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10 EPIC South Island Road Trips You’ll Love in New Zealand

10 EPIC South Island Road Trips You’ll Love in New Zealand

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Are you planning to hit the road an explore New Zealand’s incredible South Island? You’re in for an amazing time!

In fact, it was the amazing road trips that played a big part in my decision to permanently move to the South Island. Trust me, there’s no better feeling than hitting any of these epic routes and knowing you’ll have an amazing time.

So, in this blog, I’ve put together 10 of my favorite South Island road trips that I’ve been on over the years. There certainly is a route for every type of traveler on New Zealand’s South Island, and these are the routes that you should add to your NZ bucket list!

When is the Best Time for a Road Trip on the South Island?

Road winds its way along Lake Wanaka between Franz Josef and Queenstown
Driving along Lake Wanaka!

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different answer to this question. But no matter what anyone says, deciding when to visit New Zealand for a road trip is a pretty big decision with plenty of pros and cons to consider.

New Zealand enjoys four unique seasons each year, but if you’re traveling from the Northern Hemisphere, they’ll be at a different time of year than you’re used to! Summer in New Zealand actually falls between December and March, while winter is between June and September.

I’ve written about the best time to visit the South Island and detailed the pros and cons of each season. But personally, my favorite time to go on a road trip is in the summer months! Road conditions are at their best at this time of year, and camping is much more comfortable.

Also, most activities and hiking trails are open in the summer, which means you can have a broad itinerary that covers all kinds of fun things to do.

That said, in the winter, you can expect plenty of snow and sometimes icy road conditions. Of course, this can lead to road closures and delays. With that said, the roads are much less busy and so are road trip tourist attractions. This is also the best time to visit for winter-specific activities – skiing is so much fun!

If you’re renting a motorhome or campervan, it’ll be significantly cheaper in the winter!

10 Best South Island Road Trips

1. Crown Range Road

Crown Range road in summer in New Zealand looking towards Queenstown
What a spectacular drive!
Bailey enjoys a glass of wine at the Cardrona Hotel
The beer garden at the Cardrona Hotel!
  • Route: Queenstown to Wanaka via Crown Range Road
  • Distance: 64.8 kilometers (40.2 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: A couple of hours
  • Highlights: Crown Range viewpoints, Cardrona Hotel, Bradrona

The Crown Range Road, which brings you from Queenstown to Wanaka is the highest main road in New Zealand. Famous for its winding twists and hairpin turns, you’ll often read online about how difficult this scenic stretch of road is to drive. While it isn’t a walk in the park, if you’re careful and take your time, you’ll be just fine, and let me tell you, it’s more than worth it!

The Crown Range Lookout is one of my favorite lookout points in New Zealand. Period. With stunning mountain views with the Kawarau River below, it’s an absolute must and honestly, I’d still drive this route if it was the only stop along the way! Once you arrive, you’ll park your car at the small car park here and hike the short, narrow path to the viewpoint.

Further up the Crown Range is the Summit lookout, which at over 1,100 meters (3,608 feet) offers great views of the Crown Range valley below. And once you’re finished soaking up all these mind-blowing views, it’s time to continue on your road trip towards Wanaka.

Bailey looks out at Queenstown from Crown Range Road Scenic Lookout
Views along the Crown Range!

Of course, no road trip would be complete without a stop-off along the way for some tasty grub! A stop at the Cardrona Hotel is a must for some coffee or food — it’s the oldest hotel in New Zealand and one of the most photographed. Just after the hotel, pull in to see and photograph Bradrona – a display of hundreds of bras.

Although just a short drive that can be done in as little as an hour, with a couple of stops along the way it’ll definitely take longer. Be sure to also prepare for traffic in the summer months, and slippery conditions in the winter months, which will slow things down. In the winter, you should carry snow chains and know how to use them, just in case!

If you fancy getting out there and exploring, but aren’t too keen on driving yourself, then you can always opt for one of the guided tours from Queenstown to Arrowtown. My pick is this 6-hour Arrowtown and Wanaka Highlights Tour from Queenstown. Not only does it include stops along the Crown Range Road, but it also visits the Cardrona Hotel for a drink, as well as the legendary bra fence!

With over 120 5-star reviews, it’s easy to see why this tour enjoys such a great reputation. The tour guides do such an incredible job at keeping the experience lighthearted and fun, plus as locals, they’re also super knowledgeable about the area, so you’ll learn a lot while you’re at it! Tickets for this experience cost $209 NZD per person and can be booked online here.

Related Read: For more info, check out my detailed guide about driving from Queenstown to Wanaka including ALL of the best stops along the way! Or, continue on from Wanaka to Christchurch from another epic road trip.

