Due to its ever-growing popularity amongst mountain and photography lovers, New Zealand is one of the most sought-after travel destinations in the World, scoring the top marks for best countries to travel and live in, in many online rankings.
After spending more than one year in New Zealand on a working holiday visa I can only agree with what is being said. Its scenery is certainly hard to beat and being relatively compact it makes for a perfect self-driving holiday destination.
Originally this was a 4-week itinerary, but after a lot of feedback and many of you asking how to extend it, I have decided to redesign it a bit and give it a much-needed update to what it is today.
If you were looking for information on travel itineraries for New Zealand, you are in the right place. With the help of my personal New Zealand Travel Guide, you will design your holiday of a lifetime.
Who is this New Zealand road trip itinerary perfect for?
If you came to New Zealand for at least 4 or more weeks or you are here on a Working Holiday Visa, you can definitely take the advantage of the time you’ve got and explore both the North and South Islands.
You won’t be able to see everything. I didn’t even manage to do that during the 15 months I spent here, but I used my extensive knowledge about this country and handpicked the best locations which you could visit on your road trip.
What’s the best way to travel around New Zealand long-term?
Personally, I think renting a motorhome is the best option if you are road-tripping New Zealand for an extensive amount of time.
You can also consider buying one, but you will need to give yourself enough time before and after your trip to purchase and then sell your van.
For the best deals on campervans check the Motorhome Republic. It will save you a lot of time using their search engine.
You can save quotes, look at the layouts and full specifications and compare prices and package inclusions.
Make sure to check out my article about everything you need to know regarding motorhome travel in New Zealand which touches on topics such as freedom camping or what it means to have a self-contained campervan.
If you are not into camping and seek a bit more luxury you can go for a regular rental car and stay in hostels or hotels. I recommend Discover Cars for finding the best deals on compact car rentals.
Do bear in mind though, that New Zealand gets really busy in the summer season and it might be a good idea to book your accommodation well in advance.
New Zealand 6-week travel itinerary part 1: North Island
This itinerary splits into two parts: 16 days on the North Island and 26 days on the South Island totaling 42 days or 6 weeks across New Zealand. Before I start I want to say that this road trip plan can easily be shortened to 4 weeks or extended to 8 weeks to fit your needs.
To extend it simply add days when visiting some destinations as there is enough to explore in each area! Do you want to shorten it? I have included a section at the end of this post with some ideas on how it can be done.
Day 1-2: Arrive in Auckland
Whilst Auckland does have some interesting vantage points for taking photos, I wouldn’t recommend spending here longer than a day, especially if you are on a tight schedule.
Remember that you came to New Zealand to see its spectacular nature. For someone like me, coming from Europe, I found the cities in New Zealand rather dull, especially when put against its amazing landscapes!
Starting your road trip in Auckland has another advantage. The car rental deals will be the best and the city is very well connected with the attractions I have enlisted in this itinerary.
You can also start this itinerary in Christchurch and follow it backward. Consider this option, particularly when traveling during the autumn season.
Day 2-5: Northland
Distance and driving time from:
Auckland to Cape Reinga: 420 km / 260 miles / 5,5 hours
Cape Reinga to Paihia: 213 km / 132 miles / 2h 45 min
Your first few days on this itinerary will take you up to the northernmost tip of the country: Cape Reinga. Drive from Auckland all the way up to the top of the Peninsula where, according to the local Maori culture, the spirits of the dead enter the underworld.
It is also the separation point between the Tasman sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. Whilst standing by the lighthouse located at the tip of the Cape you can clearly see the two types of water clashing, creating a tidal race.
I recommend hiking the Te Werahi beach Track when visiting Cape Reinga. It’s one of my favorite hikes on the North Island!
Spend the first and second nights in Northland at the Tapotupotu campsite near Cape Reinga – it’s one of my favorites in New Zealand!
Bear in mind that there are no towns around Cape Reinga. The nearest – Kaitaia is located 1,5 hour’s drive away, so make sure to stock up on enough food and bring enough cash for the next couple of days.
You can spend the third night around Paihia, where you will find plenty of campsites to choose from.
What to see and where to Stay in Northland
90 Mile Beach
If you’ve got a 4-wheel drive rental vehicle and feel comfortable doing so you can do part of the journey to Cape Reinga driving on a 90-mile beach. Just make sure to check the tide first, because the last thing you want to do is be washed away by waves. Trust me I have seen it happen to others!
TIP: Your rental agreement may also have a clause that won’t allow you to take your vehicle off-road so make sure to inform yourself before you go there.
