Planning a New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary is not an easy task. There is so much to see and do and the roads of the South Island just don’t seem to join up in logical order to see it all. And then there’s all the decisions to be made, do I want mountain scenery or rugged coastline? Epic hiking or relaxing by a lake? Or maybe you want a bit of everything the South Island has to offer.
Well good news, we’ve been there, done that and written not only the best South Island itinerary but four options for different travel styles so you can choose the one that best fits your interests, pace and time frame.
When planning your South Island road trip itinerary make sure you read up on driving in New Zealand and what to expect. It may look small on a map but the driving distances and times can be long. You also want to factor in some bad weather days as the South Island weather can be unpredictable. To help out we’ve written a guide to planning a NZ road trip which will answer all your FAQs and give you an idea of what to expect when road tripping the South Island.
So once you’ve worked out how long you’ve got and what vehicle you’re taking (more info in this article) you can start to plan where you’ll be heading. So get excited, there’s a lot to see!
Where to start and end your South Island road trip
This all depends on where you’re coming from. If you’ve been travelling the North Island and are bringing your vehicle then you’ll arrive in Picton with the ferry, likewise if you’re heading north after your South Island road trip this is where you’ll need to finish up.
If you’re flying into the South Island you will most likely be starting in Christchurch or Queenstown. Christchurch is bigger and cheaper so if you’re aiming to get your hands on a vehicle (either renting or buying) this is your best bet.
You will need to tweak your South Island itinerary to suit your specific start and end point but the main ideas should stay the same.
How long do you need for a South Island road trip?
The Classic Route – 7-10 days
The Nature Lover – 2 weeks
Off the Beaten Path – As long as you’ve got or add into other itineraries
The ‘See It All’ – 3-4 weeks
*Note* These itineraries do not include down days so if you want to take it slow sometimes we recommend factoring in a few extra days to each itinerary.
South Island Road Trip Itinerary Option 1: The Classic
Time: 7-10 days
Designed for people short on time but wanting to see as much as possible. The classic route offers you all the main hotspots in an easy loop route which starts in Picton and finishes in Christchurch (can be done in reverse or as a full loop back to either point). It takes in remote beaches, breath-taking mountain scenery, lakeside views and a couple of NZs South Island cities.
Days 1-2 Nelson and Abel Tasman
This is one of New Zealand’s sunniest regions and if you’re lucky you’ll be greeted by warm days to accompany your beaches. Nelson offers a buzzing bar and café scene and a great base for exploring. The Abel Tasman National Park and coastal walkway, which can be walked in 5 days, is also easily explored in a day hike, kayaking trip or water taxi. The secluded white sand beaches and walks through native bush cannot be beaten, a simply stunning part of the South Island.
Days 2-4 West Coast
The Wild West Coast is an easy and varied place to explore for a couple of days. The road runs straight along the coastline with beautiful beaches on one side and rainforest covered hills on the other. Stop off for day walks, visit the incredible pancake rocks or learn about jade (greestone) carving and its significance in Maori culture. There are plenty of campgrounds as well as guesthouses and small hotels. The West Coast special – whitebait fritters- are served everywhere during whitebait season festival (Sept 9th – Oct 23rd).
Further down the coast you’ll come to the glaciers. Both Fox and Franz Josef Glacier can be visited by walking or with a heli-hike making them some of the most accessible glaciers in the world.
Days 4-6 Haast Pass to Queenstown
A road trip on the South Island wouldn’t be complete without some scenic drives and Haast pass is great option. With epic views and plenty of stopping points for photos or walks through the dense native bush you’ll want to allow some extra time for this journey. Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka will greet you at the other side and are also beautiful stopping points to take in the views or go for a dip on a warm day. The journey from the West Coast to Queenstown will take around 5 hours.
Day 7 Trip to Milford (optional)
If you’ve extended your South Island itinerary out to 10 days consider a day trip to Milford Sound. It’s a long day and if you don’t have to rush it I would recommend staying in Te Anau the night before and after to allow you time to self-drive and stop along the way. But if time is of the essence you can take an early morning tour from Queenstown, head off on the cruise and then return by bus. Although it looks close on a map it’s around 4-5 hours each way so only go if you’re really sure.
Milford Sound is stunning and one of the most unique natural phenomena in New Zealand. The pictures don’t really do justice to the scale of these gigantic cliffs and tumbling waterfalls so if your itinerary allows, go and see it for yourself.
Days 8-9 Pukaki and Mt Cook (optional)
Arguably one of the most beautiful vistas of New Zealand is the views looking out across Lake Pukaki to the snow-capped peak of Aoraki (Mt Cook) New Zealand’s highest peak. You can camp beside the lake or in the nearby town of Twizel.
If you’ve got some time to spare and want to get a bit closer to NZs highest mountain you can drive the stunning road around the shores of Lake Pukaki towards MT Cook. From the tiny town at the end of the road you can do a variety of day hikes all with stunning views of the mountains and glaciers. The most popular is the Hooker Valley Track, a flat easy-going hike that takes around 2.5 hours return. There is also a DoC campground and some guesthouse accommodation.