2. South Island West Coast

Bailey on the edge of Lake Matheson, New Zealand
The edge of Lake Matheson, New Zealand
Bailey at the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint along the Franz Josef glacier valley walk
At the Franz Josef Glacier Viepwoint.
  • Route: Queenstown (or you can start in Wanaka) to Charleston via State Highway 6
  • Distance: 597 kilometers (371 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 3 to 7 days at least (you could easily spend weeks exploring this region if you have the time!)
  • Highlights: The Blue Pools, Thunder Creek Falls, Franz Josef Glacier, Hokitika, Shanty Town, Pancake Rocks, the glow-worms in Charleston

Out of all of the South Islands road trips in this blog, this one is the longest (and possibly the most epic – but I’ll let you be the judge of that!). If you start in Queenstown, this drive is a whopping 597 kilometers (373 miles) as it takes you through Wanaka, Mount Aspiring National Park, glacier country, and then along the stunning coast before finishing in the humble town of Charleston.

I recommend renting a car in Queenstown and then breaking this road trip down into 5 days. On the first day, you’ll travel along State Highway 6 (SH6) from Queenstown (or Wanaka) to Haast. The journey is just under 3 hours from Queenstown and a little under 2 hours from Wanaka.

It’s a very scenic drive with lots of beautiful spots dotted along the way. I highly recommend stopping at Lake Hawea — just a short drive from Wanaka and New Zealand’s 9th largest lake. Also, it’s worth stopping at the Blue Pools, Fantail Falls, and Thunder Creek Falls!

Franz Josef glacier below us on a new Zealand scenic flight
The view from a helicopter in Franz Josef!

On day two, I recommend driving the short two-hour journey from Haast to Franz Josef town. Be sure to visit both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, where you can arrange an ice-hiking adventure on both glaciers. I particularly like this 3-hour guided glacier tour, as not only does it include a helicopter ride up and down from Franz Josef Glacier, but the guides are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met!

If hiking doesn’t really sound like you, but you love the idea of enjoying epic views from above, why not book a scenic flight to see glacier country from a whole new angle! This 40-minute uninterrupted helicopter flight soars over some of the most iconic spots in the area, including the Tasman Glacier, the Franz Josef Glacier, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, and more. Now that’s an itinerary I can get behind!

Also worth a visit is the stunning Lake Matheson, which is very close to Fox Glacier. The walk here is one of the most popular hikes on the South Island and a photographer’s dream because of the way the surrounding mountains reflect on the lake’s still surface.

After a full day of exploring the area, be sure to book somewhere comfortable to stay in Franz Josef town. If you’re traveling on a budget, Glow Worm Accommodation is a great choice, but if you’re looking for something more mid-range, then Aspen Court can’t be missed!

Day three should take you from Franz Josef to Greymouth. This is another short car ride at approximately 2.5 hours. Okarito is a super scenic spot to stop and is also very popular with birdwatchers. You can also hire kayaks here or jump on a boat tour!

Up next, you’ll stop in Hokitika, a cool little town that is home to many local artists. For something a little different, a fun little activity is to visit Hokitika Glass Studio, where you can watch glassblowers practice their craft right in front of your eyes.

Whenever I’m visiting, I love dropping by the West Coast Treetop Walk & Café, which is just 15 minutes from Hokitika town. The treetop canopy walk rises to a whopping 47 meters (154 feet) above the ground, so if dealing with heights isn’t really your thing, then maybe give this one a pass. Otherwise, it’s a really unique stop, and being up in the trees makes me feel like I’m on a Star Wars set!

On the way from Hokitika to Greymouth, be sure to stop at Shantytown, a true-to-life replica of a gold mining-era town. This one is a big hit with the kids, and you can’t miss out on riding the heritage trains, some of which date back to the 19th century!

Your final day of driving will take you just over an hour. This section of your road trip is known as the Great Coast Road and was recently voted one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world by Lonely Planet. The limestone cliffs of Paparoa National Park are the best place to spot the Korora – the world’s smallest penguin, which grows to just over 25 cm (9.8 inches).

pancake rocks in Punakaiki on the South Island of New Zealand
Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki.

Another must-stop on this section of road is the very photogenic Punakaiki Rocks (also known as Pancake Rocks). These rocks really do look like giant pancakes, and it’s also a great place to spot local wildlife!

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and this road trip comes to a close in Charleston. This was once a booming gold-mining town and is now known for its guided tours of the nearby Te Ananui Cave which is full of glow-worms! It’s actually one of the best places to see glow-worms in NZ!

Related Read: For more details on this route, be sure to read my blogs about driving from Queenstown to Franz Josef or from Wanaka to Franz Josef.

