The Perfect New Zealand South Island Road Trip

I’m from New Zealand and I love the South Island. So I want to use this opportunity to share with you what I think is the perfect New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary.

Road tripping New Zealand, and in particular the South Island, is an unforgettable experience.

The views are beautiful, no matter which direction you look. You’ll be able to catch epic views of glaciers, mountain ranges, crystal waters, and cliff faces.

The South Island’s West Coast has some of the most scenic roads out there, so even the drive is picturesque.

Ten days is the perfect amount of time for a New Zealand South Island road trip; long enough for you to see all the fantastic sights and split up the long drives.

But of course, the more time you have the better as you could easily spend more time at all the stops I recommend below.

This South Island itinerary will help you get the most out of your trip by giving you insights on where to visit and what activities you shouldn’t miss.

The Perfect New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary

Days 1-2: Queenstown

New Zealand South Island itinerary: day 1 in Queenstown
New Zealand South Island itinerary day 1 & 2

The adventure capital of New Zealand has rightly earned its name. A South Island road trip would not be complete without a few days in Queenstown.

Pick up your rental car from the airport, and go from there. Booking onlineThe Perfect New Zealand South Island Road Trip in advance will usually save you money.

Queenstown township is incredibly walkable. Shop to your heart’s content, stroll through the botanical gardens, listen to the buskers at the waterfront, and eat at the many restaurants and cafes.

Taking the Skyline Gondola up Bob’s Peak is a great way to get the views of the city without going through the trouble of a hike. Enjoy a meal at the hilltop restaurant then ride the luge back down.

Queenstown Hill, Lake Wakatipu, and Lake Moke are great places to visit. Onsen Hot Pools is a must-do, and the Kawarau Gorge showcases many of the great adventure activities available – including Bungy jumping!

Don’t leave before visiting the best wineries in Queenstown. Central Otago is known for their delectable wines, especially Pinot Noir. Wine tours are always available, otherwise, organize your own.

Chard Farm and Amisfield are great wineries to visit.

Note: you can find a map of the complete South Island itinerary at the end of the article. 

Day 3: Milford Sound

South Island road trip day 3
South Island road trip day 3 – Milford Sound

Milford Sound is magical. It’s at the top of the list of must-see places in New Zealand – this is one you don’t want to miss out on!

Take a cruise along the fiord to view the snow-capped peaks and rainforests.

The drive is quite long and treacherous – it’ll take almost four hours one-way, and you’ll have to drive the same route to get back to Queenstown. This is why Milford Sound is commonly visited as a day tour. The tour costs around $200 NZD per person, but for a full day, it’s well worth the cost.

It’s almost always drizzling here, but don’t let that spoil your experience. Just be sure to have a rain jacket handy.

Day 4: Glenorchy/Queenstown

New Zealand South Island road trip day 4
New Zealand South Island road trip day 4: Glenorchy

Glenorchy is a small town surrounded by a mountain backdrop.

It’s highly recommended to come here at sunrise. The drive will only take you an hour. Make your way straight to Glenorchy wharf and watch the sun light up the mountain peaks. And, do so without sharing the pier with swarms of tourists. Continue with the Glenorchy Boardwalk following this.

Grab some breakfast at a local cafe and then head out for a walk.

The Lake Sylvan Trek is an easy, flat walk, so it’s great for kids and older travelers. There’s a suspension bridge over a rocky river, beech forest, and a lookout point to a fantastic view. The walk is part of a much longer trek. If you’re looking for a shorter walk (40 mins), this is the best part to choose.

Due to its size, Glenorchy can easily be done in half a day.

When you’re ready to head back to Queenstown, catch the Bennett’s Bluff Lookout on the drive back. It’s easily recognized as there’ll be many parked cars along the side of the road.

Day 5-6: Wanaka (Via Arrowtown)

South Island road trip day 5 & 6: wanaka
South Island road trip day 5 & 6: Wanaka

Being so close to Queenstown, Wanaka is an up-and-coming tourist destination.

About 20-minutes into the drive, you’ll reach Arrowtown, a quaint town that used to be a gold rush village. This town is charming and quirky, to say the least. Grab breakfast here and walk around the shops, visit Arrow River and the Chinese Settlement.

