Heading northwards from Christchurch to Nelson is a popular self-drive route for many travellers in New Zealand. The twisting turning road takes you through an ever changing landscape of rural farmland, coastal panoramas and subtropical forests.
The entire trip from Christchurch to Nelson can be made in a single (fairly long) day, or you can break the journey up into multiple fun-filled stops to enjoy the amazing views, delicious food and lots of fun activities.
How Long Is The Drive From Nelson To Christchurch?
Driving nonstop the road trip from Christchurch to Nelson will take around 5 and a half hours (at a distance of 416 km) when taking the shortest route inland past Hanmer Springs, Maruia and Murchison.
The scenic coastal route through Kaikoura and Blenheim will take about a half hour longer coming in at around 6 hours total (424km).
Lets Get Started…
Christchurch is the gateway to the South island, what better place to begin your road trip to the sunny seaside town of Nelson and beyond!
Starting your journey from Christchurch, the Garden City offers visitors lots to see and do. If you have the kids in tow the Margaret Mahy Playground is the perfect place to entertain and amuse. Try Orana Park for an up close encounter with a Giraffe, or the iconic Arts Centre on Worcester Street for some boutique arts and crafts.
The Christchurch Gondola is always a favourite, the views from the top are stunning or enjoy one of the many walks along the Port Hills on a sunny day. Punting on the Avon is one of those ‘must-do’ activities in Christchurch, along with riding the Tram. See here for more fun things to do in Christchurch, or read about the Christchurch Gondola and the Port Hills walking tracks here.
Amberley And Waipara
Leaving Christchurch, heading north on State Highway 1 you will pass through Kaiapoi, Amberley and Waipara. Amberley is a great place for a quick coffee and a stroll along the beach. Waipara is a fantastic wine district, with many world-class wineries where you can sample the local vintage, accompanied with delicious food.
Decision Time – Inland Over The Lewis Pass Or Coastal Via Kaikoura?
From Waipara you can choose one of two ways to get to Nelson; the inland route via the Lewis Pass, or the coastal route via Kaikoura.
1. Christchurch To Nelson Inland Route Via Lewis Pass
Taking the inland route, turn onto State Highway 7 just before making it to Waipara. This road takes you up through the Lewis Pass into the Southern Alps. Spend the night at Hanmer Springs along the way for a relaxing stay in this traditional alpine village complete with hot springs.
Or camp out in the Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve for a more of a back-to-nature experience. Around Maruia Springs and the Nelson Lakes National Park you will find walking tracks, many signposted along the side of the road, all of which take you through some great examples of New Zealand’s pristine native forest.
A great place to refuel both the rental car and its passengers, Murchison is the gateway to the beautiful Kahurangi National Park, Murchison has good access to white water rafting, kayaking and jet boating and of course many, many walking tracks within the National Park.
Fly fishing, hunting and water based activities are all popular at nearby Lake Rotoroa along with the opportunity to camp at the water’s edge in the Lake Rotoroa Campsite.
From Lake Rotoroa it is roughly an hour and thirty minutes’ drive into the Nelson city centre. Stop off in Brightwater for a coffee break or get ahead and check out the local wineries nearby (there are five within 5 minutes’ drive of Brightwater!).
2. Christchurch To Nelson Coastal Route Via Kaikoura
Continuing along State Highway 1 instead of turning off at Waipara will take you on to Nelson via the Coastal Route. Hugging the eastern coast of the South Island, this route will take you through the Greta Valley, through Cheviot, meeting up with the coast at a place called Oaro.
Feeling adventurous? Take a 4WD bike tour with the team at Glenstrae 4 Wheel Adventures just off State highway 1 about five minutes before reaching Oaro. Or head down the road a little to South Pacific Safaris New Zealand for an epic hunting experience you will never forget.
From Oaro it is just a short 30 minute drive on to Kaikoura. Time for an overnight stop and a chance to recharge – especially if you like seafood! One of the many things Kaikoura is known for is its abundance of seafood and sea life, take the time to check it out first hand on an epic fishing charter or take the easy road and just book a table at one of the local seafood restaurants and cafes – either way you won’t be disappointed!
From Kaikoura the road hugs the coast as it winds its way towards Blenheim. The Ohau Point Look Out is a good place for a quick photo op – keep a look out for fur seals along this part of the coastline there are several colonies that make it their home for parts of the year. Always remember to be respectful of New Zealand’s wildlife and keep a distance of 20 metres or more between you and the seals at all times, never feed the fur seals at Kaikoura or any other wildlife you encounter in New Zealand.
Hitting the road again it’s time to make your way to Blenheim, roughly an hour and a half from the Ohau Point Look Out. Blenheim provides a good range of shopping and activities for a good day out or overnight stay. Check out the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre for some museum style action or stop by one of the many…. many vineyards in the area to sample some fresh local produce and superb New Zealand wines.
The drive through to Nelson from Blenheim takes around an hour and a half when following the more direct route along State Highway 6 through Havelock and the Rai Valley. However if you have the time it is worth travelling a little further along State Highway 1 up to Picton and along the coastal road past Shakespeare Bay and the Whenuanui Bay Scenic Reserve.
This very scenic route is a little slow and the road is full of twists and turns but it is a great little addition to the Christchurch to Nelson road trip and you might even find your new favourite-place-to-be in NZ among the beautiful inlets and bays along the way.
You Have Arrived
Nelson is one of those places you will never want to leave, beautiful beaches, sunny days and stunning National Parks!
Your arrival in Nelson doesn’t mean the trip is over just yet. Famous for its excellent weather, exciting artistic community and superb organic foods, Nelson is also the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, which is full of amazing walks and tramps.
Before you do anything else though, you have to go soak up some sun and relax on the beach at Tahunanui. The kids will love the playground and the beach is great for swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, wind surfing, beach volley ball and just walking along dipping your toes in the waves.
For an even longer New Zealand holiday, why not make it a return trip using the opposite route? The Christchurch to Nelson road trip makes for an excellent loop journey, show casing the very best of the top of the South Island. Only making the trip one way? Book affordable one way car hire from USAVE Car Rental.