When it comes to breathtaking road trips on the South Island few compare to the epic journey from Wanaka to Franz Josef. On this 284 kilometer (176 mile) journey, you’ll travel past lakes, along rivers, and through the Southern Alps. The West Coast of NZ is a wild place and this road trip has you experiencing it all!
On such a short journey, you’ll be happy to know there are plenty of amazing places to stop. However, many of them can be hard to find and most people end up driving right past. And with almost nowhere to turn around on this single-lane highway, they just continue on without knowing what they’ve just missed out on!
So in this blog, I’ll list 15 of the best stops between Wanaka and Franz Josef. That way you won’t miss a thing on this road trip!
About the Drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef
The scenic drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef is without a doubt one of the most common journeys people take on the South Island. The 284 kilometer (176 mile) trip heads north from the Lakes District of Wanaka and Queenstown and travels through Glacier Country also known as the stunning West Coast. The drive will take you just over 3.5 hours along a windy road that passes some amazing natural attractions.
One mistake many travelers make is not allowing enough time to complete the trip. Some of the best things to do in New Zealand are found along this road. If you plan on stopping along the way (and you should), this road trip should take the majority of your day. Yep, that’s right, the trip from Wanaka to Franz Josef should take around 8 hours if you plan on stopping to enjoying the scenery and experience the best attractions. Some may even want to stop along the way to spend a night in one of the remote towns such as Haast, Mahitahi, or Fox Glacier.
It’s important to know that the highway to Franz Josef is single lane the entire way with very sharp bends and blind corners. In bad weather, you should take it slow, and during rain, be sure to check weather reports as major slips do happen on this route. These can cause flooding and close the highway from time to time.
The West Coast is a wild place and for those who love adventure, it’s going to be one road trip you remember for the rest of your life! Just be sure to enjoy all the best things to do in Wanaka before you leave!
Wanaka to Franz Josef FAQs
15 Best Stops on the Drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef
1. Lake Hawea
Lake Hawea is a 15-minute drive outside of Wanaka and our first stop on this epic road trip. Although a rather unknown lake when compared with Lake Wakatipu (in Queenstown) and Lake Wanaka, it’s one of the most beautiful places to visit on the South Island.
Lake Hawea is New Zealand’s 9th largest lake and surrounding the lake is a truly stunning landscape with tall mountain peaks and even wildflowers in the spring. The lake itself is very popular with keen fishermen as well as kayakers and kite surfers. For me though, visiting Lake Hawea is about sitting above the cliffs and viewpoints to admire the views.
As you drive towards Franz Josef you’ll pass Lake Hawea on your right and along the drive, there are a few different places to stop. The first is the Lake Hawea Dam lookout (pictured above). This viewpoint gives you breathtaking views of the lake and the best part is that most people miss the turn so it’s a quiet place to stop. The second, and the more popular is Lake Hawea Lookout further down the road. This viewpoint is often crowded but the views are pretty spectacular.
There’s also a great 3-4 hour loop track here that starts in Lake Hawea township and follows Timaru River to Timaru Creek. The track ventures through native beech forest and along the braided Timaru River. Bring a picnic to enjoy at the benches at Timaru creek.
2. Lake Wanaka Lookout (just after “The Neck”)
You can’t just enjoy views of Lake Wanaka from Wanaka! The lake is simply too big to enjoy from one spot. So, I suggest stopping at the Lake Wanaka Lookout just after “the neck”. This is where Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea once connected and are now separated by a narrow piece of land known as an isthmus or “the neck” as it’s more colloquially known.
At the viewpoint there is a small parking lot pull your car over, this is just a quick photo stop and offers a different viewpoint of Lake Wanaka. This stop can get very busy in the summer months, so there may be limited parking.
3. The Blue Pools
About 30 minutes past “the neck” is one of the most popular stops on the road from Queenstown to Franz Josef. The Blue Pools are exactly that, pools from the Makarora River that are perfect for a quick dip or “day at the beach” – and they are really blue!
