You finally made the decision and you are going to New Zealand! Congratulations you will quickly learn that this was one of the best decisions of your life! Now it is time to plan your road trip. If you’re going to travel around New Zealand for a couple of weeks then this list which covers the South Island, and which I put a lot of love into, should become your best guide on places to stay, activities to do, hikes to complete and locations to photograph!
I always receive a lot of e-mails from you guys asking me about what do I think the best itinerary so I’ve finally decided to put few of them together to make things easier for both you and me.
This itinerary is completely free and the best one you will find on the internet! If you find it useful, it would mean the world to me if you use the affiliate links provided in the text and at the end of this post when you book hotels, rental cars, camper vans or activities. If you do, I will get paid a small commission, at no extra cost to you!
More of New Zealand road trip itineraries
I lived in New Zealand for a year and my job as a booking agent in Queenstown really gave me an inside scoop on the best companies and hotels as well as which activities give you best value for money. I’ve had enough time to explore the best hikes around the South Island and as an avid photographer I became somewhat an expert on what to photograph in this amazing part of the country.
New Zealand travel itinerary for photographers and outdoor enthusiast
This itinerary is designed for a short term visitors to New Zealand who like me love landscape photography and being outdoors. It's been optimized in the best way possible in order to cut the time spent in the car to minimum in favour of spending time on taking photos and being outdoors. It includes all of my favourite photo spots and hikes on the South Island. Of course this is not a complete list of things to do and see here! For that you will need way more time than just two weeks, but I understand that not everyone can allow themselves to take long holidays and travel for an extensive amount of time.
My advice number one is: if you do only have two weeks then stick to the South Island. I promise you that it won’t disappoint you. Trying to see both islands in two weeks whilst doable, it's rather ambitious. Even though New Zealand isn’t a big country and the distances may seem small, the roads here are curvy, mountainous and speed limits are often very restrictive. The distance that would normally take you 2 hours to complete on a highway can easily take twice as much time in New Zealand, not including the many photo stops you will make, because around every corner there is a view worth stopping for.
What's the best way to travel around New Zealand?
For self drive opportunities there are three ways of travelling around the South Island. Renting a campervan you can live in, renting a compact car and staying in hotels/hostels, or bringing your own camping equipment hitchhiking and staying at campsites. In this post I will cover the first two.
If you are looking for a quick and an easy way to find a perfect car for your road trip check rentalcars.com. It's World's biggest and best rated car search engine with a huge database of car rental companies at competitive prices.
Alternatively you can rent a 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.
Check Motorhome Republic a search engine that compiles all camper van rental companies in New Zealand. It's way easier then checking each and every one separately. Companies like Britz, Maui, Jucy and Apollo are the leaders when it comes to motorhomes and call all be found on this website.
Is freedom camping allowed in New Zealand?
Bear in mind that freedom camping though technically allowed in New Zealand is not really recommended. A lot of local councils have taken extreme measures to limit or prohibit it by introducing local laws. Some of people I've met whilst travelling have been fined for camping in undesignated spots. If you rent self contained camper van (means with toilet), you may be able to park it at designated spots free of charge depending on the location. Every 2-3 days you can stay at a paid campground to recharge the batteries, refill the water and get rid of the waste in your camper. If however you rent a small camper without a toilet inside, staying at campground is your safest bet. For finding out campsites I highly recommend using CamperMate travel app. Campsites operated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) tend to be the cheapest and usually operate on an honesty box basis. With that said don’t try to play it "smart" and leave without paying. Rangers usually come around at very odd hours either early in the morning or late at night and they do check if you paid. Most of the DOC campsites are only equipped with basic facilities (No showers or communal kitchens). CamperMate will tell you which campsites have showers and what price range they fall within. Most of campgrounds operate on first come first serve basis, but the peak season Mid December through March even campsites might require advance bookings. New Zealand does get busy in the summer!
The 2 week New Zealand road trip plan map
This itinerary will start in Christchurch - the biggest city on the South Island. It will then take you through some of the most famous lakes on the island: turquoise Tekapo and icy blue Pukaki. You will then continue to Mount Cook National Park, Wanaka, Milford Sound, Queenstown and Glenorchy. From there it will be time to head to the West Coast and visit some of the biggest glaciers in New Zealand - Fox and Franz Josef. Your last stop will be Arthur's Pass National Park before heading back to Christchurch for your flight out of the country. It's worth noting that this itinerary is a loop and can be also done counterclockwise.
Day 1-2: Fly into Christchurch/Car Pick up/Lake Tekapo
If you are arriving by air then chances are Christchurch International Airport will probably be the cheapest, and most convenient, airport to fly into. Christchurch is the main and biggest city in the South Island, but cities are not the reason you came to New Zealand. You’re here for the nature and you’re here for an adventure.
