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Top 12 Rivers in the South Island, New Zealand

Top 12 Rivers in the South Island, New Zealand

Considering there’s a mountain range running up the spine of the island, it’s no surprise Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island, is full of rivers. From the crystal-clear streams of Fiordland to the braided Rakaia River – here are our top 12 rivers in the South Island, New Zealand!

Avon River

This is the only river on this list that runs right through a city. You can walk or cycle for miles by the Avon River, with paths connecting the CBD with the nearby suburbs. A good option is to walk to Riccarton (Riccarton House is a cool place to visit) via the gardens /  Hagley Park.

If you prefer things a bit easier you could do some punting down the Avon River — it looks like the best place to be on a nice day.

Pelorus River

Pelorus Bridge in Marlborough is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike as it’s good for swimming and is right by the main road. There are walks alongside the Pelorus River as well — one takes you to a couple of small waterfalls and the other to some bridges and viewpoints and a picnic area.

Arrow River

Right on the doorstep of Arrowtown, the Arrow River is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll. The Arrow River Trail is beautiful,  especially in autumn,  and it can be combined with several other tracks to get you above the river and into the hills.

Taieri River

The Taieri River winds its way through Otago to the ocean just south of Dunedin. Starting in Taieri Mouth, there’s a riverside track with some great views of the area.

Not too far inland from there is the Taieri Gorge. You can see it on the Taieri Gorge Railway (when it’s running) — some of the best river views you’ll see this close to a major city in New Zealand!

Taieri Gorge Railway, Dunedin, New ZealandTutoko River

Fiordland is full over rivers, with the Tutoko River an easy one to see when driving to Milford Sound. You can see it from the bridge on the main road — or you can do the Tutoko Valley Track for better views (lots of bush walking though). There are heaps of other rivers in Fiordland but I can’t mention them all (there’s one more at the end though).

Shotover River

The Shotover River gained its fame as a jet boating destination, and you can see why it’s a popular spot to do it. The best place to see this river (if you’re keeping to land) is the Morning star Reserve. It starts near the Shotover Jet launch area and takes you along the river to a beach — stunning views throughout and it’s a short, easy walk.

Haast River

The road between Wānaka and the West Coast is full of stunning views, and a big reason for that is the pristine Haast River. There are a few waterfalls along it (very easy to visit) and when the views open up you’ll see just how incredible the surrounding scenery is.

Pororari River

If you’re looking for a lush, tropical river scene in the South Island then you have to check out the Pororari River. It’s located in Punakaiki on the West Coast, a few minutes’ drive from the Pancake Rocks. The short riverside track reveals stunning views — kayaking looks like a fun thing to do there too.

Rakaia River

The Rakaia River runs right through the heart of the Southern Alps, ending up at the Pacific Ocean just south of Christchurch. The Rakaia Gorge Walkway is one of the better places to see it — you don’t have to walk too far to get a good look at it.

You’ll also see it from the Peak Hill Track — there are lots of braided rivers like this in the South Island and this is one of the best views you’ll get of one without a flight or drone.

Hooker River / Tasman River

These two rivers are very similar and I couldn’t choose between the two — so they both get a spot on this list. The Hooker River flows through the pristine Hooker Valley, with the perfect view of Mount Cook the reward at the end. The Hooker Valley Track is probably the best half-day walk in New Zealand and it’s fairly easy (not too much uphill hiking).

You’ll get a good look at the Tasman River from the Tasman Glacier Track — this walk takes you through some of the best scenery in Mount Cook National Park and you can do it all in less than a couple of hours. 

Clinton River

You’ll walk alongside the Clinton River on the first couple of days of the Milford Track, the most iconic multi-day hike in New Zealand. It runs through the pristine Clinton Valley — so many awesome views and calm riverside spots. It  can be hard to get a booking on the Milford Track but it’s something you should consider trying to do if you’re into walks like this.

Routeburn River

The Routeburn River is your companion during the first few hours of the Routeburn Track (from the Queenstown side). The Routeburn Track generally takes three days, but if you’re keen to see some of the best bits you can do the day walk to Routeburn Falls and back. So many great views of the Routeburn River — our top river in the South Island, New Zealand!

Other Rivers in the South Island

There are heaps of rivers that could have been on this list. Major ones include the Waitaki, Buller, Clutha, Dart and Rees rivers, and there are lotsof smaller ones throughout the Southern Alps that could have made it too. 

Other Top 12s

Check out our other Top 12 lists, including small towns, beaches and lakes. There are more to come including rock formations, cities, mountains, day walks and more.

Mount Robert Circuit Track, Nelson Lakes, New Zealand

Did you enjoy our list of the best rivers in the South Island, New Zealand? Are there any rivers you’d rather see on this list? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.