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South Island Road Trip: Your 10-Day Itinerary

24 May 2023


Ready for an exhilarating adventure on New Zealand’s South Island? Our 10-day South Island road trip itinerary will see you exploring dramatic coastlines, snow-capped mountains, rolling green hills, and pristine lakes. Whether you’re a seasoned road tripper or a first-time explorer, this South Island itinerary has something for everyone.

When is the Best Time to Visit the South Island?

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The South Island of New Zealand offers an amazing range of activities all year round. The best time to visit depends on your preferences and the activities you’re looking to do.

From the summer season in December to February, the weather is generally warm before the South Island is painted in stunning red, orange, and gold hues from March to May. The weather remains mild during this time – great for road trips. From June to August, snow blankets the towering mountains, perfect for winter sports. September to November is a fantastic time for hiking as the trails come alive with colour.

If you’re looking to visit multiple locations and are keen to keep your dollar lasting as long as possible, consider travelling outside of New Zealand’s school holiday periods. During the shoulder seasons, you’ll often find popular destinations and eateries can be less busy and you’ll have more accommodation options.

How can I Get Around the South Island?

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Travelling the South Island by Car

Already have a car? Bringing it on your South Island adventure offers familiarity and convenience. If not, hire a car on the South Island of New Zealand to explore your favourite spots at your own pace. You must carry snow chains if you plan to drive on alpine roads during winter.

Travelling the South Island by Campervan

Travelling the South Island of New Zealand by campervan is more expensive than renting a car. However, it can provide transportation and accommodation, and you’ll find many holiday parks on the South Island.

Your South Island Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1: Abel Tasman National Park

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New Zealand’s smallest national park promises natural beauty and outdoor adventures. Follow the walking tracks for a gorgeous view of pristine golden sand beaches, coastal forests, and granite cliffs. Dive into the park’s turquoise-coloured waters to discover colourful marine life. Nearby Nelson Lakes National Park is a melting pot of majestic alpine scenery, sparkling lakes, and diverse hiking trails. The Queen Charlotte Track offers challenging hiking sections and leisurely walks.

Day 2: Wild West Coast

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Head south from Westport along this stunning coast to Paparoa National Park. Hike through ancient rainforests, explore fascinating caverns or relax at the secluded Truman Beach. Watch the playful and curious New Zealand fur seals at Cape Foulwind bask in the sun. Head to the famous Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki to watch powerful blowholes erupting with each incoming tide.

Day 3: Glacier Country

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En route to Glacier Country on the West Coast of New Zealand, stop at Lake Mahinapua — an exquisite lake nestled amidst dense forests. Take a guided walk or scenic flight to explore the Fox Glacier. Nearby Franz Josef Glacier offers guided walks or heli-hiking adventures to admire the sheer scale of the glacier as you navigate its frozen terrain.

Day 4: Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass

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Travelling across the Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass showcases the stunning landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island. Hokitika Gorge is a must-see natural attraction boasting vibrant turquoise waters framed by lush greenery. Visit the Christchurch Cathedral to learn about the city’s ongoing efforts to rebuild and restore this cherished landmark after the 2011 earthquake.

Day 5: Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook

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Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are enchanting South Island spots renowned for their clear skies and stargazing opportunities. Make sure you visit the Church of the Good Shepherd – this famous landmark attracts visitors worldwide, who come to snap the stone church with its magnificent mountainous backdrop.

Then, head to Tekapo Springs to soak in the therapeutic hot pools while enjoying panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki, offers beautiful hiking trails that wind through alpine landscapes, glaciers, and mountain valleys. Hike up to the Tasman Glacier Viewpoint to view the Tasman Glacier Lake and the Blue Pools.

Day 6: Mount Cook to Queenstown

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The beautiful drive through Lindis Pass from Omarama to Cromwell takes you through the expansive Mackenzie Basin. Stop in the charming town of Wanaka, nestled on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Visit the quirky Puzzling World, or enjoy a leisurely lunch at a local café before continuing along Crown Range Road.

Day 7: Queenstown – Day of Adventure

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Only a short drive from Wanaka, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, is New Zealand’s Adventure Capital. Head to Skyline Queenstown and hop aboard the Skyline Gondola to reach Bob’s Peak for the best vantage point of Queenstown. Ride the Luge and toast your arrival at the Stratosfare Restaurant and Bar.

Thrillseekers can go skydiving, bungy jumping, try a heart-pounding canyon swing or join a jet boat tour. Coronet Peak and The Remarkables offer exciting skiing and snowboarding action during winter.

How about a hike? Lace up your boots and hit the famous Ben Lomond hike — a challenging but rewarding trek with stunning views.

After sunset, Queenstown is brimming with a lively atmosphere to sample the local craft beer and delicious cuisine.

Day 8: Milford Sound

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The Fiordland National Park is a remarkable New Zealand natural wonder. As you wind through dense rainforests, look for wildlife like Kea — the mischievous mountain parrot. Visit Milford Sound to cruise through the fjord and spot New Zealand fur seals, frolicking dolphins, and even rare Fiordland penguins.

Day 9: Milford Sound to Dunedin

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Along this southern scenic route is Lake Te Anau – home of the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves. Venture into the underground world illuminated by thousands of glow worms. Pause your South Island trip at the Mirror Lakes, where the still waters perfectly reflect the rugged peaks and leafy forests. Explore the Curio Bay Cliffs and the iconic Nugget Point Lighthouse.

Day 10: Dunedin

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Along the incredibly scenic drive of the Otago Peninsula, look out for rare Yellow-eyed penguins (Hoiho) waddling along the beaches or nesting in the dunes.

In Dunedin, visit Baldwin Street and feel like you’re ‘climbing’ up a hill — it’s actually the steepest residential street in the world! In Dunedin, you can also explore the historic railway station – one of the most photographed landmarks in New Zealand. Take a guided tour to the Royal Albatross Colony to learn about Dunedin’s famous royals.

Discover More Incredible Things to Do and See with Skyline

Discover things to do in Queenstown Gardens, how to get your adrenaline rush, and immerse yourself in the most incredible New Zealand landscapes on our blog page. Looking for more South Island Road trips? How about a journey from Queenstown to Wanaka? The North Island of New Zealand also boasts incredibly scenic drives. The opportunities for adventure on a New Zealand road trip are endless. We’ll see you soon!


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