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New Zealand’s South Island is one of the best road trip destinations in the world – not only is it home to some of the world’s best scenery but the roads here are typically traffic-free. But, beware a drive that should only take you two hours will likely take you five hours in New Zealand. That’s because there is just so much to see on a New Zealand road trip.
In this blog, I list 10 of the best South Island road trips. From the very popular Piopiotahi Highway into Milford Sound to the coastal tropical vibes of the Queen Charlotte Drive in Marlborough. There certainly is a road trip for every type of traveler on New Zealand’s South Island and these are the routes that you should add to your NZ road trip bucket-list!
When is the Best Time Road Trip on the South Island?
Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different answer to this question. The truth is, deciding when to visit New Zealand for a road trip is a big decision with plenty of pros and cons to consider.
The summer months mean the road conditions are ideal and camping is much more comfortable. Also, most activities and hiking trails are open in the summer.
In the winter you can expect snow and sometimes icy road conditions. This can, one rare occasion, create road closure. With that said, the roads are much less busy and so are road trip tourist attractions. 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
- 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. It’s known for its winding twists and hairpin turns. Tourists often hear about how difficult this scenic stretch of road is to drive and then they simply must tackle it for themselves. It certainly isn’t an easy road to drive, but if you’re careful and take your time, you’ll be just fine.
Worth stopping at is the Crown Range Lookout for a stunning mountain vista with the Kawarau River below. 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 offers great views of the Crown Range valley. After enjoying the views, continue you on your road trip towards Wanaka.
Definitely stop at the Cardrona Hotel 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!
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
- Route: Queenstown (or you can start in Wanaka) to Charleston via State Highway 6
- Distance: 597 kilometers/371 miles
- Recommended length of time: 3-7 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, 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 starting in Queenstown, this drive is a whopping 600 kilometers 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 breaking this road trip down into 5 days. On the first day, travel along State Highway 6 (SH6) from Queenstown (or Wanaka) to Haast. The journey is just under 3 hours from Queenstown and just 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 – a short drive from Wanaka and New Zealand’s 9th largest lake. Also, worth stopping at are the Blue Pools, Fantail Falls, and Thunder Creek Falls – all some of the best things to do in Mount Aspiring National Park.
On day two I recommend driving the short two-hour journey from Haast to Franz Josef town. Today, be sure to visit both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier where you can arrange an ice-hiking adventure on both glaciers. Or if you really want a bucket-list experience, why not book a scenic flight to see glacier country from above. Also worth a visit is the stunning Lake Matheson, 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. After you’re all checked in, head to the Glacier Hot Pools in town for some R&R before you hit the road again tomorrow!
Day three should take you from Franz Josef to Greymouth. This is another short car ride at approximately 2.5 hours. Stop at Okarito – a popular stop with birdwatchers. You can hire kayaks here or jump on a boat tour. Next, stop in Hokitika, a cool little town that is home to many local artists. Head to Hokitika Glass Studio where you can watch glassblowers in action.
Stop for some lunch at Westcoast Treetop Walk & Cafe, just 15 minutes from Hokitika town. Walk the treetop canopy walk 47 meters above the ground. On the way from Hokitika to Greymouth be sure to stop at Shantytown, a replica of a gold mining-era town.
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. Stop at the limestone cliffs of Paparoa National Park and try to spot the Korora – the world’s smallest penguin. A must-stop on this section of road is the very photogenic Punakaiki Rocks (also known as Pancake Rocks). They really do look like giant pancakes.
End this road trip in Charleston. This was once a booming gold-mining town and is now known for its guided tours of the nearby Te Ananui Cave that is full of glow worms!
I promise this road trip won’t disappoint and many of the places you’ll explore are the top attractions on the South Island.
3. The Catlins
- Route: Dunedin to Invercargill
- Distance: 240 kilometers/149 miles
- Recommended length of time: 2-4 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) you will likely only come across a handful of other tourists. For this South Island road trip I advise allowing 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. Stop at Te Anau, Milford Sound, and many other attractions before reaching the Catlins for 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 for sunrise for the most epic photo. Next stop should be Jacks Bay to see the huge sea lions on the beach. Purakanui Falls is worth stopping at too, just a 15 minute drive from Jacks Bay. 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 passages and are often compared to the very popular Cathedral Cove on the North Island.
Other worthwhile stops in the Catlins include the very popular McLean Falls and 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, Slope Point which is the most southerly point in New Zealand – it’s very windy here so 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
- 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, spend a night at the Milford Lodge, 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.
First, stop at the Lake Mistletoe Walking Track just a 27-kilometer 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 other fascinating lake life.
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 on flat ground. Mirror Lakes got its name because of its reflective surface. It’s a very photogenic lake especially at sunset or sunrise. Oh, and don’t miss out on the upsidedown 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-long narrow tunnel that goes through a rocky cliff. In my opinion, visiting the Homer Tunnel is most spectacular on a rainy day. This is when the rain falls and the valley around the tunnel features 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 you want, you can 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 disagree and 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!
Note: 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 Motels is great for camping and they also have budget rooms and cabins available too. Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments is a little more luxurious and offers – you guessed it – lake views from the rooms. And while you’re there, be sure to check out all the fun things you can do in Te Anau!