Te Paki Sand Dunes
Just 20 minutes South of Cape Reinga lie the famous Te Paki sand dunes. Rent a board for a few dollars in one of the shops along the way and spend some time hiking up the sand dunes and sliding down on your board.
At the end of the day, you will have sand in places where sand definitely doesn’t belong, but I guarantee you, it’s going the be a load of fun!
Rarawa White Sand Beach
Rarawa beach is a little bit of a hidden beach. Located about an hour South of Cape Reinga, this place will transport you into a World of perfect white sand beaches and turquoise waters.
Only the water temperature will remind you that you are in fact in New Zealand and not some island in the Caribbean.
After visiting Cape Reinga continue down to Paihia – the gateway to the Bay of Islands. Even though they are only 3 hours apart, if you stopped in all the places which I have recommended along the way, it might take you the whole day to get here.
Once you reach Paihia you can book a trip to the outer islands right off the coast, arrange a sea kayak tour or take part in a cruise to the ‘hole in the rock’ located at the tip of Cape Brett. If you are lucky you may even be able to spot some dolphins! There are plenty of companies offering this tour which you can compare on Get Your Guide.
Day 5-7: Coromandel
Distance and driving time from Paihia to Hahei: 400 km / 250 miles / 5,5 hours
The Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most beloved places on the North Island among tourists visiting New Zealand. There are two spots in particular, which have given this place international fame.
If you are looking at spending a couple of days exploring the Coromandel Peninsula then Hahei is a great little town for a base.
What Not To Miss around Coromandel
The number one and most photogenic spot in this part of the country is Cathedral Cove. This place gets really busy so to maximize your experience hike to the Cove early in the morning.
It takes around 90 minutes to complete the whole walk, not including the time you will spend exploring.
Hot Water Beach
This natural phenomenon was only discovered recently, but it is certainly a very popular spot amongst tourists and can get very busy.
What’s the big deal you may wonder? Because of New Zealand’s geothermal activity, hot water beach is one of the few places in New Zealand, where you can dig out your own hot spring and sit in it enjoying the views of the sea.
Make sure to check the tides first. It’s only possible to dig at low tide. Once the tide comes in it washes everything away. You can rent shovels at nearby cafes for just a few bucks. Best few dollars you will ever spend!
Day 7-8: Hobbiton, Mount Maunganui & White Island
Distance and driving time from:
Hahei to Matamata: 148 km / 92 miles / 2 hours
Matamata to Mount Maunganui: 57 km / 35 miles / 45 minutes
Mount Maunganui is a small part of Tauranga – a coastal city located on the Bay of Plenty, but before you get here, there is one famous place where you should stop at first.
Hobbiton Movie Set
It may be the most overpriced tourist attraction in the whole of New Zealand, but if you are a Lord Of The Rings fan just as I am, then unleash your inner hobbit and splurge 80 NZ dollars for a tour around the shire!
Originally I wasn’t going to do it, but one day I found myself driving past Hobbiton and gave in. I was lucky to get the tickets on the spot, which nowadays is rather unheard of.
Even though the place receives copious amounts of tourists each year (5000 a day in the peak season) I was still positively surprised by the tour and certainly don’t regret doing it.
Catch the sunrise at Mount Maunganui
Once you find yourself in Mount Maunganui – part of the bigger city of Tauranga, hike up to the top of the mountain which carries the same name. To me, this is one of the best photography spots on the island!
There is a campground located just at the foot of the mountain close to the trailhead, which makes it easier if you decide to go up there to catch the sunrise. If you are traveling by camper van just stay there.
The whole hike takes around 1,5 hours to complete and the route is very well maintained.
The White Island Volcano
A very popular attraction for Bay of Plenty visitors used to be a cruise to Whakaari aka The White Island. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano!
Unfortunately due to the tragic eruption that occurred in 2019, a year after my visit. An eruption that claimed the lives of many tourists and guides, the tours were shut.
Currently, the only way to see White Island is on a scenic flight tour from a safe distance.
Day 8-10: Geothermal Rotorua
Distance and driving time from Mount Maunganui to Rotorua: 70km / 43 miles / 1 hour
Renowned for its geothermal activity and intense egg-like sulfur smell, Rotorua is a must-see for any visitor to the North Island.
What Not To Miss Around Rotorua
Take a stroll through the Whakarewarewa Redwood forest
I hope your tongue is still ok after pronouncing it. The giant Californian Redwoods are not native to New Zealand and the forest was planted here in 1901.
Since then it became a big part of the natural landscape of Rotorua and a walk through this beautiful forest definitely won’t disappoint. The hikes are only a few minutes away from the town center and are easily accessible by car.
