Our New Zealand south island 10-day itinerary is a fast tour of the highlights on the south island. The tour is fast and involves a lot of driving. You can easily add a couple of days to the itinerary.
Day 1: Christchurch to Mount Cook Village
Drive Time: 4:15
When you collect your rental car from Christchurch you can first stop at the Countdown Supermarket next to the airport or start your trip right away.
- Stop at Cookie Time on your way out of Christchurch. Cookie Time is a New Zealand cookie manufacturer institution. They have a retail store where they sell broken cookies and offcuts for cheap.
- Stop at Straight 8 Estates winery. Not the best winery in New Zealand, but it is on the left-hand side of the road, offers free tastings, and has many wines for sale for under $16.
- Stop at Lake Tekapo. Pull into the parking lot on the far side of the shops. There are free restrooms here The restroom by the often photographed Church of the Good Shephard. Walk from the parking lot to the lake, you pass an adult-sized dual flying fox on your way. Walk along the lake to the Church of the Good Shephard and then head back to your car. This is a good place to stop for a meal. The color of Lake Tekapo is due to melting ice water suspending finely ground rocks.
- Take a dip at Tekapo Springs. The hot springs consist of three pools of various temperatures along with a children’s area. The water comes from a natural spring but is not a natural hot spring and the water is heated. The hot pools are not cheap, but you can get discounted entry at Bookme.
- If you have more time University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory is a great side trip. The main attraction is not the observatory, but Mt John which rises over 300 meters above Lake Tekapo. You can take a walk to the top of the hill with amazing views around the area. They also have a cafe that offers some of the best views around.
- It is now time to find a place to spend the night. It is cheaper to spend the night in Tekapo than Mount Cook Village, but the village has better views.
Day 2: Mount Cook Village
Drive Time: 1:15
You can either start this day in the village or in Tekapo. The drive into Mount Cook Village is full of amazing views and is not one to do in the night. In the winter you can only see Mount Cook about 20% of the days, but it is not rare for clouds to burn off during the day. Spending a full day doing hikes around the area allows you the best opportunities to see the mountain.
- Stop at Mount Cook Alpine Salmon. You are not stopping here for the salmon, you are stopping here for the great views of Lake Pukaki.
- Stop in the Mount Cook visitor’s center. The rangers do a great job of going over your options for hikes and walks in the area. They often have a good display of the area. If you plan on camping at the White Horse Campground you can pay by EFTPOS at the visitor center.
- View the Tasman Glacier by walking the Tasman Lake and Tasman Glacier View tracks.
- Get a good view of Mount Cook. The easiest track to get good views in the Kea Point track. The Sealy Tarns track involves a lot more uphill but offers a lot better views of Mount Cook. The Hooker Valley trail is a great one, but in 2019 it was closed due to bridge damage.
Day 3: Mount Cook Village to Queenstown
Drive Time: 3:15
- If you are a Lord of the Rings fan you will be driving by Twizel and the Pelennor Fields.
- Stop by High Country Salmon for incredibly fresh salmon from their cafe. They also sell salmon fillets to cook for dinner.
- Clay Cliffs are a 12-kilometer detour from SH 8. The cliffs are unique sharp pinnacles deep ravines between them, something you would expect in the desert, not New Zealand. The cliffs are of private land and are a $5 per vehicle donation via an honesty box.
- Stop at Lindis Pass. The pass is a low altitude pass at 971 meters, but you can scamper 100 meters to the pass and get a good view of the area.
- Stop by Benjer Juice manufacture in Cromwell. The fruit juice is not cheap, but it is really good and a good way to break up the drive.
- Make a quick photo stop at the Kawarau Gorge on the pullout by the side of the road.
- Stop by a winery on your way into Queenstown. You have a lot of options. Gibbston Valley Winery is one of the largest in the area and also has a cheesery onsite. If you are interested in Pinot Noir, Kinross offers a tasting room for many small wineries in the area.
- A side trip on your way into Queenstown is Arrowtown. Gold was originally discovered in New Zealand around Arrowtown and the town has kept its mining town feel. It is a great town to wander the streets of and grab a coffee or lunch. There are also several Lord of the Rings filming sites nearby
- Stop in Queenstown. There is a ton to do in Queenstown and it is a great place to spend two nights
Day 4: Queenstown
Drive time: 0-2:00
Queenstown is the center of all things adventure and outdoor activity. You can spend the day doing an adventure activity of a Lord of the Rings tour. I would prefer to spend the day hiking. I have listed a side trip to Glenorchy which is a laid back town very close to the mountains.
