New Zealand’s South Island is a paradise for those looking to enjoy a breathtaking scenic drive. Regardless of where you go, there is plenty to enjoy as you cruise along windy roads without a care in the world.
But like most amazing things in New Zealand, there are a few road trips that stand out from the rest. These scenic drives have put New Zealand on the map as one of the best countries in the world to road trip around!
The road to Aoraki/MtCook
So, get your map out and start planning your ultimate New Zealand road trip with these eight stunning South Island scenic drives you need to see for yourself!
1. The Milford Road – Te Anau to Milford Sound
Few road trips around New Zealand’s South Island are as famous or as scenic as the road to Milford Sound. Starting in Te Anau, this 118-kilometre long road trip is all about the adventure before finally arriving at the unofficial eighth wonder of the world – Milford Sound.
As you drive this incredible alpine highway, through the heart of Fiordland National Park, there are some points of interest not to be missed, including; Mirror Lakes, Pop’s View, Lake Marian, Eglinton Valley, Key Summit hiking trail and the Chasm.
The upper Cleddau Valley on the Milford Road
To make the most of this road trip you’re going to need time, so spending a night at the Milford Lodge either in your campervan, motorhome, or in one of the many room options available is the perfect option. It’s also a good idea to allow at least four hours for the drive and up to eight if you plan on hiking one of the many hiking trails.
Once you arrive in Milford Sound be sure to join a Milford Sound cruise. In Milford, there are lots of different cruise options to suit every type of traveller as well as kayaking trips and our Milford Sound Underwater Observatory that offers a unique perspective from under the water.
2. Gateway to Paradise – Queenstown to Glenorchy
From Queenstown, the spectacular journey to Glenorchy is both short and sweet. The 45-kilometre long road travels along the shores of Lake Wakatipu to what’s known by locals as the “gateway to paradise.”
The view to Glenorchy from Bennet’s Bluf on the Glenorchy road
Along the way, you’ll be welcomed by stunning views of one of the most remote areas of New Zealand nestled within the Southern Alps. There are various viewpoints to check out on the journey, and once in the town of Glenorchy, you can venture out on a short walk on the foreshore or even tackle the Routeburn Track – one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks.
If you have time, we recommend driving all the way to Paradise. This road takes you along the Dart River, towards Mt Aspiring National Park, but be aware, this section of the road is not sealed.
3. Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch to Hokitika
Arthurs’ Pass is without a doubt the most famous mountain pass road in New Zealand. This epic journey across the Sothern Alps links the remote west coast to the east. On Arthur’s Pass, you can enjoy a range of activities including a stop at Arthur’s Pass Village (one of NZ’s highest settlements) or take a short walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. However, it’s the breathtaking viewpoints and interesting highway that makes driving this stretch of road a must-do!
The route is often travelled from Christchurch to Hokitika. Although much of this journey is not on the pass, and with limited towns and accommodation, the 248-kilometre drive is often completed in one day. If you plan on stopping, and maybe even enjoying lunch on the pass, then it’s best to allow a full day for the trip.
4. The Crown Range – Queenstown to Wanaka
Between the two popular towns of Queenstown and Wanaka lies New Zealand’s highest main road – the Crown Range. You’ll likely have to take this scenic route on your road trip around New Zealand, but just in case you weren’t already planning on it, you should add it to your New Zealand to-do list!
Views over the Wakatipu basin from the Crown Range
The drive along the Crown Range takes around an hour from one town to the next in either direction, but it does climb to an impressive 1120 metres! For this reason, in the winter it’s best to allow extra time since the road is often covered in snow and snow chains must be carried in your vehicle.
In the summer though, the road is fine to drive in almost any vehicle. With plenty of stops along the way including breathtaking viewpoints, the famous ‘Bra Fence’ and the historic Cardrona Hotel it’s a scenic drive that’s sure to be memorable!
5. Lindis Pass – Cromwell to Mackenzie Country
One of the most underrated road trips on New Zealand’s South Island is the journey from Cromwell to Mackenzie Country via the Lindis Pass. Often visitors are too excited about visiting the famous Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook National Park in Mackenzie Country to truly enjoy this mountain pass. If you have the time to take it slow, then you should.
The Lindis Pass
Along the Lindis Pass, there’s plenty to see, and the ever-changing landscape is sure to keep you inspired. The highlight of this route is, of course, the Lindis Pass lookout. This beautiful viewpoint looks over the surrounding tussock grass all the way to the Southern Alps. It’s a contrast of colour that’s unique and special to see for yourself.
Other worthy stops include the Omarama Clay Cliffs and the Ahuriri Bridge Campsite which fills with Lupins (colourful flowers) during November and December. If you’re lucky enough to be here during that time the sea of Lupins is a must-see – no pun intended!
6. The West Coast – Punakaiki to Lake Wanaka
Ahh, the remote but charming West Coast. This region is one of the best in New Zealand and to truly enjoy it, a road trip is the only way! Stretching all the way from Punakaiki to Lake Wanaka, the West Coast is a multi-day adventure. Spending at least one night along this 507-kilometre journey is highly recommended.
On this epic road trip there is a huge range of incredible things to do and see. Some of the best include the Blue Pools, Thunder Creek Falls, Lake Matheson, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, Pancake Rocks, and Haast Pass.
The most popular way to break up the trip is by spending a night or two in either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef towns. Both towns boast impressive glaciers and plenty of hiking trails as well as adventure sports and activities to keep you busy.
7. Lewis Pass – Canterbury to the West Coast
Lewis Pass doesn’t get much attention in New Zealand, but it should! This pass is one of the three road passes in NZ that travels over the Southern Alps (the other two are Haast Pass and Arthur’s Pass). But what this road trip lacks in attention it makes up for in amazing views, wildlife, adventure, and the feeling of being off the beaten path!
What we really love about Lewis Pass is the huge range of hiking trails that are not only some of the best in NZ but are also some of the quietest. Some of the best hikes include the three-hour return Lewis Tops Track, the 20-minute Alpine Nature Walk and the three-hour Lake Daniell Track. Hiking these trails is completely free and they’re perfect for stretching your legs and making the most of this lesser-known scenic drive!
8. The Catlins Scenic Drive – Balclutha to Invercargill
On the very south of the South Island is a region that’s truly unique and spectacular! The Catlins is a favourite for those who venture all the way there! On a road trip through the region, you can enjoy a truly diverse landscape and view extremely rare wildlife including the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, considered the rarest penguin breed in the world.
McLean Falls in the Catlins
Some of the best places to stop are Koropuku Falls, Mclean Falls, Slope Point, Cathedral Caves, Purakanui Falls, Curio Bay, and Nugget Point.
Of course, with so many amazing stops, you’re going to need a night or two along the way to truly explore this region. Luckily, the Catlins is filled with small quaint towns that can host both campervans and hotel stayers at reasonable prices.
The scenic drives of New Zealand’s South Island are what make a road trip here so amazing. Without a doubt, any road you travel here will invite you in and welcome you with breathtaking views, but the eight listed above are a few of the absolute best that the South Island has to offer!