There’s something special about a road trip and there’s certainly something special about New Zealand. Combine the two and you’ve got the recipe for one of the most incredible trips you’ll ever experience. Get ready for the time of your life on your 21 day South Island road trip! In particular, New Zealand’s South Island is a stunning paradise unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to exaggerate its magnificence or beauty, from jaw-dropping mountains to icy glaciers, wild beaches and sweeping roads without another soul in sight for miles (the occasional sheep aside). I spent a delicious 3 weeks cruising around New Zealand in my campervan (booked via the wonderful RatPack Travel – jump to the end to hear about why you have to book your van through them!) and my only regret was that I couldn’t stay longer.
Read on for your ultimate 21 day South Island road trip!
This itinerary is largely based upon my own experience in New Zealand in February of this year. As you’ll know if you’ve read this post, things do have a tendency to go wrong on NZ roads! As such, this is a ‘perfect’ itinerary but may need adapting based on various factors. I was unable to visit the Abel Tasman National Park as it was largely shut due to wildfires, my trip to the glaciers was aborted after a mountain slip caused a 12 hour diversion and I ran out of time to see Kaikoura.
I’ve included a version that starts in Picton and ends in Christchurch, and vice versa, as well as Christchurch to Christchurch ‘loop’. The South Island is not conducive to loop driving; the large mountain range through the middle makes sure of that. As such, it’s almost impossible to see everything without going back on yourself sometimes. It might sound illogical now but I promise when you get there, you won’t mind; I’d happily drive those same routes back and forth again and again, they’re very hard to tire of.
A note on Arthur’s Pass: Arthur’s Pass is a stunning route that runs through the centre of the Southern Alps. It’s a must see, an awesome place to spend a night wild camping and a total logistical nightmare! Unless you choose to skip it, you’re going to end up driving across it twice. You’ll thank me later.
Click here for some essential New Zealand tips and here for things you must know before embarking on your New Zealand roadie! Includes where I found awesome freedom camps, money saving ideas and lots of other things you might not have thought of.
21 Day South Island Road Trip
Picton > Christchurch Route
Day 1: Picton, The Marlborough Sounds & Queen Charlotte Drive
Disembark your ferry (we took a really late one but then faced the issue of nowhere to camp – legally – in Picton…there’s a very funny story attached to this, I’ll save it for another day!) and head for the Queen Charlotte Drive. A stunning route through the Sounds. Spend a night here enjoying the scenery, swimming and walking.
Tip: ‘Aussie Bay’ is an $8 Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite with gorgeous views. Arrive early and grab a prime spot! It fills up fast.
Day 2 & 3: Nelson & the Abel Tasman National Park
Drive on to Nelson, a run of the mill town but a good stop off if you need to stock up on groceries, fuel or clothing. You’ll find almost anything you need here, in our case some discount bright green sweat pants and an SD card!
Unfortunately the Abel Tasman National Park was largely closed due to wildfires when I visited in February. Assuming nothing is impeding you, you’ll definitely want to spend a few days exploring the sweeping bays and adventure activities like kayaking and paddle boarding.
Day 4: The Wild West Coast, Punakaiki (Pancake Rocks) & Arthur’s Pass
The Wild West Coast was one of my favourite drives and favourite lunch spots! We parked up overlooking the beach to dig in to a cheeky pot noodle and watch the waves before heading down to world famous Punakaiki, otherwise known as ‘Pancake Rocks’.
After you’re done marvelling at the incredible formations and blow holes, drive down the coast and begin the wondrous route that is Arthur’s Pass! Once you get into the mountains there’s no phone signal and little else about so make sure you’re prepared with fuel, snacks and your camping spot.
You don’t have to spend a night in Arthur’s Pass, but it’s truly spectacular! We found a wild camp listed on WikiCamps NZ. Other than getting the van briefly stuck and a lashing storm keeping us awake, it was such an incredible spot.
Forgetting the van isn’t a 4 x 4…
Day 5: Arthur’s Pass & Geraldine
Wake up, cook your breakfast and marvel at your mountain neighbours and then hit the road. This one’s a take it slow and enjoy the ride kind of experience! Settle near Geraldine for the night, it’s a really sweet little town.
Day 6, 7, 8 & 9: Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook
This was my absolute favourite region. Just wait for your first sighting of Tekapo, then, just as you’ve recovered, you’ll be greeted by Pukaki which really blew my socks off. Spend a good few days just soaking up the area! There’s an awesome free camp right on the shores on Pukaki. Warning: that’s one icy morning wash!
- Hike the Hooker Valley Trail (10km)
- Hike (or drive) up St John’s Observatory for an awesome view of Tekapo
- Explore both lakes and swim if the air temperature is warm enough
- If you can afford it, a flight with the Helicopter Line over Cook is mind blowing, as is the glacier landing!
