Planning on visiting our scenic South Island? This two-week road trip itinerary will help you make the most of your visit to the rugged south, and includes some of the best walks and hikes New Zealand has to offer.
This itinerary starts from Christchurch, as many South Island-bound flights will land here. However, it is a loop, so you could start from Queenstown, if that’s where your flight lands, or Picton if you’re coming across on the ferry.
Day 1: Kaikoura
Start your day bright and early in Christchurch, and head north to the beautiful coastal town of Kaikoura.
The seaside settlement looks over Hikurangi Marine Reserve, where you will find whales, dolphins and seabirds, often in large numbers. Spend the afternoon on a whale watching tour, and then head to Kaikoura Peninsula, just south of the township, where you can see the large resident seal population.
Day 2: The scenic northern South Island
Today prepare for a beautiful, long, scenic drive as you weave your way along the coast to the top of the South Island.
From Kaikoura enjoy the coastal road with views of the North Island before heading slightly inland through Blenheim. Stop for lunch in the quaint coastal town of Picton, where the Insterislander and Bluebridge ferries bring passengers from Wellington. Then head through the hills, stopping for afternoon tea at Pelorus Bridge before arriving in Nelson, the sunniest region in New Zealand.
Day 3: Abel Tasman National Park
Spend your morning exploring Nelson, before heading towards Abel Tasman National Park. Stop in Motueka on your way for a bite to eat, and then continue north to the Wainui Falls Track. At 1 hour 20 minutes return🚶, this walk will take you through lush native bush to the cascading Wainui Falls. You’ll enjoy a long swing bridge, and if you’re lucky might be able to spot one of our native giant carnivorous snails, the powelliphanta.
Day 4: State Highway 6
Today you have another scenic drive ahead of you as you weave your way between Kahurangi National Park and Nelson Lakes National Park. This windy drive will take you through native bush, and there are plenty of spots to stop for a picnic when you start feeling peckish.
Day 5: Charming Creek Walkway
Make sure you have a good, hearty breakfast today because you’ve got a decent walk ahead of you. Head northeast from Westport to Charming Creek Walkway (follow the sign and turn right at Ngakawau). Charming Creek Walkway will take you 6 hours return🚶, and is a stunning track that follows an historic bush tramway. You’ll enjoy spectacular vistas up and down the Ngakawau Gorge, as well as views of the Mangatini Falls.
Day 6: Punakaiki
Spend the morning exploring the famous pancake rocks of Punakaiki. The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk is an easy 20 minute stroll🚶, but it’s a must-see with blowholes and surge pools among a limestone landscape of pancake-shaped rock formations.
Day 7: Arthur’s Pass
Spend a leisurely morning enjoying the wilderness at Arthur’s Pass, before packing a picnic and heading to the Devils Punchbowl Walking Track. This 1 hour return track🚶 winds through dense beech forest and takes you one of New Zealand’s most stunning waterfalls.
In the afternoon head back towards the coast and south to Franz Joseph 🚗 3hrs
Stay at Gillespies Beach Campsite to camp near an old gold mining settlement and a seal colony.
Day 8: Glaciers and lakes
A short, 30 minute drive will take you to the start of the Lake Matheson / Te Ara Kairaumati Walk. Get your camera ready, as this 1 hour 30minute loop walk🚶 leads to views of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, reflected on the still waters of Lake Matheson.
Head into the Fox Glacier Weheka township for lunch, and then take a short drive to the Fox Glacier / Te Ara o Tuawe Valley Walk. A nice afternoon stroll, this 1 hour return walk🚶 will take you right to Fox Glacier/Te Moeke o Tuawe.
Day 9: Mount Aspiring National Park
Spend the morning winding your way along SH6 to Mount Aspiring National Park 🚗 2hrs 20mins
Enjoy a picnic lunch at Fantail Falls before heading to the Blue Pools Track, a 1 hour return walk🚶. The Blue Pools are pure glacial water gathered from the mountains, and the walk meanders through native beech forest and across swing bridges that afford views of both the Makarora River and Blue Pools.
