Wanaka Scenic Drives
If you have a day or two off the slopes, you might want to make the most of your time and see more of New Zealand.
There are a number of scenic drives around Wanaka, from short trips to all-day excursions, and all of them include excellent stops along the way.
Here are the top 5 Wanaka scenic drives:
1. Mount Cook Village, 5 hours return
Though this scenic day trip is a full-day endeavour, it packs a lot of New Zealand’s best scenery into the drive! Along the way, you’ll be able to check New Zealand’s highest mountain and largest glacier off your list.
You’ll first pass by two museums on the outskirts of Wanaka – the Warbirds and Wheels museum and the National Toy and Transport Museum. These are great options for spending a morning of exploration.
As you continue past the town of Cromwell (easily recognisable from the giant statue of fruit downtown!) you will see a number of wineries along the roadside, many open for cellar door tastings.
Lindis Pass is the next scenic highlight, with a great lookout over the golden hills nearby. You’ll want to check ahead of time to see if you need to bring your chains for the drive over.
Just before Twizel, the High Country Salmon farm is a fun place to stop and look at the fish. If you’re getting hungry, you can buy a sample as well!
Lake Pukaki is not long after that, with fantastic views across the lake towards Mt Cook. If the weather is good, you might want to continue along the main road for a little longer for the best viewpoints.
Mount Cook Village is located at the end of a road that follows Lake Pukaki into the heart of the Southern Alps. Nestled at the foot of Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, the village is surrounded by fantastic alpine views. While you’re there, you could enjoy the scenic walk to Kea Point, or visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre to watch planetarium shows and films on New Zealand.
While you’re there, be sure to make the short drive to Tasman Valley, where you can take a short 10-minute walk up to a viewing point over Tasman Glacier. There are icebergs floating on the terminal lake, and the mountains surrounding Tasman Glacier are every bit as impressive as the glacier itself.
2. Haast Pass & Blue Pools, 2 hours return
This drive takes you through one of New Zealand’s most beautiful alpine passes. Haast Pass Highway is lined with dramatic mountains, braided turquoise rivers, and hanging glaciers. Continue all the way to the Blue Pools, a scenic highlight, or simply drive as far as you wish.
The township of Hawea is a good stop for morning coffee, with sweeping views across the lake and surrounding mountains. From there, the road is winding – and even more scenic – as it hugs the shores of Lake Hawea.
Makarora is the next spot for a rest stop, located just past the head of Lake Wanaka. The Makarora Country Cafe is a good roadside stopping point.
The Blue Pools are a scenic highlight. A short stroll takes you to a swing bridge over the dramatic turquoise water, and you have the option to continue walking a bit longer if you want to explore.
Just 10 minutes farther along the road, Fantail Falls is a great stop, and Thunder Creek Falls is less than 5 minutes past that.
3. Mount Aspiring National Park, 2 hours return
You’ll need a car that can handle dirt roads and fords to drive all the way to the end of the road, but it’s a beautiful drive no matter how far you go. This road takes you to the start of Mount Aspiring National Park, the closest wilderness area to Wanaka.
Rippon Winery, just outside of Wanaka, is a great place for a wine tasting. The winery is located at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Wanaka, so you won’t find better views anywhere (outside the ski fields, anyway!).
A turnoff soon after that leads to a viewpoint of Mount Aspiring, an impressive white-capped mountain the dominates the skyline.
If you want to stretch your legs, the Diamond Lake Track offers several viewpoints along the way, so you can choose your level of difficulty. The first outlook is only 15 minutes past the car park, with the highest point (Rocky Mountain) 45 minutes above that.
Raspberry Flats Car Park marks the end of the road and the start of a number of scenic tracks. The most popular is the 3-hour return hike to Rob Roy Glacier, a spectacular hanging glacier located in a pristine alpine meadow.
4. Kawarau Gorge & Gibbston Valley of Vines, 2 hours return
If you drove to Wanaka from Queenstown, you probably took the quickest route over the Crown Range, which means you haven’t seen the Kawarau Gorge yet. This is a great alternative route back to Queenstown – it takes an hour and a half, compared to an hour over the Crown Range, but it’s just as scenic as the Crown Range (albeit in a different way).
The Kawarau Gorge is an impressive canyon running alongside the road, with a turquoise river churning far below.
The Goldfields Mining Centre, located in the gorge, is a great way to experience the rich history of this region. Explore the historic houses, learn about the challenges these miners faced, and even try your hand at panning for gold!
As you near the end of the gorge, the historic Kawarau Bridge is on your right. It’s an interesting historic piece in its own right – but more interesting still are the bungy jumpers constantly throwing themselves off the bridge! Watch them have a go, or even try it yourself.
The Gibbston Valley of Vines begins as the Kawarau Gorge widens. Numerous wineries line the road, and most of them offer tastings (and often tours as well).
5. Lake Hawea, 4o minutes return
This is a shorter version of the Haast Pass day trip. Only 20 minutes from Wanaka, Lake Hawea is an easy destination that allows you to spend the day relaxing on the lakefront and enjoying the local cafes.
Lake Hawea is arguably even more dramatic than Lake Wanaka, with rugged mountains ringing the lake and very little shoreline. You can enjoy a lakeside stroll, or relax with a coffee from the Sailz Cafe.
Puzzling World is located along the main road leaving Wanaka, just before the turnoff to Hawea. This is a great rainy-day destination and a fun way to spend an afternoon!