Snowcapped mountains, misty fjords, and enchanted forests. Those are the pictures that always come back to me when I think of my time spent in New Zealand.
I was lucky enough to call it my home for over a year, most of which I spent exploring and photographing this amazing part of the world.
Unfortunately, not many will have this privilege. Most of us can only take a week or two off work to travel. This is where this one-week South Island road trip itinerary will come in handy.
One-week New Zealand South Island travel itinerary at a glance
- Total kilometers/miles: 1200 km / 750 mi
- Point of entry: Queenstown airport
- Point of exit: Christchurch or Queenstown airport
- Towns you will visit: Queenstown, Glenorchy, Te Anau, Wanaka, Mount Cook Village, Tekapo
- National Parks you will visit: Fiordland National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park, Mount Cook National Park
- The optimal months for this road trip: November through April
Who is this New Zealand travel itinerary for?
This itinerary is for someone who only has one week and wants to get a good taste of what New Zealand has got to offer. By following this road trip plan you will get to see the best towns and most beautiful National Parks on the South Island. An absolute highlight.
With that said, don’t expect to see everything. If you only have one week, stick to the South Island! That’s the best advice I can give you after spending over a year in this country.
Sure there are beautiful spots on the North Island, but the South Island is way more exciting landscape-wise, and it has a lot more to offer!
The overview of the one-week New Zealand South Island Travel Itinerary
The route starts in Queenstown and takes you south to Fiordland National Park followed by Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park, and finally finishing in my all-time favorite Mount Cook National Park.
After visiting the last destination on the itinerary you can either choose to travel back to Queenstown, where you started, or continue on the faster road to Christchurch and catch an outbound flight there.
Both Queenstown and Christchurch have international airports, where you can fly to and out of.
What are the optimal months to follow this one-week New Zealand road trip?
The official road trip season in New Zealand lasts from November to April, however, not all months are equal.
If your objective is to hike as much as possible aim for a later date, for example, January through April, as Springs in New Zealand tend to be quite rainy.
Avoid Christmas and New Year’s. The prices during those times skyrocket and accommodation tends to book out months in advance. The same goes for school holidays and Easter.
Photography fans should consider April. That’s my favorite month in New Zealand. The foliage is beautiful and the first dust of snow appears on the peaks. At the same time, hiking is still possible.
What is the best way to get around New Zealand?
You can bike of course! Many people do, but let’s face it. If you are coming on a one-week holiday, this isn’t necessarily the best idea!
Hire a compact car
This is a self-drive itinerary and for that, you will need a car. Check for the best car rental deals with Discover Cars. It will give you a drop-off option at a different airport than pick up and it will compare prices for the best companies in New Zealand.
Don’t worry about dropping the car off at a different location. Companies in New Zealand are really well accustomed to it.
Even though you might pay a bit more for the rental, you will save time and money in the long run, as you won’t have to drive the car back to the original pick-up location!
Rent a campervan
If a real road trip is on your mind then you should rent a campervan! The great side to traveling in a motorhome or a small camper is that it will save you a lot on accommodation. This particularly applied to group or family travel.
If you want to compare the prices of different motorhome rental companies in New Zealand check Motorhome Republic for the best deals!
TIP: Check out my guidelines for traveling in a motorhome in New Zealand touching on such topics as freedom camping, how to find campsites etc.
IMPORTANT! The rental vehicle fleet sizes in New Zealand have dwindled due to pandemic and its subsequent effects. Make sure to book early.
Got more than a week? Consider these New Zealand road trip plans!
- A four to eight-week route on both of New Zealand’s Islands
- A 10-day route through South Island’s diverse landscapes
- A two-week route on the South Island designed for hikers and photographers
- A two-week route on the North and the South Island
New Zealand one-week itinerary around the South Island – Road Trip Map
The map below will guide you around the South Island! 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.
Destination 1: Queenstown and its surroundings
Kia Ora! It means welcome in the native Maori language. Be prepared to collect your jaw off the floor a few times every day for the whole of the next week. You just found yourself in one of the most beautiful countries in the world!
Your fantastic one-week road trip around the South Island kicks off in Queenstown – the most famous and scenic town of the Southern Alps.
