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Ultimate Picton To Queenstown Road Trip

The West Coast is often overlooked when planning road trips through New Zealand‘s South Island. Most South Island itineraries will take you from Picton down the East Coast then south-west through Tekapo and Omarama.

While it is the more obvious route just looking at a map, it misses some of the best parts of the South Island.

Having spent a lot of time exploring the South Island, I’m recommending something different.

Instead, this Picton to Queenstown road trip route takes you across Arthur’s Pass, to see the best of both the East and West coasts of the South Island.

One of the main attractions on the West Coast is its glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Visitors can take guided hikes or even helicopter rides for an unforgettable experience. These natural wonders are some of the most famous sights in New Zealand, but a straightforward drive from Picton to Queenstown misses them entirely.

This route is less obvious but more comprehensive, providing the best South Island road trip from Picton.

A map of the Picton to Queenstown Road Trip Route.

Picton to Queenstown Road Trip Route

Stop 1 – Picton and Blenheim

Picton is located at the top of the South Island. It’s known for its picturesque harbour and beautiful landscapes that provide the perfect backdrop for hiking, cycling, or just strolling around town.

If you’ve arrived in Picton by taking the ferry from Wellington, then you will already have enjoyed visiting the Marlborough Sounds. Kayaking is another option for exploring the coastline and waters around the northern tip of the South Island.

Meanwhile, Blenheim is famous for its location in a world-renowned wine region that produces some of the country’s best Sauvignon Blanc wines. Join a tour or hire a bike to visit a few of the local wineries and relax with a glass of wine while enjoying views of the vines.

βœ… If you are staying in Blenheim, this full-day wine-tasting tour around Marlborough will pick you up from your hotel.

Drive from Picton to Blenheim – 25 minutes, 17 miles

Boats at Picton Harbour with hills and mountains behind.

Where To Stay in Blenheim

In order to enjoy the local wineries without any driving concerns, it is best to stay in a central location and join a tour or hire a bike.

πŸ“Lugano Motor Home is in a good location for a reasonable price.

πŸ“For a 5-star luxury option, book a room at 14th Lane Urban Hotel

Stop 2 – Kaikoura

Leave Blenheim and head south on State Highway 1 to begin your road trip from Picton to Queenstown. This 80-mile drive down the east coast will provide some stunning ocean views. Around an hour into your drive, you’ll pass by a black sand beach.

Another 30 minutes down the road will bring you to Ohau Point lookout – a great place to pause and see if you can spot some seals.

Kaikoura is synonymous with whale and dolphin watching. There are resident and visiting marine mammals in the waters off of Kaikoura year-round, so you may be able to spot sperm whales, humpback whales, orcas and dolphins during your visit.

βœ… This whale-watching tour is very popular so book in advance. Depending on the time of year the tour start times change and so you may need to do this the morning after you arrive in Kaikoura.

The town itself exudes a laid-back charm, with its welcoming locals, vibrant arts scene, and seafood cuisine. From exploring charming seaside villages to indulging in fresh seafood delicacies, Kaikoura offers a unique and memorable experience beyond its famous whale-watching opportunities.

Drive from Blenheim to Kaikoura – 1hr 45mins, 80 miles

A pod of dolphins jumping through bright blue water in Kaikoura bay

Where To Stay in Kaikoura

πŸ“ Kaikoura Gateway Motor Lodge is close to the beach and several restaurants.

πŸ“ Te Mahuru Lodge is a short drive away from Kaikoura and has stunning mountain views.

Stop 3 – Christchurch

Rejoining State Highway 1 in Kaikoura, continue south until you reach Christchurch. Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand. It is home to numerous attractions such as the Canterbury Museum, which houses an extensive collection of Maori artefacts.

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens located in the heart of the city offer visitors a chance to relax amidst beautiful flowers and trees. If you are interested in wildlife conservation and rehabilitation programs, then visiting Orana Wildlife Park is highly recommended.

The International Antarctic Centre, home to a group of Little Blue Penguins under specialist care, and Christchurch Gondola are also worth checking out if you can spare a full day in the city.

Little Blue Penguines sitting on rocks at the International Antarctic Centre

Apart from natural wonders and cultural attractions, Christchurch has excellent food scenes with plenty of restaurants and cafes to choose from. You can indulge in local delicacies or international cuisines while enjoying fantastic views across the Pacific.

Drive from Kaikoura to Christchurch – 2hrs 20mins, 112 miles

Where To Stay in Christchurch

πŸ“The Mayfair is in the centre of Christchurch and a luxury option if you want to splash out.

