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, according to many online rankings. After spending a 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. If you were looking for information on travel itineraries for New Zealand, you are in the right place. I am here to help you design the holiday of a lifetime.
Who is this New Zealand road trip itinerary perfect for?
Now before I get to the itinerary there is one important question I’ve got to ask you. How much time do you plan to spend on your holidays in New Zealand? If your answer is 2 weeks or less, my number 1 recommendation would be to stick to the South Island. It is way more spectacular and it has a lot more to offer. Lucky for you I have also written 2 week itinerary exclusively for the South Island. If you still insist on seeing both islands in two weeks I've got an itinerary for that as well! If, however you came to New Zealand for at least 3 or more weeks you can definitely take the advantage of the time you’ve got and explore both the North and South Islands. Once again you won’t be able to see everything. I didn’t even manage to do that during a year I spent here, but I used my extensive knowledge about this country and handpicked the best locations which you should go to on your 4 week roadtrip.
Check out my other itineraries here:
4 week South Island only (Coming soon. Sign up for my newsletter to be notified when it is out)
You can pin this post to your boards and come back to it anytime
Getting to New Zealand - logistics
When flying into New Zealand there is a high probability that you will land in Auckland – New Zealand’s biggest city. In fact I highly recommend that choose Auckland for your inbound flight. Not only it will be the cheapest option, but it is also great spot to kick off your road trip because of how well connected it is to many attractions on the North island. If you are coming from Australia, Europe or North America consider flying with Air New Zealand as they may offer the best and quickest connections plus, their on board safety videos are hilarious. A flight search engine which I recommend using is Kiwi.com. They have created user experience like no other when searching for flights, a task that certainly can be daunting. They have an extensive database of low cost flights as well as traditional airlines which can be matched to guarantee lowest fares possible.
The best way to travel around New Zealand
An extremely popular way for travelling around New Zealand is by renting a small camper van. The great side to travelling in a motorhome or small camper is that it will save you a lot on accommodation, especially if you are travelling in a group. If you want to compare prices and search for camper vans you can check discovery-mothorhomes.co.nz for best deals. 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.
There is a big choice of campgrounds all around both islands. As for freedom camping, though technically allowed in New Zealand a lot of local councils have taken extreme measures to limit it by introducing local laws which prohibit it. I know a lot of travellers which had been fined hefty fines by breaking these rules. If you are looking for cheap campgrounds, the ones run by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation are your best bet. They are usually on first come first serve basis, don’t include showers and operate on honesty box plan. Download CamperMate travel app for finding campgrounds. It’s one I have used myself when road tripping New Zealand and can highly recommend it.
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 rentalcars.com 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 4 week travel itinerary part 1: North Island
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, not for the concrete jungle of its cities. Starting your roadtrip in Auckland has another advantage as well. The car rental deals will be the best and it is a perfect spot for starting your journey as it is very well connected with the attractions I have enlisted in this itinerary.
Day 2-5: Northland
Best places to visit in Northland
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 Peninsula where, according to the local Maori culture, the spirits of the dead enter the underworld. It is also a 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 waters clashing, creating a tidal race.
TIP: 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 as the last thing you want to do is being washed away by waves.
If you are travelling in a campervan or carrying camping equipment with you you can stay the night at the Tapotupotu DOC campsite. The nearest town of Kaitaia which you have passed on the way up is located more than 100 km south of Cape Reinga.
Te Paki Sand Dunes
On the way back down south stop at Te Paki sand dunes, rent a board for a few dollars 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, it’s going the be a load of fun!
From Te Paki continue down to Paihia – the gateway to the Bay of Islands. You can break the journey by stopping at the spectacular Rarawa white sand beach. When I visited it, there was no other person in sight and my friends and I had the whole place to ourselves. 90 mile beach is another interesting spot to visit. If your rental car is not a 4 wheel drive make sure you don’t get bogged in the sand. Your rental agreement may also have a clause which won’t allow you to take your vehicle off road so make sure to inform yourself before you go there.
Once in Paihia you can book a trip to the outer islands right of 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!
