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Driving from Queenstown to Dunedin isn’t normally recognized as one of the best road trips on the South Island. Let’s face it, the most direct route is rather short and there are only a couple of attractions worth stopping at along the way.
However, if you want, you can turn this journey into an epic road trip by taking a few detours along what’s called the “Southern Scenic Route.”
Choosing your route from Queenstown to Dunedin (or vice versa) is a tough decision but ultimately your choice will depend on how much time you have. Arguably the prettier of the two routes is the Southern Scenic route but this can take anywhere between 11 hours and up to 9 days depending on how much you explore. If you’re short on time the obvious choice for you is the SH8 route, which takes just 3.5 hours. With that said, there’s something for everyone on both routes if you know exactly where to stop and what to do!
That’s why in this blog, I’ll tell you all the practical information you should know before driving from Queenstown and Dunedin as well as the fun stuff – viewpoints, attractions, and unique things to do along the way! Because no road trip in New Zealand comes without adventure!
About the Drive from Queenstown to Dunedin
Dunedin is about a 3.5-hour drive from Queenstown without stopping on the quickest route that takes State Highway 8 (SH8.) Even on this route, there are several great stops that it’s likely to take you around 6 hours or more.
The Southern Scenic route takes around 11 hours and that’s without stopping – I don’t advise doing this! The Southern Scenic route passes many of the best places to visit on the South Island and for that reason, I suggest you allow several days. I recommend picking up a campervan rental in Queenstown to fully enjoy this road trip!
Depending on which of the two routes you chose the length of the drive is either 278.5 kilometers (173 miles) via SH8 or a whopping 610 kilometers (378 miles) for the Southern Scenic route.
Queenstown to Dunedin Drive FAQs
Choosing Your Route
If you’re driving from Queenstown to Dunedin, or Dunedin to Queenstown, the first thing you need to decide is which route you are taking. You have to choose between driving the Southern Scenic Route or the alternate, quicker route via Clyde on SH8.
There are some things you should consider when making this decision:
Are you a confident driver?
If you’re not so confident on New Zealand’s unique roads then taking the direct route via the State Highway may be your best option. It’s a pretty straightforward drive and takes a lot less time. This is the better option during the winter months when snow, ice, and heavy rainfall may cause delays.
Related read: Visiting Queenstown in the Winter? Be sure to check out all the best things to do in Queenstown in the Winter months!
How much time you have?
This is important – are you looking to take your time on the drive and savor all the sights along the way. If so, then I recommend taking the Southern Scenic Route. The suggested duration for this option is anywhere between 4 – 9 days. Yep, there’s just that much to see!
If you’re short on time then, the 3.5 hour option via SH8 is your best option.
What will the weather be like?
Driving the Southern Scenic Route can be challenging in the Winter months as lots of rainfall means the stops may not be as pretty. Because most of the stops on the Southern Scenic Route are outdoors and require some walking to get to, it may not be ideal on a wet and miserable winter day.
Related read: Trying to decide when to visit Queenstown? Read my blog for a description of the seasons, weather, the best activities, and more.
Are you looking for the prettiest route?
If you simply want the prettiest drive, then choose the Southern Scenic Route, although, keep in mind that it is a lot longer (610 kilometers) so time needs to be on your side. It’s called the “scenic route” for a reason as it takes in some of New Zealand’s most beautiful gems such as the Catlins and Te Anau – both of which are popular romantic getaways in NZ.
Queenstown to Dunedin Road Trip- The Most Direct Route
In order of driving from Queenstown to Dunedin via the SH8, the below are the best stops along this scenic drive that you definitely need to check out!
Just a 15 – 20 minute drive from central Queenstown is the gorgeous Lake Hayes, a popular spot with walkers, kayakers, and cyclists. There’s a loop track around Lake Hayes which will take about 2 hours to complete walking. You can also ride this trail on your bike and many consider it to be one of the best bike trails near Queenstown.
Get here just before sunset for the most stunning reflections of the surrounding mountains on the lake!
Related read: Lake Hayes Loop Track is one of the best easy hikes in and near Queenstown – find what the others are!