5. The Great Alpine Highway and Arthur’s Pass
- 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: 1-2 days
- Highlights: Castle Hill, Ōtira Gorge, Death’s Corner, and Devil’s Punchbowl
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. It follows the foot of the majestic Southern Alps. You will want to stop every couple of minutes as the scenery is constantly changing from rivers and lakes and greenery to mountain scenery. A must-stop along Arthur’s Pass is the giant limestone rock formations at Castle Hill. You will need to walk around 20 minutes round-trip to these other-worldly-looking formations. It’s a very popular spot with rock climbers.
You will also pass through Ōtira Gorge – this section of road is pretty scary with sections clipped to the stone cliff face. Stop at ‘Deaths Corner’ which is signposted for the best view of the road and viaduct.
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 Arthurs Pass village, I highly advise stopping at Devil’s Punchbowl – a 131-meter tall waterfall. To see the waterfall up close walk the 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) return track to 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! Then, 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
- 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 drive 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 hundred people, there’s a ton of different things to do and see in Glenorchy including plenty of free activities – 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. If 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 7-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 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 kilomoeters/4.5 miles)) and Twelve Mile Delta (4 kilometers/2.5 miles) tracks are next. 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. It’s a postcard view of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range.
Related read: For more detailed information on this road trip, read my blog about the best stops on the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy!
7. Inland Mountain Route
- Route: Queenstown to Christchurch via Lindis Pass
- Distance: 241 kilometers/149.8 miles
- Recommended length of time: 1-2 days
- Highlights: Castle Hill, Ōtira Gorge, Death’s Corner, and Devil’s Punchbowl
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 of the some unique scenery the South Island has to offer.
Starting in Queenstown you will 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 on this road trip that stretched over 63 kilometers as you drive through the Ahuriri and Lindis River Valleys. 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 will arrive in the town of Omarama which is home to the popular Omarama Clay Cliffs and Omarama Hot Tubs. The other-worldly Omarama Clay Cliffs are located at Henburn Road. Entry is $5 per vehicle to be paid to the donation box at the gate. 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.
About 20 minutes from Omarama you will come to the town of Twizel. Several movie scenes from the Lord of The Rings franchise were filmed here. I recommend booking a tour to Ben Ohau station to see where the 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.
Just under 45 minutes down the road will take you to the larger Lake Tekapo. I recommend grabbing some food and a coffee here or fuelling up if needed. It’s also a popular tourist destination in itself with 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! Visit the Mount John Observatory on a stargazing tour since this area is located in a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, visit the beautiful Church of Good Shepard, or join an adventure tour such as skydiving!
Other worthy stops between Tekapo and Christchurch include Mt Hutt – voted several times as the best ski resort in New Zealand. If you’re traveling this route in winter I highly recommend skiing here. It has over 364 hectares 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 native forest which features two gorgeous lookout points and several old coal mine tunnels.
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
- Route: Christchurch to Blenheim
- Distance: 309 kilometers/192 miles
- Recommended length of time: 2-3 days
- Highlights: Cathedral Cliffs, Kaikoura, Ohau Stream Walkway, wineries
Another one of the best popular South Island road trips is the beautiful coastal drive from Christchurch to Blenheim. The road trip includes wildlife, wineries, and stunning scenery. It’s 309 km long so I would allow 2-3 days to complete it while enjoying the best attractions along the way.
After Christchurch, your first stop should be Waikuku Beach, a lovely beach covered in driftwood. 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 Cathedral 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.
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 recently been rebuilt having been damaged in the November 2016 earthquake that ravaged the area. Kaikoura itself is a tourist haven and is notably popular for the native seal colony living at the Peninsula Walkway just outside of town. I also suggest driving to the Peninsula Lookout from the town. It’s a fabulous view from here – turquoise water in the foreground and snow capped mountains in the background.
I also suggest stopping in Kaikoura for a night or two to enjoy the area. Kaikoura is famous for its marine life. Besides the seals you’ll see on the Peninsula Lookout, large pods of dolphins also frequent the area. Head out on a dolphin-watching tour, or better yet, swim with dolphins! That’s right, you can join a tour in Kaikoura that takes you to swim with wild dolphins. And the best part is that the company prides itself on offering an ethical encounter.
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.
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 Giesen at 26 Rapaura Road in Renwick. Otherwise, book a hotel in Blenheim and then book a wine tour – that way you can get tipsy and not worry about having to drive!
9. Abel Tasman Drive
- 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 of 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 the coast. I highly recommend you stop off at one of the many beaches along the way. Beaches worth seeing are Tahunanui Beach for its white sands and gentle waves as well as The Glen and Cable Bay.
Also worth stopping at are the cute villages of Mapua and Ruby Bay. There are lots of excellent cafes on this stretch of road including The Jellyfish on Aranui Road in Mapua.
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 will discover ancient Moa bones.
10. Queen Charlotte Drive
- Route: Havelock to Picton
- Distance: 34.8 kilometers/21.6 miles
- Recommended length of time: 1day
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-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 both 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.
Ideal stopping points on the road also include Ngakuta Bay – gorgeous blue waters and a longish jetty to capture some photos. Momorangi Bay is another beach to check out on a sheltered beach (just 3 kilometers 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 15 minutes 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
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 book 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 is what most budget backpackers get 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! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
I hope you will 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 a road trip and you simply can’t ge twrong with any one of the South Island road trips mentioned above.
If you want some more info about road trips around the South Island, you can browse all of my different road trip blogs (there a lot of them!) Also, be sure to browse around my website a little more – I’ve written a ton!
Enjoy your road trip!