This is a recount of my drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island along one of the most spectacular stretches of road I’ve come across to date.
I set off on my road trip around New Zealand’s South Island first driving from Christchurch to Marlborough, then across to the Wild West Coast. From there I made our way south to Glacier Country. The whole drive to this point was nothing short of spectacular, with so many incredible places to stop along the way.
I was so impressed with what I had seen in New Zealand up to that point that I thought how could it possibly get any better.
Well it did!
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The Drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown
The next leg, the drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown, absolutely blew my mind. Around every corner and over ever mountain range my eyes were spoilt with so many awe inspiring views that I was left utterly gobsmacked when I pulled into Queenstown.
Distance from Franz Josef to Queenstown
The drive takes you out of Glacier Country winding through lush forest and eventually back to the coast at Haast before catapulting you into the mountains and over one of the most treacherous (and spectacular) passes, the Haast Pass, on the South Island.
The mountain spits you out the other end at the north of Lake Wanaka where the drive takes you along the lake, switching to Lake Hawea half way along and then into the Wanaka township.
The distance from Franz Josef to Wanaka is about 280km and takes about 3-4 hours to complete, depending on road works through the Haast Pass, which are unfortunately common.
From there you have two route choices.
Option one, you can drive along the Crown Range. This is the quickest of the two routes and provides awe inspiring views along this winding mountain road. However, the road is not for the faint hearted. It might start off pretty tame but the switch backs as you come down towards Queenstown had me closing my eyes (don’t worry, I wasn’t the driver!). This brings you out near lovely Arrowtown where it’s just a short drive into Queenstown.
Option two is the longer route and takes you through the fertile plains of Otago which are full of vineyards, orchids and some pretty special views of the surrounding mountains. The drive follows Lake Dunstan’s full length and then cuts back through the Gibston Valley to Queenstown.
The distance from Wanaka to Queenstown via route one is about 70km and takes about one hour. For option two the drive is about 110km or 1.5 hours drive time.
Either route you choose, you are sure to be wowed by the views along the way!
Stops Along the Route
There is so much to see on the drive form Franz Josef to Queenstown that I recommend you take at least a full day to explore, if not more. I did it over two days with a few nights in amazing Wanaka in between.
Here are some of the must see stops along the drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown. All stops are well sign posted along the main highway.
Just a 5 minute walk from the road you’ll find the Fantail falls, one of the closest falls to the road on the Haast Pass. The falls are 15 metres tall and get their name because in spring time when there is snow melting above, the falls look like a fan as they spray down over the rock face below.
An easy 15 minute walk on a gravel path through the forest will take you to the Blue Pools. These crystal clear pools appear to be a bright blueish green colour and are fed by the surrounding glaciers.
During autumn and winter, large rainbow and brown trout migrate up the Makarora River from Lake Wanaka, and can often be seen swimming in the pools. To protect the environment here, fishing is not allowed.
There are a bunch of longer walks you can do from here too, if you have the time.
As you come out of the Haast Pass the landscape opens up at Makarora and the Makarora River which feeds straight into the northern end of Lake Wanaka.
There are lots of safe spots to stop along the lake for photo ops or to just get out and admire the spectacular views.
About half way along Lake Wanaka the road passes over a small ridge and you are straight away driving along Lake Hawea.
Make sure you stop off at The Neck, a lookout point just after you pass over the ridge (photo above) which offers some of the best lakeside views in New Zealand.
And as with Lake Wanaka, there are plenty of safe spots to stop along Lake Hawea as you drive almost the entire length of the lake to the township of the same name.
If you’re splitting this trip into two or more days, then Wanaka is the perfect place to stay for a night or two.
Located at the southern end of the lake of the same name, Wanaka is a small but thriving little town and there is lots to see in the area.
Take a walk around the lake, check out the famous “Wanaka Tree”, set off on some of the most popular hikes in New Zealand or in winter go skiing at the nearby ski fields.
Another great thing to do in Wanaka if you are staying a night or two, is a cruise on the lake. There are a number of different options with varying lengths and added activities.
- Happy Hour Cruise – evening cruise with local wine
- Stevensons Island Cruise – 2 hour cruise and nature walk on the island
- Mou Waho Island – includes a water taxi to the island and tour of the island
- Ruby Island Cruise – 1 hour cruise and photo walk on the island
The surroundings of Wanaka are picture perfect, I dare you not to fall in love with it just like I did.
Read more about all the things to do in Wanaka here, the best tours in Wanaka here and where to stay in Wanaka here. Or check out my comprehensive Wanaka Itinerary here.
Found on the option one route mentioned above, this charming little township dates back to the gold rush days in 1865.
Take a wander through the town and stop off at the Cardrona Historic Hotel for a bite to eat and browse through the collection of items on display that date back to the areas early days.
Old Cromwell Town Historic Precinct
On the edge the Kawarau River in Cronwell is the Old Cromwell Town Historic Precinct (this can be found on route option two).
The buildings you see here were relocated from other parts of Cromwell to best preserve the areas rich history. It’s a nice place to stop for a wander and soak up the history or just to enjoy the views over stunning Lake Dunstan.
The Gibbston Valley is just one part of the Otago Wine Region famous for its cool climate wines the world over.
There are lots of vineyards and wineries scattered through the valley clinging to the steep cliffs. The most notable winery is the Gibbston Valley Winery which has a wine cellar and tasting in a cave that has been carved out of the rock face.
Stop by the lookout (on route option two) here for great views of the raging river below and of the miniature power station built in 1936 called Roaring Meg.
It’s a very atmospheric spot in the valley with tall mountains looming above on either side of the river. At different times of the year, the colours of the trees around will change colour making this a great stop even this isn’t your first visit.
Honestly one of the most quaint little towns I’ve been to anywhere in the world, Arrowtown, is the best preserved gold mining town in Central Otago.
There is plenty to see here. Take a walk down the main street past the old gold miners cottages; make a stop at one of the many cafes through town; explore the Chinese Settlement which was first settled by the Chinese miners in 1866; or head down to the river for a longer walk.
The town can get a little busy in the middle of the day so try visiting early or late in the day.
Where to Stay in Wanaka
If you choose to split this journey into two or more days as suggested above, these are a few great options for accommodation in Wanaka to suit all budgets and comfort levels.
Budget – Wanaka Backpackers Bothy
Mid-Range – Wanaka View Motel
Luxury – Lakeside Apartments
Where to Stay in Queenstown
When you arrive in Queenstown, you will need a place to stay for a night or more to soak up this amazing town. Here are a few options to suit all budgets that I recommend you check out. All are centrally located, highly rated and come with excellent facilities.
Because of the spread of Queenstown city centre, most places to stay have easy walking access to town and Lake Wakatipu.
Budget – Adventure Queenstown Hostel
Mid-Range – Copthorne Hotel & Apartments Queenstown Lakeview
Luxury – Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
Or check out my other post with a full list of places to stay in Queenstown here.
Over to You!
Which stop on the drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown are you most interested in?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.