This 9-day itinerary lists places to go to see mountains on the South Island of New Zealand with a self-drive tour that starts and ends in Christchurch.
9-Day South Island itinerary
The following itinerary takes you on a trip around the South Island during in nine days to see some of the most impressive scenery that the South Island is known for:
- Day 1: Christchurch (arrival)
- Day 2: Kaikoura and Banks Peninsula
- Day 3: Hakatere Conservation Park
- Day 4: Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook
- Day 5: Wanaka and Crown Range
- Day 6: Queenstown
- Day 7: Lake Matheson
- Day 8: Fox Glacier and Arthur’s Pass
- Day 9: Christchurch (departure)
Day 1: Christchurch
If you have just got off an international flight from any continent that is not Australia, it is advisable to take it easy because you will most likely be tired, jet-lagged, or both.
On this day you will be staying in Christchurch. You can choose to stay either close to the airport or in the city center.
Because on day 2, you will be driving to Kaikoura, it is easier to drive to Kaikoura if you stay near Christchurch airport.
This will also reduce the amount of driving and stress finding your way on your first day in Christchurch when you are tired or jet-lagged.
If you choose to stay close to the airport, you can visit, for example, the International Antarctic Centre [iceberg.co.nz] (there is an admission fee), which is located nearby. And if you choose to stay somewhere in the city center, you can visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens (free entry) and go for an easy stroll.
Day 2: Kaikoura And Banks Peninsula
On your second day on the South Island, you will also be staying in Christchurch but making a couple of short day trips from Christchurch.
After an early breakfast, take State Highway 1 north to Kaikoura. The drive is about 180 km (112 mi) and about 2 hours long.
Once you reach Kaikoura, follow signs into the town center, and then drive on the Esplanade, Avoca Street, and Fyffe Quay until you reach Point Kean.
There you can park and go for a walk on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway (check whether the track is open because it can be closed sometimes if conditions are hazardous).
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway offers fantastic views of the Kaikoura Range, the ocean, and the coastline. If you are lucky, before you start your walk, there may be seals lying around on the parkingn lot or on the rocks nearby. Do not get too close to them, though.
After your walk in Kaikoura, drive back to Christchurch, and then to the Gondola [christchurchattractions.nz] on Bridle Path Road. The Gondola offers 360-degree views of Christchurch, the mountains of the Southern Alps, and Banks Peninsula.
A trip up with the Gondola costs money, but it will save you the effort of having to walk up a trail (Bridle Path) to get views of Banks Peninsula.
Day 3: Hakatere Conservation Park
On your third day, you will be leaving Christchurch and driving to Tekapo or Twizel where you will be spending the night.
On your way to Tekapo or Twizel, you will be making a few off-the-beaten-path side trips and stops to enjoy mountain scenery.
When you leave Christchurch, take State Highway 73 towards Darfield and Arthur’s Pass. When you reach Darfield, hook onto State Highway 77 and Inland Scenic Route 72 towards Methven and Mount Hutt.
A short while after leaving Darfield, you will reach a sharp bend in the road. Here you can either make a short side trip to a relatively small but picturesque lake with mountains in the background by going straight onto Coleridge Road, or continue following SH 77 to the left.
If you go straight and follow Coleridge Road, before you reach Lake Coleridge, take the dirt road (Homestead Road) on your right and follow it until you reach the junction with Harper Road. Go left onto Harper Road and continue driving until you reach Lake Georgina on your right. Drive back the same way you came after enjoying the lake and mountain scenery.
Back again on SH 77, after you pass the one-lane bridge on SH 77 that crosses the Rakaia River, you can briefly stop at a campground on your left where there are toilets but also where you can go down to the river.
Continue driving on SH 77. At some point it will go left towards Methven. You must go straight and continue driving on Inland Scenic Route 72 until you reach the Ashburton Gorge Road on your right near Mt. Somers. Turn right onto the road and follow it until you reach Hakatere.
You can then go straight onto the Hakatere Potts Road to see scenery from the Lord of the Rings, or go right onto the Hakatere Heron Road to visit lakes like Maori Lakes and Lake Heron.
There are several walks you can do in this area called the Hakatere Conservation Park, or you can just sit by one of the lakes, relax, enjoy the sun if it is shining, and take photos.
When you are done, drive back to Inland Scenic Route 72 and then drive towards Geraldine, where you must hook onto SH 79. The rest of the drive is like the drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo but then starting from Geraldine.
Day 4: Lake Tekapo And Mount Cook National Park
On your fourth day you will also be staying in Tekapo or Twizel and going for a couple of drives.
The first drive is up Mount John to the Mount John Observatory. You can either drive up or if you have time and want some exercise, you can walk up Mount John.
Note that last time I visited this location, they were charging a fee to drive up Mount John.
To reach Mount John by car, leave Tekapo on State Highway 8 in the direction of Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook. Do not drive too fast, or you will miss a smaller road called Godley Peaks Road on your right, shortly after leaving Tekapo.
Turn into Godley Peaks Road and drive until you come up to a road on your right that leads up to Mount John.
While you can visit the Mount John Observatory for star-gazing at night or to grab a cup of coffee in the cafe, you will be driving to the summit of Mount John just for the spectacular views of Lake Tekapo and the surrounding mountains.
From the summit of Mount John, you should also be able to see two smaller lakes, Lake McGregor and Lake Alexandrina, nestled in the area. So once you leave the summit of Mount John, you can drive to them to pay them a visit.
The turnoffs to Lake Alexandrina and Lake McGregor are also located on the Godley Peaks Road.
After seeing the lakes and mountains around Tekapo, you can drive from Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki. Briefly stop at the information center that is located just before the turnoff to Mount Cook National Park to get a view of Mount Cook if it is not in the clouds.
Then continue on and take State Highway 80 to Mount Cook National Park. You can make a brief stop again at Peter’s Lookout, which should be located on your right after a couple of minutes of driving on SH 80, to get a view of Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki if you wish.
The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook National Park should take close to one hour. When you reach Mount Cook National Park, you can visit the visitor’s center if you wish or immediately take the first right to Hooker Valley Road and park your car in the car parking area.
There are many walks you can do at Mount Cook National Park.
An easy walk to do would be the Kea Point Track, which will give you a view of Mount Sefton. You might hear thunder if clouds are crashing into the mountain.
A much harder walk to do would be the Sealy Tarns Track. While it is hard on the knees with all the climbing you will have to do – which gets and feels worse when coming back down – it does offer spectacular views of Hooker Valley and Mount Cook.
However, what I recommend doing is the Hooker Valley Track. While it is a relatively long walk, it gives you a good taste of New Zealand with the suspension bridges you will have to cross, the soothing sounds of the Hooker River in the background, culminating in a view of Mount Cook and the Hooker Glacier terminal lake.
If you do the Hooker Valley walk, do not start walking too late, because it is a relatively long walk with the sun hitting the valley around midday hours so between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
You can download a PDF brochure from the DOC website to get more information about these Mount Cook Village walks.
If you have time left, there are many more places you could go to see mountains while you are in the Mackenzie Country. Just to mention a few: Lake Ruataniwha, Lake Ohau, and Lake Benmore (also see: Lake Benmore Peninsula walk), or do the Pukaki-Ohau canal drive if the private road is open.
Day 5: Wanaka And Crown Range
On your fifth day, you will be leaving Tekapo or Twizel and driving to Queenstown where you will be staying.
On your way to Queenstown, you will be making a brief stop in Wanaka to do a relatively easy mountain walk that provides good scenic views, and then drive on to Queenstown to get another dose of mountain scenery.
The drive from Tekapo to Wanaka is about 200 km (124 mi) and it should take you a bit over 2 hours to get there.
If you are coming from Twizel, you can subtract 57 km (35 mi) or about 20 minutes from your driving time.
In Wanaka, just as you are driving in on State Highway 6, but way before you reach the town centre, you should see Puzzling World [puzzlingworld.co.nz] on your left, and opposite to that as you drive down just a little bit further towards Wanaka town centre, on your right, you should see a parking area to do a walk called Mount Iron.
Mount Iron offers 360-degree views of the Wanaka township, Lake Wanaka, and the surrounding mountains.
You can walk up Mount Iron either clockwise or counterclockwise. I recommend going up clockwise, since it is an easier walk uphill than if you went counterclockwise.
So after you park your car, walk straight ahead, and do not take the track to the right.
