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The drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook is one of the most beautiful New Zealand South Island road trips I have done. This 2.5-hour, 206 km (128 mi) drive can quickly turn into an entire day’s adventure that involves stopping at lots of amazing attractions along the way.
Although this route can just be a quick drive, if you know about which places to check out, you can transform it into an epic road trip! What is otherwise a pretty typical drive can quickly become a super scenic and epic journey.
With some of the best mountains to hike in New Zealand, glaciers to explore, and genuine adventure to be had, Mount Cook is the perfect destination for those who love all things outdoors. There really are tons of fun things to do in Mount Cook – when you’re exploring a country as gorgeous as New Zealand, it doesn’t really get much better than this!
To make sure you don’t miss a thing, I’ve individually listed the 11 best stops between Wanaka and Mount Cook that you can’t miss out on. With stops at scenic bridges, hot tubs with views of the mountains, and viewpoints that make you feel like you’re on top of the world, this list has got it all.
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 because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can browse JUCY’s availability here. Alternatively, you can see all the different rental companies available on Motorhome Republic.
- About the Drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook
- Wanaka to Mount Cook FAQs
- 11 Best Stops Between Wanaka and Mount Cook
- Essential Information to Know Before You Go
- Things to do in Wanaka Before You Go
- Thanks for reading!
- Where to Stay in Mount Cook
- Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
- Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
About the Drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook
The scenic drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook Village is a 206-kilometer (128-mile) journey that takes around 2.5 hours without stopping. With that said, there are so many amazing attractions along the way, and I’d recommend allowing 5 to 8 hours to truly enjoy the drive.
When embarking on the journey, it’s important to drive to the conditions, as bad weather, especially on Lindis Pass, can make driving dangerous. During winter in New Zealand, 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.
Following this guide, you could visit every item on this list and still complete the drive to Mount Cook in only a day. That’s what I love about this journey, everyone can tick off this bucket list road trip, and aside from one attraction, do it on a budget! This is one of the best things to do in New Zealand, so take your time and enjoy it.
Wanaka to Mount Cook FAQs
11 Best Stops Between Wanaka and Mount Cook
1. Wanaka Lavender Farm
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is the first stop on this list and is actually located on the outskirts of Wanaka. In the summer, the Wanaka Lavender Farm is a really popular place to visit because it explodes into gorgeous color! The entire farm transforms into a sea of purple as the lavender on the property blossoms. But you don’t just come here for the beautiful views.
The Wanaka Lavender Farm is also home to a petting zoo, where kids (and adults) can feed the miniature horses, pigs, and even sheep. On top of that, the Wanaka Lavender Farm sells a range of lavender products including face creams, masks, soaps, and even manuka honey. My favorite, though? The lavender-flavored ice cream!
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 hang out and enjoy the sunshine.
Entrance to the Wanaka Lavender Farm in summer is $15 NZD for adults, $7.50 NZD for children over 5, and kids under 5 go free, making it a really cheap activity in Wanaka. In the off-season (April to November), it’s only $7 NZD for adults and $3.50 NZD for children.
The best time to go to see the lavender is in January, but I’ve been as early as the start of December and there’s still plenty to see (that’s when the photo above was taken).
Related Read: Spending some time in Wanaka? Check out my guide on where to stay in Wanaka!
2. The Red Bridge
As you finally leave Wanaka, you’ll be out on the open road and ready to explore the more remote areas of New Zealand. The first stop is a humble bridge, and you might be wondering what’s there to do here! Well, you won’t find rollercoasters and Ferris wheels here, it’s the breathtaking views down the Clutha River you’re here for. Seriously, it’s absolutely stunning!
This bridge itself is also an attraction and was built back in 1918. It’s one of the most historic monuments in the area, as it’s a steel truss bridge that is over 100 meters (328 feet) long. It crosses the Clutha River and despite being just a quick stop, is actually a really neat attraction. The bridge is clearly marked on Google Maps so, you can’t miss it.
If you want to get an even better look at the entire bridge, you can actually hike two short trails nearby. The first is the Upper Clutha River Track. Although the trail is 18.5 kilometers (11.5 miles) long, you can just walk for a few minutes to enjoy views of the river. It’s also a popular route with mountain bikers, so keep an eye out as you go!
The second trail is the Luggate Creek Track. It’s much shorter, at around 1.93 km (1.2 mi) out and back. My recommendation is to just get out and stretch your legs for a little bit, you’ve got plenty of driving to do!
3. Lindis Pass Lookout
Lindis Pass is one of the best places to visit on the South Island – driving through here really is a special experience! The vast landscape and scenery here are unlike anywhere else in New Zealand. On the pass, huge tussock-covered mountains surround you at every turn of your journey as you continue to climb.
