Going on a road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown is one of the best ways to see some of the best scenery that New Zealand’s South Island has to offer, no matter the time of year.
In this post, we are covering the best places to stop and stay from Christchurch to Queenstown. We go from the mountains and stary night sky of Canterbury, through the deserts of Central Otago, ending in the iconic landscapes of Queenstown.
All the spots in this New Zealand guide can be visited in just 3 days!
Continue reading to discover some of the most striking places in New Zealand.
After landing in Christchurch, pick up your rental car and hit the road! We highly recommend using Omega Rentals to hire your car. They have amazing prices (some rental companies are exorbitant!), great insurance options and their staff are so friendly! They allow you to drop the car off in Queenstown.
The first stop on this road trip is Caste Hill, which is about an hour and a half drive outside of Queenstown. The drive itself is stunning with plains turning into dramatic mountains. If it is super foggy in Christchurch, you may be lucky enough to witness the fog clearing to reveal blue skies and white-capped mountains before reaching Castle Hill.
Castle Hill is a stunning valley, made up of seemingly impossible rock formations surrounded by towering mountains. It was deemed one of the spiritual capitals of the world by the Dalai Lama. Geologists believe the rocks have been formed over millions of years of water and wind erosion, while others speculate the rock formations are manmade remnants of an incredibly ancient civilisation.
Either way, Castle Hill is a truly unique and remarkable place to visit in New Zealand. You could explore the valleys and different rocks for hours.
The next spot on our New Zealand road trip is the famous Lake Tekapo. Lake Tekapo is arguably the most beautiful place in New Zealand, with a bright blue lake framed by Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. In November/December the beauty is amplified by lupins and surrounding lavender fields.
Lake Tekapo and the surrounding towns are the perfect places to rest your head for a couple of nights as there is so much to explore in this area!
Star Gazing in the Mackenzie Basin
Lake Tekapo is located in the Mackenzie Basin which is one of the biggest dark sky reserves in the world. This area is world-famous for stargazing and seeing the beautiful Milky Way Galaxy rising behind the mountains and lake.
If you are lucky enough to visit Tekapo when the sky is clear, you will be treated to a dazzling display of beautiful stars. If you are into night sky photography, Tekapo and the surrounding areas in the Mackenzie Basin is one of the best places in the world to capture iconic shots of our night sky.
Lake Tekapo is also home to the Dark Sky Project, which is an awesome observatory. They run daily tours where you can learn all about astronomy and the history of the observatory. On clear nights they also run a stargazing tour, where they take you to a special mountaintop observatory where you can look through some of the best telescopes in the country!
Tasman Lake is a stunning place to visit from Tekapo. Tasman Lake is an hour and 15 minutes from Tekapo. The drive itself takes you all the way around Lake Pukaki. The scenery of just this drive will take your breath away.
The winding lakeside roads with Mt Cook towering in front of you is unforgettable! You will constantly be pulling over to take 1000s of photos. Once you reach the Tasman lake car park you will have to walk for 25 minutes to reach the lake.
Tasman lake is famous for having icebergs in it all year round. The icebergs are there as a result of Tasman Glacier which is a receding glacier that is constantly creating icebergs for the lake. If you like to test how brave you are in cold water, this is the place to do it!
Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is known as the best short hike in New Zealand. This track is in the shadow of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook. As the track leads you closer to Mt Cook it will loom larger above!
The hike is a 10km return walk through the jaw-dropping Hooker Valley in the Mount Cook National Park. You will be surrounded by spectacular views of mountains, tussock grasses, rivers and lakes throughout the well-graded trail. The trail ends at the milky, glacial Hooker Lake which features more icebergs and a view of Mt Cook.
It is easy to see why this has been named the best half-day hike in New Zealand! It is easy to access and rewards you with the very best of New Zealand nature. The hike is well paved and mostly flat making it relatively easy.
The Hooker Valley track starts an hours drive from Tekapo and is just 15 minutes from Tasman Lake, meaning you can do this hike and visit Tasman Lake at the same time.
