New Zealand’s South Island is a land of spectacular geographical diversity. From one day to the next you can encounter dreamy fjords and lakes, dramatic glaciers and mountains, and lush pools and forests. Here is our New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary, which shows how you can discover its most magical spots in as little as two weeks.
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New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary: introduction
When we planned our travel career break, there was a lot we wanted to pack in. Before visiting New Zealand, we spent a month in Patagonia at the start of the hiking season. (check out our Patagonia itinerary and travel guide).
In order to fit this in and also spend Christmas in Australia, we had to squeeze our time in New Zealand down to just three weeks. We met people who had spent six months exploring the country and not come close to seeing it all, and so we had a challenge to make optimal use of our limited time.
The first big question was how to split our trip between the north and south islands. While both have plenty of incredible scenery and activities to offer, we decided to focus two thirds of our trip – 14 days – on the mountains, fjords, glaciers and winding coastal roads of the South Island.
We began on the North Island and then flew into Christchurch, which was the start and end point for our circular road trip on the South Island. If you’re thinking of road trippin’ on the North Island too, check out this New Zealand North Island road trip itinerary.
We had heard many good things about using the hop-on hop-off bus services in New Zealand, but we opted instead for complete freedom and hired a car through rentalcars.com.
While 14 days on the South Island came and went too quickly for our liking, we managed to cover plenty of the highlights and left feeling fulfilled. With time short we placed our focus on the Fjordlands, Mount Cook, the glaciers and the west coast, saving Abel Tasman National Park and the Southern Scenic Route at the extreme ends of the island for another trip.
The following itinerary follows our route closely, with some additional recommendations thrown in as well for you to mix it up.
Camping in New Zealand opens opportunities
For almost the entirety of our time on New Zealand’s South Island we chose camping for accommodation. While camping isn’t as cheap as you might expect – most campsites charge fees – it was still a more budget-friendly option than staying in hostels or otherwise. Overall, it saved us a lot of money.
Camping in New Zealand also allowed us to see some stunning rural locations that we might not have otherwise. For example, as you will see below, we camped under the stars at the foot of Mount Cook, and at a scenic ocean view site in Hokitika.
So, the itinerary we present here is based on camping, but we’ve also included some accommodation recommendations if you’d rather have a roof over your head.
We highly recommend downloading the Ranker Camping NZ app before you set off. It will help you locate campsites and provides essential information on rates and facilities.
Important note for campers: make sure you declare your tent and hiking boots when you enter New Zealand, or you could find yourself lumped with a hefty fine. It’s also advisable to give them a good clean before travelling into the country, as they will be inspected on arrival.
When is the best time of year to visit New Zealand?
It’s possible to travel in New Zealand all-year round, but the seasons will heavily effect how you experience the country. The most popular period for travel is summer, which is from December to February. This is when you can expect the warmest weather of course, but also the busiest tourist crowds.
Spring (October to November) and autumn/fall (March to May) are both great options to go road tripping in New Zealand outside of the summer season. The weather is still pretty good, and you can find cheaper deals on activities and attractions.
We did our South Island road trip in November/December and we were met with sunny, warm weather for the whole journey.
Read more on the New Zealand seasons at www.newzealand.com.
What to pack for your New Zealand South Island road trip
It can be difficult to know what to pack for a road trip in New Zealand. For everything you need to know, take a look at The Wandering Core’s guide to road trip essentials.
New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary two weeks: quick view
Before we get into the details, here’s an at-a-glance look at what is covered in our suggested New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary for two weeks:
- Day 1: start in Christchurch
- Days 2–3: Mount Cook and the Hooker Valley Track
- Days 4–5: Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu
- Days 6–7: the Fjordlands, Milford Sound and Key Summit
- Days 8–9: Wanaka for hiking and wine
- Days 10–11: Haast Pass and Hokitika
- Day 12: Punakaiki rock formations
- Days 13–14: Hanmer Springs and return to Christchurch
New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary two weeks
Day 1: explore Christchurch
We landed in Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island, on an early morning flight from Wellington. We had our car hire for our road trip already booked for the next day via rentalcars.com. Allowing a day before collection will afford you some time to look around the city and make some preparations for the road.
Christchurch is a fascinating city to explore for a day or two, even if you just stroll around. Sadly, it still bears many of the scars of the 2011 earthquake that ravaged the place. Cracked buildings and flat open spaces linger as a tender reminder of the horrific event, with pop-up buildings, storage-container shopping malls and cardboard cathedrals signs of a city slowly rebuilding.
We enjoyed absorbing the city at our own pace. You can book an all day tram pass to explore the city at your leisure using the city’s restored heritage trams. Alternatively, a fun way to see the city is by taking a 2.5 hour Christchurch bike tour.
These are some more ways you can spend a free day in Christchurch:
- Canterbury museum, which is free to visit (donation recommended) and you can learn about Māori culture.
- Christchurch Art Gallery, which hosts exhibitions throughout the year and celebrates its centenary in 2023.
- New Regent Street, a really cool pedestrian mall with 1930s pastel-coloured buildings, a highlight of our visit!
Check out this article on Christchurch activities for more inspiration on things to do while you’re in the city, including nearby walks.
Where to stay in Christchurch
We stayed at Kiwi Basecamp Backpackers, which is one of Christchurch’s best value hostels – an absolute bargain with free breakfast, excellent kitchen facilities and a good social vibe all included! Check out the Christchurch listings on booking.com for more ideas.
Days 2–3: Mount Cook and the Hooker Valley Track
Drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook
The morning of our first full day on the South Island was dominated by admin and preparation, as we picked up our wheels (a cosy little Suzuki Swift from Jucy Car Rentals via rentalcars.com) and hit the budget supermarket PaknSave for road supplies. Look out for these stores on your trip, as they’re a great place to save money! We stocked up on plenty of pasta, sauce, beans, eggs, veggies and car snacks to ready ourselves for camp cooking.
The drive from Christchurch to Mount Cook takes about four hours or so in one stint, but like us you will probably want to take a break. For the first couple of hours the scenery is fairly mundane, but that changes once you pass a small town called Geraldine and turn inland towards the lake and mountain regions.
Tekapo is a lovely place to stop for a break and a drink. It’s a beautiful little lake town that is known for its regulation of street lighting to protect the night skies. With weak ozone covering, the area is adorned with spectacular starscapes at night.
Camping underneath Mount Cook
We were aiming for White Horse Hill Campground, a low-cost campsite near the foot of Mount Cook. We continued on the road from Tekapo and made it to the campground not long before sundown.
This is one of many government-operated campsites in New Zealand, providing basic toilet and cooking area facilities for a small fee, which is NZD 18 per person per night in peak season during 2022/23.
Overlooked by the snowy peak of Mount Cook and surrounded by jagged mountains, the views from the camping area were among the best we enjoyed on the whole trip.
That night we set alarms for the small hours and crept outside to glimpse some of those afore-mentioned starscapes. With a clear night and dim new moon, conditions were perfect. Don’t miss it!
If you’d prefer not to camp, there aren’t many other options in the area but you could stay overnight by Lake Tekapo instead and drive up to Mount Cook National Park in the morning. YHA Lake Tekapo is a brilliant hostel with lake views, and a choose of private rooms and dorms.
Walking the Hooker Valley Track
There are lots of options for hiking around the Mount Cook area, but the most popular is a gentle three-hour, ten-kilometre return walk along the Hooker Valley Track. The route meanders along the valley over swinging bridges and stony rivers, culminating at an icy-blue glacier lake at the foot of Mount Cook.
The ease of this walk was a pleasant change of pace for us after tackling the Tongariro Crossing on the North Island a week earlier. It’s a super-satisfying way to absorb the scenery of this incredible landscape and still allow some time to relax a bit at the campsite before making headway on the next leg of the journey.
We were back at camp in time to chill for a few hours, make some dinner and soak in the stars one more time.
Days 4–5: Queenstown
Scenic drive from Mount Cook to Queenstown
After waving goodbye to White Horse Hill, we set off for one of our many slow-burned days of driving. The journey from here to Queenstown is about four hours of driving if the roads are clear, but you’ll probably want to stop at some of the many beauty spots and viewpoints along the way.
Among many photography stops and drink breaks en route to Queenstown, we took a short detour to Lake Ohau for the view over the purple lupins across the water.
If you set off early from Mount Cook, it’s still doable to make it to Queenstown by mid-afternoon, even with the stops on the way – which is what we did.
Where to stay in Queenstown
After arriving in Queenstown, we set up for two nights at Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park. This is one of the more expensive campsites we encountered on our New Zealand South Island road trip, but it is well equipped and centrally located. It also has other accommodation options such as motel rooms, cabins, flats and studios.
For a budget backpacking option, the Flaming Kiwi Backpackers is a fun and great value option in town. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from town, and has a social vibe with a BBQ as well.
Nightlife in Queenstown
We had ensured we would pass through Queenstown on a Saturday so we could sample some of its famous nightlife. We started out at 1876, probably the cheapest joint in town for cocktails and beers, and crawled a couple of other bars before winding up at Harry’s Pool Bar for a couple of craft beers.
For a proper introduction and to meet people while you’re in town, take the brilliant big night out Queenstown pub crawl. It covers four bars, with drinks, games and entry included.
Try a legendary Fergburger
Our full day in Queenstown began with a slow morning on account of the previous night’s activities, and after a lazy late morning wander into the centre we headed for our obligatory Fergburger. This is the town’s famous gourmet burger shack, with an inventive menu that attracts queues of punters often stretching to the end of the street and around the corner.
We timed our visit to avoid peak mayhem, but still waited half an hour before we were served. In the end it lived up to the hype, but the three-and-a-quarter pounds of meat (I had the Mr. Big Stuff) rendered me almost immobile for a good couple of hours!
Cruise on Lake Wakatipu
Our hangovers and meat comas shaped the afternoon’s activities, as we quickly discarded our earlier idea of taking the luge ride at the top of the hill and instead went for a Million Dollar Cruise on Lake Wakatipu. By booking in advance with Bookme we managed to same some vital dollars on this.
The cruise meant we could relax and enjoy the views for a couple of hours while our food digested, and learn about the history of Queenstown thanks to our friendly and informative guide. Definitely a fun way to see the landscapes near the town!
Adventurous things to do in Queenstown:
Queenstown is known for being an adventure haven. It’s one of the best places on the planet for things like bungee jumping and sky-diving, or for something closer to the surface you can try the above-mentioned hilltop luge ride. Bookme has some deals on all of these:
- Skyline gondola and luge, including 5 luge rides when you get to the top!
- Shotover canyon swing, with a clifftop freefall over the stunning Shotover Valley
- 9,000ft tandem skydive above Queenstown, with views over the Remarkables and Southern Alps
Days 6–7: the Fjordlands
Driving from Queenstown into the heart of the beautiful Fjordlands is another journey that takes about four hours. After a quiet Sunday night at the campsite we set off bright and early, and extended the drive to over six hours to fit in some scenery stops. You might want to do the same!
Te Anau town is a convenient stop for a petrol fill. By the town you can stop for lunch at Lake Te Anau, and then again for the mountain view across the plains at Knobs Flat a little further on.
Camping on the way to Milford Sound (and other options)
Our pitch in the Fjordlands for two nights was at Gunn’s Camp, a secluded little family-run spot an hour’s drive from Milford Sound. We were gutted to find out that this place was destroyed in a storm in 2020, but we wanted to still mention it here to keep its memory alive! There’s a cool museum on site as well as hidden swimming holes and glowworm viewing spots, and it’s possible the family will rebuild it at some point.
State Highway 94 is the road that meanders all the way up to Milford Sound, and there are a few campsites you can stop along the way. Cascade Creek Campsite is a great budget option, as it’s one of the government-run sites and is only NZD 15 per person in the 2022/23 season.