At the highest point on Lindis Pass, you will spot a sign for the ‘Lookout’, and you can park in the parking lot here, and take the easy trail to the lookout. The platform at the lookout point is 971 meters (3,186 feet) above sea level and gives an astounding vantage point of the unique landscape of the Lindis Conservation area.
You will also see the Longslip Mountain range here, standing tall at just under 1,500 meters (4,921 feet).
For an even better view, climb over the fence (to the left of the parking lot facing away from the road) and walk up the hill. As you can see from the picture above, a higher vantage point gives you even better views!
Lindis Pass Road is 63 kilometers (39 miles) long in total and has lots of sharp twists and turns. Take your time, and if you’re in a campervan or motorhome be prepared for the vehicle to struggle as you make your final climb. Also, driving Lindis Pass in winter is particularly special as the mountain peaks will be dipped in snow, but the road conditions can be treacherous during this season, so be careful!
4. Omarama Hot Tubs
Imagine soaking in a hot tub of crystal clear mountain water with the magnificent Mackenzie Country scenery around you. Well, that’s exactly what you can do at Omarama’s top attraction – the Omarama Hot Tubs.
The views in this valley are gorgeous, where majestic mountain ranges contrast with flat green farmland. These tubs are an ideal way to relax and break up the drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook. I also took the chance to visit the hot tubs in the evening to soak in the views of the night sky and see the stars like never before!
A 90-minute hot tub session costs $60 NZD per person, based on two people sharing. The tubs can fit up to eight people, and it does get cheaper per person the more you book for. In the summer, the tubs can be a little hot, so I recommend going late in the afternoon or in the morning at this time of year.
Although bookings aren’t essential, they do guarantee you a spot, which during peak season is important! You can book your tub on their website.
Stay Overnight in Omarama
If you want to visit the hot tubs without being rushed, consider spending one night in Omarama. Although the town is somewhat limited in terms of accommodation, the Omarama TOP 10 Holiday Park is a great option with various rooms and apartments available as well as campsites. Most rooms also include a kitchenette, perfect for rustling up some snacks and lunches for the road.
5. Omarama Clay Cliffs
Just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) outside the small town of Omarama is a unique attraction called the Omarama Clay Cliffs. These cliffs are a must-stop on your drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook, not only because they’re cool to visit, but they’re also cheap at only $5 NZD per car.
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. This actually makes the cliffs relatively “young” which I found very surprising.
At the cliffs, you can take a short walk along a well-maintained trail and even venture off into the cliffs to explore. It takes around 30 minutes to enjoy the Omarama Clay Cliffs and get some cool photos!
Worth noting is that the Omarama Cliffs are located on private land and part of the road there is gravel, so take it slow. At the entrance on Henburn Road, you will see a box to pay the $5 NZD admission fee per vehicle. It’s an honesty system but pays to maintain the road to the cliffs. There is also a farm gate to pass through, so leave it as you found it.
6. High Country Salmon Farm
Kiwis love their seafood and one of the most prized fish in the country is salmon. At the High Country Salmon Farm, just 20 minutes from Omarama, you can not only eat fresh salmon but also feed salmon for free and even join a fishing experience if that’s something that interests you!
The fishing experience is a great way to get the kids excited, and the experience costs just $10 NZD to book and includes all the gear you need. After that, you just need to pay to keep your catch for only $35 NZD per kilo, and they gut and gill the fish for you for free! They can also fillet the fish for you too, but that does cost extra.
If fishing’s not your thing, then definitely still come for the food. The High Country Salmon Farm sells salmon raw, in sashimi packs, and out of their restaurant in delicious meals. I HAD to try their fresh salmon sushi, and I didn’t realize just how many ways the salmon could be prepared. From katsu salmon to soy-soaked salmon, they offer so many fantastic (and delicious!) options to choose from.
Note: The kitchen does close at 2:30 pm, so be sure to arrive before that if you want to enjoy a sit-down meal!
The humble town of Twizel, surrounded by beautiful mountain landscapes, stunning lakes, and breathtaking rivers, is another popular stop on the road from Queenstown to Mount Cook that you can’t miss!
The landscape surrounding Twizel has a very ‘Lord of the Rings vibe’. In fact, Ben Ohau Station, only a short drive from Twizel, is where the Battle Of Pelennor Fields scene in The Return Of The King was filmed. Unfortunately, Ben Ohau is privately owned and currently closed to the public, but you can visit if you go as part of an official Lord of the Rings tour!