Rotorua was the first place where I tried rafting and I was hooked. I could hardly contain my excitement when we were about to glide down the world-renowned 7-meter Tutea Falls, the Highest Commercially Rafted Waterfall in the World!
I am not going to lie, it was a bit scary, but my team all managed to stay in the raft.
It’s the perfect stop on your way toward Taupo which is next on the itinerary. Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland is home to the Champagne Pool, which you have probably already seen in some pictures whilst researching information about New Zealand.
There is more to it than just the Champagne Pool though. I published a whole blog post dedicated to this place a while ago. You can check it out here.
Tamaki Maori Village
If you want to learn a bit about the Maori history and their famous Haka dance in a fun and interactive way make sure to visit the Tamaki Maori village. I have written about the whole experience here.
Rotorua is for the North Island, and Queenstown is for the South Island – an adventure hub. If climbing into a human-size ball and rolling down the hill is your idea of fun, try zorbing. I did and I loved it!
After all, what’s a better place to do it than the one where it originated?
Day 10-12: Taupo and Tongariro Crossing
Distance and driving time from Rotorua to Taupo: 82km / 51 miles / 1 hour
A tour around New Zealand’s North Island wouldn’t be complete if you missed the Tongariro Crossing.
It’s the most famous day hike in New Zealand which takes you through spectacular scenery amongst 3 volcanoes: Ngauruhoe (also known as Mount Doom from Lord Of The Rings), Tongariro, and Ruapehu.
The Tongariro crossing can also be done as a circuit, called Tongariro Northern Circuit, but that will take 3-4 days to complete and will require staying in alpine huts or camping. Most people settle for a 19.4 km long, day journey.
Doing the hike will require some planning ahead. Tongariro National Park is a very remote area and the hike itself is not a loop but a one-way journey.
A lot of visitors organize transport from Taupo to the start of the hike, which then picks you up at the finish line and brings you back to Taupo. If your time is limited that’s your best option.
You should also bear in mind that between October and April, there is a 4-hour time restriction for private vehicles at the Mangatepopo road end – the starting point for the crossing. People wanting to do the entire hike, which takes an average of 7-8 hours, will need to use shuttle transport.
Day 12-14: Mount Taranaki and Egmont National Park
Distance and driving time from Taupo to New Plymouth: 277km/ 172 miles/ 3h 40 min
Located on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island Mount Taranaki is the perfect definition of a stratovolcano. With its perfect conical shape, it could easily pass as the famous Mt Fuji in Japan.
In fact, they look so similar, that Mount Taranaki ‘played’ Mount Fuji in “The Last Samurai” movie starring Tom Cruise.
Mount Egmont National Park, surrounding the peak is a hikers’ Paradise and to me, there is no better way to explore this area than on your feet.
You can find a great selection of hikes and short walks directly on the DOC’s website (DOC stands for NZ’s Department of Conservation).
TIP: When driving towards New Plymouth – the gateway to Mount Egmont National Park – spare a couple of hours to make a stop at the Three Sisters and the Elephant Rock. An impressive rock formation directly on the beach. Just make sure to plan your visit at low tide!
What Not To Miss In Mount Egmont National Park
If you are looking for an alternative to Tongariro Crossing, which at times gets overcrowded, Pouakai crossing is your answer.
Similar in length and time (19km/7-8 hours) this hike takes you through the best viewpoints of Mount Taranaki and some of the wildest landscapes in New Zealand.
For those with more time on their hands, you can plan the whole circuit which takes 2-3 days to complete. I have done it myself and it was one of my favorite multi-day hikes in New Zealand!
The Goblin Forest
This short 30-minute loop known as the Kamahi Loop Track takes you through the lush rainforest covered in fern and moss endemic to New Zealand. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before!
The loop starts at the Mount Egmont Visitor Centre and you can find it on the hike list I linked to earlier.
Day 14-16: Wellington
Distance and driving time from New Plymouth to Wellington: 352 km / 219 miles / 4h 30 min
You’ve made it to New Zealand’s capital! There is a fair bit to do over here and I covered it in another blog post dedicated to Wellington.
On Day 16th catch the ferry from Wellington to Picton across the Cook Strait to begin the second part of your journey. If you think what you’ve seen so far was amazing, you will be soon at a loss for words when road-tripping around the South Island.
The ferry takes around 3 hours and it’s an experience in itself as you will get a first glimpse of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds viewing it from the sea.
