The South Island Scenic Routes

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What Routes to Take on a South Island Road Trip

Road trips on the South Island of New Zealand should not be done halfheartedly. There are so many amazing photo opportunities, for example, along the Catlins coast and in Oxford Forest, that you will no want to miss them out. Even if you are struggling to think of a travel itinerary for the South Island, the scenic highways would be a good place to start. So with that in mind, here are some of the South Island scenic routes that are well worth considering for a South Island road trip.

Road tripping around the North Island too? Check out: The North Island Scenic State Highways.

The 3 Scenic Routes in 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, these are the three official South Island scenic highways are:

  • Inland Scenic Route 72
  • Alpine Pacific Triangle
  • Southern Scenic Route©

What to See on the Inland Scenic Route 72

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.

Christchurch to Oxford

Starting from Christchurch, drive past farmland 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 5 tiered Ryde Falls and take multiple walks.


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. For more adventure activities, go white water rafting on the Rangitata River.

Methven to Akaroa

Leaving the Methven area and all its adventure activities will bring you to a change of tone by passing through a series of quaint towns. Be sure to take a coffee break in Geraldine, Ashburton and finish for dinner in Akaroa. Akaroa boasts itself as being a piece of France in New Zealand, with historic buildings and fine French cuisine! You may also see some blue penguins as well as all these awesome things to do in Akaroa.

Then the route brings you back to where you began: Christchurch. To find out what to do in this reviving city, take a look here: The Complete Guide to Christchurch.©

What to See on the Alpine Pacific Triangle

Starting from Christchurch again, this road trip takes you to north Canterbury. Here, you’ll have wildlife encounters, go to a holiday park region with everything from adventure activities to relaxing hot pools and go through a vineyard district.

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.

Hanmer Springs

From Kaikoura, the route takes you to Hanmer Springs. It is a holiday spa park with hot mineral pools, best enjoyed in the winter after a day on the slopes of Hanmer Springs ski area. There is also the nearby Hanmer Springs Attractions for jet boating and bungy jumping – more info on Viator and Tripadvisor. For walking and mountain biking tracks, go to Hanmer Forest Park.


The road back to Christchurch takes you through Waipara wine region. Taste some locally-produced wine at the stunning locations of Pegasus Bay and Black Estate Winery.

Finally, the road leads you back to Christchurch. For more information on the Canterbury region, check out our Canterbury destination category.

The South Island Scenic Routes© Miles Holden - Tourism New Zealand

What to See on the Southern Scenic Route

As the name suggests, this route captures the most scenic parts of southern New Zealand. The highway 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.


Dunedin is a city full of grand architecture. Walk on the peninsula to see an abundance of wildlife, such as penguins, albatross and seals. Find out more about Dunedin here: The Complete Guide to Dunedin.

The Catlins

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. Get more from the Catlins by visiting: The Complete Guide to The Catlins.


Next stop is the hub of Southland, Invercargill. Here you can see the 3-eyed lizard, the New Zealand tuatara. Find more Invercargill shenanigans here: The Complete Guide to Invercargill. 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.

Milford Sound

Now, it’s time to go the sound everyone talks about, Milford Sound. You can’t help but stop every 5 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 Kodak moments, making sure you don’t miss out. For more information on Milford Sound, visit: The Complete Guide to 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’s bungy jumps, skydives, white water rafting, jet boating, Lord of the Rings tours, and skiing in winter. To find out more, check out: The Complete Guide to Queenstown.

More Road Trip Articles…

Obviously, there are a few things to think about when doing a road trip in New Zealand. These articles can help you out.

Plus, have you planned your entire route yet? Check out the following itineraries for the best road trip routes!


Robin C.

This article was reviewed and published by Robin, the co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. He has lived, worked and travelled across 16 different countries before calling New Zealand home. He has now spent over a decade in the New Zealand tourism industry, clocking in more than 600 activities across the country. He is passionate about sharing those experiences and advice on NZ Pocket Guide and its YouTube channel. Robin is also the co-founder of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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