This list of top 12 natural wonders in the South Island showcases the best scenery Te Waipounamu has to offer. I reckon it’s a compelling document to show potential visitors to New Zealand and locals alike the beauty of this special place — the most beautiful island on Earth!
There are heaps of impressive gorges throughout the South Island — so many scenic river areas to walk by. It’s hard to choose one, but if you’re going to make me I’ll go with Hokitika Gorge. You can’t beat those surreal shades of blue surrounded by native bush — sandflies seem to love it too though!
I wrote a post about the top 12 rock formations in the South Island recently and gave first place to the Pancake Rocks. There are several others that could claim that title, including the Moeraki Boulders, Castle Hill and Nugget Point. You’re never far from some kind of unique piece of nature in the South Island.
Golden Bay / Tākaka Hill
The tiny Golden Bay region features some of the best coastal scenery in the South Island — including springs, rock formations, caves and rugged beaches. Highlights include Wharariki Beach, Te Waikoropupū Springs and Cape Farewell.
Tākaka Hill, full of caves, an underground river (Riuwaka Resurgence) and lots of viewpoints cuts Golden Bay off from the rest of the island and makes for a scenic drive from Nelson / Motueka.
Separated from the South Island by the roaring Foveaux Strait, Stewart Island sits at the extreme south of New Zealand. Below that are wild, uninhabited islands and further south from there is Antarctica.
Stewart Island (Rakiura) is the third largest of New Zealand’s islands and is mostly covered in bush. Oban, the island’s main village, is the perfect place to explore on foot, with lots of walking trails branching off in every direction. Views everywhere and lots of quiet beaches — Bathing Beach and Observation Rock are two of the best spots to visit and are very close to downtown Oban.
The Rakiura Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks — we did a day walk (Port William to Oban) rather than the whole three-day journey.
Rivers of Fiordland/ Mount Aspiring
The rivers of Fiordland / Mount Aspiring National Park run as clear and colourful as any around the world.
You’ll see them on various hikes throughout the national parks, including the Milford Track and Routeburn Track, two of the country’s top multi-day hikes. You can also see some of these rivers on the road between Wānaka and Haast — the Blue Pools is a good spot to seek out.
Some of the most accessible glaciers (to see at least) in the world are found in the South Island, especially in Glacier Country on the West Coast. You can see Fox Glacier from the road to Lake Matheson or the South Side Walkway (the better track closed a few years ago due to damage). You can fly up and walk on some of these glaciers, but the days of being able to do it without a tour are long gone.
The Marlborough Sounds is a series of sunken valleys at the top of the South Island. The various arms and peninsulas offer up spectacular views of the sounds, whether you’re driving the winding, scenic road to French Pass, travelling the main road from Nelson or hiking the Queen Charlotte Track.
You could also do a boat trip to one of the lodges on / near the Queen Charlotte Track. The road down there has been closed for the last couple of years — it feels a lot like an island now! Another option for enjoying the Marlborough Sounds is to hang out in Picton and do some walks / boat trips.
READ MORE: A Trip to Lochmara Lodge, Marlborough Sounds
The Otago Peninsula sits on Dunedin’s doorstep, providing an almost endless supply of weekend wanderings for locals. Tourists are drawn in by the world-class wildlife viewing and dramatic coastal views, all within a 45-minute drive of the city. For some of the best views, head to three of the highest points — Soldiers Monument, Sandymount and the Harbour Cone.
Commonly seen wildlife on the Otago Peninsula includes penguins, sea lions, seals and albatross. Seeing a hundred or so little blue penguins come ashore and shuffle past you on their way home for the night is a special experience!
For a great view of the Otago Peninsula drive up to Mount Cargill on the opposite side of the harbour. There’s a spot there where you can see the entire Otago Peninsula.
Abel Tasman National Park
By far the best beaches in the South Island are found in Abel Tasman National Park. This series of sheltered bays and beaches backed by lush native bush is best explored on foot, but kayak tours and boat trips are also fun ways to get around.
You can also drive to Totaranui and do some short walks from there. Another good aspect of Abel Tasman National Park is its proximity to Nelson. You could spend a day in the wilds of the park before enjoying some city dining and nightlife in Nelson — it couldn’t be more convenient!
Stay in Kaiteriteri if you want to bask in the beauty of Abel Tasman National Park a little longer. It’s not quite in the park but the beaches are just as good (just not as remote).
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
The South Island’s tallest mountains are mostly huddled together in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, a relatively small section of the Southern Alps in the middle of the island. Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and Mount Sefton are the tallest and most iconic, and you’ll get great views of them from various tracks in the national park or just from the side of the road!
The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most highly regarded walks in New Zealand and only takes a few hours. Other short walks include the Tasman Glacier Track, Red Tarns and Kea Point. You can hike to Mueller Hut as a day walk or stay in the hut for a night and walk back the next day (bookings required).
There are picturesque lakes throughout the South Island but none more shimmering and ripe for exploring as the lakes around Queenstown, Wānaka and Te Anau. The main lakes in this area — Wakatipu, Wānaka, Hāwea, Te Anau and Manapouri are all stunning, with easy viewpoints and walking tracks along with more strenuous walks where the lakes unfold beneath you.
You can do boat trips on some of these lakes too. Lake Wakatipu (Earnslaw + other boat trips), Lake Wanaka (Mou Waho Island + other islands) and Lake Te Anau (Glow Worm Cave + boat trips to the Milford/ Kepler Track) are your best bets for lake cruises, and you’ll travel across Lake Manapouri on the way to Doubtful Sound.
The top natural wonder in the South Island shouldn’t be a surprise — how can it not be Milford Sound!? It’s by far the most common one to visit, but there are a couple of dozen sounds (fiords, actually) most of which are inaccessible to tourists.
You can easily visit Doubtful Sound, which is just as striking as Milford Sound and is way less of a drive (the tours start with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri, a short drive from Te Anau). Dusky Sound is a less common one to visit — tours are expensive but it looks like a great trip. Cruises take you through both Milford and Doubtful Sound, with either short trips or overnight cruises.
Milford Sound is the better one to visit if you’re keen to explore Fiordland National Park in depth. The road from Te Anau joins up heaps of scenic attractions — short walks, long walks, roadside viewpoints and more. Spend a night or two camping along the way if you’ve got the time — you’ll never run out of things to see and I reckon most visitors to Fiordland National Park wish they had more time.
Did you enjoy our list of the top 12 natural wonders in the South Island list? Share it with anyone thinking of exploring the South Island and maybe it’ll inspire them to plan a trip!
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