New Zealand 4-6 Week Itinerary Part 2: South Island
You are officially on the South Island. I hope your ferry journey to Picton, around Marlborough Sounds, was pleasant. The bad news is you are halfway through your New Zealand road trip
I know, the time flies way too fast! I hope you are having tons of fun so far. The good news is the best is yet to come so strap your seat belt on and let’s continue!
Day 16-17: Marlborough Sounds
There are a few little towns in the vicinity which include Blenheim, Picton and Havelock. Personally, Picton is my favourite as it’s right where you will dock when coming from the North Island, but all 3 towns boast similar attributes and attractions.
Best things to do in Picton & Marlborough region
Swim with wild dolphins
Once your ferry docks in Picton you can relax and enjoy the fresh coastal air or…. use the opportunity to swim with WILD dolphins!
That’s right! Picton is one of the very few places in the entire world where you can do that without harming them. Use the opportunity to observe the dolphins in their natural environment and not some small water tank in a 5-star hotel resort. Even David Attenborough would approve!
Explore the Marlborough Sounds on foot
The official tourism site for the Marlborough region is a well of information about short walks in this region. Make sure to take advantage of the crisp air and sunshine and pick a few walks to feed your soul.
Go wine tasting
If you are a wine lover chances are you have heard of the Marlborough region and its famous wineries. This part of New Zealand is blessed with perfect conditions for grape cultivation and produces over 75% of New Zealand’s wine! There are plenty of tours to choose from for all budgets.
Take the Queen Charlotte Scenic Drive
The road links Picton to Havelock and it has made it onto my list of the top 10 scenic roads on the South Island of New Zealand. This 40-kilometer-long and windy drive will take you through numerous bays and viewpoints of the Marlborough sounds. You can learn more about it here.
Day 17-19: Abel Tasman National Park & Golden Bay
Distance and driving times from:
Havelock to Takaka: 177 km / 110 miles / 2h 40 min
Takaka to Wharariki Beach and back: 108 km / 68 miles / 1 hour each way
From Havelock continue towards your next destination – the Golden Bay.
There are a few small towns where you can choose to stay for the next couple of days, the most sought-after of which is Takaka offering great access to Wharariki Beach, Farewell Spit, and Abel Tasman National Park
Top Things To Do around Golden Bay And Abel Tasman National Park
An absolute must-stop for any photography enthusiasts. The beach is a 20-minute walk away from the nearest parking lot. As you approach it, the Archway Islands right off the coast will come into your full view. This is one of my personal favorite photography spots on the South Island!
If you happen to be here around April make sure to look out for seal pups often playing in the tidal pools. It’s a fun way to spend the afternoon observing them in their natural habitat, whilst their mums rest on the cliffs.
It’s not uncommon for the pups to approach you, but please avoid disturbing their rhythm. Keep the wildlife wild!
Do me a favor and google the satellite images of the Farewell Spit and you will quickly notice it looks like the head of a kiwi bird. Made from fine golden sand Farewell Spit is the longest sand spit in New Zealand stretching for whooping 26 kilometers!
It’s possible to walk on it, but you’ve got to be careful with the tides as people have become stranded before, by venturing too far out.
Abel Tasman National Park
If you are a fan of white sand beaches and water sports you should pay Abel Tasman National Park a visit. There is plenty of hikes you can do around here, as well as outdoor activities such as sailing or kayaking.
Day 19-21: Nelson Lakes National Park
Distance and driving time from Takaka to Nelson Lakes NP: 154 km / 96 miles / 2h 20 mins
It’s a short 2-hour and 30-minute drive back over Takaka Hill then due south to Nelson Lakes National Park. St Arnaud is a tiny town with few amenities (apart from awesome fish and chips) but its location is second to none.
St Arnaud lies on the northern shore of Lake Rotoiti, where you can find a couple of scenic piers giving great photo opportunities. Reflecting in the lake is Mount Robert, which you can summit along a great route, but I will get to that in a second.
Don’t jump into the water though. There is quite a lot of eel swimming around right next to the piers.
I found them a bit creepy.
Nelson lakes is a great area for nature lovers with many hikes and a few backcountry huts to choose from.
There is a great DOC campsite right near the lakeshore, just make sure to pack enough bug repellent to keep those nasty sandflies at bay!
Where To Hike Around Nelson Lakes National park
Mount Robert Circuit
Hands down the best hike in the area is the loop up Mount Robert. This 4-5 hour long but rewarding hike offers vistas of the lake Rotoiti far below. For more information on this hike head to the DOC website.
