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Planning A South Island New Zealand Road Trip

road through farmland with mountain ahead

Wondering how to plan a South Island New Zealand road trip? Look no further! Here you’ll find a guide to help you decide where to go in the South Island, tips for planning your roadtrip, and an overview of a 10 day New Zealand road trip itinerary. Join us on our autumnal journey through Middle Earth from as we drive from through Central Otago and Canterbury!

On my third trip to New Zealand, I was visiting my favourite city of Christchurch once again to explore more of the South Island. Unlike the last trip where we spent our free time taking weekend trips around our work schedule to nearby spots in Canterbury such as Hanmer Springs, Arthur’s Pass, and Banks Peninsula, we had a full 2 weeks to fill with exciting activities further afield!

We decided to explore New Zealand by car and take a road trip from Christchurch south to Dunedin, then cutting across inland towards central Otago destinations such as Queenstown and Wanaka, before heading north and back to Canterbury by visiting Aoraki/Mount Cook Village and Tekapo. Overall we planned to spend 10 days on the road, with a few days to spend back in Christchurch to recover from our holiday (that’s a thing right?!).

Check out the key places we stayed on our New Zealand road trip in this map:


Where to go on the South Island of New Zealand

Selecting the destinations to visit was both a challenge and extremely easy. I’ve been to a lot of places around the South Island of New Zealand before, and knew I wanted to revisit some of my favourite spots in order to do activities I missed previously (how lucky is that? Every travellers’ dream surely!) and also to stay in new places. The list of places I’d like to visit in NZ is constantly growing, so it was really a matter of judging how much could be seen and done within our allocated days. In the words of Gandalf:

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” 

When picking the destinations to visit on a road trip on the South Island, there are a few things to consider:

  • How much driving do you want to do? 
  • Do you want to stay near the mountains?
  • Do you want to visit the coast? 
  • What kind of weather would be preferable?
  • When are you visiting the country and does this impact activities?

As this visit would be in autumn, we knew mountains were a must, and we already planned to visit Dunedin. That meant settling on the southern half of the island for a chance to see a sprinkling of snow on the dramatic mountain ranges, as well as being able to go via the east coast into Otago. We looked at possible routes, and soon realised reaching the West Coast and Fiordland would take too long from Christchurch and reduce time that could be spent on activities. This then left us settled on Otago and Canterbury, as it really did tick all the boxes!

The main things we were looking for from our autumn New Zealand road trip were:

? Mountains

? Lake views

? Day hikes

? History

? Coastline

? Drives under 5 hours

And I think it’s safe to say we hit all those wishes with this brief tour of the South Island!

Mountain views ahead of a road in New Zealand

We chose the major towns and tourist hotspots along the routes for basing ourselves and planned mini day trips around the area plus stopping points of interest along the way. For us, the planning stage was also largely based on Lord of the Rings film locations, as Kazimir and I are both huge fans it made sense to incorporate this into the trip!

This left our route looking a little like this rather a nice neat circle thanks to the trips we took exploring further along the lakes. In total, the route was about 1,900km of driving – quite the distance roughly the same as driving from London to Norway!

screenshot of Google maps showing the route through the South Island of New Zealand

South Island road trip route map


How to plan a South Island New Zealand road trip in autumn:

Once we knew where we were headed, next came the even more fun bit – planning our days! We had a good idea of what activities to prioritise, so it was then a matter of costing up and getting an idea of timescales for the many, many things we wanted to do and see, and lastly where to stay.

Although I have previously undertaken a New Zealand North Island road trip in the late summer, this trip would take on a whole new set of challenges being in the South Island during a cooler season, and rather than freedom camp we opted for lodges and Airbnb’s to stay in.

Things to remember on a New Zealand road trip:

Like most road trips, it’s a good idea to be prepared before starting out. Basics such as knowing your routes, bringing water and food, checking that your car is sufficiently filled with petrol, oil, coolant etc, and that all break and head lights are working.