πŸ“Tuscana Motor Lodge is a great mid-range option.

πŸ“If you are on a tight budget, try YHA Christchurch which includes female-only dorm rooms – great for solo female travellers.

Stop 4 – Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth

Otira Viaduct, part of the Arthur's Pass road through the mountains with clouds just above the road.

Now you’ll be leaving the more obvious route south, and head north-west from Christchurch towards Greymouth. Following State Highway 73, you’ll head directly through the mountains that run the length of the South Island – the Southern Alps.

If you have a few days to spare and enjoy hiking, there are plenty of trails to be found along this route. Otherwise, take plenty of stops to appreciate the stunning views of snow-capped mountains, forests and rivers.

Arthur’s Pass is also an excellent place to spot Kea – an endangered species of parrot native to New Zealand. These parrots are distinguished by the olive green feathers that cover most of their body, apart from a section of bright orange feathers under their wings which can be spotted during flight.

Tip: The road through Arthur’s Pass is very steep and narrow in places, so exercise caution in wind, rain and snow. Be especially cautious between May and October during the New Zealand winter – this road can be closed if conditions become dangerous, and you will need to carry snow chains during those months.

Once you reach Greymouth, you can take advantage of its prime location by exploring the nearby beaches, hiking trails, and national parks. One must-see attraction is the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, where visitors can witness geysers shooting up to 20 meters high from blowholes in limestone cliffs.

For those interested in learning about Greymouth’s past, there are museums showcasing artefacts from both its Maori and European settlement days.

Drive from Christchurch to Greymouth – 3hrs, 150 miles

Where To Stay In Greymouth

πŸ“Alpine Rose Motel is highly rated and reasonably priced.

πŸ“ Global Village Travellers Lodge has budget-friendly dorms, including female-only options.

Stop 5 – Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

Blue tinted ice glaciers in a mountain valley

Franz Josef town is a picturesque village nestled in the heart of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. It serves as the gateway to the magnificent Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.

Despite its small size, the town offers a range of amenities and services to cater to the needs of visitors. From cozy accommodations and charming cafes to adventure tour operators and souvenir shops, Franz Josef town provides a warm and welcoming atmosphere.

If you’re an adventurer at heart and love to explore the great outdoors, then you absolutely must visit Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in New Zealand. Both glaciers are stunning and offer unique opportunities for hiking, ice climbing, helicopter tours, and much more.

The Fox Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world as it starts high up in the mountains before winding its way down into a valley. Visitors can gaze upon this wonder from close quarters by taking guided hikes along the glacier’s terminal face. The Franz Josef Glacier is equally breathtaking with its iconic blue ice formations that have been sculpted over centuries.

βœ… Book a helicopter tour here to get the best views of the glaciers.

Drive from Greymouth to Franz Josef – 2hrs, 107 miles

Where to stay in Franz Josef

πŸ“58 On Cron Motel is good value for money in a beautiful location.

πŸ“Glow Worm Accommodations is a highly-rated hostel with dorm room options and a hot tub.

Stop 6 – Wanaka

Wanaka, a small town located on New Zealand’s South Island, is known for its spectacular natural scenery and outdoor activities. Nestled in the heart of the Southern Alps, Wanaka offers visitors breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear lakes. It’s an ideal destination for those who enjoy hiking, skiing, or just soaking up the beauty of nature.

The beautiful road from Franz Josef will take you along the banks of the Haast River and through the northern part of Mount Aspiring National Park.

Snow capped mountains behind green fields in Mount Aspiring National Park

The town of Wanaka itself has a relaxed vibe with many cafes and restaurants serving local cuisine. Visitors can also take advantage of many boutique shops selling unique souvenirs and artisanal products.

One popular attraction is Puzzling World – an interactive museum that challenges visitors to solve puzzles and optical illusions.

Additionally, Wanaka hosts several festivals throughout the year such as the Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow which attracts aviation enthusiasts from all over the world.

One of the best ways to experience the beauty of Wanaka is through hiking its many trails. The Roys Peak Track is a popular one, offering panoramic views over Lake Wanaka and its surrounding mountains.

Another great option is the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain Trail, which takes hikers on a scenic loop around two stunning lakes with several lookout points along the way.

Drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka – 4hrs, 176 miles

Where to Stay in Wanaka

πŸ“Fairway Motel is a midrange option with a pool.

πŸ“Head to YHA Wanaka for a good hostel option.

