Taking an epic road trip across New Zealand is the best way to see all that the island nation has—hidden in every corner of its beautiful archipelago. The journey from the bountiful waters found along the coast to the height of the snow-capped Southern Alps. Explore the deep fjords that line the southwest coast and journey through the dense west coast rainforests topped by glaciers. This is an unforgettable road trip of discovery when driving the South Island of New Zealand. It is home to one of the most unique and diverse landscapes in the world.
Tips and Direction
This is the second part of a three-part series of road tripping the best of New Zealand. We started with a travel guide for driving across the island nation. Check that post out for ideas on how to start your own journey and why we are beginning this epic road trip with driving the South Island of New Zealand.
Driving the South Island of New Zealand
Recommended Time: 16 days minimum, 30 days ideal, 40 days for a more relaxing pace
- Typical Visit: 1/2 – 1 day
Christchurch is the largest city on New Zealand’s gorgeous South Island. It is small when compared to the Auckland metropolis but there is still plenty to see and do in this amazing town. It is a modern city complete with world-class museums, shopping, art galleries, a botanical garden, several amazing city parks, and beautiful beaches. In 2011, the town was struck by a massive earthquake that destroyed much of the city’s buildings and infrastructure. Signs of the destruction linger throughout the city.
The Cardboard Cathedral is a superb example of great modern architecture and the resilience and ingenuity of this great city. The ribs of the Cathedral’s ceiling are literally constructed out of cardboard tubes and the roof is made of lightweight translucent polycarbonate material. This along with the massive triangular stained glass window at the front of the building lets light pour into the space. It is an interesting and beautiful building that temporarily replaces the classic cathedral that was decimated by the earthquake and is a must-see spot when driving the South Island of New Zealand.
2) Church of the Good Shepherd & Lake Tekapo
- Typical Visit: 30min – 2hrs
- Drive from the Cardboard Cathedral: 3 hrs, 227km (141 miles)
The second stop on the best New Zealand road trip is the Church of the Good Shepherd located on the southern tip of Lake Tekapo. Don’t worry, not all the stops will be churches. In fact, the real reason to visit this small church (originally opened in 1935) is for the surrounding beauty of the Southern Alps. The church is constructed from locally sourced stone. But the views are the real attraction. It sits beautifully perched on a hill overlooking the long Tekapo Lake, which is fed by the runoff of snow and glacial melt. A stunningly scenic spot to watch the sunset and witness the Milkyway rise in the dark sky.
3) Mount Cook National Park – Driving the South Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 Days
- Drive from the Church of the Good Shepherd: 1hr 15min, 106km (66 miles)
At 12,218′ Mount Cook is the highest point in New Zealand. Summiting its glacial-covered peak is a journey best left to professional mountaineers. But the average hiker can take in some amazing views of Mount Cook and the other peaks of the Southern Alps from the trails in Aoraki National Park.
The Hooker Valley Track is a must-do for the best views of Mount Cook. The trail leads to a glacial lake fed by the Hooker Glacier at the foot of the iconic peak. The trail is a moderate journey best in the early morning. It crosses over three swinging bridges and a long boardwalk. All the while surrounded by epic views of the glacial-covered Southern Alps. This 10km (6.25 mile) trail is the absolute best short-distance hike in New Zealand.
While in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park don’t miss the Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes Loop Trail. This is a short but relatively steep hike to an overlook of the Tasman Glacier, the largest glacier in New Zealand. After taking in the view of the glacier from the perch along the glacial moraine, hike the Blue Lakes Trail back to the parking lot for a total journey of 2.75km (1.75 miles).
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is a Dark Sky Reserve with almost no light pollution. On a clear night, the Milkyway Galaxy explodes across the night sky above the Southern Alps. The park’s White Horse Hill Campground is an amazing spot to camp. While enjoying the intense quiet of this remote location keep your ears peeled for the calving of the surrounding glaciers cascading from the mountain peaks. It is a surreal and amazing experience.
