Travel Diary » New Zealand Road Trip: Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier
We've seen some amazing scenery in our travels. Exploring Crete by car, snowy mountains in Bulgaria by bus and driving a campervan across outback NSW and Victoria, not to mention the Great Ocean Road in Australia. We also caught a train from Athens to Thessaloniki in Greece with the most amazing mountain views, and the train to Ella in Sri Lanka through huge mountains and tea plantations (which definitely still counts as the travel day we've enjoyed the most in our travels, who doesn't like hanging out of a train watching the world roll by!). All of them have been amazing.
BUT the scenery we saw along the 5 hour drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast of New Zealand's south island beats anything we've seen so far. Almost every second of the drive is breath-taking. Steep, sharp mountains peaked in snow. Lakes so blue you'd almost think someone has been photoshopping nature. Creeks with water so clear it's almost invisible and impossibly wide rocky riverbeds. Waterfalls around every corner. Green hills filled with baby lambs and calves. Beaches and stunning coastal cliffs. Everything from arid mountains where nothing grows to peaks covered in dense forest so thick and wet you wouldn't be surprised if some primordial dinosaur wandered out from the saturated ferns.
If you are in New Zealand it’s definitely a great family drive – although either give yourself at least 8 hours to complete the 5 hour trip or do it over two days as there are so many places you’ll want to stop along the way to check out. Beaches along the edges of lakes, playgrounds, lookouts, waterfalls, short walks, creeks. We spent the whole drive wishing we had more time to stop but we were meeting friends in Franz Josef that afternoon. We were tempted to cancel all our plans to drive around the island and after the glaciers just come back this way spending several days exploring the area.
The first hour of the drive takes you from Queenstown to Wanaka over the Crown Ranges. It's steep and winding - an easy enough drive but enough to make little Miss 5 a tiny bit car sick. The first 15 minutes takes you up to a tablelands with amazing views out over Queenstown and Arrowtown. There are a few walks that you can stop at but of course we didn't have time.
The kids spent most of the trip telling us everything they knew about the early settlers, as they've been learning about this at school. We had some fun discussions on what it would have been like to drive a horse and buggy through this range. You can just imagine how many people would have got caught in bad weather up here as the conditions change quickly.
This was our first visit to Wanaka. It's a gorgeous town of around 10,000 people along the edge of Lake Wanaka. Noah and Hayley made a discovery that probably would have put a halt to our day’s driving if we didn’t have to get to the glaciers – one of the best playgrounds we’ve seen in years right at the edge of the lake.
A beach, a playground, a creek and bike path … with coffee shops, gourmet ice cream and a microbrewery nearby. Win-win for everyone!
Without a doubt, this 2 hour section of the drive was the highlight (well for the adults, the stegasaurous park was of course the highlight for the kids).
The bright blue waters of Lake Hawea are unbelievable. Add in jagged snow capped mountains sloping right down to the waters edge and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful spot anywhere. If anyone has a spare houseboat they want to sell us we may have found our retirement spot!
After Lake Hawea the road meets up with the top of Lake Wanaka. At one point the road was down to one lane as they tried to clear a recent landslide. Along the whole 5 hours of the drive we saw a lot of old landslides but mostly in the distance so it was pretty amazing to get up so close to one. And I do mean close ...
And then it was onto the Mt Aspiring National Park. I lost count of the number of places Colin had picked out along the creeks through the national park to build his dream eco-cabin on. Of course this is national park and New Zealand so it will never happen … but he can dream!
We stopped at one of the many waterfalls, Thunder Creek Falls. All of the falls along the route are just a short walk off the road so it’s easy to visit a couple.
Eventually we hit the coast and the tiny town of Haast. Actually it only seemed tiny at first – after a couple of days on the west coast of New Zealand we’ve redefined what tiny means.
The final two hours along the west coast was lovely. Beaches and headlands, coastal lakes and walking trails. Just like everywhere else along the drive, you could spend a week just exploring a two hour section of the road and still have more to see. I didn't get many photos of this section - by this point we were running late and the kids were sick of being in the car so requests to slow down or stop so Mum could take a photo were not taken kindly by anyone else!
Not to mention the clouds had rolled in so what you don't see in this photo is the taller range of snow capped mountains behind these.
Finally we reached Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, and the first cellphone coverage we’d had in four hours. This area really does redefine remote!
We found a camping ground for the night and went off to meet the family from Flashpacker Family for a swim at some hot pools and dinner. Not a bad way to end a long drive!
The drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef or Fox Glacier takes approximately 5 hours without stops. Depending on the weather and conditions it can take longer. There are also a lot of single lane bridges so if you are driving through here during holidays you make need to wait at a few of the bridges - although I can't imagine the road ever really being busy!
With a couple of toilet breaks, a short stop or two to take photos, a playground visit, lunch and one waterfall where we only stopped for a few minutes the total drive took us 7 hours. With kids, I'd honestly recommend allowing at least 8 hours if not longer. It's a long way and there are plenty of amazing places to stop along the way.
Petrol stations are scarce, particularly after Lake Hawea. You can get fuel at the top of Lake Wanaka at Makarora but after that there's no fuel stops until Haast. After Haast, Fox Glacier township is really your next possible petrol stop. The same goes for stores to buy food and supplies at, and toilet stops!
Cellphone coverage is limited to within town boundaries and even then you might not get any. We couldn't get coverage at Haast, although perhaps if we had of gone into the town centre we might have been able to get some.
Mosquitoes at the waterfalls and creeks along the way can be rather vicious. Pack plenty of repellent. They are a general problem all along the west coast apparently, although we didn't get bitten during our time there.
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday run by Budget Travelers Sandbox.