living in Christchurch, the largest and main city on the South Island of New Zealand not only has its benefits in terms of lifestyle, beautiful surroundings including several beaches, nearby mountains and great hiking, but its also a perfect base from which to explore the rest of the South Island. Compared to places like Australia, New Zealand is pretty small and so when road tripping you can really cover some amazing landscapes in a short amount of time. The city makes a perfect starting point from exploring further south into the Southern Alpine region, most choose to do multi day or longer road trips around this area as we did during our time here. But one of the great benefits to NZ’s compact nature, great roads and uncrowded landscape is that you can do many day trips from Christchurch to the start of the Alpine region too. The Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki drive is a great example, it can be the perfect first leg on a longer trip or an ideal day trip to see these incredibly blue glacial lakes with Mt Cook in the distance!
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: Why This is the Perfect Day Trip From the City
Christchurch sits in an ideal place to explore some of the closer reaches of the magnificent Southern Alps as well as the many other gems of the South Island. Whether you choose to do a shorter day trip such as Rakaia Gorge close to the Skiing at Mt Hutt, head down Arthur’s Pass to see Castle Hill, head north to the seal colonies of Kaikoura or the hot springs of Hanmer, Christchurch is in a prime location as a starting point for an epic adventure or a base for many amazing day trips.
One of the main things most people want to do when they head to New Zealand and in particular the South Island is the experience the majesty of the Southern Alps. The South Island’s backbone is an incredible mountain range unlike any other in the world with it being so close to the oceans and being surrounded by jungles and rainforests on its Western Side. For those with only a short amount of time in the region or for those wanting an easily accessible day trip from the city Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are a great introduction to the unique and breathtaking landscape of Southern New Zealand and is an ideal destination on a road trip or when campervanning in New Zealand.
The aqua colour glacial lake stands at the edge of the Mt Cook National Park in the far distance, the home of the tallest mountain in New Zealand, its namesake, Mount Cook which stands at a staggering 3,724 m tall. Surrounded by a group of peaks of a similar height the mountain range here is covered in year round snow and ancient glaciers that carved out these very lakes.
The very shape of the two lakes with the towering peaks and their glistening glaciers in the far distance is a testament to their formation. Thousands of years ago during the last Ice Age those glaciers would have reached right down to the lake fronts and carved out the valleys that surround them. The incredible colour of the water too is a result of the melt waters that still feed the lakes to this day, ancient ice melting away produce sediment rich water than once settled creates the impossibly milky turquoise coloured lakes.
Taking the Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and Pukaki trip is a perfect way to see the sheer power and scale of the Southern Alps in a tranquil and picture perfect setting only a few hours from the city and as an easily doable day trip. The trip involves a scenic drive with no real extreme or wild roads that can be found as you delve further into the Alpine region and especially when crossing over from here to Wanaka or Queenstown in the winter. It involves no really intense hiking, though there is a lot in the area as well as bike trails if you want it and is ideal all year round for both the adventurous and not so adventurous travellers, and for the photographers is a real heaven!
Things To Do At Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki Once You Arrive:
Church of the Good Shepherd
Sitting in prime position right by the lake this quaint stone church is one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand and you will see why! The still functioning church with the backdrop of the aqua coloured lakes and the snow capped mountains beyond has to be the most perfectly positioned buildings in the world!
Stargaze in the Dark Sky Reserve around the Lake
Ever heard of a “Dark Star Reserve” no, me neither before we lived in New Zealand. But it’s a testament to the way in which New Zealand cares for its landscape that this area has been protected from artificial light pollution and recognised internationally for how clear the skies are at night. With the Mt John observatory too its is a perfect place to see the Milky Way in all its glory. You will be blown away seeing a sky this clear and so full of stars!
See the Lupins in bloom:
The area around Lake Tekapo comes to live with the incredible purple display of lupin Flowers through the Spring and early Summer months, with November being the best time to visit. The lake might be incredibly scenic in itself, but add in the fields of purple and pink flowers and it becomes even more beautiful!
Hike up Mt John:
If you have time whilst in Lake Tekapo then you should take the 1.5 – 3 hour hike to the summit of this small mountain for unforgettable views over the lake and the Southern Alps. The Mt John circuit takes in dense pine forests before opening up onto the vast tussock fields of the area.
Hike or bike the Cowans Hill walkway:
This walkway takes around an hour to complete and takes you through some of the wetlands of the area and offer some more amazing views of the lake and mountains. The mountain bike trails are grade 2.
