From stunning glacial lakes to golden sand beaches, snow-capped mountains to lush green forests, adrenaline-pumping extreme sports to delicious local food, New Zealand’s South Island truly has it all. One of the best ways to experience New Zealand is via a scenic road trip.
While this itinerary starts and ends in Queenstown, you can easily start from any point along the way. Another popular starting point is in Christchurch. We’ve provided estimated driving times and how many days you might want to spend in each area, but of course feel free to tailor the itinerary to suit your holiday.
Whether you’ve got 7 days, a few weeks or months to explore this amazing corner of the road, we’ve mapped out the ultimate South Island road trip to inspire your travel plans.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world, and as soon as you step foot off the plane you’ll understand why. Its prime alpine location on stunning Lake Wakatipu makes it perfect for every type of outdoor activity imaginable.
Spend a few days here doing iconic Queenstown activities like:
Driving Distance: 170 km / 2hr45
Now that you’ve gotten your fill of Queenstown, head out to Te Anau, the jumping off point for famous landmarks like Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park. Spend some time exploring gorgeous landscapes and try one of these must-do activities:
Driving Distance: 185 km / 2h30
Ferry: 1 hour
Next, head south toward Bluff to visit New Zealand’s southernmost and third-largest island: Stewart Island. Over 85% of this island is National Park and thus is home to incredible hiking, wildlife and birdwatching. It is the best place in New Zealand to spot a rare kiwi bird in the wild – there are more kiwi than human inhabitants on the island! You may also spot rare yellow-eyed penguins and blue penguins.
Ferry: 1 hour
Driving Distance: 105 km / 1hr30
Take the ferry back to Bluff, pick up your car or campervan and head toward the Catlins. You’ll drive through Invercargill which is a good stopping point should you need to pick up supplies for your road trip or want to rest. There are many shops, restaurants and accommodation options in Invercargill.
Continue on to the Catlins, home to the southernmost point on the South Island, gorgeous waterfalls, lush forests and stunning beaches. Visit Instagram-worthy places like:
Driving Distance: 160 km / 2h30
Once you’ve taken in the beauty of the Catlins, head north along the east coast to Dunedin, the second largest city on the South Island. It’s known for its Scottish heritage and Victorian architecture. Here are a few things to do in Dunedin:
Driving Distance to Moeraki Boulders: 75 km / 1h
Driving Distance from Moeraki Boulders to Wanaka: 265 km / 3hr15
Drive north along the coast and make a quick stop at the Moeraki Boulders to see the giant spherical stones dotting the beach, then head back west toward Wanaka. Enjoy this quieter version of Queenstown with just as much to offer, including:
Driving Distance: 210 km / 2hr30
Journey north to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook. This was the first peak Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first men to summit Mount Everest, ever climbed. No matter how adventurous you are, there are activities suited to all skill levels:
Driving Distance: 332 km / 4h15
Now that you can cross the highest mountain in New Zealand off your list, drive back toward the coast to Christchurch. Stop at Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo along the way for a picnic. While it is the South Island’s largest city, it is still rebuilding after the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Spend a day here exploring the city and visiting:
Driving Distance: 181 km / 2h38
Drive north toward Kaikoura, a lovely coastal town that’s home to an amazing ecosystem of marine life. Not only is this a popular destination for whale watching and swimming with dolphins, but it’s a haven for those who love eating seafood. Add these things to do to your road trip itinerary:
Driving Distance: 152 km / 2h30
Get ready for a day of wine tasting - Marlborough is New Zealand’s most famous wine region, internationally renowned for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. But this region has plenty to offer outside of vineyards:
Driving Distance: 113 km / 1h45
Drive to Nelson, the ideal base for Abel Tasman National Park. Known for its pristine golden sand beaches and clear ocean water, Abel Tasman is home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Here are a few things to do in the region:
Driving Distance to Westport: 222 km / 3hr15
Driving Distance from Westport to Greymouth: 101 km / 1h30
Driving Distance from Greymouth to Hokitika: 40 km / 35min
Today you have a few options for your South Island road trip depending on how much driving you want to do. The rugged West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is known as one of the most beautiful drives in the whole country, so it’s natural to want to take your time and really take it all in. Start by driving from Nelson to Westport, then drive toward Greymouth and Hokitika. No matter your pace, make sure you stop at these places along the way:
Driving Distance from Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier: 134 km / 1h45
The final stop on this epic South Island road trip is Glacier Country, home to Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. While we still have the opportunity to marvel at these glaciers up close, they are shrinking at an alarming rate. Make sure you take advantage of them still being around with these must-do activities:
Driving Distance: 327 km / 4h30
Take your time driving through this stunning region via the Haast Pass. Stop at the Blue Pools along the way to take in the gorgeous colours, then head on back to Queenstown. Congratulations, you’ve now explored a huge chunk of the South Island!
To learn more about things to do in New Zealand’s South Island, check out these RealNZ experiences you won’t want to miss.