Day 10 Christchurch via Tekapo
From Pukaki/Mt Cook take the road to Lake Tekapo, another gorgeous alpine lake with a small township at it’s edge. This area is particularly beautiful when the lupins are in bloom between Nov and early Feb. This area is also a registered Dark Sky Sanctuary meaning there is minimal light pollution and an incredible view of the night sky. The drive from here through the Christchurch should take around 3 hours.
South Island Road Trip Itinerary 2: The Nature Lover
Time: 2 weeks
This one’s for the nature lover. Featuring all the top wildlife encounters as well as some of NZs best hiking trails and natural beauty. Whales, mountains, beaches and birds will be a major part of this itinerary.
Day 1 Kaikoura
Start your trip in Kaikoura where you can head out whale and dolphin watching with good chances of spotting some of the many whale species that hang out in the area including humpbacked whales, sperm whales, blue whales, right whales, minke whales and orca.
Days 2-5 Abel Tasman and Golden Bay
Heading north from Kaikoura you’ll make it to the golden sand beaches and native forests of the Abel Tasman National Park. Take some time here to go hiking and enjoy the natural beauty of some of the secluded bays. You can hike, kayak or take a water taxi some of the way to find an option that fits your time frame.
Days 5-7 Upper West Coast
The stretch of West Coast between Westport and Hokitika is a an amazing area for wildlife spotting, hiking and eating seafood! It’s also famous for ponamu (greenstone) carving and if you’re lucky you can even find some in the riverbanks or beaches. This is one of the wettest areas of New Zealand so enjoy a walk through the rainforest, if you’re blessed with a sunny day find a beach and relax!
Day 8 Arthur’s Pass to Tekapo/Pukaki
Scenic driving is the aim of today and the scenery changes quickly to mountains and lakes. Arthur’s Pass is one of the most epic roads on the South Island and is a great chance to spot kea (NZs native alpine parrot). Once through the pass head South to the beautiful alpine lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki. This is also the gateway to Aoraki (Mt Cook, NZs highest mountain) where you can take a day hike or simply enjoy the stunning views from the lake. Camp by the lake, at the foot of the mountain or head to the nearby town of Twizel for guesthouses and hotels.
Day 9-10 Lake Hawea and Wanaka
From stunning lakes to … more stunning lakes. Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea are the perfect spots to relax with lake front accommodation and Wanaka township offering shops, cafes and restaurants. But this is also one of the best hiking areas and there are numerous options to keep you active and enjoy the best views. The most popular is Roy’s Peak which you’ll no doubt have seen on Instagram. But if you prefer something less busy try Isthmus Peak, Mt Iron or Rob Roy Glacier.
Day 11 Te Anau, Manapouri and the Kepler Track
This day allows you to spend some time enjoy the beauty of Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau. While the Kepler Track needs to be booked several months in advance you can take part of the track as a day walk through beautiful forests. As an alternative to Milford Sound you can take a trip to Doubtful Sound. Just as impressive but far less touristy due to access being over the lake and the trips more expensive.
Day 12 Milford Sound
Assuming you chose the easier/cheaper option, today is the day to travel to Milford Sound. Along the way there are stops for views and day hikes. Make sure you see the Mirror Lakes and the Chasm. We also enjoyed the hike to Lake Marian if you’ve got some time on your journey. There are several cruise companies heading out along the sound, in our experience they all do much the same route and it’s not worth paying more than the cheapest option. The late afternoon ones are often the quietest but if you’re there in peak season expect some crowds. Another great option if your budget allows is to head off on a kayaking tour. Friends of ours worked for Roscos Milfors Kayaks and we trust they do a great job!
Days 13-14 Queenstown/return travel to end destination
Time to head off. If time allows drop into the area surrounding Queenstown for a hike or to enjoy the views but avoid the main town as this is crowded and there’s not much to see. The hike up Queenstown Hill has amazing views of the Lake or you can head further around the lake to Glenorchy to enjoy the scenery.
South Island Road Trip Itinerary 3: Get off the Beaten Path
Getting off the beaten path in NZ isn’t really that difficult but because people are so short on time they tend to stick to the main tourist hotspots and see little else of the wonders of the South Island. I grew up on the North Island and even I was in awe of just how isolated areas of the South Island were and just how far we could go without seeing another town, car or person.
Some of these places are left well alone for good reason, but others are just gems tucked away from the crowds waiting for committed travellers to explore. This itinerary isn’t guided by days or time because it’s just not like that. But here are our top picks to get away from it all and see something a little different on the South Island.
Stewart Island is one of the most remote places in New Zealand, if not the world. This place is such a hidden gem of untouched beauty. With a quirky but sweet little town and population of 400, there’s not a whole lot happening day to day. But there are plenty of secluded beaches, amazing hiking trails with some of the best chances to spot NZ bird life (including Kiwi) and some of the best fish and chips in the country. This is truly a slice of heaven and an off the beaten path place not to be missed! Check out our article on things to do on Stewart Island.
