New Zealand Road Trip: 2-Week South Island Itinerary

by | Apr 12, 2021 | 0 comments

View of Queenstown. 2-week South Island New Zealand itinerary,

The South Island of New Zealand is heralded as more wild than the North. From rugged landscapes to amazing vistas, there’s literally beauty around every corner. After spending a month road tripping around the country, we’ve put together our ultimate 2-week itinerary for the South Island, focusing on nature, Lord of the Rings film sites and free activities.

Note: Prices are listed in NZD and USD. As of April 2021, $1.00 NZD = $0.70 USD.

Christchurch (1 Day)

Day 1 – Rental Pickup and Blast Off

Highway near Wanaka South Island

As soon as you land at the airport, make your way to the rental company to pick up your vehicle. We went with Euro Campers and had a great experience, but there are plenty of other options out there.

ProTip: Many of the rental companies offer free pickup from the airport if your rental starts on the day you arrive. Check with them in advance so you can provide your flight details and make arrangements accordingly.

Once you have your vehicle, you’ll need to get everything situated. This includes swinging by a supermarket to stock up on groceries and unpacking your belongings (or at least storing it away for safe keeping). It’s then time to hit the road! We recommend not being overly ambitious on how far you drive the first day; especially since you may be jet-lagged after a long flight.

Where to Stay

Christchurch doesn’t have any freedom camping sites inside the city center. If you don’t mind paying for a holiday park, then by all means go ahead; however, we recommend heading to Chamberlains Ford Reserve. It’s a beautiful, quiet place outside of town and has nice amenities. It’s also better situated to avoid traffic for when starting your road trip the next morning.

  • Address: Old Bridge Road, Leeston 7683
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for Certified Self-Contained (CSC) and Non-Certified Self-Contained (NSC) vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 20+. There is a designated spot for campers, but no parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Flushing toilets, potable water, garbage cans, dish washing station and BBQ area.
  • Notes: Donations are requested but not required. You can drop donation coins in the bins located on site.

Make sure to read our article on the ins and outs of freedom camping in New Zealand.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park (2 Days)

Day 2 – Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Moonrise in Aoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve on the South Island of New Zealand

After finishing breakfast, hop behind the driver’s seat and start your New Zealand road trip. First stop: the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. It’s one of only eight dark sky reserves in the world, the only one located in the southern hemisphere AND the largest of them all. You couldn’t find a better place on the South Island to go stargazing!

ProTip: Make sure to check the weather before heading to the Dark Sky Reserve. The best stargazing will happen on a clear night without clouds. If the weather looks bad, consider doing this entire itinerary in reverse, saving the dark sky reserve for your final stop instead of the first.

For more information, see our post on how to visit the dark sky reserve.

Euro Campers Campervan against Starry Night in Aoraki McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Where to Stay

Pattersons Ponds Camping Ground is the best freedom campsite in the area. It’s very basic, but nicely tucked away into the hills of the dark sky reserve, ensuring you won’t get much light pollution.

  • Address: Off Canal Road
  • Price: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~25+. There’s just a dirt carpark without designated parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: One outhouse is available onsite
  • Notes:
    • There is no potable water on site. Make sure to bring what you need with you before arriving.
    • Maximum 3 night stay in a one month period.
    • The directions for this place are somewhat confusing. Head down Tekapo Powerhouse Road. After crossing a bridge, turn right. You’ll continue down a dirt road for about 2.4km until you see a gravel road with a blue sign on the left. Proceed down the hill and you’ll come to a clearing where you can freedom camp.
    • We saw signs pointing to a nudist campsite near the outhouse. We’re not sure how often nudists actually camp there, or if it’s mostly for tent campers. Either way, be prepared to see people of the clothing-optional persuasion if you wander too close.

Day 3 – Mount Cook National Park

Man skipping rock at Lake Pukaki South Island New Zealand
Lake Pukaki

Making your way to Mount Cook National Park, you’ll first encounter Lake Pukaki. It’s a gorgeous place to stop for photos (and perhaps a picnic lunch). You’ll be wowed by the crystal blue waters as reflections of the Southern Alps dance across the surface. On a sunny day this place is stunning.

After you’ve fully soaked in the views, continue on to Mount Cook National Park. The drive to the parking lot winds around Lake Puakai and to the base of the mountain range.

Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in the range, so it’s hard to miss. The best views, however, can be seen during a short walk along the Hooker Valley Track. It’s the easiest trail inside the national park and perfect for any fitness level.

