Living in Australia, we often overlook New Zealand in favour of more distant and exotic destinations. And it is a shame, because, in terms of natural beauty, New Zealand is one of the most stunning countries on earth. So when an opportunity presented itself to join three of my friends for a one-week New Zealand South Island road trip, I didn’t hesitate.
Because we only had one week in New Zealand, we jam-packed our South Island itinerary with as many places of interest as we could. We had a mixed group in terms of ages and interests and travelling around in our own car was the option that suited all.
Our plan was to visit the most outstanding scenic destinations, and that meant basing the trip around Queenstown and exploring Te Wahipounamu – one of New Zealand’s 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Te Wahipounamu encompasses Mt Cook National Park, Fjordland National Park, Mt Aspiring National Park and Westland National Park. Between the fjords, the alpine lakes and the glaciers this area of the island is unbeatable in terms of awe-inspiring sights.
Not surprisingly, this area was featured heavily in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films, and many of the filming locations can be visited on road trips through this part of the island. With more time on the South Island, I would’ve loved to do some of the hikes that New Zealand is so famous for.
Below is the summary of our one-week New Zealand South Island road trip Itinerary with links to more detailed posts on each part of the journey. Please note that the driving time estimates do not include sightseeing stops, of which there will be many.
Day 1 – Queenstown
We started the trip in Queenstown – a cute little town perched on the edge of Wakatipu glacial lake and fringed by the mountains of the Southern Alps. It has a buzzing atmosphere of an alpine village and a population of 1900 people – which is 100 people less than the occupancy of World Square complex where I work in Sydney.
Queenstown markets itself as the adventure capital of the world (and rightfully so), which means that the town’s economy is geared towards adventure tourism in all its shapes and forms: canyoning, jetboat rides, bungy jumping, sky diving, mountain biking, whatever your adventurous soul desires.
We were more on the nature tourism side of the spectrum, and most of the destinations require at least a short drive from town. So for the first afternoon in town we were happy to cruise around the tourist district of Queenstown and soak up the atmosphere. We had burgers at the iconic Fergburger, strolled around the Marine Parade and the lakeshore, and checked out the adventure gear stores.
We ended the day in the frozen interior of Below Zero Ice Bar. Hand sculpted by one of the world’s top ice carvers, everything in this funky bar is made of ice: the walls, the bar, the furniture and even the glasses. The temperature in the bar is kept at a snippy -8°C, but the big cozy down jackets you get at the entrance keep you toasty warm.
Things you can’t miss
- Take a stroll along the shore of Lake Wakatipu
- Check out the Ice bar where everything is made of ice. Including the glasses your vodka is served in.
- If you have more time in Queenstown, there is an excellent hike 15-minute drive from town – Moke Lake loop track. It’s a 2-hr hike through some dramatic mountainous scenery.
Day 2 – Queenstown to Glenorchy
Driving time: 2hrs return trip. Distance covered: 115km
We started our explorations with a day trip to Glenorchy – a small lake-side town 46km north of Queenstown. The winding road from Queenstown to Glenorchy follows the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu and it is pretty much a continuous 46-km long photo opportunity. Even though we were seeing it on an overcast day.
When I think about New Zealand, the first thing that comes to mind is the magnificent scenery portrayed in The Lord of the Rings movies. While the only surviving movie set from the LOTR films – the adorable Hobbiton is located on the North Island, the scenery of the Middle-earth is unmistakably South Island-ish.
Lord of the Rings Filming Locations
So not surprisingly, a week-long road trip through parts of the South Island felt like a journey into the Middle-earth. And this part of the island is the perfect introduction to the mystical world of elves and wizards. The area around Glenorchy is where Isengard and Lothlorien were filmed. The Queenstown to Glenorchy road takes you past the filming locations for Amon Hen and Ithilien camp. The red beech forest lying along the road from Glenorchy to Paradise was used to create the scenes in the elf kingdom of Lothlorien.