Find best places to stay in Paihia
Day 5-7: Coromandel
From Paihia you’ve got a long (400 km/5 hour) drive to Hahei – your base for exploring The Coromandel, another famous New Zealand peninsula.
Best things to do around Coromandel
The number one and most photogenic spot in this part of the country is the Cathedral Cove. This place gets really busy so to maximize your experience hike to the Cove early in the morning. It takes around 1 hour to complete the whole walk not including the time you will spend exploring.
Hot Water Beach
In the afternoon head over to hot water beach. This natural phenomenon was only discovered recently, but it is certainly very popular spot amongst tourists and can get ridiculously 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 out 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 few bucks. Few bucks well spent if you ask me.
Best Places to stay around Hahei
Day 7-8: Hobbiton and Mount Maunganui
Mount Maunganui is a small part of Tauranga – a coastal city located on the Bay of Plenty. From Coromandel it is a short 2,5 hours (160 km) drive, but there is one famous place where you should stop first.
Leave Hahei in the morning and drive towards Matamata, home of the world famous Hobbiton movie set. It may be the most overpriced tourist attraction in the whole of New Zealand, but if you are Lord Of The Rings fan just as I am, then unleash your inner hobbit and splurge 80 dollars for a tour around the shire. Originally I wasn’t going to do it, but one day I found myself driving past the attraction and gave in. Even though Hobbiton receives copious amount of tourist every year (5000 a day in the peak of the 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. Best time to do it is at sunrise. There is a campground located just at the foot of the mountain close to the the trail head, which makes it easier if you decide to go up there to catch the sunrise. If you are travelling by camper van just stay there. The whole hike takes around 1,5 hour to complete and the route is very well maintained.
Visit an active volcano
A very popular attraction for Bay of Plenty visitors is a cruise to Whakaari aka The White Island. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano. If you don’t mind the intense smell of sulphur and want to experience an active volcano from up-close consider joining a tour. A friend of mine did it and said it was the highlight of her roadtrip around the North Island.
Check for accommodation options in Mount Maunganui
Day 8-10: Geothermal Rotorua
Renowned for its geothermal activity and intense egg-like sulphur smell, Rotorua is a must see for any visitor to the North island. This place is also known to be the best spot for learning about the native Maori culture and is the town where Zorbing originated. What’s Zorbing? I will get to that in a second.
Best things to do in Rotorua
Take a stroll through the Whakarewarewa Redwood forest.
I hope your tongue is still ok after pronouncing it. Though 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 few minutes away from the town centre and easy accessible by car.
Rolling down the hill trapped in a giant ball filled with water? As ridiculous as it may sound it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever done. It doesn’t cost much either. If you are up for a good laugh you don’t have to look further. Check out this Devin’s Supertramp video for getting an idea of what I am talking about. Don't worry no one is going to run over you.
It’s the perfect stop on your way towards Taupo which is next on the itinerary. Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland is home of the Champagne Pool, which you have probably already seen on some pictures whilst researching information about New Zealand. There is more to it than just the Champagne Pool though. I have published a whole blog post dedicated to this place a while ago. You can check it out here.
White water rafting
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 metre 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.
Best places to stay in Rotorua
Day 10-12: Taupo and Tongariro Crossing
Before you finish touring around New Zealand’s North Island there is one place you absolutely can’t miss and that’s 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 of the people settle for 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.
Your roadtrip around North Island is coming to an end. You’ve got two options now to make your way to the South Island:
- Option 1: Drive back from Taupo to Auckland and catch a flight to Christchurch. You can take a route through Waiotomo and visit the world famous glowworm caves.
- Option 2: From Taupo drive south to Wellington – New Zealand’s capital and catch a ferry to Picton on the South Island.
Whilst both options have their pros and cons, the first one is the one I would recommend. Sure you will be skipping Wellington, but there are way more exciting places waiting for you on the South Island! You can drop off your rental car in Auckland and pick up another one in Christchurch. Air New Zealand offers internal flights at very competitive prices that often are cheaper than the single passenger ferry ticket.
