The drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook is one of the most beautiful road trips I have done in New Zealand. This 2.5-hour (or 206 km/128 mi) drive can quickly turn into an entire day adventure that involves stopping at lots of amazing attractions along the way.
This route is common in New Zealand, and although it can just be a quick drive, you can make it an epic road trip if you know about the best places to check out. It’s a scenic and adventurous journey!
To make sure you don’t miss a thing, I’ll list the 11 best stops between Wanaka and Mount Cook that every visitor should see for themselves. 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!
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 without stopping takes 2.5 hours. With that said, there are so many amazing attractions along the way you should allow 5 to 8 hours to truly enjoy the drive. I’ve personally done the drive on numerous occasions and love it. From passing beautiful rivers to mountain passes it’s truly one of the best drives in New Zealand.
When embarking on the journey 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.
Following this guide, you could visit every item on this list and still complete the drive to Mount Cook in 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!
This guide does not include activities in Wanaka (aside from one of the ways 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!
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’s simply beautiful. The entire farm turns 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 and 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 of course!
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 $10 NZD 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 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 ready to explore the more remote areas of New Zealand. The first is simply a bridge. You might be wondering what’s there to do at a bridge? Well, not much but 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 in 1918. It’s one of the most historic monuments in the area and it’s a steel truss bridge that is over 100 meters (328 feet) 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.
If you want to get an even better look you can actually hike two short trails from the bridge. 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. The second is the Luggate Creek Track. It’s much shorter but the official length is unknown. My recommendation is to just get out and stretch your legs, you’ve got plenty of driving to do!
3. Lindis Pass Lookout
Driving Lindis Pass is a unique 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 the mountain pass. It’s one of the best places to visit on the South Island.
At the highest point on Lindis Pass, you will spot a sign for the ‘Lookout’, 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 unusual landscape of the Lindis Conservation area. You will also spot 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, 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. You can also choose to visit the hot tubs at night to soak in the views of the night sky and see the stars like never before.
A 90-minute hot tub session costs $54 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 during the summer. Although bookings aren’t essential it does 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 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
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 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 “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 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 is salmon. At the High Country Salmon Farm 20 minutes from Omarama, you can not only eat fresh salmon but also feed salmon for free and even join a fishing experience.
The fishing experience is a great way to get the kids excited and the experience is free to book and includes all the gear you need. You will just need to pay to keep your catch for only $32 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 come for the food. The High Country Salmon Farm sells salmon raw, in sashimi packs, and out of their restaurant in delicious meals. The kitchen does close at 4 pm so be sure to arrive before that if you want to enjoy a sit-down meal.
If you love seafood then the High Country Salmon Farm is a must-visit on any trip from Wanaka to Mount Cook.
The humble town of Twizel, surrounded by beautiful mountain landscapes, stunning lakes, and breathtaking rivers is a popular stop on the road from Queenstown to Mount Cook.
The landscape surrounding Twizel has a very ‘Lord of the Rings vibe’. In fact, at 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 so you can only access it by booking a Lord Of The Rings tour in Twizel.
Twizel is a popular destination for those interested in rock and mountain climbing, cycling, and fishing. There are also a few great cafes and restaurants in town including the awesome Poppies Café on Benmore Place. Be sure to take a drive around the town to enjoy the views – especially out to Lake Ruataniwha (pictured above) where you get amazing reflections of the mountains.
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.
8. Lake Pukaki
If there was ever a competition of the bluest lake in new Zealand, it would be between Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo. To be honest 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 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. 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.
After, head back to Mount Cook Road where you’ll get even more 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 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.
Not up for an overnight stay? No problem! You can just stop here at their highly-rated restaurant for a bite to eat and glass of wine with a view before hitting the road again. You’ll find Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat located on Highway 80 as you make your way towards Mount Cook National Park.
Worth noting is that Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat often hosts ticketed events. Keep an eye on their calendar in case one of them interests you!
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 just 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 hard 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 60km/hm (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.
11. Explore Mount Cook!
Last and 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 I love as much as Mount Cook. This place is breathtaking and an adventure-lovers 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!
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 Governors Bush Walk. For a harder trail consider hiking to the Mueller Hut.
For the adrenaline junkies, why not try kayaking on Tasman or Mueller Lake, this allows you to get up close to the glacier. Or if you’re after a true bucket list experience then a helicopter ride over Mount Cook has to be done. This tour includes a landing on Tasman Glacier, and from the air, you’ll spot Mount Cook (how can you miss it!), Franz Josef, and Fox Glacier.
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
- 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, cafes, 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, Twizel, and 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!
Must-do Things in Mount Cook
Once you get to Mount Cook National Park there are a few different activities you can do to see the full beauty of Aoraki/Mount Cook! Check out my favorites below.
- Mount Cook Helicopter Flight Explorer – This bucket list experience over Mount Cook lasts for 35 minutes and stops on top of a snowfield above Richardson Glacier and showcases some incredible views of the Tasman Valley. Priced around $435 NZD per person it is not cheap but if you have the money it’s something you shouldn’t leave New Zealand without doing!
- Skydiving from 15,000 feet – What better of a location could you choose to jump out of a plane? If you want to face your fear or are always seeking an adrenaline rush this is the opportunity for you! After your 45-second freefall, you can gaze out at the mountains, lakes, and glaciers as you gradually descend with your parachute.
- Glacier Kayaking – This is the only place in New Zealand where you can go glacier kayaking so it’s definitely a unique thing to do in Mount Cook. You’ll get the chance to get up close to the glaciers floating on the lake and stop halfway for serene lunch on shore. For this 4-6 hour tour, you can expect to pay $250 NZD per person.
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 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 book 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!
Thanks for reading…
The road trip from Wanaka to Mount Cook is one most need to do to simply head north towards other great destinations, however, don’t miss 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! Let’s hope you have your route from Wanaka to Mount Cook all planned out and are ready to hit the road! If you loved this blog then browse around I have so many more blogs about New Zealand to check out!