Following Fiona contains affiliate links which may earn me a commission for any bookings at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. Check out the Privacy Policy for more information.

Best Queenstown to Mount Cook Road Trip (2024 Guide)

The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most stunning places in the world, and road trips are the perfect way to see the best of what New Zealand has to offer.

For this trip, I’m even offering 2 for the (free) price of 1! There are two main routes between Queenstown and Mt Cook. You can either travel via Cromwell or through Wanaka. These routes converge at the Lindis Pass. 

I’m going to outline the best stops for the first half of each route, and then the second half will be the same for both routes. You could even then do a round trip and choose the other option on your way back from Mount Cook to Queenstown. 

Queenstown is one of my favourite places, and the road between this adventure-packed town and New Zealand’s highest mountain is a pretty spectacular one. 

DID YOU KNOW: The official name of the mountain is actually Aoraki/Mt Cook, incorporating both the Maori and European names.

I also highly recommend spending a few days in Queenstown. Whether you want to relax at one of the local wineries or experience the thrills of jetboating, skydiving and more, Queenstown is the place to do it. 

Turquoise blue lake with snow capped mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook, behind the lake on an overcast day

Preparing for the Journey

Embarking on a journey from the majestic Mount Cook to the vibrant and adventure-filled Queenstown is an experience that promises not only scenic beauty but also an array of exciting activities to indulge in.

Before you set off on this memorable road trip, here are a few pointers to ensure you are well-prepared for the adventure that awaits.

Best Time to Visit

First things first, let’s talk about when to visit. While New Zealand is a year-round destination, the period from December to February, which is the summer season, offers warm weather and clear skies, making it a great time to explore the outdoors. 

If you’re a winter enthusiast, the months of June to August will greet you with snowy landscapes, perfect for skiing or snowboarding in the region. 

If, however, you are visiting in deepest, darkest winter the Wanaka option may not be possible. The reason for this is the Crown Range Road, which is steep and also has several switchbacks/hairpin turns. 

If the roads are wet or icy, you should consider the Cromwell option, especially if you are an inexperienced driver. If you do decide to take the Crown Range Road, make sure you check the road reports in advance and carry snow chains with you. 

Remember, the goal is to experience the journey at a time when you can make the most of what both Mount Cook and Queenstown have to offer. 

Queenstown with mountains in the background and a person paragliding with a yellow parachute

Essential Packing Tips

Packing can often be a bit of a puzzle, especially when you’re planning to indulge in a variety of activities. Here’s a little guidance to help you pack just right:

1. Clothing: Layering is key. Be sure to pack clothes that can be easily layered to accommodate the changing weather conditions.

2. Footwear: Comfortable and sturdy footwear is a must, given the amount of walking and hiking you might be doing.

3. Accessories: Don’t forget a good pair of sunglasses and a hat to protect yourself from the sun.

4. Sunscreen: New Zealand has very high UV levels, so it’s important to make sure that you use sun protection year-round, 

Transportation

When it comes to travelling from Queenstown to Mount Cook, you’ve got a few options to consider. Renting a car or a campervan gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace, stopping at the many scenic spots along the way. 

For the best deals, book your rental car at DiscoverCars. Just make sure you cross-reference their rental company ratings with Google reviews to make sure you’ll get great service as well as a great price.

If you prefer to sit back and enjoy the view, there are also day tours you can take, however, I wouldn’t generally recommend this unless you are unable to rent a car. If renting isn’t an option, then have a look at this tour. 

Book your day tour from Queenstown to Mount Cook here.

People walking along a pathway by a lake shore. There are mountains in the background, bushes and trees to the left and a few clouds in the sky

Queenstown to Mount Cook Routes

Queenstown

Queenstown is such a significant destination in New Zealand that it deserves multiple posts all to itself. So, in that spirit I’ve already got detailed posts on things to do in Queenstown, places to stay, the best day trips from Queenstown, and a comparison of Queenstown and Auckland.

It’s a location I highly recommend for the huge range of activities and stunning scenery, and should be on every visitor’s New Zealand itinerary.

Route 1: Wanaka

This route is the more scenic of the two but will take longer and is more susceptible to adverse weather conditions. Generally speaking, this is the one to go for unless your circumstances make it problematic.

Lake Hayes

Lake Hayes is the first stop for both routes, located just before the routes split.

In the right conditions, Lake Hayes is a great example of a mirror lake. Thanks to the position of the lake in relation to the mountains, you’ll get very different images depending on where you stand. A perfect place to enjoy a coffee before you continue on your journey. 

The lake’s circuit, a popular walking and cycling track, is a great option if you have more than one day to do this journey with time to spare for hiking along the way. 

Lake Hayes is also a haven for bird enthusiasts, home to a variety of bird species along its shores.