Access to the Blue Pools is via a short, easy walk through native forest just off the highway. The walk which is considered one of the best hikes on the South Island will take you over two swing bridges, with the second giving you a prime view over the bright blue, Gatorade-like waters below.
If you’re feeling brave or if it’s a particularly hot day you may want to cool down in the freezing cold waters. The average water temperature here is just 9 degrees Celcius (48 degrees Fahrenheit) so be prepared for a polar dip!
Interesting fact: The Blue Pools get their color from the nearby glaciers. These glaciers crush rock into a fine powder known as rock flour as they are formed. When they melt, the rock flour travels with the water and reflects the light creating a blue color.
There are an obscene amount of annoying sandflies at the Blue Pools so be sure to wear insect repellant as well as long pants to keep them at bay. Their bites are super itchy and if you’re not used to them they can hang around for a few days to weeks!
4. Haast Pass Lookout
Next up is a quick stop to stretch your legs! Haast Pass is the mountain pass you’ll need to climb and it separates Otago and the West Coast region. Just under a 10-minute drive from the Blue Pools is the Haast Pass Lookout. There’s a popular walking track here (Haast Pass Lookout Track), which is a 2 kilometer return track and should take you about 20 minutes or so.
The hike offers fantastic views of Mount Aspiring National Park and for such a short walk, it’s a must-do on your drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef!
5. Fantail Falls
Just past Haast Pass Lookout is the beautiful Fantail Falls. A short two-minute walk from the parking lot here will bring you to the Haast River and this gorgeous waterfall standing at 23 meters tall. This stop is only short, but it’s a beautiful place for lunch.
If you have an extra day or two and are after a unique adventure on the road from Queenstown to Franz Josef, then, I highly recommend hiking from Fantail Falls to the Brewster Hut. This track is considered an advanced hike, so some experience is advised. The track will take you about 4 to 5 hours to hike up and you will have to cross the Haast River on foot (no bridge!), and climb through the forest.
At the end of the trail though, you’ll get to spend the night at stunning Brewster Hut located high in the mountains. This is a really unique experience and must be booked in advance on the DOc website! The hut sleeps a maximum of 12 people and costs $20 NZD per adult.
Related read: The hike to the Brewster Hut is one of the best hikes near Wanaka – find out what the other are in my blog!
6. Thunder Creek Falls
The first waterfall I ever saw on the South Island was Thunder Creek Falls and it got me so excited to explore New Zealand. Wow, that brings back (long distant) memories!
Now, Thunder Creek Falls might not be your first but you should not miss this stop on your road trip from Wanaka to Franz Josef. The falls stand at a whopping 28 meters (92 feet) and are accessed via a short 5-minute walking track from the parking lot on the side of the highway. It’s a quick stop and with so many sandflies it’s likely you won’t stay long! Trust me on that one, my pale Canadian skin fresh off the plane did not do well that day!
7. Haast River Lookout
Another beautiful but quick stop along this road trip is at Haast River. This lookout point has gorgeous views downstream with the gorgeous Mount Aspiring as a backdrop. The views here are especially beautiful on a cloudy or rainy day when the clouds float midway between the brightly colored river and the mountains.
There’s a small gravel pull-off here for you to safely pull your car off the road and stop.
8. Roaring Billy Falls
More waterfalls? Yep, there are plenty on the west coast! To reach this one enjoy a 15-minute walk along a fern-lined track that will bring you to the aptly named Roaring Billy Falls. You will encounter some more rare trees including the miro, matai, and silver beech trees along the track.
Roaring Billy Falls is a typical example of a cascades waterfall and is 30 meters (98 feet) tall. There’s a viewing platform here, and the track itself is considered easy without many uphill climbs or stairs. Once again, it’s another great place for lunch or a snack and surprisingly, this stop isn’t usually busy!