The only time it may be worth crossing with the ferry is when you are travelling with a group of people in a campervan. There is a flat fee for taking a car on a ferry and it includes car’s passengers. Most of the rental companies will charge you an extra fee for dropping the car off at a different location than picking it up, in this case Christchurch, where this itinerary ends. It may be worth just paying it instead of driving the car back to Auckland yourself!
…but let’s assume you’ve chosen the second option.
Day 12-14: Wellington
You’ve made it to New Zealand’s capital! There is a fair bit to do over here and I covered in another blog post dedicated to Wellington.
Part 2: South Island
You are officially on the South Island. I hope your ferry journey around Marlborough Sounds was pleasant. The bad news is you are half way through your New Zealand roadtrip. I know, the time flies way too fast! I hope you are having tons of fun so far. You want to hear the good news? Be ready to pick up your jaw of the ground at least few times each day, because that's what South Island does to its visitors!
Day 14-16: Picton and Kaikoura
Best things to do in Picton and Kaikoura
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. Picton is one of very few places in the entire world where you can do that without harming them. Even David Attenborough would approve.
Watch seal pups playing in waterfall
If swimming with dolphins is not something that’s on your bucket list maybe watching seal pups playing in a waterfall will seem more appealing. The distance between Picton and Kaikoura is around 160km. Make sure to stop at Ohau stream walkway and waterfall. Around 10 minutes uphill walk from the highway there is a little waterfall where little seal pups gather to play. It will melt your heart!
Go whale watching
Kaikoura is a coastal town being notably famous for whale watching. Whale watching can be done all year round as Sperm Whales reside here feeding on the rich waters near the Kaikoura Canyon. The best time to see other whales though, which migrate from the Antartic Ocean to the warmer waters of the coast of Australia and Tonga, are in the winter months of June through August.
The best company is Whale Watch Kaikoura which have a staggering 95% success rate and advertise on their webite that if you don’t see any whales you get 80% of your money back!!!
The difficult all day hike up and down Mt Fyffe (1602m) will take you around 8 hours. It’s not an easy one but offers very rewarding views. On a clear day you can see all the way down past Akaroa in the south and all the way to the North Island! The Mount Fyffe carpark is 25 minutes (14km) inland from Kaikoura and, if you’re a keen hiker, is definitely something you should be attempting.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
The track which can be anything from 200m to 12km is a scenic coastal walk which gives an incredible chance to get up close and personal with sea lions soaking up the sun and wild birds feeding in the marshland. The car park is located on the eastern most tip of the peninsula and there are several view points within the immediate area.
The loop I like to do is from the car park along the rocky beach admiring all the wildlife then up the cliffs whilst wandering back admiring the views.
*AUTHOR'S UPDATE. due to recent earthquake which struck New Zealand part of the road between Picton and Kaikoura has been destroyed and closed for traffic. Please find an update on the current condition before you head out this way!
Day 16-17: Arthur's Pass NP
From Kaikoura head towards Arthur's Pass village. This will be your introduction to New Zealand's Southern Alps. On your way there you will pass a few photo worthy spots with Castle Hill being my favourite. Arthur's Pass National Park is the divide between the west coast glaciers and the east coast beaches. High up in the mountains there’s plenty of hiking to be done. Here are my top tips.
Best hikes to do in Arthur's Pass NP
A moderate (5 hour return) hike which stays mainly within the bushline 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 villlage at the end of Cloudesley Road.
A difficult all day hike taking 6-8 hours to complete. The views are so good from the summit though that this is the most popular walk in Arthurs Pass. The Avalanche Peak track starts in the centre of the village. About 10 minutes into the track you’ll get spectacular views oft he southern foot of the Crowfoot Glacier and the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall, the highest permanent waterfall in New Zealand.
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall
is a short drive away from the centre of the village northbound on the 73. The walk itself doesnt take long (around an hour) and is very well maintained, but it does include a series of steps. The 131 meter high waterfall is very impressive and definitely photo worthy.
