We know the spectacular South Island in New Zealand is on the top of so many travelers bucket lists! With its diverse landscape of snow-peaked mountains, incredible hikes, lakes of startling shades of blue, a rugged coastline, and majestic fiords, all in a relatively short distance from each other, the South Island of New Zealand makes for an unforgettable road trip.
Around every corner, it seems, there’s another stunning scenic spot.
Take a look through the following itineraries of the travel experts’ favourite South Island road trips.
Use the information to plan your own itinerary.
Find the locations that will best suit your needs.
In this post:
- Nelson to Queenstown
- PICTON TO QUEENSTOWN
- CHRISTCHURCH- 5 day Round Trip
- 16 DAY FAMILY CHRISTCHURCH ROUND TRIP
- christchurch to queenstown
- greymouth to wanaka
- haast pass to westport
- Lake tekapo to Queenstown
- queenstown to christchurch
- TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND
- Invercargill to Kaka Point THrough The Catlins
Nelson to Queenstown
Via the West Coast Nelson, the Pancake Rocks, Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers, Wanaka.
A West Coast of New Zealand road trip from Nelson to Queenstown is an adventurous journey that will provide you with a wealth of places to visit. I did this trip in a car during winter and although it was cold and wet at times, it was still enjoyable. The West Coast of the South Island has some of the best places to visit in the whole of New Zealand. You can check out the various wineries in Nelson, the incredible Pancake Rocks, the impressive Franz Josef or Fox Glaciers and visit the beautiful town of Wanaka.
During this trip, there are several excellent activities you can do too. One of my favourites was white water rafting on Buller Gorge, which is located between Murchison and Westport. It’s an exhilarating experience as you navigate your way through the rapids and try to dodge the water. If you do the trip in winter, you can also go skiing in the mountains above Queenstown and Wanaka. Again, this is another amazing experience, especially if it’s your first time skiing.
For the breadth of activities and places you get to see on this drive, it’s arguably the best road trip in New Zealand. There aren’t many trips where you can explore a subtropical forest one day, hurtle down rapids another, and stand in front of an imposing glacier a few days later! You can do this road trip all year round, though if you want to go skiing, it might be better to wait until the winter.
You can do the trip over seven days, or extend it a bit more if you want longer in places such as Franz Josef, Wanaka, or Abel Tasman. I loved this drive and if I was back in the South Island again, it’s one I’d do without thinking twice!
By Tom from The Travelling Tom
PICTON TO QUEENSTOWN
Via Kaikoura, Arthurs Pass National Park, Franz Josef Glacier & Wanaka
My husband and I went on a six-day summer road trip from Picton to Queenstown by car. The route for this road-trip-of-a-lifetime was Picton – Kaikoura – Arthur’s Pass National Park – Franz Josef Glacier – Wanaka – Queenstown.
The drive from Picton to Kaikoura is by the splendid sea-side. Ensure you stop at Ohau Point Lookout to observe a colony of seals basking on the rocks. When in Kaikoura, take a cliff-top walk on the Peninsula Walkway and go whale watching.
From Kaikoura, head to Arthur’s Pass Village through mountains with scree slopes and river beds strewn with pebbles. Stop midway at Castle Hill where large monolithic rocks stand amidst grass fields with white flowers. At Arthur’s Pass, hike to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls.
Next day, head to Franz Josef with midway stops at Otira Viaduct Lookout, Hokitika Beach and Hokitika Gorge to see milky blue water. The lush forests will lead you to Franz Josef Town where you can hike to the Franz Josef Glacier Terminal face. The Glacier Heli-Hike, albeit expensive, is our most memorable experience.
The breath-taking diversity on the road to Wanaka and Wanaka itself were the highlights of our trip. Start with a serene walk at lake Matheson, make a quick stop at Knight’s Point Lookout for sweeping ocean views, admire the Thunder Creek Falls, jump into the Blue Pools and stop at the lake lookouts. At Wanaka, photograph the famous Wanaka Tree, Hike Roy’s Peak and visit the lavender field.
Take the scenic Crown Range Road to Queenstown stopping at the picturesque Cardrona Hotel for a delicious bite. A detour to quaint Arrowtown will charm you as it did us. Finally, at Queenstown, take the Gondola up to Bob’s Peak for the best view of the town.
You can’t not try an adventure sport in Queenstown. We did the freestyle Ledge Bungee and were thrilled. Finally, the most epic short drive, was the one from Queenstown to Glenorchy. Do not miss it for the world!
