New Zealand South Island 10 Day Roadtrip Itinerary for the Outdoor Lover

As soon as we booked our tickets, I started doing a TON of research on everything to do on New Zealand's south island. The more I looked into all of the incredible hikes, mountains, lakes, and scenic spots, the harder it was to just pick a handful and plan a week and a half long road trip out of those sights.

Since we are outdoor fanatics, we knew we wanted to spend the majority of our New Zealand trip on the gorgeous and diverse south island. After months of research and prioritizing, here's the itinerary we came up with for a ten day long trip, including my recommendations for points of interest that you should definitely look into for your trip! We ended up covering a total distance of... 1,304 miles!

We opted for hotels and a car rental instead of a campervan/RV mainly due to price and convenience. Gas turned out to be way more expensive than we were expecting, and we were fortunate to be able to book the car rental and hotels with points.

Dates travelled: Nov 11 - Nov 19

Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

Total driving: 3h
Where we stayed: Lake Tekapo Motels and Holiday Park

We planned today as a pretty relaxed day since we knew we'd be pretty tired after three flights from SFO to Christchurch.

After landing in Christchurch, there wasn't much we wanted to see in the city, so we picked up our rental car and some food and headed straight to Lake Tekapo, the first of many turquoise lakes we would be seeing.

The town at the southern end of the lake was small but quaint. Be sure to check out the night sky here, as you are now in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning there are outdoor lighting controls to minimize light pollution, so the night skies are incredible for stargazing!

Top left to right: on the road to Lake Tekapo, lookout out over Lake Tekapo from the pedestrian bridge, lupines at Lake Tekapo. Bottom left to right: pedestrian bridge over Scott Pond, Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo

Can't Miss These Things To Do

  • Visit the Church of the Good Shepherd and the pedestrian bridge crossing over Scott Pond

  • Walk along the shore of Lake Tekapo and catch the blooming lupines from November to December

More Things To Do

 

 

Day 2: Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

Total driving: 2h 20min
Where we stayed: Mountain Chalets Twizel

Our first full day in New Zealand was dedicated to seeing Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park in all of its glory.

The entire drive from Lake Tekapo was incredibly scenic, particularly the stretch that drives along the shore of Lake Pukaki, a glacial lake that has a milky aqua color. We weren't able to get accommodations at Mt. Cook Village, so we stayed at Twizel, the nearest town at the south end of Lake Pukaki.

Top left to right: lookout over Hooker Lake, Mt. Cook buttercups, Lake Pukaki rest spot. Middle left to right: swinging bridge on Hooker Valley Track, Tasman Lake viewpoint, hiking down to Hooker Lake. Bottom left to right: looking back on the valley on the Tasman Glacier Track, marshes near Lake Ruataniwha in Twizel, boardwalk section on Hooker Valley Track

Can't Miss These Things To Do

More Things To Do

  • Hike to Mueller Hut (6.5 miles roundtrip) for panoramic views from the top of some of New Zealand's tallest peaks

  • Go on an outdoor stargazing tour complete with telescopes, since you're in the world's largest gold-rated dark sky reserve

  • Photograph Mt. Cook and its reflection in a pond from this spot, as well as this more unknown spot

  • If staying in Twizel, check out Lake Ruataniwha where we found some clear shallow marshes with a crazy aquamarine color

 

Day 3-5: Queenstown

Total driving: 4h
Where we stayed: Caples Court

Queenstown.. ah what a lively city offering endless opportunities for adventure! The town was more scenic than I imagined as it sits on the hillside right by the water and has views of the mountains from every angle. I could go on forever talking about things to do in Queenstown, but here are some of my favorites.

Compared to most of the other towns that we visited, Queenstown itself was quite crowded and touristy, but that also meant there was lots to do and lots to eat!

Top left to right: view from the top of Bob's Peak, lookout from the top of the peak at Bob's Cove, floating in Bob's Cove. Middle left to right: on the Glenorchy wharf, aerial view of Paradise, view from the Skyline view deck. Bottom left to right: on the Bob's Cove pier, the view from Bennett's Bluff, jetboating in the Shotover Canyon

Can't Miss These Things To Do

More Things To Do

  • Get your adrenaline pumping with skydiving, bungee jumping or canyon swinging

  • Visit the Queenstown Gardens and either walk through the lush gardens or along the shore of the lake where we even found a nice tree swing.

  • Hike a 3hr roundtrip climb to the top of Queenstown Hill for amazing views of the lake

  • Pretend you're in Mario Kart and go luging with the best views in New Zealand (although I think the Rotorua one on North Island is better if you had to choose one)

  • Go funyaking up a through dramatic chasms with Dart River. We really wanted to do this one but didn't have the time!

  • Go jet boating! We chose the Shotover Canyon, but there is also the scenic Skippers Canyon

  • Soak in a private hot pool in the mountains while stargazing at Onsen Hot Pools

 

Day 5-7: Te Anau and Milford Sound

Total driving: 5h 30mins
Where we stayed: Te Anau Top 10 Holiday Park

Fiordland National Park was our favorite spot of the entire trip, this entire area has to be one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. Even driving through the park getting to Milford Sound was a trip in its own, as you'll drive through carved tunnels, cross up and over insane mountainous areas, pass endless epic valley views and lakes, and lose count of all the waterfalls cascading off the surrounding cliffs. Fiordland is all about the nature, the views, and the hikes, so get out your hiking boots!

Top left to right: Milford Sound cruise, from atop the Go Orange cruise ship, scenic road on the way through Fiordland National Park. Middle left to right: hiking to Marian Lake, view from the shore of Milford Sound, Lake Marian in Fiordland National Park. Bottom left to right: on the ferry to the Te Anau glowworm caves, Stirling Falls on the Milford Sound cruise, valley view over the Eglington River

Can't Miss These Things To Do

More Things To Do

  • Walk 10 minutes to view The Chasm, a part of the river where the you can get a sense of how powerful water is

  • So many lookouts to stop while driving through the park! Eglington Valley, Lake Gunn Viewpoint, Pop's View.. pretty much any chance you get to pullover, take the opportunity to enjoy the views!

  • Kayak Milford Sound for a more intimate experience as you are closer to the water and can get closer to the waterfalls without being on a boat with 50 other people

  • Take 4 days to hike the famous Milford Track, the 'finest track in the world'. Obviously this would take up most of our 10 days on this island, but thought I'd throw this in there since it's on my bucket list for next time I return to New Zealand. Other tracks I'd love to do are the Kepler Track (4 days), and the Routeburn Track (3 days).

  • Visit a glowworm cave in Te Anau. We took a boat across beautiful Lake Te Anau with Real Journeys before getting into a rowboat and floating under hundreds of enchanting glowing blue lights. We learned so much about glowworms... such interesting animals!

 

Day 7-8: Wanaka

Total driving: 3h 20mins
Where we stayed: Ramada Resort

If I ever were to pick a city in New Zealand to live in, it would probably be Wanaka. The town has such a peaceful vibe with gorgeous lakeside views. Yet with Mt. Aspiring National Park nearby, there are still tons of outdoor adventure activities nearby.

We spent an extra day here to hike Roy's Peak, a steep climb to the most epic view photo spot of the trip. Highly recommended if you have the time!

Top left to right: Roy's Peak lookout, the shore of Glendhu Bay, side detour to a lookout on the Crown Range Road. Bottom left to right: that Wanaka Tree, looking out over Glendhu Bay on the Roy's Peak Trail, relaxing above Roy's Peak lookout

 

Can't Miss These Things To Do

  • Drive on the scenic Crown Range Road from Queenstown to Wanaka and stop to take a photo at the many pullouts as well as with the Cardrona Bra Fence

  • Hike Roys Peak for the most epic view you'll see. I was the most excited for this hike in all of New Zealand, and it did not disappoint! Try to hike it at off times like sunrise or weekdays to have the peak to yourself.
    → Click here to read my trip report from hiking Roy's Peak

  • Photograph the Wanaka Tree along with all the other people that have the exact same idea. This little tree has to be the most famous tree in all of New Zealand with an expansive view of Mt. Aspiring National Park in the distance. Visit at sunrise or sunset for the best lighting and colors, just be prepared to fight for your spot on the shore.

