With just four million people spread over two main islands, nature and dramatic scenery rules in New Zealand.

From the high Southern Alps that run the length of the South Island to the volcanic peaks of the North Island, the watery passages of the Marlborough Sounds and Fiordland to the geothermal activity of the central North Island, the golden sands of Northland beaches to the black sands of the west coast of both islands – there’s a lot to see on a self-drive route through New Zealand.

Cities are few and far between in New Zealand, especially in the South Island, and some of the most beautiful spots are remote or require a bit of a detour. So, many travellers prefer to rent a car or a campervan in New Zealand rather than rely on limited public transport. A wide variety of accommodation is available throughout the country, but self-driving allows the freedom of staying at well-positioned campsites in a campervan, tent, or simple cabin.

Although New Zealand’s two main islands don’t look that big on the map, the roads can be quite slow due to mountainous terrain, rural areas, and a lack of major European or North American-style highways. But these conditions make it easier to appreciate the views and stop at places of interest along the way.

Most travellers prefer to come in the warmer months (between October and March), as this is prime beach time. There are advantages of travelling in the cooler months – such as skiing – but the road conditions can be more challenging in winter.

Great Alpine highway Arthurs Pass New Zealand

Great Alpine highway, New Zealand

Northern Auckland circular road trip route

Start your road trip in Auckland and travel through subtropical Northland. The conveniently self-contained peninsula is full of gorgeous beaches, ancient forests, and Maori culture.

Approx. distance: 600 miles

Duration: Nine days

Suggested route: Auckland, Waitakere Ranges, Piha, Muriwai, Whangarei, Bay of Islands, Kaitaia, Cape Reinga, Hokianga Harbour, Auckland.

The route

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and is naturally attractive, but it’s hardly representative of the New Zealand you’ll find elsewhere. After enjoying the boutiques, bars and restaurants, hit the road. Drive west out of Auckland city through the Waitakere Ranges to Piha, a stretch of black-sand coastline with good surfing. Muriwai is a bird-watcher’s paradise, an hour’s drive further up the coast.

From Piha and Muriwai it’s a 2.5-hour drive north-east to Northland’s largest city, Whangarei. Whangarei has underrated attractions for a day or two, although travellers with less time can push on to the Bay of Islands in one longer day’s drive.

The Bay of Islands is an hour north of Whangarei. The popular holiday spot is rich in history and natural beauty. On the way, make a toilet stop (whether you need to or not!) at the whimsical Hundertwasser Public Toilets in Kawakawa.

After a couple of days soaking in the beautiful Bay, continue north-west 1.5 hours to Kaitaia, stopping for a fish-and-chip lunch at the Mangonui Fish Shop, and for a swim at Cable Car or Coopers Beach. Kaitaia itself isn’t appealing, but it’s a convenient place to break the journey before heading up to Cape Reinga the following day.

From Kaitaia, the drive up to the very top of the country takes 1.5 hours along State Highway 1. However, many travellers prefer to travel up Ninety Mile Beach, and because some rental car companies don’t allow this, taking a tour in a suitable vehicle is a better way of experiencing this long sweep of sand and dunes.

From Cape Reinga, the small town of Rawene, on the Hokianga Harbour, is a three-hour drive south. The huge harbour on the west coast, bounded by enormous sand dunes, is much less developed than the Bay of Islands on the east. It’s surrounded by ancient kauri tree forests: the Waipoua Forest is about a 1.5-hour drive south. From there, loop back down to Auckland on different roads from your journey north, a trip of about three hours.

Art in Northland

As well as the toilets in Kawakawa, Northland’s connection to Austrian-born artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser runs deep. From late 2020/early 2021, visitors to Whangarei can visit the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery at the Town Basin, modelled according to designs the Kawakawa resident drew up before he died in 2000.

NZ Whitewater rafting Kaituna Falls Rotorua

Kaituna Falls, Rotorua

Auckland to Wellington road trip route

At opposite ends of the North Island, New Zealand’s two largest cities are separated by gorgeous beaches, geothermal features, volcanic plateaus, and wildlife reserves. This route between Auckland and Wellington covers some North Island highlights.

Approx. distance: 600 miles

Duration: 10+ days

Suggested route: Auckland, Coromandel Peninsula, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro National Park, Kapiti Coast, Wellington.

