This post will show you the drive from Mount Cook to Christchurch across the New Zealand South Island.
The highlights of the Mount Cook to Christchurch drive are the two glacier lakes of Pukaki and Tekapo, the rows of snow-capped mountains and the Rakaia gorge with deep turquoise waters.
This is the last (number 9) of our New Zealand South Island posts that all together make a South Island road trip: from Christchurch to the West Coast, down to the Central Lakes and Queenstown and back to Christchurch via Crown Range and Mount Cook.
The Mount Cook to Christchurch drive, Lake Tekapo
We have been touring New Zealand in a campervan which we think is the perfect way to travel in mountain regions and vast rural areas.
A campervan gives you more flexibility: you can stop, dine and sleep where you want. There is a good choice of holiday parks and campsites in all parts of New Zealand and at most times of the year you won’t need to book your nights in advance. That makes travel easy, you don’t have to plan that much.
To read about our whole trip, click here: New Zealand South Island Road Trip in 11 Days
Now we will see what the last 366 km of our great South Island drive were like. First we will put our driving itinerary on the map:
Mount Cook to Christchurch Drive: the Map
Map of the drive from Mount Cook to Christchurch
The map shows our Mount Cook to Christchurch driving itinerary. As the map shows, we didn’t take the shortest road via Ashburton at the end of the drive, but the upper Canterbury Highlands route. That’s a route that goes through a green region of snowy mountains rolling hills.
Here it is, we started the last section of our campervanning trip from the top of the South Island, Aoraki Mount Cook:
Aoraki Mount Cook
Mount Cook, 3754 m
This is the majestic Aoraki Mount Cook. With its 3754 m it is the highest peak in New Zealand and the centre of a national park with the same name, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. This national park really surprised us.
Can you believe that this national park has 140 mountain peaks reaching over 2000 m? And there’s more than that, the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park contains 75 glaciers, hiding between its mountain tops.
We spent some time hiking in this amazing national park, read about that on the blog post New Zealand: Short Walks in Mount Cook National Park.
Above you can see views of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. They are from our Tasman Glacier Lake hike.
Driving from Mount Cook to Christchurch: Lake Pukaki
So we left the Aoraki mountain village in direction Christchurch. First there was a 60 km lakeside drive along Lake Pukaki, to the small village of Pukaki at the lake’s south end.
The Lake Pukaki drive is spectacular. You can enjoy splendid views of Lake Pukaki on our left hand side, mountains beyond the lake and rolling hills on your right hand side, up to the Queenstown to Christchurch main road.
Hardly any people live in this remote area, but 18 km south of Mount Cook we found Glentanner Park Centre, a place that became our base for exploring the national park. It is a sports activity centre and the closest serviced campground to Mount Cook.
Glentanner Park Centre has all you need as a campervan traveller for an overnight stay or two. The park is in a beautiful alpine landscape, surrounded by meadows and sheep. Just love the surroundings!
If you are travelling to the region, this is their website: Glentanner Park Centre
New Zealand South Island: Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki is a glacier lake fed by the Tasman River. The river brings melt water and glacier rock particles from the Tasman Glacier higher up in the mountains. This explains the outstanding turquoise colour of Lake Pukaki.
Mount Cook reflection in Lake Pukaki
In calm weather you can see Aoraki Mount Cook and other white mountain peaks reflected in the mirror-like Lake Pukaki water.
Lake Pukaki from a picnic area
The shores of Lake Pukaki have picnic areas and lookouts where you can stop for views.
If you like these views, you will find more of them in the previous post Queenstown to Mount Cook via the Cardrona Road.
Lake Tekapo on the New Zealand South Island
Then there’s another similar lake, after a 40 km drive from Lake Pukaki. This one, too, has a nice name, Lake Tekapo. I guess Lake Tekapo is the more famous of the two, at least it’s more touristic. Even in autumn there were Asian tour groups stopping at the Lake Tekapo village.
The rocky shore of Lake Tekapo
This is Mackenzie Country and we are half way from Queenstown to Christchurch, about 3,5 hours from both.
Lake Tekapo and the whole Mackenzie District are famous for their starry skies.
They say the region has the clearest skies in the southern hemisphere. Why? Because there’s so little light pollution, almost none. As it’s really dark at nights you can see the stars so well.
Lake Tekapo village centre and Church of the Good Shepherd
Getting married on the stony Tekapo lakeshore
Piled stones on the lakefront
Church of the Good Shepherd
Church of the Good Shepherd, Tekapo
However, what tourists mostly come here for is the Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s a historic chapel right on the lake’s edge, with direct views of the lake from the altar.