Unlike the name, there are no people of the night selling their services. What you will be rewarded with are sweeping landscapes, views of Mount Cook, and at the end, glimpses of the glacial Hooker Lake (it’s so cold there were small icebergs floating in the water!). Total hiking time: 2 hours round trip.

Where to Stay

Stay the night in the Mount Cook National Park if you’re beat from the day’s activities. It’s a DOC site with flushing toilets and an indoor dining area (no kitchen, just benches and sinks). Cost is $15.00 NZD ($10.54 USD) per adults and $7.50 NZD ($5.27 USD) per child, per night.

Otherwise, if you don’t mind a bit more driving, we recommend heading out of the park and backtracking to Lake Pukaki Reserve. This is a large freedom campsite that provides serene views of the lake and mountains beyond.

  • Address: Tekapo-Twizel Road
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 30+. There’s just a large gravel lot without designated parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: A block of outhouses at the entrance.
  • Notes: Maximum stay of 1 night permitted.

Queenstown (2 Days)

Day 4 – Drive through Gondor

Gondor from LotR. Twizel in New Zealand
Twizel / Gondor

Today is a relocation day. Enjoy the sights as you make your way to Queenstown, and if you’re a LotR fan, geek out over the fact that you’re driving through Gondor!

Where to Stay

As with many bigger cities in New Zealand, Queenstown only offers freedom campsites on its outskirts. We recommend setting yourself up for the next day by staying at Kawarau Bridge Historic Reserve. Aim to arrive early so you can take a hike along the Historic Reserve trail or test your nerve by bungy jumping off the Kawarau Bridge.

  • Address: 1693 Gibbston Highway, Gibbston
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~15 designated parking spaces.
  • Amenities: There are no amenities on site. You’ll need to pack everything in and out.
  • Notes:
    • Overnight parking is allowed only between 6:00 PM and 9:00 AM the next morning. We read reports of police knocking on people’s windows if not out by the designated time frame.
    • Maximum of 4 nights stay in any one calendar month.

Day 5 – Queenstown

Views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings.
Views from the Queenstown Hill Time Walk.

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand. If adrenaline sports are your thing, then there’s tons of options on offer. Just be prepared to pay a hefty price tag to participate (unless you can snag a killer deal).

For more budget-friendly activities we recommend taking a couple day hikes. First up is Queenstown Hill Time Walk (pictured above). It’s right in town and provides sweeping views of the city and surrounding valley. Total hiking time: 1.5 hours round trip.

While the first hike provides views from above, your second hike will take you lakeside. Head out of the town to Twelve Mile Delta Campsite. There are multiple places you can lounge and while away the afternoon, or opt for a hike along Bob’s Creek Track which leads to Picnic Point. Although you won’t have lakeside views the entire way, the trail does lead you to secluded inlets and beaches where you can chill and take a swim.

View of Bob's Cove from Picnic Point in Queenstown, New Zealand South Island.
View from Picnic Point at the end of Bob’s Cove Track.

Where to Stay

The 12 Mile Delta Campsite park is a DOC park and a great option if you want to stay closer to town and/or not worry about vying for a freedom campsite that evening. Cost is $15.00 NZD ($10.54 USD) per adult and $7.50 NZD ($5.27 USD) per child, per night.

The most budget-friendly option is to make your way further out of town to Twenty Five Mile Stream. It’s a small freedom site that’s perfect for a one-nighter. It also gives you a chance to experience some of the Queenstown to Glenorchy Highway, which is drool-worthy.

ProTip: Because this site is so small, plan to arrive earlier than later. Otherwise there’s a good chance it’ll be filled up.

  • Address: Glenorchy-Queenstown Road, Mt. Creighton
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~8. This is just a small gravel pullout on the side of the road, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: None. You’ll need to pack everything in and out.
  • Notes:
    • Overnight camping is only allowed between 5:00 PM and 9:00 AM the next morning. We read reports of police knocking on people’s windows if not out by the designated time frame.
    • Maximum of 4 nights stay in a single calendar month.

Milford Sound (2 Days)

Day 6 – Drive South toward Fiordland National Park

Early morning drive on the South Island of New Zealand.

Next stop on your New Zealand road trip is the famous Milford Sound. Today will be a long day on the road, so before leaving Queenstown make sure to take care of a few chores (gas, groceries, laundry or dump station). Resources are limited in the national park.

Head south once you’re ready to roll out. Milford Sound is located in the Fiordland National Park, about 3-4 hours away, so unless you leave Queenstown really early in the morning, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to see Milford the same day. We recommend not rushing (especially if you do chores beforehand) by planning to spend the night closer to the park and then seeing Milford Sound first thing the next morning. That’ll give you the best chance of beating any big crowds.

