This post will take you to the South Island of New Zealand. We are touring the island with a campervan and now driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook.
We are taking the spectacular Crown Range (Cardrona) road from Queenstown to Wanaka, after which we will drive through the Lindis Pass to Lake Pukapi. At the end of the post we will reach Aoraki Mount Cook Village.
Lake Pukapi and Mount Cook on the New Zealand South Island
The Otago region we are driving through is a spectacular place and certainly one of the most beautiful areas of New Zealand. There are snow-capped mountains, green valleys with rolling hills and farmland, turquoise mountain lakes, deep gorges and vast plateaus with dry grassland.
You are welcome to join our journey through the New Zealand South Island, from Queenstown to Mount Cook!
This is post number 7 on our South Island round trip. You will find the whole road trip on the New Zealand South Island Road Trip in 11 Days page that shows our whole itinerary the map.
Queenstown to Mount Cook Drive on the Map
This is the Queenstown to Mount Cook drive on the map. The distance is 300 km and on the way you will see Wanaka, Lindis Pass and Lake Pukapi.
Driving time Queenstown to Mount Cook is four hours one way without stops. But as the scenery along the way is so fantastic, you might want to stop all the time. You will spend most of the day on this 300 km journey. And if you like mountain hiking, you might even want to use two or more days exploring this pretty New Zealand region.
Crown Range and Cardrona Road, or the Cromwell Route?
Queenstown to Mount Cook along the Crown Range (Cardrona) Road
There are two alternative routes from Queenstown to Wanaka that you can choose between, first the Crown Range road (Cardrona Road) that you well learn about in this post, and secondly the longer Cromwell route that will be described in another post.
The two roads are different. As the Crown Range road climbs to high altitudes and crosses a mountain chain, the Cromwell route doesn’t climb at all. It follows valleys all the way from Wanaka to Queenstown and the most scenic part is the drive along the Kawarau Gorge:
Queenstown to Mount Cook along the Cromwell Road
So I will show you the sights on the Crown Range route in this post and the Cromwell route in another post New Zealand Drive: West Coast to Queenstown.
Now we will start our journey from Queenstown to Mount Cook and our first stop will be the postcard-pretty Lake Hayes:
Queenstown to Mount Cook: Lake Hayes
Lake Hayes is one of the most scenic lakes in New Zealand so stop here and look at the lake! As you can see it looks marvelous in autumn and must be that round the year.
Like all others we tried our best to capture Lake Hayes with our phones and cameras.
Lake Hayes, New Zealand
For more information on Lake Hayes and what you can do in the area, check out this post: Queenstown Day Trips by Car: Arrowtown and Wakatipu.
Lake Hayes in autumn
After Lake Hayes make a short side-trip to the historic gold mining town of Arrowtown – if you haven’t already been there. Arrowtown is a must see place in New Zealand and we have photos of it in the Queenstown area post.
This is what the landscape between Lake Hayes and Arrowtown looks like:
Scenery between Mount Cook and Queenstown
Now, between Lake Hayes and Arrowtown you will leave the State Highway 6 and turn to the Crown Range Road to Cardrona and Wanaka.
Crown Range Road
Queenstown to Mount Cook: Crown Range Road
To take the Crown Range route you need good weather conditions, so check the weather forecast at least if you’re traveling with a campervan.
The road climbs to high altitudes and there can be heavy winds and snow that might cause you trouble.
Crossing the Crown Range from Queenstown to Wanaka
The climb up to Crown Range is steep with lots of sharp bends. There are parking areas where you can stop and take photos of the incredible views to Kawarau Gorge and Queenstown lower down.
After the first climb there is a plateau where driving is easier, but then the road starts climbing again.
Driving through New Zealand’s Southern Alps
Crown Range Summit
Queenstown to Mount Cook: the Crown Range summit
The Crown Range Summit is more than 1000 m above sea level. The air is refreshing, that will say cold…
There are some walking tracks that you can follow to get more views. We saw many walkers out on the path, taking the one hour Rock Peak climb that offers views to Kawarau Gorge vineyards.
The Crown Range Summit, 1076 m
Driving down into Cardrona Valley
From the Crown Range Summit there is a deep descent down to the Cardrona Valley.
In the good driving conditions we had we didn’t find the road particularly challenging. We only enjoyed the drive, especially when the views were so fantastic at all times.
The Cardrona village general store and post office
In the middle of the Cardrona Valley is the tiny resort town of Cardrona that looks like a wild west town. Some views of Cardrona:
The village of Cardrona in photos
Coffee stop at Cardrona Hotel , drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook
There is a hotel right in the village centre, with the name Cardrona Hotel. The building is iconic in itself, and the quiet garden on the inner court is just lovely.
We had a cappuccino in the Cardrona Hotel garden, sitting against the wall in the afternoon sunshine. The weather was not really warm, but at least it was much warmer than the freezing air on the summit.
The Cardrona Hotel garden in photos
Only a short distance from Cardrona is a ski resort that operates in the winter, the Cardrona Alpine Resort.
Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook: Wanaka
Then the Cardrona Valley Road takes you down to Wanaka located at the southern end of a lake with the same name.
Wanaka is one of the most popular holiday spots in New Zealand, and people come here for hiking and water activities in the summer and for skiing in the winter. There are many skiing resorts, not just Cardrona that we already saw.
Views of Wanaka, New Zealand
Wanaka has a pretty setting between the mountains and the lake, and its lakeshore is all lined with trees and willows. The picture above left shows a hill called Eely Point. Eely Point is almost in the center of Wanaka and has walking tracks.
Road from Wanaka to Glendhu Bay
The Wanaka area looks so much like what you imagine New Zealand to look like at its best, so we decided to stay here for a while and see what the palce is like.
We took a small road west towards Mount Aspiring National Park and came after a while to the small village of Glendhu Bay. There were beautiful Lake Wanaka views, a number of walking tracks and a camping site.
Queenstown to Mount Cook: Lake Wanaka
Driving on from Glendhu Bay we found more walking tracks, and then all the driving and walking had taken us so much time that we desided to stay the night at Glendhu Bay.
Lake Wanaka and Southern Mountains
Camping in Glendhu Bay
Glendhu Bay Camping, New Zealand
And here, we had a lakeshore camping of our own! It was low season mid-week, so there were only one or two other camping guests.
We parked our campervan on the most scenic spot we could find and prepared an early dinner in our van kitchen. And couldn’t take our eyes off the lake and the mountains while dining.
Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook: side trip to Glendhu Bay
The next morning we took a beach walk, after which it was time to continue our Queenstown to Mount Cook journey.
Walking on a beach of Lake Wanaka
The place was this: Glendhu Bay Lakeside Holiday Park
Queenstown to Mount Cook drive: the Lindis Valley
From Wanaka it’s just to follow the Cromwell Road, or alternatively the Tarras Road on the other side of the river. This is open farming land with sheep, cattle and wineries. Tarras is a pretty farming community and almost the only village in the area.
After Tarras we entered the long Lindis Valley where we could see amazing white mountain ridges at distance, all snow-covered.
Drive along the Lindis Valley
Lindis Pass, New Zealand
The next destination on our Queenstown to Mount Cook self drive itinerary is the Lindis Pass. The road through the pass is 60 km long. It climbs through rocky gorges to grass-filled plains on the summit. The grass is very soft and thick and has a nice yellow-brownish colour. The Lindis Pass has been given a Scenic Reserve status. It’s a tussock grassland reserve.
Before reaching the summit at 971 meters you will drive long distances up and down gorges. The Lindis Pass drive is a pleasant one in an empty landscape. No houses, no cattle, just pure brown nature and tussock grassland.
The Lindis Pass drive
After you have done Lindis Pass there is a big plateau and the towns of Omarama, Glenbrook and Twizel. As a result of a hydro-electric development scheme there are man-made lakes, the biggest of which is Lake Ruataniwha south of Twitzel.
But if you want to see a SCENIC lake, drive straight to the next lake, Lake Pukaki.
Driving from Queenstown to Mount Cook: Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki gets its water from the Tasman Glacier below Mount Cook. That’s why the water is crystal clear and ice-cold.
The north end of Lake Pukaki is surrounded by the Southern Alps with Mount Cook in the middle, and the south end has green rolling hills.
Lake Pukaki shoreline
You can see a lot of moraine all over round the lake. Lake Pukaki was created when moraine from a glacier blocked the valley.
Lake Pukaki, getting its water from the Tasman Glacier
This is the kind of lake you just can’t stop looking at. So sit down and enjoy.
A white mountain chain behind the lake
The Lake Pukaki water has a distinctive blue colour, a similar colour to the small glacier lakes higher up in the mountains.
The distinctive blue colour of Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki in Evening Light
Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
These pictures are from the southern shore of the lake, towards north where Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain exists.
After sunset Lake Pukaki certainly looks even more amazing, backed by the long row of New Zealand Southern Mountains.
The Queenstown to Mount Cook drive: Lake Pukaki after sunset
Aoraki Mount Cook Village
At the north end of Lake Pukaki is the only villge, Aoraki/Mount Cook. It’s a very small resort with just a few hotels and camping areas.
Nevertheless, the little village is a perfect base from where to explore Mt Cook National Park and its glaciers and glacier lakes.
Photographing the white peaks of Mount Cook
Our next New Zealand post will tell you what to do in Mount Cook National Park:
We also have a post about driving on from Mount Cook:
More on New Zealand Travel
Our Whole New Zealand Trip
The drive from Queenstown to Mount Cook was section number 7 of our New Zealand South Island round trip. You will find the whole itinerary and all other sections on this page:
Renting a Campervan in New Zealand
If you want to know how we arranged our New Zealand campervan trip, that information will be found on the post New Zealand in Campervan: Christchurch to Greymouth.
Traveling New Zealand by campervan