Lake Pukaki to Queenstown road trip is the most spectacular drive in New Zealand, in my humble opinion. Between the dreamy-blue glacial lakes, the snow-covered ridges of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the rolling hills of the central Canterbury, you will find yourself constantly gawking out the car window in awe. We certainly did.
After spending the night in Twizel, we had an early start in the morning, eager to get on the road. The beauty of staying in Twizzel was that it took us only a few minutes to drive the 7km to Lake Pukaki in the morning. We had a full itinerary for the day – driving from Lake Pukaki to Glenorchy via a detour to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, with stops at various filming locations for the Lord of the Rings movies. So we had a quick breakfast in town and headed for Lake Pukaki.
Lake Pukaki is, no doubt, New Zealand’s most beautiful glacial lake. It is such a dreamy setting that you have to convince yourself that it is real. The first thing that arrests your attention is the surrealistic milky blue colour of the water. As soon as I saw the lake, I knew it would become one of the top highlights of our New Zealand round trip.
But while the colour of the lake definitely steals the show, the vastness of the landscape surrounding Lake Pukaki is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The lake itself is one of the biggest alpine lakes in New Zealand, and the peaks of Mt Cook National Park are some of the highest in the country. There are virtually no signs of human settlement, just the startlingly blue lake, golden tussocked hills and magnificent snow-capped mountains.
When was Lake Pukaki formed?
During the last ice age, a massive glacier extended from the Southern Alps to the northwestern edge of the Mackenzie Basin. In geology, this ice-age glacier is known as Pukaki Glacier.
About 18,000 years ago, the climate began to warm, and the glacier started to retreat, leaving behind a valley that Lake Pukaki now fills. The glaciers of Aoraki or Mt Cook National Park are the remnants of the Pukaki glacier.
Why is Lake Pukaki so blue?
The Lake is fed by the flow from the Tasman and Hooker glaciers, which provides the lake with its distinctive turquoise colour. As the glaciers move, they grid the rock and produce fine rock particles known as glacial flour. These tiny rock particles scatter sunlight resulting in the bright turquoise colour of the water.
Can you swim in Lake Pukaki?
Yes, you can swim in Lake Pukaki. But don’t forget that it is a glacial lake so the water will be freezing. And choose your swimming spot carefully, or you’ll end up in dozens of people’s happy snap.
Hobbit filming location at Lake Pukaki
It is not surprising that the dreamy lake Pukaki was used as the filming location for the ‘Lake-town’ scenes in Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug movie. While the best-known location, Hobbiton, is located on the North Island, most of the scenes in the trilogy were filmed among the stunning landscapes of the South Island. The exact filming location for the Lake-town is the Tasman Downs Station.
The Braemar Station off State Highway 8 between Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo was also used as a filming location in Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This is where Gandalf guides the Dwarves down through a crack in the rocks as they are fleeing Warg attack.
Walking trails at Lake Pukaki
There are some short walks at Lake Pukaki that provide an opportunity to explore the area and to spend some more time in this dreamland.
Pukaki Kettlehole Track
This 4km loop track starts near the Pukaki River Spillway, between the Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo. It is signposted off the southern side of State Highway 8, and there is a designated parking area. The track takes you to a distinct kettle hole in the Pukaki Kettle Hole Scenic Reserve. The walk takes about 1 hour to complete
Lake Pukaki Track
This 13km return track starts on the lakeside of State Highway 8, near the starting point for the Pukaki Kettlehole Walk. This stunning walk follows the southern end of Lake Pukaki with the backdrop of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. It takes about 4 hours to complete.
This 10-minute walk takes you on a short climb to Pukaki Bouders and allows you to experience the geological history of the lake. The boulders were deposited here by the Tasman Glacier over 10,000 years ago. The walk starts on Highway 80 (the road to Aoraki/Mout Cook National park. Look out for a parking area not far from the turnoff from Highway 8
After exploring Lake Pukaki, we followed the road along its north shore, and it took us to Lake Tekapo. While Tekapo is not as impressive as its bigger neighbour and somewhat more developed, it is nonetheless stunning. There is a small old church perched on the shore of the lake and a field of wild deep purple flowers that land even more colour contrast to an already colourful landscape.
The area is also part of the UNESCO Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – meaning that it is a great spot for watching the night sky if you decide to stay overnight.
After a brief exploratory wander around Lake Tekapo, we resumed our Lake Pukaki to Queenstown road trip. But via a spectacular detour to visit Aoraki/Mount Cook National park. The drive itself was quite spectacular, framed by the glimmering waters of the lake on one side, tussock covered ranges on the other and towering peaks of the mountains ahead. The park covers over 700 km², and glaciers make up 40% of the park’s area.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
Aoraki is home to most of New Zealand’s tallest peaks, including the country’s highest mountain, Mt Cook at 3753 meters and Mt Tasman. A day ago, we stood on the Fox glacier near the summit of Mt Cook, and now we were approaching the mountain from the opposite (eastern) side. This side of the National Park was a towering wall of jagged peaks covered by the flowing ice of the Sefton Glacier. The strikingly beautiful scenery of Mt Cook served as the representation of the Pass of Caradhras in The Fellowship of the Ring movie.
The mountains of the Southern Alps are considered to be quite young – less than ten million years old, and they are still building at a rate of 5-10 mm per year. It’s estimated that approximately 25 km of build-up has occurred, however, weather erosion is counteracting the build-up.
Unfortunately, our packed schedule did not allow enough time to explore the National Park properly. However, the 40 min drive along the lakeshore towards the towering peaks gave us a deep appreciation of the vastness of the landscape. We visited the kiosk at the park’s entrance and enjoyed some hot tea in the fresh alpine air. But there are many more things to do at Mount Cook if you have more time.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park hikes
There are so many spectacular hikes in Aoraki that you could probably spend here a week exploring them all. However, if you don’t have a week, these two tracks will give you an epic introduction to the Southern Alps.
Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track is a largely flat 10 km return track that will take about 3 hours to complete. This track passes through spectacular mountainous scenery, crosses three swing bridges to arrive at the iceberg-speckled Hooker Lake.
Sealy Tarns Track
For a more strenuous hike, take Sealy Tarns Track. The fact that this track has been nicknamed ‘stairway to heaven’ gives you an idea of the beauty to can expect to encounter. But you will have to work hard for it – there are 2,200 steps that take you up to the lakes of Sealy Tarns. It takes 3-4 hours to complete
Central Otago and Gondor
From Mt Cook National Park, we started the long drive back to Glenorchy. For a long time, the road travelled through the rolling hills of the Central Otago – the site of LOTR’s Gondor and the Pelennor Fields, and then it ventured into the wine country of Cromwell and the rugged hills of Kawarau Gorge.
Kawarau Gorge and Pillars of Argonath
We stopped at the Wild Earth winery that sits on the top of the gorge. Kawarau Gorge is the setting for one of my favourite scenes in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy – the Pillars of Argonath. The pillars were off course, digitally inserted later in the studio, but the bright green-blue water of the Kawarau river is easily recognizable from the film.
In the late afternoon, we reached the quaint Arrowtown, one of the most picturesque settlements on the South Island, about 20 min drive from Queenstown. It was established in 1862, during the gold rush era, and today, practically every building in town is Heritage-listed. The town’s main street, Buckingham street, is lined with original buildings that have been converted to cafes, restaurants, bars and multiple shops brimming with sheepskin products and other New Zealand.
We had a very late lunch in town, cruised along Buckingham street and picked up a few t-shirts and souvenirs to take home. It was already getting dark when we left Arrowtown.
By the time we arrived in Glenorchy, it was pitch black. We spent a while driving up and down Coll road trying to find our Airbnb bunker from the set of the Vertical Limit until we finally gave up and knocked on the door of a house at the end of the road. The door was opened by an elderly man, who promptly fetched his daughter, who then fetched her husband, who jumped on the bicycle to show us the way to the right house to our absolute relief and amazement.
The bunker was incredibly cozy. In fact, it was two bankers: a bigger one that contained a kitchenette and a smaller one that was just a bedroom. We quickly settled in and fell asleep to the sounds of neighing and galloping horses next door.
It is quite easy to drive all the way from Lake Pukaki to Queenstown, but we wanted to spend some extra time in lovely Glenorchy.
In the morning, we woke up to the views of Mt Earnshaw out of our bunker’s windows. We were looking at the mountain used as a filming location for the crossing of the Pass of Karadrass in the Lord of the Rings movie from the window of the bunker used on the Vertical set Limit. Glenorchy was certainly living up to its fame as New Zealand’s film industry capital.
Glenorchy Mangrove Walkway
Before the sun was fully up, I took a walk along the mangrove walkway. The walkway begins at the jetty, and as the sun was rising, I watched the morning mist lift off the lake.
There was nobody on the trail so early, and I felt like I had the entire place to myself. Of course, the trail itself wasn’t as spectacular as most places that we visited in New Zealand in the past week. Still, the tranquillity of the early morning, the chirping of the birds and the reflection of the snow-capped Mt Earnslaw in the still surface of the lake more than compensated for the lack of the ‘wow’ sights.
When I returned from the walk, I finally had the chance to see the bunkers in daylight. On the outside, devoid of any creature comforts, they looked even more rudimentary than they did on the inside. But somehow, it only added to their charm.
We explored the area around Glenorchy on a previous visit to town, so after breakfast, we packed up and started making our way back to Queenstown, enjoying the views along the way in bright sunshine.
In all our driving across New Zealand, we noticed how sparsely populated the country was compared to Australia. It was not uncommon not to see another vehicle on the road for an hour. The landscapes that the roads travelled through didn’t look as tired and overgrazed as they often do in the Australian countryside.
Roadkill on New Zealand’s roads
Another thing we noticed while driving in NZ is the staggering amount of road-killed brushtail possums. The possums were introduced to New Zealand in the 1800s to develop the fur trade, and like most such introductions, it turned into a disaster. In the absence of natural predators, brushtail possums have spread throughout most parts of NZ and now number in their tens of millions.
Apart from playing a role in the spread of bovine tuberculosis and causing economic damage, the exploded population of possums is altering the composition of New Zealand’s forests by selectively browsing some of the native species and putting additional pressure on populations of native birds through egg and chick predation.
While the New Zealand Conservation Department is attempting to control the possum population through poisoning champagnes, total eradication of the unwanted invaders doesn’t seem feasible.
And in an unexpected twist, high possum mortality on the roads turned out to have a gruesome side effect on New Zealand’s birds of prey. New Zealand falcon and Australian harrier hawk, both species common in the countryside, are opportunistic scavengers that are often attracted to roadkill.
Unfortunately, as they feed, their talons lock on the body of their prey, effectively anchoring them to the highway. When the bird is spooked by an approaching vehicle, its immediate reaction is to lift off. Still, the possum that it was feeding on is just too heavy for the bird to lift, and the car is approaching too fast for the bird to realize it, and so the bird itself gets mowed down on the highway right next to its dinner.
We spent the rest of the day in Queenstown dining, shopping, watching street musicians and picking up last-minute souvenirs. Seven days wasn’t anywhere near enough to properly explore the island, but it was enough to get a good sense of the place, which in reality is all that most of us – modern-day travellers get from our short trips away.
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