By Trisha Agrawal from Try Wandering More
Will you be renting a Campervan or Motorhome for your road trip?
Click here to take a look at this checklist for important things you must do when COLLECTING your campervan to ensure a hassle free trip?
CHRISTCHURCH- 5 day Round Trip
From Christchurch via Kaikoura, Abel Tasman, Hanmer Springs & back to Christchurch
Starting and ending in Christchurch, this 5 day road trip will take you to three spectacular destinations: Kaikoura, Abel Tasman, and Hanmer Springs. It’s best done in the summer but would work well any time of year. I did the road trip while driving around the South Island with my boyfriend, but it would be suitable for solo travelers or families as well. We drove a car and stayed at hostels and Airbnbs along the way.
From Christchurch, drive three hours north to Kaikoura. You’ll want to spend two nights here. The big attraction in Kaikoura is the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins in the ocean or go whale watching. There are also some great hikes (check out the Kaikoura Peninsula at sunset) and a few companies do flight-seeing tours, which are expensive but incredible.
From Kaikoura, Abel Tasman National Park is a 4.5-hour drive. You should spend two nights in Abel Tasman. There are tons of great hikes (especially along the coastline), amazing beaches, boat tours, and kayaking. I recommend taking a full day tour kayaking tour with a boat ride included. The boat will take you deep into the park and from there you can explore by kayak the areas inaccessible to boats. It is here we found dozens of baby seals (one of which even jumped onto our kayak).
Rather than driving back the same way you came, set your GPS to go through Hanmer Springs, which is 4 hours from Abel Tasman. Hanmer Springs is home to some incredible (and luxurious) geothermal pools. There isn’t enough to do to justify spending a full day here, but take a few hours to relax in the pools before continuing your drive back to Christchurch, which is just under 2 hours away.
By Mikaela of Voyageur Tripper
16 DAY FAMILY CHRISTCHURCH ROUND TRIP
Via Akaroa, Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, Moeraki, Dunedin, Gore. Te Anau, Milford Sound & Fiordland, Queenstown, Wanaka, Fox Glacier, & Greymouth.
We did a 16-day campervan road trip with 2 kids under 8, starting and ending in Christchurch. Our trip was during winter and we travelled through both inland and around the southern parts of the South Island.
Our itinerary took us from Christchurch to Akaroa, back to Christchurch then Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki, Moeraki, Dunedin, Gore, Te Anau, Milford Sound and Fiordland, Queenstown, Wanaka, Fox Glacier, Greymouth, and back to Christchurch. Being a longer trip, we wanted comfort so we went with a luxury motorhome with Wilderness NZ, with gas heating to keep warm during winter.
The whole trip was incredible and we kept our itinerary very flexible, only planning a day or two ahead so we could adjust to stay longer in places we loved. Our favourite stop was Lake Tekapo. It is absolutely stunning, with turquoise waters that needs to be seen to be believed.
Other highlights we loved as a family, travelling with younger children, were the Katiki Point Reserve detour, to see over 100 fur seals in the wild. The kids loved feeding the ducks in Queenstown and tubing at the Snow Farm, near Wanaka. Each of these activities is either free or budget-friendly too!
We did mostly freedom camping throughout our road trip, with the occasional holiday park in places where there are no free campsites available. We highly recommend downloading a few of the NZ camping apps before your visit to help you find where to stay.
Overall, this has been one of our favourite family holidays so far and we would love to do the same journey in summer one year too!
By Holly Connors from Four Around The World
christchurch to dunedin
Via Ashburton Lakes, Mt Sunday, Timaru, Oamaru, & Moeraki Bolders
You are pretty much guaranteed epic scenery no matter where you drive in New Zealand, and the coastal trip between Christchurch and Dunedin is no exception. The 361 kilometre journey will take you over 4 hours, so it’s best to allocate a day for this drive to allow time for stops along the way.
A diversion out to Ashburton Lakes will appeal to fans seeking out Lord of The Rings locations. After 20 kilometres of unsealed road, Mt Sunday will appear off to the left, the location for Edoras in Rohan. Visitors can admire it from the car park or hike to the summit for panoramic views of the plains below. While this is a spectacular drive it will add roughly 4 hours to the day’s driving so it may be one for the hardcore road trippers.