- Drive towards Glenorchy, there are a couple of Lord of the Rings sites along Lake Wakatipu.
- Stop at Bob’s Cove on your drive along the lake. There is a short walking trail at the cove.
- Stop in Glenorchy and walk along the lakefront. There is a good coffee shop in town.
- Drive to the Routeburn Track trailhead and walk to the second hut and then turn around. There are a lot of other hiking options that are available in the area
Day 5: Queenstown to Te Anau or Milford Sound
Drive time: 2:00-3:45
There are minimal accommodations available at the Milford Sound. They are expensive but worth it to enjoy the fjord with minimal people. If you have a campervan there are a number of campsites on the way to the Milford Sound. Most people stay in Te Anau.
- The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is a pretty drive, but there are not a lot of stops on the way. The hiking is a lot better in Queenstown and Te Anau than anything that you pass on the road
- Te Anau offers a great walk along the lakefront.
- Real Journeys offers a boat tour through glowworm caves that are very touristy. This itinerary does include seeing glowworms later on the journey. It is a good rainy day activity and is also good if you are not going to the Waitomo caves on the north island.
Day 6: Te Anau to Milford Sound to Wanaka
Drive time: 4:15-6:00
The road from Te Anau to the Milford Sound has a 65% higher accident rate than the rest of the roads in New Zealand. If you are driving in the winter you are required to have chains in your car to drive on the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound. This day is a long drive day. It involves an early wake-up and doing the morning Milford Sound tour.
- Drive towards the Milford Sound
- Stop at the Eglinton Valley for a quick photo of the glacial valley.
- Do a boat tour of the Milford Sound. You can typically get a discount going through Bookme. Bring snacks to eat since there is only one food choice at Milford Sound.
- Stop at the Chasm to view the gorge on your way back to Te Anau
- Stop at the Homer Tunnel for a photo op.
- Turn down Hollyford Valley Road and see two sites that most people drive right past. Marian Falls is a 10-minute walk from the road and 8 kilometers down the road is the 15-minute walk to Humboldt Falls which is over 130 meters high.
- Stop at Mirror Lake for a short walk and photo op on the incredibly still water that acts like a mirror.
- Stop in Te Anau for a lake lunch before continuing on. Miles Better Pies is a quick, good, cheap option.
- Head north to Wanaka
- You will be driving through the heart of the stone fruit growing area in New Zealand. Stop at one of the numerous roadside stalls selling fruit.
- Spend the night in Wanaka.
Day 7: Wanaka
Drive time: 0
There are a lot of things to do in Wanaka and a ton of great hiking. Below is a selection of various things to do in Wanaka. You can fit one of the hikes and a couple of the other activities into one day.
- Roys Peak is the most popular hike in Wanaka for good reason. There are great views at the top and along the way. There is now a $2 “donation” per person required for the track. The track is closed from 10 October to 15 November for lambing. The parking lot fills up quickly so plan to get there early during high season
- Isthmus Peak is a 30-minute drive from Wanaka. It gets a lot fewer crowds and I have never seen the parking lot (there are two) full. I think the views are better than Roys Peak with a fraction of the crowds. It is closed 20 November to 20 December for fawning each year.
- Rob Roy Glacier is different than the other two hikes mentioned. It has some elevation gain, but not as much as the other two trails. It is located a 1:10 drive from Wanaka with half of the drive is on a dirt road with numerous fjords. The road and fjords can be handled by a sedan except after heavy rainfall. The best part of the hike is the second viewpoint where you arrive at the head of the glacier with too many waterfalls to count. Kea are often seen on the track.
- Walk along Lake Wanaka. Take a photo of the Wanaka Tree along with everyone else.
- Stop at Rippon Winery for a wine tasting. You can access the winery by walking along the lake or via car.
- Mount Iron is less than a five-minute drive from Wanaka and is a one-hour loop hike that provides great views of the area.
- Stop at Rhyme and Reason Brewery for a pint. It is a 15-minute walk from town and is just far enough away from the main tourist areas that you will encounter a lot more locals than tourists.
Day 8: Wanaka to Fox Glacier
Drive time: 3:20
Today you will be passing through Mount Aspiring National Park to the west coast of New Zealand. The west coast of New Zealand is known for its incredible scenery and how much rain it gets.