3. The Catlins

Koropuku Falls in the Catlins
Koropuku Falls is my favorite waterfall in the Catlins region.
  • Route: Dunedin to Invercargill
  • Distance: 240 kilometers (149 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 2 to 4 days at least (you could spend up to a week if you love waterfalls!)
  • Highlights: Nugget Point Lighthouse, Jacks Bay, Cathedral Caves, McLean Falls, Curio Bay

One of my favorite South Island road trips involves driving through the wild and rugged region called the Catlins. It’s the road-less-traveled, and during the off-season (the winter months in New Zealand) you will likely only come across a handful of other tourists. For this South Island road trip, I advise allowing at least two full days.

While the Catlins region is located between Invercargill and Dunedin, you can also explore the area on an extended road trip from Queenstown to Dunedin via the Southern Scenic Route. This includes stops at Te Anau, the gorgeous Milford Sound, and many other attractions before you reach the Catlins. What an epic southern South Island road trip!

One of the most popular sights in the Catlins is the Nugget Point Lighthouse in Ahuriri Flat. In fact, I recommend starting your road trip here! Aim to get the lighthouse before sunrise for the most epic photo. The next stop should be Jacks Bay to see the huge sea lions chilling out on the beach!

Nugget Point Lighthouse in New Zealand
Nugget Point Lighthouse

Purakanui Falls is worth stopping at too, and it’s just a 20-minute drive from Jacks Bay. Once you’re there, it’s a 20-minute return walk that takes you to the viewing platform for the falls.

Next is my personal favorite sight in the Catlins – Cathedral Caves. These are only accessible at low tide, so be sure to check tide times beforehand. There’s a $10 NZD entrance fee payable at the gate per vehicle. The caves are made up of two 200-meter (656 feet) passages and are often compared to the very popular Cathedral Cove on the North Island.

Other worthwhile stops in the Catlins include some of NZ’s best waterfalls, from the very popular McLean Falls to other lesser-known waterfalls like Koropuku Falls. Be sure to also check out Curio Bay to see the petrified forest and complete the Curio Bay Penguin Walk. Finally, you can’t miss out on visiting Slope Point, which is the most southerly point in New Zealand. It’s also very windy here, so hats beware!

Note: Most people rent a campervan or motorhome and road trip through the Catlins camping along the way. However, you can find small guesthouses and hotels in towns like Papatowai, Balclutha, and Curio Bay. If you are camping, there is a great freedom camping spot right on the coast in Fortrose – you can’t miss it!

4. Journey to Milford Sound

Bailey stands on the road into Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park  
The road through Fiordland National Park to Milford Sound!
A boat travels right up to Stirling Falls in Milford Sound
Oh, the waterfalls!
  • Route: Te Anau to Milford Sound
  • Distance: 118 kilometers (73.3 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 1 day (you could spend two days; one on the way to Milford, spending a night at the Milford Lodge to enjoy some of the best Milford Sound tours, and then one on the way back to Te Anau hitting up different attractions each way).
  • Highlights: Lake Mistletoe, Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, Homer Tunnel, The Chasm

Milford Road, or the PioPiotahi Highway as it’s known locally, is considered one of the most scenic road trips on the South Island – actually in all of New Zealand. It is 118 kilometers (73.3 miles) long, and I recommend allowing 4 hours one-way, as there are so many worthy stops along this road that winds its way through Fiordland National Park!

The first stop I recommend is the Lake Mistletoe Walking Track, just a 27-kilometer (16.8 miles) drive from Te Anau. It’s an easy 45-minute walk that winds through native forest to gorgeous Lake Mistletoe, home to native ducks, frogs, and all kinds of fascinating lake life!

The next stop has to be the Eglinton Valley, which is famous because it was the location of the Misty Mountains in the Fellowship of the Ring. The scenery here is stunning too – with golden tussock-covered valley floors surrounded by steep valleys.

The popular Mirror Lakes walking track is another must-stop on the road trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound. It’s a short 400-meter-long walk (1,312 feet) on flat ground. As you’ll quickly come to see, Mirror Lakes got its name because of its reflective surface. As a result, it’s a super photogenic lake, especially at sunset or sunrise.

Bailey stands on the viewpoint of Mirror Lakes in Fiordland National Park
Mirror Lakes! Funny story, I’ve never been here on a clear and calm day!

Oh, and don’t miss out on the upside-down sign that reads the correct way when reflecting in the calm water – tricky!

Perhaps the scariest part of the drive to Milford is the eerie Homer Tunnel. This is a 1.2-kilometer (0.75-mile) long narrow tunnel that goes through a rocky cliff. In my opinion, visiting the Homer Tunnel is best on a rainy day.

As the rain falls, the valley around the tunnel erupts with hundreds of skinny waterfalls gushing down its rocky face. Some people say it looks like the mountains are crying, and while I’m not convinced that’s true, it sure is spectacular!

