you should spend some time exploring.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and you may be most familiar with Christchurch from the devastating earthquake that happened here in 2011. An interesting and thought-provoking activity in Christchurch is to visit the many sites that show the city’s dramatic change since the earthquake. Some good places to see examples of the rebuild are Rolleston Avenue, Canterbury Museum, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
There are a ton of awesome things to do in Christchurch and one of my favorites is the Christchurch Gondola. From the top, you’ll get great views of the city, the Southern Alps as well as the Pacific Ocean. The gondola ride to the summit is 1000 meters and at the top, there are various walking tracks as well as a gift shop, cafe, and the Time Tunnel ride where you can learn all about the history of Christchurch.
As you can imagine, in a large city like Christchurch there are lots of excellent restaurants suitable for all tastebuds. My personal favorites include Earl a laidback eatery on Lichfield Street and the very popular Twenty Seven Steps on New Regent Street.
Where to Stay in Christchurch
Christchurch, although not a large city by international standards is for New Zealand. As with any large city, picking the right place to stay for you is really important. The two main choices are either out by the airport for a convenient trip back home or in the heart of the city where all the action happens.
One of the best places out by the airport is the Jucy Snooze Christchurch. It’s actually located within walking distance of the airport! Another cool hotel close by is the Commodore Airport Hotel Christchurch. Although a short drive away they offer a free shuttle and have amazing reviews.
In the city center, the Crown Plaza Christchurch is perfect for those wanting a typical luxury stay. It’s a large hotel with amazing views of the city. For budget travelers, the social but comfortable YHA Hostel is a good option. Although cheap, it’s located in the heart of the city and only a couple of minutes walk from Hagley Park.
Additionally, there are plenty of Airbnbs and holiday homes to rent for a few nights in Christchurch. You can’t pass up the opportunity to stay in a luxury 3-bedroom home (like this one) right near the beach with incredible views!
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!
After reading this blog it’s not hard to see why so many love the road trip from Wanaka to Christchurch. Not only are there a ton of amazing activities along the way to fill your days but the views, open roads, and wildlife are addictive!
Thanks so much for reading and I really hope this guide has helped shape your trip to New Zealand. If it has, be sure to browse around some more, I have a ton more guides to awesome places such as Queenstown, Wanaka, and even more road trip guides!