9. Haast town
A short stop in Haast town is a great opportunity to fuel up or grab some lunch or a snack on your road trip. I recommend the Fantail Cafe on Marks Road or The Craypot at Jacksons Bay for yummy seafood. If you’re feeling tired after the drive from Queenstown, then Haast is a great place to spend the night with a variety of accommodation available.
Also, worth seeing in Haast is the Haast River bridge, a narrow one-lane bridge surrounded by stunning scenery.
10. Knights Point Lookout
As you drive along the west coast you’ll lose sight of the ocean. Instead, you’ll be surrounded by rivers, lush forests, and mountains. However, as you pass Haast town the coastline becomes viewable once again, and wow is it beautiful! My favorite spot on this part of the journey is Knights Point Lookout!
This epic viewpoint peers over cliffs with views of the Tasman Sea. Below, you’ll see some cool rock formations and be able to smell and feel the rough ocean below. So be prepared for high winds!
There is a large parking lot and toilet facilities at Knights Point Lookout so it’s worth stopping here to take some photos and stretch your legs.
11. South Westland Salmon Farm
Salmon farms are dotted all around the South Island and most come with a cute cafe to try their products. South Westland Salmon Farm on the west coast is an operating salmon farm and cafe about a 50-minute drive south from Fox Glacier. It’s a unique stop on your journey from Queenstown to Franz Josef.
South Westland is a pond rearing farm and they farm Chinook, King, Spring, and Quinnat salmon here. All originally found in the Sacramento River in California.
Of course, at the on-site café salmon is the specialty but, they also have a host of counter foods like cakes and sandwiches if you’re after something lighter. Grab a coffee and a bite to eat and keep on exploring!
12. Fox Glacier
As you drive towards Fox Glacier you’ll begin to see the landscape change. The valleys will open up and you’ll soon realize you are in New Zealand’s glacier country!
Fox Glacier descends from the Southern Alps down into the rain forest on the West Coast. It’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world at only 300 meters above sea level – few glaciers in the world come this low! At a huge 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) in length, Fox Glacier is the West Coast’s longest glacier. You can arrange an ice-hiking adventure here or book a scenic flight to see the huge glacier from above. Worth noting is it’s not as steep as the neighboring Franz Josef Glacier, so, is a better ice-hiking option for those less experienced or with mobility issues.
If you want to see the glacier but don’t want to pay for a tour you can hike the Fox Glacier Valley Walk. This 1-hour return track gets you as close as you can to the glacier without a guided tour. The picture above was taken from this viewpoint!
Back in the town of Fox Glacier, there are some good options for food if you’re hungry including The Last Kitchen on Sullivan Road and The White Pub on Cook Flat Road. There are also a few accommodation options here if you fancy spending the night to break up your journey.
There’s also glow worm caves a short walk from the town center that are well worth a visit. To see them head out at night along the Minnehaha Walk.
13. Lake Matheson
Only a 5-minute drive from Fox Glacier town is the beautiful Lake Matheson. It’s one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand and a personal favorite of mine. On a calm, clear day, Lake Matheson reflects New Zealand’s highest mountain – Mount Cook! This photo of the reflection is famous around NZ and you’ve likely seen it before!
To reach the lake you’ll need to take a short walk from the parking lot and trailhead. The hike is easy and to complete a loop of the lake you’ll need around 1.5 hours. With that said, some choose to only hike to the pontoon at the lake which takes around 40 minutes. The track takes visitors through tall rimu and kahikatea trees to the pontoon that is the ideal spot for a photograph. Long-finned eels can also be found in the dark water of Lake Matheson.
If you want, you can even join a guided nature walk to Lake Matheson.
Did you know – Lake Matheson is a traditional mahinga kai (food gathering place) for the native Maoris.
14. Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier is arguably the most visited glacier in New Zealand. Like Fox Glacier, it descends down to 300 meters above sea level and is a whopping 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) long.
