7 must-see locations for a Canterbury road trip

Looking for something different on your next South Island trip? It can be very tempting just to head straight for the most popular tourist destinations like Queenstown/Wanaka or Tekapo/Mt Cook. But if you do, you'll miss out on the many amazing and unique places in the Canterbury region, these are all within 2-2.5 hours drive from Christchurch - and some locations are even doable as a day trip. Christchurch makes a good hub, from here you can go either north, west or south (clearly you can't head due east or you'll end up all the way in South America haha!) to experience some very different and beautiful scenery.

Taking this route will give you opportunities to experience snowcapped mountains and pristine alpine lakes, impressive waterfalls and braided river valleys, as well as NZ's stunning coastline and diverse wildlife - all in the space of a few days.

road to arthurs pass
Road to Arthurs Pass

This route works well as a 6 night, 7 day road trip from Christchurch starting in Kaikoura and ending in Akaroa, staying in Kaikoura, Hanmer Springs, Arthurs Pass, Ashburton Lakes (2 nights) and Akaroa. Here are the must-see locations to enjoy along the way:

7 locations for a Canterbury road trip: 

Kaikoura

Travel time: 2 hours 30 from Christchurch (north)

Kaikoura is a marvel. Not only is it home to some of NZ's most diverse marine and bird life, but there are very few places in New Zealand where you can watch waves crash on shore with a backdrop of incredible snowcapped peaks. The journey time here can be a bit variable, due to ongoing road repairs from the 2016 earthquake, so it's best to allow yourself at least a night if you come to visit. No trip here would be complete without choosing one of the offshore nature activities, whether that's whale watching, swimming with the dolphins, or an albatross encounter.

mountains sea pink sunrise kaikoura
Pink sunrise from Kaikoura's shore
whale watching kaikoura
Sperm whale tail aboard a Whale Watch Kaikoura excursion

If you have the time to spare, it's also worth journeying 20 minutes further north out of town to enjoy the expansive views across Maungamanu Bay (famed for its surfing) and to visit the seal colony at Ohau Point. If you don't have time to go this far, at least drive out to Point Kean which is part of the Peninsula Walkway and you're sure to encounter some seals here - don't forget that they are wild animals and keep your distance!

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Golden morning at Maungamanu Bay

Hanmer Springs

Travel time: 1 hour 45 from Christchurch (north east)

Hanmer Springs is not just a place to come for a hot soak, there are some gorgeous panoramic views to experience both on the drive there and surrounding the town itself. You can park up at the bridge just outside Hanmer Springs for a panoramic view up and down the Waiau River, it's particularly gorgeous around sunrise and sunset.  

hanmer springs bridge sunrise waiau river
Waiau River Bridge at sunrise
waiau river hanmer springs
Golden hour looking up the Waiau River

And if you're feeling energetic, you can also take the short hike up Conical Hill that starts from the middle of town - it's only about a half hour walk to the top, and there are gorgeous views on the way up across the plain to the Tekoa range in the distance.

conical hill view hanmer springs
View over Hanmer Springs on Conical Hill walk

Castle Hill & Cave Stream

Travel time: 1 hour 20 from Christchurch (west)

Heading west towards Arthurs Pass, these are the first real points of interest you'll see after leaving the Canterbury Plains, and you can easily visit them in a day if you're not already on your way through to Greymouth and the West Coast. Castle Hill is a fascinating natural phenomenon, and you can easily lose yourself for hours here exploring all the rock formations. If you have kids, they'll find a myriad of ways to entertain themselves whether that's playing mock shootouts or clambering all over the rocks.

castle hill golden hour canterbury
Golden winter afternoon exploring Castle Hill
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Summer day overlooking Castle Hill

Just five minutes further up the road is Cave Stream, but blink and you might miss the turnoff. Cave Stream is a well-known caving location, but be warned caving in here is not for the faint of heart and you need to make sure that it's safe before attempting this. I have heard a horror story of someone almost dying trying to make it up the waterfall at the other end when the water was flowing very fast. It's worth the steep, short stroll down to the river to see the cave entrance if nothing else!

cave stream canterbury
Exploring the entrance to Cave Stream

Arthurs Pass, Devils Punchbowl Falls & Otira Viaduct

Travel time: 2 hours from Christchurch, 40 mins from Cave Stream (west)

If you've made it this far, you'd be silly not to carry on as far as Arthurs Pass. Crossing the Waimakariri River you'll enjoy expansive views up the river towards the Southern Alps, and you'll find the Arthurs Pass village not long after this.

waimakariri river crossing arthurs pass
Crossing the Waimakariri River

There are two lovely waterfalls to see here, Devils Punchbowl Falls is definitely the most impressive but it is a reasonably steep 45 minute climb to the base with quite a few stairs along the way. If you don't have the time or inclination to go the whole way, you can get a nice view from the river after only a 5-10 minute flat walk.

