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.

Starting in Christchurch, head due south to Dunedin, stopping en route at the unusual Moeraki Boulders.

From Dunedin, drive inland towards the mountains, stopping first in Queenstown. The small city on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is surrounded by the Remarkables mountains, and offers a wealth of adventure sport activities.

A number of day trips or overnighters can be taken from Queenstown, especially in the Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound and Te Anau.

Moving on from Queenstown, spend a couple of days in nearby Wanaka or continue to Mt. Cook Village.

Spend at least one night in Tekapo to stargaze in the world’s largest dark-sky reserve before returning to Christchurch.

Key information

Destinations New Zealand
Activity Beach, Family, Adventure, Hiking & Trekking, Mountain Biking, Water Sports, Kayaking, Canoeing, Active, Walking, Biking, Horseback Riding, Road Trips, Swimming, Nature & Wildlife, Birdwatching, National Parks, Culture, Cities, Museums & Galleries, Indigenous Tourism
Physical Level Easy
Season Season January - December

Suggested itinerary

Christchurch

Day 1

Most travellers use Christchurch as a base for exploring the south island, but there is plenty to see in this upwardly-mobile city. Hit by a series of earthquakes between 2010-13 that destroyed many of its buildings, Christchurch is now an intriguing mix of cutting-edge architecture and historic buildings.

Moeraki Boulders at Koekohe Beach

Moeraki Boulders at Koekohe Beach

Day 2 in Koekohe Beach

The large spheres of rock dotting Koekohe Beach (also called Moeraki Beach) are believed to have formed 60 million years ago, from ocean floor sediment. It’s highly worth breaking the Christchurch-to-Dunedin journey with a walk here.

Dunedin

Day 3

As well as being one of New Zealand’s most attractive cities, full of pretty gardens and boutique cafes and with its neo-gothic architecture, Dunedin offers a wealth of natural and wildlife-related activities.

The Otago Peninsula — within the city limits — is home to little blue penguins, albatross, and fur seal colonies, which can be seen independently or from cruises on the harbour.

Queenstown

Day 4–5

New Zealand’s adventure sports capital is a surprisingly small town, famously the birthplace of bungy jumping, it’d be possible to spend days here hiking, biking, rafting, canyoning, zip lining or riding the luge.

However, if you’re after something less strenuous, it’s worth noting that Queenstown also has excellent vineyards and an exciting food scene. Tour nearby wineries, and enjoying the views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. It’s not a “typical” South Island town, but don’t let that get in the way of enjoying this pretty place.

Explore Milford Sound in Fiordland

Explore Milford Sound in Fiordland

Day 6–8 in Fiordland

Milford Sound is one of the South Island’s most popular attractions, but the large Fiordland National Park it sits within contains huge expanses of wilderness. Long-distance hikes through some of the 14 fiords reveal waterfalls, fur seals, penguins, dolphins, and watery mountain vistas—but don’t forget the wet-weather gear.

Wanaka

Day 9–10

Laidback Wanaka has a claim to be Queenstown’s cooler sibling.

Another little town on a lake (Lake Wanaka) and presided over by mountains, Wanaka is smaller than Queenstown. Offering similar adventure activities, but a less hectic, frenzied centre, Wanaka is an excellent place to get your day-time adventure thrills before an evening relaxing in quirky bars and modern restaurants.

As well as great day hikes in the nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park — such as to the Rob Roy Glacier, the Blue Pools and Mt. Brewster — travellers with more limited time can take a tour out to Mou Waho, an island in the middle of Lake Wanaka. This little island in a lake has it’s own lake at its summit, a 20-minute hike from the landing jetty.

Hike in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Hike in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Day 11–12 in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park includes the majority of New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve, so head into the hills – or just Mount Cook Village near Lake Pukaki – and marvel at the light show in the sky.

New Zealand’s highest mountain — Aoraki Mt. Cook (3724m) — sits within the park and there are 19 more peaks over 3000m, and around 180 glaciers. As well as being a training ground for mountaineers, various treks can be enjoyed here, such as the three-hour Mueller Glacier walk in the Hooker Valley. Butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and moths are abundant here.

Stargaze at Lake Tekapo

Stargaze at Lake Tekapo

Day 13 in Lake Tekapo

A highland lake in the middle of New Zealand’s south island, Lake Tekapo is best known for its incredibly clear skies that are perfect for stargazing. However, visitors also come for hiking, boating, mountain biking and windsurfing on the water.

Overlapping with the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s only International Dark Sky Reserve and the largest such reserve in the world, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. With almost no light pollution here whatsoever (settlements are few and far between), it’s a spectacular place to stargaze. Stargazing from open-air hot springs is also offered.

Christchurch

Day 14

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

Other itineraries you might like

North Island Adventure

Road trip through New Zealand's North Island

7 daysFrom NZ$1,329
Rotorua, Coromandel Peninsula, Auckland, Lake Taupo, Wellington
Tour Type Small group tour
Activity Active, Nature & Wildlife, Culture

Northern Trail

Maori culture, beautiful landscapes and the best of the North Island

10 daysFrom NZ$3,039
Rotorua, Coromandel Peninsula, Auckland, Lake Taupo, Wellington
Tour Type Small group tour
Activity Adventure, Water Sports, Active, Nature & Wildlife, Photography, National Parks, Culture, Cities

New Zealand Wanderer

The best of the north with a taste of the south

12 daysFrom NZ$3,609
Rotorua, Coromandel Peninsula, Kaikoura, Auckland, Lake Taupo, Christchurch, Wellington
Tour Type Small group tour
Activity Active, Nature & Wildlife, Culture

Why Horizon Guides?

Impartial guidebooks

Impartial guidebooks

Our travel 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.