Arrowtown

Arrowtown is a remnant of New Zealand’s once-lucrative gold rush. This historic gold mining town has been redeveloped and restored and is now a popular place to visit from Queenstown.

As you wander through the town, you’ll find a variety of boutique shops offering a range of unique and artisan products, from handcrafted jewellery to bespoke clothing. The town also has several restaurants and cafes.

Make sure you stop by the historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement to discover the experiences and living conditions of Chinese immigrants hoping to make their fortune in the gold rush. 

Arrowtown is also a gateway to some stunning natural landscapes. The nearby walking trails lead you through breathtaking scenery, offering a tranquil escape into nature. 

Winding road through mountains on a cloudy day. The Crown Range Road is a beautiful route for a Queenstown to Mount Cook road trip but should be avoided in icy conditions

Crown Range Road

This is the kind of road I love – winding back and forth with a decent incline to get the best scenic views. This road is also the main reason why this route may not be suitable in Winter.

It’s fantastic to drive in good weather, but personally, I’d never attempt it if the road is slippery or icy. 

Take a quick pause at the Arrow Junction Lookout Point for views back over the farms and mountains. 

Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout

Further up the road you’ll reach the Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout. The views are amazing, but what you’ll see will be very much weather-dependent. 

You might get clear views over the mountains. You might even find that there are clouds in the valley below you, with mountain summits visible in breaks between clouds. 

This lookout has much more space for parking compared to Arrow Junction Lookout so you can easily spend a few minutes enjoying the views. 

Crown Range Summit

A short distance further up the road you’ll find the Crown Range Road Summit. Another great place to pause for those mountain views. 

Athe the summit of the Crown Range Road you’ll be at the top of the highest sealed road in New Zealand – an altitude of 3500ft. Not quite as extreme as the altitudes of roads in America’s Rocky Mountain National Park, but still plenty high enough for beautiful mountain views. 

If you are trying to be efficient in your driving then you may not want to stop at both the scenic lookout and the summit, but it’s useful to know that there are two similarly sized stops so that if one is full you still have a backup option. 

Cardrona

Established in the 1860s during the gold rush, the Cardrona Hotel is one of New Zealand’s oldest and most photographed establishments. 

As you step inside you’ll find rustic interiors that exude a warm and welcoming ambiance. It’s a place where you can enjoy a hearty meal by the fireside or relax in the beer garden, which offers a picturesque setting with its majestic mountain backdrop.

But Cardrona is not just about its historic hotel. The valley is also home to the renowned Cardrona Alpine Resort, a paradise for winter sports enthusiasts. Whether you’re a seasoned skier or a snowboarding novice, the resort offers a range of slopes to suit all levels of expertise.

So, whether you’re stopping by for a quick look around the hotel or even spending a night or two here for skiing, Cardrona is a great stop on the route from Queenstown to Mount Cook. 

The lonely Wanaka willow tree growing out from the lake waters by the shore of Lake Wanaka

Wanaka

Wanaka, sitting on the shore of Lake Wanaka, is a very popular destination for visitors to the South Island.

Walk along the lake shore to make the most of the mountain views. Go and find ‘that Wanaka tree’, a lone willow tree growing out of the lake’s waters. It’s one of the most photographed trees in the country, and just a short walk from the town centre. 

If you want to split the journey into two days, this is probably the best place to spend a night. It has lots of restaurants to choose from, activities including jetboating and skydiving, and lots of stunning scenery. There are also lots of hiking trails to choose from near Wanaka. 

If you are travelling with kids, or are just a big kid yourself, stop by Puzzling World. This museum is dedicated to optical illusions and puzzles, and has its very own Leaning Tower of Wanaka!

If you have more days to spare, then Wanaka is also one of the entry points for one of the main routes into Mount Aspiring National Park. If you decide to hike the famous Routeburn Track, you’ll likely find yourself in Wanaka. 

Once you leave Wanaka the route will head towards Lindis Pass, where it merges with the alternative route below. 

Route 2: Cromwell

Lake Hayes

Just as in route 1, before the road splits take a quick pause at Lake Hayes, or even take a longer walk around the lake for those classic mountain views.

A bridge over a bright blue river with a person doing a bungy jump. There are trees and shrubs along the river banks and in the background.

Kawarau Gorge

Kawarau Gorge is most famous for the bridge on which the world’s first commercial bungy jump started. Make a quick stop by the bridge to watch someone make their jump, or even have a go yourself if you are feeling up to it. 

There are also a few walking trails by the bridge for those who prefer nature over extreme sports. 

Gibbston Valley

A short way up the road from Kawarau Bridge you’ll enter Gibbston Valley, famous for its wineries. The most well-known of the wineries in Gibbston is Gibbston Valley Winery. If your designated driver doesn’t mind, stop in for a wine tasting and perhaps buy a bottle or two to take home. There’s also a restaurant at the winery, and even a luxury lodge. 

