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A One Week Itinerary for Road Tripping New Zealand's South Island

New Zealand needs to be a "must do" for anyone who has an appreciation for incredible landscapes, nature, and friendly people. This is a synopsis of my week long road trip adventure on the south island of this beautiful country.

By: Nick Palastro + Save to a List

Late September of last year, my Dad and I embarked on a week long road trip of New Zealand's south island. We departed Los Angeles shortly after midnight and after a short layover on Fiji, we arrived at an overcast Christchurch, NZ around 3:30 in the afternoon. Our first stop was to pick up our Britz Camper and immediately head up the east coast for 2.5 hours to the coastal town of Kaikoura. It took sometime to get used to driving the awkward van on the left side of the road but thankfully the first couple hours of the drive were relatively easy. Wasn't till the last bit where the mountains met the Pacific did the drive get more rugged and twisty. Light rains started to fall as we pulled into our holiday park campground for the night. We walked around town, ate dinner, and checked out the coastline before calling it a night.

The next morning I woke up early hoping to catch a Pacific sunrise...

What I caught was a very moody, low cloud deck obscuring the mountains in the distance. The beach is made up of perfectly smooth and small, round black stones and when the water rolled off of them it made a sound I'm not quite used to hearing, being used to the typical sandy beaches. Anyhow, we were in Kaikoura to see some whales. We packed up our van and checked-in with the friendly folks from Whale Watch.

The cruise lasted about 2.5 hours out on a fairly calm Pacific Ocean. On it we saw a Humpback, a couple of Sperm Whales, dozens of Dusky Dolphins, dozens of Southern Fur Seals, and various types of seabirds. Luckily, the rain held off while we were out on the boat as the weather mostly hugged the coasts.

After our cruise, we drove west through the foothills of the Southern Alps for about 5 hours until we arrived at our next destination, the rainforests of Paparoa National Park on the coastline of the Tasman Sea. We were greeted by meandering rivers and towering rainforest cliffs on our drive into the park. It was dark and raining however by the time we got settled at our campsite so there wasn't much to do until the morning. Like almost anywhere in New Zealand, there are a ton of options to go hiking, kayaking, etc. This is what we chose to do in our few hours before heading south:

The Truman Track is short and very easy walk through jungle brush and opens up onto a rocky beach with a waterfall falling from the cliffs above.

The Pancake Rocks is another short walk that takes you across these eroded limestone columns that at high tide create very awesome blowholes that shoot the ocean waves up into the air. Be sure to respect the lands and DO NOT climb on the formations all in the name of a quick selfie. After a couple short walks, we ate breakfast at the Pancake Rocks Cafe. They do an awesome job, definitely recommend checking them out! Finally, it was time to hit the road again. We had about a 3.5 hour drive south to Franz Josef in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

As we drove south, we made a detour at the town of Hokitika to check out the Hokitika Gorge. About a 30 minutes west takes you to a scenic gorge with a swing bridge above insanely surreal looking glacial water in dense temperate forest growth.

We got back on the highway south for a couple of hours until we arrived at our campsite. The Franz Josef Glacier was just a few miles away, hidden in the valley. The next morning we had planned on doing one of the Heli Hikes where a helicopter would take us up onto the glacier and a guide would hike us around. This was definitely something I was looking forward to and if you're on the south island you should definitely sign up to do (or on the sister glacier of Fox Glacier). In the meantime however, we went for a walk through the Franz Josef Glacier Valley.

A gorgeous scene awaited as towering mountains covered in rainforest growth and waterfalls surrounded us as the easy walk took us close to the glacier. You can't get too close as the glacier landslips and calving can be very dangerous. We walked back, ate dinner, and rested up for what was supposed to be our hike the next morning. Unfortunately as we were checking in, weather quickly filled the valley, as it can do very often on the West Coast, and cancelled our flight. Very disappointing but we trekked on. We had a VERY long drive of 5 hours of twisting alpine roads ahead of us. We were heading for a drive through Mount Aspiring National Park, along the Crown Range Road, and into Queenstown.