Best places to stay in Arthur's Pass
Jackson's Retreat Campervan
Holiday Park (not on booking.com)
Day 17-18: Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Now that you've been acquainted with the beautiful Southern Alps it's time for glacier country. From Arthur's Pass Village continue your roadtrip west. Once you make it to the coast you will go south. To stretch your legs on this windy journey stop at the Hokitika Gorge and grab lunch in the town of the same name. Fish & chips always taste better on the coast! Now I hope your belly is not too full from the lunch you have eaten, as you still have ca 1,5 hour left of curvy roads to your destination.
Best things to do in Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Franz Josef and Fox villages are homes to New Zealand's most famous glaciers. The best way to explore the glacier though is by doing a helihike. 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. Icetrekking 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 won’t regret it. 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.
There are many companies that do it, but Air safari stands out amongst the others (unfortunately they aren’t paying me to say that). If you can’t get a spot with them go with Aspiring Helicopters. It’s another renowned company in New Zealand that offers scenic tours all around the island. Whichever tour provider you choose, I am sure your experience will be unforgettable.
Hike Franz Josef and Fox Glacier Valley
Apart from doing that awesome helihike 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 both glaciers are receding at, due to global warming. The views are still pretty damn stupendous. Just not as stupendous as the Helihike that’s all. 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. Remember to obey all signs. Glaciers are dangerous and you don’t want to die over that instagram shot, right?
Admire reflections at lake Matheson
Lake Matheson is only few minutes 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 water. Soon you will get a chance to get closer to it, but I left the best for last! Have some patience! :)
Best places to stay in Franz Josef
Day 18-20: Wanaka + Mount Aspiring NP
It's time to head back inland to one of my all time favourite places in New Zealand - Wanaka. The little sister of Queenstown is slowly becoming more popular but for different reasons. Home to some of the best ski fields in the Southern Hemisphere (Treble Cone and Cardrona), it’s not really that famous for adventure sports and it’s far more mellow than Queenstown. It's location, right in the heart of the southern alps near Mount Aspiring National Park, guarantees some of the best scenery on the South Island.
Wanaka is around 4 hours drive from Franz Josef and Fox so to make your journey more enjoyable and to stretch your legs, make sure to stop at the Blue Pools, around 3 quarters of the way in, and at Lake Hawea (20 minutes before you reach Wanaka).
Best things to do in Wanaka
Being in the heart of the southern alps certainly has its perks. Wanaka and the surrounding area are a hikers paradise and here are few I highly recommend.
The hike up to Roys Peak is a special one and it’s probably one of the most recognizable views in the whole of NZ (apart from That Wanaka Tree but I’ll get to it soon). The 16 km track starts from a small car park 6km away from Wanaka down the Mount Aspiring Road. Make sure you take water because this hike is 100% exposed (no shade) so on a sunny day it gets sweaty. At an average pace it should take you around 5-6 hours return.
Did you know that there’s actually two very similar view points on the mountain? (Check the ones above) If you are after that perfect instagram shot you may have to use the help of a helicopter to get to Coromandel Peak on Mount Roy. I flew here for sunrise with the Aspiring Helicopters which were reasonably priced and very professional.
The Rocky Mountain Track offers spectacular views over Lake Wanaka, completely unlike the views from the summit of Roys Peak. The track also encircles Diamond Lake and it is only a 7km (2-3hour) return. The surrounding bluffs are very popular with rock climbers and too. Rocky Mountain is an awesome spot if you want to catch a sunrise from the top of a mountain but don’t want to hike for too long.
Isthmus Peak is a similar duration to Roys Peak but is much less exposed at the start. Isthmus peak offers views of both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka and the rugged nearby landscape. The head of the trail is located half an hour drive from Wanaka down the Lake Hawea Road and this moderate track is well worth doing.
Develop your photography skills
Home to the most famous tree in the world Wanaka quickly became a photographer's favourite in the whole of South Island. So what are the best spots to photograph here you may ask?
That Wanaka Tree
It sometimes creates more buzz around the internet than Kim Kardashian herself! That famous lone tree is truly photogenic but again be warned. It’s huge popularity does attract quite the crowd.