Here are a few NZ specific tips that we learned about for long distance driving:

  • Road trips in different seasons means different road conditions. Particularly in autumn the weather is unpredictable so road visibility and grip can quickly change.
  • Know your car’s capabilities. Is it suitable for windy roads and steep inclines? Do you have 4 wheel drive or snow chains accessible?
  • Know your cars speed abilities. Kiwi’s like to overtake and there are lots of vans that can’t go as fast so knowing when to pull over and when to take the passing lane will make your journey much smoother.
  • Know the estimated journey time. It’s worth overcompensating the time you think it will take to account for vehicle speed, unfamiliar roads, and you might want to stop along the way to snap those incredible views!

Devil's Staircase in New Zeland at sunset with dark mountains between a blue lake

Although I didn’t do the physical driving, it was still important for me as a passenger to know these details – particularly the route as I was designated map-reader! Make sure all members of the group know what the plan is and what to do in case of any problems, such as insurance and call-out assistance details.

Feeling excited and ready to go, we had a jam-packed few days ahead of us! Here is a brief summary of the stops and activities from our road trip through Otago and Canterbury.

10 day South Island NZ road trip itinerary overview:

Day 1 – Christchurch to Dunedin

Driving down the east coast of New Zealand from Christchurch to Dunedin. We stopped along the way the enjoy the Canterbury farmland views and then at Moeraki Boulders just outside Dunedin, before reaching our destination at Waitati.

Day 2 – Dunedin 

We drove through the city of Dunedin and over to the Otago Peninsula for a morning exploring the Royal Albatross Centre to learn about the wildlife and military history of the peninsula. A winding drive back and we spent the afternoon wandering around the sights of Dunedin, including the world’s steepest street!

Day 3 – Dunedin to Queenstown

On our longest drive we detoured further down the east coast to the Catlins to reach Nugget Point Lighthouse in the early morning sea mist, and also stopped at Purakaunui Falls right in the heart of bushland. Another stop inland at Kingston, the base town of Lake Wakatipu, and we eventually reached our destination of Queenstown.

Day 4 – Queenstown

An early start to enjoy the good weather with a walk through the golden colours of Arrowtown. Next we drove up along Lake Wakatipu via many scenic lookouts and short walk stops to reach Glenorchy, and later on to Kinloch.

Day 5 – Queenstown

A morning boat ride on TSS Earnslaw treated us to stunning mountain views around Queenstown and Walter Peak. We spent the afternoon driving up The Remarkables for some incredible scenery and the first touches of NZ snow before an evening walking the shores of Queenstown Gardens.

Day 6 – Queenstown – Wanaka

Driving to Wanaka, we stopped for a brief walk through historical Cromwell before reaching Lake Wanaka to take the day hike up Roy’s Peak. Relaxation and celebratory pizza followed!

Day 7 – Wanaka

A relaxed recovery day was spent driving up Lake Hawea, visiting Puzzling World for its imaginative illusions and maze, and chilling at Cinema Paradiso.

Day 8 – Wanaka to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village

A drive through Lindis Pass and up past Lake Pukaki until we reach Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in the pouring rain. An afternoon of Netflix and boardgames was a fun change from sightseeing!

Day 9 – Aoraki/Mount Cook Village to Tekapo

Morning hikes took up to the Red Tarns, a short walk from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, and later the Hooker Valley Track leading up to the might mountains and glacial lakes. Reaching Lake Tekapo in the afternoon we spent the evening stargazing at Mt John Observatory and basking in the chilly but stunningly starry night sky.

Day 10 – Tekapo to Christchurch

A final day of driving back to Christchurch cutting across the country to reach the east coast once more. A brief stop in Geraldine to enjoy the delicious samples of Barkers jams and chutneys – the home of delicious conserves!

And there we have our guide to planning a South Island New Zealand road trip! Share your country driving tips and plans, and tell a story of your New Zealand road trip!

Pin it for later!

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  • Reply
    Lizzie Lacey-Brennan
    06/06/2018 at 9:06 am

    This looks great! Can I ask where you hired your vehicle?

    • Reply
      06/12/2018 at 10:34 pm

      Thanks so much! We actually used my partner’s car which is his own. I’ve previously hired a car in NZ from Snap Rentals who were really easy and very affordable. Let me know if I can give you any info on using them or my experiences!