Take a scenic flight or jet boat ride:
If you have the money then this is a great place to splash out and take one of the many scenic flights or jet boat rides available across the country. With Mt Cook being so close the flights around here will take you over the glacial lakes and beyond where you can see the countries highest peak from above, a truly unforgettable experience.
Jet Boat rides too also allow those with limited time to get out onto the lake and further down towards the top end near to the mountains. Don’t expect them to be just a scenic trip down the lake, they will be a wild ride you won’t forget!
Lake Pukaki might offer less “to do” compared to Tekapo but we think as a lake its actually much more impressive than Tekapo with the views it offers and is usually a little quieter too offering a much more serine visit.
Take in the view of Mt Cook from the Lake:
One of the main draws of Lake Pukaki is the view of Mt Cook it offers from the lakefront, not only is the brilliant turquoise lake enchanting in its own right, but when it plays foreground to the largest mountain in New Zealand you know you’re on to a winner! Along the lakefront there are plenty of places to stop and walk down to the water to take in the view and have a short stroll!
Drive down the road towards Mt Cook:
The drive alongside the lake down towards Mt Cook along State Highway 80 has to be one of the best in the country, the lake on one side with the mountains slowly creeping closers as you continue pretty much sums up the South Island of NZ! The drive to the village is 58 km (36 miles) so you might not have chance to do it all but there are some great stops along the first half of the road too.
Walk the Lake Pukaki Track:
The entire track takes around 4 hrs and is 13 km long, however if you are on a day trip it is worth at least just doing a small section of the track to take in some of the amazing views. It start off State Highway 8 near the Pukaki Kettle Hole Walk.
Other short walks around Lake Pukaki:
There are many other great short walks around here including the Pukaki Kettle Hole Walk, which takes 1 hour and is 4 km long. As well as the 10 minute walk to the Pukaki boulders just off State Highway 80 towards Mt Cook.
Find out more information and more walks on the DOC website here: www.doc.govt.nz
Getting from Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki:
Whilst the lakes are relatively close to each other on a grand scale they are actually a little further apart than maps may at first suggest. The lakes are roughly 47km (29.2 Miles) apart and the drive takes just over 30 mins. The route is straightforward as there is only one road! Follow signs for Twizel and the lake is just before the town.
When planning out your day trip from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo if you want to add on Lake Pukaki be sure to leave enough time as the drive alone will take at least an hour extra there and back as well as time exploring the lake itself. If you do have time carrying on to the small town/ village of Twizel (10km / 6.2 Miles away) is ideal as it is a great place to stop for food and fuel before heading back on the long drive to Christchurch.
Continuing your trip from here or spending the weekend in the region? Head over to Mt Cook National Park for some incredible scenery or spend the night in Twizel.
From Lake Tekapo and Pukaki there are several options to continue your journey around New Zealand if you’re not planning on immediately returning to Christchurch.
Mt Cook National Park:
From Lake Pukaki you can turn down the incredible road towards the looming Mt Cook at its far end. Mount Cook National Park offers some of the best hiking in the country and has many options from short gentle hikes to multi day tramps. The best hikes here include the amazing but easy Hooker Valley Track (Closed when we visited) and the hike up the the Sealy Tarns as well as the Muller Hut Track which can be done in a single day or two days staying in the hut overnight. Even if you don’t want to hike the views from the village of Mt Cook are amazing and there are some short and gentle walks in the valleys too.
The drive to Mt Cook Village from Pukaki is around 58 km (36 miles). There is a campsite and several hotels in the village.
Twizel is a small town just 10km on from Pukaki and is an ideal place to stay overnight if you want to take more time on the trip or have two days here. It makes a good stop off point for fuel and food too.
Wanaka and Queenstown:
The most logical progression on from Tekapo, Pukaki and Mt Cook is to continue on through the mountain passes towards two of the countries most incredible and well known mountain towns, Wanaka and Queenstown. Lake Tekapo is an idea overnight stop whilst travelling towards these town towns especially if you have family as the drive is pretty far. Luckily there is plenty to do in Queenstown with kids if you survive the drive still talking to each other!!
These two of course need no introduction and are on most people’s itineraries when visiting the South Island of New Zealand. They are hubs of outdoor sports, extreme activities, amazing mountains and hiking. One of the highlights of our time in New Zealand was hiking in Queenstown.
