A South Island road trip in New Zealand is what I call an adventure. From mountain peaks with snow on top of them, surrounded by crystal clear mountain lakes to forest and glaciers. As a lover of nature and the great outdoors, the South Island simply got it all. And even more than that. That’s why you will probably end up putting so many South Island highlights on your itinerary when you’re preparing your South Island road trip. With this article I like to give you a hand in preparing your adventure, but I have to be honest: pointing 10 South Islands highlights out in this article was also incredibly difficult for me. There are just too many amazing places around.
So these 10 South Islands highlights I am mentioning in this article are certainly not the only highlights you will find. Actually, we even had to skip some places and activities during our time in New Zealand because of extreme weather conditions. Yes, guys, that’s New Zealand in a nutshell. You never know if you can do all the things you would love to do because the weather and road conditions are kind of unpredictable. But at the other hand: good reason to come back one day. But for now our South Island highlights from our last South Island road trip, in random order.
Our South Island Highlights in New Zealand
Plan your South Island Road Trip with these tips
Lake Daniells is one of those places that is not really known by travelers. However, the locals love to come here during the weekend. After walking the 8 kilometer long path to Lake Daniells, we can certainly understand why. To reach Lake Daniells, you have to follow a footpath through the forest, that looks like it has just been transferred straight from a fairy tale. The trees are covered in bright green moss and you will walk next to a crystal clear stream of water. But in the end, Lake Daniells will be the icing on top of the cake. After walking for about two hours you will find yourself at the edge of an extreme clear lake, surrounded by green mountains and peace and quiet. You will see fish swimming around the lake and there is a hut where you can stay for the night. Make a camp fire for the night and enjoy New Zealand’s finest nature.
Abel Tasman National Park
Those pictures you will find in brochures about Abel Tasman National Park showing you extreme blue water and white beaches? They are not Photoshop at all. It really is how this South Island highlight actually looks like. We walked for four days through Abel Tasman National Park and we camped for three nights along the beach. It was amazing as we were there in low season and during the night there was no one else. We slept on our very own private beach. How romantic is that?! If you don’t have a great amount of time to spend on your South Island Road Trip, I would still recommend to visit Abel Tasman National Park for at least one day. You might even want to combine it with a kayak tour to see the park from another point of view.
Nugget Point was such a big surprise for us during our South Island road trip and we almost skipped it. I am so happy we didn’t in the end. On our way from Dunedin to Invercargill we took an alternative route, taking some gravel roads instead of the main road. We parked our car and walked the short walk to Nugget Point. We were blown away when we saw the landscape. By that time we had already seen a lot of New Zealand’s coastline, but this specific piece of land was incredible. Rocks were raising up from the bright blue ocean, creating a nice color palette together with all the green on the cliffs. Sea lions were hanging around on the rocks tens of meters below us and the lighthouse just made the whole picture complete. Somehow Nugget Point managed to steal a piece of our hearts and it became one of our favorite places on the South Island.
Timaru is not one of the typical South Island highlights I would say. Moreover, the town itself is just a town (although the vibe there is not bad at all). We spent a few days here before we finished our South Island roadtrip in Christchurch. Why we loved the town anyway? Well, every night, just shortly after sunset, penguins will come out the ocean to go back to their nest along the shore of Timaru. This is something that happens on a lot of places around New Zealand, but Timaru is one of the few places you can actually see it happening. The penguins have their nests next to a road where the street lights shine a bright orange light on the beach and road. Because of that, you will see them pretty clear!
If you are planning on visiting the penguins in Timaru as well, please keep your distance and don’t use any flashlight to take pictures. The penguins sometimes get really close to you, but they are also shy creatures. You will scare them away and they will be too afraid to get back to their nests.
I am pretty sure you have heard of Milford Sound at the moment you started to plan your South Island road trip as it is one of the most visited places in New Zealand. But have you also heard of Doubtful Sound, the lesser known relative? Same same, but different. Both are extraordinary beautiful fiords, in the southwest of the South Island, and they both reach to the Tasman Sea at the end. But we actually liked Doubtful Sound a tiny bit better, as it is longer, bigger and way less crowded. In Milford Sound we were one of the many, at Doubtful Sound we saw just one more boat. The peace here made the fiord more impressive to us.
It’s a bit of the same story as with Nugget Point, but Lake Pukaki was totally a surprise to us. We were on our way to Lake Tekapo and somehow we didn’t really know much about Lake Pukaki. Until we took a curve on the highway and saw the lake suddenly popping up after that. The water was bright blue, and at the end of the lake we could see Mount Cook and other snow-capped mountains. We decided to camp there as there is a (free!) camping spot and were treated by an incredible pink sunset that evening. Seriously, can you even wish for more on your South Island road trip?
Franz Josef Glacier
Never in my life I had seen a glacier before, until we arrived at the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. First we visited the Fox Glacier, but the Franz Josef Glacier made more impact on us. Actually, what had the most impact on us, were the signs around Fox Glacier, pointing out where the glacier was used to be once. That is… confronting I have to say. The glaciers melt away so fast, so I will definitely pay a visit on your South Island road trip as long as it is possible. Sadly enough it’s probably not going to stay a South Island highlights much longer.
Rob Roys Glacier Track
The Rob Roys Glacier Track was one of our favorite hikes in New Zealand. The road you have to take to actually reach the start of the hike, is amazingly beautiful, although a bit challenging at the same time. It is an unsealed road and you have to drive through some streams of water, so you have to feel confident enough to do it. The track itself follows a path through the forest and sometimes you will have a view over the mountains. By the end you reach the lookout point, you will get a stunning view over the Rob Roys Glacier and some incredible waterfalls. We were a bit unlucky as it was really cloudy the day we walked the track. However, we still really liked the view. Highly recommended I would say.
Charming Creek Walkway
The Charming Creek Walkway is a track along the West Coast of the South Island and follows a river and an old mine track. Along the way in the forest you will see a lot of old mine attributes, waterfalls and gigantic rocks in the crystal clear river. We didn’t had a lot of expectations on forehand as we didn’t know that much about the walk, so we were really surprised by the beauty of it. We also barely saw other people using the tracks. If you are going to drive the West Coast on your South Island road trip, I would definitely make a stop at Charming Creek Walkway.
Just check out the picture above. Do I need to say more? The area of Mount Cook is incredibly beautiful. Do you recognize the same mountain on the picture of Lake Pukaki? You can do tons of activities around Mount Cook such as hiking and taking a scenic flight. One of the most populair tracks here is the Hooker Valley Track. Surely a South Island highlight you don’t want to miss out on.
Other South Island Highlights
Te Wairopupu Springs: an extremely clear water source where you can actually see the bottom and everything that grows into the water. Pretty bizar to see.
Arthur’s Pass: the way across Arthur’s Pass was one of our favorite roads on the South Island.
Milford Sound: especially the road towards Milford Sound is breathtaking and you just can’t stop staring at the scenery.
The West Coast: also one of my favorite areas to drive around is the West Coast. At some places it feels like you’re driving next to the jungle.
Queen Charlotte Sound: when you take the ferry from Wellington you will almost cross this area to reach Picton. Absolutely worth it to make a stop.
Christchurch: some people might say it’s boring, for us Christchurch was our favorite city in New Zealand.