If Mt Sunday isn’t your scene, break up the journey with a stop in the largest city in Canterbury, Timaru. Here you can stroll the beach or botanic gardens, or join in the summer carnival if you happen to be there on Boxing day. Next, stop by Holmes Wharf at Oamaru to check out the Steampunk-themed sculptures by the water and if you’re there at dusk the Blue Penguin colony returning from their day at sea.
The final must-see stop before you reach Dunedin is the Moeraki Boulders. Just an hour before you reach Dunedin, this is a curious spectacle of many large spherical boulders lying on Koekohe Beach that are the subject of Maori legends. This is a hugely popular tourist destination so expect a crowd, but with some creative angles, it is possible to get a great picture.
By Holly from Globeblogging
20 TOP TIPS FOR YOUR CAMPERVAN OR MOTOR HOME ROAD TRIP!
One of the very best ways to explore New Zealand is by motorhome or campervan. There are so very many scenic vistas that are simply not accessible by public transport.
We asked travel bloggers who had traveled New Zealand in a motorhome, to share with us their top tips to help you plan your road trip. Click here to check them out!
christchurch to queenstown
Via Burkes Pass, Tekapo, Mt Cook, Omararama
The road trip from Christchurch to Queenstown is a classic South Island holiday route. Not only are there lots of great road trip stops, there are many things to do in Queenstown when you get there. So don’t forget to leave some time once you arrive.
The road trip itself is only 5½ to 6 hours drive, however there are so many awesome things to see, that you really should allow 3-5 days. While you can do this road trip at any time of the year, my personal favourite is in winter. There is something magical about seeing the snow on the mountains on your drive.
A quirky road trip stop is Burkes Pass. It’s an old historic township, with antiques and relics for sale. It’s quite a site and worth stopping for half an hour.
I highly recommend spending your overnights in Tekapo and/or Mt Cook. As you drive towards Lake Tekapo for the first time, you will be blown away by this glistening bright blue lake. It’s a colour that you will never forget. You must explore the lakeside and visit the historic Church of the Good Shepherd. If you are staying, a walk to the Mt John summit is stunning, as is a night sky tour, as this whole area is a Dark Sky Reserve.
Just an hour from Tekapo is Mt Cook. It’s a short detour off your tour route, but will lead you to the site of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mt Cook. There are some incredible short walks with glacier and mountain views such as the Hooker Valley Track and the Tasman Glacier Track.
Lastly, stop at the Omarama Clay Cliffs. Just 15 minutes off the main road, you will find an incredible set of dusty cliffs, with some interesting rock formations. It’s only a $5 donation per car and quite a unique road trip stop.
By Jennifer Parkes from Backyard Travel Family: Active Family Travel Specialists in New Zealand
greymouth to wanaka
Via Hokitika Gorge, Franz Josef or Fox Glacier, Thunder Creek Falls, & Blue Falls
Are you heading to New Zealand’s South Island and looking for a road trip with amazing views, then we have you covered? The west coast of the South Island has some of the most scenic places you will find and covering 450 km, you could do Greymouth to Wanaka easily enough over two to three days.
After four visits to the South Island, I have found mid-season between summer and winter or vice versa, has been some of the better times to do the trip. There will be a cool breeze but you will warm up in the sun. This trip could be enjoyed by a single person, a couple or family.
As you’re heading down the coast some of the stops you might like to consider are Hokitika Gorge, just 30kms inland from Hokitika itself with an easy short walk and amazing cloudy blue water. You can also walk amongst a rainforest on the Tree Top Walk. This is also a great place to stop for coffee or snacks at the visitor centre.
There are a number of things to do in Franz Joseph or Fox Glacier and either is a great place to stop for the night. Kayak on mirror lakes, visit either or both glaciers, take a heli-hike to Fox Glacier, see glow worms in the wild (and free) or see a baby kiwi up close (seasonal).
The drive from here to Wanaka is full of waterfalls and gorges and some have more walking tracks than others. Two that I will mention today are Thunder Creek Falls, one of the tallest falls of I have seen in New Zealand and the magnificent, clear Blue Pools, which are not to be missed.
All the sightseeing on this road trip will work up an appetite and ending at Wanaka, which has a great variety of food options, will certainly make this a trip you won’t forget.
