12 Day South Island Road Trip

Get out and explore your own backyard! New Zealand’s South Island is a natural paradise with the added attraction of plenty of fun and adventure thrills thrown in. Check out our 12-day driving guide for ideas of what to see and do.

This road trip is a circular route, so if you’re starting anywhere other than Christchurch it’s easy to adjust.

If you’re coming over on the ferry from the North Island, the easiest plan is to allow an extra day to travel from Picton to Christchurch, then on the return route, travel from Greymouth back to Picton and skip the Arthur’s Pass section back to Christchurch.

IMPORTANT: Please check with individual attractions and activities for opening days and times and if booking is required. Driving times are approximate. Allow plenty of extra time for rest stops.

Day 1: Christchurch

Situated within sight of the Southern Alps, Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island. Fill your lungs with all the fun to be had at Christchurch Adventure Park or visit the International Antarctic Centre where you can view penguins, cuddle a husky, enjoy a thrilling 4D movie, and go off-road aboard a Hägglund! Slow down the pace with a cruise on Akaroa Harbour or venture out to Orana Wildlife Park – New Zealand’s only open range zoo with plenty of opportunities to get up close to the amazing animals.

Day 2: Tekapo

Christchurch to Tekapo : Distance 226km : Approximate Driving Time 3 hours

Suggested stop en route:  Geraldine is a great place to stretch the legs, whilst shopping in the boutique stores or grabbing some tasty goodies.

Travel across the vast Canterbury Plains to Tekapo and it’s stunning glacial lake. The views here are those jaw-dropping Instagram hits. The Church of the Good Shepherd and the sheepdog statue are great photo opportunities and Tekapo Springs is the ultimate venue to entertain the family and relax.

Day 3 – 4: Dunedin

Tekapo to Dunedin: Distance 286km : Approximate Driving Time 3 hours 35 mins

Suggested stop en route:  Moeraki – let the kids loose on the iconic boulders, perfectly rounded by years of erosion by sea, sand and wind.

Heading south, stop at beautiful Lake Pukaki for views of Aoraki/Mt Cook before heading towards the coast and the Otago city of Dunedin. One of the most popular attractions here is Larnarch Castle, with its magnificent architecture and gardens plus spectacular views from the turrets. Or become one with nature with a visit to a penguin, seal or albatross colony. Don’t miss Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world.

Day 5 – 6: Te Anau

Dunedin to Te Anau : Distance 290km : Approximate Driving Time 3 hours 30 mins

Suggested stop en route:  Kiwiana – stop and have your photo taken with the Stag statue in Mossburn and the Brown Trout statue in Gore.

Enjoy a scenic boat ride to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves or visit the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary to see the rare takahe. Devote one full day for the return trip (118km) to Milford Sound, travelling through the Homer Tunnel and Fiordland National Park to arguably New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction. View towering Mitre Peak, see waterfalls, seals and dolphins during a cruise on the sound.

Day 7 – 8: Queenstown

Te Anau to Queenstown : Distance 172km : Approximate Driving Time 2 hours 10 mins

Retrace your route back to Mossburn, then turn off towards New Zealand’s adventure capital – Queenstown! Enjoy a thrilling jet boat ride on the Shotover River,  bungy jump, go horse riding, cruise across Lake Wakatipu on a paddlesteamer, take a helicopter flight to the top of the Remarkables, travel on the Skyline Gondola for the most spectacular views and so, so much more! There’s also plenty to do if you prefer a slower pace. Queenstown Gardens on the lake’s edge is perfect for picnics and the drive to Glenorchy is considered to be one of the most scenic in the world.

Day 9: Wanaka

Queenstown to Wanaka : Distance 68km : Approximate Driving Time 1 hour 5 minutes

There are two options for the short drive to Wanaka. The Cardrona Road is the shorter of the two but the road is a bit hairy in places as you climb up and up. The road via Cromwell adds on about 25 minutes but does take you past the original bungy jumping venue on the Kawarau Suspension Bridge. In Wanaka, Puzzling World is a great topsy-turvy attraction for kids of all ages! There’s lots of illusions with opportunities for funny photos, plus a challenging maze. The Dinosaur Park down by the waterfront is great to burn off any energy that’s left.

Day 10: Fox Glacier

Wanaka to Fox Glacier : Distance 263km : Approximate Driving Time 3 hours 30 mins

Suggested stop en route: Waterfalls – Thunder Creek Falls, the Gates of Haast, and Fantail Falls are easily accessible from the road and well worth the stop.

The drive to the West Coast through the Haast Pass takes in some spectacular scenery. Fox Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, offering amazing views.

Day 11: Greymouth

Fox Glacier to Greymouth : Distance 196km : Approximate Driving Time 2 hours 40 minutes

Suggested stop en route: Hokitika – browse for gifts in the boutique, or arts and crafts shops.

Travel along the scenic West Coast to Greymouth. Visit Shanty town Heritage Park, a step back in time to the gold rush days. Pan for gold and see if you can strike it rich!

Day 12: Christchurch

Greymouth to Christchurch : Distance 244km : Approximate Driving Time 3 hours 20 mins

Return to Christchurch via Arthurs Pass – the road is a marvel of engineering and construction through the spectacular Southern Alps.

What’s your favourite spot in the South Island?

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her world julieWritten by Julie Scanlon

Julie is Editor for Kidspot NZ and our MVP. Her hobbies include laughing uncontrollably at her own jokes, annoying her family by asking questions about movie plots, and never taking anything too seriously. She speaks a little Spanish and a lot of Yorkshire. 

Favourite motto to live by: “It ain’t nothing but a thing”

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