Glenorchy has the feeling of a small sleepy village set amid spectacular mountaneous scenery. There is a lovely Mangrove Walkway that takes you on an 1-hr walk along walk through a serene wetland. On clear days, you can see the mountain peaks reflected in the still water of the lagoon.
Paradise is a small settlement about 30 minutes north of Glenorchy. The drive from Glenorchy to Paradise is a journey through Middle-earth. There is nothing to do in Paradise itself, apart from taking a photo of the road sign welcoming you to Paradise. The attraction here is the drive itself.
Things you can’t miss
- If you are a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies, check out the filming locations for Amon Hen and Ithilien Camp
- Visit the iconic boatshed on the lakeshore in Glenorchy
- Take a 30-min drive from Glenorchy to Paradise for more spectacular scenery
- Take Glenorchy Mangrove Walk
- Visit Kinloch at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu
Read more about Queenstown to Glenorchy part of the trip
Day 3 – Milford Sound via Mirror Lake
Driving time: approx. 4hrs. Distance covered: 287km each way
Due to our time constraints, we opted for an organized tour to Milford Sound. And it was a great decision in the end. Our driver provided an entertaining running commentary for the entire 4 hours of the journey to the fjord.
It was another cloudy and rainy day and we were happy to be carted around from one site to the next in the warm and dry comfort of the coach. The drive to Milford Sound passes the attractive town of Te Anau, perched on the side of yet another stunning glacial lake – Lake Te Anau.
Between Te Anau and Milford Sound, there is a number of particularly scenic spots and the coach stops at most of them. Provided it’s not raining, as it was on our trip. We still got to see the Mirror lakes, the Lyre flats and the magic temperate rainforest at the Chasm.
As far as the cruise on the fjord goes, the rainy weather didn’t matter, since the Fjordland National Park is one of the wettest places on earth, where it rains 90% of the time. I would have liked to experience Milford Sound both on a clear day and on a rainy one, but if I had to choose one, I’d pick the rainy day.
Milford Sound cruise is absolutely spectacular. Milford is not actually a sound, but a fjord – a narrow underwater valley carved by glaciers. It is wedged between the steep-sided mountain walls that are covered in lush rainforest and a multitude of waterfalls. During our visit, the low-hanging clouds blotted out the rest of the world, making the experience even more immersive. And the low visibility contributed to the feeling of exploring the unknown.
The Milford Sound cruise was one of the main highlights of our trip that was seemingly made up only of highlights. It is an absolute must for any New Zealand South Island road trip itinerary. If there is only one thing that you can do in Queenstown for a day, do the Milford Sound cruise. And if you have more than a day to spare, check out this fantastic overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound.
Things you can’t miss
- Stop at Mirror Lake to check out the view of the mountains reflected in the still water of the lake
- Take a walk to the Chasm to see a primeval rainforest and spot the endangered Kia – New Zealand’s alpine parrot
- Take a scenic cruise on Milford Sound – an absolute must
- If you have more time, take a kayaking adventure on Milford Sound and visit Underwater Observatory
- If you have even more time, take the spectacular 4-day Milford Sound Track – one of the finest walking tracks in the world!
More about visiting Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown
Day 4 – Queenstown to Fox Glacier
Driving time: 4.5hrs. Distance covered: 327km
This was the day of incredibly scenic driving. From Queenstown, we travelled to Wanaka – a small town on the shore of, you guessed it, a glacial lake – Lake Wanaka. We took the shortest route to the lake via the Crown Range Road, which at 1076 meters above sea level is the highest paved road in New Zealand. It was a challenging but spectacular drive.
We stopped at Wanaka for some lunch and to gawk at the stunning lake. Lake Wanaka is the fourth largest lake in New Zealand. It covers 192 square kilometers at 278 meters above sea level. And is more than 300 m deep. Like most alpine lakes on the South Island, the lake is surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges and big nature.
The town of Wanaka is a little bigger than most of the towns we visited so far, though not as large as Queenstown. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops where you can stock up for the long drive.
