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 my South Island road trip. I would highly recommend you check them out! 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.
12 Must See Places On The South Island Of New Zealand
1. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
You cannot visit the South Island without visiting 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:
- Tasman Glacier (pictured above) is the most amazing place to watch the sunrise. Follow the signs to the Tasman river and head down to the end of the lake (the opposite end to the glacier). You will be greeted with a stunning view of icebergs and milky blue glacial water.
- The Hooker Valley Trail is a great afternoon or sunset hike. It’s 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 worthwhile. The trail begins at the White Horse Hill Campground (click here for my review of the campground).
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 first recommend stopping at the visitor center located at the south end of the lake for some photo opportunities. Then, if you are heading up to Mount Cook, it is definitely worth visiting Peter’s Lookout, a pull-off about a 25-minute drive up the lake from the visitor center.
The beautiful town of Wanaka is surrounded by mountains, lakes, and national parks – what is there not to love about it?!
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 for spectacular lake views. My husband and I got up at 3 am to catch the sunrise from the top, but a day hike (or for sunset) would also be a great idea. Make sure you are prepared for a long uphill hike and likely windy conditions at the summit (my fingers and toes were frozen!)
- If you are partial to a nice New Zealand style pie, I would recommend you check out the local bakery on Wanaka’s main street, The Doughbin. Their vegetarian pie is delicious and has won a bunch of awards!
- Wanaka is also a great spot to go skiing or snowboarding if you visit during winter
4. Mt Aspiring National Park
Most people visit the Mt Aspiring National 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 various 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.
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).
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 next door were definitely highlights of the trip!
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 perfect for picking up a yummy snack, grabbing a coffee or buying a gift for a loved one back home.
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.
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, Franz Josef is one of them.
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!
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 stop was definitely a highlight of my road trip along the west coast.
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!
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 visiting the area I would recommend the following:
- Get to Nugget Point for sunrise. It is the perfect opportunity to have the area 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 your favorite places on New Zealand’s South Island? Let me know in the comments section below!
Here are some more images from our trip:
PIN FOR LATER!
Disclaimer – I was given complimentary passes for the Milford Sound Southern Discoveries tour and the Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour. As always, my opinions in this blog post are honest and unbiased. All photos were taken by myself and my husband, Matthew Hahnel.
This is great! I’m currently planning a trip for about 10-11 days on the South Island. I know this was a while ago, but by any chance do you remember the route you took for all of this?
I live here in New Zealand but I just love looking at your photos! Amazing! We just discovered Hokitika Gorge last year and the colours are stunning.
What month were you in NZ? Looks like that’s perfect time as it’s not summer so it should be way less tourists!
We visited during the month of September 🙂
Hi, Renee. Just got BACK from NZ and found your website. Of course I wished I found your page BEFORE going but the good news is that I visited most of these places. We even slept a night in Arthur’s Pass!
Thanks for sharing. I hope to return to visit the rest of your recommendations! 🙂
Hey! Any chance you traveled in July? It looked more like winter in your photos. I’m traveling to New Zealand for the month and hoping I can expect similar views and experiences.
wonderful pics! I love the the details and everything looks so spectacular. I need to get a 28-75 would you definitely recommended a zoom passed that or will a 16-35 and 28-75 be enough to shoot. Do you use lightroom for post processing and I’m assuming this is all shot in raw? Also I have 9 days only for my trip what are must see places that I have to go too?
I stumbled upon your website looking for top scenic places on the South Island – so glad I did! Your photos are breathtaking & your synopsis of locations was so pleasantly outlined – thank you. Will definitely be finding you on Instagram 🙂
I will be traveling to South Island in October and will doing a driving loop . Planning use your above must-see’s as guide to build out my 2 week trip. Based on the locations mentioned above, do you have recommendations on how that two week should be laid out based on the 12 locations mentioned? In short – are there any locations where you recommend spending more/less time at? Thank you!
Kia Ora Renee! ? I love your blog about New Zealand! I spent 8-weeks there, and it is such a magical place. Next time I plan to hire a car, so I can explore more off the beaten path, but I think I still saw a lot traveling by bus. I actually hitchhiked from Hokitika to Hokitika Gorge! What a beautiful place. My favorite spot is definitely Mt. Cook, but I also enjoyed Abel Tasman and Kaikoura. Love all your photos!
This is going to be super helpful for our trip to New Zealand in a couple of weeks! Thank you! I just wish I could view the photos. For some reason, they wont show up for me. 🙁
Photos won’t show for me either, but thank you for all the tips 🙂
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!
I’m so glad you also liked it! New Zealand is really so magical, I can’t wait to get back and explore some more!
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.
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!!
So beautiful! I would add Mount Sunday to this list for sure. 🙂
Thanks Clazz! I will have to add that to the list for next time 🙂
What Track did you take to get to that peak at Roy’s peak?
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 🙂
wonderful info Renee
Glad you liked it!
Your photos in this post are amazing Renee!!
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! 🙂
I am so glad you found the post helpful! Enjoy! 🙂
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,
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!
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.
– 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!
Loved all the places you loved!
They were hard not to love right?! It was great catching up in Queenstown 🙂
Fantastic blog Renee and incredible photos.