The Topography of New Zealand lends itself to road trips and I have been lucky enough to spend over 15 months travelling 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.
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. Each day adds atmosphere and excitement.
ten days road trip Plan on New Zealand's South island For Nature Lovers
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 in 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 if you used these affiliate links to Discover Cars, if you’re booking your rental car, or 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.
Need more routes?
If this is a route that doesn't interest you or if you have more or less time than ten days then consider looking at my other itineraries here:
The Map for this road trip
This is an interactive map detailing the route, the best photography spots, the most premier hikes, scenic backcountry huts and points of interest. To toggle layers on/off click the button in the top left corner of the map to reveal a sidebar.
Day 1-2: Christchurch – Akaroa
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 the Summit Road, home to several trailheads leading off to small summits.
There’s 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
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. 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 carpark.
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 in the hillside after a long days 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 south east corner of New Zealand, remote as it is, boasts some very scenic places on the South Island. From Moeraki it’s an hours 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.
The first of which, Purakaunui Falls, is a 15 minute stroll along well maintained boardwalk to a multitiered fan waterfall. (Pictured above).
The second, and to me 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
accommodation in kaka point
Day 4-5: Milford Sound + Te Anau
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!
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 favourite, but you also pay significantly higher price for them.
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.
Accommodation in Te anau
Day 5-7: Queenstown + Glenorchy
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.
Whilst in Queenstown make sure to take the scenic drive to Glenorchy!
Accommodation in Queenstown
Day 7-8: Wanaka & Mount Aspiring National Park
Distance between Queenstown and Wanaka: 67 km / 42 miles / 1h 10 min
An hours drive away from Queenstown over the Crown Range Road, one of the most scenic roads on the South Island, will get you to 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.
accommodation in wanaka
Day 8-9: Mount Cook National Park
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 to 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 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
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 worlds 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 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.
accommodation in tekapo
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 whatsoever about planning your trip that I haven’t covered here or in my NZ Frequently Asked Questions article 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 best deals on car rentals
Motorhome Republic - for finding 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
World Nomads - Don't travel without insurance! That's my nr 1 rule! Make sure it also covers adventure activities! World Nomads are the leaders in the industry.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - 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.