The ultimate two-week South Island, New Zealand itinerary

Department of Conservation —  12/01/2018 — 9 Comments

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

Drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura 🚗 2hrs 40 minutes

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.

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Sperm whale off the Kaikoura coast. Photo: andrewwalmsleyphotography.com

Day 2: The scenic northern South Island

Drive from Kaikoura to Nelson 🚗 4hrs

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.

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Pelorus River from the Pelorus Bridge. Photo Jeff Hitchcock

Day 3: Abel Tasman National Park

Drive from Nelson to Wainui Falls 🚗 2hrs 10 minutes

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.

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Wainui Falls. Photo: Shellie Evans

Day 4: State Highway 6

Drive from Wainui Falls to Westport 🚗 5hrs

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.

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The view from Hawkes lookout, Takaka hill. Photo: Andrea Schaffer

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.

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Charming Creek Walkway. Photo: Miles Holden

In the afternoon, drive from Charming Creek to Punakaiki 🚗 1hr 20mins

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.

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The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Photo: Jocelyn Kinghorn

In the afternoon head from Punakaiki to Arthur’s Pass 🚗 2hrs

Pitch your tent in Avalanche Creek Shelter Campsite and watch out for cheeky kea, our rare apline parrot.

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Kea on top of a car. Photo: Vera & Jean-Christophe

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.

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Devils Punchbowl. Photo: Tony Fernandez

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.

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Lake Matheson. Photo: Heikki Holstila

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.

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Fox Glacier. Photo: Miles Holden

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.

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Blue Pools Track. Photo: Shellie Evans

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.

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Lake Gunn. Photo: Jocelyn Kinghorn

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!

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The view from Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. Photo: Herb Christophers

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.

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An endangered takahē. Photo: Harald Selke

In the afternoon make your journey from Te Anau to Wanaka 🚗 3hrs

Extra: Queenstown

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.

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Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. Photo: Bernard Spragg

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.

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Roys Peak Track. Photo: Miles Holden

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.

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Hooker Valley Track. Photo: Miles Holden

Enjoy lunch in Aoraki/Mount Cook Village before heading back to Christchurch 🚗 4hrs

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.

Visit the tuatara at Invercargill’s Southland Museum. Tuatara are the last remaining member of an ancient group of reptiles whose ancestors lived with the dinosaurs.

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Tuatara. Photo: Bernard Spragg

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.

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Stewart Island’s Golden Bay. Photo: mellow cat

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.

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Short Walks and Day Hikes

Many of these walks are part of our new set of Short Walks and Day Hikes that are being promoted to encourage more New Zealanders to get out and explore some of our natural wonders.

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

9 responses to The ultimate two-week South Island, New Zealand itinerary

  1. 
    Dr. Babylon 20/01/2018 at 2:38 pm

    Hm… this is almost identical to what I did some 15 years ago.The only difference is that I have not seen that Takahē but most likely his grandfather 😉 Nice trip anyway. The question is WHO drives on all those ONE-way bridges?:-) Anyway, before going again, I wait until my wife passes her drivers licence :-). Have a great day.

  2. 
    Sophie Brookes 19/01/2018 at 10:17 pm

    Love this! Great reminder of many places we visited on our 2016 trip but plenty of ideas for our return visit. Time to start saving up again…..!!

  3. 

    Hi DoC
    This is a fantastic journey plan for sure and I’m pretty sure you guys will have angsted over what to leave out…..so this is a shout out for Dunedin, Otago Peninsula and the Catlins 🙂
    Our little corner of Aotearoa is known as tbe wildlife capital……so if you’ve already visited one of the other superb regions on a previous visit, I highly recommend a few days in Otago 🙂

    • 

      Hi Linda, thanks for your comment and we completely agree – Dunedin is well worth a visit. Orokonui Ecosanctuary, the Royal Albatross Centre and Penguin Place are just a few of the wildlife attractions not to be missed 😊
      Plus you could easily spend two weeks in the Catlins alone, exploring the stunning forest walks, enjoying the rivers and waterfalls, and experiencing some of our rarest coastal wildlife like sea lions and yellow eyed penguins.
      Thanks again for the tip!

    • 

      We’re doing just that next month. Any tips for must do places?

  4. 

    Thank you, excellent help for our visit from the UK in March.

  5. 

    Wow, DOC, well done! Do you have a Nth Island one as well?

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