Other worthy stops on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound include Lake Gunn; The Divide; Key Summit Hike; Hollyford Lookout; Lake Marian; Gertrude Valley Lookout and The Chasm. There are some epic hikes to check out in Milford and on the way there too!

If exploring this route without worrying about driving sounds like something you’d be interested in, then you might want to check out this full-day tour to Milford Sound from Te Anau. Not only does it include stops along the way, including the unmissable Mirror Lakes, The Chasm, and more, but it even includes a 1.5-hour scenic cruise on the Milford Sound!

With tickets for this tour costing just $210 NZD per person, I’d say this is pretty great value considering everything that comes included. Just make sure to bring your camera, because this road trip is absolutely stuffed with amazing photo opportunities! You can check out available dates and book your spot on this tour online here.

Two people cheers with views of a waterfall in Milford Sound
Cheers to a quiet Milford Sound!
View off the top deck on a waterfall on a Milford Sound Cruise
View off the top deck on a waterfall on a Milford Sound Cruise

But if you’re down for driving, you can still enjoy one of the many incredible Milford Sound cruises once you’ve arrived. With over 800 5-star reviews, this 2-hour scenic cruise definitely lives up to the hype, and is well-worth a look. I love a good cruise here in Milford Sound, and the folks organizing this one do such a great job at pointing out local wildlife, landmarks, and so much more along the way.

At just $153 NZD per person, it’s also pretty affordable, considering the priceless views you’ll enjoy! No trip to Milford Sound would be complete without a scenic cruise, and this one fits the bill to a T. You can check availability and book your spot in advance online here.

You can also extend this road trip by starting in Queenstown as opposed to Te Anau! I’ve heard many people say that the drive from Queenstown to Te Anau isn’t anything special, however, I strongly disagree. You can find out about all the awesome places to check out between Queenstown and Te Anau in my blog.

You can also read my full blog about road-tripping from Queenstown all the way to Milford Sound for a detailed itinerary!

Staying overnight in Milford Sound

If you’re driving to Milford Sound and back in one day (like most people) then you’re going to need somewhere to stay in Te Anau. The Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park and Motel is great for camping, and they also have fantastic budget rooms and cabins available. It’s also just 2 km (1.2 mi) away from Te Anau’s town center.

Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments is a little more luxurious and offers – you guessed it – lake views from the rooms. It’s also just a 10-minute walk from town, although with one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments available with 55-inch TVs, you might be too comfy to want to leave!

Related Read: Check out the epic, and long, road trip itinerary for driving from Christchurch to Milford Sound.

5. The Great Alpine Highway and Arthur’s Pass

bailey stands on the viewpoint at the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall along Arthurs Pass, NZ
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall
Bailey at the summit of Avalanche Peak in New Zealand
Avalanche Peak!
  • Route: Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass (some people also drive it from Christchurch to Hokitika)
  • Distance: 241 kilometers (149.8 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 1 to 2 days
  • Highlights: Death’s Corner, Devil’s Punchbowl, Castle Hill, and Ōtira Gorge,

The Great Alpine Highway starts in Christchurch and ends in Greymouth, stretching over 240 kilometers (149 miles). This scenic section of the route leads you over the Southern Alps (via Arthur’s Pass) and to the wild West Coast.

The road through Arthur’s Pass is winding and climbs almost 900 meters (2,952 feet). It follows the foot of the majestic Southern Alps. Honestly, if you’re like me, you’ll want to stop every couple of minutes, as the scenery is constantly changing! From rivers and lakes and greenery to mountain scenery, it’s no wonder that Arthur’s Pass is a must-visit on any New Zealand itinerary.

A must-stop along Arthur’s Pass is the giant limestone rock formations at the Castle Hill Conservation Area. You’ll need to walk around 20 minutes round-trip from the car park to these other-worldly-looking formations. It’s a very popular spot with rock climbers!

On this road trip, you’ll also pass through Ōtira Gorge – this section of road is pretty scary, with parts clipped to the stone cliff face. A stop at ‘Deaths Corner’ is a must, with the best view of the road and viaduct. You can’t miss it, as it’s well-signposted along the way.

Bailey at the Otira Viaduct Lookout on Arthurs Pass, NZ
Otira Viaduct Lookout on Arthurs Pass, NZ

The little village of Arthur’s Pass marks the halfway point to the wild West Coast. If you plan on completing this road trip over two days, this is the perfect place to spend a night. There are a few hotels available in Arthur’s Pass Village as well as a couple of cafes and restaurants.

Just after Arthur’s Pass Village, I highly advise stopping at Devil’s Punchbowl – a 131-meter tall (430 feet) waterfall. To see the waterfall up close, there’s a fairly straightforward 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) return track that leads to and from the viewing platform.