Though an overnight stay in the Lake Angelus hut is recommended for anyone undertaking this track, if you are a fast-paced hiker, you can complete this 24-kilometer hike in a day. The route takes you to a beautiful and remote Lake Angelus. More info on this route is here.
Day 21-23: Arthur’s Pass National Park via Punakaiki
Distance and driving time from:
St Arnaud to Punakaiki: 199 km / 123 miles / 2h 40 min
Punakaiki to Arthur’s Pass: 139km / 86 miles / 2 h
Just under 3 hours West of St Arnaud, Punakaiki is home to the famous Pancakes Rocks & the gateway to Paparoa National Park.
The Pancake Rocks are a short 20-minute walk along a set of built-in platforms and it will serve as a great stop for a break to stretch your legs before you continue. Prepare to get wet as crushing waves push through the blowholes creating a misty atmosphere all around you.
After a stop in Punakaiki keep driving for another 2 hours to your next destination – Arthur’s Pass National Park, where high up in the mountains there’s plenty of hiking to be done and stunning landscapes to see. Here are my top tips.
Where To Hike Around Arthur’s Pass National Park
Bealey Spur Track
A moderate (5-hour return) hike which stays mainly within the bush line is a lovely day out exploring the forest. The views do get better but not right until the very end, where it comes out just below a ridgeline and offers fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and of the Waimakariri River.
The track starts 14km south of Arthurs Pass village at the end of Cloudesley Road.
Avalanche peak is a difficult full-day hike that takes approximately 6-8 hours to complete. The views are so good from the summit though that this is the most popular walk in Arthur’s Pass. The Avalanche Peak track starts in the center of the village, right behind the visitor center office.
Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall
Located a short drive away from the centre of the village northbound on the 73. The walk itself doesn’t take long (around an hour) and is very well maintained, but it does include a series of steps which at times can be slippery.
Lake Pearson and Castle Hill
If you have any extra time to spare, Lake Pearson and Castle hill are worth a little detour. The latter location is famous for the Lord of the Rings franchise.
They are respectively 30 and 45 minutes drive away from the Arthur’s Pass village, but in the opposite direction to where you will be going next. Lake Pearson is particularly stunning during the autumn season when the trees at the lakeshore turn yellow.
Day 23-25: Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers via Hokitika
Distance and driving time from:
Arthur’s Pass to Hokitika Gorge*: 132km / 82 miles / 1h 45 min
Hokitika Gorge to Franz Josef: 161 km / 100 miles / 2h 5 min
Now that you’ve been acquainted with the beautiful Southern Alps it’s time for the Glacier Country. From Arthur’s Pass Village continue your road trip west back to the coast.
To stretch your legs on this windy journey stop at the Hokitika Gorge and later grab lunch in the town of the same name. Fish & Chips always taste better on the coast!
Hokitika is also one of the hubs where Pounamu, a type of Greenstone, is commercially mined and skilfully crafted into beautiful pieces of jewelry and other grand sculptures.
If you’re looking to purchase a memento to remind yourself of your trip to New Zealand, maybe some Pounamu is what you’re after. After all, the South Island is called Te Wai Pounamu in Maori (The Waters of Greenstone).
* If you want to skip Hokitika Gorge, which requires a slight detour, you will take off 60km or 37 miles (an hour of driving time) from your journey between Arthur’s Pass and Franz Josef making it a total of 233 km / 145 miles and just under 3 hours.
Best things to do in Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Franz Josef and Fox villages are homes to New Zealand’s most famous glaciers and the best way to explore the theme is by doing a Heli hike.
Because I’ve done guided glacier hiking on one of the most impressive glaciers in the world – Perito Moreno in Patagonia, I decided to skip this activity in NZ. Ice trekking still remains one of the coolest things I’ve ever done though, so if you’ve got some money to spare go glacier hiking in New Zealand.
You will be taken up on the glacier by a helicopter and guided through crevasses, an experience you won’t ever be able to forget.
Hike Franz Josef and Fox Glacier Valley
Apart from doing that awesome heli hike, you can also hike through both Fox and Franz Josef Valleys to the foot of the Glaciers. Both of them are just 20 min drive apart. Unfortunately, the viewpoints at the end of the hikes aren’t keeping up with the speed at which both glaciers are receding, due to global warming.
The walk to Fox Glacier is a 2.6km (return) one-hour stroll and the hike to Franz Josef is a 5.4km (return) which should take you about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Admire reflections at lake Matheson
Lake Matheson is only a few minutes’ drive away from Fox Glacier. Get up for sunrise and hike counterclockwise to the reflection island from where you can photograph New Zealand’s highest peak Mount Cook reflecting perfectly in the water. Soon you will get a chance to get closer to it, but I left the best for last! Have some patience! 🙂
Alex Knob Track
This 6-8 hour challenging hike takes you to the best viewpoint of the Franz Josef glacier and all that for free! If you are on a budget and don’t have a few hundred bucks to spend on a Heli hike then this is your best option to see the glacier in all its glory from high above.