  • Reply
    Holly Goodyear
    06/13/2018 at 8:59 am

    New Zealand looks like an absolute dream! Beautiful pictures x

    • Reply
      06/13/2018 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you so much!

  • Reply
    06/13/2018 at 9:01 am

    This looks amazing!! I’ve never been to New Zealand but would love to some day! This is such a great guide- definitely some great things to do, like the hike up to the red tarns

    • Reply
      06/13/2018 at 8:31 pm

      It’s a wonderful place to visit! Ahh yes the red tarns were my favourite. Hope you can visit soon!

  • Reply
    06/13/2018 at 10:57 am

    Wow 1,900km is a lot of driving but I would totally have done the same to see those locations! And great to hear you were inspired by Lord of the Rings. If I lived closer I think I would definitely do a similar road trip!

    • Reply
      06/13/2018 at 8:34 pm

      Any longer and it would have been getting a bit much I think! I love lotr so it was hard to resist while being near all those locations, hope you’ll make it there one day!

  • Reply
    06/13/2018 at 4:40 pm

    Wow, 1900km? New Zealand looks quite small next to Australia, but I shouldn’t trust Google maps too much apparently. The views of the mountains are gorgeous! I definitely want to visit New Zealand someday (even though it’s almost as far away as you can get from Europe).

    • Reply
      06/13/2018 at 8:36 pm

      Crazy right?! It was all those winding roads and day trips around lakes that added up! It might be smaller but those roads are much tougher to drive for sure. It really is so far, but totally worth it! Hope you make it sometime 🙂

  • Reply
    06/13/2018 at 7:34 pm

    I would love to go to New Zealand and this post has made me want to go a whole lot more. Thanks for sharing ?

    • Reply
      06/13/2018 at 8:36 pm

      Aw thank you so much, I really appreciate it! It’s a beautiful place, I hope you can visit some day 🙂

  • Reply
    Mohana Das
    06/14/2018 at 7:33 am

    This looks absolutely amazing! What’s a more picturesque adventure than driving 1900 km around South Island! Also, thanks for the practical tips.

    • Reply
      06/14/2018 at 6:11 pm

      Thank you so much! I wish I could do it all over again, it was such a great trip 🙂

  • Reply
    Ali Dunnell
    06/14/2018 at 9:57 am

    Excellently written and detailed blog post about one of my favourite places – I really wish I could visit New Zealand again one day… to be honest, I would love to live in either Queenstown or Wanaka – both are such beautiful places.

    • Reply
      06/14/2018 at 6:11 pm

      Thank you, I relly appreciate it! Me too, they’re both such great towns surrounded by incredible scenery. I think I’d pick Wanaka as it seems slightly less touristy!

  • Reply
    Aimee horgan
    06/14/2018 at 2:09 pm

    Oh this is perfect as we’re planning a roadtrip across the South Island in a few weeks. We are so excited, especially for Franz Josef and Queenstown (where we will be moving to)

    • Reply
      06/14/2018 at 11:22 pm

      Oh no way, that’s amazing! I have a fair few other posts on NZ, do let me know if you need any tips! I worked for a brief time in Franz, it’s one of my favourites, as is Queenstown! Have you been before? Wishing you an amazing trip 🙂

  • Reply
    06/14/2018 at 2:27 pm

    Enjoyed reading such a detailed information on a road trip. And I completely agree with you that you are lucky to revisit the places again and do the activities you missed. I am planning the similar trip across my country in a month or so

    • Reply
      06/14/2018 at 11:23 pm

      Thank you very much! It’s such a joy to visit somewhere in depth 🙂 Hope you enjoy your upcoming trip!

  • Reply
    06/16/2018 at 9:31 am

    Truly a thorough Road Trip you planned for us that don’t want to do the work planning. I have planned most of the roadtrips in various countries, one of my preferred ways to travel… with fam/friends, so it’s would be nice to see New Zealand and really explore by Car!

    • Reply
      06/16/2018 at 12:18 pm

      It’s really a great way to travel, I also love to explore through road trips. Hope you’re able to visit some time!

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