One of the biggest travel trends is to RV through the South Island of New Zealand. Five years ago camper vans were few and far between, but today thousands are ushering millennial travelers all over the island. If you’re planning your own road trip, here’s our 10-day New Zealand South Island itinerary.
It’s no wonder road tripping through New Zealand has become so popular: the island is big and the best destinations are spread out. When it costs an arm and a leg to get (and stay!) to New Zealand you just aren’t left with a lot of time to slowly meander from place to place. Renting an RV in New Zealand not only allows you to get to each location faster, you are also able to use the camper van as a portable hotel.
A place to sleep and use for transportation? Now that’s travelling savvy.
And that’s exactly what we did in February.
We wanted the quintessential New Zealand road trip experience. We envisioned driving a VW van across the country, stopping for hikes whenever we wanted, eating fresh kiwi, and roughing it with a makeshift van bed and stove top. Well, as un-glamorous as that sounds, it’s a travel ideal that’s in pretty high demand. We spent weeks on back-and-forth emailing to try and secure a basic camper van, but, in the end, we were left with a super delux 2-bed, full bathroom and kitchen, state-of-the-art European road monster.
I’m not going to lie, even though our dream of roughing it old school was out the window I was low-key psyched to be forced to get a better night’s sleep and more regular showers than anticipated.
We started our 10-day New Zealand South Island road trip in Christchurch, where we picked up our shiny camper. It was only uphill from there!
South Island Routes: Around the Island vs. West Coast
There are a few different possible routes to take around New Zealand South Island. Most people enter the island via Christchurch or Queenstown airports, so one idea is to drive a clockwise circle around the island starting in either of those coastal cities. This was our original plan.
The flaw with the circle approach is that a) it takes time, and b) you end up in some boring places (Dunedin). That’s what we were told by our very seasoned RV owner when he convinced us to chuck our plan of heading down the east coast from Christchurch.
With only 10 days in South Island he told us we’d be better focusing our time on just one section of the island: the West Coast.
If you have 2+ weeks to road trip through New Zealand then the circle route might be a better fit. You’ll have more time to get from place to place, and, if you’re able to see everything, visiting some less-than-stellar scenes won’t be a big deal.
If you have less than 2 weeks, however, you really won’t have enough time to enjoy the coolest parts of the South Island if you try to also squeeze in the East Coast. That’s the harsh reality. While places may seem close together, they actually take much longer to get to than you’re expecting. Especially driving a big ole’ clunker of a camper van.
One thing to keep in mind is that the roads in New Zealand are… well, crazy. They are narrow with low-to-no shoulder and incredibly windy. Honestly, we were lucky to travel so many major roads, at all! Don’t be surprised to find that certain places on your route are only accessible by dirt road. That’s right- dirt road. The fact is, although New Zealand is currently experiencing soaring attention around the world, it was relatively undiscovered until recently. The population outside of the few big cities is sparse, so road infrastructure was widely unnecessary.
This West Coast road trip will take you to the following popular locations:
- Hokitika Glow Worm Dell
- Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers
- Lake Matheson
- Blue Pools
- Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound
- Mt. Cook National Park
- Little Chapel
- Abel Tasman National Park
- Farewell Spit/ Wharriki Beach
New Zealand South Island Road Trip Itinerary
Here’s a basic run down of our travel itinerary and the highlights we found along the way. By condensing our trip through the southern west coast we were able to find an extra couple of days to head up the northern coast, as well!
Day 1: Christchurch to Hokitika
On Day 1 of our New Zealand road trip we drove west across the island to Hokitika. Christchurch and Hokitika are only a few hours apart, but we got a late start after picking up and learning about our camper van, so that’s as far as we made it. We arrived in Hokitika in the early evening, which gave us plenty of time to outfit our camper van with groceries from the large grocery store.
Money Saving Tip: Wait until you are in a “big” city to do your grocery shopping. Pak ‘N Save, Countdown, and New World will have much cheaper products than Four Square or small regional shops.
Hokitika is a small coastal town with a nice beach and thriving jade industry. Here you can get your first taste of the New Zealand coast, visit the National Kiwi Center, and, our personal favorite, see the magical Glow Worm Dell.
Our favorite things to do in Hokitika:
- Hokitika Gorge and Rope Bridge. A very easy 5-10 minute walk on a manicured path leads you from the parking lot to a beautiful rope bridge. The bridge hangs over a glacial lake, giving you views of the beautiful milky water. There’s also a lookout near the beginning of the walk where you can snap pictures of loved ones as they cross the bridge!
- Sunset Point. Sunset Point is Hokitika’s beachfront area. The main thing to do here (other than enjoy the beach) is to see the Hokitika sign made of tree limbs.
- Gold Cave. Gold Cave is a “Hobbit Hole” dug into a hill where early settlers tried searching for gold. None was found, but cool Hobbit Holes remain for visitors to get a glimpse into the past.
- Glow Worm Dell. This is one of single most impressive things we saw on our New Zealand road trip. This free glow worm colony is located right beside the road. Simple follow signs to a Hobbit Hole, crawl through, and voile- you find yourself in a clearing covered by thousands of blue lights. Crossing the Hobbit Hole and seeing the glow worms on the other side feels like leaving reality to enter a fairy world!
Day 2: Hokitika to Franz Joseph Glacier and Lake Matheson
Hokitika and Lake Matheson aren’t too far apart, but there’s plenty to stop and see along the way! After struggling with your first night’s sleep on the camper van you’ll want to get a late start with a good breakfast, anyway. I know we did!
- Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers: The Franz Joseph Glacier and Fox Glacier are very near to each other on the road to Lake Matheson. We heard that Fox Glacier would be more crowded, so we chose to see Franz Joseph Glacier, instead.
Franz Joseph was also crowded, but we still enjoyed 2-hour walk on a well-maintained path to the glacier viewing point. The draw to this path is seeing the glacier, but the viewing point is still pretty far away. You are able to climb or walk across the glacier, but arrangements with a tour guide must be made in advance.
What we loved about the walk were the placards along the path stating the history of the Franz Joseph Glacier. In recent decaded the glacier has dramatically receded, and signs are quick to point out the effects of man-made global warming on the landscape. This was a great opportunity to see the effects of our actions in person, and teach our son how to take care of the environment.
- Lake Matheson: One of the most famous images of New Zealand is a view of the Mt. Cook mountain range reflected in a still lake. That’s Lake Matheson. You can get that gorgeous image, but don’t expect to. A 1-hour lake loop walking trail will take you to the famous viewing spot and other interesting offshoots, but weather on the South Island tends to be pretty ferocious and it’s likely the lake surface will be a flutter with wind ripples. We couldn’t even see the mountain peaks due to heavy cloud coverage the day we were there, so the view seemed largely pointless.
If you are determined to capture the iconic mountainscape over the water we recommend staying at the holiday park outside the park. There’s a steep entry cost for staying overnight, but the benefit is being nearby to jump into the park at dawn. That’s when the water will be stillest and you’ll have your best chance of capturing beautiful photos.
Day 3: Lake Matheson to Lake Hawea
There is a lot to do on this stretch! From 5 minute overlook stops to full-fledged hikes, there’s a lot to keep you busy on your way into Lake Hawea.
- Thunder Creek Falls: Entrance to the falls is right off the road. Waterfall enthusiasts will appreciate this quick site! A tall, skinny waterfall falls into an icy blue pool. It’s not the most spectacular waterfall, but it’s a beautiful stop to make to stretch your legs.
- Tailwind Waterfall: This one is also right off the main road. It’s less impressive than Thunder Creek Falls, but has the added feature of cairns built up all over the river bed.
- Ship Creek Sand Dunes: This was one of our favorite stops on the drive from Lake Matheson. A wooden boardwalk leads you in different directions from the parking lot. Walk left from the parking lot to enjoy sand dunes and mounds of smooth rocks. Take a right to see the nearby swamp and marsh.
- Blue Pools Bridge Jump: A 15-minute walk leads you through woods and over two rope bridges to get to the main feature: a glacial lake which narrows in the middle, giving the illusion of being two separate pools.
What we loved about this stop was that the second bridge, which hangs 8-10 meters over the blue pools, is full of adrenaline junkies jumping into the water below. Once we saw the line of people screaming their way into the icy water Ben disappeared into the woods, only to emerge a minute later carrying a bundle of his shirt and underwear. He handed them to me, then wordlessly took his place at the bridge. He jumped, raced back up the footpath to the bridge, grabbed his clothes bundle and the van keys, then ran away. Whit and I stuck around for a few more minutes watching others defy death, then met a very cold Ben back at the camper van.
If you are an adrenaline junkie you should definitely try the Blue Pools bridge jump! It’s perfect safe, as there are no rocks underneath and the water is quite deep. If you’d rather sunbathe near the lakes you are able to access a path down to water level, as well.
Day 3 was our first time spending the night at a holiday park. Since our camper van has a sink, burners, and bathroom we are mostly happy with freedom camping, but by Day 3 our electronics had run out of juice and we desperately needed a power hook up to charge our laptops and keep working.
The Lake Hawea Holiday Park was amazing. We all took leisurely hot showers in large shower stalls, we did a load of laundry, charged our electronics, and parked on straight ground (which can be hard to find and makes cooking and sleeping difficult!). We had no complaints about the $40 we paid for 10 hours of comfort!
Day 4: Lake Hawea to Queenstown (Glenorchy)
It only took an hour and a half to get to Queenstown from Lake Hawea. The drive into Queenstown was one of the most picturesque stretches we found on the entire New Zealand RV trip.
Queenstown is the largest city on the South Island’s west coast, and the adventure capital of New Zealand. Here you can find every adrenaline activity from hiking to skiing, mountain biking, city biking, bungee jumping, sky diving, white water rafting, and more. It’s no wonder the city is slammed with tourists!
By this point in the road trip we were starting to get sick of each other. We’d been in close quarters 24/7 for days, constantly asking each other “What do you want to do?” “I don’t care, what do you want to do?” All of the “freedom” of freedom camping was taking a toll and we were starting to forget how to be kind to each other. It didn’t help that I hadn’t gotten more than a couple hours of sleep each night since arriving in New Zealand, so we decided to park at a neighborhood playground so Ben and Whit could play for a few hours while I had some time alone to rest.
- Queenstown Hill: After my rest we hiked Queenstown Hill, having a good conversation about how to treat each other and our goals as a family along the way. The hike took longer than we expected, 2-3 hours, but that’s probably due to our 6-year-old’s habit of picking up every stick he sees.
The main trail is a moderate hike which follows a decent incline. We eventually made it to the top of the hill, rewarded with incredible views of Queenstown and the surrounding fingers of water and rolling hills. It truly is amazing, and only took slightly more than minimal effort and a few hours.
Freedom camping is not available surrounding Queenstown, but you can find ample places if you’re willing to drive 30-40 minutes away. We found a great spot on the edge of a river in Glenorchy by following the road trip apps!
Day 5: Adventure in Queenstown
We couldn’t resist heading back to this adventure city for a full day of thrills. There’s a lot to choose from, but here’s what we did:
- iFly Queenstown indoor Sky Diving: This was so cool! iFly is a large, clear tube with giant blowers that circulate powerful gusts of air. The air lifts the fliers as if they were actually dropping from a plane. There is a free observation lobby outside of the chamber, but we weren’t happy to just sit and watch. Whit and I both took turns being pushed into the airtube with the help of seriously talented professionals and had the time of our lives!
- Mountain Biking through Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve: On the edge of downtown Queenstown is the Queenstown gondola and ski lift, Skyline Queenstown, which takes you to the South Island’s best ski trails. If there in summer time, though, you’ll be able to use the ski lift to access the trails for mountain biking, instead. Mountain biking is Ben’s favorite activity, so the first thing we did in Queenstown was to find a bike rental shop and get him outfitted for a day on the hills.
- City Biking through Downtown and Waterfront: When Ben finished mountain biking we brought Whit to the bike rental shop to get him his own set of wheels. Ben and Whit then rode through downtown to the waterfront area and followed a running/ biking trail outside of the city. They passed beautiful views of the beach and mountains, and I got a break to do some souvenir shopping!
Our day was pretty well spent after all of this craziness. There is so much more we could have done in Queenstown, but time, money, and crowds became an issue. It’s hard to determine the very best few activities to do, which makes Queenstown the perfect stop for 1-2 days!
Day 6: Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound to Orewa
There’s a huge debate among New Zealand road trippers about which is better, Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound. Both are found in Fjordland National Park and are fjord lakes cut by ancient glaciers. Milford Sound tours are easier to get to, cheaper, and more plentiful than Doubtful Sound tours, but Doubtful is (reportedly) more beautiful. Seeing as how we were only willing to spend money for one tour we wanted it to be the very best, so we chose Doubtful Sound.
Both fjords have boat tours which run throughout the day. They require advance booking and an early arrival to a pick up zone, where the tour company will cover getting you to the tour boat and back to your car. Prepare a lunch in advance, bring a camera, and lower your expectations.
The ugly truth is that travelers are split on whether Milford or Doubtful Sound is actually “worth it”. It’s a lot of money, takes an entire day out of your road trip, and may not even lead to great views. It was pouring rain the day of our Doubtful Sound boat tour, which resulted in virtually no visibility. Another traveler went on a sunny day, but was told rainy weather was actually better as it leads to impromptu waterfalls down the carved hillside.
Personally, we were less impressed with Fjordland National Park because we’ve seen other fjords around the world. We took tours of a few in Norway, which blew our minds. The fjords in New Zealand are not the most beautiful in the world, but if you haven’t seen any before this is a great chance to at least experience what the unique landscape is actually like.
Day 7: Orewa to Mt. Cook National Park
You can either do Mt. Cook National Park on Day 1 as you go from Christchurch to the west coast, but we chose to do it towards the end of our trip on way back up the island.
Mt. Cook National Park is home to New Zealand’s tallest peak, Mt. Cook, as well as other mountains and glaciers. You’ll find lots of hikes, camp sites, and lookout points in this vast park. We suggest heading straight to the ranger station to get the best advice on what you should see with what time you have.