Milford Sound Lodge is an incredible place to stay with private views of the riverfront and mountains – but it’s expensive! Worth it if you really want to make this a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you’re not working on a tight backpacker budget.
If you don’t want to camp and you still want to keep costs down, another option is to stay overnight in Te Anau at Barnyard Backpackers, a great value place with mountain views. It’s a couple of hours’ drive from here to Milford Sound for cruises, so you may need to head off early.
Milford Sound and Key Summit
Many years ago when I first began to think about travelling the world, Milford Sound was at the top of my bucket list. I had seen a picture taken by a friend of mine who had visited, and thought it looked like the most amazing place in the world. This was always going to be one of the highlights for me, not just of the road trip but our entire world journey.
Milford Sound is not actually a sound but a fjord, a dramatic valley carved by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. These waters yawning out to the Tasman Sea are flanked by towering hills, among them the 1,692m Mitre Peak, the most photographed mountain in New Zealand.
You can buy a Milford Sound JUCY Cruise on Bookme in advance, which we did and it saved us money on other tours we saw advertised. Cruises depart in the morning or afternoon.
We arrived in the still of dawn at high tide for our morning cruise, with the calm shimmering waters casting a perfect reflection of the grassy peaks. After taking in this scene for a good hour we walked around to the port.
The cruise is brilliant value! For us it was a perfect two-hour Milford Sound Cruise, with a breakfast cake and drinks thrown in as well (you often get a cheaper price by taking the earliest morning ride). To top it off the creatures came out to play – seals frolicked, and we caught a sight of the endangered yellow-eyed penguin.
Hiking to Key Summit
With several hours of the day left to enjoy, you can stop by at the Chasm to see the cascading waterfalls on your return drive from Milford Soun. If you head from here to the Divide, you will stand at the starting point of the world-renowned Routeburn Track. We got off here for a spot of hiking.
We had considered taking on the full multi-day trail, but it would have eaten up too much of our New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary. So, as we were enjoying the steady pace we settled for the three-hour return walk up to Key Summit at the route’s beginning.
The reward at the top of Key Summit is a beautiful panoramic view of the Fjordland mountains and alpine lakes. Amazing!
If we’d had more time in the Fjordlands we would have loved to try a Doubtful Sound cruise too – so many beautiful places, so little time! There’s always another trip.
Days 8–9: Wanaka
A beautiful drive from the Fjordlands to Wanaka
The next day we were back on the road for a full day’s driving, heading back past Queenstown and up towards its little sister town Wanaka North of Queenstown the road climbs steeply and winds through green hill-lands before arriving on the shores of Lake Wanaka.
Camping in Wanaka with lake views
Wanaka has several camping options, but we just loved our stay at Mount Aspiring Holiday Park. It costs a bit more than the government-run sites we stayed in, but the lake views are amazing. And as you will read below, it’s right next to a winery!
Looking for a budget option under a roof? Mountain View Backpackers has cheap dorm rooms and does exactly what it says… provides a stunning view. It’s a pretty fun place to stay as well.
Puzzling World in Wanaka
One of Wanaka’s quirkier activities is Puzzling World, which describes itself as a ‘wonderful world of weirdness’. This place brought us a good three hours of entertainment as we muddled through the labyrinth of optical illusions and puzzles, and then took on the outdoor multi-level maze.
As with other activities in New Zealand, you can get discounts for Puzzling World on Bookme.
Hiking, wine and #thatwanakatree
It’s a great idea to rise early in Wanaka to spend the morning on one of the nearby walking trails. Spoilt for choice, we drove a few minutes to the west of the town for the Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain walks. We were tempted by Roys Peak, but that would have taken the full day and we wanted to save some time for a winery.
The walk followed a similar mould to our previous excursions at Mount Cook and Key Summit, with a gentle return walk crowned with a beautiful view at the end. This time, the prize was a panorama of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding waters and mountains. You’ve probably seen the iconic picture on the walk – check this out!
Done and dusted by just after lunch, we sauntered into Rippon winery at 2pm for a tasting. This is the winery that is right next to the campsite! Rippon is also one of the few remaining wineries that still offers free cellar door tastings.
We walked away merry with a bottle of Gewürztraminer for the evening. Before that, though, make some time for a quick swim in the lake by the famous Wanaka tree. It’s a must-see while you’re in Wanaka.
Skydiving in Wanaka
Didn’t take the chance to embrace adventure in Queenstown? Wanaka is another premium location for skydiving. You can go even higher here, with a 12,000ft tandem skydive over jawdropping scenery of lakes and mountains.
Day 10: glacier country and Hokitika
Stunning drive over Haast Pass
Whatever might remain of your morning cobwebs will be blown asunder by the drive from Wanaka to Haast. This was the most beautiful section of road in our entire trip, and that’s saying something.
The road begins with a lengthy stretch along the western shore of Lake Hawea, before snaking back to Lake Wanaka and up towards Haast Pass, punctuated along the way by several lookout points. At Haast Pass you can stop to take the 30-minute return walk across swinging bridges to the Blue Pools. You will struggle to find clearer, more tranquil waters anywhere in the world.
The small town of Haast had been our intended stop for the night, but having made good time and finding it a little bleak, we took the spontaneous decision to press on to Fox Glacier. The signs warning “no petrol for 200km” as we left Haast hint at the tranquil landscape that lie ahead from here.
If you do want to make an overnight stop here, maybe to explore the scenery around here a bit more, then Wilderness Backpackers is a pleasant and cheap-ish hostel about a kilometre south of the little town.
Staying overnight at Fox Glacier village
After a stop-off at Ship Creek for a stroll and some photos, we made it to Fox Glacier village in time to pitch our tent at Fox Glacier Holiday Park. This is a Top 10 site, which you may notice dotted around the South Island on your New Zealand road trip. They’re a bit more expensive than other campsites but have great facilities.
Our night’s sleep was surprisingly interrupted by middle-of-the-night sirens. Don’t worry if you hear these – it’s just an alert for the local voluntary emergency services!
Visiting Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier
From the campsite, we walked to the glacier viewing point at low evening light. It’s a spectacular view, and really easy to reach the track from the village.
In the morning you can see a different perspective of Fox Glacier from Peak View Lookout at the other end of the village, which you will pass as you set off. We actually preferred this to the close-up.
It’s like a natural progression to head from here northwards up the coastal road to Franz Josef Glacier, a bigger and more dramatic mass of ice. The return walk to the viewing point takes a bit longer at 90 minutes, but it’s worth it for the reward of a close-range view.
Stopping by to meet kiwis at Hokitika
Leaving the glaciers behind, as you return to the road it will swing right out to the ocean front for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Hokitika. We arrived in the self-styled “cool little town” by early afternoon, ample time to visit the National Kiwi Centre.
At this educational and fun place you can New Zealand’s famed flightless birds, as well as other unique native wildlife such as the ancient Tuatara (220 million years old!) and giant eels, which we fed and stroked. Not bad for the NZD 29 entry fee.
While you’re in Hokitika you can also stop by at the beach and grab an ice cream. If you have any spare time, you can also see incredible natural glow worm colony displays for free at Glow Worm Dell.
Seaview Lodge in Hokitika: hostel and camping
In Hokitika we found one of our favourite camping spots of our entire South Island road trip: Seaview Lodge, which also has a hostel on site. This is a former psychiatric clinic converted into a large campsite and lodging complex. It’s full of character, and has easy access to the town.
Seaview Lodge is among the cheapest places to camp in New Zealand. The tent pitches are set against a fabulous ocean view (a particularly good sunset spot), and the large building facilities were well fitted and stocked for all our camping needs. There is even free unlimited wifi – we didn’t find that anywhere else.
Days 12–13: rocks and pancakes at Punakaiki, R&R at Hanmer Springs
Pancake rocks (and real pancakes!)
An hour’s drive north of Hokitika you will reach Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki. These rock formations – which draw their name from the pancake-like appearance – were formed 30 million years ago from fragments of dead marine creatures and plants compressed beneath huge water pressure.
With the stars aligning in our favour, high tide peaked at 11am, perfect timing for our visit to the rocks! Make sure you check the Punakaiki tide times in advance – high tide is the best time to see it.
We would have been more than content with this impressive sight alone, but looking further out to sea we got an unexpected bonus – dolphins! Hector’s dolphins, native to the area, are the smallest and rarest marine dolphins in the world; and sure enough, we spied a little group of them splashing about in the water.
To round off the morning’s activities you can have some real pancakes in Pancake Rocks Café over the road. This place is a little bit of a tourist trap and so it’s not cheap, but we can’t deny the pancakes are delicious and stacked impressively high. We both ordered a stack with bacon, maple syrup and cream; it was so huge we didn’t need to eat again until the evening.
Thoroughly satisfied, now it’s time to set off for a long afternoon drive for our penultimate road trip destination and some well-earned rest and relaxation: Hanmer Springs.
Unwinding at Hanmer Springs
Hanmer Springs is a small resort town on the north side of New Zealand South Island, known for its thermal pools with natural mineral waters. For us, this was the perfect place to end our road trip, as it allowed us to finish with some well earned relaxation.
With one full day in Hanmer Springs, you can spend the whole time unwinding at the brilliant Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa. We booked discount tickets on Bookme. I can’t think of a better way we could have concluded the trip than by soaking in hot pools for a day, with the odd splash down the water slide to cool off.
Where to stay in Hanmer Springs
For both nights at Hanmer Springs we camped at Alpine Adventure Holiday Park, a pleasant spot a couple of kilometres out of town. It offers cheap camping, or you can stay in cabins, caravans or studios. Wherever you stay outdoors here, you’ll need to be ready for swarms of sandflies! Make sure you bring a lot of insect repellent.
That night we savoured a final timely treat, as New Zealand’s only supermoon of the year appeared above the tree of our campsite at midnight.
If you want to stay in the town itself for convenience, you can’t go wrong with Hanmer Backpackers. This hostel is right in the heart of town, has great facilities, and you can choose from dorms or privates rooms,
Day 14: return to Christchurch
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so will your road trip. We made the final journey back to Christchurch (the only bland drive we had) and dealt with the necessary admin – cleaning and returning the car, checking into our hostel, and readying ourselves for the next day’s flight to Fiji.
If you are flying on from Christchurch to your next destination, Jucy Snooze airport hostel is a brilliant place to stay, and extremely convenient for your onwards journey. It’s fitted with big comfy pod beds, which is more than welcome after twelve nights of camping!
Two weeks isn’t enough to see everything on New Zealand’s South Island, and I hope we make it back one day for unfinished business. But if we don’t, this itinerary gave us an incredible fortnight to remember.
Quick tips for your New Zealand South Island road trip
Before you head off and start planning, there are a few things to know about taking a road trip on New Zealand South Island. Here are some of our top tips based on our own experience:
- If you remember one thing – make sure you fill up on petrol before leaving remote towns and villages! You will often be warned on signs when it’s going to be a long time to the next station. Don’t forget this, as it will be a huge pain to fix if you run out in the wilderness.
- If you want to save costs on food, buy stock in bulk from supermarkets and cook your own meals. Especially look out for Paknsave! We did this through most of our trip and saved a ton.
- We’ve mentioned it a lot already, but use the website bookme.co.nz to book activities. Its online discount service saved us lots of money along the way.
- Wifi at hostels and campsites in New Zealand usually comes at an additional cost, so you may need to be ready for that.
- Download the Rankers Camping NZ app to find campsites along the journey.
- Rural roads in New Zealand can be treacherous in bad weather, especially mountain passes. Look up the weather forecast before you set off, and be careful going off the main roads.
- Invest in some travel insurance before you go! This will make sure you’re covered in case of any mishaps. We recommend SafetyWing, which has options for long-term subscription or one-off trips. See our SafetyWing travel insurance review to find our more.
Looking for more road trip inspiration? Check out this article on the best road trips in the world.
Have you got a road trip story to tell? Let us know about it in the comments below.
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