Man pretending to be locked up in jail. New Zealand.
Fun tourist setup in Lumsden.

Where to Stay

The closest freedom campsite to Milford Sound is in Lumsden, 2.5 hours away by car. We stayed here overnight and really enjoyed it. There’s a few shops in town that you can peruse and the amenities provided for campers are some of the best we found while freedom camping throughout our trip.

  • Address: Lumsden, center of town next to old train platform
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC and NSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~30+. There are designated parking sites so check the map and park accordingly.
  • Amenities: Potable drinking water, flush toilets and dump station.
  • Notes:
    • CSC vehicles are permitted to park in any public car park inside the township, including the NSC parking area if there is room.
    • If parking in the designated car park, then a maximum of 7 nights in a 30 day period is allowed. If parking in a non-designated CSC space, then a maximum of 3 nights in a 30 day period is allowed.

Of course, the other option is to drive into Fiordland National Park and pay to stay at one of the DOC sites located along the highway. The benefit is that you’ll be situated closer to Milford Sound for the next day and have other nature activities within easy reach. The downside though is that the sites are all first come, first served; you cannot reserve them in advance, meaning you won’t know if there are any spots available until you actually arrive.

Day 7 – Milford Sound and Back Again

How to describe Milford Sound? It’s vast…it’s beautiful…it’s a sound. While we wouldn’t classify this as the “8th Wonder of the World”, it’s still a great place to visit while on the South Island, especially if you’ve never seen anything like it before. Want to know more? You can read our full review here.

Where to Stay:

Freedom campers will need to make their way back to Lumsden for the night.

Wanaka (2 Days)

Day 8 – Wanaka

Views in Wanaka area of New Zealand's South Island.

Today you’ll be heading back north, passing through Queenstown and up to Wanaka. Park the campervan once you arrive and enjoy the town by foot; there’s plenty of shops and the lakeshore to explore. You can even swing by the famous Wanaka tree to get that iconic Instagram pic.

ProTip: Make sure to stop by the Pak’nSave while passing through Queenstown. This is the cheapest grocery store you’ll encounter the rest of your trip until back in Christchurch.

Where to Stay

There are no freedom campsites directly around Wanaka so your best option will be to pay for a DOC site in the small town of Albert a few kilometers away.

  • Address: 20 Alison Ave, Albert Town, Wanaka
  • Cost: $10.00 NZD ($7.03 USD) per person, per night.
  • Number of Sites: 30+. There is just a grass lot and no designated parking spots, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Outhouses and sink to wash dishes.
  • Notes:
    • There is stream access on site, with camping spots nearby.
    • Payment is self service, so do not expect an attendant on site. They say they accept cash or card.

Day 9 – Isthmus Peak and Mount Aspiring National Park

Entering Mount Aspiring National Park on South Island of New Zealand

Today you’ll hit the trail in Mount Aspiring National Park. Now many people tout Roy’s Peak, which is supposedly an easy (ish) hike and provides sweeping views over Lake Wanaka. The trail was closed when we were visiting, and thankfully a local ranger recommended Isthmus Peak as an alternative.

I’m not going to lie, it’s a harder hike. The benefit though is that it’s lesser known, meaning you’ll have fewer crowds to contend with. It also provides views the entire way up, so you’ll have photos worthy of sharing with friends back home even if you don’t make it all the way to the top.

Once you get back from the hike, hop in the car and start driving toward the West Coast. Your goal is to reach it by the end of the day. Make sure to enjoy the drive by visiting a few of the photos ops along the way. For this section we recommend The Blue Pools and Thunder Creek Falls.

Where to Stay

There are two possible places to freedom camp that evening. First is inside Mount Aspiring National Park, before you reach the West Coast. This is a good option if it’s getting dark as it’s hours until the next freedom site once you hit the coast. Mount Aspiring National Park is also the ONLY place we found where you can truly freedom camp without needing to locate a designated site. Just legally pull over on the side of the road and enjoy your evening.

  • Address: Makarora-Lake Hawea Road
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: TBD, depending on which pullout you park in.
  • Amenities: None. You’ll need to pack everything in and out.
  • Notes:
    • There is signage on the side of the road as you head into the national park which indicates where freedom camping begins and ends. Make sure you see this sign before pulling over for the evening, as any camping outside the approved zone could result in a hefty fine.
    • The trail head for Isthmus Peak is inside the approved freedom camping zone. That is where we spent the night after our hike.
Freedom Campsite on New Zealand South Island West Coast Drive
View from Paringa Salmon Farm Cafe.

