The Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip Guide for Adventurers
There’s no better way to experience New Zealand in the summer than driving down its winding roads. However, planning the perfect road trip across the two islands can be overwhelming. When Stephen and I first started researching, we were confused while trying to figure out the most beautiful places to go and the best route to take. Save yourself the trouble and follow our journey for an amazing adventure. Note: we did a combination of tent camping and hostel stays, but you could modify this trip by renting a campervan or only staying in hostels and hotels. Here is your step-by-step guide to the ultimate New Zealand road trip:
1. Fly into Auckland
Auckland‘s location at the top of the North Island makes this city the perfect starting point. First spend some time exploring sights like Mount Eden and shopping for camping supplies on Queen Street. For a day trip take the ferry to the beach on nearby Waiheke Island. Then throw your packs in your rental car and take off.
Auckland to Waitoetoe campsite drive time: 4 hours
2. Explore the Taranaki Coast
To make the most of your coastal experience, camp at the free Waitoetoe campsite with stunning ocean views from your tent. When we went, we had it all to ourselves. Next pop over to New Plymouth. This small city serves as a great base to explore nearby Egmont National Park. Spend the day hiking around Mount Taranaki, the perfectly shaped volcano that dominates this park. Then take the Forgotten World Highway to wind through New Zealand’s iconic rolling hills on the way to your next volcanic adventure.
Waitoetoe campsite to New Plymouth drive time: 30 minutes
New Plymouth to Tongariro National Park drive time: 3.5 hours
3. Hike Active Volcanoes in Tongariro National Park
If you’re up for a journey, complete the multi-day Tongariro Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. You’ll experience it all: rushing waterfalls, active volcanos, and the Emerald Lakes. However, you don’t have to trek for days with a heavy pack to see the best of this national park. You can also check out the Tongariro Alpine Crossing day hike, or the shorter hike to Taranaki Falls, before camping in the area.
Tongariro National Park to Wellington drive time: 3.5 hours
4. Take the ferry from the North Island to the South Island
Next head down to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, at the southernmost part of the North Island. Check yourself into the Moana Lodge for a relaxing stay with beachfront views and unwind. Then catch a ferry ride to the South Island. Some companies will let you take your rental car aboard, but we picked up a new one in Picton. From there, drive over to Westport to spend the night. There isn’t much to do in this small town, but in the morning, adventure awaits.
Picton to Westport drive time: 4 hours
5. Drive the Great Coast Road to Arthur’s Pass
Refuel before leaving Westport, because you won’t see a gas station again for a while. Then roll down the windows and drive down the Great Coast Road, one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world. Eventually, the road will turn inward and lead you across one-lane bridges through steep mountains until you reach Arthur’s Pass National Park. Once there, take on Scott’s Route to Avalanche Peak, a difficult but thrilling alpine hike, and then camp for the night at Avalanche Creek Shelter campsite.
Westport to Arthur’s Pass drive time: 2.5 hours
Arthur’s Pass to Hokitika’s Gorge drive time: 2 hours
6. Cross Hokitika’s Gorge
Follow the signs through farmland on backroads to find Hokitika’s Gorge. A short forest path leads to the swing bridge where you’ll cross the bright aqua blue water below. Take the plunge into melted glacier water if you’re feeling brave, or continue along the path, which slopes down to the water’s edge. There you’ll find the perfect vantage point to photograph the gorge.
Hokitika Gorge to Westland Tai Poutini National Park drive time: 2.5 hours
7. Enter Glacier Country
Stop in the town of Franz Joseph as you continue to make your way down the coast. This area is famous for its glaciers, but the view of them from a distance is over-hyped. Try some of the other hikes in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, which I loved for its lush, moss-covered rainforest far more than the sight of the glacier.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park to Wanaka: 3 hours
8. Hit the Water in Wanaka
Wanaka is a picturesque mountain town (and my favorite in New Zealand). Take a break from hiking and spend your first day kayaking on Lake Wanaka where you’ll see the famous Wanaka tree. Then head back to the trails and hike to Roy’s Peak and Rocky Mountain’s summit for panoramic views of the surrounding lakes and mountains, or go paragliding over it all for the ultimate thrill.
Wanaka to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park drive time: 3 hours
9. Hike Snow-Capped Mountains in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The drive up to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is spectacular; it leads you past the bright blue Lake Pukaki and offers a view of the mountains straight down the highway. Once there, hike the Mueller Hut route to Sealy Tarns, a trek comprised of what feels like never-ending stairs that leads to never-ending views. Bring a lunch to eat at the top as you gaze down at Hooker Valley and the surrounding peaks. On your drive out after your hike, stop by the alpine lavender farm to wander the dreamy purple fields.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to Queenstown drive time: 3 hours
10. Visit the Adventure Capital of the World
In Queenstown you can take your pick of the adrenaline-fueled activities that gave the city its nickname: mountain biking, white water rafting, sky diving and more. For a classic New Zealand experience, leap off the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge at the world’s first commercial bungee jump. Then treat yourself to a break from camp food. Eat at the popular Fergburger, where the line out the door is worth it. Afterwards, don’t forget to indulge in Cookie Time!
Queenstown to Fiordland National Park drive time: 4 hours
11. Experience the Eighth Wonder of the World
We got a ticket on this leg of the New Zealand road trip, so be careful to keep your speed down. You’ll enter Fiordland National Park through a valley dotted with scenic campsites. Wake up early the next morning to hike the difficult Gertrude’s Saddle for a great view of Milford Sound, then spend the next day kayaking Milford Sound to explore it close up and see why Rudyard Kipling called it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Fiordland National Park to Te Anau drive time: 1 hour
12. Take on the Routeburn
After a quick rest in Te Anau, you’re now ready to tackle the Routeburn Great Walk, rated one of the 10 best treks in the world. Drive back to Queenstown, then book transport that drops you off at the Shelter and picks you up 32 km later at the Divide. This hike will take you across the rugged beauty of two national parks, with highlights like Harris Saddle, and be one of the most unforgettable adventures you ever take.
Te Anau to Queenstown: 2 hours
Queenstown to Lake Tekapo: 3 hours
13. Stargaze at Lake Tekapo
At the heart of the world’s biggest International Dark Sky Reserve, you’ll find the scenic Lake Tekapo. Drive over to Lake Tekapo Regional Park to get away from the crowds. There you can snap pictures of the bright blue water as you wait for daylight to fade. Spend the night stargazing at the Milky Way. You’ll want to stay up late to visit the Church of the Good Shepard beneath the stars, where even in the early a.m. hours you’ll find a handful of photographers.
Lake Tekapo to Christchurch drive time: 3 hours
14. Fly out of Christchurch
As you drive into Christchurch‘s city center, you’ll be stunned at the massive earthquake damage still visible to this day. Spend the day before you fly out walking around a city that’s both in ruins and energetically rebuilding. Visit sights like the crumbling Christchurch Cathedral, then see evidence of the city’s comeback at Re:START, a mall built in shipping containers, and New Regent Street, an unharmed heritage street.
New Zealand may seem like two small islands on a map, but this summer road trip across them will take you through beach towns, mountain passes, rainforests, and everything in between. You’ll feel like you stepped into a fairytale landscape, and come back with your own story to tell. So book your flight, your rental car, and pack your bags. What are you most looking forward to on this New Zealand road trip adventure?