One of the best things to do in Arrowtown is to take a photo by the old Police Camp – this is at the end of the car park, so it’s a sight that’s often missed!

The rest of the drive to Wanaka is impressive, albeit a little scary. Zigzag (literally) up and down a hill. Wanaka town has plentiful options for food, and the lake nearby will give you opportunities to swim, paddleboard and kayak.

Visit the iconic #thatwanakatree – yes, that is actually its name. This is the ultimate photo opportunity in Wanaka. The willow suspended in Lake Wanaka makes it so unique.

If you’re up for it, get up bright and early the next morning to trek Roy’s Peak. This hike is possibly what made Wanaka so well-known. The trek will take around 6 hours return, and it’s pretty much a steady ascent to the top. You may have to wait 30 minutes to get that Instagram photo everyone talks about, even if you’re at the summit at 9 am.

Days 7: Aoraki Mt Cook

South Island road trip itinerary day 7: Mt Cook
South Island road trip itinerary day 7: Mt Cook

Being New Zealand’s highest mountain standing at over 3000 meters high, Aoraki Mt Cook is a major tourist destination and should definitely be part of your South Island road trip.

From Wanaka, Aoraki Mt Cook is only a two and a half-hour drive. The Hooker Valley Track is the best walking track available to get the best views at the foot of the mountain and surrounding glaciers. It’s a 3-hour round-trip and is over relatively flat terrain.

Lake Tekapo is nearby and is another excellent destination to visit. The bright blue lake is surrounded by lavender fields and a lone brick church. Horse riding treks are popular here, and it allows you to get different views from around the lake.

Days 8-9: Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers/Hokitika Gorge

Hokitika Gorge - day 8 & 9 of the New Zealand South Island road trip
Hokitika Gorge – day 8 & 9 of the New Zealand South Island road trip

This day will be a long day of driving.

From Aoraki Mt Cook, it’ll take five and a half hours to get to the glaciers. The drive is incredible as you drive through both Mt Aspiring and Aoraki Mt Cook National Parks.

Pack a picnic lunch and stop at a viewpoint along the way to eat. After a day of driving, you may not be up for the hike.

You’ll have the opportunity to stay in a farmhouse here which makes for a great experience.

Wake up early the next morning for the hike. It’s recommended to choose from one of the two glaciers. Franz Joseph Glacier is the most well-known, so there is a range of walks to choose from. But Fox Glacier has fewer tourists about.

It’s a given but dress warmly for this. You’ll be provided with boots and crampons so you can walk along the ice.

After the hike, head towards Hokitika Gorge. The drive should take two and a half hours.

Fox Glacier to Abel Tasman (via Hokitika Gorge) is a 7-hour drive so you could do it all in a day instead of spending a night here.

Day 10: Abel Tasman National Park

the end of a New Zealand South Island road trip
Abel Tasman National Park – the end of the South Island road trip

The top of the South Island is known for its stunning weather, beaches, and reserves. Abel Tasman National Park is the last destination of the South Island road trip.

The drive will take you five hours from Hokitika. Break up the journey by stopping off in the charming town of Murchison for a bite to eat and to stretch your legs. Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National Parks are also on the way.

The range of hikes available at Abel Tasman is abundant, ranging from easy walks for one hour to hikes taking up to five days. The Harwoods Hole Track features a giant sinkhole, and the Wainui Falls Track features a cascading waterfall.

Choose a walk (or two) then head to one of the many beaches within the Tasman/Nelson areas. Te Pukatea Bay and Anchorage Beaches are stunning picks. Explore the rock pools and take a dip in the sea. Then, grab some fish and chips to enjoy on the beach as you watch the sunset.

Consider staying an extra night here. The neighboring towns, Nelson and Picton are equally beautiful and are usually the choices to stay at when at the top of the South Island.

From here, take the ferry across to Wellington to start your North Island road trip, or fly back to Auckland for your next adventure.

Enjoy your New Zealand South Island road trip!

Also Read:


Map of the New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary


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Delilah Hart

Author: Delilah Hart
Delilah is a freelance writer, traveler, and blogger from Auckland, New Zealand. Despite slowly traveling the world, the South Island of New Zealand is still her favorite place. You can follow her journey at Our Travel Mix.

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