Should you make it all the way to the West Coast that day, then instead head to Paringa Salmon Farm Cafe. As mentioned earlier, this is the first of only a couple freedom campsites along the West Coast Drive, so expect it to get full fast. Even in the off-season we had tons of neighbors.

  • Address: Paringa Salmon Farm Cafe. Go past the cafe and follow the old road.
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC and NSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 15
  • Amenities: Two flushing toilets
  • Notes:
    • No more than 2 nights consecutive stay, with a maximum of 10 nights in any 30 day period.
    • Tents are allowed.
    • Do not park in the bus turning circle.

Don’t forget to get travel insurance in case of emergencies while on the road. We use World Nomads and highly recommend them to all our friends and family. Get a quote today!

West Coast Drive (2 Days)

Rated as one of the top coastal drives in the world, the highway along the West Coast of New Zealand is not to miss. Filled with endless ocean vistas, twisting lanes and lush landscapes, it’s an idyllic road trip.

Day 10 – Franz Josef Glacier

Located about halfway along the West Coast is Franz Josef Glacier and is a great stop to break up the drive. There’s also tons of hikes in the area, many of which will get you views of the glacier itself.

If time is short, or you’re not feeling up for a long trek, then opt for the Franz Josef Glacier Walk. It’ll get you up close and personal to the glacier where you can experience its size and might. This walk is also nice way to stretch your legs before the day is through. Total time round trip is 1.5 hours.

Orange Sheep Franz Josef Glacier
Outdoor community space at Orange Sheet Caravan Park.

Where to Stay

You’ll have to drive decently far north if you want to freedom camp, so we instead recommend making things easy on yourself and paying for a holiday park in town that evening. Orange Sheep Caravan Park is the best low-cost campground in town. We found the site clean, had good facilities and was situated 4 minutes from the center of town (it’s a small town though, so everywhere is pretty centralized).

  • Address: 64 Cron Street, opposite the DOC info center
  • Cost: Prices start at $22.00 NZD ($15.46 USD) per person, per night for an unpowered site, and $35.00 NZD ($24.59 USD) per person, per night for a powered site. Discounts provided for additional guests in a party.
  • Number of Sites: ~15 powered and 30+ unpowered
  • Amenities: Hot showers, flushing toilets, communal kitchen, fire pit, dump station, laundry facilities, garbage cans, and free, unlimited wifi.
  • Notes:
    • When we stayed, there was no attendant on site. Be prepared to pay with cash at the self-service station. Directions for how to register are at the entrance.
    • If you plan to use the wifi, we recommend roaming with your phone through the open sites until you find the one with the best connection and then setting up camp accordingly. Not all sites were equal.

Day 11 – Okarito Beach Loop

Okarito Beach Loop West Coast Drive on the South Island

For your final day on the West Coast Drive, head to Okarito, a quiet beach town nestled in the forest. Here you’ll find a peaceful hike to Three Mile Lagoon. What makes this trail unique and worth the visit is that there’s two paths leading to the lagoon; however, only one of them is accessible during low-tide. That said, you’ll need to time your visit accordingly if you hope to take the coastal route and do the full loop.

Okarito Look Hike Map
Okarito Loop Trail Map

Starting with the upper trail (known as the 3 Mile Pack Track), you’ll hike along bluffs that overlook the ocean. It’s a nice shaded track and even offers the option to take a quick side trip up to the Okarito Trig viewpoint. The entire 3.25 km (2.17 miles) trek takes about 1 hour.

You’ll know you reached the end when you come to Three Mile Lagoon. This is a nature preserve, so beyond other people who’ve made the hike, you’ll literally have this place to yourself. Enjoy the scenery, cross over the bridge to the rocky island, and see what wildlife you can spot.

It’s time walk the coastal route along the beach when you’re ready to turn back to the carpark. This is where that important timing comes in. You need your trip to coincide with low-tide, otherwise it’ll be impassible. Thankfully there’s a tide chart posted by the DOC at the trail head so you can plan accordingly. Or if you’re like us and miss low-tide (oops), just return using the forested trail.

Inveah Bay New Zealand South Island.
Iveagh Bay

Where to Stay

After your done with the hike, it’s onward to Iveagh Bay, a wonderful little lakeside park. This will situate you perfectly for your drive along Arthur’s Pass the next day.

  • Address: Centennial Drive, Cashmere Bay, Moana
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for CSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: ~15. There are designated parking spots.
  • Amenities: Flushing toilets
  • Notes: You can stay a maximum of 3 nights and no more than 10 nights in any one calendar month.

Arthur’s Pass (1 Day)

Day 12 – Drive Arthur’s Pass

Driving Arthur's Pass in a campervan

Arthur’s Pass is the final leg of your New Zealand South Island road trip. Taking you over 900 meters (2,952 feet) above sea level, this is the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps.

First stop along the pass is the Otira Viaduct. This amazingly long bridge was constructed in 1999 to bypass the major rockfall hazard that used to threaten cars on the road. Once you drive across the viaduct, stop at the lookout for a long-distance view of this engineering marvel.

Next up you’ll reach Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall. Plunging over 131 meters into the canyon next to Arthur’s Pass Village, it’s quite a site to see. The trail is only 2 km (1.4 miles) round trip and a great way to stretch your legs before jumping back into the driver’s seat.

ProTip: Bring a jacket if it’s chilly because you’ll get colder when standing in the fall’s mist.

Making your way further down the pass, your third stop at Castle Hill. Made from limestone rock that has eroded over time, these karsts hold special significance to the Maori.

Your final stop of the day will be Springfield. In homage to The Simpsons, there’s a giant pink doughnut on display in the center of town. One simply cannot pass by without catching a photo with this sugary treat. Now smile and say “D’oh”!

Where to Stay

Instead of heading into town, why not spend one final night out in the beautiful New Zealand countryside? From Springfield you’ll want to head to Whitecliffs Domain. This is a lovely campground nestled next to a stream.

  • Address: 29 Hartleys Road, Glentunnel
  • Cost: Free. This is a freedom campsite for both CSC and NSC vehicles.
  • Number of Sites: 30+. There is just a grass pullout on either side of the road, so squeeze in.
  • Amenities: Flushing toilets and dish wash station.
  • Notes:
    • Tent camping is also permitted.
    • This campsite is closed during winter due to wet and boggy conditions.
    • There is no potable water so bring what you’ll need with you.

Christchurch (2 Days)

Day 13 – Explore Christchurch

Airplane at Christchurch Aviation Museum

For your final day on the South Island, take it easy and explore Christchurch. From good food, to art galleries and other activities, there’s tons on offer; pick your poison and enjoy.

Tom’s an aviation geek so we decided to visit the National Air Force Museum. As with most museums across the country, it’s free to visit, although they do accept donations for the upkeep of the space.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this museum offered so much more than just a collection of planes. Yes, they have an incredible assortment of aircraft on display, but you’ll also find interactive exhibits and even a tour that takes you backstage. It was extremely interesting to see their maintenance garage, step inside an old airline carrier and view aircraft that’ll never make it to the main gallery floor!

ProTip: The backstage tours only take place a few times each day. Check in at the front desk when you arrive to sign up for the next available slot.

Where to Stay

You’ll want to situate yourself up for an easy vehicle return the next day when selecting where to spend your final night. For us, Euro Campers was located on the outskirts of Christchurch, so we elected to return for another evening at Chamberlains Ford Reserve.

On the other hand, if your rental company is closer to the center of town, you may prefer to stay at a paid site. Christchurch Top 10 Holiday Park is rated well.

  • Address: 39 Meadow Street, Christchurch 8542
  • Cost: Prices start at $37.00 NZD ($25.99 USD) per person, per night for a non-powered site, and $48.00 NZD ($33.72 USD) per person, per night for a powered site.
  • Number of Sites: 120 powered, 80 non-powered.
  • Amenities: Free WiFi, BBQ area, laundry facilities, communal kitchen, dump station, hot showers and flushing toilets.
  • Notes:
    • 5 minutes walk to nearby shopping center, restaurants and bus stop.
    • 5 km from city center.

Day 14 – Return Your Vehicle

Campervan on West Coast of New Zealands South Island

Day 14 is completely dedicated to returning your vehicle. Most companies require you to do a basic cleaning of the cabin, empty the grey water and refill the gas tanks. This can take a bit to accomplish since you’ll need to drive to both a dump site and gas station with LPG refill capabilities. Not to mention, you also have to repack all your belongings.

Assuming your rental company offered airport pickup, then it’s likely they’ll also offer drop-off service once your trip is complete. Take advantage of this so you don’t need to pay extra for a taxi. Just make sure to confirm when their shuttle service runs as some companies only offer rides every few hours.

Are you also visiting the North Island? Don’t forget to read our 2-week itinerary for inspiration.

Planning a trip to the South Island? Pin this itinerary for later!

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This post contains affiliate links for items we know and love. We’ll receive a small commission if you purchase one of these products or services, at no additional cost to you. This helps keep the site running. Thanks in advance for any and all support! – L&T

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We’re Laura and Tom, two geeks with a passion for travel and nature.

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