The Haast Pass in Mt Aspiring National Park has some nice stopping points where I could photograph a couple waterfalls off of very quick walks. It is a very pretty drive through the heart of the Southern Alps. The terrain then opened up to a couple of large lakes, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. The scenery again quickly changes as we moved into the Cardrona Valley along the Crown Range Road. Golden colored mountains twisted their way until we reached the Arrowtown Junction. A sensational viewpoint with snow covered mountains in the background, golden hills in the foreground, and an immense green valley way below. This led us to the "Adventure Capital of the World" in Queenstown. We ate dinner at Smiths Craft Beer House and then hunkered down at our Holiday Park and packed our small bags for tomorrow. We had an adventure in the fiords ahead of us.

(Thunder Creek Falls)

(Crown Range Road)

So far we've landed in Christchurch and visited Kaikoura, Paparoa National Park, Franz Josef, and Queenstown. Our next stop was the Fiordland National Park and specifically the overnight cruise on the Milford Sound. We boarded our Real Journeys bus (for once we didn't have to drive) and relaxed for the 4.5 hour drive past the Remarkables, farmland, and the insane scenery of the Milford Road. The tremendous crew gave us a memory we'll never forget as they told us the history of the fiord and served us a dinner and breakfast on our boat, the Milford Mariner. See my adventure of "Overnight Cruise the Milford Sound" for more pictures and descriptions of what this experience was like. We had one more national park to visit and again, this one is one I believe is a "must do".

The drive took us through more beautiful scenery including the famous Lindis Pass:

3.5 hours later we arrived the turquoise blue waters of Lake Pukaki in the late afternoon. Parked at our campsite under once again cloudy skies but just as I was about to fall asleep, my Dad mentioned to be that the clouds had broken up revealing the night sky of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. The stars were bursting and the Milky Way was glowing. Being from suburban Washington DC, I hadn't ever seen the night sky like this before in my life. Truly was and is incredible. After staring up for about 30 minutes, off to bed I went. We had one last full day in New Zealand.

A breathtaking 180* sunrise on the shores of Lake Pukaki was a positive sign to the morning. We drove 20 minutes into the valley to the trail head of one of the most popular hikes in Mount Cook National Park, the Hooker Valley Track. A stunning and easy trek through the soul of the Southern Alps. Some of the tallest mountains in the country surround you over 10,000 feet high. Glaciers all over, a couple glacier lakes, and a view of the mighty Aoraki/Mount Cook.

(Mt. Sefton and the Mueller Glacier Lake)

(Mt. Cook and the Hooker Glacier/Lake)

We killed off the rest of our PB&J for lunch and walked back to our van. A 3 hour drive back to Christchurch awaited. Too exhausted to do much, we took a taxi downtown for dinner. The next morning, we explored the Antarctic Center to learn a little about Antarctic research (skippable, or we were just too tired to care), boarded our plane, and began our series of flights home. A long layover in LA allowed us to enjoy a nearly cloudless sunset in Santa Monica... The perfect way to end our incredible trip.

In summary, you should go to New Zealand. This was just my week long itinerary on the stunning south island:

  • Day 1: Christchurch to Kaikoura
  • Day 2: Whale Watching in Kaikoura to Paparoa National Park
  • Day 3: Truman Track, Pancake Rocks, Hokitika Gorge, to Franz Josef Glacier
  • Day 4: Glacier Hike (weather permitting), Drive to Queenstown
  • Day 5: Real Journeys Bus from Queenstown to Milford Sound
  • Day 6: Real Journeys Bus from Milford Sound to Queenstown, Drive to Mt Cook NP
  • Day 7: Hooker Valley Track to Christchurch
  • Day 8: Morning in Christchurch and then flights back home

Disclaimer: No Hobbits were injured in typing this post.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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