South Island Travel Tips

The Southern Alps: Where Are the Best Views of New Zealand Mountains?

The Southern Alps, a mountain range which runs down most of the length of New Zealand’s South Island, is the place to go if you want to see stunning views of New Zealand mountains. They’re often reflected in calm lakes and there are countless hikes, viewpoints and scenic roads where you can see them. Where are the best spots though? Keep reading and you’ll find out!

Nelson Lakes National Park

Nelson, which is pretty much at the top of the South Island, is surprisingly close to some incredible mountain views. Head to Lake Rotoiti on a nice day and you’ll be blown away by the landscape. You can see it from the edge of the lake but to get the best views you’ll want to do either the St Arnaud Range Track, the Mount Robert Circuit Track or maybe the multi-day Travers-Sabine Track. I’ve only done the first two (and the walk to Whiskey Falls) and I was more than satisfied with my time at Lake Rotoiti.

You can also go to Lake Rotoroa (which is closer to the main road between Nelson and Christchurch) – there’s a short walk there with a great view or you could just hang out on the pier near the car park.

Lewis Pass / Kaikoura

I’ve driven through the Lewis Pass area a few times but it’s either been dark or raining every time! There are some nice mountain views though, so you might want to explore this area a bit more than I have (so far). Hanmer Springs is the most popular town in these parts — you can’t see much from town but there are some hikes nearby. If you’re travelling between the top of the South Island and Christchurch along the coastal road you’ll pass through Kaikoura, where you’ll see mountains right by the beach!

Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass is the road you’ll want to take if you’re driving between Christchurch and the West Coast. There are some great mountain views on this road, some of the best being around Castle Hill / Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. The landscape changes from barren to lush as you cross through the mountains towards the West Coast. There are some nice hikes in this area too, including one to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, one of my favourite waterfalls in New Zealand.

Ashburton Lakes / Hakatere Conservation Park

This area is an easy day trip from Christchurch and there are heaps of awesome mountain views to feast on. The most iconic spot in this area is Mount Sunday, which played a key role in the Lord of the Rings movies. There is so much to see on the scenic drive there too, including several calm lakes surrounded by mountains. Places I’d recommend stopping include Lake Clearwater, Lake Emily and Lake Heron.

Lake Coleridge is in close proximity and looks awesome (I haven’t been yet) and I’d also recommend stopping off at Rakaia Gorge when you’re travelling through this area.

Hiking the Rakaia Gorge Walkway, New Zealand

Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin

Lake Tekapo is the most popular tourist town in the Canterbury High Country region and it makes for a good base for exploring the area. It’s only a couple of hours drive from Christchurch and you can get some good mountain views right from town. Church of the Good Shepherd is the most iconic spot, but for the best views close to town head to either Mount John Observatory or the Tekapo Peninsula Walkway.

Also check out nearby Fairlie (Lake Opuha is a stunning spot when there is snow around) and Lake Alexandrina.

Mount Cook National Park

A 90-minute drive from Lake Tekapo will take you to Mount Cook Village as well as the Tasman and Hooker Valleys. The walks in Mount Cook National Park take you to viewpoints overlooking New Zealand’s tallest mountains, including Mount Cook which is the tallest. If you’re into hiking you should definitely visit this national park – check out the Red Tarns Track, Hooker Valley Track, Tasman Glacier Track and the Kea Point Track. All these walks are three hours or less (unless you’re a slow walker). For something longer, consider doing the hike up to Mueller Hut. Even if you’re not into hiking you should still drive to Mount Cook National Park – there are some amazing views right from the road!

Waitaki Valley

You’ll pass through a section of the Waitaki Valley when driving between Mount Cook and Queenstown, or all of it when driving between Mount Cook and Dunedin. Some of the best spots include Lake Ohau (which isn’t technically in the Waitaki Valley) and the Benmore Peninsula Track– such an underrated hike!