By Chris Fry from Aquarius Traveller
haast pass to westport
Via Fox Glacier, Lake Matheson, Franz Josef Glacier, Hokitika Gorge, Glowworm Dell & Pancake Rocks
Haast Pass to Westport: the Wild West Coast
How to travel: Campervan so you can stop at one of the scenic (DOC) campsites along the way
Distance: 474 kilometers
Suggested duration: 4 days
One of the most scenic parts of our six-week New Zealand itinerary was the Wild West Coast. We drove this road in February and were very lucky with the weather, which can be quite temperamental on NZ’s West Coast, as we only had sunny days.
Day 1: This scenic drive starts at Haast Pass, a 564-meter-high mountain pass in the Southern Alps. Be sure to get a full tank of gas and enough water and food for the road. There are plenty of worthwhile stops along the way, such as the Blue Pools, Haast Pass Overlook, and the Thunder Creek Falls.
Day 2: Start your day by hiking to the Fox Glacier. This is an easy 40-minute (return) trail which brings you up close with the glacier. Next up is Lake Matheson, famous for its reflections of Mount Cook on a clear day. Have lunch at the cafe before hiking the easy but lovely trail around the lake (about one hour), a lovely short hike with beautiful views!
Day 3: The first stop of day 3 is the Franz Josef Glacier. From the car park, it’s about an hour and a half return (45 minutes to the foot of the glacier and 45 minutes to get back). If you want you can go on a helicopter flight and hike on top of the glacier with a guide.
Franz Josef town is a nice place for lunch or for a drink, there are several cafes there. There is also a supermarket and a gas station (an expensive one) if you need to stock up. Drive to Hokitika Gorge and enjoy the beautiful views along the way. Hokitika Gorge is a natural beauty as well, vividly colored blue water that contrasts starkly with the white rocks.
Near Hokitika, you can find Sunset Point, be sure to be there around sunset for a perfect view. Another worthwhile spot near Hokitika is Glowworm Dell, where you can see these magical little creatures light up after darkness has fallen. It’s like walking around in a fairytale!
Day 4: Explore Hokitika and have lunch at one of the cafes before heading out to the Pancake Rocks. This part of Highway 6 is incredibly scenic, so take your time and stop often to admire the view. If you’re lucky you may even spot some dolphins!
At the Pancake Rocks, you can see these layered rocks and hear the thundering ocean beating against them, continuously shaping these strange rock formations. End your trip at Westport, where you can grab dinner and take a short stroll around town.
By Lotte from Phenomenal Globe Travel Blog
Lake tekapo to Queenstown
Via Lake Tekapo , Mount Cook, Lake Ohau, Lake Hawea, & Wanaka.
The breathtaking landscape in the South Island of New Zealand is one of the best in the world. Along the Southern Alps, there are seven major lakes connected by State Highway 8. This scenic region of the Mackenzie Basin has plenty of unique scenery, camping spots, and natural treasures for everyone to explore and the best way is to self-drive or traveling by campervan.
We began our trip from Christchurch to Queenstown in springtime in our car and it took about three days with two stops in Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook. The entire route was about 400 kilometers that takes about 6 hours non-stop, but we wanted to spend some time and take in the stunning views, one lake at a time.
Therefore, we stopped at Lake Tekapo on our first day and this is truly where our scenic road trip began. The lake is located below Mount John, and its mountainside observatory is the best spot to stargaze at night. We continued to Lake Pukaki and explored Mount Cook the next day. We took a hike on the Hooker Valley Track, hopped on the Tasman Glacier cruise, and wondered why Lake Pukaki has a distinctive and iridescent baby blue color.
Each of these major lakes has a unique feature that makes every stop on the road trip fun. Lake Ohau offers an incredible vista with the mirror image of the Southern Alps. Lake Hawea is a great place to go kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, and boating. Lake Wanaka’s township hosts some fine wineries and restaurants. And when you finally reach Queenstown, stay a couple of days and experience everything that the city has to offer before maybe heading to Lake Te Anau and even further, Milford Sound!
By Kenny from Knycx Journeying
queenstown to christchurch
VIA Doubtful Sound, Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring, Fox Glacier, Hokitika, & Punakaiki
My husband and I allowed eleven days for our whirlwind summer tour of New Zealand’s South Island in our rental car and wish we could have had one month to explore! But if time is short, this itinerary can’t be beaten.
After two nights in Queenstown and a day trip to cute little Arrowtown, we drove to Manapouri at the edge of New Zealand’s incredible Fjordlands National Park for our overnight wilderness cruise in Doubtful Sound. It was an incredible adventure and makes a beautiful alternative to the far more touristed Milford Sound to the north.