**Note: You can also fly into Queenstown this itinerary is a loop and can start/finish in Queenstown too.
Now you've finally picked up your car you're ready to hit the road! Your first stop is Tekapo. The 3 hour (230km) drive from Christchurch to Tekapo is a beautiful way to be introduced to the New Zealand’s country side. The quickest and shortest route takes you down Highway 1, Highway 79 and finally Highway 8 to the southern tip of the Lake at the small town of 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. Now star gazing isn’t as simple as looking up at the sky at night. For best results schedule it for new moon, find out where the core of the milky way is visible, dress up warm and research the nights cloud cover. Most of these can be done online. You can also book stargazing tour operated from the top of Mount John Observatory near Tekapo village.
Best places to photograph in Tekapo
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. The Christian place of worship has become very sought-after by astro photographers, which probably has something to do with Tekapo having some of the best star viewing in the world. Be warned though, it’s very popular, one of the most popular photography spots on the South Island. If you want to get a good spot arrive early and be prepared to wait for your perfect shot. Be respectful too, after all, it is a house of a God.
Mount John Observatory (Both Day and Night)
A 15 minute up hill drive further 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 observatory is on top of a hill. 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 have 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 turn 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.
Best places to stay in Tekapo
Day 2-4: Lake Pukaki + Mount Cook
Located within one hours continuous drive from Tekapo, Mount Cook National Park named after the highest mountain in the country will quickly become your favourite place on your roadtrip around New Zealand. The scenic drive which hugs the shoreline of the crystal blue Lake Pukaki is for sure one of the most beautiful drives and Mount Cook National Park is one of the best hiking areas in the whole of the south island.
Best things to do in Mount Cook NP
Hike and stay a night in Mueller Hut
The stair case up to the Mueller hut can be exhausting but 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 isn't easy. If you plan an overnight staying 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, warm sleeping bag and cooking equipment as the hut is not serviced within that time. Some mountaineering experience may also be useful.
Hike along the Hooker Valley
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. A beautiful scene and one of the best day hikes on New Zealand's South Island.
Visit Tasman Lake and Glacier
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.
Book a scenic flight
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 companies around Mount Cook are Air Safaris and Helicopter Line. It will cost you almost 400$ but it’s an investment in memories that’ll you’ll never forget. Air Safaris can arrange open door flights so you don't need to photograph through the planes window.
Best Places to stay in Mount Cook NP
White Horse Hill
basic campsite operated by DOC
TIP: Accommodation in Mount Cook is really scarce so book as far ahead as you can! Campsite is operated on first come first serve basis.
Day 4-6: Wanaka
On the way south from Mount Cook and after 2.5 hours of some of the best roads in the country, including the famous Lindis Pass, you’ll eventually arrive in Wanaka. The little sister of Queenstown is slowly becoming more popular but for different reasons. Although it supposedly has some of the best ski fields in NZ, it’s not really that famous for adventure sports, it’s far more mellow than Queenstown. It still has some of the most incredible scenery though as its located in the heart of the southern alps near Mount Aspiring National Park.
Best hikes to do in Wanaka
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 that 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? The one on the Roys Peak Track and one taken on Coromandel Peak (photo above) on the same mountain. It's worth noting that the second one is only accessible by helicopter. I flew here by helicopter for sunrise with the Aspiring Helicopters which were reasonably priced and very professional.
Catch the sunrise on top of Rocky Mountain
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 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.
Hike up Isthmus Peak
Isthmus Peak has a similar duration to Roys Peak but 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.
Both Isthmus Peak and Roy's Peak are amongst some of the best hiking trails on New Zealand's South Island.
Best places to photograph in Wanaka
That Wanaka Tree
Some love it some hate it, but it is undoubtedly a spot which lures thousands of photographers each year. That famous lone tree is truly photogenic but again be warned. It’s huge popularity does attract quite the crowd. Getting there is really easy. Just walk along the lake shore from town centre towards Mount Roy. Alternatively park your car at the Stoney Creek Car Park.
This short walk offers great views over the township of Wanaka and out towards the flats of Albertown 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 but still below the summit.
Glendhu Bay and Bremner Bay
Both 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 6-7: 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 Glacier Country, which is on the itinerary after Queenstown. I hope I am not confusing you here. This roadtrip is well designed, so don't worry I am not wasting your time. 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 and carry snow chains! 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
Did you know that Milford Sound is the most visited place in the whole of Oceania? It’s also not a sound but a Fjord. It was wrongly named by the first explorers and the name just stuck. From Te Anau you have another 100 km to get to Milford Sound. You are up for a treat! 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 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 App will guide you to those.