The wines produced in this area are generally priced at the higher end of the scale, so a tasting session is a great way to try a winery’s offerings without buying an expensive bottle. Gibbston is a very popular area for wine tastings so if this is something you want to do it is often worth booking a session in advance.

Gibbston Valley Winery Tasting

Peregrine Wines

Mt Rosa Wines

Roaring Meg

The Roaring Meg Lookout gives some great views of the Kawarau River, which at this point on the river has some faster-flowing water. The power of the rapids made this an ideal spot for a hydroelectric power plant, and there are a few signs around to give you some history about this part of the region.

It’s not somewhere you are likely to spend a long time at, but as you will be driving directly past the lookout it’s a good place to stop for some photos, especially when under the right conditions the water is a very bright blue.

Cromwell

Cromwell is a town known for its fruitful contributions to the country’s agriculture sector, particularly in stone fruit production. The town has a fruit sculpture to commemorate its role in the industry. Established during the gold rush in the 1860s, it has a rich history intertwined with gold mining, which is showcased in the preserved historic precinct of Old Cromwell Town.

The town is strategically located at the junction of two major rivers, Clutha and Kawarau, offering a range of water-based recreational activities. Cromwell also serves as a gateway to several ski fields and conservation areas, making it a popular base for tourists exploring the wider Central Otago region. 

It’s also home to several wineries, including the Wooing Tree Winery. The locally famous tree has been the site of many a marriage proposal, and the vineyard is arranged so the tree sits surrounded by rows of vines.

They are currently developing a new Cellar Door tasting room which will be open sometime in 2024. They sell a selection of wines, but my favourite is Tickled Pink. While I’m not usually a fan of sweet wines, this fruity dessert wine is one I’ll be picking up a bottle of next time I’m in the vicinity. 

Lindis Pass to Mt Cook

At this point the Wanaka and Cromwell Routes converge to take the Lindis Pass. The road through Lindis Pass, State Highway 8, is one of the main routes connecting the regions of Otago and Canterbury.

The pass varies dramatically according to season. During the summer months, travellers can see a proliferation of tussock grasses that dominate the landscape. In contrast, the winter season often sees the pass covered in a layer of snow, requiring motorists to exercise caution due to potentially slippery conditions.

For those interested in geological formations, the pass offers a glimpse into the ancient schist rock formations that are characteristic of this region. These rocks, formed over millions of years, present a rugged and raw beauty that is a testament to New Zealand’s geological history.

Visitors travelling through the pass will find several designated viewpoints where they can safely park and take in the expansive views of the surrounding area. It’s also a popular spot for photography, with many capturing the undulating landscape that characterises this route.

Golden brown grass covered peaks in Lindis Pass on a dark cloudy day

Lindis Pass Summit Viewpoint

The Lindis Pass Lookout is a designated stopping point for travellers making their way through the Lindis Pass. The lookout offers an opportunity to observe the unique topography of the region.

There is a small parking area allowing visitors to safely stop and take a break from their journey. It is a popular spot for travellers to stretch their legs, take photographs, and appreciate the geological features visible from this vantage point.

Additionally, the lookout serves as a starting point for several walking trails that lead into the surrounding hills. These trails offer a closer look at the native flora and fauna of the region, including the tussock grasslands that dominate the landscape, especially during the summer months.

Omarama Hot Tubs

The Omarama Hot Tubs are a popular tourist attraction located in the small township of Omarama. This facility offers private hot tub experiences, where visitors can soak in fresh mountain water that is sourced directly from the surrounding alpine environment.

Each hot tub is situated in an individual enclosure, providing privacy and a direct view of the stunning natural scenery. The water in the tubs is not treated with chemicals, maintaining its natural purity. 

Visitors have the option to control the temperature of the water to their preference, ensuring a comfortable and personalised experience. Apart from the hot tub experience, you can also add on a sauna session.

Before visiting, it is recommended to make a booking through their official website, as the facility operates on a reservation-only basis to maintain the quality of service.

Omarama Clay Cliffs

The Omarama Clay Cliffs are a notable geological formation located near the town of Omarama. 

The cliffs are made up of layers of gravel and silt, deposited by glaciers over a million years ago. Erosion by wind and water over thousands of years has sculpted these deposits into sharp pinnacles and deep ravines, creating a dramatic and rugged landscape that attracts visitors and photographers alike.

The site is accessible via a gravel road, which means your car will be very dusty by the end! A short walk from the parking area takes you to the base of the cliffs.

Visitors are encouraged to exercise caution while exploring the area, as the cliffs can be unstable and prone to erosion.

These cliffs are privately owned, and a $5 fee per car is charged for access to help maintain the road and the surrounding area. Note – the fee can only be paid with cash, and there aren’t any toilet facilities on site.