4) Oamaru & The Blue Penguin Colony
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 hours
- Drive from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park: 2hrs 30min, 209km (130 miles)
The World’s smallest penguin is the blue penguin that lives in New Zealand and Australia. One of the largest colonies of these tiny creatures is located in Oamaru. Every evening around dusk the penguins return from hunting at sea. They swim ashore in waves and waddle across the beaches. It is an amazing experience to watch the small seafarers return to their homes exhausted from a day of fishing.
Unfortunately, but understandably, the facility doesn’t allow photography or videography of any kind. This is to prevent the penguins from being startled by the flashes or noises. The facility doesn’t want the penguins to become habituated to humans so guests are requested to remain seated and silent throughout the arrival.
Check out the Blue Penguin Colony website for more details about prices and the starting time. While the whole event takes less than an hour, plan to arrive early and spend some time checking out the fur seals that live on the jetty adjacent to the facility.
5) Moeraki Boulders – Driving the South Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 hours
- Drive from Oamaru: 30min, 37km (23 miles)
The Moeraki Boulders are one of the strange and unique geologic features of New Zealand’s South Island. Massive smooth boulders up to nine feet in diameter sit in the pounding surf along the beach. These formations are known as concretions, formed when layers of sediment compacted around an object (like a shell) on the floor of the ocean. This section of the ocean was covered in layers of sediment and eventually uplifted out of the ocean. Today, the boulders are eroded from the cliff walls above the beach and fall back into the ocean where they were created.
The Moeraki Boulders are located 1/4 mile walk along the beach to the north of the parking area. They are best witnessed at lower tides when they are more exposed. Sunrise is also an especially beautiful time to take in the boulders.
6) Tunnel Beach & Arch
- Typical Visit: 1.5 – 3 hrs
- Drive from Moeraki Boulders: 1hr 10min, 83km (23 miles)
Tunnel Beach is a secluded spot just south of the college town of Dunedin. There is a massive 50′ wide and 30′ tall sandstone arch that has been eroded by the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. As beautiful as the natural arch is, the highlight of a visit is descending 72 steps through the earth via a hand-carved tunnel to a hidden cove. The entire journey is beautiful as the pathway descends 500′ in half a mile to the top of the arch and then through the earth to the beach. Just keep in mind that it takes a lot longer to ascend this path than it does to descend it.
7) Purakaunui Falls
- Typical Visit: 30 – 45min
- Drive from Tunnel Beach: 1hr 45min, 122km (76 miles)
The remote Purakaunui Falls is often considered to be the most photographed waterfall in New Zealand. Given the waterfall’s remote location accessed via a long gravel road, this seems unlikely. This is one of the most sparsely populated areas in New Zealand. However, it is a beautiful 60-foot waterfall that streams down several tiers of a cliff and runs through the lush forest. The short 1/4th of a mile-long trail is an easy, beautiful stroll through the beech tree forest blanketed with ferns.
8) Waipapa Point Lighthouse
- Typical Visit: 30 – 45min
- Drive from Purakaunui Falls: 1hr 30min, 85km (53 miles)
The Waipapa Point is home to New Zealand’s southernmost lighthouse. The waters of the southern ocean are notoriously rough and this guiding light was built in 1884 to assist sailers on those intrepid waters. The structure is a quaint lighthouse overlooking the vast southern ocean but the resident fur seals are the reason to make the journey. They are often found lounging in the shadow of the tower. It is an easy 1/3rd of a mile stroll to the foot of the lighthouse. Visitors can also make their way down to the beach to enjoy the crashing waves.
9) Bluff & Stirling Point – Driving the South Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 45min – 1hr
- Drive from Waipapa Point Lighthouse: 1hr 5min, 80km (50 miles)
Welcome to the town of Bluff and the end of the road. Stirling Point is officially the end of Highway 1 which runs from here all the way to the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island at Cape Reinga (with a ferry crossing between the islands). There is a signpost located here showing the various distances to major cities and important geographic locations including Cape Reinga 1401km (871 miles) away.