For a longer road trip: Complete the Great Alpine Highway at Greymouth and then continue down the West Coast all the way to Queenstown! From here, you can spend a few days in Queenstown before heading off on another one of the best South Island road trips by driving all the way to Milford Sound!

6. Scenic Drive to Glenorchy

Windy road with mountain and lake views on the way to Glenorchy from Queenstown
The road to Glenorchy!
  • Route: Queenstown to Glenorchy
  • Distance: 46 kilometers (28.6 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 1 day
  • Highlights: Wilson’s Bay, Mt Crichton Track, Bob’s Cove, Bennett’s Bluff Lookout

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is a short 45-minute journey that’s a must-do when in Queenstown. In fact, Glenorchy may just be one of my favorite towns on the South Island. Although home to only a couple of hundred people, there are a ton of different things to do and see in Glenorchy including plenty of free activities – and for my fellow hikers out there, there are lots of incredible hikes in and around Glenorchy!

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is incredibly scenic and offers plenty to see and do along the way. I advise allowing approximately 2 hours each way if you want to check out the best attractions on this road trip. In fact, from Queenstown you could easily spend the majority of your day driving to Glenorchy, exploring Glenorchy, and then driving back.

Your first stop should be at Seven Mile car park for a quick photo, as it gives a great viewpoint over Lake Wakatipu and across to Ben Lomond. Continue a little further down the winding road and stop at Wilson’s Bay for a short walk along the beach. Go in for a dip if you’re feeling brave, the water here is icy cold!

If you want to stretch your legs, then the popular Mount Crichton Loop Track (7.3 kilometers/4.5 miles) and Twelve Mile Delta (4 kilometers/2.5 miles) tracks are great choices.

Bailey at Bob's Peak near Queenstown, New Zealand
Bob’s Cove Track along the road to Glenorchy
The jetty at Bob;s Cove along the Bob's Peak Track near Queenstown
The jetty at Bob’s Cove.

But if you only have time for one hike, my personal favorite walking track on the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy is Bob’s Cove Track. And it’s a short one at just over an hour round-trip. There is one very steep uphill climb to Picnic Point, but otherwise, it’s very flat and easy.

The best view of the whole road is at Bennett’s Bluff Lookout, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Queenstown. It’s best to stop here when driving from Queenstown, as you don’t have to cross traffic. Here, you can enjoy a postcard view of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range.

Glenorchy shed with views of the mountains in Glenorchy, New Zealand
Glenorchy is such a cute town!

If you love the idea of exploring Glenorchy, but you don’t want to drive, then you can also get there as part of a guided tour! This half-day tour to Glenorchy visits some of the best spots in the area, including the small settlement of Paradise.

If you love Lord of the Rings, this experience also stops at some famous filming locations, but even if you’re not, they’re very scenic and well worth it for the photos!

Tickets for this tour cost $179 NZD per person, with 9 am and 2 pm slots available. I love that while there are a ton of great stops on the itinerary, it doesn’t feel rushed at all, with the guides doing a fantastic job the entire time. So don’t miss out on your chance to experience Glenorchy and book your spot online here!

Related Read: For more detailed information on this road trip, read my blog about the best stops on the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy!

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7. Inland Mountain Route

Bailey looks over at Mount Cook National Park from Lake Pukaki Viewpoint
What a beautiful country!
  • Route: Queenstown to Christchurch via Lindis Pass
  • Distance: 481 kilometers/ 299 miles
  • Recommended length of time: 2 to 5 days
  • Highlights: Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook NP, Lindis Pass and Wanaka

This route between Queenstown and Christchurch is a very popular road trip and is pretty much a rite of passage for travelers on the South Island. It connects two very popular places to visit on the South Island, as well as the South Island’s largest airports. But besides that, this road trip is beautiful and takes you past some of the unique scenery the South Island has to offer.

Starting in Queenstown, you’ll pass through the popular tourist destinations of Arrowtown, Lake Hayes, the Crown Range highway (or Cromwell), and Wanaka before climbing up to the stunning Lindis Pass. Lindis Pass is a highlight of this road trip that stretches over 63 kilometers (39 miles) as you drive through the Ahuriri and Lindis River Valleys.

A lady stands at the top of Lindis Pass on a road trip from Queenstown to Mount Cook
Lindis Pass

The best photo stop on Lindis Pass is at the aptly named ‘The Lookout‘, which is well signposted. From this viewpoint, you can snap an awesome photo of the Lindis Conservation area with Longslip Mountain as a backdrop – it’s stunning and unlike any other viewpoint you’ll see in New Zealand.

At the end of the Lindis Pass, you’ll arrive in the town of Omarama which is home to the popular Omarama Clay Cliffs and Omarama Hot Tubs. Just around the corner on Henburn Road are the other-worldly Omarama Clay Cliffs, which rise up to an impressive 30 meters (98 ft). Entrance to the cliffs is $5 NZD per vehicle, to be paid to the donation box at the gate.