Mount Iron is not as hard to climb as Mount Roy is, although you still need to have a decent fitness level to be able to walk it up. In addition, Mount Iron takes much less time to walk up and offers great mountain views too.
After paying a visit to Wanaka, you can continue driving on to Queenstown. But do not drive to Cromwell and then to Queenstown via the Kawarau Gorge Road, but rather take the road that goes via the Cardrona Valley to Queenstown.
While the valley itself does not offer spectacular mountain views, you could drive up the road that leads to the Cardrona ski field where you can get mountain views.
The best mountain views will arrive as you start driving up the Crown Range. Once you reach the top, there is a parking area on your left where you can briefly stop to take in the scenery. Then it’s time to get back into your car and drive down Crown Range road. Drive slowly to enjoy the mountain views.
The driving distance from Wanaka to Cardrona is approximately 24 km (15 mi) and from Cardrona to Queenstown 43 km (27 mi).
If you still have some time left in the day, you can drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy and back or do one of the other scenic drives around Queenstown.
Day 6: Queenstown
On your sixth day on the South Island, you will also be staying in Queentown, but going for a walk to see mountains.
There are two walks near Queenstown’s city center that offer fantastic mountains views:
- Ben Lomond Track
Words cannot begin to describe how hard of an uphill walk the Ben Lomond Track is. And if you decide to do it, allow for an entire day.
You might be very sore the following day, but will be able to say that you hiked up Ben Lomond in Queenstown and got to see the most spectacular mountain views ever!
Note that you can take the Queenstown gondola [skyline.co.nz] up part of the way and then join the Ben Lomond track, but that you will still have to use your own two legs to reach the Ben Lomond summit at 1748 m.
If your physical fitness is not up to par or you want a much easier uphill walk that still offers good Queenstown mountain views, you can try the Queenstown Hill Time walk.
It is not as demanding as the Ben Lomond track, but you will still need a good dose of physical fitness to get up. However, this walk is not that long, the pine forest you have to walk through smells lovely on a hot summer day, and you should not be that sore the following day.
And if you do the Queenstown Hill Time walk, you should have time left for a short day trip from Queenstown. You could drive for example from Queenstown to St. Bathans (145 km one-way or approximately 2 hours) to visit a man-made, but nonetheless, nice lake surrounded by white rocks. Or you could drive from Queenstown to Ranfurly (172 km one-way or approximately 2.5 hours) to see Hawkdun Range.
The choice is yours really, since there is also lots to do in and around Queenstown itself.
Day 7: Lake Matheson
On your seventh day it is time to leave Queenstown and drive to Fox Glacier to spend the night.
Because Fox Glacier is a very small town with limited facilities, make sure you prepare in advance for a stay there or stay somewhere that provides the amenities you are after.
The distance from Queenstown to Fox Glacier via the Crown Range and Wanaka is 327 km (203 mi) or approximately 4 hours driving.
On your way you can stop at several places in the Makarora Valley such as for example the Blue Pools and Thunder Creek Falls.
When you reach Fox Glacier, pay a visit to Lake Matheson in the afternoon and see whether you can get a photograph of the View of Views with Mount Cook and Mount Tasman reflected in the lake.
If you do not manage to catch reflections then, you can also visit the lake the next day early in the morning at sunrise to see whether there are any mountain reflections then.
Note: To see reflections in water, you need as little wind as possible, so aim for a windless day.
Day 8: Fox Glacier And Arthur’s Pass
Your eight day is a long driving day back to Christchurch where you will be spending your last night. The drive from Fox Glacier to Christchurch should take around 5 hours over 400 km (249 mi).
But before you leave, go on a guided glacier hike early in the morning, or do one of the Fox Glacier walks to see the glacier from afar.
After your glacier visit, start driving towards Christchurch by driving North towards Hokitika. When you reach Hokitika, you can make a short side trip to see Lake Kaniere and the mountains around it.
After that, drive on towards Greymouth and then at Kumara Junction take the turnoff to Arthur’s Pass and Christchurch at the roundabout. At Arthur’s Pass you can do a short walk or just make it a driving day through the mountain pass.
Day 9: Christchurch
On your last day on the South Island, you can take it easy before you leave.
Take a stroll around Christchurch if you still have time or if you have a couple of hours to spare, drive to Akaroa, grab a bite to eat, and then drive back to Christchurch to catch your flight.