Learn which New Zealand highways you should drive on if you want to take the shortest and most scenic route from Christchurch to Mount Cook.
The shortest, most scenic drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook has been summarized in the following three scenic drives:
There is only one highway to Mount Cook National Park: State Highway 80. State Highway 80 is a branch of State Highway 8 – major highways tend to have single digits, while minor highways tend to have double digits.
You can get to State Highway 80 only from State Highway 8 by driving south from Lake Tekapo or driving north from Omarama. You will be making a long detour if you drive to Mt. Cook from Christchurch via Omarama (see alternative routes below), so that’s not the shortest route.
This leaves us with driving south from Lake Tekapo to Mt. Cook. State Highway 8 also runs between Lake Tekapo and Fairlie. There are no other shorter roads between these two towns.
In Fairlie, you have two options to get to Christchurch: one option goes through Geraldine (State Highway 79) and the other option goes through Temuka, which lies just north of Timaru on State Highway 1.
The route that goes through Geraldine is in my opinion the most scenic route. However, if you are not in the mood for driving up hills and on winding roads, you can take a less scenic and slightly longer route that goes via Temuka (see alternative route 1). This route is also the least busy; you won’t find many cars on it. I sometimes drive it for that exact reason.
After you reach State Highway 1, there is just one short route to Christchurch, which is to continue driving on State Highway 1. There is nothing scenic about State Highway 1 unless you are driving south toward Dunedin. After passing Timaru on your way to Dunedin, you would get glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.
As you may have noticed, I’ve worked backward and told you how to drive from Mount Cook to Christchurch.
So to drive on the shortest, most scenic route from Christchurch to Mount Cook, drive from Christchurch to Rangitata on State Highway 1, then take State Highway 79 to Geraldine and Fairlie, get onto State Highway 8 to Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, and then take State Highway 80 to Mt. Cook National Park.
This shortest route turns out to be approximately 330 km (205 mi) and you should be able to drive it in about 4 hours.
You can click here to see a map displaying the direct and shortest driving route from Christchurch to Mount Cook. There are also alternative routes you can follow to go from Christchurch to Mount Cook. They are explained below.
Note that apart from the bridges mentioned in the alternative routes below, there are four one-lane bridges (two long ones and two short ones) you will have to cross on State Highway 80 when you are driving toward Mount Cook National Park.
Alternative driving route 1 takes you from Christchurch via Temuka, Fairlie, and Tekapo to Mount Cook (see map). It is approximately 348 km (216 mi) long, and you avoid going through Geraldine, which also means that you avoid driving on a one-lane bridge.
Note that there are bridges on State Highway 1 that you will have to cross, but they are not one-lane bridges.
This route is not very scenic. You’ll see mostly flat land at first and then farmland and woodlands before reaching Fairlie. The only scenic part is as you are driving toward Lake Tekapo and then further on to Lake Pukaki.
I typically drive this route when I want to take it easy and avoid going up and down hills or driving on winding roads.
Alternative driving route 2 takes you from Christchurch via Darfield, Geraldine, Fairlie, and Tekapo to Mount Cook (see map).
This driving route is 357 km (222 mi) long and somewhat more scenic than alternative route 1.
You will have to cross a one-lane bridge over the Raikaia river and then another one-lane bridge before you reach Geraldine.
Note that you can briefly stop at the Raikaia river to enjoy scenic views of the river. For more ideas on brief stops along this route, check out Day 4 of the South Island 9-day itinerary: Mountain scenery.
Since this driving route runs partly along Inland Scenic Route 72, you can expect it to be pleasant on the eyes. But just like the direct route, alternative route 2 has several winding sections.
Alternative driving route 3 takes you from Christchurch via Timaru, Waimate, and Omarama to Mount Cook (see map). This route approaches Mount Cook from the south driving north on State Highway 8, so you avoid going through Tekapo.
This is the longest alternative route at 419 km (260 mi), but it is the least winding. Just like alternative route 1, it is not very scenic at first when you are driving on State Highway 1, but once you are driving on State Highway 83 toward Omarama, you can expect to start seeing mountains and lakes (Lake Waitaki, Lake Aviemore, and Lake Benmore).
This route goes past Benmore Dam and once you are in Omarama, you are not far from the Ahuriri Valley. If you want to stretch your legs, you could stop at Lake Benmore and do the Lake Benmore Peninsula walk.
You can expect to cross five bridges on this route.
Note: Roads can be changed or get closed. The information presented here was accurate when it was gathered.
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