The Topography of New Zealand lends itself to road trips and I have been lucky enough to spend over 15 months traveling in this small, tucked-away country known as ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’.
My aim was to create an independent and free New Zealand Travel Guide targeted at hikers, photographers, and people who enjoy the outdoors.
This is one of the 5 itineraries I designed. What I like most about this one is that it gives you a grander sense of the diversity New Zealand’s landscape possesses.
New Zealand 10-day road trip overview
It starts low down on the east coast beaches with no mountains in sight, then heads west where the land rises all around you whilst you are still at sea level.
The route then gains elevation so you’re amongst the peaks in Queenstown and Wanaka & Mount Cook then flushes you out the other side again back toward Christchurch.
It’s a tight 10-day schedule so if you can use a few extra precious vacation days, there’s more than enough to do here. Just let me show you.
How to choose a rental vehicle
There are two main ways to travel in New Zealand. The first is to rent a normal-sized vehicle and stay in hotels, the second is to rent a motorhome and stay at campsites.
Both options have their pros and cons. If you’re unsure which one to pick, read my article about motorhome travel in New Zealand beforehand.
This itinerary took a lot of dedication to make so if you found it useful, I would appreciate it if you used these affiliate links to Discover Cars if you’re booking your rental car, or the Motorhome Republic to book your campervan. It earns me a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Both of those search engines have the largest databases and receive competitive pricing quotes from the biggest rental companies in New Zealand.
You often ask me about the kilometers my itineraries entail. This particular loop is roughly 2,000km (ca 1250 miles) long. You will need to provide this information when booking a campervan.
Do you need more New Zealand road trip itineraries?
If this is a route that doesn’t interest you or if you have more/less time than ten days then consider looking at my other itineraries here:
- A four to eight-week route on both of New Zealand’s Islands
- A two-week route on the North and the South Island
- A two-week route on the South Island designed for mountain lovers
- A whistle-stop one-week tour of the South Island
Map of the New Zealand 10-day road trip
Below you can see the map for this 10-day itinerary. Click on the button in the top left corner to discover the different layers on the map showcasing points of interest around the South Island. Switch them on and off to adjust the map view to your liking.
Day 1-2: Christchurch – Akaroa
- Distance from Christchurch to Akaroa: 81 km / 50 miles
- Driving time: 1h 15 min
Christchurch International Airport marks the start for most travelers who decided to stick to seeing New Zealand’s South Island only.
Even though Christchurch isn’t a terrible city, it’s a city nonetheless and it’s probably not the reason you decided to come all the way to New Zealand.
Pick up your rental vehicle, stock up on food, and start your adventure as soon as possible. On the first day, it’s only a 90-minute drive to the Akaroa Peninsula which is liberally garnished with coastlines, lots of wildlife, and rolling hills.
Things to do in Akaroa
There are plenty of activities such as wine tasting, culinary feasts, day cruises, loads of hikes, and my favorite – wildlife watching. A great drive is Summit Road, home to several trailheads leading off to small summits overlooking the Akaroa Peninsula.
Dolphin Nature Cruise
Set sail on a captivating sightseeing cruise around the Akaroa Harbor and be on the lookout for the elusive and rare Hector’s dolphin. It’s the smallest dolphin species in the World and Akaroa is a hotspot for them.
4WD Safari and Guided Sea-Kayaking Experience
If you are feeling more adventurous than the sea cruise, go for the kayaking experience which will allow you to be even closer to nature. During the kayaking trip, you will be able to marvel at Flea Bay Island and its impressive arch, and encounter local wildlife including penguins, seals, and dolphins.
See the blue Penguins
During the Penguin spotting tour, you will be transported in a 4WD to Flea Bay, a natural habitat for Blue Penguins. The species is nocturnal which means your best chances at spotting day is at dusk, when the tour takes place. You will gain great insight into the life of a penguin and local conservation efforts which saved the species from extinction.
Accommodation options in Akaroa on Night 1
Day 2-3: Moeraki Boulders and Penguins
- Distance from Akaroa to Moeraki: 342 km / 213 miles
- Driving time: 4h 30 min
It’s a 4.5-hour drive from Akaroa to Moeraki along the east coast. This a great introduction to driving in New Zealand before you’ll start tackling the winding mountainous roads in a few days.