Look for the massive chain that tethers (symbolically) the Southern Island to Stewart Island across the Foveax Strait. In the native Mauri tradition, the North Island is a great fish and the South Island a grand canoe. The canoe is chained to the rock that is Stewart Island.
10) Stewart Island & the Foveaux Strait
- Typical Visit: 1 – 4 days
- Sailing from Bluff: 1hr, 37km (23 miles)
Having reached the end of the road, the next leg of the best New Zealand road trip actually leaves the automobile behind and boards a ferry boat to Stewart Island. Like so many of the places on this list, the journey is almost as good as the destination. The seas of the Foveaux Strait are notoriously rough. Massive waves crash into the ferry making for an adventure akin to being in an episode of the deadliest catch. Some people will fear this part and ” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Dramamine is recommended. But if you love the idea of a one-hour-long trackless rollercoaster, it is awesome!
Even if the idea of the ferry scares you, the draw of New Zealand’s secluded third island should be enough to overtake your fears. Stewart Island feels like a world set apart. There are a few narrow streets on the island but very few vehicles. The main transportation is via water taxi. The small town of Oban is a beautiful place lining the Halfmoon Bay. It’s a great place to relax and leave the stresses of our modern world behind.
Given its southern location, the island is one of the best spots to witness the Aurora Australis (AKA: Southern Lights). While you’re out in the dark waiting for the southern lights to appear keep your eyes open for the elusive and nocturnal Kiwi Bird. Stewart Island is one of the best places to spot the unique flightless bird. Spend a few days backpacking the island on the Rakiura Track, one of the country’s famous Great Walks. This is an amazing way to get away from the lights of Oban and find real darkness and experience the southern sky.
Don’t Miss Ulva Island
Take a water taxi from the Golden Bay Wharf (on the southern side of Oban) to Ulva Island. New Zealand was once a birder’s paradise. The country has no natural predators for avians which is why many species like the Kiwi have become flightless. However invasive species have decimated many of the mainlands bird species. New Zealand is working hard to irradicate many of the invasive species and return much of the archipelago to its natural state. It is a nearly overwhelming challenge. Ulva Island is one of the best examples of natural New Zealand that is still open for tourists to visit. Here the birds and native plants flourish. You can spend an entire day slowly strolling the small island’s pathways with all kinds of avian species swooping in to greet you.
11) Lake Manapouri & The Doubtful Sound
- Typical Visit: 7 hours – 2 days
- Drive from Bluff: 2hrs 15min, 171km (106 miles)
Back to the mainland, the drive continues west. The southwestern coast of the South Island is a unique and wonderous landscape known as Fiordland National Park. Fourteen long deep glacially carved fjords slice into the country making it a beautiful but difficult place to explore. Few roads traverse this area and boats are the only real way to explore the majority of the fjords. The Milford Sound is the only fjord accessible by vehicle and as a result, gets very busy. The Doubtful Sound is much longer (25 miles), deeper (1,381′), and secluded. You have a much better chance of seeing wildlife in the Doubtful Sound as well. While the Milford Sound is beautiful, if you only have enough time to explore one fjord while exploring New Zealand, we recommend taking the journey into the Doubtful Sound.
Short of owning your own boat, the only way to explore the Doubtful Sound is on a guided tour. Not only do you sail across the fjord itself to the Tasman Sea but you also get to cruise across Lake Manapouri and take a bus over the mountainous Wilmot Pass Road. The road is touted as the most expensive in the country and gives visitors a birds-eye view of the stunning Doubtful Sound. It was originally built to facilitate the construction of the power plant on Lake Manapouri. Today it is almost solely used by the few tour buses headed for the Doubtful Sound. On a road trip exploring the best of New Zealand, visiting the Doubtful Sound is a must-do experience.
