Driving Tours of New Zealand: Christchurch to Queenstown Via Wanaka

Highlights of a South Island Road Trip

View of Lake Wanaka From Roy's Bay
edwin11/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A driving tour linking the South Island's largest city, Christchurch, with the country's leading international tourist destination, Queenstown, takes in much of New Zealand's impressive scenery along the way.

With a total distance of just more than 375 miles (600 kilometers), the trip takes about seven hours of driving time. But with all the things to see en route, you should think about spreading it out over at least a couple of days. Lake Tekapo (140 miles from Christchurch/3 hours driving time) and Lake Wanaka (263 miles/5.5 hours) make convenient overnight stops.

The well-maintained roads along this route can see some ice and snow in winter, especially over the mountain passes and in the stretches around Tekapo. Highlights of the trip heading southwest include plains, mountains, rivers, and lakes.

Canterbury Plains

The terrain leaving Christchurch and heading south can be summed up in one word: flat. The Canterbury Plains, a vast tract of flat land created by the movement of glaciers more than 3 million years ago, produce more than 80 percent of New Zealand's grains. You can already see the mountains of the Southern Alps in the distance to the right.

Geraldine (84 miles from Christchurch/135 km)

This pretty town of approximately 3,500 residents services the local farming community and also holds a reputation as a center for Canterbury artists. The nearby Peel Forest and Rangitata River provide plenty of options for outdoor recreation. After Geraldine, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic, with the flat plains giving way to rolling hills and the rising Southern Alps to the west. 

Fairlie (114 miles/183 km)

At Fairlie you enter the Mackenzie district, a sub-region of the Canterbury region. A number of historic buildings give Fairlie a quaint village atmosphere. Nearby ski resorts make this a popular winter destination. The rest of the year it functions largely as a service town for the surrounding farms.

Lake Tekapo (140 miles/226 km)

After traversing dramatic Burke's Pass, you reach Tekapo. Be sure to stop in the township and enjoy the memorable view of the lake with the mountains in the distance; this may be one of New Zealand's most memorable sights. Don't miss the small stone chapel, arguably the most photographed church in the country; inside, a window behind the altar reveals a postcard view of the lake and mountains.

Two nearby ski areas and summer recreation on the lake make this an especially popular destination for tourists. Although small, the Tekapo township offers a good range of accommodations and restaurants.

Lake Pukaki (170 miles/275 km)

From the southern shore of this beautiful lake, you can see New Zealand's highest mountain peak, Aoraki Mount Cook. The turnoff to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is just past the Lake Pukaki Information Centre; make the approximately 40-minute detour to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village if stargazing excites you; the entire park makes up the bulk of New Zealand's International Dark Sky Reserve.

Twizel (180 miles/290 km)

Base yourself for winter or summer activities in Twizel, a small town with outsize recreation, including skiing, fishing, camping, tramping (backpacking), and hiking.

Omarama (194 miles/313 km)

Another small town, Omarama's main claim to fame is gliding. The town hosted the World Gliding Championships in 1995 and still attracts pilots from around the world with its ideal soaring conditions.​

Lindis Pass

The breathtaking stretch of road across the Lindis Pass affords dramatic views of the mountains on either side. After Lindis Pass, the main highway continues through to Queenstown via Cromwell, a lovely drive. However, you can also turn off and take the road to Lake Wanaka.

Lake Wanaka (263 miles/424 km)

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand's fourth largest lake and a wonderful area to explore, offers world-class restaurants and accommodations in a magical setting. Although not far from Queenstown, Wanaka supports its own huge range of activities including hiking, boating, fishing, mountain biking, and, in the winter, skiing and snowboarding.

Cardrona (279 miles/450 km)

The historic hotel at Cardrona, one of New Zealand's oldest, sits at the base of the Cardrona Alpine Resort, one of the most popular skiing and mountain biking destinations in the country.

Crown Range

A couple of viewing points along this memorable stretch of road give you your first glimpses of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. As you leave the Crown Range, you rejoin the main highway to Queenstown, deservedly New Zealand's most popular tourist destination.