Once again, the DOC website is a great resource if you plan on doing this hike and it will tell you all about how to get there or any recent closures, which might have occurred.
Day 25-27: Wanaka & Mount Aspiring National Park
Distance and driving time between Franz Josef and Wanaka: 286km /178 miles/ 3h 45 min
The drive to Wanaka over the Haast past is an eventful one. This ca 4-hour journey can easily turn into a full-day drive if you plan to stop at these great viewpoints for a break (and you should): The Blue Pools, Fantail Falls, or Lake Hawea.
Top activities in Wanaka
You would be crazy not to take advantage of the many outdoor activities Wanaka has to offer. From chill, boat rides across the lake, through hiking and kayaking tours to scenic helicopter flights and even skydiving!
Another positive is that Wanaka is still emerging as an adventure destination opposite Queenstown, making it less crowded!
Day 27-30: Queenstown & Glenorchy
Distance and driving time from Wanaka to Queenstown: 67km / 42 miles / 1 hour
Next on the itinerary is the adventure capital of the World – Queenstown. To get there take the scenic Crown Range road through the stunning Cardona valley. There are plenty of roadside stops along the way so don’t expect to get to Queenstown within an hour even if your GPS might say so!
Top Things to Do Around Queenstown
I lived and worked in Queenstown for 7 months during the 15 months I spent in New Zealand and I still find myself missing this place a lot!
You can do everything here: bungy jumping, skydiving, and jetboating are some of the more sought-after activities in Queenstown but you don’t need to be rich to have fun here!
There are plenty of photo-worthy spots you can visit around Queenstown. It’s difficult to take bad photos of lake Wakatipu surrounded by the jagged mountain peaks!
With all the big mountains the choice of day hikes around Queenstown is quite extensive. Ben Lomond and Queenstown Hill are the most popular, but make sure to jump to my other article to see the alternatives!
If you don’t feel like hiking or adrenaline-filled activities then day trips out to Glenorchy or Arrowtown are your best bet. They are busy but nothing in comparison to Queenstown and they are filled with lots of quaint cafés.
Day 30-32: Te Anau and Fiordland National Park
Distance and driving time from:
Queenstown to Te Anau: 171 km / 106 miles / 2h 5 min
Te Anau to Milford Sound (one way): 118 km / 73 miles / 1h 45 min
From Queenstown, it’s a long but very scenic drive to Milford Sound. If you want to break up the journey consider stopping in Te Anau for the night then drive the famous Te Anau to Milford Sound road early the next day.
There’s a multitude of road-side stops (Mirror Lakes, Eglinton, or Hollyford Valleys) and hikes on the way including Lake Marian, Key Summit (part of the Routeburn Trek), and the Gertrude Saddle, both being my top hikes on the South Island.
You simply can’t come to New Zealand without visiting a ‘Sound’ in Fiordland National Park and if you have extra time or prefer off-the-beaten-path places you should also consider seeing Doubtful Sound or Dusky Sound as well as Milford.
Best things to do in Te Anau & Fiordland National Park
Make sure to set off early from Te Anau. Around 7 AM would be my bet. I know that’s early, but trust me it will be worth it, and that way you will avoid the tour buses and have all the spots along the way to Milford Sound to yourself.
I have a whole article dedicated to Milford Sound, where you can read about the best options for exploring the area as well as a few interesting facts about the Fjord which may surprise you.
If you are looking for a unique way to experience Milford Sound try the overnight cruise!
Milford Sound is a busy place, there is no need to sugarcoat it. Even though I believe it shouldn’t be missed, there are others who simply prefer quieter places. In this case, consider booking a trip to Doubtful Sound from Te Anau instead. Doubtful Sound is a bigger yet a lot less commercialized Fjord in the Fiordland National Park.
If you have the budget for it go and do both! I have
IMPORTANT: The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound does close some days during the winter due to snowfall. Always check the weather conditions with DOC first before you set off. Sometimes snow chains are also required. Make sure your rental vehicle is equipped with them before you hit the road!
TIP: Milford Sound Lodge is the only place to stay in Milford Sound for independent travelers. Reservations can only be made directly with them. Book as far ahead as you can as the spots fill up quickly.