The Wanaka tree, a lone tree rising out of the lake with snow capped mountains in the background.

Stop 7 – Queenstown

My 15,000ft skydive with NZONE.

Queenstown is renowned for its stunning scenery and adrenaline-pumping activities. This picturesque town sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by majestic mountains, making it an ideal destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.

Trust me, I’ve done several of the adrenaline-filled options, as you can tell from my skydive video above!

Whether you’re into hiking through pristine forests or bungee jumping off a bridge, Queenstown has something to offer everyone.

One of the most popular activities in Queenstown is skiing or snowboarding at one of its four world-class resorts. The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone are all within a two-hour drive from town and offer some of the best slopes in the Southern Hemisphere.

During the summer activities such as jetboating, skydiving and paragliding become very popular.

Queenstown, in one of New Zealand’s wine regions, Central Otago, also benefits from its proximity to many wineries. If you prefer leisurely days to outdoor pursuits, then Queenstown is another great place to enjoy winetasting with spectacular views.

If you have a few days in Queenstown, then a day trip to Milford Sound is highly recommended to see one of New Zealand’s most famous natural wonders.

Driving from Wanaka to Queenstown – 1hr, 42 miles.

Yellow jet boat with people in red life jackets on a lake

Where to stay in Queenstown

Queenstown is an expensive town, and in summer it becomes very busy so make sure you book in advance. Also, many hotels in Queenstown don’t offer onsite parking so you do need to keep that in mind.

πŸ“ If you want to go all out for your last stop, check out QT Queenstown. It has beautiful rooms and an excellent ‘marketplace’ restaurant, but also a higher price tag.

πŸ“The Dairy Private Hotel is a quirky choice, and still good value for money given Queenstown’s generally elevated price range.

πŸ“YHA Queenstown Lakeside is slightly further from the town centre but a good choice for budget-conscious travellers.

For more accommodation recommendations, check out my Queenstown accommodation recommendations.

People walking along a gravel path by thr side of Lake Wakatipu at sunset with mountains in the background and clouds in the sky.

Total Distance Picton to Queenstown

This route from Picton to Queenstown is 684 miles and will take approximately 14hrs 15mins of driving time (traffic and weather dependent of course). This route could easily be done in 1 week, but additional days will give you time to enjoy hiking and other activities in each area.

Additional Days

The main attractions that you won’t see on this route are Aoraki Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo. The route that is more commonly recommended does include those sights but misses out on Arthur’s Pass, the glaciers and the road through Mount Aspiring National Park.

If you do want to see Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and Tekapo, then once you reach Wanaka then head towards the Lindis Pass and towards Lake Tekapo which will take you past the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki with views of Aoraki Mount Cook before returning down to Queenstown.

I still remember the first time I saw Lake Pukaki, appearing as I drove around a corner and so astonishingly blue that I found someone to park as soon as I could to stop and enjoy the views.

Car Hire

To hire a car for this self-drive road trip, use Discover Cars to get the best deals. Discover Cars is a marketplace that searches across all the major car hire companies and includes excellent deals on rental cars that are a few years old.

Just one extra note, the ratings of the companies listed on Discover Cars often don’t match the reviews on Google. Cross-reference to make sure you are getting both the best value and great customer service.

Tip: You may find that you can save money and have a better range of options by hiring a car in Wellington and paying to take the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton. Picton is a small town, so rental prices can be significantly higher as there is less competition between car hire companies.

Green valley with mountains in the background on a cloudy day

FAQs

Is It Difficult To Drive In New Zealand

Generally, it is fairly easy to drive in New Zealand (on the left of the road), but there are quite a few steep and winding roads which you need to be cautious on. Be extra careful in Winter if there is ice on the roads.

Can I Get Around Without A Car

Yes! Renting a car is the best option for exploring New Zealand, but if you aren’t able to drive you can get to most places via plane, coach or tours. This may make the journey slower in which case you should consider adjusting the itinerary.

Final Thoughts

This slightly unusual route showcases the best of the New Zealand South Island and makes sure you don’t miss out on some of my favourite places that other routes skip. The road trip from Picton to Queenstown is an adventure that should not be missed.

Queenstown is a fantastic place to visit so make sure you leave a couple of days at the end to make the most of it. For more ideas about what to do when you arrive in Queenstown, there are some great options for day trips in the area, as well as a variety of activities in Queenstown itself.

So pack your bags and hit the road – you won’t regret it!

Best Day Trips from Queenstown

Best Places To Stay In Queesntown

Best Things To Do in Queenstown

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