Go inside and see the lake framed by the large front window. No wonder so many couples want this to be their wedding place.
Tekapo Hot Springs
Hot springs in Tekapo, New Zealand
When it was getting dark we so much wanted to see the stars. To get a good view, we parked the campervan in the beachfront Lake Tekapo Motels & Holiday Park that has open views to the sky.
In the meanwhile we wanted to soak in the hot pools of Tekapo Springs that happened to be next door – and could see the clear skies from the pools!
Tekapo Springs has three outdoor pools named after three local lakes: Tekapo, Oahu and Pukaki. Unlike many other pools, these ones are not natural geothermal springs and have to be heated to the right temperatures. All the same, the pools are a wonderful place to relax in the dark, after a day’s drive!
The pools of Tekapo Hot Springs
That was a very relaxing evening bath outdoors in a cold weather, stars above us and mountains beyond the lake. For more information on the pools, this is the Tekapo Springs website.
Lake Tekapo to Christchurch
Burkes Pass, New Zealand South Island
The next stop then was Burkes Pass, only a short drive from the Lake Tekapo village. As you will see in the photos, we once more crossed a mountain chain, before descending to the rolling Canterbury highlands – and from there further down to Christchurch.
Burkes Pass makes a good spot for a coffee break.
After the pass some small roadside towns will follow: Fairilie, Geraldine, and further away Methwen.
Fairlie and Geraldine are typical small farming towns, Geraldine being the bigger of the two. It has a wide main street with many historic buildings like an old post office building and there also is a Vintage Car and Machinery Museum.
Driving from Mount Cook to Christchurch
Between the small country towns, it’s all the way winding roads and rolling hills – and one or two farm houses here and there. New Zealand has no more than 5 million inhabitants and most of them live in the biggest cities.
Driving on Canterbury country roads was nice and easy and we were almost alone on the road. No worries about other drivers.
Southern Mountains from the Mount Cook to Christchurch road
The next town is Methwen, a holiday resort that serves the ski fields of Mount Hutt 11 km away. That means Methwen has a good choice of hotels, dining and ski shops.
The nearby Mount Hutt has one of the best ski fields in New Zealand, only 100 km from Christchurch!
But we didn’t go skiing, we can do that at home. Instead we took a short hike in the rocky Rakaia Gorge.
The bridge of Rakaia Gorge, drive from Mount Cook to Christchurch
Rakaia Gorge comes all in a sudden when you don’t expect any special things to come, after some sharp turns behind the Mount Hutt road crossing. The main highway goes down in a deep gorge with a turquoise river and a steep forested riverbank.
This is the iconic Rakaia River with crystal clear mountain water:
There should be a marked forest walkway along the gorge, starting from where the bridge ends. Yet we didn’t see any signs and had problems in finding the path. And once we found it, we had problems in following it.
Despite all, we walked a long way in the riverbank forest and got some magic river views from the path:
Turquoise Rakaia Gorge waters, directly from the mountains
After Rakaia there might not be so much to stop for. You drive through beautiful green landscapes and rural villages, but this is not as exotic as the places we have been to.
Approaching Christchurch the road gets wider and straighter, driving is fast – and before we noticed, we had reached our destination, Christchurch!
The red and yellow Christchurch tram, New Zealand
Our New Zealand road trip ends where it began, in Christchurch, the largest city of the South Island. The beautiful city has suffered from earthquakes and at the time we were visiting its central part was under heavy construction work.
We spent our last New Zealand day driving around Christchurch, without any trouble driving in the city with a big campervan. Parking a big vehicle was as easy as it can be, the city was still full of empty spaces after the earthquake. But we also had to try the famous Christchurch tourist tram.
To end our journey from Mount Cook to Christchurch and our whole New Zealand road trip, a photo gallery on the main sights of Christchurch:
Christchurch Sights in Images
City Tour Tram winding its way through shopping malls
New Regent Street, Central Christchurch
Old townhouses in Christchurch
Botanic Gardens and North Hagley Park on Avon River
Banks Peninsula: cable car to the top
Canterbury Museum and Peacock Fountain
More about New Zealand Travel
Our Whole South Island Road Trip
Mount Cook to Christchurch was the last section (number 9) of our New Zealand South Island campervan trip. You will find the other sections and our whole South Island itinerary on the road trip main page:
Traveling in New Zealand by campervan
Arranging a New Zealand Campervan Trip
If you want to know how we arranged our New Zealand campervan trip, find that information in the post New Zealand in Campervan: Christchurch to Greymouth.
Renting a campervan in New Zealand