- Stop at the Blue Pools to walk over a swing bridge over crystal clear bright blue pools. If you are in the mood take a quick dip in the cold water. The walk is 1.5 kilometers. 30 minutes
- Stop at Cameron Creek and take a quick walk to a viewing platform that overlooks the river and the Southern Alps. 15 minutes.
- If time permits stop at Haast Pass. It is a 1.5-hour roundtrip walk with great views.
- Thunder Creek Falls is a 5-10 minute walk to a 28-meter waterfall.
- Stop at Roaring Billy and walk 15 minutes through the beech forest to the Roaring Billy river.
- Stop at Ship Creek walkway for a walk through rainforest and sand dunes. There is an 800-meter swamp creek walk and a 1-kilometer dune lake walk.
- Stop at Knights Point Lookout for a quick stop. There are great views of the coast and if you look closely below there are often seals. They are far away so binoculars help.
- Stop at Monro Beach for your chance to see the rare Fiordland crested penguin, less than 3,000 are thought to be alive. It is a 4.7-kilometer return walk. The penguins are to the right after you get on the beach. There is a plaque on the rock asking you to not go any closer. The penguins come and go and sometimes it takes some waiting to see the penguins. Binoculars are helpful. The beach is a good place to look for greenstone.
- Bruce Bay is a good stop if you want to walk along the beach. Watch out for sandflies and it is often windy.
- Gillespies Beach is 20 kilometers off of the main road and has multiple walks from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Many pass old mining equipment.
- Stop at Fox Glacier and view the glacier. The Fox Glacier Valley Trail is the best trail to view the glacier. You can see the glacier after 5 minutes and the who walk takes about an hour. You might want to save this walk for the next day if you arrive too late in the day.
Day 9: Fox Glacier to Hokitika
Drive time: 2:10
- Stop at Sentinel Rock for a 900 meter, 20 minute, walk for a great view of the Fox Glacier Valley.
- Drive up to the Franz Joseph Glacier car park and do the 1.5-hour walk to the face of the glacier. There is a viewpoint a little way into the walk where you can see the glacier.
- Stop at the Franz Joseph iSite for a good display on the history of the area and the glaciers
- Stop at Okarito and take the one hour walk to the Okarito Trig which has great views.
- If you are into birds, Lake Ianthe is a great stop if you are into water birds.
- If you have time take the detour to Hokitika Gorge. The gorge is 30 kilometers from the road and you pass through many one way bridges. The gorge is great and has a fun swing bridge.
- Walk around Hokitika. It has a fun small downtown and a great waterfront. There are often food trucks set up near the waterfront.
- Visit the free Hokitika Museum. The museum is surprisingly well done and has a great exhibit on whitebait that does a really good job explaining it.
- After dark visit the glowworm dell in Hokitika. The dell is a short 200-meter walk that looks very unimpressive during the day but has a ton of glowworms at night.
Day 10: Hokitika to Christchurch
Drive time: 3:05
The drive to Christchurch has great views, but if you are looking to save a day taking the evening flight Hokitika to Christchurch can save you a day.
- Head towards Arthur’s Pass and stop at Otira Viaduct Overlook for a quick photo and a good view of the valley. Kea often hang out here.
- Stop at Devil’s Punchbowl for a 1-hour walk to the 131-meter waterfall. You might be waterfalled out by this point, but this one is impressive.
- Arthur’s Pass is a low-level pass and most of the hikes involve going straight up. The pass is a great place to see Kea if you have not seen them yet. Kea like shiny objects and spend a lot of their time in carparks. You can generally find Kea by driving to the various carparks in town.
- Stop at the Waimakariri River for a photo op of a braided river.
- Stop at Cave Stream and go for a short walk to a lava tube cave that has a stream running through it. Bring a torch and some warm clothes. Walk up the stream in the cave and eventually get to the second cavern that has a ladder.
- Your last stop before arriving back in Christchurch is Castle Hill. There are limestone rocks that look like a castle about 10 minutes from the carpark.
- Head back to Christchurch over Porters Pass.
This itinerary is a great 10-day itinerary of the south island of New Zealand. Make sure that you save the most amount of money possible on your New Zealand trip by checking out our New Zealand discount guide and guide to fuel discounts. Before you make plans check out our 10 tips for a New Zealand trip.