The highlights of Moeraki are the globular Moeraki Boulders scattered on the beach. At roughly 5 million years old, they are an interesting formation accessible by a two-minute walk from the nearest parking lot.
They are typically most photogenic at sunrise as the beach faces east and are best viewed at low tide.
Make sure to check the tide before heading out there. During high tide, the boulders are submerged in water and the walk is not accessible!
A further ten-minute drive south from Moeraki will take you to the Katiki Point Lighthouse.
In the late afternoon, close to the lighthouse Yellow Eyed Penguins, a native New Zealand penguin species make their journey back from the Pacific Ocean to their homes on the hillside after a long day of fishing. It’s a beautiful sight when the pairs find each other and a great opportunity to learn something.
Important: Unfortunately in recent years, due to too much human interference, fewer and fewer penguins started to appear. If you do decide to visit this point, please do not interfere with the penguin’s schedule and do not block their path just for a photo. If you see someone else doing it, make sure to gently explain to them, that what they are doing is wrong.
* Note the photos above were taken with a big telephoto lens and I was far away from the birds.
Accommodation in Moeraki on night 2
Day 3-4: Dunedin, Nugget Point & The Catlins Forest Park
The southeast corner of New Zealand, remote as it is, boasts some very scenic places on the South Island. Today will be a true road trip day with plenty of scenic natural wonders along the way.
Thing to see between Moeraki and the Catlins
Tunnel Beach near Dunedin
- Distance from Moeraki to Nugget Point: 186 km / 116 miles
- Driving time: 2h 30 min
If you do decide to spend more time around Dunedin, you can visit St Clairs Beach, Tunnel Beach (pictured below), or the world’s steepest street. If you want my personal advice, Tunnel Beach was the best and the steepest street is just a marketing scam and very underwhelming.
Nugget Point Lighthouse
- Nugget Point to Purakaunui Falls: 48km / 30 miles / 50 min
- Driving time: 50 min
Before you reach the heart of the Catlins Forest Park, stop at the scenic Nugget Point Lighthouse and its famous off-shore nuggets.
The walk to the lighthouse takes less than 30 minutes and it’s a great place to warm up before the short hikes to the waterfalls.
Purakaunui Falls is a 15-minute stroll along a well-maintained boardwalk to a multitiered fan waterfall.
- Purakaunui Falls to Mclean Falls: 77km / 48 miles
- Driving time: 1h 30 min
The second, and to me a more impressive waterfall, is McLean Falls. It’s a longer 20-minute walk to the base along a route that can be very rooty underfoot at times but nothing difficult.
Accommodation in Kaka Point on Night 3
Day 4-5: Te Anau & Milford Sound
- Distance from Catlins Forest Park to Te Anau: 205 km / 127 miles
- Driving time: 2h 30 min
- Distance from Te Anau to Milford Sound: 118 km / 73 miles
- Driving time: 1 h 45 min
A trip to New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without visiting Milford Sound. There’s so much you can write about this place that to dive deeper into its history and beauty I dedicated a separate post to Milford Sound.
Accommodation options are very limited in Milford and must be booked far in advance. Day cruises on the other hand have greater availability but should still be booked ahead to avoid disappointment.
If you’re looking for a single splurge here in New Zealand consider doing an overnight cruise in Milford Sound.
Accommodation in Milford Sound on night 4
The only accommodation option in Milford Sound is the Milford Sound Lodge and bookings have to be done directly with them. They have a campsite, backpacker-style rooms, and mountain chalets.
I’ve stayed in all three and the chalets were definitely my favorite, but you also pay a significantly higher price for them.
A great alternative to seeing this magnificent Fjord is to book the previously mentioned overnight cruise.
Accommodation in Te Anau on night 4
If you weren’t lucky enough to secure a booking and stay overnight in Milford Sound, Te Anau is the closest town. The town is known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park.
You can stay here the night before and head to Milford Sound early the next day to spend the whole morning and afternoon exploring the area.
Te Anau is a beautiful quaint little town located on the shoreline of Lake Te Anau – The South Island’s biggest lake and worth visiting on its own. It’s also where two of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks begin: The Kepler and the Milford Tracks
Organized day trip to Milford Sound from Te Anau
Alternatively, you can visit Milford Sound on a coach-cruise-coach option from Te Anau and enjoy the scenery along the way without worrying about driving on the narrow roads. This is the perfect option if you are visiting off-season (May-October) when the roads aren’t in the best conditions.