This short hike offers great views over the township of Wanaka and out towards the flats of Albert Town and the Upper Clutha River. Sunrise caught from the top during the winter months can be very special, as the fog raises above the little town.
Glendhu bay and Bremner Bay
Both bays are within short drives from the town centre. One to the East and one to the West. On still days with very little wind both bays offer beautiful reflecting mountains.
Best places to stay in Wanaka
Day 20-22: Te Anau and Milford Sound
Next on the itinerary is the journey to Milford Sound via Te Anau. Don’t worry we aren’t missing out Queenstown, which you will pass on the way to Milford Sound, we’re just breaking up the journey. It makes more sense to go to Milford Sound first and then come back to Queenstown before you head over to Mount Cook, which is on the itinerary after Queenstown. I hope I am not confusing you. This roadtrip is well designed, so don't worry I am not wasting your time here. Alternatively you can stay in Queenstown and book yourself onto a flight or bus journey to Milford Sound and let someone else take you there! I covered this option in a separate post dedicated to Milford Sound.
Now from Wanaka to Milford Sound via Queenstown, go over the more scenic Crown Range Road. If you are travelling in the winter season, check the weather conditions first. You might also have to carry snow chains so make sure your rental is equipped with them. Once you go pass Queenstown you will drive towards Te Anau through a beautiful stretch of road called the Devil’s staircase along the Remarkables Mountain Range. Make sure to keep your eyes on the road though! This is a very windy part of the journey.
When you get to Te Anau check into your accommodation and take a break. You can go on a stroll around the lake in the evening and recharge batteries before the big day tomorrow!
Best places to stay in Te Anau
Best things to do in Milford Sound
Make sure to set off early from Te Anau. Around 7AM 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 am warning you now. You won't know where to look! This road is simply spectacular! Best stops are Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lake, Hollyford Pass and the Chasm.
Scenic cruise around the Fjords
A must do whilst you’re here is a cruise around the Fjords. There are few companies running the cruises with two main ones Real Journeys and Southern Discoveries offering a similar service at a similar price. Remember to take a rain coat with you even if its perfectly sunny outside as all of the 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.
There are a couple of different options for flights. Whether you want to go over the coast line or around the mountains or do a bit of both which I really recommend. Milford Sound is undeniably one of the best places for scenic flight so if you have it done it yet, now is your chance!
On the way back to Te Anau stop at either Gertrude Saddle or Lake Marian, with the latter being one of my favourite day hikes in New Zealand. This 3 hour return hike will take you up to a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by sheer mountain cliffs. This is what I call New Zealand at its best!
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!
Best places to stay in Milford Sound
Campervan & Bugdet
Milford Sound Lodge Backpackers Accommodation
Milford Sound Lodge (Mountain View Chalets)
Milford Sound Lodge (Premium Riverside Chalets)
TIP: Milford Sound Lodge is the only place to stay in Milford Sound for independent travellers. Reservations can only be made directly with them. Book as far ahead as you can as the spots fill up quick. If you are travelling in a camper or your own camping equipment, there are few basic DOC campgrounds along the way from Te Anau to Milford Sound as well. CamperMate will guide you to those.
Day 22-25: Queenstown & Glenorchy
Now where do I start with Queenstown. I hope you planned enough money for your budget, because whether its Bungy Jumping, skydiving, a leisurely cruise on Lake Wakatipu on board of TSS Earnslaw, you are going to be doing stuff here. And stuff costs money. But remember that hiking is always free and Queenstown has some of the best hikes in the whole of NZ.
I highly recommend that you reserve one of your days in Queenstown for a drive to Glenorchy. Stop at Bennet’s Bluff Viewpoint and the Old Glenorchy Wharf for some spectacular views. The jetty in Glenorchy is an awesome spot for an afternoon hang out. You can also take the Paradise Road (yes there is a place in Glenorchy called Paradise) or hike up Mount Alfred and look at it from the top of a mountain. If you paid closed attention when watching first part of Lord Of The Rings you should be able to recognize Isengaard!