- If you have more time at Wanaka, consider hiking the iconic Roy’s Peak Track. It’s a relatively easy 16km hike that takes 5 to 6 hours to complete. While the first section of the track is quite steep, once you get to the conservation area, it’s an easy walk through tussock grasslands to the summit.
Mt Aspiring National Park
Then we followed the coastline of Lake Hawea to Mt Aspiring National Park. That’s the beauty of road tripping in New Zealand – instead of driving from town to town, you drive from a lake to a National Park, to a glacier.
We drove through the dramatic Haast Pass, which at 562 meters above the sea level is the lowest of three passes traversing the Southern Alps. We had a brief stop in Haast township, drove across Haast River Bridge – the longest single lane bridge in New Zealand and before long reached the West Coast of South Island.
South Island West Coast
The coastline here is quite dramatic, with deep blue-green color of the water, towering cliffs and sandy beaches. At Bruce Bay we went for a stroll along a wild beach littered with driftwood and spotted some oystercatchers.
From Bruce Bay, the road followed the coast for some time and then headed inland to Jacobs Creek, eventually arriving at the charming town of Fox Glacier. The town is tiny and seems to exist solely as a base for exploring the glacier. There are a few cafes and restaurants in town, a gift shop and a general store, but everything else is dedicated to the trips to the glacier.
Things you can’t miss
- Stop at Crown Terrace Lookout on Crown Range Road for sweeping views of Arrowtown
- Drive New Zealand’s highest paved road – Crown Range Road
- Take frequent spots in Mt Aspiring National Park to explore and to stretch your legs
- Walk along a wild beach in on the West Coast
- If you have more time, do the famous Roys Peak hike in Wanaka for spectacular views of the mountains and glacial lakes
More on Queenstown to Fox Glacier part of the journey
Day 5 – Fox Glacier to Lake Pukaki
Driving time: 5hrs. Distance covered: 414km
The following morning we took a helicopter ride to the top of the Fox Glacier. Since there were 4 of us, we had the helicopter to ourselves (plus the pilot, of course!) and that ride was the second brightest highlight of our entire New Zealand South Island road trip, on par with the Milford Sound Cruise.
Though we only had about 20 minutes in the air, flying past the jagged mountain peaks above the glacial river and then the snowfields of Fox Glacier was an unforgettable experience. The brief stop at the top of the Glacier, next to the snow-covered twin summits of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman was a cherry on top. We’ve seen Mt. Cook from the sea level and standing right next to its summit was a little surreal.
Still flying high from the ride, we started our drive to Lake Pukaki. Back through Mt Aspiring National Park, past lakes Hawea and Wanaka and onto the planes of Canterbury, which served as a filming location for Gondor in the LOTR movies.
We spent the night in Twizel, that is the closest town to Lake Pukaki. There are some shops and pubs in town, but we opted for an early night so we could start our explorations of lakes Pukaki and Tekapo early the following moring.
Things you can’t miss
- If you are going to splurge on one thing in New Zealand, make it the helicopter flight over Fox Glacier
- Have a tea & a pastry at Fox Glacier pink bakery
- Take a 1h30min hike to Lake Matheson.
Day 6 – Lake Pukaki to Glenorchy
Driving time: 3.5hrs. Distance covered: 267km
In the morning we headed straight to the Lake. Even after seeing so many glacial lakes, we found the milky-blue waters of Lake Pukaki absolutely awe-inspiring. The snow-covered peaks of Mt. Cook National Park fringing the lake, gave the scene a dream-like idyllic appearance.
Lake Pukaki is no doubt, New Zealand’s most beautiful glacial lake. It is such a dreamy setting that you have to convince yourself that it is real. The first thing that arrests your attention is the surrealistic milky blue colour of the water. As soon as I saw the lake I knew it would become one of the top highlights of our New Zealand round trip.
But while the colour of the lake definitely steals the show, the vastness of the landscape surrounding Lake Pukaki is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The lake itself is one of the biggest alpine lakes in New Zealand and the peaks of Mt Cook National Park are some of the highest in the country. There are virtually no signs of human settlement, just the startlingly blue lake, golden tussocked hills and magnificent snow-capped mountains.