The route

Starting in Auckland, loop southeast and up to the Coromandel Peninsula. Thames, at the southern end of the peninsula, is 1.5 hours’ drive from Auckland, but there are other towns further up. The Coromandel Ranges run through the centre of the peninsula, and around the coastline are bays, beaches, and marine reserves.

En route to Rotorua, you may want to stop for a day or two in Tauranga, a dolphin-watching hot spot. Otherwise, continue on to Rotorua, a journey of three hours from Coromandel town. This hub of Maori culture set on a large lake is dotted with steaming vents, spurting geysers, and bubbling mud pools. An even larger lake, Taupo, is an hour’s drive south-west. There are geothermal parks throughout the area, and although the drive between Rotorua and Taupo isn’t long, it can be broken up with stops at these parks. In Taupo, spend time boating or kayaking on the lake.

The Tongariro National Park—one of only three national parks in the North Island — is on the other side of Lake Taupo from Taupo town, about an hour’s drive away. Turangi, on the northern side of the park, and National Park, on the west, are good bases for hikes in the high-altitude, volcano-studded national park.

After two or three days of outdoor activities, continue south towards Wellington, stopping for a day on the Kapiti Coast and Kapiti Island. Paraparaumu is 3.5 hours’ drive from Turangi.

Wellington is an easy and scenic hour-long drive from the Kapiti Coast. Spend a couple of days in the proudly artsy capital before getting a connecting domestic flight to an international airport, or catching the ferry to the South Island.

NZ Kaikoura humpback whale

Humpback whale at Kaikoura

South Island road trip route

The top of the South is a microcosm of the country, with diverse mountains, beaches, forests, lakes, and wildlife. Arrive in the Marlborough Sounds and complete a loop along the northern and western coastline, and through the mountains.

Approx. distance: 900 miles

Duration: 14+ days

Suggested route: Wellington, Picton, Havelock, Nelson Lakes National Park, Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay, Takaka, Lake Rotoiti, Punakaiki, Hokitika, Hanmer Springs, Christchurch, Kaikoura, Blenheim, Picton.

The route

The ferry from Wellington takes about three hours, and passes through the dramatic Marlborough Sounds, a network of sunken valleys and isolated bays. Picton is the largest town in the sounds, and offers wildlife-watching cruises with chances of seeing penguins and dusky dolphins. Hiking trails snake through the sounds, much of which has no road access.

From Picton, follow the Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock (rather than the less scenic State Highways via Blenheim). The drive from Picton to Havelock takes an hour. Located on Pelorus Sound, Havelock is a handy lunch stop on the way to Nelson, another hour’s drive from Havelock.

Spend a day or two in pleasant Nelson, the largest city at the top of the South Island, or continue directly to the Abel Tasman National Park. From Nelson, the small gateway villages of Marahau and Kaiteriteri to the east of the park are about a 90-minute drive. With more time, plan to camp in the park and/or do a multi-day hike.

Continue on to Golden Bay, over the slow and winding Takaka Hill, the only access road there. From the start of the Takaka Hill road (around Riwaka), the drive to Takaka town takes an hour, and to Collingwood 80 minutes. Take your time on this journey as the Takaka Hill reaches almost 800 metres, and is twisty. Takaka is a preferable base for exploring the western side of Abel Tasman, while Farewell Spit is closer to Collingwood.

Return the way you came, over the Takaka Hill, to leave Golden Bay. The small village of St. Arnaud, on Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park, is 2.5 hours from Takaka. The alpine environment here is a huge contrast to the sea-level natural beauty of Tasman and Golden Bays. How long you spend at the Nelson Lakes depends on how much hiking you want to do.

From St. Arnaud, continue in the direction of Murchison (45 minutes), where there’s great white-water rafting on the Buller River, and then on to Greymouth (2 hours) on the West Coast. Stop at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks on the way. Hokitika is about 30 minutes from Greymouth.

After a day at the Hokitika Gorge, head inland again, 2.5 hours east to Hanmer Springs. The journey traverses the 740-metre Arthur’s Pass, through the mountains of the Arthur’s Pass National Park. Hanmer is a mountain spa town with chilled-out activities for adults and fun for kids.