Check out best places to stay in Queenstown
Day 25-27: Mount Cook
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 Queenstown 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 at Lindis Pass and later along lake Pukaki. The scenic drive which hugs the shoreline of the crystal blue Lake Pukaki is for sure one of the most scenic drives and Mount Cook National Park is one of the best hiking areas in the whole of the south island. Can you tell by now how much in love with New Zealand I am?
Best things to do in Mount Cook National Park
Places to Hike and Photograph
The stair case up to the Mueller hut can be exhausting but it is very rewarding. Stopping at the Sealy Tarns half way is a good idea to take in the view and take a break from the hike. The whole track, which starts at Mount Cook National Park Visitor Centre or the White Horse Hill car park, takes around 6-8 hours to complete and certainly doesn’t belong to the easiest hikes. If you plan an overnight stay in the alpine hut, bookings are essential during the summer months (mid November to April) and can be done online with DOC or at the visitor Centre in the Mount Cook village. Again in the peak season spaces are booked far in advance so waiting to book in the visitor Centre might not be the best idea. If you plan to hike it outside of the season, make sure you are well equipped with crampons, a warm sleeping bag and cooking equipment as the hut is not serviced within that time. Some mountaineering experience may also be useful.
This relatively flat 5 km hike has some of the most scenic views in the whole park. From White Horse Hill carpark the route travels all the way through the Hooker Valley eventually ending up at the Hooker Valley Glacial Lake. Here iceberg’s can be seen carving off the glacier and floating all the way down to near the shoreline.
Take the road back toward civilization away from Mount Cook Village around 2km and turn left onto Tasman Valley Road (Highway 80). After a short drive to the carpark, the 1 hour return route can be started. 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.
Mount Cook National Park is one of the places to do a scenic flight. With many glaciers overhanging the steep mountain cliffs and the insanely blue glacial lakes it is scenery that you won’t be able to forget. The best company around Mount Cook Air Safaris. It will cost you almost 400$ but it’s an investment in memories that’ll you’ll never forget. Air Safari’s can arrange open door flights so you don't need to photograph through the planes window.
Best places to stay in Mount Cook Village
White Horse Hill Campsite operated by DOC
Tip: Accommodation in Mount Cook is very limited so book ahead to avoid disappointments!
Day 27-28: Lake Tekapo - Christchurch
This is the last stop on your epic journey around New Zealand. I know it's sad that the roadtrip is coming to and end, but If you liked New Zealand just as much as I did, then you are probably already planning a return trip. 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 hours until you get to Tekapo.
Best things to do in 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 spectacular, especially here. You can book stargazing tour operated from the top of St Johns Observatory near Tekapo village.
Places of interest
The Church of the Good Shepherd
Within walking distance of the town centre, 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. If you want to get a good spot arrive early and be prepared to wait for your perfect shot..
Mount John Observatory (Both Day and Night)
15 minutes up hill 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. The views of Lake Tekapo from up there are breathtaking, but the windy road that leads to the top is not for the fainthearted.
Unfortunately this isn’t a year round phenomenon, they are only in bloom for around 6 weeks during mid November until the start of the new year. Technically Lupin flowers are just weeds that had spread around the island like a disease creating danger to native species of plants. 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. They can be found all over the place from the shoreline of Lake Tekapo, along the roadside to Mount Cook and all around the surrounding meadows.
Now all that's left is to get to Christchurch, drop off your car and say goodbye to the best country you've ever been too. It should take around 3 hours.
Best places to stay in Tekapo
Few more important tips and resources for your road trip
- If you are travelling within the peak season December through until 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 holiday of a lifetime!
- If you are travelling in the winter months end of June – September 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 winter months, go to the New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
- Camper mate travel app for finding the cheapest campsites on the island
- For bookings I highly recommend
If you have found this itinerary useful and plan on staying at some of the places mentioned, renting a car or a camper, or you plan on doing some of the activities I’ve recommended please use the affiliate links provided. It won’t cost you anything, but by using the links you’ll be helping me write more resourceful posts like these. Don’t forget to like or share this with friends who might find it useful. I hope you will fall in love with New Zealand just as much as I did. If you have questions, write them in the comments and shoot me a message and I promise I respond! Happy Travels!
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.