Day 10: Milford Sound
In the morning, drive to Milford Sound 🚗 5hrs
By the afternoon you’ll feel like you need to stretch your legs, so head to Lake Gunn for a short walk. The Lake Gunn Nature Walk loop will only take 45 minutes🚶, but it lets you experience the wilderness of Fiordland. Moss smothers the trees and native birds like tomtits and riflemen are easy to spot. You’ll also experience the vast mountains surrounding the deep blue waters of Lake Gunn.
Spend the night at the Cascade Creek Campsite where the walk starts and finishes.
Day 11: Routeburn
Wake up with the birds, pack up your tent and drive for 40 mins to the start of the Routeburn track. The Routeburn is a 2-4 day hike, and a must-do if you have an extra couple of days up your sleeve. If not though, the Key Summit is a nice, short alternative. The Routeburn Track: Key Summit Track will take 3 hours return🚶, and starts on the Routeburn, but then turns off and your 20 minute climb to the summit will be rewarded with panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains. The summit is a great spot to enjoy your packed lunch – there’s nothing like panoramic mountain views to make your sandwich taste better!
In the afternoon start winding your way back along SH 94 to Te Anau 🚗 1hr 40mins
Day 12: Te Anau
Spend your morning exploring the town of Te Anau, and don’t miss the Punanga Manu o Te Anau/Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. Here you can see takahē, our rare, blue, flightless swamphens, as well as kākā, our native forest parrot, kererū, New Zealand pigeon, and tūī.
If you have extra time, stop off in Queenstown for a day or two. This beautiful, lakeside town is known for being the ‘adventure capital of the world’. Test your limits with bungy jumping, abseiling, white-water rafting and paragliding, before enjoying the nightlife in the local bars. Or, if thrill-seeking isn’t your thing, take a cruise on the beautiful Lake Wakatipu, sipping some of the local wine.
Day 13: Wanaka
Roys Peak Track is one of our most popular walking tracks, and it’s for good reason. The 5-6 hour return trip🚶 will take you through alpine meadows and tussock grasslands, to breathtaking views over Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring/Tititea and the surrounding peaks. Take your lunch and make a day of it.
After all that walking, rest your legs in the car and drive to Aoraki/Mount Cook 🚗 2hrs 30mins
Stay at White Horse Hill Campground and make sure you get a good sleep, you’ll need to be well rested for the last day of this spectacular trip.
Day 14: Aoraki/Mount Cook
Staying at the White Horse Hill Campground means that you are already conveniently located at the start point of today’s hike. The Hooker Valley Track is a 3 hour return trip🚶 with views that will take your breath away. You’ll start by entering the sacred Tōpuni area of the Hooker Valley, which has special significance to Ngāi Tahu iwi. Along the track you’ll cross swing-bridges, the Hooker River and you might even hear an avalanche crash down the distant Mount Sefton. The track ends with a spectacular view of Aoraki/Mount Cook and the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana.
Have an extra week? Head south.
If you’re lucky enough to have some time to spare, head down to the bottom of the South Island.
Then, either fly or take the ferry over to Stewart Island/Rakiura, New Zealand’s third largest island and home to Rakiura National Park. Take a tour to experience the thriving birdlife on the island, and explore the coast by boat or kayak. Find out more about visiting Stewart Island here.
One last thing before you hit the road
If you have any questions about any of these areas, we have local Visitor Centres throughout the South Island where you will find rangers happy to share their insider knowledge.
Make sure you get in touch with them for the weather forecast, advice on what gear you should take with you and anything else you might need to know. Find the full list of Visitor Centres here.
Short Walks and Day Hikes
From native bush, to glaciers, urban volcanoes, lakes and coastlines, no matter where you are, or how long you’ve got, there’s a walk for everyone: www.doc.govt.nz/walks