There are some spectacular hikes you can do at Lake Pukaki that range from a few hundred meters (Pukaki Boulders trail) to 13 kilometres (Lake Pukaki Track).
The nearby lake Tekapo is also marvellously blue, plus it is framed by the bright purple stalks of lupin flowers. There is also a lovely stone church on the lakeshore that was built in 1935 and still functions today.
There is also an observatory that you can reach by a short hike. This area is part of UNESCO Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – meaning that it is a great spot for watching the night sky if you decide to stay overnight.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
After exploring Lake Tekapo we headed on another spectacular drive, back to Lake Pukaki and onto Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The road followed the shore of Lake Pukaki towards the towering wall of jagged peaks covered by the flowing ice of the Sefton Glacier. Of all the scenic drives we’ve done on the South Island, this 40-minute drive was the most spectacular. There were signs of human settlement, only the epic expanse of the mountains and the lake.
We had a very full day of driving so we didn’t have enough time to do any of the hikes, so we grabbed a hot cup of tea at the visitor center and learned some interesting facts about the area. But if you do have sufficient time, some of the best hikes in the area are Hooker Valley Track and Sealy Tarns Track, both take 3-4hrs to complete.
From Mt. Cook we started the long drive back towards Glenorchy. We crossed the Middle Earth again when we travelled through the Central Otago – the site of Gondor, and the Kawarau Gorge – the filming location for the Pillars of Argonath, had late lunch at the adorable Arrowtown and arrived in Glenorchy in total darkness.
To keep the movie locations theme of our New Zealand road trip, we rented a bunker via Airbnb that was used on the set of Vertical Limit, one of my favourite mountaineering films.
Things you can’t miss
- See Lake Pukaki in the early morning light
- Visit Church of Good Sheppard at Lake Tekapo
- Drive the spectacular road from Lake Pukaki to Aoraki National Park
- Stop at Peter’s look-out for spectacular views of the lake and the towering mountains of Aoraki NP
- If you are a fan of LOTR films, visit Wild Earth winery at Kawarau Gorge to see the filming location of the Pillars of Argonath
- Have lunch/dinner at Arrowtown – a quirky historical town
More on Lake Pukaki to Queenstown part of the trip
Day 7 – Glenorchy to Queenstown
Driving time: 50 min. Distance covered: 46km
I spent the morning walking along the mangrove walkway in Glenorchy. There was no one else on the trail and I had the place to myself. Not that we ever felt crowded in New Zealand. In fact, one of my favourite things about travelling in New Zealand was how few people there are around.
We went for a drive to Kinloch – a very small village at the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu and then started making the slow way back to Queenstown. We have driven this road so many times, that it felt like home. We were all a little sad that it was our last drive along via route. We spent the afternoon in Queenstown, sampling the restaurants and soaking up the last sights of this charming place.
Overall, New Zealand is an incredibly beautiful country and it can take months to explore all the attractions on the South Island alone. But we felt we have seen some of the most spectacular spots in the short time that we had, and we were leaving with a dream of coming back to see the rest.
Highlights of the New Zealand South Island road trip
It is almost impossible to pick highlights in the trip that was made entirely of highlights. Every drive we took in the area was downright spectacular. Those landscapes alone would make every penny spent on the trip to New Zealand’s South Island worthwhile. But in terms of cherries on top of the cake, Milford Sound, helicopter flight to Fox Glacier and Lake Pukaki left the brightest memories.
Before you go
New Zealand South Island road trip is one of those rare adventures that is equally beautiful in any weather. However, the weather can be quite unpredictable and you’ll be wise to pack a warm jacket, waterproof jacket and waterproof boots, especially if you are planning to visit Milford Sound. We visited in March and while it was t-shirt weather during the day, it could change very quickly to the point where I would wear a puffer jacket.
Looking for adventures on New Zealand’s North Island? Check out Rotorua – a town that lies inside an extinct volcanic crater, surrounded by otherworldly geothermal parks