Looking for New Zealand’s most epic road trip? Then the drive from Queenstown to Christchurch is the one for you.
This absolutely stunning roadie takes you from Queenstown’s lofty alpine vistas, through the picturesque Central Otago region, then on to Lake Tekapo before making its way across the expansive Canterbury Plains to explore the sights and sounds of Christchurch – the South Island’s largest city.
Jumped off a bridge? Had the world’s best burger? Spent a little too much time scared out of your wits? OK cool, you are good to go. Let’s hit the road and make the most of this self-drive Queenstown to Christchurch road trip.
While it is quicker to head straight on out to Cromwell, taking a side trip to Wanaka is well worth the effort, the road through the mountains is spectacular and only takes just over an hour (always check road conditions before setting out in winter as the road may be closed if snowfall is heavy).
Taking Gorge Road out of Queenstown and head up towards Arthurs Point, crossing the Shot Over River and the turn off to the Coronet Peak ski fields along the way; Arrowtown is your first stop.
Time for a quick coffee break in Arrowtown, take a stroll around the Historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement and the Lakes District Museum. Making your way along Centennial Avenue head east at the Arrow Junction and enjoy the climb up into the beautiful mountain pass which takes you through to Wanaka (remembering to stop at the iconic Cardrona Hotel of course!).
If this road is closed or you would prefer a route that offered the added touch of a winery (or two, or three …) you can take the Gibbston Highway through the Kawarau Gorge and on to Cromwell. Try the world famous Pinot Noir, enjoy a winery tour and sample some of the region’s best produce at the Gibbston Valley Winery Restaurant.
While visiting Wanaka don’t miss the peculiar brainteasers at Puzzling World, or hire a bike and (try your best) to stick to the trails at Sticky Forest Mountain Bike Park. By night, Wanaka comes alive with boutique restaurants, trendy takeaways and cocktail bars.
Completing our little detour loop to Wanaka, State Highway 8A returns us to the main inland route to Christchurch, joining State Highway 8 near Tarras, or take State Highway 6 from Wanaka and spend some time in Cromwell.
Home to award winning wineries, cosy cafes and boutique accommodation, Cromwell is a great place to stay the night and spend some extra time. Big drawcards include Lake Dunstan for water sports, fishing and boating, while Cromwell Gorge provides an excellent chance to get some fresh air and stretch the legs. Take in some of the gold mining history of the town and find out about the lives of the early settlers back in the 1800s by wandering the streets of ‘Old Cromwell Town’, see original buildings and artefacts on display.
Hitting the road again, it’s State Highway 8 all the way through the Lindis Valley and Lindis Pass. Highly recommend stopping at the Lindis Pass Viewpoint before crossing the invisible boundary between the Otago and Canterbury regions; the views are breath taking. Omarama is the next stop, marking the turn off to Twizel and Pukaki.
The perfect example of New Zealand in the shape of a town, Omarama provides plenty to do for the adventurous and those who just wish to relax and soak up the surrounds.
See sheep shearing and working sheepdogs in action at the Wrinkly Rams, take a glider flight, check out the Clay Cliffs, head over the Lake Benmore for some fly fishing. Or just soak away the days stresses and put things in perspective in the outdoor hot tubs at Hot Tubs Omarama under the mesmerising starry night sky.
On the road again, you simply have to stop at Lake Pukaki – even if only to take a photo of the stunning glacial waters. The brilliant blue waters of the Lake provide the perfect foreground to the impressive slopes and rocky peaks and crevices of Mount Cook – probably one of the best photos you can possibly get on your travels here in New Zealand. Even Peter Jackson thought so when he used this exact scene in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy.
Take a stroll on one of the many walking tracks around the Lake or just stop and stare for a while, the Lake’s effect is simply stunning – it’s up to you.
Lake Tekapo is a good place to stop for the night or just take a breather. You will find a good variety of accommodation including everything from the world class Peppers Bluewater Resort, (the amazing views out over the Lake and surrounding mountains are just amazing to wake up to in the morning), through to holiday park, camping, and motorhome style accommodations.
Skiing is a popular activity in the winter months at Tekapo (both Roundhill and Mt Dobson ski fields are nearby), while boating, fishing and hiking are popular in the summer. Soak in the hot pools anytime of the year and don’t miss the Mount John Observatory for the most amazing views of the night sky.
Heading down out of the mountains now, you will pass through Kimbell and Fairlie on the way to the township of Geraldine. Insider tip for the Gluten Free (and the not so Gluten Free) – find the Country Cafe at Geraldine for a coffee and snack, it will make your day!
Besides the delightful Gluten Free food, Geraldine offers up a huge amount of mainstream activities; choose from horse riding, white water rafting, canyoning and kayaking through to farm tours and art galleries. There really is something for everyone.
From Geraldine you can take the inland ‘scenic’ route and pass alongside Peel Forest, Mount Somers, Alford Forest and Mount Hutt. Taking in some of the iconic South Island hill country before heading eastward through Darfield, Kirwee and West Melton to Christchurch.
Book in a Hot Air Ballooning trip just out of Glentunnel, try your hand at Clay Bird Shooting at the Terrace Downs Resort near Windwhistle or take a bit of a day trip to the middle of nowhere to Erewhon Station and enjoy a unique Clydesdale saddle or wagon ride across some of New Zealand’s best high country.
Jump on State Highway 1 from Geraldine and head on out cross the Canterbury Plains through Ashburton, Rakaia and Rolleston, and on to Christchurch. Both options provide a slightly different take on the trip, with the more direct SH1 route knocking about 30 minutes off the trip – useful if you need to make a flight or return your rental car on time.
Arriving in Christchurch you will find plenty of things to do and places to stay. The Garden City is the perfect place to spend some time relaxing and unwinding after your Queenstown to Christchurch road trip. See here for the best Christchurch attractions and activities.