devils punchbowl falls arthurs pass
Devil's Punchbowl Falls

Nestled just behind the village is the very quaint Avalanche Creek Falls, and the old stone bridge crossing the lower falls makes a nice vantage point OR as a subject to frame in your shot.

avalanche creek falls arthurs pass
Lower Avalance Creek Falls

Otira Viaduct is only another five minutes up the road, and if you haven't already encountered kea in the village, this is surely your best chance to see NZ's endangered native parrot, as many inhabit this area. I've certainly seen them most times I've stopped in here to admire the view down the valley. The viaduct is one of NZ's greatest engineering feats, built to make the pass to the West Coast safer from a very hazardous section of road suffering from frequent rockfalls. Costing $25 million to build and completed in only three years, it was and still a very impressive construction project.

otira viaduct nz kea
Otira Viaduct with NZ's native kea

Rakaia Gorge

Travel time: 1 hour from Christchurch (south west)

If you're travelling south from Christchurch towards Tekapo and Mt Cook, you can easily take the route via Rakaia Gorge with not much extra time added, and it's a far more scenic road to travel than staying on the very long and boring drive down State Highway One. Even just stopping near the bridge to admire the colour of the river is worth it, but if you can spare the time to walk 30 minutes up the gorge to the first viewpoint you'll be rewarded with scenic views towards Mount Hutt range. We were thrilled to come upon a grove of kowhai trees with several native bellbirds darting among the trees on our way to the lookout.

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Rakaia Gorge Lower Lookout
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Rare sighting of NZ's Bellbird

Ashburton Lakes

Travel time: 2 hours from Christchurch (south west)

This area goes by many names: Ashburton Lakes (though it's a good hour inland from Ashburton), Hakatere Conservation Park, or you might also hear people mention the lakes by their individual names: Lake Heron, Lake Camp and Lake Clearwater. Further inland is Mount Sunday, famous for its role in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as Edoras: the home of the Rohan people.

To be honest, this area deserves a whole post of its own (which I'll do next), it's an area of astounding beauty nestled in valleys between incredible mountain peaks and with huge braided river valleys. It's hard to pick a favourite spot in this area, but for me the view across Lake Camp towards Mt D'Archaic (NZ's tallest peak between Mt Cook and the Kaikoura range) is hard to beat.

lake camp reflections ashburton lakes
Incredible morning reflections at Lake Camp

Coming a close second though, is the view standing on the very top of Mount Sunday with 360 degree panoramic views up and down the Rangitata River. It's about a 45 minute walk to the top, which is pretty easy apart from the last five minutes which is a steep climb up the side of the ridge.

mt sunday edoras view canterbury
Views over the Rangitata Valley towards Cloudy Peak and Mt D'Archaic

Akaroa & Banks Penninsula

Travel time: 1 hour 30 from Christchurch (south east)

Akaroa was somewhere else I hadn't explored much until a year or so ago and now I've been three times. It's a drive of two halves from Christchurch, flat and gentle all the way to Little River and then incredibly windy and steep as you make the journey over French Hill to Akaroa. Driving around four scenic bays to get there, Duvauchelle is a favourite with its quaint boat sheds lining the shore. Akaroa is another place where wildlife abounds, whether you take a trip out to Pohatu Penguins or a dolphin cruise in the harbour.

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Akaroa Wharf at dusk

The township has a beautiful waterfront including a spectacular jetty that makes a nice composition, but for the best views you can take one of the roads above the town to get a real sense of the how the whole peninsula is laid out - it's easy to imagine this as the ancient volcano it was from this perspective.

akaroa harbour view
Views over Akaroa Harbour

And if you time it right during the Milky Way season, there are plenty of awesome places to capture the night sky on a clear night in Canterbury too!

milky way duvauchelle akaroa
Milky Way setting over Duvauchelle Bay

For more on exploring Akaroa, check out my post: 8 amazing ways to spend time in Akaroa.

Road Trip Itinerary:

To spend a week visiting these locations in Canterbury, here is the best route to take:

Day 1 - Christchurch to Kaikoura (2 1/2 hours)

Day 2 - Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs (2 hours)

Day 3 - Hanmer Springs to Arthurs Pass via Castle Hill & Cave Stream (3 hours 20 min)

Day 4 - Arthurs Pass to Ashburton Lakes via Rakaia Gorge (2 hours 45 min)

Day 5 - Ashburton Lakes

Day 6 - Ashburton Lakes to Akaroa (2 hours 45 min)

Day 7 - Akaroa to Christchurch (1 hour 30 min)

canterbury road trip route

I hope I have inspired you to visit some of these awesome Canterbury locations - if you can't fit all of them on your next South Island trip itinerary, at least pick one or two!

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