If you are traveling in a camper or your own camping equipment, there are a few basic DOC campgrounds along the way from Te Anau to Milford Sound as well. CamperMate will guide you to those.
Day 32-34: Catlins Forest Park, Nugget Point, Moeraki Boulders, Dunedin
Distance and driving time from:
Milford Sound to Catlins Forest Park (Mclean Falls): 327 km / 203 miles / 4h 30 min
Catlins Forest Park (Mclean Falls) To Purakaunui Falls: 77 km / 48 miles / 1h 30 min
Purakaunui Falls to Nugget Point: 48 km / 30 miles / 45 min
Nugget Point to Tunnel Beach (Dunedin): 123 km / 76 miles / 1h 40 min
Dunedin to Moeraki: 76 km / 47 miles / 1 hour
Day 32 will be a proper road trip day for you. Once you make it to the East Coast you can start your day by exploring Catlins Forest Park.
It’s still a relatively quiet corner of New Zealand, especially when put against Queenstown or Milford Sound. For that particular reason, I think you should definitely include it in your itinerary.
What Not To Miss Between The Catlins and Moeraki
There are two waterfalls in Catlins worth checking out.
The first, and to me a more impressive waterfall, is McLean Falls (pictured above left). It’s a 20-minute walk from the trailhead to the base along a route that can be very rooty underfoot at times but nothing difficult.
The second one, the Purakaunui Falls, is a short 15-minute stroll along a well-maintained boardwalk to a multitiered fan waterfall. (Pictured above right).
Nugget Point Lighthouse
The next stop is the scenic Nugget Point Lighthouse and its famous off-shore nuggets. The walk to the lighthouse is easy and takes less than 30 minutes!
After visiting the lighthouse you can head further North towards Dunedin – the second largest city on the South Island.
If you do decide to spend more time around Dunedin, you can visit St Clair’s Beach or Tunnel Beach. The latter in particular was my favorite in the area. I went there at sunrise and had the whole place to myself!
People also tend to flock to the world’s steepest street, which brought Dunedin into the tourist spotlight. Quite frankly I was a bit underwhelmed by the street and I personally think it’s just marketing doing its job. Don’t feel bad about skipping it!
A further 1 hour north you will find the little town called Moeraki – the home of the famous 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 nearby 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!
See the wild penguins
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 photo above was taken with a big telephoto lens and I was far away from the birds.
Day 34-36: Mount Cook National Park
Distance and driving time from Moeraki to Mount Cook: 245 km / 152 miles / 3 hours
Do you remember when I said earlier that I left the best for last? The time has finally come to visit Mount Cook National Park.
The drive from Moeraki to Mount Cook will take you at least half a day. Not because of the distance, but because of the stops. Make sure to halt along lake Pukaki, particularly at St Peter’s look.
If you are lucky to see it on a sunny day you will have a hard time believing the turquoise color of this glacier-fed lake.
I have dedicated a whole article to Mount Cook National Park for first-time visitors, where you will find trail guides, top activities, and my recommendations on accommodation.
Day 36-38: Lake Tekapo
Distance and driving time from Mount Cook to Tekapo: 105 km / 65 miles / 1h 15 min
Take the Mount Cook Road back along the lakeshore of Lake Pukaki. Once you get to the end of it turn left on number 8 and continue for about half an hour until you get to Tekapo.
What you can do around Lake Tekapo
Star gazing is generally incredible in all of New Zealand as long as you are in a dark spot away from city lights, but due to Lake Tekapo being the first International Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s pretty awesome around here.
You can book a stargazing tour operated from the top of St Johns Observatory near Tekapo village.
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Within walking distance of the town center, The Church of the Good Shepherd is a very photogenic beautiful little chapel situated close to the shore of the lake.
Be warned though, it’s very popular so if you don’t like the crowds, I would say leave this one out and just take a walk along the shoreline.
Lake Tekapo has gained international fame thanks to this weed! Lupin flowers are simply just weeds and invasive ones too! It has made its way into the island along with other unwelcome plants brought with the white settlers.
With that said no one can deny that Lupin flowers in bloom create fantastic scenery where everything goes into a beautiful shade of pink and purple.
It’s worth noting that the lupins are only in bloom for around 6 weeks from mid-November until the start of the new year.
Mount John Observatory
15 minutes uphill drive back along State Highway 8 out of town leads you toward Mount John Observatory (on the right-hand side).
Complete with night sky tours, an awesome Astro cafe, and the opportunity to look through really really big telescopes at night. Undoubtedly this is the best spot to see Lake Tekapo in all its glory. I think the photo above can speak for itself.