There is so much to explore along this short stretch of rugged coast. Waterfalls and beaches and dolphins, oh my! Check out all the details in our 3 day Catlins itinerary.
This is an area most people will drive through or close to but not stick around. In the summer this area is one of the hottest in the country and offers long, sunny days, rolling fields and historic townships. The towns here are gorgeous and still retain many of their features. Don’t expect to find lots going on but it’s the perfect place to take it easy, get away from the crowds and enjoy a bit of country life kiwi style. The Otago Rail Trail runs right through the area which can be done over several days or you can pick part of it and do a day cycle.
Just half an hour from Christchurch is the perfect little holiday destination. The Banks Peninsula has one main town (Akaroa) which was New Zealand’s first French settlement. The houses here are simply adorable and there is lovely views of the harbour as well as cafes, giftshops and dolphin watching tours. But if that all feels a bit touristy it’s not hard to find other secluded bays on the peninsula and go for a dip or set up camp. Don’t miss the scenic drive which takes you along the ridge line with stunning views over both sides of the peninsula.
Growing up in NZ Oamaru was nothing but an average town somewhere on the South Island. But our recent experiences there have placed it firmly in our travel recommendations. With a small historical centre, quirky attractions like a steam punk museum, some of NZs best cheese and chances to spot rare penguins in the wild a day or two in Oamaru has lots to offer. And the best part is, besides the paid penguin viewing in the evening, hardly any other tourists do more than drive through.
South Island Road Trip Itinerary 4: See It All!
Time: 3-4 weeks
If you’re only planning a three-week South Island itinerary I wouldn’t recommend you try to ‘see it all’ but I also understand that NZ might be a once in a lifetime type visit and you really want to see as much as physically possible during your time here. The ‘see it all’ itinerary takes you through the best parts of the South Island and includes many of the must-do sights and activities.
Follow the Classic itinerary without taking the day trip to Milford Sound. This will bring you from Picton to Christchurch seeing some of the most impressive sights of the South Island, spend a couple more days in the Abel Tasman area and after two weeks you’ll find yourself in Christchurch ready for the next part…
Days 14 -15 Arthur’s Pass
This is a stunning mountain pass with plenty of hiking opportunities and a few free camping options, it’s also a great place to spot cheeky kea (NZ’s native mountain parrot, yeah, we’ve got one of those). There is other accommodation in Arthur’s Pass town and the area is worth stopping off to explore. This route involves driving to Arthur’s Pass and back so it’s easy to skip this part if you’re running low on time or decide it’s too far.
Days 15-16 Banks Peninsula
A great extension to time in Christchurch, this peninsula offers amazing views, an old French settlement and great camping spots. This is one of our favourite off the beaten path spots and is well worth exploring.
Days 16 -17 Oamaru, Moeraki, Dunedin
The coastal drive down to Dunedin has plenty of great stops. The historic centre of Oamaru is great for a wander and if you stay until evening you can see Little Blue and Yellow-Eyed Penguins returning to nest. Half an hour further are the famous Moeraki boulders, a rare phenomenon where the rocks emerge from the cliffside in perfect spheres. Your final destination is the bustling student city of Dunedin, a UNESCO city of literature and home to some of NZs most historic buildings contrasted by hip, modern cafes and bars.
Days 17-19 The Catlins
Firmly one of our favourite areas of the South Island. Read our detailed Catlins itinerary for more info.
Days 19-22 Stewart Island
Having more time in your South Island itinerary will allow you to get all the way to New Zealand’s third largest island, Stewart Island. This little gem is a bird lover’s paradise with amazing beaches and a range of hikes. The cute little town of Oban is home to a great pub and café as well as NZs best fish and chips! Cars can’t be taken to Stewart Island so plan to park up for a few days and take the ferry over.
Day 23 Riverton, Monkey Island, Gemstone Beach
Once you’ve crossed back to Bluff continue your journey around the coast to Riverton. A quaint little town with a picturesque harbour, great surf and even better cafes. Worth a stop for lunch but continue a little further along the coast to Monkey Island, an island only accessible at high tide and Gemstone beach where there are thousands of beautiful stones to be discovered on the shore. There’s a great free campground at Monkey Beach or have a look at accommodation options in Riverton.
Day 24 Manapouri, Te Anau
Two beautiful alpine lakes that offer a range of hiking and watersport options in the area. Stay for the day and establish a base as the next day is a full day trip.
Day 25 Milford Sound
Take the stunning drive down to Milford Sound, awe-inspiring landscape carved out by glaciers, it really has to be seen to grasp the scale. Make sure you stop along the way to see the Mirror Lakes, the Chasm and to do a hike if you have the time. Make sure you book a cruise before you go as they are often booked up in summer months but look online for a good deal. They mostly do the same route so the cheaper options are fine. The late afternoon cruises are the quietest.
Day 26-28 Flexi days and return to wherever you leave from
Leave these days free in case you get caught up with weather, decide to stay longer or need to get to the other end of the island.