To see the glacier without a tour you can opt for the 1.5-hour walk on the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk. On this trail, you’ll get within a few hundred meters of the glaciers terminal face. The trail takes you through native forest for the first 10 minutes or so and then along the rocky riverbed where you’ll need to skip across a few rocks so you don’t get your feet wet. The end of the hike involves a short but steep climb to the viewing platform. You will notice the glacier constantly moving and may even spot falling rock and ice. Appropriate hiking boots are a great idea for this walk.
15. Franz Josef Town
The last stop on this road trip is of course Franz Josef. I love Franz Josef and on any road trip up the West Coast, it’s a place I always stop for a night or two. Franz Josef is only a small town but it’s a lively place that makes for the perfect place to stop!
In Franz Josef, there are lots of different things to do. You can enjoy bike rides, gorgeous walks, and even action-packed adventures like rafting or skydiving. If you’re after a unique activity take a guided tour to the white heron colony at Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve. Or, visit Okarito Kiwi Sanctuary to see the Rowi – the world’s rarest kiwi. There are unfortunately only 600 of these left in existence in the country and the sanctuary helps breed them.
Another activity I love in Franz Josef is a visit to the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. These beautiful hot pools are so relaxing especially after a long drive or hiking adventure. There are three public pools that are all at different temperatures as well as private pools.
After all that driving and exploring you’re sure to be hungry so grab some food in the highly recommended Alice May or Monsoon both on Cron Street in the town. If you love craft beer and pub food go to Snakebite Brewery, it’s my favorite place to go for a hearty meal!
There is more to see and do so be sure to check out my guide to the 22 best things to do in Franz Josef. It includes a lot of beautiful hikes that are hard to find elsewhere as well as free activities and even the best tours!
Essential Information to Know Before You Go
- The Wanaka to Franz Josef route is 284 km (176 miles) in total, which should take you just over 3.5 hours. But considering all the stops I’ve listed here, it will be a full-day affair.
- In the winter months (May to September) you should carry snow chains with you as the roads can get slippery during bad weather.
- Be sure to bring appropriate clothing – the West Coast (Haast, Franz Josef & Fox Glacier) is notorious for its high rainfall. So, bring good wet weather gear as well as suitable footwear if you plan on walking to the glacier.
- Fuel up before you leave Wanaka as there are limited gas stations along the route. There are small gas stations in Haast, Fox Glacier town as well as Franz Josef town.
- Bring insect repellent. Sandflies bite and you will most definitely run into these little guys at some point along this road trip.
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!
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
The small town of Franz Josef is a really beautiful place to stay. Despite being small, there are lots of lively restaurants, bars and other attractions in town along with a huge range of accommodation to choose from.
For budget travelers, Glow Worm Accommodation is a great choice. Its located within walking distance of everything and offers dorm and private rooms at really affordable prices. I actually stayed here on my first ever trip down the west coast and had a social night with other travelers.
For those with a slightly larger budget, the Aspen Court Franz Josef is a good mid-range option with outstanding reviews. The hotel is located on the outskirts of town but is only a short walk from the best restaurants and bars. They also have apartments and studios so its perfect for those who like to prepare their own meals or those traveling in a group/family.
If you’re a luxury traveler the Te Waonui Forest Retreat is pure happiness. The entire retreat is surrounded by lush forest and from your balcony, you’ll be able to hear the sound of nature. Rooms are also large and well decorated. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the beautiful west coast – if you can afford the hefty price tag that is!
There are also a few great holiday home rentals and Airbnbs to choose from in Franz Josef town.
Thanks for reading!
After reading this guide it’s not hard to see why the road trip from Wanaka to Franz Josef is a favorite of mine. Seriously, with all these amazing places to stop how could anyone not enjoy it!?
I hope this blog has helped you plan your amazing adventure I’m so excited for you! If you did then don’t leave just yet! Stick around and check out more of my travel guides from all around New Zealand and especially the South Island. If you’re looking for something particular the checkout Queenstown, Wanaka, Road Trips, or my Hikes category!