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Road Tripping in New Zealand’s South Island

This road trip takes you through the spectacular scenery of South Island. Its landscapes — mountains, glaciers and fjiords — are famous worldwide. Some highlights of this trip are:

  • The scenic alpine beauty of Arthur’s Pass
  • Hiking in the Franz Josef Glacier
  • The night sky over Lake Wanaka
  • The morning clouds over South Island’s lakes
  • The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy
  • Hiking or kayaking in Milford Sound

You don’t need a 4X4 in New Zealand, as the roads are in excellent condition and you can reach all the landmarks via paved roads. If you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road, this may be a challenge.

Christian Ann Schafer, a traveler and photographer, nearly had a head-on collision soon after leaving the airport. She had to keep reciting the mantra, “Left means live, right is roadkill” as she traveled long, remote roads. She tells the story about her road trip to New Zealand on the site The Travel Stories.

Arthur’s Pass

From Christchurch Airport, you already have a glimpse of snow-capped mountains. The route to Arthur’s Pass will take you straight into these mountains. It’s the highest pass through the Southern Alps.

Drive through the scenic alpine Arthur’s Pass Village, which is surrounded by mountains and forests on all sides. Five minutes from the village is Bealey Valley, where you’ll see fields of flowers, glacier views and have plenty of hiking and photographic opportunities.

Franz Josef Glacier

As you drive through Arthur’s Pass and across the width of South Island, you’ll see New Zealand’s characteristic lupins, rugged cliffs and villages with colorful cottages. Arriving in Franz Josef, you’ll find it a hospitable little town with a population of 330.

It’s well worth taking a hike to the Franz Josef Glacier, 5 km away from the town, with its spectacular waterfalls and rainforests. In the town itself, there are many places to stay and eat. If you’re on a budget, you can find a bed at the YHA hostel, where you’ll be in the company of fellow backpackers.

Lake Wanaka

The drive from Franz Josef to Lake Wanaka is a long trip. When you arrive at Wanaka, you’ll probably be tired, but after a rest, you’ll want to explore the small town. You’ll be inspired by galleries, cool cafes, craft breweries and award-winning wineries. The town is lively with a great buzz, and it’s a haven for foodies.

The Diamond Lake Lookout is a 45-minute hike, and you can go a little further to the Wanaka Lookout, with the circuit taking you roughly two hours. In the summer months, you can go kayaking or rafting. In winter, snowboarders and skiers from around the globe head to Wanaka for the snow-covered mountains.

Don’t forget to look up at the night sky while you’re in Wanaka. It’s a dazzling sight on a clear night that you won’t want to miss.


When driving from Lake Wanaka to Queenstown, take the Crown Range route. This route has numerous lookout points (it’s the highest main road in New Zealand). On this drive, you will see plenty of ice-capped peaks and glistening lakes.

Queenstown itself is very picturesque, and if you choose lakeside accommodation, you will wake up to the sight of little clouds scudding over Lake Wakatipu. Of course, Queenstown is also the center of many adventure activities, such as bungee jumping.

Queenstown to Glenorchy

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is a stunning 40-minute scenic drive you don’t want to miss. The movie trilogy The Lord of the Rings was filmed not far from Glenorchy, and when you see the landscape, you’ll know exactly why.

Milford Sound

Rudyard Kipling referred to Milford Sound as the world’s eighth wonder. The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a long one, so leave early. Get fuel at Te Anau because it’s the last gas station before Milford Sound. As you start getting closer, you’ll see rugged cliffs and a distinctive mountain called Mitre Peak.

You are now at the center of New Zealand’s fjordland, and the views are jaw-dropping. There are different ways to explore the fjords. Do it by kayak, hike or opt for a boat cruise. You will get breathtakingly close to waterfalls and may even see a sea lion or two.

Coronet Peak and Arrowtown

From Queenstown, take Gorge Road toward Arrowtown. Going up Coronet Peak, you’ll have fantastic views and feel as though you’re on top of the world. Arrowtown is an old, historic gold mining town with restored cottages, vintage candy shops and restaurants.

When it’s time to fly back home, you’re more than likely to spend your trip thinking about crystal lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, winding roads, fields of flowers and awe-inspiring night skies. It will no doubt take you some time to adjust to daily life after your New Zealand adventure.