A journey through New Zealand’s South Island is full of promise and discovery. Grassy lowlands are skirted by snowcapped alps. Fields turn shades of mauve and fuschia as lupins bloom beside glassy lakes. Towering cliffs rise above inky fjords sheathed in low lying clouds. Brimming with diverse landscapes, unreal high-action activities and a lifetime worth of magical moments. This New Zealand South Island itinerary is the ultimate road trip journey.
Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, outdoor lover or photography enthusiast, New Zealand’s South Island has something for everyone. Experience unspoiled vistas, secluded pockets and dream-like scenes savoured by even the most well-travelled adventurers.
In this itinerary, I’ve included tips, tricks and all the best places. You’ll read where to go, how many days you’ll need, what to see and do and the essential items you’ll need.
My New Zealand South Island Itinerary:
Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Suggested time: 2 days
New Zealand’s South Island has two main airports, Christchurch and Queenstown. The former caters to more international flights and is ideal for this circuit itinerary.
Hiring a car or campervan from Christchurch airport will give you the most freedom for your travels. If you fancy a bit of free camping then a campervan is the best way to experience everything this incredible place has to offer.
The journey from Christchurch airport to Lake Tekapo takes approximately 3 hours. As you drive you’ll experience the scenic surroundings of the Mackenzie Basin.
Upon arrival at Lake Tekapo, you’ll be greeted by beautiful turquoise water set against a background of the Southern Alps. With only a small population of less than 400, you feel like you have the place almost to yourself.
Spending 2 days here will give you plenty of opportunity to explore your surroundings and fall in love with New Zealand’s spectacular scenery.
A major point of interest in the area is New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki Mount Cook, standing 3,754 metres high. There are a number of hikes you can explore throughout Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.
Of these, the Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular in the region. The path leads hikers over two swing bridges crossing the Hooker River and reaches the Hooker Glacier terminal, where glacial icebergs float atop milky waters. A 10km return route, the hike should take most walkers 3 hours. The path is well laid out and so the hike is doable for anyone of average fitness.
If you want to learn how to take travel photos like the ones in this article, start with: 9 Beginner Photography Mistakes to Avoid and How to Take Amazing Photos in All Weather Conditions.
Also, ensure you don’t miss Lake Pukaki, which you pass on the road from Lake Tekapo to Aoraki Mount Cook. Astro photographers will enjoy the lack of light pollution in the area, with the Church of the Good Shepherd a favourite point of interest.
Suggested time: 2-3 days
Moving further south, make your way toward the lakeside area of Wanaka. A resort town set among vistas of snowcapped mountains, the region is the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park. This is home to a number of impressive hiking routes and nearby Treble Cone and Cardrona ski resorts. On route from Lake Tekapo, you will pass through the hilly landscape of the Lindis Valley. Take the opportunity to pull over and snap a few photos.
If another hike takes your fancy, challenge yourself a little more this time with the Roy’s Peak trail. This zigzagging hike makes its’ way through tussock grasslands to the ridgeline for views over neighbouring lakes and Mount Aspiring. The hike elevates 1228 metres along an 8km route, or 16km return, and will take most hikers around 6 hours.
Weather can change quite quickly, so it’s important to ensure you are prepared, and to turn around if adverse weather conditions take hold. You will require a reasonable level of fitness to complete the hike, and proper footwear is essential.
Snowboarders and Skiers have a choice of several local ski fields, including Cardrona, Treble Cone, Soho Basin and Snow Farm. Take to the slopes from June through October or try something different and opt for a heleski experience.
Queenstown and Milford Sound
Suggested time: 3-4 days
Next stop: New Zealand’s adrenaline capital. If pushing your nerves to breaking point is your thing, then Queenstown is ideal for you.
Launch off ledges over deep valleys, raft through whitewater rapids or jump from a helicopter to snowboard your way down the mountainside. There’s no shortage of extreme sports and adventure here.
However, if the thought of skydiving or abseiling makes your stomach turn, there’s lots of other things to do nearby. Enjoy the small settlement of Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, relax by the wharf and picturesque boathouse, or explore from the water in a canoe or kayak. You can also head out on the Routeburn Track from here, which takes 2-3 days.