Bailey has a warm soak in the Hot Tubs Omarama at sunset
Relaxing in the Omarama Hot Tubs

If you have time, I highly recommend the relaxing Omarama Hot Tub experience. Here you can book a private hot tub and take in the stunning countryside views. This has to be one of the highlights of the entire road trip!

To enjoy these attractions to the fullest, you may choose to spend a night in Omarama (I love visiting the hot tubs in the evening when the stars come out!). The TOP 10 Holiday Park is great for both rooms and powered campsites. Plus, this accommodation is just a 5-minute walk from the hot tubs – whoop!

About 20 minutes from Omarama, you’ll come to the town of Twizel. Several movie scenes from the Lord of the Rings franchise were filmed here, so this one is for the fans out there! I recommend booking a tour to Ben Ohau station to see where the Battle Of Pelennor Fields scene in The Return Of The King was filmed.

Just a few minutes after Twizel, you’ll spot the Gatorade-blue Lake Pukaki which is very popular with photographers because on a clear day, you can see Mount Cook in the distance. There’s a large car park here to safely pull in to explore.

If you want to visit Mount Cook, be sure to turn left onto State Highway 80 just as you approach Lake Pukaki. This will be quite a big detour, and you should probably plan on spending a night or two in Mount Cook Village before continuing on from Mount Cook to Lake Tekapo, but it’s one I recommend if you have the time!

Bailey from My Queenstown Diary sits on a rock at Lake Tekapo during Lupin season
Lake Tekapo during lupin season.

Just under 45 minutes down the road will take you to the larger Lake Tekapo. While you’re here, why not grab some food and a coffee here or fuel up if needed? Also a popular tourist destination in itself, there are lots of different things to do and see in Lake Tekapo.

If you have time, stop here for a night or two and do some exploring! The Mount John Observatory is a great pick for a stargazing tour, since this area is located in a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve. You can also visit the beautiful Church of Good Shepard for some scenic photos, or join an adventure tour such as skydiving!

Once you’re back on the road, another great stop on the way from Tekapo to Christchurch is Mt Hutt – voted several times as the best of the ski resorts in New Zealand. If you’re traveling this route in winter, I highly recommend skiing here. It has over 364 hectares (900 acres) of terrain and is most suitable for intermediate or advanced skiers.

Also, just under an hour’s drive before Christchurch is Rakaia Gorge – a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) return walking track that takes you through the native forest which features two gorgeous lookout points and several old coal mine tunnels. It’s a firm favorite among hikes and I won’t spoil the surprises along the way, you’ll have to find them out for yourself!

Related Read: For more detailed information on this epic road trip, read my blog about the best places to see on the drive from Queenstown to Christchurch. Or, for a shorter road trip, drive from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo!


8. South Island East Coast

A dusky dolphin jumps from the water in Kaikoura in New Zealand
Seeing pods of dolphins is such a unique experience, especially when they jump from the water!
  • Route: Christchurch to Blenheim
  • Distance: 309 kilometers (192 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 2 to 3 days
  • Highlights: Cathedral Cliffs, Kaikoura, Ohau Stream Walkway, wineries

Another one of the most popular South Island road trips is the beautiful coastal drive from Christchurch to Blenheim. This road trip is all about wildlife, wineries, and wonderful scenery, something I’m sure we can all get behind. It’s 309 km (192 miles) long, so I would allow 2 to 3 days to complete it while enjoying the best attractions along the way.

After Christchurch, the next stop on our itinerary is Waikuku Beach, a lovely sandy beach which you can literally walk along for miles! For now, though, it’s best to stretch your legs on a short stroll here.

After driving for about an hour, take a slight 20-kilometer (12-mile) detour out to Gore Bay to see the Cathedral Cliffs. The cliffs are a series of siltstone pillars that are, I must admit, a little similar to the Omarama Clay Cliffs! The best place to see these Cliffs is from the viewpoint next to the main road.

Coastal highway between Kaikoura and Picton, New Zealand
Coastal highway near Kaikoura

The coastal road into Kaikoura is full of safe spots to pull over and take some photos. The Kaikoura Highway (in and out of town) has actually recently been rebuilt, having been damaged in the November 2016 earthquake that ravaged the area.

Kaikoura itself is a tourist haven and is particularly popular for the native seal colony living at the Peninsula Walkway just outside of town. I also suggest driving to the Peninsula Lookout from town. It’s a fabulous view from here – turquoise water in the foreground and snow-capped mountains in the background.

If you’re not in a rush, staying in Kaikoura for a night or two is a great way to kick back, relax, and enjoy the area. Kaikoura is famous for its marine life, and you can bet there are tons of fantastic wildlife tours to get stuck into! One of my favorites is this Kaikoura wildlife kayaking tour, where you can kayak right next to dolphins, seals, and even whales if it’s the right season – how cool is that?