Day 38-40 – Christchurch & Akaroa
Distance and driving time from:
Tekapo to Akaroa: 281 km / 175 miles / 3h 30 min
Akaroa to Christchurch: 81km / 50 miles / 1h 15 min
Christchurch doesn’t exactly boast great fame apart from the fact that it was badly affected by the 2010 earthquake whose aftermath of can still be seen around the city center. I personally wouldn’t prioritize visiting Christchurch over other places in New Zealand.
If you are short on time don’t feel bad about skipping it altogether, if however you are a city fan spend a day scouting the city.
I think the Akaroa Peninsula is a much nicer place where you can spend the next two days just relaxing and spending more time in nature, because you know, the last 6 weeks obviously weren’t enough!
For some ideas on what to do in Akaroa head to the official tourism website for the region.
Day 40-42 – Kaikoura
Distance and driving time from Christchurch to Kaikoura: 181 km / 112 miles / 2h 30 min
This is the last stop on your epic journey around New Zealand. I know it’s sad that the road trip is coming to an end, but If you liked New Zealand just as much as I did, then you are probably already planning a return trip.
Top Things To Do Around Kaikoura
Kaikoura – where the mountains meet the sea! This small coastal town is one of the best places in New Zealand to see resident and migratory whales transitioning between cooler and warm waters. Other wildlife includes seal colonies, pods of dolphins, and communities of seabirds.
Whale-watching tours can be taken by boat with Whale Watch Kaikoura. You also have the option to take a scenic flight and see these creatures from above!
The second best to do around Kaikoura is a hike. There are two awesome trails here offering completely different views.
The first is the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. it can be anything from 200m long to 12km long depending on how far you want to walk. The walk takes you are the Peninsula, where you can breathe the fresh ocean air whilst looking at the Seaward range behind you!
The other hike is up Mount Fyffe. It’s harder than the previous one, but the views are more rewarding. In total it’s a 5-7 hour return with over 1000m of elevation gain.
There are several viewpoints along the hike of the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges and also, a great backcountry hut, where you can spend the night if you need some time in the wilderness!
The total distance for this New Zealand itinerary
And that’s a wrap! You just spent 6 weeks virtually driving around this beautiful country with me! Let me know what you think. If by now your love for New Zealand is at least half as strong as mine, then I recognize your trip will be a total success!
Your last task is to decide where you want to finish your road trip.
You can either head back to Christchurch, where you will have access to an International Airport, or if you don’t want to repeat the same journey then continue north back to Picton, where you started your South Island road trip part and catch the ferry back to Wellington. The distances between the two are almost identical.
The total distance for this itinerary (excluding the ferry crossing) is 5500 kilometers or 3420 miles.
Please bear in mind that this does not include distances such as driving around the towns etc. You can easily add another 10% making it a total of ca 6000 kilometers or 3730 miles.
How to shorten this itinerary to 4 weeks
I know how hard it can be on deciding which places to visit and which ones to skip. We all want to see it all, but sometimes it’s just not possible.
I realize that some of you may not have 6 weeks to travel around New Zealand. You can either check my other itineraries in the New Zealand Travel Guide or follow the tips below to turn this one into a 4-week plan.
- Skip the Northland at the start of the trip (it will save you 3 days)
- From Coromandel head straight to Rotorua. If you insist on seeing the White Island, you can still do a trip from Rotorua, as there are companies providing a shuttle to Whakatane, where the tour departs from (this will save you 2 days)
- Skip the Golden Bay and from Marlborough Sounds head straight to Nelson Lakes NP (2 days saved)
- Arthur’s Pass requires a little detour so you can cross it off as well. Although to me personally Arthur’s Pass is really worth visiting and I would only cross it off as a last resort (another 2 days saved).
- After the visit to Fiordland National Park, you can go straight to Mount Cook National Park, skipping the East Coast (3 days saved)
- After Tekapo drive to Christchurch and finish the trip there, crossing Kaikoura off the list (2 days saved)
In total, you will be able to shave off 14 days of this itinerary!
Travel resources for your New Zealand road trip
For bookings I highly recommend
- Booking.com for hotel and hostel reservations
- Discover Cars for finding the best deals on car rentals
- Motorhome Republic is a search engine for camper van and motorhome rentals
- Get Your Guide – the perfect platform to book activities and tours keeping it all in one place!
To check roads and hiking trails conditions, especially in the winter months, go to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
Download and use Camper Mate Travel App for finding the best campsites on the island
If you have questions, write them in the comments below, I answer each of them personally!
Happy travels! I am looking forward to hearing all about your journey!