Often labeled as the cutest town in New Zealand, there is so much to do in Arrowtown. You can pan for gold at the Chinese Mining Settlement, walk one of the lovely walking tracks – Tobins Track and Sawpit Gully are my favorite. Plus, there are so many awesome restaurants and cafes in Arrowtown that it’s the perfect spot to stop and refuel for lunch or brunch.
This is home to the world’s first commercial bungee jump – are you brave enough to try it out?! The Kawarau Gorge Bungy is operated by AJ Hackett and has been attracting thrill-seekers from across the globe for years. If you’re not brave enough to jump you can watch the action from the bridge or grab a coffee from the café here. It is a beautiful gorge and watching people take that leap of faith makes for great entertainment.
Related Read: The Kawarau Gorge is one of the best stops on any road trip from Queenstown to Cromwell – read about all the other stops too!
Champagne Gully is a beautiful reserve in the Cromwell Gorge and is an ideal ‘stretch your legs’ quick stop. It’s a popular spot for fishing and swimming with locals. Freedom camping is available here too if you want to spend the night.
The Clutha River is the second-longest river in New Zealand and the longest on the South Island. In fact, is also the highest volume river in the country and the fastest flowing. Emerald green in color the river is popular for fly fishing. Once you pass through the town of Cromwell, you will drive alongside the Clutha River for some time. Take your time, enjoy the views, and stop at any pullover bays for views along the river.
In historic Clyde, you can grab some refreshments in one of the town’s adorable cafés or hire a mountain bike to explore the surrounding hills. Make sure to take plenty of photos here! Some of the first European settlers to New Zealand chose Clyde as their home. It is very picturesque and almost feels like you’re stepping back in time.
There are actually a few noteworthy things to do in Clyde. If you are looking for a good place to spend the night then this might be it! Plus, there are plenty of local wineries in Clyde so if you love wine as much as I do, then you’ll be in shape to drive after a few tastings. Olivers Central Otago is a nice hotel in central Clyde, but there are plenty of other cute hotels and Bed & Breakfasts to choose from too. Otherwise, Alexandra, the next stop on your drive from Queenstown to Dunedin also has a large selection of accommodation available.
The largest town on your route, Alexandra is a big wine-making area and so there are a few vineyards for you to discover here. Pinot Noir is the wine of choice here (yum!) You can also bike an old gold mining trail, and in Summer and Fall, you can go cherry picking in one of the Orchards. There are several accommodation options and restaurants here too.
Bellview Wetlands Reserve
Bellview Wetlands Reserve is just a two-minute walk from the cute little town of Lawrence. It offers scenic walking tracks surrounded by native bush and birds. It is open Saturday and Sunday from 10am – 6pm.
Mt Stuart Reserve
Mt Stuart Reserve itself is a lovely place to stop and have a picnic. There is also an easy walking track on the south side of the reserve, it’s approximately a 40-minute round-trip. Unusually, there is a giant Sequoia tree here – these are most commonly found in North America so it’s an unusual sight in New Zealand.
Lake Waihola is the country’s most inland tidal lake. Its area is some 9 square kilometers and it’s a watersports haven with fishing, boating, kayaking, rowing, and water skiing popular here. There’s a lovely holiday park here too if you fancy spending the night lakeside.
Queenstown to Dunedin Road Trip via the Southern Scenic Route
This route deserves time to appreciate all the stunning stops – there are so many! Depending on how much time you have I recommend allowing between 4 – 9 days for this! It’s 610 kilometers (379 miles) in total and can be done without any stops in a minimum of 10.5 hours – but, I don’t recommend doing this. Because then you’ll miss out the deserted beaches, lush rainforests, pristine lakes and stunning mountain vistas along the way!
Here are the best stops on the scenic drive from Queenstown to Dunedin (starting from Queenstown in order):
Wye Creek Track
Wye Creek Track is a 7-kilometer-long track (4.3 miles) that’s located on the West face of the Remarkables mountains. It has stunning views across Lake Wakatipu and also includes a stunning natural waterfall. It is also popular with rock climbers. All in, this track should take you 4 hours return.
The Wye Creek Track trailhead is located just on the outskirts of Queenstown, and as such, is often considered one of the absolute best day hikes in Queenstown. You could always tackle this trail while you’re staying in Queenstown and then skip it on this road trip, just to save yourself more time.