12) Milford Sound – Driving the South Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 1 – 4 days
- Drive from Manapouri: 2hrs, 139km (86 miles)
The Milford Sound is the only fjord in New Zealand that can be accessed by cars and one of the few places on the planet you should hope that it rains during your visit. To say it is gorgeous is an understatement in the extreme. The fjord is home to two perennial waterfalls including the highest in New Zealand, Sutherland Falls which plummets 1,904 feet into the sound (more than 11x higher than Niagra Falls). Still, if you visit on a rainy day, which is two out of every three days of the year, the fjord will be inundated with literally hundreds of waterfalls pouring off of the ledges thousands of feet above the surface of the water.
The best way to explore the 12-mile long fjord is on a boat tour or by kayak. However, just getting to the sound is an amazing journey. The drive is a long one over the mountainous terrain that comes to an end on the shoreline of the fjord. The road passes through the dense lush forest and climbs to the alpine terrain before crossing through the mountain tops via a one-way tunnel. On the other side, visitors emerge into the heights of the fjord. The drive down this mountainside is steep and water appears to cascade off of every surface. It is truly one of the most beautiful drives in the world and a highlight of driving the South Island of New Zealand.
If you want a bigger challenge than simply driving into the Milford Sound you can also hike in on a dedicated trail. The Milford Sound is home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks and is a highly sought multi-day journey. If that sounds like too much hiking, two much easier treks are the short jaunt to Mirror Lakes towards the start of the road and The Chasm trail which is located inside the fjord. Both hikes are short and beautiful.
Fill up your gas tank and get supplies in the town of Te Anau. There are no services found along the 73-mile (each way) journey to the Milford Sound.
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 days
- Drive from Milford Sound: 4hrs, 288km (179 miles)
Queenstown is a beautiful city perched on the edge of the massive Lake Wakatipu found at the foot of the Southern Alps. This is a town designed for thrill-seekers and has a plethora of activities to undertake in and around the city. One of the best ways to get your adrenaline pumping is by taking a leap off of the Kawarau Gorge Bridge. This is literally where commercial bungy jumping was born. If you are ever going to trust your life to a rubber band why not do it in the place it was invented.
Another favorite is the Shotover Jet boat ride. This is a high-speed thrill ride through a narrow canyon with towering cliffs while clinging to the safety of your jet boat seat. While pricey it is one of Queenstown’s most unique experiences.
For those looking for less heart-pounding thrills, check out the Skyline Gondola up Queenstown Hill. You can also hike from the top of the gondola up Ben Lomond Peak. It is a long hike but with some amazing views.
While in town make sure to refuel your vehicle before continuing the best road trip, driving the South Island of New Zealand. You should also take the opportunity to refuel your stomach with a world-famous Fergburger. The line is often wrapped around the block and there is little to no seating available. However, this is a very tasty eatery that is worth the wait and it should not be missed when driving the best New Zealand Road Trip.
14) Ship Creek and the Haast River Bridge
- Typical Visit: 30min – 2 hrs
- Drive from Queenstown: 3hrs 30min, 224km (139 miles)
Ship Creek is a beautiful west coast beach with a short boardwalk and a tower from which to watch the sunset on the ocean. It is a gorgeous spot on the south end of the western coastal drive. This part of the country is sparsely populated. There is a good chance you will have the beach all to yourself.
It is a long but stunningly beautiful drive to Ship Creek from Queenstown. The road crosses over the Southern Alps adjacent to Mount Aspiring National Park. Break up the long drive with a short and easy 30-minute hike to the Blue Pools in Mount Aspiring National Park.
By this time I hope you’ve learned how to navigate the one-way bridges as the 1/2-mile long Haast Bridge is an interesting challenge. It is nearly impossible to see from one side of the bridge to the other. The single-lane bridge has several pullouts that allow traffic to pass while in transit. It is one of the most unique experiences to be had while driving the South Island of New Zealand.
15) Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 days
- Drive from Ship Creek: 1hr 30mins, 104km (65 miles)
The west side of New Zealand’s South Island is an amazing place. The glacial covered Southern Alps give way to lush rainforests that cover the terrain followed by sandy beaches and the vast ocean. Three unique ecosystems crammed into a relatively tiny strip of land. It is beautiful and there are several great hiking trails around the towns of Fox and Franz Joseph to explore. However, the best way to take it all in is via a heli-hiking tour. After a thrilling but short flight to the ice, the tour guides on either the Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers lead visitors on a unique path over the icy terrain. The highlight for us was getting to crawl through an ice cave. The paths are always changing as the ice melts and refreezes so no two journeys are exactly the same.
There are several hiking trails in and around the towns of Fox and Franz Joseph that explore this unique ecosystem. The short hike to Lake Mathson provides reflective views of the Southern Alps including the backside of Mount Cook. We also recommend Peters Pool, a tranquil stroll through the rainforest at the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier to a beautiful tarn with views of the Southern Alps.
16) Arthur’s Pass – Driving the South Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 2 – 3 hours
- Drive from Fox Glacier: 3hrs 30mins, 252km (157 miles)
Highway 73 crosses over the Southern Alps at Arthur’s Pass (2,425′). This is the highest pass in New Zealand and it is so beautiful that the entire National Park that the highway cuts through bears its name. The road is a challenging drive. But the rewarding views from the top make it a must-do when on the best New Zealand road trip. If you are tired of driving you can always leave your vehicle in Greymouth and ride the Tranzalpine Train over Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch and back.
Despite this train ride being one of the most beautiful in the world, we recommend making the drive so you can explore the area more fully. This includes making the relatively short hours-long hike to the 430′ Devil’s Punchbowl Falls.
17) Punakaiki & the Pancake Rocks
- Typical Visit: 1 – 3 hours
- Drive from Arthur’s Pass: 2hrs, 140km (87 miles)
Today we call these rock formations the Pancake Rocks but the Mauri (native New Zealanders) called them Punakaiki. The formations are striated rock layers of karst limestone pancaked on top of one another and perched on the edge of the Tasman Sea. It is amazing that the delicate-looking formations are here. They are continuously subjected to the erosive waves pounding against them. It is a beautiful landscape complete with blowholes that are best witnessed just before high tide.
Punakaiki is also a great opportunity to witness one of the most unique creatures found in New Zealand, the glow worm. While the most famous glow worm caves are found on the North Island the Punakaiki Cavern is a great spot to have a self-guided tour into their world. It is a relatively small karst cave and it doesn’t take long to fully explore the established path.
18) Cape Foulwind Lighthouse
- Typical Visit: 1 – 3 hours
- Drive from Punakaiki: 1hr, 59km (37 miles)
The west coast drive on the best New Zealand road trip ends at Cape Foulwind before cutting east back across the Southern Alps. The Cape Foulwind Lighthouse isn’t as beautiful as others found on this drive but it does have a commanding viewpoint perched atop the seaside cliffs. This is a rugged stretch of coastline best experienced by walking the well-established Cape Foulwind Walkway trail 1.8 miles south from the lighthouse to Tauranga Bay. It is a beautiful hike that leads to a massive seal colony. The name speaks for itself as the colony produces a foul wind.
If you aren’t up for the 1.8-mile out-n-back journey on the Cape Foulwind Walkway, you can drive to Tauranga Bay where it is a shorter 10-minute walk to the seal colony. However, if you have the time and energy the 1.8-mile (one-way) journey is a good scenic walk.
19) Kaikōura – Driving the South Island of New Zealand
- Typical Visit: 1 – 2 days
- Drive from Cape of Foulwind: 5hrs, 340km (211 miles)
Kaikōura is a place that feels like no other and a must-visit on the best New Zealand road trip. The Southern Alps are beautiful as the snowcapped peaks seemingly fall into the ocean. Although the real reason to visit Kaikōura is found beneath the waves. The floor of the ocean slides away from the island to a depth of about 300′ just off the coast. This is where the edge of the Indo-Australian continental shelf is found and the ocean floor plunges nearly 6,000′ into the submarine Kaikōura Canyon. The cold mineral-rich water is driven up out of the canyon mixing with warmer water and creating a biological bonanza. A veritable smorgasbord of sea life is found here that is both tasty for humans as well as a variety of whales, dolphins, and fur seals. This is the best place to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
Searching for whales by boat or plane is a must-do when visiting Kaikōura. Outfitters like Whale Watch also offer an opportunity to swim alongside wild dolphins and fur seals. You can also find abundant sea life by searching the tidal pools along the Kaikoura Peninsula during low tide. When you are done exploring the ocean stop by the roadside establishment of Nins Bins on your journey north and grab a bite of fresh crayfish (AKA: Lobster).
20) Abel Tasman National Park
- Typical Visit: 1 – 5 days
- Drive from Kaikōura: 5hrs, 310km (193 miles)
Tucked into the northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island is the country’s smallest National Park, Abel Tasman. Don’t be fooled. This small park feels like paradise to those who prefer exploring secluded beaches to mountain peaks. A water taxi is the fastest way to get from one beach to the next but kayaking is a much more tranquil way to explore the nearly untouched coastline. Snorkeling, birdwatching, and relaxing in the sand with a book are all great ways to slow down and enjoy this subtropical atmosphere.
Abel Tasman is also home to another of New Zealand’s Great Walks. This one hugs the coast for 37-miles (one-way) crossing over the rugged terrain and dropping down into nearly countless hidden coves with white sandy beaches. The park has campsites throughout and backcountry huts are also available. Just beware that the tides can impede your progress and if you don’t plan with them in mind you might find yourself unable to reach your day’s destination.
21) Farewell Spit & Cape Farewell
- Typical Visit: 2 hours to a full day
- Drive from Abel Tasman: 2hrs 15min, 108km (67 miles)
Found at the northern tip of the South Island is the 35km long Farewell Spit. This is not only the longest spit in New Zealand but one of the longest in the world. However, you can only walk about 4km of the sandy peninsula as it is reserved as a bird sanctuary. After hiking over the sand dunes, head a little further north and visit Cape Farewell—the official most northern point of the island—where an ocean arch is found.
Take a break from driving and hop on a tour of the area with Farewell Spit Tours out of the town of Collingwood. The tour stops at Cape Farewell and also traverses the full length of the Farewell Spit that can only be accessed by the concessionary including a tour of the lighthouse located at the tip of the spit.
- Typical Visit: Half a Day
- Drive from Farewell Spit Trailhead: 5hrs, 285km (177 miles)
Picton is the gateway to New Zealand’s North Island. From here it is a 3.5-hour ferry ride up the Queen Charlotte Sound and across the Cook Strait to the capital city of Wellington. Don’t be fooled, Picton is a quaint little town with a ton of character. Explore the many shops and eateries found in the downtown area, walk the shoreline, and watch the massive ships sail through the Marlborough Sounds. Picton is found at the end of the Queen Charlotte Sound, the eastern section of the massive Marlborough Sound. Taking the ferry through it is an amazing way to draw your time on the South Island to an end.
The Queen Charlotte Sound is so beautiful, why not spend a few days taking it all in by hiking or biking the 73.5km (45.5 miles) Queen Charlotte Track. This is a great way to explore the rugged coastline and it is an adventure made easier by water taxi transfers and lodging options.
Driving the South Island of New Zealand
New Zealand’s South Island is a paradise for those who prefer pristine beaches, other world fjords, and/or remote mountain vistas. The best way to explore the island fully is by taking on an epic road trip, driving the South Island of New Zealand. While the South Island seems to have it all there is even more beauty to be discovered across the Cook Strait. The North Island is home to massive volcanoes, lush prairies, and tropical sandy beaches.