It is a bit of a detour from the main highway, and if you aren’t interested in geology and rock formations you might want to skip it, 

Lavender fields with bright purple flowers, with gree fields, hay bales and mountains in the background

Twizel

Twizel is a town that was originally established in the 1960s to house workers involved in the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme, a series of hydroelectric power stations. Post the completion of the project, the town transitioned into a service centre for the surrounding farming community and a base for outdoor recreational activities.

Situated near the picturesque Lake Ruataniwha, Twizel offers a range of water-based activities including rowing, sailing, and fishing.

You can also find one of the largest lavender farms in the Southern Hemisphere in Twizel – New Zealand Alpine Lavender. From soaps to chocolates, if you are a fan of lavender products then this is the place to stop by for a bit of shopping. It’s not a year-round destination so make sure you visit their website to check opening times. 

The town is also a part of the International Dark Sky Reserve, offering excellent opportunities for stargazing due to the low levels of light pollution in the area. Moreover, Twizel is known for its cycle trails, including the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, which offers a scenic route from the mountains to the sea.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki is one of the real highlights of this route. The lake is a very distinctive turquoise blue.

If you see photos of the lake you might think that people have gone a bit too far with their edits, but it really is a very bright blue. The colour comes from finely ground rock particles, known as glacial flour, suspended in the water. 

Covering an area of approximately 178 square kilometres, the lake is fed by the Tasman and Hooker rivers, which originate from the glaciers in the surrounding Southern Alps.

The lake’s surroundings are home to several well-marked walking and cycling trails that provide opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the region.

At the southern end of the lake you’ll find a visitors centre with parking, toilets and information. One of the standout features of the lake is its unobstructed views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak.

Bight blue lake with snow capped mountain in the background

Mount Cook Road Lookouts

There are several stopping points for photos along Mount Cook Road, so give yourself enough time to enjoy the views, especially on clear days.

If you pass by a scenic viewpoint that is full, it won’t be long before you come across another. There are plenty of places to pause and take photos of New Zealand’s tallest mountain – Aoraki Mount Cook. 

Buildings in a valley making up Mount Cook Village with a road leading in

Mount Cook Village

Mount Cook Village, situated within the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, serves as the primary base for visitors exploring the highest peak in the country.

The village is located at an altitude of approximately 760 meters, providing close proximity to the towering mountain ranges that dominate the landscape.

The village is home to a small permanent population, with the majority of the buildings serving as accommodation facilities, ranging from hostels to luxury lodges, catering to a diverse range of tourists. 

The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, located within the village, offers insightful exhibitions on the region’s natural history and mountaineering heritage, including a tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary himself, one of the first two men to reach Mount Everest’s summit.

For those keen on exploring the outdoors, the village serves as a starting point for numerous walking tracks and hiking trails that venture into the surrounding alpine environment.

These trails offer varying levels of difficulty, catering to both casual walkers and experienced hikers, and the most well-known is the Hooker Valley track.

Mount Cook Village also provides access to guided tours and adventure activities, including scenic flights that offer aerial views of the Southern Alps, and glacier explorations that allow visitors to witness the grandeur of the Tasman Glacier, the largest glacier in New Zealand.

Accommodation

Queenstown with buildings along the shore of a bright blue lake. There are mountains in the background and a few clouds in the sky

Queenstown Accommodation

For a full range of accommodation options in Queenstown, have a look at my dedicated post, but you can also see a few suggestions below.

Budget: Absoloot Hostel

Mid Range: Chalet Queenstown

Luxury: QT Queenstown

Wanaka Accommodation

Budget: Altamont Lodge

Mid Range: West Meadows Wanaka

Twizel Accommodation

Budget: Twizel Holiday Park

Mid Range: Sky Suites

Luxury: Matuka Lodge

Mount Cook Accommodation

Mount Cook Village is both small and popular, so options are limited and expensive in the village itself. The Mount Cook YHA is undergoing renovations until April 2024 which would otherwise be the best budget option.

Aoraki Court is a good choice but still quite expensive. If you do stay in the village make sure you book well in advance. Otherwise, your best option would be to return to Twizel for the night.

Final Thoughts

From the tranquil shores of Lake Pukaki to the vibrant streets of Queenstown, every stop on this Queenstown to Mount Cook Road Trip offers a unique experience, and a chance to create memories that will last a lifetime. And while I’ve shared with you a guide to navigating this journey, remember, the true essence of travel lies in the unexpected moments, the spontaneous detours, and the joy of discovering the unknown.

As someone who has had the privilege of exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful region, I encourage you to take the time to enjoy some of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand’s South Island.

For more New Zealand Road Trips, try Picton to Queenstown, Christchurch to Auckland, or a 14 Day New Zealand Itinerary.

Please Share!