Christchurch—the South Island’s largest city—is about a two-hour drive east of Hanmer Springs. Defined by a devastating earthquake in 2011, visitors to Christchurch should check out the memorial on the banks of the Avon River. In Christchurch, connect to an international flight or continue road tripping for a few more days, up the east coast, to make a full loop back to Picton.

Leaving Christchurch, make a pit stop in the Waipara wine country (1 hour), en route to Kaikoura (2.5 hours from Christchurch). Kaikoura is famous for its whales, and a cruise practically guarantees a sighting.

Blenheim is two hours north of Kaikoura. It’s the largest town in New Zealand’s premier wine-producing region, the Marlborough. Blenheim is a half-hour drive from Picton.

New Zealand's most scenic drive

While the South Island isn’t short of scenic drives, the remote drive to the French Pass, in the western Marlborough Sounds, is said to be number one. From the Rai Valley on State Highway 6, follow paved and unsealed roads through forests, farmland, and corkscrew turns to the very end of the arm, overlooking Admiralty Bay, D’Urville Island, and the swift waters of the French Pass.

NZ Queenstown

Queenstown, New Zealand

South Island circular road trip route

This itinerary encompasses some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes in New Zealand, in the lower South Island. Starting on the flat Canterbury Plains, the mountains rise as you drive inland.

Approx. distance: 800 miles

Duration: 12+ days

Suggested route: Christchurch, Moeraki Boulders, Dunedin, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Wanaka, Aoraki Mount Cook, Tekapo, Christchurch.

The route

Starting in Christchurch, head due south to Dunedin (4.5 hours’ drive), stopping en route at the unusual Moeraki Boulders, about two-thirds of the way to Dunedin.

Dunedin offers a wealth of bird and wildlife-watching activities within very easy reach of the city: penguins, fur seals, sea lions, and albatross all hang out on the Otago Peninsula.

From Dunedin, drive inland towards the mountains, stopping first in Queenstown, 3.5 hours away. The small city on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is surrounded by the Remarkables mountains, and offers adventure sports based on land, in the water, air, or at the end of a bungee cord.

A number of day trips or overnighters can be taken from Queenstown, especially in the Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound and Te Anau, in particular, are must-visits and are accessed along the same road, State Highway 94.

Moving on from Queenstown, spend a couple of days in nearby Wanaka or continue to Mt. Cook Village. The drive takes four hours but is worth stretching out over a whole day. New Zealand’s highest mountain is a scenic backdrop for hiking, horse riding, or mountain biking.

While Mt. Cook Village isn’t very far from Tekapo as the crow flies, the mountainous terrain and location of Lakes Punakaiki and Tekapo means it’s about a 90-minute drive. Spend at least one night in Tekapo to stargaze in the world’s largest dark-sky reserve.

Returning to Christchurch (three hours’ drive), the first part of the journey provides more mountain scenery; after Geraldine, the road flattens out and speeds up, along the Canterbury Plains.

South Islands hidden hills

If your time isn’t limited, take a detour south from Dunedin (before travelling west to Queenstown) to spend a couple of days in the Catlins. This hilly and coastal region spanning southern Otago and Southland is rarely visited by foreign travellers, but the penguin spotting and dramatic cliffs of the coastline are on a par with natural sights anywhere in New Zealand. Don’t miss the Cathedral Caves.

About the author

New Zealand's Best Road Trips

Elen Turner

Elen is a Nelson, New Zealand-based travel writer who has lived on both the North and South Islands, from Northland to Otago. Her writing on New Zealand has appeared in Lonely Planet, The New Zealand Herald, Ozy, TripSavvy, Culture Trip, The Points Guy and elsewhere.

Why Horizon Guides?

Impartial guidebooks

Impartial travel guides

Our guides are written by the leading experts in their destinations. We never take payment for positive coverage so you can count on us for impartial travel advice.

Expert itineraries

Expert itineraries

Suggested itineraries and routes to help you scratch beneath the surface, avoid the tourist traps, and plan an authentic, responsible and enjoyable journey.

Specialist advice

Specialist advice

Get friendly, expert travel advice and custom itineraries from some of the world's best tour operators, with no spam, pressure or commitment to book.