Get tips on where to go, what to see, and what not to miss in this 3-part series for setting up a self-drive itinerary to see snow on the South Island.
Have you ever considered taking a 6-day winter break to travel to the South Island of New Zealand, but did not know where to go to drive and see the best mountains with snow?
In this 3-part article series I will set you up with a driving plan for seeing some of the most impressive and beautiful mountains in New Zealand during winter.
In part 1, we talked about which months would be best to visit the South Island for a road trip in winter and touched on things like busyness and the arrival of snow.
In part 2, we talked about which airport you could fly to to start your road trip.
And in this third and final part, we will talk about how you can spend the 6 days for your self-drive winter tour on the South Island.
A 6-day self-drive winter tour to see mountains with snow when driving from Christchurch to Queenstown could look something like this…
Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Ben Ohau range with snow in winter on the South Island
Twizel is a 30-minute drive from Lake Tekapo and offers much more affordable accommodation.
If you cannot find any accommodation at Lake Tekapo or in Twizel, you can drive another 20 minutes down to Omarama. Omarama tends to be on the expensive side, though.
On day 1 I would suggest you stretch your legs at Lake Tekapo after the 3-hour drive by either doing a lake-side walk or heading up to Mount John if it is not too late in the day.
Day 2: Mount Cook National Park
Drive to Mount Cook National Park in the morning and do a short walk if you feel like it. Kea Point Track is a good short walk to do or if you are looking for a slightly longer walk, try the Hooker Valley Track.
On the Kea Point Track you will see Mount Sefton with snow, while the Hooker Valley Track allows you to get up close to Mount Cook and Hooker Lake, which may have ice floating on it. The Hooker Valley Track is a much longer walk.
In the early hours of the afternoon, you can do a canal road drive. There are two canal roads that you can follow (if access to them is open, since both roads are private roads).
The first one is along the Tekapo – Pukaki canal and the second one is along the Pukaki – Ohau canal.
Note that the Tekapo – Pukaki canal road has been closed to traffic, so you can only do the Pukaki – Ohau canal road drive if the road is open. However, you should still be able to walk or bike on the Tekapo – Pukaki canal road (see Tekapo canal access for more info).
Day 3: Lindis Pass, Wanaka, and Cromwell
It is time to cross Lindis Pass. In the early morning hours you can drive the Pukaki – Ohau canal road if you did not get to do it on the previous day before driving down to Omarama and then further up towards Lindis Pass.
Sign at the top of Lindis Pass in winter on the South Island
The detour would involve driving via Omarama to Kurow and then following State Highway 1 down towards Dunedin, and then following State Highway 85 North of Dunedin towards Central Otago, and then onwards to Alexandra and then back up to Cromwell or Wanaka.
This detour could take anywhere between 4.5 and 6 hours of driving. If Lindis Pass is open, the drive to Cromwell or Wanaka should be a relatively short 2 hours from Lake Tekapo (also see the South Island driving distances and times map).
If Lindis Pass is open and you’ve got 40 minutes to spare, I would suggest you take a short drive to Lake Benmore and back. While Mount Benmore might not have much snow on it (you really have to be lucky to catch it with snow), the drive to Lake Benmore is worth driving to see the blue waters of Lake Benmore and Lake Aviemore. In addition, the drive back should marvel you with the sight of snow on mountains.
You could also stop and do the Lake Benmore Peninsula walk if you wish, which should take you about 2 hours, but you could also go halfway and come back to make it shorter.
After you reach the top of Lindis Pass, make sure to stop briefly and take in the scenery. Whether Lindis Pass has or does not have snow, it will take your breath away, so do make a brief stop.
Then drive on to either Wanaka or Cromwell. Wanaka is more touristy than Cromwell, but I like Cromwell because it is so central. The drive from Wanaka to Cromwell takes approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
If you still have time left in the day and are staying in Cromwell, drive to Wanaka to visit the lake and see more snow on mountains. You can also drive to Glendhu Bay where you might get lucky and see Mount Aspiring peeking through.