A group of people go kayaking in Kaikoura
Such a wild place to go kayaking!

Getting close to the water not your thing? Why not stay high and dry on this 40-minute helicopter whale watching flight! With the team at Air Kaikoura operating for over 30 years, you’re in safe (and knowledgeable) hands, and you’ll have the chance to see sperm whales, dusky dolphins, blue whales, and much more. Tickets cost just $165 NZD per person, which I’d say is pretty great value.

After Kaikoura, some must-stops include the Ohau Stream Walkway to see the frolicking seal pups here, as well as Kekerengu Village. Close to the village is the ever-popular The Store restaurant on State Highway 1. Not only is the coffee delicious (and strong!) here, but their eggs benny is a must-try.

As you near Blenheim, you enter wine country and on this stretch of road, there are lots of wineries that may tickle your fancy. I suggest checking out Nautilus Estate at 26 Rapaura Road in Renwick, a small family-owned winery which offers a range of fantastic red and white wines.

Just like the slower pace of life here, you might also want to take your time in Blenheim and stay the night. This is perfect if you want to go on a wine tour like this full-day wine tasting experience – which has round-trip transportation included, meaning you can get tipsy and not worry about having to drive!

9. Abel Tasman Drive

Views on the Abel Tasman Coast Track
The beaches in Abel Tasman rival those in Australia, it’s so beautiful!
  • Route: Nelson to Collingwood
  • Distance: 124 kilometers (77 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 1 – 2 days
  • Highlights: Kahurangi National Park, Tahunanui Beach, The Coast Track in Abel Tasman National Park, Kaiteriteri Beach

This is a popular road trip for Lord of the Rings fans, as Kahurangi National Park on this route is home to Dimrill Dale and Moria in the Fellowship of the Ring! In fact, I suggest stopping at the national park and completing one of the many walking tracks there.

This epic road trip starts in Nelson and follows along the coast. There are lots of fantastic sandy beaches which are well worth stopping by, including Tahunanui Beach (amazing white sand), The Glen, and Cable Bay.

The cute villages of Motueka, Mapua, and Marahau are a must-visit too! They’re super cute, and you’ll find lots of excellent cafés in them. My favorite has to be The Jellyfish on Aranui Road in Mapua, which boasts some seriously epic views and a pretty extensive drinks menu (cocktails too!).

View overlooking Cable Bay near Nelson, New Zealand
Cable Bay!

Marahau is also known as ‘the Abel Tasman Village’, because it’s here that tourists start their Abel Tasman National Park adventure. If you have time, spend the night here, and complete The Coast Track, which is the most popular Great Walk in New Zealand.

And for good reason, this track travels past golden sand beaches and the turquoise ocean this area is known for.

Other notable stops on the drive from Nelson to Collingwood include Kaiteriteri Beach, often described as one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand; Harwood’s Hole, the country’s biggest cave; and Ngarua Caves, where you’ll discover ancient Moa bones.

Once you arrive at the quiet town of Collingwood, the fun isn’t over just yet! There are lots of fun things to check out here, from delving into the caves in Golden Bay to going horse riding along the shore. So why not stay a while and explore?

10. Queen Charlotte Drive

Scenic view over the Marlborough Sounds between Nelson and Picton
Scenic view over the Marlborough Sounds between Nelson and Picton
  • Route: Havelock to Picton
  • Distance: 34.8 kilometers (21.6 miles)
  • Recommended length of time: 1 day
  • Highlights: Ngakuta Bay, Momorangi Bay, Governors Bay

The Queen Charlotte Drive is a spectacular winding road that links the towns of Havelock and Picton. It is often described by drivers as one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world. At every turn, you’ll have views over the stunning blue ocean, beach bays, and lush vegetation.

This route runs west to east from the town of Havelock to Picton (the town where the ferry to the South Island arrives and departs). Although it is only a short drive, do allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the views and stop at amazing beaches along the way. Plus, the road is very windy, and you will not be traveling as fast as you likely planned.

Shortly after leaving Havelock at Cullens Point, watch out for the sign on this road that reads ‘lookout’. The view out across Marlborough Sounds from here is breathtaking.

Bailey walks the Momorangi Bay Jetty
Momorangi Bay Jetty
Bailey on the Tirohanga Track in Picton, NZ
View over the Marlborough Sounds and Picton!

Ideal stopping points on the road also include Ngakuta Bay, with its gorgeous blue waters and a longish jetty to capture some photos. Momorangi Bay is another great sheltered beach, just 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from Ngakuta. It’s a popular spot with locals who come here to swim and fish. There’s even a glow-worm grotto at the campground here!

