You don’t have to stray far from the road if you want to see some of the best scenery in New Zealand — you don’t even need to leave your car! Our top 12 scenic drives in the South Island include mountain passes and winding coastal roads and covers every region of the island.
Golden Bay to Anatori
From Golden Bay it’s a long drive down the coast to Anatori. A gravel road in parts, it meanders through farmland until reaching the Anatori River (if you’ve got a 4wd you can go a bit further). You’ll then have to drive all the way back as is this is the end of the road — between Anatori and Karamea is a whole lot of wilderness.
The Crown Range links Wanaka and Queenstown, the two most popular tourist towns in the Southern Alps. It only takes an hour to drive but be warned: it’s very curvy. It’s one of the highest main roads in New Zealand — I remember driving it when I was about 18 and it was scary, although I think it has improved a lot since then.
Lush green hills flank the Buller River as it flows towards the West Coast. The Buller Gorge section of the drive has some stunning views, and it has quite a different look to the other inland roads in the South Island.
Hakatere Conservative Park
The road from Mount Somers to Mount Sunday takes you past several lakes and some top road side mountain views. Mount Sunday is an awesome end to the drive — from the top you’ll get 360-degree views of the valley. This area was featured heavily in Lord of the Rings and is one of the better filming locations to visit.
Once done at Mount Sunday you can continue on a little further or more likely you’ll head straight back. If you’ve got time consider the detour to Lake Heron.
The drive from Christchurch to Akaroa is a popular route with great views, but there are scenic roads all around Banks Peninsula.
We love driving through the hills above Akaroa and stopping at the roadside viewpoints. There are lots of walks too as well as trips out on the harbour to see dolphins — definitely one of the best day trips from Christchurch!
Te Anau to Milford Sound
The road to Milford Sound is one that most tourists to the South Island will experience, either by driving or joining a tour. It’s a popular (and very long) day trip from Queenstown, or you could spend a few days in the region (maybe using Te Anau as a base).
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound (Milford Sound Road) is a great introduction to Fiordland. Roadside views and short walks to interesting nature spots (the Chasm, Lake Marian Falls, Mirror Lakes) are the main attractions, and if you’re into hiking you’ll want to check out Gertrude Saddle, Lake Marian, Key Summit and the Tutoko Valley Track.
The Otago Peninsula is one of the top natural wonders in New Zealand and is very easy to explore as it’s right on Dunedin’s doorstep. Start at Highcliff Road and visit the rugged beaches and hiking trails (Harbour Cone, Allans Beach, Sandymount) of the oceanside before heading down to the more sedate harbour-edge.
Finish up at Taiaroa Head — if you time it right you can see little blue penguins or albatross.
Great Coast Road
The road between Greymouth and Westport is the most scenic stretch of road on the West Coast. Known as the Great Coast Road, there are some beautiful viewpoints to stop off at and some good beaches if you’re looking for a stroll.
The Great Coast Road passes through Punakaiki, one of the best spots on the West Coast. There you’ll find short walks including the Pancake Rocks and Pororari River Track.
Wanaka to Haast
This two hour (without any stops) drive links Wanaka with the West Coast, travelling through some of the most pristine river / lake / mountain scenes you’ll see in New Zealand. There are good views from the road as well as a few short walks to waterfalls and viewpoints.
The first part of the road hugs the shoreline of Lake Hawea and then the western edge of Lake Wanaka — there some nice camping areas if you’re keen to take your time or you could stay in Makarora. Highlights on this drive include the Blue Pools, Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls.
The route to French Pass involves a long drive down winding gravel roads, and once you’re at the end you’ll have to turn around and go all the way back. What a journey though! There are countless roadside vistas and short walks. The Marlborough Sounds is a special part of New Zealand and you’ll see why when driving to French Pass — try and spend a night or two in the area if you can!
There are other roads in the Marlborough Sounds that could have made this list. The drive out to Titirangi Bay is similar to French Pass but it’s a bit less wild. Picton to Havelock (Queen Charlotte Drive) is also nice, as is the scenic route between Blenheim and Picton.
Queenstown to Glenorchy
The sparkling Lake Wakatipu is your companion for most of the drive between Queenstown and Glenorchy. It’s one of the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand (number 2 on our list) and the road to Glenorchy is where you’ll find some of the best views of it.
12 Mile Delta, Bob’s Cove and Bennetts Bluff Lookout are some of the best places to visit, and you’ll also find some good walks (Moke Lake, Mount Chrichton Loop Track). Keep going past Glenorchy to Paradise or Kinloch — there’s a lot to see in this area.
READ MORE: A Trip to Paradise, New Zealand
Mount Cook Road
New Zealand’s tallest mountain is an accessible sight for all thanks to Mount Cook Road. The first section is along Lake Pukaki, with some spectacular views of Mount Cook from several places.
Then you’ll drive through a valley towards Mount Cook, with massive mountains all around. You don’t need to stray far from your car, but if you’re keen for a walk there are lots of options. Kea Point and Tasman Glacier are easy, Hooker Valley is a little harder but very worth it (it’s one of the best 2-3 hour walks in the country) and Mueller Hut is the one to do if you want a challenge.
Other Scenic Drives in the South Island
I left Wilmot Pass off the main list as you can’t drive it yourself. You’ll traverse this road in a bus on the Doubtful Sound day trip — it’s 21 km and travels right through the heart of Fiordland National Park, from Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound.
There are scenic roads up to ski fields around the South Island. The Remarkables is an easy one to drive to and there’s the walk to Lake Alta once there.
The other mountain passes (Lewis Pass / Arthurs Pass / Lindis Pass – they’d make lists like this on most islands but there are too many to choose from!
Did you enjoy our top 12 scenic drives in New Zealand? Do you have a favourite drive that missed the cut? Let us know in the comments below!
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Monday 13th of March 2023
We are traveling over to your beautiful country in September. Would love some tips for both islands.
Tuesday 14th of March 2023
Hey Judith, I'm actually working on a North Island site at the moment but it won't be ready for a while. Some brief North Island tips: Explore Northland if you're into beaches (best in NZ tied with Abel Tasman in the South Island), spend some time around Rotorua, Tongariro and Waitomo (geothermal areas / volcanoes / glow worms) and Mount Maunganui and the Coromandel Peninsula if you're not sick of beaches yet.