Day 7-10: Queenstown + Glenorchy
Now Queenstown is only a two hour drive from Te Anau or a 4 hour drive if you’re lucky enough to stay in Milford Sound. Unfortunately you’re going to have to do this beautiful road twice as there’s only one way in and one way out of Milford Sound. How unlucky! :)
Now where do I start with Queenstown. The adventure capital of the world. The atmosphere is so electric here, it’s filled with adrenaline junkies, people on business trips, hippies, ski bums in the winter and normal people like me and you. Hopefully you have some money left after the first week of your trip 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 for a drive to Glenorchy. Stop at Bennet’s Bluff viewpoint and 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 close attention when watching first part of Lord Of The Rings you should be able to recognize Isengaard!
Best places to stay in Queenstown
Day 10-12: Franz Joseph + Fox Glaciers
Unfortunately the time has come where you need to leave Queenstown. I hope you made the most of your stay! But hey, you’re off on the road again on another adventure.
The drive out of Queenstown towards the glaciers goes back through Wanaka, so if you went via Cromwell on the way down you can drive over the Crown Range on the way back up and vice versa. It does take around 4 hours to drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef village over the beautiful Haast Pass, but break up the drive with a stop at the blue pools. It’s a short walk in Mount Aspiring National Park, around one hour past Wanaka.
Best things to do in Fox and Franz Josef
Helicopter flight and glacier hike
Once you’re in glacier country you’ll find it very quiet compared to Queenstown but that isn’t a bad thing it’ll just give you time to relax, wind down and enjoy a day without copious amounts of adrenaline from Bungy Jumping or Skydiving isn't pumped into your blood stream. JUST KIDDING!!!!!!! BOOK A HELICOPTER RIDE AND HIKE ON THAT GLACIER!!!!!!! Because I’ve done guided glacier hike tour 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 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 once again it is Air safaris the same company from Mt Cook that 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.
It’s also worth noting that in Franz Josef is one of the best places in the country to go skydiving. You can do the highest dive at a whooping 19000 feet - that's 75 seconds of free fall! If you haven’t already gone skydiving in Queenstown, maybe you should consider ticking it of your bucket list here.
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 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?
Best places to photograph in Fox and Franz Josef
Lake Matheson is only a few minutes away from Fox Glacier. Get up for sunrise and hike counterclockwise to the reflection island from where you can photograph the Mount Cook reflecting perfectly in water. You read that right. Mount Cook is actually visible from here, but at a totally different angle.
Okarito Lagoon and Beach
About an hour north of Franz Josef Okarito is a small coastal town which offers fantastic sunsets.
Another awesome spot to watch the sunset. Lake Mapourika is 20 minutes away and if you are heading to Okarito you will pass it on the way.
Best places to stay in Fox and Franz Josef
Day 12-14: Arthur's Pass National Park - Christchurch
Now that your journey is coming to an end you can start to relax and take time to heal your probably tired and aching body. Just kidding.... LET'S GO HIKING AGAIN!!!!! When are you going to get a chance to do this again?
After leaving Franz Josef head North along the Highway 6 and take the 73 Highway inland toward the northern section of the southern alps. Arthurs pass village should take you around 3 hours to reach. If you’re going to stop anywhere along the way coastal town of Hokitika is your best bet. The fish and chips are always best on the coast too. Hokitika Gorge will be a good spot to stretch your legs and take in some views.
Arthurs pass 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.
Best hikes in Arthur's Pass NP
Bealey Spur Track
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 village 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 waterfall in New Zealand (Well apart from some waterfalls in Milford Sound but they aren't permanent so don't count).
Best place to photograph in Arthur's Pass NP
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall
The waterfall is 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. The 131 metre high waterfall is very impressive and definitely photo worthy.
Best places to stay in Arthur's Pass NP
TIP: Accommodation in Arthur's Pass village is very scarce so book as far ahead as you can!
More tips and resources for your New Zealand road trip
1. 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 holidays of a lifetime!
2. If you are travelling in the winter months end of end of June – beginning of 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.
3. To check roads and hiking trails conditions especially in winter months, go to the New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website.
4. Get CamperMate travel app for finding the cheapest campsites on the island.
5. For bookings i highly recommend
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 I promise I'll respond! Don’t forget to like or share this with friends who might find it useful.
Happy and save travels!
If you're interested in improving your photography whilst visiting some of the most beautiful spots on South Island of New Zealand then go to my photography workshop website
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 and working on this blog, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.