Twizel is still a popular destination for those interested in rock and mountain climbing, cycling, and fishing. There are also a few great cafés and restaurants in town, including the awesome Poppies Café on Benmore Place, which serves some of the best homemade pancakes I’ve tried on the South Island – you can check out their full menu here.
Be sure to take a drive around the town to enjoy the views too – especially out to Lake Ruataniwha (pictured above) where you get to glimpse some truly amazing reflections of the mountains – perfect for that next Instagram photo!
Staying the night in Twizel
Twizel is a popular place where 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 great midrange option, the Mountain Chalets Motel would be my personal pick. Their cozy chalets can sleep up to 5 people, so it’s perfect whether you’re traveling as a couple or as a family! All of the chalets also come with a kitchenette and have unlimited free Wi-Fi. These chalets start at around $190 NZD per night.
If epic views are what you’re after, then the Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park really can’t be beaten. As its name suggests, this holiday park sits directly on the shores of Lake Ruataniwha. If you get the chance, I really recommend going fishing or canoeing here on the lake – don’t forget to snap a few shots while you’re at it! A one-night stay here starts at around $88 NZD for a family cabin.
8. Lake Pukaki
If there was ever a competition ranking the bluest lakes in New Zealand, the finalists would definitely be Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo! In my eyes though I’d vote for Lake Pukaki every day of the week. This alpine lake is fed right from the Hooker and Mueller Glacier, and it shines a brilliant turquoise-blue color I’ve never seen in any other lake in NZ.
Lake Pukaki is located just past the turn-off onto Mount Cook Road and although you’ll see the lake on your right as you drive into the park, be sure to stop at this parking lot. Here, you can enjoy the Lake Pukaki Shoreline Walk. At 5 miles (8 km) wide and 9.5 miles (15 km) long, it really is a sight to behold!
From the edge of the lake, you’ll be able to truly admire the colors and views with Mount Cook in the distance. There are also freedom camping spots here that are marked on Google Maps.
Afterward, you can head back to Mount Cook Road, where you’ll get even more epic views of the lake as you drive into the park. On this stretch of road, there aren’t many official places to stop, but you can pull over where it’s safe and just enjoy the views of the lake.
9. 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 beauty 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. With rooms starting from around $1,300 NZD, it also has the price tag to match, but if you’re celebrating something special or just want to enjoy a night of pure luxury, this is the spot to do it.
Not up for an overnight stay? No problem! You can just stop here at their highly-rated restaurant for a bite to eat and a glass of wine with a view before hitting the road again. Their seasonal 4-course fine dining menu is also kept as an exciting surprise, so why not stop on by to discover it for yourself?
You’ll find Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat located on Highway 80 as you make your way toward Mount Cook National Park. It’s also worth noting that Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat often hosts ticketed events. Keep an eye on their calendar in case one of them interests you!
You can check availability and book your stay at Mount Cook Lakeside online here!
Related Read: Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat is also one of the best stops on any road trip from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook – find out what the others are if you’re planning on driving this route too.
10. Mount Cook Road Photo
There’s a famous photo of Mount Cook where it appears Mount Cook Road leads to the base of the mountain. If you haven’t seen it before, have a look at the photo above! As you can tell, it’s a pretty cool shot and one to bring back with you to remember just how beautiful this part of the world is.
The exact spot to get the photo is a little tricky to find, but it’s about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Mount Cook Village, before the airport. When you start to see Mount Cook’s peak in the distance, you’re nearly there. You will come to a long stretch of road that has four small streams in a row on it. 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 but be sure to pull your car safely off the side of the road. Watch out for cars and turn your hazard lights on. The speed limit on this road is 60 kmph (37 mph), so the cars can come upon you pretty quick.
If you can’t find the spot, check out this guide to the Mount Cook Road photo. Also, it’s easy to spot the four streams on the app Maps.Me but it’s all outlined in the above guide.
Alternatively, there is a new viewpoint that has been built with a boardwalk to get an amazing view of the road and Mount Cook. Although you won’t get the exact photo I have above, it’s still a nice shot and a much safer place to stop. You can find this viewpoint on Google Maps here.
11. Explore Mount Cook!
Last, but certainly not least, is the main attraction and the point of the drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook… Mount Cook National Park itself! There isn’t a national park in New Zealand that I love as much as Mount Cook.
This place is breathtaking and an adventure-lover’s paradise!
Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, standing at a whopping 3,724 meters (12,218 feet) tall. It is, of course, a must-see on any New Zealand itinerary but there’s so much more to Mount Cook National Park than Mount Cook.
There are a ton of amazing things to do in Mount Cook that range from short and long hikes to scenic flights above the mountain peaks. One thing is for sure, you won’t get bored here!