Queenstown is also a great base if you plan on uncovering the magical landscapes in one of the country’s wettest corners.
Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park are an essential addition for any New Zealand South Island itinerary.
If you would prefer to relax and take in the scenic vistas, dramatic mountains and lush forests, a coach and cruise combo tour gives you the opportunity to take it all in, while someone else takes care of the driving.
On a cruise through the Fjord, you will be greeted with waterfalls plunging from the tops of towering cliff faces. You’ll also find still, inky waters and possible sightings of local wildlife, including Southern Fur Seals.
If you prefer overland adventures and exploring remote areas, head out on a 53km hike along the Milford Track. Starting at the head of Lake Te Anau, most hikers will enjoy this trek over 4 days. That way, you have time to enjoy swimming in the clear, fresh lakes and magnificent waterfalls.
When departing from Wanaka, if weather permits, take the route via Cardrona and the Crown Range Road for incredible views that are worth all the hairpin turns.
Also,don’t miss a stop in Arrowtown! A historic gold mining town in the Otago region that feels like you’ve stepped back in time.
Suggested time: 1 day
It’s this point in your travels you’re going to begin heading North towards the west coast. Passing back through Wanaka, you will cruise past the lake of the same name along with Lake Hawea on route to Haast. There’s a few fantastic hikes in and around Mount Aspiring National Park, but the Blue Pools is one worth noting.
The clear waters flow into the Makarora River, offering some quality down time on this short walk. Only 1.5km and well laid out, this walk is enjoyable and accessible for most people. That said, there are limits to the number of people who can be on the suspension bridge at one time, so you may need to wait.
Now just a short drive from Haast, you could even head a little further to take in the stunning views of Lake Moeraki.
Fox Glacier / Franz Josef Glacier
Suggested time 1-2 days
Continuing northbound along the west coast, around 2 hours from Haast you’ll find yourself in the region of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. You’re now on the western side of Aoraki Mount Cook, with the opportunity to get up close and personal with the glaciers. This is an absolute must for any New Zealand South Island itinerary.
Join a scenic helicopter flight over the glaciers, hovering above braided rivers and make a snow landing on Mount Tasman. This is New Zealand’s second largest mountain and neighbour to Aoraki Mount Cook in the Southern Alps.
If you’re looking for a bigger challenge, take a helicopter to the glacier and hike through the walls of ice of the frozen river.
If all the hiking and action-packed adventure has you feeling a little worse for wear, soothe those aching bones in the Franz Josef hot springs. Here, you’ll be surrounded by unspoiled forest for the ultimate afternoon of relaxation.
Arthurs Pass to Christchurch
Suggested time: 1 day
Things are starting to wrap up, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still some great photo ops and adventures to be had. On your journey from Fox Glacier to Arthur’s Pass, a stopover in Hokitika Gorge is essential. Catch early morning light here to capture milky blue waters skirted by smooth grey boulders and lush green forest.
If you haven’t already met New Zealand’s cheekiest native, you’ll surely see them in Arthur’s Pass.
The Kea is a comical, green alpine parrot that will jump inside your camper or car the second you turn your back. It’s wise not to feed them though, or you might have found yourself a friend for life.
For a brilliant photo of an engineering feat, take time to admire the Otira Viaduct en route.
From Arthur’s Pass, you will begin your final leg back toward Christchurch. You might choose to spend a day or two in Christchurch, which is still being rebuilt after the devastating earthquakes in 2011 and 2016, or perhaps you fancy continuing on the road to discover what the North Island has on offer.
New Zealand South Island Itinerary Summary
So what’re you waiting for? If you aren’t already searching for flights to this Antipodean gem, you’re behind the smart travellers that are making their way to the remote natural haven that is New Zealand’s South Island.
I hope you enjoyed reading my New Zealand South Island itinerary as much as I enjoyed writing it!
RELATED – If adventures and road trips are your thing, check out this post from our trip to the highest road in the world.
Bronwyn is an Australian-born freelance photographer and writer based in London. She enjoys spending time outdoors, whether hiking alpine mountains or swimming in the sea, her camera will always be nearby. She drinks bucket loads of tea, eats far too much peanut butter for one person and if she isn’t exploring new places, she’s planning her next adventure. See the latest from Bronwyn via her blog.