Day 4: Alexandra and Central Otago
Drive from Cromwell to Alexandra, and then from Alexandra, drive to Central Otago.
If you are pressed for time or cannot wait to see the gorgeous Hawkdun Range in snow, you can also take a shortcut to Central Otago when you arrive at the turnoff to Clyde before reaching Alexandra. Alexandra is a short 20 to 30 minutes from Cromwell.
Once you are driving on the State Highway 85, continue driving until you reach St. Bathans. You could make a brief detour to St. Bathans to see historic buildings and the man-made lake if you wish.
Winter at St. Bathans on the South Island of New Zealand
Hawkdun Range is best viewed during the early afternoon hours for the best light on the mountains, so you would have time for a detour.
After you leave St. Bathans, enjoy the drive towards Hawkdun Range. Once the mountains start leaving your sight, look for a spot to turn back.
There are several gravel rural roads you could stop at to turn back.
Drive back to Cromwell in preparation to leave for Queenstown tomorrow.
Day 5: Queenstown
Drive from Cromwell to Queenstown via the Kawarau Gorge road.
This drive should take approximately 45 to 50 minutes. It is a pretty winding road in some areas, so be prepared to not drive too fast, especially if it is the first time you are driving it.
Locals tend to race over this road, but that’s because they have driven it 10,000 times like I myself have and know the speed to use at every corner. It is not advisable to drive too fast in winter, though.
The Kawarau Gorge road is a low-level road, so it is highly unlikely to be closed. If it is closed, you do not have many options to get to Queenstown other than driving to Wanaka and then driving towards the Crown Range road.
If the Kawarau Gorge road is all snowed in, I do not expect the Crown Range road to be any better, since it is at a much higher elevation. So have a contingency plan in place should you have to stay in Cromwell.
Once you reach Queenstown, it might still be morning, so I recommend you drive from Queenstown to Kingston and back. The light should still be good enough to allow you to enjoy the mountains.
In the afternoon, if you are feeling energetic and if the trail allows for it, you can walk up Queenstown Hill. It should take you approximately around 45 minutes to reach the Basket of Dreams where you will enjoy gorgeous views of Lake Wakatipu and mountains with snow.
If you are not feeling energetic or do not want to walk up a hill, you could take the turnoff to the Peninsula road on your way back from Kingston and then drive to the Queenstown golf course and park your car near Lake Wakatipu. Get out and take a stroll along the lake. It does wonders to the soul…
Day 6: Glenorchy
Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy. This road can get icy in winter and may have snow, so drive carefully.
Glenorchy Lagoon in winter on the South Island
It should take you approximately 40 to 50 minutes to get to Glenorchy. Do not forget to enjoy the gorgeous mountain views along the way.
When you reach Glenorchy, you can stop and do a short walk around the Glenorchy Lagoon, or if you do not feel like walking, continue driving towards the Dart River bridge.
When you reach the Dart River bridge, stop and enjoy the mountains.
Drive back to Queenstown, relax, or take your afternoon flight from Queenstown airport. Or if you are flying in the morning, do so then.
If you are spending the night in Queenstown, you could head up the Queenstown Gondola to get a late afternoon view of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and the surrounding mountains from above.
If you are flying to Queenstown and driving to Christchurch, you would just have to do the drives and activities in reverse order.
Things not to miss on your self-drive winter tour
Make sure that you do not miss the following sights when driving from Christchurch to Queenstown in winter:
- The mountains around Lake Tekapo
- Ben Ohau Range
- Mount Cook
- Lindis Pass
- Hawkdun Range
- Cecil Peak and other mountains around Queenstown and Glenorchy
I hope you have found this article useful and that you enjoy your 6-day self-drive winter tour on the South Island of New Zealand.
Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details
directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.