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Scenic drives in New Zealand: Franz Josef to Wanaka

We take a look at the best scenic drives in New Zealand beginning with the South Island’s West Coast and the drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka.

Beautiful mountain scapes in Franz Josef

In our opinion, the best scenic drives in New Zealand are in the South Island. We’re definitely a little biased (as we live in the south) but ask anyone, the roads down here are truly spectacular. One of our favourites is the drive from Franz Josef down the West Coast to Wanaka.

WHERE

This trip tracks down the West Coast through the breathtaking Haast Pass, into the heart of the Southern Alps. You’ll travel through the spectacular glacier region, two national parks and past two of New Zealand's largest lakes, Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. From coastal scrub, rain forest, glaciers and native bush, to alpine tussock lands, lakes and mountains - this road showcases the best of South Island scenery all in one go.

Beginning in Franz Josef continue to Fox Glacier only a short distance away. Chances are, you’ll have already taken the time to see the Franz Josef glacier - but come on, how often would you get to see TWO glaciers in one day! So we recommend stopping for a look at this one also. As you leave Fox begin traversing the coast to the small seaside settlement of Haast. With lush native forest one side and the wild Tasman Sea on the other, the views are spectacular wherever you look.

Stop at Knights Point lookout where elephant seals can often be seen basking on the rocks, before continuing on to Haast where you’ll begin the journey through the World Heritage Area, Haast Pass. A winding inland journey, leave the coast behind and head through a pristine world of rainforest, waterfalls and rushing rivers.

Crossing the Haast River you’ll come to Makarora, known as the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park. There are many stunning walks in and around this small town so, as we mentioned earlier, it pays to have plenty of time up your sleeve. From Makarora, it’s a short distance through alpine scenery and snow capped mountains to Lake Hawea and your destination, Lake Wanaka.

Lake Wanaka from Roy's Peak

DISTANCE

A little over 288 kilometres or 178 miles, the drive will take three and a half to four hours. But we recommend you allow an entire day for travelling. That way you can make the most of the photo stops and walks on offer.

PHOTO STOPS AND MUST-DO SIDE TRIPS

  • Fox Glacier. Although you will have seen the Franz Josef glacier, it's worth stopping for a look at the Fox Glacier as well. The two glaciers are surprisingly different.
  • Lake Matheson. Located just outside Fox Glacier, this track is an easy 40 minute walk to Lake Matheson, a crystal clear mirror lake with unsurpassed views and mountain reflections.
  • Knights Point Lookout. Located at the beginning of the Haast Highway, Poor Knights is a must do for spectacular views of the rugged coast. Elephant seals often bask in the sun here, so if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse.
  • Jackson Bay. Well worth the 37 minute detour, Jackson Bay is quiet fishing village with picture perfect views, south of Haast.
  • Thunder Creek Falls. Just off the Haast Highway, this easy 5 minute walk follows a sealed track to the spectacular 28 metres high Thunder Creek Falls.
  • Haast Blue Pools. The most known walk within the Haast Pass region, the Blue Pools is another gentle stroll through native beech forest. 30 minutes in total, you’ll cross a high swing bridge to arrive at the icy glacier-fed Blue Pools.