The Hooker Valley Track is one of the best hikes in Mount Cook and one of the best hikes on the South Island that’s well worth the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) round trip. It’s a flat, very easy track that takes just over 2 hours without stopping.
There are three swing bridges on the track, each with stunning views of Mueller Lake and 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 icebergs!
Some shorter walks here include the Bowen Bush Walk, Tasman Lake Walk, and Governor’s Bush Walk. If you’re looking for a trail that’s a bit more of a challenge, then I’d recommend hiking to the Mueller Hut. It’s a journey that covers 5.6 km (3.5 miles) one way and takes about 4 hours in the summer. In the winter, I’d allow up to 5 hours one way.
If you’re after a true bucket list experience, then this helicopter ride over Mount Cook is a must. This tour includes a landing on Tasman Glacier, and from the air, you’ll spot Mount Cook (how can you miss it!), as well as Franz Josef, and Fox Glacier. With tickets at $337 NZD per person and the experience lasting around 20 minutes in total, it’s also super easy to fit into any busy schedule.
Fancy bumping things up a notch? This 45-minute ski plane and heli combo tour adds in the extra thrill of soaring through the skies in a ski plane, as well as a heli touchdown on a snow-covered mountaintop! With hotel pick-up and drop-off included, it’s great value at $449 NZD per person.
For something even more exciting, you can’t miss the chance to go skydiving in Mount Cook – it’s got to be one of the most scenic places in the world to jump out of an airplane. This skydiving experience will have you heading up to 15,000 feet (4,572 m) which allows for 60 seconds of free fall.
I definitely recommend staying the night at Mount Cook. By staying in the park, you’ll have all the best attractions at your doorstep and be able to venture out at first light before the crowds arrive.
Related Read: Another popular road trip from Wanaka is the drive to Franz Josef. Check out my blog for all of the best stops and attractions!
Essential Information to Know Before You Go
- There is no public transport between Queenstown and Mount Cook – only organized tours, so I recommend renting a car. We like to use Discover Cars for this.
- The route is 206 km (128 mi) in total, which should take you 2.5 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 Lindis Pass
- Take lots of snacks – besides the towns of Wanaka, Omarama, and Twizel there aren’t a lot of restaurants, cafés, 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 Wanaka, Omarama, and Twizel, as well a small gas station in Mount Cook itself.
- Bring a camera – as mentioned, the photograph opportunities are epic on the Queenstown to Mount Cook route.
Related Read: After Mount Cook, you can continue on to Christchurch for another epic road trip. Check out my blog about the drive from Wanaka to Christchurch and the drive from Queenstown to Christchurch with all the best stops on the way!
Things to do in Wanaka Before You Go
- Cardrona Valley Mountain Quad – Zip up into the mountains on a quad bike! This tour makes sightseeing a little bit more thrilling as you’ll follow your guide through winding dirt tracks past lush farmland. Look to spot sheep and cattle and learn from your local guide about the area! You’ll stop to take in the panoramic views of the snow-capped mountains of the Cardrona Valley. It’s only a 2-hour tour, so you will still have a lot of time for other activities.
- Wine and Maori Culture Tour – You’ll get to taste wine right from the land of the indigenous Maori people in Wanaka. This tour is a half-day experience that includes round-trip transport, so you don’t have to worry about driving. Just focus on the wine and beautiful landscapes as you visit the different wineries and enjoy the provided cheese platter.
- Horse Riding Trek – This is the perfect leisurely sightseeing activity that takes you up into the countryside and past historical gold-mining locals for some fabulous views and information from your local guide about this area’s past. You’ll navigate through cattle farms and across a river and end the day with a free beer from the Cardrona Pub on the way back to base.
- Jet Boat, Hike, and Raft Adventure – This tour is for thrill seekers! It’s a full day of activities including a jet boat and rafting ride on the Matukituki River and a nature trek to take in the beautiful landscapes of Mount Aspiring National Park where you’ll stop for lunch at the base of a glacier! It costs $379 NZD per person, but it is more cost-effective than booking these activities separately.
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!
- JUCY – JUCY is one of our favorite rental companies in New Zealand! They have a huge inventory and offer regular cars, small campervans, larger campervans, and even motorhomes! The prices are also super competitive and their multiple offices around NZ make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. You can check availability, prices, and book with JUCY online here.
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.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
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!
The road trip from Wanaka to Mount Cook is often overlooked by travelers heading north toward other great destinations, however, I seriously recommend taking this chance to enjoy all the best stops along the way. When I think back to my road trips around NZ, it’s always the journey I remember the most, not the destination!
Thanks so much for reading! Do let me know in the comments if you have your route from Wanaka to Mount Cook all planned out and are ready to hit the road. I’ve also included three more blogs I think you’ll find helpful below: