Hooker Valley River

New Zealand

12 Must See Places On The South Island Of New Zealand

There are endless reasons why you should visit the South Island of New Zealand. The varied landscapes, friendly people, cute wildlife and epic hikes are just the beginning. The following destinations and activities were my absolute favorites during a recent trip around the South Island. I would highly recommend you check them out if you are planning a trip! Keep in mind that I didn’t visit the very north part of the island (Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman etc.) which are meant to also be wonderful side trips.

A chilly sunrise at Tasman Glacier

1. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
You cannot visit the South Island without stopping to visit the beauty that is Mount Cook. The whole park is stunning and you will be stopping the car non-stop for photos. My two favorite sights in the park were:
– Tasman Glacier (pictured above) is the most amazing place to watch sunrise. Follow the signs to the Tasman river and follow this down to the end of the lake (the opposite end of the glacier). You will be greeted by massive icebergs and milky blue glacier water – it is quite the sight!
– The Hooker Valley trail is a great afternoon or sunset hike. This is a relatively easy and flat 5km (one way) hike if you make it to the lake and glacier, though even just walking the first 1-2kms is beautiful. The trail leads from White Horse Hill Campground (click here for my review of the campground)

Lake Pukaki

2. Lake Pukaki
This gorgeous lake is situated between Lake Tekapo (also worth stopping at) and Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. You won’t believe the crazy color of the lake until you see it with your own eyes. I would recommend stopping at the visitor centre located at the south end of the lake for some photo opportunities. If you are heading up to Mount Cook it is definitely worth stopping at Peter’s Lookout, about 25 minutes up the lake from the visitor centre. The view of the road, lake and Mount Cook from here is absolutely gorgeous.

Sunrise at Roy's Peak - worth the 3am wake up call!

3. Wanaka
This town is surrounded by mountains, lakes, and national parks – what is there not to like?! Some absolute must do’s while you are in the area include:
– Check out the famous “Wanaka Tree” for either sunrise or sunset – either time is magical in its own way.
– Hike up Roys Peak (pictured above) for some spectacular views over Wanaka and the lake. My husband and I got up at 3am to catch sunrise from the top, but a day hike would also be a great idea. Make sure you are prepared for a long uphill hike and windy conditions at the summit (my fingers and toes were frozen!)
– If you are partial to a nice New Zealand style pie, I would definitely recommend you check out the local bakery on Wanaka’s main street. Their vegetarian pie is delicious!
-Wanaka is also a great spot to go skiing or snowboarding if you’re there within the ski season

Blue Pools

4. Mt Aspiring National Park
Most people visit the park during their time in Wanaka or when passing through to/from the west coast. I thoroughly enjoyed the scenic drive from Wanaka (along the Haast Hwy) and would recommend stopping at the viewpoints marked along the way. If traveling west along the Haast Highway, you will pass alongside gorgeous Lake Hawea and then loop back around to views of Lake Wanaka before entering the park. Thunder Creek falls is worth stopping at, though for me the highlight of the park was definitely Blue Pools (pictured above). The short 10-15 minute walk to Blue Pools crosses over swinging bridges and brings you to a slice of turquoise heaven.

Sunset at Lindis Pass

5. Lindis Pass
At close to 1000m above sea level, Lindis Pass is the scenic route between Twizel (near Lake Pukaki) and Wanaka/Queenstown. Snow covers the mountains for some of the year, making it even more magical (though be careful on those icy bends!) I would recommend that you stop at one of the numerous pull-outs to take it all in. We opted to climb up a hillside to get some elevated views at sunset (pictured above).

Camping at Moke Lake 

6. Queenstown
Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world. If you are into hiking, camping, snow sports, water sports, cycling, paragliding, bungy jumping, etc… then you will love this city! My husband and I camped at Moke Lake (pictured), which is about a 15-20 minute drive from Queenstown. I posted a more in depth camping review here if you want to check it out! I would also highly recommend checking out Fergburger during your visit. The Codfather fish burger and delicious gelato were definitely highlights of the trip!

Glenorchy boat shed 

7. Glenorchy
If you are in Queenstown then you should absolutely take the time to visit Glenorchy. It is a tiny town 45kms from Queenstown, along Lake Wakatipu. The boat shed (pictured above) and dock are great places to enjoy the mountain and lake views. Mrs Woolly’s General Store is the perfect place to pick up a yummy snack, grab a coffee or buy a gift for a loved one back home.

Exploring Milford Sound with Southern Discoveries 

8. Milford Sound
Located within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound has been judged one of the worlds top travel destinations. I was lucky enough to explore the fiord with Southern Discoveries, via boat and kayak (pictured above). It was magical to experience the towering rock walls, countless waterfalls and abundant wildlife. We saw seals, dolphins, birds and even the most endangered penguin in the world – the Fiordland Crested Penguin (tawaki). One of the trip highlights was when the boat cruised right up under Stirling Falls, 155m high.

Franz Josef Glacier 

9. Franz Josef
There aren’t many other places in the world that you can access a glacier just a stone’s through away from a main highway. I opted to take the Ice Explorer tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides (pictured above). The tour started with a short helicopter ride up to the glacier before myself and the group explored the many ice formations and crevasses for about 3 hours. It was amazing to see the sheer size and detail of the ice and to think about its history. Unfortunately the glacier is melting rapidly so if it is on your bucket list – get there ASAP!

Hokitika Gorge 

10. Hokitika Gorge
Tucked away behind some farmland, Hokitika Gorge is a slice of glacial turquoise paradise. The lookout (pictured above) can be accessed via an easy 10 minute walk from the parking lot. You also get to cross a delightful swing bridge and experience lush vegetation along the path. This was definitely a highlight of my road trip along the west coast.