Milford Sound isn’t the only Fjord in the Fiordland National Park. If you are looking for a more serene and off-the-beaten-path experience or simply have an extra day in New Zealand you should also visit Doubtful Sound. Cruises leave daily from Manapouri, the neighboring town.
Day 5-7: Queenstown + Glenorchy
- Distance between Milford Sound & Queenstown: 287 km / 178 miles
- Driving time: 4 h
This central beehive of adrenaline-filled activities is located 4 hours from Milford Sound or 2 hours from Te Anau.
Nestled in the heart of the Southern Alps, dwarfed by the Remarkables Mountain Range, Queenstown is one of the most popular locations in the Southern Hemisphere, let alone the South Island. Let that be a warning, book your accommodation in advance.
Queenstown has so much going on that I honestly can’t even begin to explain it with just a few short sentences.
That’s why I have dedicated posts for hiking in Queenstown, Photography in Queenstown, and adventure activities in Queenstown, which will help you pick out the locations you would like to visit. Whilst in Queenstown make sure to take the scenic drive to Glenorchy!
Accommodation in Queenstown on nights 6 & 7
Day 7-8: Wanaka & Mount Aspiring National Park
- Distance between Queenstown and Wanaka: 67 km / 42 miles
- Driving time: 1h 10 min
An hour’s drive away from Queenstown over the Crown Range Road, one of the most scenic roads on the South Island will get you to the shoreline of Lake Wanaka.
It’s a more mellow version of Queenstown but still super beautiful and like Queenstown, it needs to be tackled in separate articles.
Wanaka is also the perfect place to relax, have a craft beer at Kai Whaka Pai or grab an ice cream at Patagonia and simply sit by the lake and watch the world go by.
Where to stay in Wanaka on night 7
Day 8-9: Mount Cook National Park
- Distance from Wanaka to Mount Cook: 210 km / 130 miles
- Driving time: 2h 30 min
Mount Cook village is situated just past the northern end of Lake Pukaki, one of many crystal blue glacially-fed lakes in the area. There are two absolute must-stops when approaching Mount Cook.
First is Lindis Pass and the second is St Peters lookout, where I captured the photograph which you can see below. Both are signposted and impossible to miss!
You’ll see New Zealand’s highest mountain in the distance, getting ever closer as you glide toward it at 100km/h.
Mount Cook is a great place for hiking with some of the best hiking trails on the South Island. Several options include the Hooker Valley Trail, Kea Point, and Tasman Glacier Lookout. For more information head over to my first-timer’s guide to Mount Cook National Park.
Similarly to Milford Sound, being in a national park significantly limits the accommodation options in Mount Cook Village, but there is still a choice of around 4 major hotels and hostels.
Then there is also the famous Mueller hut – one of the most scenic backcountry huts in New Zealand.
If you packed your walking legs you’ll have an alternative accommodation to stay in whilst visiting Mount Cook National Park. Intrigued? See how to make reservations and hike to Mueller Hut in my separate post.
Accommodation in Mount Cook Village on night 8
Day 9-10: Tekapo
- Distance between Mount Cook NP and Tekapo: 105 km / 65 miles
- Driving time: 1h 15 min
Once you’ve had your fill of mountainous gluttony, the drive toward Tekapo will serve you well. It’s a flatter road than the one you’ve been driving on so far, but still delightful.
Tekapo is a little town situated next to a beautiful turquoise lake of the same name.
Highlights of Tekapo are mainly astrologically related as it’s located in the world’s largest dark sky reserve.
Watching the milky way twinkle above the Church of the Good Shepherd or searching for distant nebulae through a telescope at the Mount John Observatory will make you feel very small.
If your visit to New Zealand happens to be around the end of November or December you are in for a treat! Lupin flowers bloom beautifully on the shoreline of Lake Tekapo making for some beautiful photo opportunities.
Your last journey from Tekapo is a 3-hour drive (222 km / 138 miles) back to Christchurch International Airport.
Top accommodation options in Lake Tekapo on night 9
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