A small little town at the end of the famed Devils Staircase section of road between Queenstown and Te Anau. Here, go to the lakefront beach to see Lake Wakatipu’s Southern tip. There’s also a small café here if you want to refuel.
Note: On the drive from Kingston to Te Anau, it may also be worth stopping at Five Rivers, there is a café here that does good coffee, has local art, and a few friendly farm animals in their paddock.
Te Anau is one of my favorite little towns in New Zealand and it’s a very popular vacation destination because it is the gateway to Milford and Doubtful Sound. In fact, if you have time, the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is absolutely stunning! Plus, visiting Milford Sound is one of the the things you really should do while in New Zealand.
In Te Anau, there are lots of fun activities on offer from a unique Glow Worm Tour (accessible only by boat) to visiting the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. As for hikes in the area, you can’t go wrong with the Kepler Track. There are some great restaurants in Te Anau too, my favorites are Ristorante Paradiso and the Bao Now food truck.
Related read: For more detailed info, read my blog about the all of the best stops along the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound!
The small town of Tautapere has a rich history of sawmilling and is home to a logging museum which is worth a quick visit. From Tautapere, you can discover Gemstone Beach – a pretty special beach because gems including jasper, nephrite, and quartz wash up here from time to time. Gemstone Beach is a 19-kilometer drive (11.8 miles) from Tautapere.
Also, worth exploring in the area is Long Hilly Walking Track, under 15 minutes drive from Gemstone Beach. It’s a 2 hour return walking track formerly used by Chinese settlers who came to New Zealand during the Gold Rush.
You may not have heard of the town of Bluff but you’ve probably heard of the Bluff Oyster. Some great places to try this delicacy is at Oyster Cove on 8 Ward Place or Galley Takeaways. The Bluff Oyster Festival runs towards the end of May every year and it’s a great day out if you can get a ticket.
Whilst in Bluff, check out Stirling Point (pictured above). It marks the southern end of both State Highway 1 and Te Araroa, both of which run the length of New Zealand. From here, venture a little further to Bluff Hill Lookout on Flagstaff Road for some great ocean views.
Invercargill is a great place to spend the night if you’re after some small city vibes. Although a smaller city, there are still plenty Some notable things to do here include a stroll around Queens Park, enjoying the historical downtown area, and visiting Bill Richardson’s Transport World and Classic Motorcycle Mecca. If you’re a fan of vintage cars or motorcycles then Invercargill is the place for you!
Something unique you can try your hand at is to operate heavy machinery such as bulldozers, excavators at mini excavators at Dig This on Otepuni Avenue.
For amazing food, head over to Elegance at 148 on Elles or Louies Cafe and Tapas Bar.
Since Invercargill is a city, there are plenty of choices for places to stay here. For those wanting to venture onto the Catlins region or Dunedin after Invercargill, it could be a good idea to stop here for a night or two before embarking on to the Catlins. Grab some groceries, fuel up, and get organized before heading out. For a budget stay, consider Golden Leaf Apartments. For something a little more luxurious in Invercargill, I recommend Birchwood Manor or Victoria Railway Hotel.
Related read: Check out my blog about the best stops on the drive from Queenstown to Invercargill.
The Catlins Conservation Area
The Catlins is such a neat place! Located in the far South, this area is famous for its beautiful coastline and a seemingly endless number of waterfalls. To truly enjoy this area, you really should spend a night or two in the wild and rugged Catlins. It’s the road-less-traveled and gives a true sense of the South Island. There are penguins, sea caves, a very photogenic lighthouse, and like I said, lots and lots of waterfalls.
Here, I’ve listed my favorite stops in the Catlins – perfect places to visit on your scenic road trip from Queenstown to Dunedin.
These caves are 200 meters long and 30 meters high. 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. They are often compared to the very popular Cathedral Cove on the North Island.
A must-visit to see the 170 million-year-old petrified forest and complete the Curio Bay Penguin Walk. On the walk, you may be lucky to spot yellow-eyed penguins and keep your eye on the water too as you may spot dolphins too. Locals will tell you that the best time to spot the penguins is at dusk.