Some other worthy stops on this stunning route include Governors Bay – which is just a 15-minute drive from Picton. It’s a 5-10 minute walk down to the thin slice of beach — if you’re keen for a swim, this is a great place for it.

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the Camera in Arrowtown, New Zealand
Thanks for reading!

With all these amazing road trips to try, I hope you’ll consider a South Island road trip for your next vacation! In my opinion, there is no better way to see the South Island than on an action-packed road trip, and you simply can’t go wrong with any one of the ones we’ve looked at in this blog!

If you want some more info about road trips around the South Island, you can browse all of my different road trip blogs (there are a lot of them!). Also, be sure to browse around my website a little more – I’ve written a ton on New Zealand! You can check out some of my related guides here:

The BEST Time to Visit New Zealand – Weather & Activities

18 Things to Know Before Visiting Queenstown, New Zealand

10-Day New Zealand South Island Itinerary

Reenakshi Jain

Thursday 16th of November 2023

Superb precise and concise information!!!! Thanks Keep sharing more hidden gems of NZ

Bailey

Monday 20th of November 2023

Hey Reenakshi!

Glad you like the blog. Oh I'll never stop!

Thanks Bailey

May

Thursday 12th of October 2023

Hi! Found your blog when searching for scenic routes in South Island of NZ. Amazing info here!

For the routes u mentioned, does the direction matter? For example driving from Hokitika to Christchuch instead of Christchurch to Hokitika, or from Christchurch to Queenstown via Lake Tekapo and Lindis Pass.

Thanks and looking forward to your response!

Bailey

Thursday 12th of October 2023

Hey May!

Glad you like the blog.

No the direction does not matter. Just reverse them!

Thanks Bailey

heather

Wednesday 12th of October 2022

Hi Bailey,

Fellow Canadian over here! I am planning on doing a trip through the south island (making my way from Auckland) over the summer months and hoping to work a bit throughout. I was thinking of working in Nelson for a few weeks (if possible) before making my way down to Wanaka for a longer period of time. I then have to go back up to Auckland for the next semester! Was wondering where you would recommend to stop throughout that trip? I have also purchased a minivan and was wondering how easy it is to camp (i.e. pitch tents) in the south island or if people generally check for self-contained vehicles>

Cheers!

Bailey

Wednesday 12th of October 2022

Hey Heather!

It's great to E-Meet you!

Your trip sounds amazing, and there are so many fantastic places to see and stop. Honestly, there are too many to even mention. My advice would be to check my road trip guides - I have a ton between most destinations on the South Island. Just click the road trip tab on my site or google between major destinations. I made a huge goal to map out most of the roads on the South Island for travelers like yourself. It's been a huge task and a ton of driving, but I'm hoping to finish the South Island this summer - I only have a few trips to go.

If you have more specific questions, let me know.

Thanks Bailey

Michelle

Monday 18th of July 2022

Hi Bailey, your information has been really helpful especially the 6 to 8 days itinerary. =) I will be in NZ for 10 full days (flying in to Queenstown and out from Christchurch).

Any recommendation on the number of nights to stay at each area? If i were to include travel to Te Anau, Milford Sound, Dunedin. Will it be too packed? =P Thanks!

Queenstown Wanaka Mount Cook Village Lake Tekapo Christchurch

Bailey

Wednesday 27th of July 2022

Hey Michelle!

In 10 days, you can do everything on your list. You are not traveling huge distances, and you have to visit Milford Sound and Te Anau!

I would say do this: 2 nights in Queenstown, 2 nights in Te Anau with a full day exploring the road to Milford Sound and a cruise, 2 nights in Wanaka, 2 nights in Mount Cook, 1 night in Lake Tekapo and 1 night in Christchurch. If you wanted to save some time, you could just do a day tour to Milford Sound and then you would have two extra nights to take it slower. Thats would also be nice - especially if you enjoy traveling slower.

Hope this helps Bailey

Lynn

Wednesday 22nd of June 2022

Hi Bailey,

Thanks for all the information! I have 14 days in the South Island this Nov. I'm thinking of taking 5-7 days of motorhome from Christchurch, drop off Queenstown (and take a car for the rest of the days). Do you think it would be better to use the motorhome for the West Coast route, or for the Lake Tekapo route between Christchurch and Queenstown?

Thanks!

Bailey

Tuesday 28th of June 2022

Hey Lynn,

The route between Christchurch and Queenstown is perfect for a motorhome. There are so many places to stop and lots of fantastic places to stay in your motorhome.

This is the same on the west coast, however, in my opinion, the route between Christchurch and Queenstown would be better. Be sure to check out the White Horse Hill Campsite in Mount Cook and book a night or two there. It's beautiful and with the only hostel in Mount cook now closed, it's the only budget option.

I hope this helps

Bailey