- Mt. Cook Hooker Valley Trail: We only had an afternoon at Mt. Cook National Park, so we chose to do the most route: Hooker Trail. Hooker Trail is an easy, 3-hour return walk that winds through the park and leads to incredible views of Mt. Cook and glacial water. It was easily the second best thing (after the Glow Worm Dell in Hokitika) that we did on the South Island!
- Tasman Lake Floating Ice Overlook: It doesn’t take much extra time to head toward this lookout point. a 10-minute walk up a pathway leads to a natural overlook of a receding glacier. Placards at the overlook display the history of the glacier and the effects of global warming on the ice level, which were fascinating. Currently large chunks of the glacier are breaking off and floating down the water, which were incredible (and a bit heartbreaking) to see.
The National Park offers a relatively cheap campsite for self-contained vehicles near Hooker Valley Trail, but we chose to press on. We found free camping outside of the park, made dinner, and settled in for an early night in preparation for a long day of driving on Day 8.
Day 8: Mt. Cook to Murchison
If you are interested in the national parks, beaches, and whale watching on the northern end of the island then this is the day you need to dedicate to driving. No super fun stops to be made, but you’ll still find plenty of scenic overlooks and opportunities to stretch your legs.
Murchison is a small town near the northern end of the island. We chose to stop here for the night after driving 7 hours from Mt. Cook National Park on our way to Able Tasman National Park. This route takes you near Christchurch, so we took the opportunity to stock up on groceries at another large chain store. We also fund a fruit farm with U-Pick blueberry field, which made for a wonderful stop and sweet New Zealand treat!
- Church of the Good Shephard: The most significant stop on the way to the northern coast is the Little Chapel. It looks exactly as pictured above, which is quite beautiful. You are able to enter the church, but it won’t take long as a stop.
- Mt. John Observatory: If you plan to stay overnight in the Lake Tekapo area you should check out Earth & Sky at Mt. John Observatory. This dark sky observation centers allows you to use a powerful telescope to see the Saturn rings and other incredible astro features.
Day 9: Murchison to Abel Tasman National Park and Farewell Spit
This was easily my favorite of our South Island New Zealand road trip! And to think we almost didn’t make it at all!
We originally heard that it would be best to spend all 10 days of our road trip concentrated on the south west coast of South Island New Zealand. We understand why- there is a lot to see and do. But we feel like we did it adequately in just 7 days. We hike in Mt. Cook National Park, toured Doubtful Sound, hiked to Franz Joseph Glacier, spent a full day in Queenstown, saw Lake Matheson, a glow worm dell… really, what more could we do?
Honestly, we would have ended up just seeing more of what we already saw. We would have spent an extra day in Queenstown, probably hiked Fox Glacier as well as Franz Joseph Glacier, and added Milford Sound instead of just Doubtful Sound. Maybe gone back to the Lake Matheson early the next morning for sunrise photos.
By condensing the trip and seeing only the highlights (which were very diverse and gave us an amazing overall picture of the South Island) we gave ourselves nearly 3 extra days to get up to the northern coast for a full day of exploring. And it was SO WORTH IT.
Here are the highlights to see on this route:
- Beginning stretch of Abel Tasman Coast Track: This is a simple walk which takes you over a bridge and through woods towards a secluded beach. The walk is easy and beautiful and shows you what Abel Tasman is known for! There is much more to see and do in Abel Tasman National Park if you’re interested in spending an entire day here.
- Golden Bay Coast: You’ll pass lots of small beach towns on your drive around the northern coast. These towns are so charming, and full of great places to stop for a sandwhich and enjoy the view of a quiet, beautiful beach.
- Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach: You’ll drive toward Kahurangi National Park to get to the Northwest tip of the South Island, a bit of land jutting into the water called Farewell Spit. The biggest draw here is Wharariki Beach, arguably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. A gravel road takes you to an out-of-the-way parking lot, where you’ll have to walk around 30 minutes to get to Wharariki Beach.
The walk is as incredible as the beach. It covers so much diversity that you practically see a new sight with every turn, one more beautiful than the last. Eventually the path ends at a series of pristine sand dunes which you cross to reach the flat beach. Large rock formations are found beyond the beach with caves and sea lion pools you are welcome to explore. The whole experience is stunning, and I would go back every day if possible!
Day 10: Back to Christchurch
As your South Island road trip comes to an end, this is the day you dedicate to driving the few hours straight back from Abel Tasman to Christchurch.
Christchurch is an amazing city, and we strongly recommend you add an extra day in your schedule to enjoy the city before flying out to your next destination!
We hope you loved your New Zealand road trip! 10 days isn’t enough to see everything in New Zealand, so I hope you can extend your trip to see some of the wonderful sights on the North Island, as well!