The South Island’s Most Scenic Drives
Road trips on the South Island of New Zealand should not be done halfheartedly. There are so many amazing photo opportunities, from the Catlins Coast to the Hanmer Springs, that you will not want to miss them out. Even if you are struggling to think of a travel itinerary for the South Island, the scenic highways are a good place to start, rather than sticking to the same old Queenstown to Christchurch route. So with that in mind, here are some of the South Island scenic routes that are well worth considering to give you some of the most scenic drives on the South Island and New Zealand.
And for more things to do along the way, be sure to check out the 51 Best Things to Do on the South Island.
The 3 Most Scenic Routes (Scenic State Highways) on the South Island
Break up your road trip in New Zealand by stopping in some pretty stunning places. Although there are tens of state highways in New Zealand, the ones you need to know about for the most scenic drives on the South Island are:
- Inland Scenic Route 72
- Alpine Pacific Triangle
- Southern Scenic Route
Let’s check them out in detail in the guide to the scenic drives on the South Island below!
Southern Scenic Route: What to Do and See
As the name suggests, this route captures the most scenic parts of southern New Zealand. The Southern Scenic Route goes through the regions of Otago and Southland while dipping into the Fiordland National Park. You can either start your journey from Dunedin or Queenstown. For this example, we’ll start in Dunedin.
From Dunedin, the Southern Scenic Route heads south on Middleton Road before joining with State Highway 1 in Waihola. At Balclutha, take the Owaka Highway south through the Catlins. Once in Invercargill, you can take a detour to Bluff or continue on State Highway 99 through Tuatapere to Clifden-Blackmount Road and Blackmount-Redcliff Road. From Whare Creek, take Weir Road to Manapouri then State Highway 95 to Te Anau. You can take a day-long detour down State Highway 94 to Milford Sound and back. Then, take State Highways 94, 97 and 6 to Queenstown.
How Long is the Southern Scenic Route?
The Southern Scenic Route is approximately 810 km (503 miles) starting in Dunedin and ending in Queenstown (with the Milford Sound detour). The road trip usually takes around 4 to 7 days, depending on how much you want to see and do.
Dunedin is a city full of grand architecture. Visit the Otago Peninsula to see an abundance of wildlife, such as penguins, albatross and seals. Find out more about Dunedin in the 13 Best Things to Do in Dunedin.
From Dunedin, head to Invercargill by taking the route down the Catlins Coast. This coastline is full of amazing rock features, such as the fossilised forest at Curio Bay, the arches at Cathedral Caves, and the nuggets of rock at Nugget Point. Not to mention it’s an excellent spot for seeing seals, sea lions and penguins in their natural habitat. For more experiences, head to the 12 Best Things to Do in The Catlins.
The next stop is the hub of Southland, Invercargill. Refuel and resupply and enjoy some of the Southland foodie delights, from Bluff Oysters to Southland Cheese Rolls! For a detour you’ll never forget, head to Bluff so you can take a ferry to Stewart Island.
Invercargill to Milford Sound
From Invercargill, the scenic route then takes you to Tuatapere, where you can take the Hump Ridge Track into the Fiordland National Park. If you can’t be bothered with the hike, but still want to see the famous national park, then drive on to Te Anau. This is the gateway to the national park and many multi-day walks, such as the renowned Milford Track. You can also pick up tickets in Te Anau for the activities in the national park, such as the cruises down the sounds. All the activities we list in the 14 Best Things to Do in Fiordland National Park can be done on the road between Tuatapere and Milford Sound.
Now, it’s time to go to the sound everyone talks about, Milford Sound. You can’t help but stop every five minutes to take photos along the way. Even if you take the bus, because the drive can be kind of tricky, the bus companies stop for plenty of short walks and photo ops, making sure you don’t miss out. For more ways to experience Milford Sound, visit the 15 Best Things to Do in Milford Sound.
After you have formed some sort of opinion of Milford Sound, the next stop is the “Adrenalin Capital of the World”, Queenstown. There are bungy jumps, skydives, white water rafting, jet boating, Lord of the Rings tours, and skiing in winter. To find out more, check out the 45 Best Things to Do in Queenstown.
