The drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook is one of the most popular journeys on New Zealand’s South Island. From the South Island’s biggest city you’ll head inland towards its tallest mountain, with heaps to see in between.
Driving from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook
If you drove the whole way with the bare minimum of stops you’re looking at a four-hour drive to Mount Cook. Christchurch to Lake Tekapo should take around three hours. Seeing as you’re reading this I’m guessing you’re keen on a few stops, and I’ve got you covered on that front.
Christchurch to Geraldine
Google Maps is telling me that the quickest way from Christchurch to Geraldine is through Rakaia and Ashburton, but you’d miss out on some good stuff going that way. Add another 20 minutes to your journey and you’ll pass through Windwhistle, and the nearby Rakaia Gorge Walkway. It’s a beautiful walk and isn’t too challenging.
You’ve also got Washpen Falls nearby as well as Mount Hutt, the most popular ski field in these parts and Lake Coleridge, where you’ll find the Peak Hill Track — one of the better day walks in the area. You could also visit Castle Hill, but that’s more of a detour.
From there you can take Inland Scenic Route 72 towards Mt Somers. At that junction you can head towards the Ashburton Lakes / Hakatere Scenic Reserve for some spectacular views.
Drive all the way to Mount Sunday and you’ll be treated to one of top Lord of the Rings filming locations in New Zealand. Hakatere / Mount Sunday is quite the detour, which is great if you have a day or two to explore the area. You could stay in nearby Methven for a night, or see the Ashburton lakes then stay in Geraldine before carrying on to Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook.
Geraldine is a great place to stop for the night. There are lots of places to eat, drink and sleep and it’s a short drive from Peel Forest, where you’ll find some short walks to waterfalls as well as a mountain to climb (Mount Peel).
Geraldine to Fairlie
There isn’t much to see between Geraldine and Fairlie, but just before reaching Fairlie you can take a detour to Lake Opuha. We went there in winter and were really impressed with the views.
Fairlie is kind of similar to Geraldine — a small town with not much to do, but plenty of accommodation and food options. Lake Tekapo can be expensive, so if you’re on a budget Fairlie could be worth staying in. These days Fairlie is best known for its pies — a stop at Fairlie Bakehouse is always on the cards for us when travelling through and it never disappoints!
Fairlie to Lake Tekapo
It only takes around 30 minutes to drive from Fairlie to Lake Tekapo. There aren’t too many views or places to stop along the way aside from Burkes Pass, a small historic town with some nice old buildings and a cool shopping area full of vintage gifts.
Lake Tekapo is the name given to both the town and the lake, and it’s pretty iconic in New Zealand. The lake is beautiful and a very short walk from everywhere in town.
Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook
One of the most scenic stretches of road in New Zealand takes you from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook. Shortly after leaving Lake Tekapo you’ll come to Lake Pukaki, probably the “bluest” large lake in New Zealand. There are heaps of places to pull over and enjoy the views.
Eventually you’ll turn off the main road and start heading towards Mount Cook. Called Aoraki in Māori, it’s the tallest mountain in New Zealand and also one of the most photogenic.
I wrote a post about the road to Mount Cook so won’t go into much detail here. The highlights include roadside views, the detour to Tasman Glacier and the walking tracks at the end of the road (Kea Point, Hooker Valley).
It should take around three hours to drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo (four to Mount Cook) without stops. Add in 20-30 minutes for the detour to the Rakaia Gorge Walkway and a few hours for walks, food and sightseeing and you’ll have a full travel day. If you have more time you should spend a night or two in the area. The Hakatere Scenic Reserve, as well as Lake Coleridge is fun to explore, and is a bit more off the beaten path than places like Mount Cook and Queenstown.
READ MORE: South Island Travel Guide
Whether you’ve got a few hours or a few days, you should find plenty to keep you busy on the drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook!
Driving Map: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook
Note: Some of the roads in this region close occasionally because of snow, especially in winter and spring. Check out the Waka Kotahi site for information on closures and weather warnings.
Are you planning a road trip around New Zealand? Check out our two-week South Island itinerary!
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