Day 1: Arrival and town exploring + easy hike
Spend your first day exploring the town. Go on a walk along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu, check out the local stores, cafes, and restaurants, or take the Skyline Gondola to see the panoramic view of the town.
You could also go on a hike. Queenstown Hill might be your safest bet for your first day as it’s neither strenuous nor particularly long. You can be up and down within 3 hours.
Day 2 morning: Go on a scenic drive to Glenorchy
On the second day consider driving the road to Glenorchy, another little town nestled on the edge of Lake Wakatipu and only 46 kilometers or 29 miles away from Queenstown. This road will be an awesome introduction for you to the scenic drives of the South Island.
Whilst it takes only 45 minutes to get there, there are a few stops along the way you shouldn’t miss, including:
- Moke Lake
- Bob’s Cove
- Wilson Bay
- Bennet’s Bluff
- Glenorchy Jetty
- Paradise Road (Glenorchy)
All stops are very well marked. Count at least a couple of hours for the drive and another few to see Glenorchy itself.
Guided tours to Glenorchy
If you prefer you can also book one of the tours to Glenorchy leaving from Queenstown. That way you don’t have to worry about taking the wrong turn. Just relax and take in the scenery. My favorite one from the ones below is the Canoe, Jet Boat, and Paradise Road combo.
Day 2 – Afternoon: go all in on an adventure in Queenstown
You have probably heard that Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. Are you wondering why is it called that? I don’t think there is an outdoor activity which can’t be done here.
From bungy jumping, sky diving jet boating, or paragliding ending with boat cruises. Queenstown will please every adventurous soul.
I’ve lived and worked in Queenstown for a total of 7 months out of the 15, which I spent in New Zealand.
A part of my job involved working as a booking agent. This means I got to participate in a lot of those activities. Bungy jumping and white water rafting are certainly my all-time favorites. I once did 4 jumps in one day including the whooping 134-meter Nevis Bungy!
I have a separate article about my favorite Queenstown summer activities. Check it out.
Where to stay in Queenstown on nights 1 and 2?
Destination 2: Fiordland National Park
Day 3: Day trip to Milford Sound
- Distance between Queenstown & Milford Sound: 288 km / 179 miles
- Driving time: 3-4 hours (not including stops)
Early on the third day leave Queenstown and make your way to Milford Sound – the jewel of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park
The first stretch of the road which starts 20km south of the center of Queenstown will get very windy.
Make sure to keep your eyes on the road and stop only at designated stops. This scenic drive has been aptly named the Devil’s Staircase. As unappealing as it may sound, it is amazing! The first leg of the journey will take you to Te Anau – a little town known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park.
From Te Anau, it is another 118km/73 miles to Milford Sound depending on how often you will want to stop (probably a lot).
I recommend checking out these roadside stops: Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lake, and a mandatory stop at Hollyford Valley. If you have an extra day you could also plan a hike to Key Summit, Lake Marian, or Gertrude Saddle, the 3 famous hikes along the Te Anau-Milford Sound road.
Best things to do in Milford Sound
Scenic cruise around the Fjords
A must-do in Milford Sound is a cruise around the Fjords. There are a few companies running the cruises offering similar services at a similar price. I highly recommend the cruise on a glass-roof catamaran for the best views!
Remember to take a raincoat with you, even if it’s perfectly sunny outside. All of the boat drivers like to get up close and personal with the waterfalls! With that said don’t expect it to be sunny. Fiordland National Park is the rainiest part of New Zealand!
A bug repellent will also come in very handy. Sandflies are a nuisance in Milford Sound. Luckily they can’t keep up with the speed of the boats!
Milford Sound is undeniably one of the best places for a scenic flight in New Zealand. There are many different options most of them leaving from either Te Anau or Queenstown. Read on about the flight cruise combos in my post dedicated to Milford Sound.
Coach tour or plane/coach tour combo from Queenstown
TIP: Milford Sound can also be visited on a day coach trip from Queenstown. Go for this option if you prefer to limit the time spent behind wheel or don’t feel comfortable driving along the windy New Zealand roads.
Below I’ve included the top day tours to Milford Sound leaving from Queenstown.
Where to stay in Te Anau on night 3?
