Wildlife, Waterfalls, Fjords And Mountains – 10-Day Itinerary Around New Zealand’s South Island

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

10-day itinerary around the South Island of New Zealand

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

Mount Cook Road St.Peters Lookout 3

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. 

Further along, I’ve also included affiliate links to the best accommodation options in each area should you decide to stay in hotels. 

That Wanaka Tree 2

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: 

  1. A four to eight-week route on both of New Zealand’s Islands
  2. A two-week route on the North and the South Island 
  3. A two-week route on the South Island designed for mountain lovers
  4. 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

Akaroa tourist

Distance and driving time from Christchurch to Akaroa: 81 km / 50 miles / 1h 15 min

Christchurch International Airport marks the start for most travellers 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. 

A great drive is Summit Road, home to several trailheads leading off to small summits. 

There are plenty of activities such as wine tasting, culinary feasts, day cruises, and loads of hikes.

Accommodation options in Akaroa

Day 2-3: Moeraki Boulders and Penguins

Moeraki Boulders 13

Distance and driving time from Akaroa to Moeraki: 342 km / 213 miles / 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. 

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 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

Day 3-4: Nugget Point & The Catlins Forest Park

Distance and driving time from Moeraki to Nugget Point: 186 km / 116 miles / 2h 30 min

The southeast corner of New Zealand, remote as it is, boasts some very scenic places on the South Island. From Moeraki, it’s an hour’s drive to Dunedin. 

If you do decide to spend more time around Dunedin, you can visit St Clairs Beach, Tunnel Beach, or the world’s steepest street. 

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 Waterfall Catlins 2

The first of which, Purakaunui Falls, is a 15-minute stroll along a well-maintained boardwalk to a multitiered fan waterfall. (Pictured above). 

The second, and to me a more impressive waterfall, is McLean Falls (pictured below). It’s a longer 20-minute walk to the base along a route that can be very rooty underfoot at times but nothing difficult.

Distance and driving time from:

Nugget Point to Purakaunui Falls: 48km / 30 miles / 50 min

Purakaunui Falls to Mclean Falls: 77km / 48 miles / 1h 30 min

Maclean Falls 1

Accommodation in Kaka Point

Day 4-5: Milford Sound + Te Anau

Milford Sound Overnight Cruise 13

Distance and driving time from:

Catlins Forest Park to Te Anau: 205 km / 127 miles / 2h 30 min

Te Anau to Milford Sound: 118 km / 73 miles / 1h 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!

Milford Sound Overnight Cruise 22

Accommodation in Milford Sound

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

If you weren’t lucky enough to secure a booking and stay overnight in Milford Sound, Te Anau is the closest town.

You can stay there 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

Day 5-7: Queenstown + Glenorchy

Cecil Peak 12

Distance between Milford Sound & Queenstown: 287 km / 178 miles / 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 QueenstownPhotography 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! 

Glenorchy Road

Accommodation in Queenstown

Day 7-8: Wanaka & Mount Aspiring National Park

Distance between Queenstown and Wanaka: 67 km / 42 miles / 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. 

So if you want to know where to hike around Wanaka or what the best photography spots around Wanaka are, then follow these two articles on each topic.

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

Day 8-9: Mount Cook National Park

Winter Mount Cook National Park 7

Distance and driving time from Wanaka to Mount Cook: 210 km / 130 miles / 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! 

Lindis Pass 1

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

Day 9-10: Tekapo

Lake Tekapo 11

Distance between Mount Cook NP and Tekapo: 105 km / 65 miles / 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.

Lake Tekapo Lupin Flowers 1

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

Travel resources for your New Zealand road trip

Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway 7

You often ask me about the kilometres my itineraries entail. This particular loop is roughly 2,000km (ca 1250 miles) long. 

If you have any questions about planning your trip that I haven’t covered here then please comment down below. I always answer.

In return, remember to use those affiliate links below It helps me out a lot! For bookings I highly recommend  

  • Booking.com – for hotels and hostels
  • Discover Cars – for finding the best deals on car rentals
  • Motorhome Republic – for finding the lowest motorhome prices in New Zealand
  • Get Your Guide – Keep all your reservations in one place thanks to this booking engine for tours and activities 

Hi! I am the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *