The Best South Island Road Trip Destinations in New Zealand
These South Island road trip stop ideas are essentially a list of the some of the highlights of the South Island of New Zealand’s immense beauty – and I don’t mean just sights to take a snap of, chuck some filters on, and plaster all over your various social media platforms. I mean the kind of beauty that can overwhelm. A landscape that will have you practically drowning in appreciation. Intense, I know. But isn’t that the point? So, this is the route that I recommend for the best road trip experience in the South Island.
The journey begins with flying into Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island, nestled on the East Coast.
Whenever you arrive somewhere new, it’s important to celebrate with a drink. So, your first stop is Whiskey Galore. This sweet little whiskey boutique store has the most stunning whiskey collection I have ever seen, accompanied by a knowledgeable narration of each drink by incredibly welcoming and passionate whiskey handlers. Of course, possessing an appreciation of whiskey is a must for this. After that, with the slight glaze in your eyes that can only come from a minor day drinking session, I advise you to hit the Christchurch Street Art Trail.
Christchurch Street Art Trail
Cruising the streets staring at various giant collections is like wandering around an art gallery that picked up a little too much attitude and decided to break out of its confines to run wild through the city. I guarantee that you will walk away from this with at least one piece that you will not be able to stop thinking about. Once the whiskey has worn off, get a car and some camping gear and then be on your way.
Migrate 3 hours up the east coast to Kaikoura, a stunning little town with a genuinely impressive collection of wildlife. Here, you’re going to climb your first New Zealand mountain – Mt Fyffe. This 8-hour return walk will give you rolling, rugged mountain ranges on one side and the bluest open ocean on the other. Mt Fyffe is one of the best east coast viewpoints of New Zealand, so make sure to have a good look around.
Another 15km up the coast will take you to the Marlborough Sounds, where I recommend a mixture of kayaking and hiking through the collection of sunken river valleys and thick green forests. There are a couple of idyllic viewpoints that will have you awestruck, silently staring across the sounds – I’m not kidding guys, it’s hard to stand back up and leave this place.
A 4-hour drive across the top of the South Island will lead you to Farewell Spit – a narrow sand spit stretching out into the Tasman Sea. You’ll feel like you’re standing at the top of the South Island. Farewell Spit is layered with white, fine sand, creating incredible rolling dunes. Stand at the end of the spit and appreciate this small, delicate green island that you have already traveled a quarter of – then prepare yourself for the West Coast!
Victoria Forest Park
As you head down the West Coast, you’ll travel through Victoria Forest Park. This park combines all of the most beautiful aspects of New Zealand forests into one location. With an abundance of tracks and huts, this park will provide you with plenty of adventures. Take some time to camp here and explore – it’s worth the time spent.
Travel 300km down to the West Coast, past beautiful beech forests, and you’ll end up at the Hokitika Gorge. I know this doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but this water displays the most intense greens and blues I have ever seen! On a good day, the color is almost too extreme to look at without a good pair of sunnies – so be warned. This track is short and sweet – perfect for stretching your legs.
Once you arrive in the glacier country, head to Lake Matheson, which is a perfect stop to keep the serene vibe going. Lake Matheson has a unique reputation for being eerily still, to the point that it provides a perfect mirror image of the surrounding trees, mountain ranges, and fat fluffy clouds – it can be quite wonderful.
Obviously, in glacier country there are glaciers – so your next stop is Fox Glacier! Fox Glacier is fed by four alpine glaciers that dissipate, unusually, into a lush rainforest. I splurged and booked a guided tour with Fox Glacier Guides. It’s one thing to read about these glaciers but another thing entirely to have experts point the details out as you walk over the ice – a very surreal moment. This glacier is retreating, as with all in New Zealand, so my advice for visiting it isn’t only based upon the scenery, but also somewhat based upon the fact that one day it may no longer be there. It’s an unfortunately profound excuse to live in the moment – so why not make the most of it?
While you’re checking out Fox Glacier, you’ll need to spare some time to sneak around to the Westland National Park. It’s quite bizarre to see sharp, rocky mountains that drop into lush rainforest, but it makes for some impressive scenery.