After that, it was back to Queenstown for one night and then inland to Lake Wanaka for two nights to see the fabled Wanaka tree and enjoy a beautiful day hike on the gorgeous Rob Roy Glacier track in Mount Aspiring National Park. This is ‘Lord of the Rings’ country and as you meander over swinging bridges and see the cows drinking from turquoise streams, you’ll feel truly transported to paradise.
Continuing north, we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with our Fox Glacier heli-hike while basing ourselves just north at an incredible deer farm in Whataroa for two nights. Two final nights in the tiny rural beach town of Hokitika made the perfect stop to visit the Pancake Rocks at nearby Punakaiki. You can also see glowworms in Hokitika if you missed them on the North Island.
By leaving early the next day, we had just enough time to drive to Christchurch before catching our flight back to Auckland on the North Island
By Chris at Explore Now or Never
TE ANAU TO MILFORD SOUND
Via Eglinton Valley, the Homer Tunnel, & the Chasm
One of the most spectacular road trips in New Zealand is to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Because Milford Sound is so remote, there is only one road into the fjord from Te Anau. The drive takes about 2 hours and the scenery is stunning. The best way to visit Milford Sound is to take a cruise and because there is limited free parking on-site, it’s important to leave Te Anau first thing in the morning. If you have a cruise booked, I recommend driving straight to Milford Sound and stopping for the sights on the way back.
The road is 120km and is in good condition. Driving in New Zealand is quite straightforward, however you have to allow for the fact that the roads can be very busy in spring and summer, and they can be quite narrow. As Milford Sound is one of the most visited sites in New Zealand, there can be a long line of campervans and motorhomes heading in the same direction.
The Eglinton Valley is a superb alpine valley, with waterfalls and snowy peaks. There are a few spots where you can stop and take in the sights whilst enjoying the crisp mountain air. The alpine flora is at its peak in spring, with wildflowers and tall grasses.
Further on, the Homer Tunnel is the most spectacular feature of the Milford Road. Built in 1953, it is the only road access to the sound. It is narrow and steep, but not very long. It’s also a one-way tunnel so you may have to wait at the lights for up to 20 mins, something to factor into your travel time. Once you are on the other side, the mountains feel higher and the valley feels narrower.
Finally, another good place to stop is the Chasm, close to the sound itself. The Chasm is a 400m, 20-min loop walk to two footbridges over the Clean River. The water rushes through the rocks, it’s noisy and spectacular.
Even if all you do in the Milford Sound is a cruise, the drive from Te Anau feels like an adventure.
By Delphine of LesterLost
Invercargill to Kaka Point THrough The Catlins
Via Waipapa Point, Curio Bay Petrified Forest, Cathedral Caves, Puakaunui Falls, & Nugget Point Lighthouse
If you’re looking to get off the beaten track, consider a road trip through The Catlins, on the southeastern edge of New Zealand’s South Island. Extending from Invercargill to Balclutha, it’s remote, known for its rugged coastline and wildlife.
For a one day road trip, set off from Invercargill. Your ultimate destination is the seaside town of Kaka Point. We did this drive as a couple during January, which meant extended hours of daylight to explore the key highlights. We were driving a standard rental car, although there were plenty of campervans along the way.
The first stop on this road trip is Waipapa Point, an hour from Invercargill. Follow the Fortrose-Otara Road until you see the turn off. Here you’ll see a beautiful lighthouse on a rugged stretch of coastline.
Your next step is the Curio Bay Petrified Forest. What look like rocks on the beach are actually tree stumps dating back to the Jurassic Period with the forest buried by a volcanic explosion. Also keep your eyes open for the rare Hoiho, Yellow-eyed penguin.
Next up on your road trip are the Cathedral Caves. After paying an entry fee, trek down to the beach to see these stunning caves that have formed along the cliffs on the beach. These last two locations can only be visited at low tide, so check official websites and plan ahead.
The Catlins have some beautiful waterfalls, but you’re unlikely to see them all in one day. Head to Purakaunui Falls, a three tiered waterfall, one of the most photographed in New Zealand.
Finally, arrive at Nugget Point Lighthouse near Kaka Point, which is a stunning point for sunset. After this long day, consider spending the evening in Kaka Point. There’s a good range of accommodation in this town.
By Kristen Miller from Our Passion for Travel