There’s a Café in the Visitor Center, also called the Tumu Toka CurioScape, as well as an excellent campsite. This campsite has powered sites as well as communal indoor facilities featuring a nice kitchen, lounge room, and hot showers. It is a great place to spend a night if you’re traveling in a campervan or with a tent.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
One of the most popular stops in the Catlins is the very photogenic Nugget Point Lighthouse. It’s one of the oldest lighthouses in the country. You may see seals on the rocks below the lighthouse if you’re lucky. It is also home to some of the world’s rarest penguins.
The best time to photograph the lighthouse is at sunset or sunrise.
It’s a 20-minute return walk that takes you to the viewing platform for the cascading 3-tier falls. The walk to the falls is flat, easy, and is suitable for wheelchairs. It is in fact one of New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls and what many consider to be one of the best hikes on the South Island.
Tautuku Estuary Walkway
The Tautuku Estuary Walkway is made up of trails and boardwalks through podocarp forests into the Tautuku Estuary. It’s a unique landscape, that much is for sure. The walk will take about 30 minutes to complete. You will also spot fernbirds here.
Balclutha is a small town situated at the heart of the mighty Clutha River, the largest by volume in all of New Zealand. If you’d like a nice stroll, the Blair Athol Walkway comes highly recommended which will treat you to fantastic views of the river in all its glory. Balclutha also has the South Otago Museum which shares the history of the region focusing in particular on the Gold Mining Era.
Heading to Christchurch after Dunedin? Read my blog about the drive from Christchurch to Dunedin for info on all the best places to stop on this road trip!
Essential Info to Know Before You Go
- If you’re not confident driving the above two routes between Queenstown and Dunedin then you can get the InterCity bus which takes 4 hours and 30 minutes
- Take lots of snacks – outside of the towns there aren’t a lot of restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets on both routes listed
- Same goes for gas, make sure you’re fuelled up as there are limited gas stations on route, particularly on the Southern Scenic route
Where to Stay in Dunedin
Also known as New Zealand’s ‘little Scotland’ Dunedin is a great place to spend a night or two. First off the city center isn’t too big but has everything you need and is easy to stroll around. Thankfully, there are also lots of fun things to keep you occupied too. Plus, there’s a fantastic array of great restaurants.
Spend your days here exploring the Dunedin Botanic Gardens, the Otago Museum, and the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum. A must-visit too for good food and locally crafted beers is Speights Brewery or Emerson Brewery. A short drive from the city is the famed Larnach Castle, Tunnel Beach, and Signal Hill Lookout – all highly recommended.
And not forgetting Baldwin Street – the world’s steepest street. Make sure to take your camera for this one!
Some great places to stay in Dunedin include:
538 Great King Motel – this 4-star motel is within easy walking distance to the city. The rooms are clean and comfortable and there’s a guest laundry on-site.
Distinction Dunedin Hotel – once a post office this hotel is historic and charming but has recently been upgraded. It has a restaurant and bar on-site and the rooms are luxurious. Also, a cool feature is that you can choose to dine privately in one of the original vaults of Dunedin’s former Post Office.
On Top Backpackers – just a few minutes walk from many of Dunedin’s attractions. With its very own Cafe & Bar with 19 pool tables, it is a fun, comfortable, unique, bright, and sunny Hostel with a relaxed vibe. You can choose from shared dorms, single and double rooms with shared facilities, or our deluxe double private rooms with en suite.
If you want a stay a little out of the city, then I love St Clair and Brighton. St Clair is one of my favorite areas in Dunedin, just an 8 minute drive from the city center. There’s a long white sand beach here, where you can spot sunbathing seals if you’re lucky. There’s a small but varied selection of great bars and restaurants too. Hotel St Clair is a great place to spend the night.
Brighton Beach is an 11-minute drive from the city and boasts a white sand beach and a long ocean jetty. The jetty is a beautiful place to catch the sunset. Petra Apartment is a lovely accommodation option in Brighton.
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 this blog helps you make the most of your Queenstown to Dunedin road trip. Both routes have many positives, and I’m sure you’ll find the stops I’ve mentioned are great!