Welcome Flat and Blue Pools
Next stop – hot pools! There is something so oddly healing about being submerged in hot water while the air is cold enough to cause frost. The Welcome Flat hot pools can only be accessed by a 7-hour one-way walk across the Copland track, making it even more enjoyable to melt into a hot pool as the day dissipates and the stars begin to liven up.
To see more pools, drive 2 hours down the coast to Haast and visit the Blue Pools. These pools are incredibly clear with a vibrant blue hue to them. However, unlike the hot pools, this freezing water will grip the air from your lungs – on the off-chance that you don’t feel like swimming in frigid waters, then at least it’s still beautiful. This 1-hour walk boasts stunning surroundings and is an excellent way to build your energy levels back up – a real win-win.
Another 10km down to the road will lead you to Makarora – a quaint little town described as ‘a back to nature’ experience, with great gullies and fast flowing rivers. Grab a kayak and follow the river’s flow.
Mt Aspiring National Park
Just a hop-skip-and-jump down the road is the incredible Mt Aspiring National Park. I highly recommend that you stay here for a few nights to make sure you have ample adventuring time. Even after a quick explore, you’ll understand that there’s something old-timey and mystical about this place, and not just because it’s the same scenery found in the Lord of the Rings. Head along to Crucible Lake – a crater-like hole with floating icebergs and a very satisfying roundness. As a 3-hour one-way walk, this hidden treasure is definitely worth the wander.
Shotover Canyon Swing, Queenstown
Your next stop is something a little less nature-orientated but still incredibly fun. The Shotover Canyon Swing is found in Queenstown and will provide (if you’re like me) a much-needed adrenaline rush. There is nothing quite like launching yourself across a canyon with a tiny little rope keeping you safe – as painful as it is to admit, I have had more than one go at this.
Head 170km down south. Your next stop is known as the most beautiful part of New Zealand – the Doubtful Sound. This incredible Fiord has the most exquisite composition of scenery! Giant forested mountains, dark stormy water, plummeting waterfalls – it is utterly stunning. I booked a tour with Real Journeys as I had limited time to explore and ended up loving it. But there are other options, too. My recommendation for this area is to plan some walks and camping locations and then explore. This region is practically the heart of Fiordland National park, and it will blow your mind.
Another 2 and a half hours drive south and you will arrive at the very bottom of the South Island at Bluff. From here, you will take the Ferry across the Foveaux Straight to Stewart Island. Stewart Island is technically the third largest island of NZ, which seems odd as it is tiny. Stewart Island has a thriving ecosystem of native New Zealand creatures, ranging from scaly things to fluffy things to flying things – and they are all incredibly fascinating to watch in their natural habitats. Stewart Island is the place that I recommend the full wild-living treatment. Fish for your dinner. Dry your clothes on a tree branch. Cook breakfast on the hot embers of a campfire. Live simply and quietly here, and you’ll understand the magic of Stewart Island.
Now, for my final recommended stop – Mt Cook. Mt Cook (Native name: Aoraki) is New Zealand’s largest mountain, and it is also home to New Zealand’s largest glacier – the Tasman Glacier. This area is said to be a connection point between New Zealand and the heavens, and it’s pretty easy to understand why once you see it. Mount Cook is made up of continually white-capped mountains, open plains, crystal clear lakes, twisted glaciers, and a sky that feels like it’s ever-expanding. I toured with Mt Cook Glacier Guides so I could make the most of my visit here (my mountain skills are not where they need to be to do this on my own). This mountain will make you feel remarkably small and overwhelmingly fearless at the same time. You are just a tiny dot on this monstrous formation, but you are also there – at that very moment – living life. It’s pretty epic.
So that’s it, folks. Those are my recommendations for a beautiful road trip through the South Island. You can do with this list as you please. Twist it, swap locations, add and remove, alter as you wish. This list leaves plenty blank for you to fill with your unique style. You’ll find adventure throughout this beautiful country easily enough without my recommendations. So, dive off the beaten track and create your travel path – the wilder, the better. Just remember to take the time to look, and to simply be there.