If you chose to drive to Milford Sound yourself then I recommend stopping for a night either directly in Milford Sound, which is an experience in itself, or driving back to Te Anau.
IMPORTANT: If you are following this road trip during the off-season (May through October) then bear in mind that the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound closes some days during the winter due to snowfall or poor driving conditions.
Always check the weather conditions with the Department of Conservation first before you set off. Sometimes snow chains are required in winter. Make sure your rental vehicle is equipped with them before you hit the road!
Destination 3: Wanaka, Hawea, and Mount Aspiring National Park
Day 4: Drive from Te Anau to Wanaka
- Distance from Te Anau to Wanaka: 230 km / 143 mi
- Driving time excluding stops: 3 hours
Check out early from your accommodation in Te Anau and head for your next destination – Wanaka.
Known as Queenstown’s little sister, Wanaka may hold more appeal to people who prefer quieter destinations.
Although in recent years Wanaka has experienced a big influx of travelers, thanks to its stunning location beloved amongst photographers and outdoor lovers, it still remains more chill than Queenstown.
Day 4 afternoon: get creative with photography in Wanaka
Though a bit infamous amongst some of the locals due to the crowds that it attracts, the lone willow tree standing on the shore of Lake Wanaka has become the most famous tree in the World.
Thousands of heavily armed in gear professional photographers flock to this tree at any time of the year for a chance to capture this unique scene. I must have photographed this tree dozens of times and each time I managed to see something different.
If you love taking photos just as I do, you should add a few of these photography locations in Wanaka to your must-see list!
Day 5 in Wanaka Option 1: Go hiking
Being in the heart of the Southern Alps Wanaka has some of the best backcountry trails on the South Island. On your 5th day, I highly recommend completing one of these fantastic day hikes around Wanaka.
Day 5 in Wanaka Option 2: Book an activity
Whether it’s a self-guided bike tour from Lake Wanaka to Lake Hawear or the more adventurous Mount Burke tour done in a 4×4 vehicle, there is no shortage of exciting activities you can do in Wanaka. Below are just a few of my favorites:
Wanaka Scenic Helicopter Flight
I have done many scenic flights in different parts of New Zealand and I still think Wanaka and its neighboring Mount Aspiring National Park is one of the best places to do it.
Soar high above the Matukituki Valley up towards the glacier, where you will land for a mandatory photo spot. Gaze at the otherworldly landscape, with its deep blue chasms and stunning glacial caps. An experience you won’t forget in a long time.
Wanaka 4×4 ride to Mount Burke
Hop aboard a shuttle boat and traverse Lake Wanaka, journeying toward the head of Stevenson’s arm. Marvel at the ever-changing landscape of steep walls and majestic alpine peaks that surround you. Delve into the captivating history of this sparsely inhabited region.
Pass by Stevenson’s Island and alight at the base of Mount Burke. Here, step onto a 4×4 vehicle with your knowledgeable guide, embarking on an ascent high above the lake. Feast your eyes on the expansive panorama of pristine, crystal-clear waters juxtaposed against the rugged summits of Mount Aspiring National Park, as you listen to stories of early settlers who sought farmland, gold, and a new life in New Zealand.
If that didn’t sound appealing enough, you will get to enjoy a picnic on the mountain with some of the best views in the country.
Wanaka Self-Guide MTB Tour
Biking from Lake Hawea back to Wanaka is the ultimate bike route in this region After renting your bike in Wanaka you will be transported to the nearby town of Hawea where you will start your ride on the serene Hawea River Track, surrounded by mountains.
This biking experience promises an unbeatable blend of scenic beauty and enjoyable moments and it was one of my favorite experiences in Wanaka. Make sure to grab an ice cream cone from Patagonia ice cream shop once you finish the ride.
Where to stay in Wanaka on nights 4 and 5?
Destination 4: Mount Cook National Park
Day 6 – morning: drive from Wanaka to Mount Cook
- Distance between Wanaka & Mount Cook: 200 km / 124 miles
- Duration: 2 hours 15 min
Leave Wanaka early on your penultimate day and drive towards Mount Cook National Park. On your way there you will want to stop at Lindis Pass, Clay Cliffs, and St. Peters lookout along Lake Pukaki. I don’t like to repeat myself, but Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park is my favorite destination in the whole of New Zealand.