Benmore Peninsula Walkway

Central Otago

Central Otago mainly consists of arid Southern Alps foothills with some larger mountain ranges hovering in the distance. You’ll pass through the Lindis Pass when driving between Mount Cook / Lake Tekapo and Queenstown and it’s there that you’ll see the best mountain views in Central Otago (in my opinion).

Queenstown

A lot of people wanting to see the Southern Alps will head straight for Queenstown, New Zealand’s most iconic mountain town. It’s easy to see why – there are incredible views everywhere and you don’t need to walk far to see some of the best ones. If you’re into hiking I’d recommend doing the Ben Lomond Track, and Queenstown Hill (which start right in Queenstown).

If you want to walk a bit but nothing too strenuous then do some of the shorter walks near Queenstown, including Bob’s Cove, Glenorchy Walkway and the track in Paradise.

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Queenstown Hikes

The Bob's Cove viewpoint, Queenstown, New ZealandA trip to Paradise, Queenstown, New Zealand

If you’d prefer to stay in your car (with brief escapes to see the views) there are some scenic drives you should check out. The best of these are the drive to Glenorchy, Paradise and Kinloch, the Crown Range between Queenstown and Wanaka and the drive to the Remarkables Ski Area. Also check out Arrowtown and nearby Lake Hayes, where you’ll get stunning views on a clear, calm day.

Hiking Lake Hayes in Winter, Queenstown, New Zealand

Wanaka

Wanaka is like a smaller, quieter (but still busy) version of Queenstown. There’s a nice beach area right in front of town and you’ll find some of the best day hikes in New Zealand nearby. It’s hard to go past Roys Peak if you’re looking for an iconic day hike. It’s extremely popular, but you can’t argue with those views! Also check out Isthmus Peak (which is just as good but far less popular) and Rocky Mountain.

Stunning view of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak, New Zealand

Mount Aspiring National Park

From Wanaka it’s a scenic drive to Rob Roy Glacier (and other nearby hikes). This is one of the most picturesque glaciers in New Zealand and I highly recommend this walk! The drive from Wanaka to Haast (West Coast) also passes through Mount Aspiring National Park and you can get mountain views from the road. There are also several waterfalls to stop off at (Thunder Creek Falls, Roaring Billy Falls, Fantail Falls) as well as the Blue Pools, home to some of the clearest water in New Zealand.

The West Coast

There are some great views of the Southern Alps from several places on the West Coast. Franz Josef, with its glacier of the same name, is a beautiful spot, as is nearby Fox Glacier. One of the best places to see the Southern Alps would have to be Lake Matheson, where you’ll see Mount Cook and other big mountains reflected in the calm water.

Fiordland National Park

Last but certainly not least, Fiordland National Park! When you think of iconic New Zealand scenery you can’t go past Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is obviously a place you’ll want to visit, and the drive there is a massive part of its appeal. Check out places like Lake Marian, Gertrude Saddle, Key Summit and the Mirror Lakes for the best views. You can get views of Milford Sound itself from the foreshore / car park area or on a cruise.

Milford Sound, New ZealandThe Lake Marian hike, Fiordland National Park, New ZealandHiking the Gertrude Saddle Track, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

Doubtful Sound is like a bigger, quieter and more scenic version of Milford Sound. It’s a bit more expensive to visit than Milford Sound but it’s well worth it in my opinion. The journey there is great too – you’ll cruise across Lake Manapouri (which has been described as New Zealand’s most beautiful lake) and then drive over Wilmot Pass where you’ll see a stunning view over Doubtful Sound. If I could nominate one place that showed the best, most unique side of New Zealand it’d be Fiordland National Park – don’t miss it when you travel to New Zealand next!

What about the North Island?

There are a few volcanoes on the North Island which I highly recommend visiting. These include Mount Taranaki, Mount Ruapehu and the various volcanoes you’ll see on the Tongariro Crossing hike. Outside of that, the North Island is mostly flat – stick to the Southern Alps if you want to spend lots of your time around snow-capped mountains.

Do you need help planning your trip to New Zealand? Check out my South Island travel guide, my two-week South Island itinerary or get in touch if you have any specific questions!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.
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