Inland Scenic Route 72: What to See and Do
This touring route displays the best of the Canterbury region. If you are a keen skier or rider, doing this route during winter will take you to some of the South Island’s best ski fields. Otherwise, you have the fine scenery of mountains, the Canterbury Plains, and quaint towns to sample.
This scenic drive on the South Island starts in Rangiora, just outside of Christchurch and travels inland on Oxford Road. Past Oxford, you take Dept Road to State Highway 73 then 77. After a quick detour to Methven and back, continue on Inland Scenic Route 72 through Geraldine and end in Temuka.
How Long is the Inland Scenic Route 72?
The Inland Scenic Route 72 is approximately 195 km (121 miles) including the drive to Auckland where most people start. The road trip usually takes around 1 to 3 days, depending on how much you want to see and do.
Christchurch to Oxford
Starting from Christchurch, drive past farming pastures to get to Oxford. There are many WWOOFing opportunities in the area to get an authentic New Zealand farm experience. Pop along to Oxford Forest to see the five-tiered Ryde Falls and take multiple walks. For more inspiration on what to do in the area, check out the 10 Best Things to Do in Oxford.
Next, head to Methven, the closest town to Mt Hutt. In winter, Mt Hutt is a large commercial ski field. Also in the area is the Rakaia Gorge. Here, you can do walks, take an adrenaline-filled jet boat ride, and observe the alpine scenery and brilliantly blue river. Check out more amazing things to do nearby, such as the Mt Hutt Forest walks and Washpen Falls, in the 10 Best Things to Do in Methven.
Geraldine and Temuka
Leaving the Methven area, experience some of the adventure activities of Geraldine, such as white water rafting and horse trekking. Finally, you end your journey in the small farming community of Temuka with its quaint shops and cafes. See what’s going on there in the 6 Best Things to Do in Temuka.
Alpine Pacific Triangle: What to See and Do
Starting from Christchurch, this scenic drive takes you to north Canterbury. Here, you’ll have wildlife encounters and go to an alpine resort town with everything from adventure activities to relaxing hot pools. You’ll also venture through a vineyard district.
The Alpine Pacific Triangle is a loop route, starting in Christchurch and taking State Highway 1 north to Kaikoura. To avoid returning on State Highway 1 for too long, take the inland road State Highway 70 until you reach State Highway 7, then head north to Hanmer Springs. Return to Christchurch via State Highway 7 then State Highway 1.
How Long is the Alpine Pacific Triangle?
The Alpine Pacific Triangle is approximately 445 km (477 miles) starting and ending in Christchurch. The road trip usually takes around 2 to 4 days, depending on how much you want to see and do.
Christchurch to Kaikoura
The Alpine Pacific Triangle starts with a long stretch of road leading to Kaikoura. Along the way, you’ll pass surf beaches and enjoy the scenic coastal road. Kaikoura itself is one of the best spots in the world to go whale watching. In fact, you can enjoy many wildlife encounters by dolphin swimming, seeing seal colonies and spotting albatross. Get inspired by the 13 Best Things to Do in Kaikoura.
From Kaikoura, take the inland road through Mt Lyford Village with its ski field open mid-winter, then onto Hanmer Springs. This alpine spa village features a thermal pools complex, as well as adventure activities like jet boating and bungy jumping. For walking and mountain biking tracks, go to Hanmer Forest Park. We include it all in the 18 Best Things to Do in Hanmer Springs.
The road back to Christchurch takes you through the Waipara wine region. Taste some locally-produced wine at the stunning locations of Pegasus Bay and Black Estate Winery. Check out more wineries at the 10 Best Wineries in Waipara.
Finally, the road leads you back to Christchurch.
More About Scenic Drives in the South Island
That’s it for our guide to the most scenic drives on the South Island. For more scenic routes to follow, check out these:
- 10 Most Beautiful Roads in New Zealand
- Driving in New Zealand: Everything You NEED to Know
- Travel By Car: How to Plan a Road Trip in New Zealand
- How to Plan a Campervan Trip in New Zealand
Plus, have you planned your entire route yet? Check out the following itineraries for the best South Island road trip routes!
- South Island in One Week: Road Trip Itinerary
- South Island Campervan Itinerary: 10 Days
- South Island in Two Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in a Month: Road Trip Itinerary
Road Tripping on the North Island?
Make sure to check out New Zealand Scenic Drives: The Best North Island Scenic Routes!