The scenery in Mount Cook is second to none. It’s the home of the highest mountain in the land of the long white cloud and it’s the place where Sir Edmund Hillary practiced for his ascent of Mount Everest!
Best things to do in Mount Cook NP
Day 6 – afternoon: hike along the Hooker Valley
Hooker valley track is a relatively flat 10-kilometer round-trip hike with some of the most scenic views in the whole park. From the White Horse Hill parking lot, the route travels all the way through the Hooker Valley eventually ending up at the Hooker Valley Glacial Lake, where icebergs can be seen carving off the glacier and floating all the way down to the shoreline.
I’ve done this hike at least 3 times, once in the summer and twice in the winter. If the weather permits, try and hike there in the late afternoon and stay for the sunset. On a clear day, you will see the top of Mount Cook lighting up and turning red!
Day 7 – Morning: Visit Tasman Lake and Glacier
Take the road back toward civilization, 2km away from Mount Cook Village, and turn left onto Tasman Valley Road (Highway 80). After a short drive to the parking lot, the 1-hour return walk to the Tasman Glacier lookout starts.
Similar to Hooker Valley Glacial Lake icebergs can be seen here in the summer and it does freeze over in the winter. On a calm day, the reflections of the surrounding mountains are jaw-dropping.
Option 2: See Mount Cook NP from the air
Mount Cook National Park is one of the best places to do a scenic flight. With many glaciers overhanging the steep mountain cliffs and the insanely blue glacial lakes it is the scenery that you won’t be able to forget. It’s not the cheapest of attractions, but it’s an investment in memories that you’ll never forget.
I go into more detail about Mount Cook National Park in a separate post.
Where to stay in Mount Cook Village on night 6?
TIP: Accommodation in Mount Cook is really scarce so book as far ahead as you can! The Whitehorse Hill campsite operates on a first come first serve basis.
If you can’t find accommodation in Mount Cook Village, your other option is to either stay in Twizel or Tekapo. The latter is on the way to Christchurch – your final destination.
Tekapo is another scenic little mountain village. If you have an extra day it’s worth stopping at, as there is a fair bit to do around here.
If you did manage to book your stay in Mount Cook all the better. Stay a night there and head out the next day towards Christchurch to catch your flight.
Where to stay in Tekapo (alternative to Mount Cook)
Day 7 – Afternoon: drive to Christchurch airport
Distance from Mount Cook to Christchurch: 330 km / 205 miles
Duration: 4 h
If you still don’t have enough of the beautiful views then you need to stop at Lake Tekapo. From Mid-November – late December millions of Lupin flowers bloom turning the scenery into shades of pink, purple, blue, and green (see photo above).
It’s also worth mentioning that Tekapo is New Zealand’s Dark Sky Reserve, which means it’s an awesome spot for any astronomy and astrophotography enthusiast.
TIP: After visiting Mount Cook, you can also return back to Queenstown where you started this road trip. The driving time will be the same, but you will have to miss out on seeing Lake Tekapo.
Important tips for your New Zealand road trip
- If you are traveling within the peak season December through March I highly recommend booking your accommodation and car/camper as far in advance as you can. New Zealand receives a lot of visitors in the peak season and the last thing you want to do is stress about where you are going to sleep on your holidays of a lifetime!
- If you are traveling in the winter months end of June through September then make sure your accommodation in Queenstown and Wanaka is booked in advance. Those are ski season months and both of those places are famous and busy ski towns.
- To check roads and hiking trails conditions, especially in the winter months, go to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
- For more tips check out the FAQ section in my New Zealand Travel Guide
More New Zealand travel planning resources
- New Zealand Road Trip Itineraries
- Hiking & Backpacking in New Zealand
- Photography in New Zealand
- New Zealand Travel Tips and Activities
Support my site
If you found the articles in my New Zealand Guide useful please consider supporting my work by booking hotels, rental cars, or activities through my affiliate links. The price for you stays the same and I receive a small commission. Thank you!
- Book a rental car with Discover Cars
- Reserve a campervan with Motorhome Republic
- Find hotels with Booking.com
- Book your tours & activities with Get Your Guide
P.S. If you have any questions, post them in the comments below. I answer all comments personally.