If the weather isn’t on your side and exploring the Tekapo region is limited, head to Tekapo Springs. They ahs 4 outdoor hot pools with stunning views over the lake and mountains. They also have a sauna, steam room and spa if you feel like indulging and relaxing after being in the elements.
Tekapo Springs also offers a guided stargazing and hot pool tour! What a way to keep warm while admiring the sky.
Twizel is a small town in the heart of the Mackenzie Basin. Surrounded by tussocks, farmland and mountains, Twizel is a quiet and remote place to rest and enjoy the serenity of the landscape.
Twizel offers a range of unique farm stays and accommodation, making this an amazing place to stay for a couple of nights while you enjoy the surrounding areas.
We highly recommend Highlands Farm Stay which has a few cabins and barns dotted around their remote farm to stay in. There are incredible views, it is quiet and private and each room has its own private outdoor bathtubs where you can stargaze in complete darkness and privacy.
The next leg of this road trip takes us from Twizel, through Central Otago and all the way to Queenstown with a number of incredible places to stop along the way.
The first stop is the Clay Cliffs. This little known spot is absolutely stunning! The dramatic, sharp rock formations of the clay cliffs look more like Turkey or Iran than New Zealand!
The Clay Cliffs are just a 40-minute drive from Twizel. They are located on privately owned land which you can enter by paying $5 to an honesty box.
From the car park, you can wander around the cliffs and also climb up into them to check the incredible cliffs from all angles. The cliffs are surrounded by bushes of red berries which just adds to the scenery. An hour is more than enough time to explore the Clay Cliffs before you get back on the road and head towards Cromwell.
The drive from Twizel to Cromwell is spectacular. One of the most striking features of this drive is going through Linids Pass and watching the landscape turn barren as you head into Central Otago.
Lindis Pass is a windy stretch of road, high up in the mountains. There are a couple of places you can pull over to enjoy the epic views of the tussock grass-covered hills and snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Mt Difficulty Vineyard
Mt Difficulty is one of the premier vineyards in Central Otago. They are famous for their Pinot Noir! The vineyard and restaurant are located just outside Cromwell.
The views are stunning! The landscape in this area is one of the most surprising features as it looks more like Arizona! This kind of dry and harsh climate is perfect for making the best wine.
Enjoy a lavish lunch and wine tasting at this stunning vineyard before getting back on the road. Don’t forget to take a bottle of wine home with you!
Cromwell to Clyde
Clyde is a small historic town 20 minutes from Cromwell. The drive from Cromwell to Clyde is one of the most stunning, surprising and unique drives in the country!
The road follows the man-made Clutha River, created as a result of the Clyde Dam. It winds between a valley of rocky red and brown mountains rising from a blue clear river. You will not believe you are in New Zealand on this stretch of road, you might as well be on Mars.
Just before you reach Clyde you can have a look at the impressive dam from the lookout. Have a stroll through the sleepy streets of Clyde, which is one of the cutest small towns in New Zealand.
Recently a cycle trail opened from Cromwell to Clyde which allow you to enjoy the spectacular views at a slower pace.
The last stop on this road trip is Queenstown. Queenstown is New Zealand premier travel destination with stunning lake and mountains views, buzzing nightlife, incredible restaurants and endless amounts of extreme activities to indulge in.
Whether you want to ski, jetboat, Bungy jump, skydive or go on a helicopter ride, this is the place to do it!
There are a ton of incredible accommodation options to choose from for every budget. Some of New Zealand’s best restaurants, bars and cafes are on offer in Queenstown. We love Madam Woo, White & Wong, Vudu Cafe, The Cow, Public Kitchen and Bar and of course, Ferg Burger.
Other must-do activities include the luxurious (and Instagram worthy) Onsen Hot Pools (book well in advance), strolling through picturesque Arrowtown and sipping on arguably the best Pinot Noir at Amisfield Vinyard.
Before heading home, drop off the rental car and head to Queenstown airport for one of the most scenic flights in the country.
When to visit
The scenery is stunning in this part of New Zealand no matter the time of year. If you are a skier or snowboarding June to August is the best time to visit. If you want to see the famous lupin flowers head here from November to December. The weather in Central Otago gets very hot during the summer months so Spring and Autumn are amazing times to visit.
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