Devils Punchbowl Waterfall

11. Arthur’s Pass National Park
If you are driving between the west coast and Christchurch then you will likely take Arthur’s Pass. The scenic drive will take you through the heart of the Southern Alps, with plenty of spots to pull over and take it all in. I would highly recommend stopping at Devils Punchbowl Waterfall (pictured above), 131m tall. The hike out to the falls take about 20-30 minutes, with some steep steps but overall it is relatively easy – a must do!

Nugget Point

12. The Catlins Coast
There is something wild and magical about the Catlins Coast. You will feel disconnected (literally, as there’s no phone service most of the time) and removed from everyday life as soon as that fresh sea air hits your face. If you are in the area I would recommend the following:
– Get to Nugget Point for sunrise. It is the perfect opportunity to have Nugget Point Lighthouse to yourself, whilst enjoying the gorgeous morning light. If you’re lucky you might even seen some seals or penguins.
– Stop by Purakaunui Falls, a gorgeous cascading three-tiered waterfall. The short walk to the falls is incredibly lush and green, with the Purakaunui river running alongside the trail.
-Mclean Falls is also worth a visit and many consider it more spectacular than Purakaunui Falls. Make sure to see the upper and the lower falls and enjoy the peaceful forest walk.

What are you favorite places on New Zealand’s South Island? Let me know in the comments section below! 

Disclaimer – I was given complimentary passes for the Milford Sound Southern Discoveries tour and the Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour. Though as always, my opinions in this blog post are honest and unbiased. All photos were taken by me or my husband Matthew Hahnel.

Swing bridge on Hooker Valley trail

Hooker Lake and Glacier 

Tasman Lake and Glacier 

View from Peter's Lookout

Coromandel Peak 

The famous Wanaka Tree

Thunder Creek Falls 

Glenorchy boat dock at dusk

Purakaunui Falls

Nugget Point Lighthouse

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Comments (22)

  1. Awesome info thank you – this will help heaps with my trip planning for next year. I have a few questions if you don’t mind:
    – How long did you guys spend on the South island and was it enough time?
    – I’m trying to decide on camera gear to take, would I be okay with a fixed wide angle lens or would you advise taking a selection of lenses with a telephoto? Do you use mainly wide angle in your shots?
    – Are there any places that you would have loved to visit on either South or North Island that you didn’t get a chance to?
    Thank you, can’t wait for your response.

    1. Hi Edd!
      – We spent a whole month on the South Island, but that is probably too much time for the average person. We like to spend more time in places from a photography perspective. I think 2-3 weeks would easily be enough time for most travellers to cover the south island.
      – Our most popular used lenses this trip were our Sony 28-70 and 24-70. We did use our wide angle (16-35) and our 70-200 numerous time as well. The mountains look way more impressive if you shoot with a little bit of zoom.
      -We would have loved to visit the western northern tip of the South Island but did make it up there. There are loads of places that I want to visit on the North Island, Tongario being one of them.
      I hope that is helpful!

  2. You document your travels to beautifully! This information was so helpful + inspirational as I plan my impromptu NZ trip (leaving in 24 days)! May I ask how you transported yourself around the South Island? Did you rent a car, rely on buses or rent a camper van? Were the national parks hard to drive into?

    Any suggestions or recommendations that you can provide a solo female traveler are greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time! 🙂

    All my best,
    Allison

    1. Thank you Allie! My husband and I had a camper van (rented) but also tent camped at certain places. The national parks are very easy to access and you shouldn’t need snow chains in October/November. I felt very safe to travel as a female in New Zealand and as long as you take the standard precautions you should be fine. Let someone (maybe a ranger or a friend) know if you are going out hiking, especially in the mountains because the weather can change rapidly. Have a wonderful time!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m going to New Zealand next May and this was very helpful! A lot of the places on your list are on our rough itinerary, so having specific trail recommendations is fantastic. Thanks, again! 🙂

    1. Hi Lucy! We hike up the regular Roy’s Peak track to Roy’s Peak. If you are referring to Coromandel Peak then that was different… that is mostly off-trail and very hard to follow. I would recommend you catch one of the helicopter tours up there instead 🙂

  4. Hi Renee,

    Love your post. While in Franz Josef, did you guys stop by Roberts Point? My husband and I will be in the South Island in April to May and Roberts Point is on our itinerary. We would love to know your opinion if you’ve been there. 🙂

    Also, would you mind sharing the different types of shoes and clothes you brought with you. Looks like you have a pair of Danner’s and I was debating on whether to bring mines along with another pair of hiking boots, possibly my Lowa’s because they are my go to boots. lol but I would love to know your opinion.

    1. Hi Maria! Sorry for my slow response, I just saw your comment. No we didn’t stop by Robert’s Point. I actually haven’t heard of it! In terms of what clothes/shoes I took along… I just took my Danner’s as they are waterproof and my preferred boot for hiking. I didn’t want to bring two pairs of boots so I left my Saloman hiking boots at home. Plus, I like how the Danner’s look good on and off the trails. For clothes I took loads of layers because it was fairly cold in September. These included a parka, down jacket, wind jacket, rain jacket, fleece, thermals, hiking pants, warm socks etc. I hope you have an amazing trip!!

  5. Wow, seems like we missed a bunch of awesome spots during our NZ road trip! Especially the Hokitika Gorge looks awesome! We did do (and loved) Milford Sound, the scenic drive between Queenstown and Glenorchy, Wanaka (forgot to check out the Wanaka Tree though), and Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. The Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki Mount Cook NP was one of our favourite hikes over the entire country. New Zealand is truly a hiker’s and nature lover’s paradise. We loved our time there!
    Birthe (from Wandering the World) recently posted…34 Amazing Things to do on the South Island of New ZealandMy Profile