Wanaka is a further 200km (124 Miles) onwards and is another 2.5 hours of driving and takes you through the incredible but challenging Lindis Pass.
Queenstown is 256 km (160 Miles) from Lake Tekapo and takes around 3 hours again through some incredible scenery.
The distance between Wanaka and Queenstown varies depending on the route you take. It can be as short at 67 km (41.5 Miles) down the Cardrona Valley, but this route isn’t ideal in winter and takes around 1hr 10 mins. Alternatively the route via Cromwell is 112 km (70 Miles) and takes 1.5 hrs.
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: Practical Information For Your Trip
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo Distance and Time:
The distance between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo is 228 km (142 Miles) and non stop the drive will take just over 3 hours.
However you might want to stop for break at some of the small towns along the way. The town of Geraldine is around half way and a good place to refuel, visit the bathroom and get some food. There is also the towns of Ashburton on the Christchurch side and Fairlie on the Tekapo side to stop.
The drive is fairly straightforward, like with many places in New Zealand there aren’t that many roads or many towns so its hard to go wrong!
Directions from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo:
Out of Christchurch itself you should take State Highway 1 towards Rolleston.
From there continue through the towns of Dunsandel and Ashburton.
Follow signs towards Geraldine and get onto State Highway 79 until you reach the down of Fairlie
From Fairlie you should turn onto State Highway 8
Continue along State Highway 8 through Burkes Pass and you should arrive at Lake Tekapo
Downloading the app “Maps.me” and making sure you have the New Zealand maps downloaded will allow you to use maps offline. Google maps is also useful but might require phone data to work.
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: Why Driving is the Best Option and How to Book:
Driving is the absolute best way to take the trip from Christchurch to Tekapo and any trip around New Zealand if you can. This way it gives you the freedom to stop off whenever you like for a break or to just soak in the incredibly views this country seems to give you around every corner. It also means you can be really flexible with your plans, you can add an extra stop, stay longer at one location and see many places you might not have had chance to.
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo: Other Alternative Ways to Visit
If you don’t drive or you’re a little worried about driving abroad or in winter then there are several other options to consider when planning a trip from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and each have different considerations.
The easiest way if you don’t have your own transport and want to do the trip in a day is to take an organised tour. This way you will be sure you can return to the city the same day and the itinerary should lay out where you will stop and what activities you can do there and many provide lunch or at least schedule stops for this.
Another benefit of taking a day trip is that most of these actually go much further and include visiting Mt Cook National Park too. This is ideal if you are short on time and transport options however you might not be able to do much of the hiking around the area.
You can check out the tours available here:
Public transport options:
Intercity run buses from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and they take roughly 3 hours 45 Mins and run every hour.
This is an ideal option if you want freedom but don’t have your own transport, however you might have to be flexible of timings and even stay the night in Tekapo
Tips for Taking the Christchurch to Lake Tekapo Trip: Things to Remember and Our Advice:
* Be sure to plan enough time out for your trip if you are doing this in a day. There and back will take at least 6 hours but it very doable if you set off early.
* Get an early start. No one likes early morning wake ups but you should aim to be on the road by at least 6am to make the most of your time here especially if you want to visit both lakes.
* Fuel and food is readily available along the route and doesn’t need to be planned out.
* If you plan on doing some hiking then you might want to bring along some sandwiches or a picnic. If not then be sure to pick up some food along the way as the closest town to Tekapo is Twizel which is beyond Pukaki and over an hour away in the opposite direction of Christchurch. In Tekapo itself there are some amenities but they are limited and expensive.
* The area is a great place to go biking so bring yours if you have one. You could just cover more ground along the sides of the lakes or go up higher onto some more advanced tracks.
* In Spring and early summer ( Sept – Feb) you can see the incredible purple lupin flowers in full bloom. Late November is the best time to come to see them.
* Check the weather beforehand, though the roads are gentle by New Zealand standards its still best to avoid extreme weather and take extra caution when it’s been snowing recently.
* Driving at night in New Zealand isn’t much of an issue like it is in Australia with the roos, however on rural roads you should still take car with some unlit sections and tight corners as well as the odd stray sheep!
* Fuel in New Zealand can be quite expensive. Try to fuel up at larger Petrol Stations such as Z or BP and get a free flybys card which gives instant discounts from certain stations. The town of Geraldine has a Z station and is around half way.
Have you ever done the Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and Pukaki Road Trip? What Other Day Trips Do You Recommend?
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