Leaving Queenstown, on a trip across to Wanaka, there’s a road choice to be made - through the gorge, or up and over. If conditions are favourable, there’s a lot to be said for taking the high road, following the Crown Range and heading to the Cardrona Valley.
You won’t be disappointed.
New Zealand’s highest main road
The Crown Range lies between Queenstown and Wanaka. We’re told that the road over the range, the Crown Range Road, is the highest main road in New Zealand. It reaches an altitude of 1121 metres, meaning tremendous views - but also potential challenges.
In winter, the road can be snowy and icy, making for tricky driving conditions. Check the road, make sure you’ve got chains on board, and keep left. Take your time, no need to rush. There’s a few stops to be made.
As they say, it’s about the journey, not just the destination.
First stop, Crown Terrace
The road starts just past Lake Hayes - there’s a clearly marked turnoff. The road zigzags up to the Crown Terrace and from there you can look down to Arrowtown in the Arrow Valley, and across to the Remarkables Range. Looks remarkable.
And the Crown Terrace is a large flat and fertile area, spot the crops and New Zealand wildlife - sheep - through high country stations, Glencoe Station and Eastburn Station.
Next stop, the Summit
Further on, the road climbs steeply to the summit, where you'll see Frankton, part of Lake Wakatipu, and the airport through to Queenstown. On a bronze plaque read about the historic summit, at 1076 metres, being the highest sealed road in New Zealand…not strictly correct (there are higher sealed roads elsewhere). But the Crown Saddle is the highest sealed pass, just a bit higher than the Desert Road summit on state highway 1 in the central north island.
There’s even more impressive views, from a walk up the track to the lookout.
Another stop, the Cardrona Valley
And then, heading down, the road follows a creek which becomes the Cardrona River, flowing down a beautiful tussock valley opening out at the small settlement of Cardrona. On the left is the Crown Range, on the right the Criffle Range. The land around here is old gold mining country, heavily populated during Central Otago’s gold rush of the 1860s.
Pull into the town of Cardrona, now just a little settlement, but once briefly having a population of several thousand gold prospectors. Just imagine that.
You’ll come across an historic hotel, one of New Zealand's oldest. A tremendous spot and stop, to check out the history of gold rush days - hot chips, hot pots, hot (and cold) drinks. And very popular, after about mid-afternoon each winter day, when skiers come off Mount Cardrona and head in for warmth and refreshment, to share tall stories of ski adventures. Après ski indeed.
And Cardrona offers a general store - for coffee and ice cream, a distillery - for something stronger, and historic site spots along the road to Wanaka. There’s also a bra fence (that’s right) to check out and read the story about….
A bit further on, and you’ve reached Wanaka, another alpine town treasure to explore - and an excellent selection of eateries, food stores and food producers here to explore, to stave off a traveller’s hunger.
So that was the Crown Range and Cardona Valley - stunning views, impressive tussock and rock landscapes, and (in the winter) roadside stops for snow experiences - quite the New Zealand road trip highway.
Your road trip companion…
To find more on The FoodPath NZ’s handpicked eateries and food producers, for our collection of spot on New Zealand food moments to check out on your next New Zealand trip, including the road trip from Queenstown to Wanaka through the Cardrona Valley, download The FoodPath NZ guide here.