Day 10, 11, 12: Queenstown & Cardrona
Head down to Queenstown via oldy-worldy Cardrona (where you’ll find skiing in the winter!) and set up camp for a few days. There’s a few DOC sites for $8 a night about a 15 minute drive outside of the city. Alternatively, fork out for a holiday park. The pro is that you’ll be able to walk easily in to town and won’t have to worry about parking space or cost. The con is most come with a $50+ price tag!
- Do not skip Ferburger! Yes, the queues are worth it.
- Onsen Hot Pools, worth every cent
- See the Roaring Meg hydro falls
- If you want to do a sky dive or bungee, Queenstown is adrenalin junky central
Onsen Hot Pools, Queenstown
Day 13, 14, 15: Te Anau & Milford Sound
Uber isolated Milford Sound is well worth the effort all the way south. You’ll drive via Te Anau before taking the stunning (and sometimes hair raising) route down to the sound. There’s no phone signal anywhere remotely near here and no gas stations either, so leave Te Anau with a full tank, lots of snacks and any info you need pre-downloaded!
- Milford Sound Lodge is the only campsite and holiday park in the area. It books up fast so make sure you book ahead (you can do so online). Naturally, it’s expensive at $60 a night, but the facilities are really good including communal kitchens and lounges
- Jucy Cruise: wake up early for the 8:30am Jucy Cruise around the sound! Expect to be wowed by the sheer vastness, raging waterfalls and best of all, incredible wildlife. It’s not uncommon to share your experience with dolphins, penguins, seals and all sorts of birds.
Day 16, 17, 18: Wanaka
You will love Wanaka! It’s home to a gorgeous lake, that tree, the cosiest cinema ever and a whole host of incredible hikes. Roy’s Peak is one of the most famous and a definite must. It’s only a small town but a lovely place to kick back and spend a few days resting and exploring.
- Wanaka Lake View Holiday Park: finding a free camp near Wanaka is hard! Enjoy a few days of hot showers instead.
- Cinema Paradiso is a must! Comfy sofas, great movies and freshly baked cookies and homemade ice cream during the interval
- Visit the Blue Pools (wear lots of bug spray!)
Blue Pools, Wanaka
Day 19: Franz Josef & Fox Glacier
Head up the coast to the glaciers! Unfortunately, as the ice has now receded so much, glacier tours tend to be operated by helicopter these days. Heli-hikes are incredible, and incredibly expensive. If there’s room in your budget it’s a worthwhile experience but do manage your expectations; unpredictable conditions mean that flying is often called off with no notice.
Day 20: Arthur’s Pass and Christchurch
I told you there’s no way to incorporate Arthur’s Pass without doing it twice! Driving down a spectacular, mountain lined road twice? Oh well! I suppose I can cope…*heart eyes*.
Head on to Christchurch, there’s a good, free site about 30 minutes outside of the city if you want to freedom camp.
Day 21: Christchurch
Spend the day exploring Christchurch before flying on to your next destination! Congratulations on completing an epic tour of the South Island. I bet you don’t want to leave, do you?…
Of course there’s still plenty more you could see on the South Island. If you’ve got longer, why not head up to Kaikoura? You could also head further south to the Catlins for some extra special outdoorsy adventures.
Christchurch > Christchurch Route
If you’re flying into and out of Christchurch, then follow the same route but head North to Picton via Kaikoura first. You could see more of the Marlborough Sounds this way too including Blenheim. You’d need to shave a few days off of other stops to allow for the extra miles or add 2-3 days to your trip.
Twizel, jaw dropping (unedited!)
Where to book a van?
Wondering where to start with hiring a camper van in New Zealand? Look no further than RatPack Travel!
RatPack is an awesome small business run out of a bus in Byron Bay (lower overheads = higher savings passed on to the consumer! Yay!) that promises to beat any direct quote on a campervan. Better still, they’ll source suitable options for you, do all the leg work involved in booking and give you priceless advice and friendly, reliable support on the road.
I’m such a huge fan of RatPack because Sammy, the founder, is working so hard to change the face of travel. High street agencies and rental companies themselves are often simply in it for the profit. They’ll up-sell overcharge and, from my own experience, are often not there if you run into any trouble along the way. Sammy, on the other hand, eats in to his own commission to pass a generous saving on to the customer so he is always the cheapest (and loveliest!) avenue to book via in Australia and New Zealand.
Enter your trip details here and Sammy will be in touch soon to help you get on the road! Alternatively you can even click here to WhatsApp him if you want to keep things extra personal and informal. He’s also got a brilliant, free trip planner available for download.
If you want to know more about the type of van I’d recommend booking and other essential New Zealand road trip tips, then follow this link!
Milford Sound Lodge