More Things To Do:

  • Visit Glendhu Bay Lookout, a short leisurely walk along the shore with clear reflections of Mt. Aspiring in the distance

  • Hike the Rob Roy Glacier Track (6.2 miles roundtrip) in Mt. Aspiring National Park for waterfalls and glacier views. I would have loved to had time for Mt. Aspiring, and if I did this is the first hike I would pick!

  • Go on a guided adventure! Paulina from Little Grunts talks about canyoneering with Deep Canyon Wanaka in this post

 

Day 8-9: Fox Glacier

Total driving: 3h 15min
Where we stayed: Ivory Towers Backpackers Lodge

After spending most of our time in the mountains, it was time to head up along the West Coast to complete our loop around the south island. It was refreshing to drive along the coast and see a change of flora, and there are plenty of pit stops to break up the drive.

From top to left: Lake Hawea lookout, Lake Matheson at sunset, NZ cows in a field below Mt. Cook. Bottom left to right: Knight's Point lookout, Blue Pools, driving along the Haast Highway.

Can't Miss These Things To Do:

  • Stop at Blue Pools about an hour drive from Wanaka for a 30 minute hike for swinging bridges over some of the most insanely turquoise colored-water! Perfect for a break from the drive, just watch out for the sand flies here!

  • Stop at Knight's Point Lookout to stretch your legs at a gorgeous coastal overlook

  • Walk to the jetty on Lake Matheson, famous for its glassy reflections of Mt. Cook in the distance. For bonus points come during sunrise or sunset :)

More Things To Do:

  • Stop at the many pitstops and short side trails throughout the gorgeous Haast Pass such as Lake Hawea Lookout, Fantail Falls, Thunder Creek Falls, and Roaring Billy Falls.

  • Stop and touch the ocean when the road curves along Bruce Bay

  • Take a helicopter tour with a walk on the Fox or Franz Josef Glacier - we didn't have time for this, but walking on a glacier is still on my bucket list!

 

Day 9-10: Arthur's Pass

Total driving: 4h 23m
Where we stayed: Arthur's Pass YHA

Arthur's Pass was our final stop on our south island loop. We stayed at Arthur's Pass Village, a small town in the Southern Alps that gave perfect access to Arthur's Pass National Park. The drive up into these mountains was quite scenic, and hanging out at Hokitika Gorge was definitely worth the detour.

Top left to right: Devil's Punchbowl Falls, Hokitika Gorge, Otira Viaduct lookout. Bottom left to right: a forest section on the Devil's Punchbowl Falls track, a Kea at the lookout, Hokitika Gorge bridge

Can't Miss These Things To Do:

More Things To Do:

 

Day 10: Return to Christchurch

Total Driving: 2h
Where we stayed: Airbnb

We were planning on today being mostly a casual transit day to get to the airport to make our way over to the north island, but we stumbled on several great stops on the way. I always find that some of my favorite experiences are the ones that you didn't plan :) Nonetheless, if you have the time and are in the area, Castle Hill is a nice area to stretch your legs and break up the drive.

Left to right: climbing on a large boulder, hiking at Castle Hill, an aerial view of Castle Hill limestone boulders

Can't miss these things to do:

  • Stop at Castle Hill, and explore around, between, and on the unique limestone boulders that dot the hillside. This is a popular spot with climbers and was also the filming scene for the final battle scene in Chronicles of Narnia

More Things To Do:

  • Stop at the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, where you can hike through a 0.4 mile long cave passage from December to April! Would have loved to have known about this one beforehand

 

Final Thoughts

Our favorite spots on the entire island were: Bob's Cove for it's hidden beauty and quietness, the hike to Lake Marian also for its remoteness, and the Milford Sound cruise. No matter what route you plan, the entire south island has such epic scenery and you'll no doubt stumble across some gems of your own!

 

What to Read Next

5 Day New Zealand North Island Itinerary for the Outdoors Lover

Thanks to InAFarawayLand and YouCouldTravel, as they were major resources in helping me plan this trip!

 

Favorite gear for this trip: