Explore New Zealand's South Island in style on this unforgettable 12-day road trip. Starting and finishing in the alpine adventure capital of Queenstown, this route circumnavigates the Southern Alps as you drive through a land of dramatic peaks, ancient glaciers, and pristine lakes. By day you'll embark on adventurous excursions and discover spectacular scenery, while nights are spent relaxing in a series of luxurious boutique hotels and lodges.


  • Try your hand at adventure sports in Queenstown
  • Take a helicopter flight over the Franz Josef Glacier
  • Discover the magnificent Arthur's Pass National Park
  • Drive along the wild West Coast & the high-altitude Crown Range
  • Explore mountains, glaciers & alpine lakes in Mount Cook National Park
  • Stay in memorable boutique hotels & lodges

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Welcome to Queenstown! Queenstown
Day 2 Drive to the Lakeside Town of Wakana Wanaka
Day 3  Explore Wanaka & the Mou Wahu Island Nature Reserve Wanaka
Day 4 Drive the Wild West Coast to the Franz Josef Glacier Franz Josef Glacier
Day 5 Explore Franz Josef & Scenic Glacier Helicopter Flight Franz Josef Glacier
Day 6 Drive the Southern Alps to Arthur's Pass National Park Arthur's Pass
Day 7 Explore Wilderness Lodge & Arthur's Pass National Park Arthur's Pass
Day 8 Drive the Canterbury Plains to Windwhistle Windwhistle
Day 9 Drive the Inland Scenic Route to Mount Cook National Park Mount Cook Village
Day 10 Explore Mount Cook & Glacier Lakes Mount Cook Village
Day 11 Drive the Gibbston Valley & Return to Queenstown Queenstown
Day 12 Depart Queenstown  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Queenstown!

A panoramic view of Queenstown, New Zealand's "adventure captital"
A panoramic view of Queenstown, New Zealand's "adventure capital"

Welcome to New Zealand! Upon arrival, you'll be met at the airport and transferred to your accommodation in Queenstown. Although celebrated as New Zealand's "adventure capital," Queenstown offers far more than a fast-paced, action-packed holiday. Settled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, beneath a soaring panorama of the Remarkables mountain range, this alpine town is surrounded by a plethora of historic, gastronomic, and scenic wonders.

Venture further afield into the Fiordland National Park, or head over the Crown Range to Wanaka, where you can drive through Lord of the Rings (LOTR) country, or join one of many dedicated LOTR tours. Adrenaline junkies can hop aboard a jet boat for an exhilarating ride through the narrow Shotover Canyon, or take spend an afternoon exploring the area's many bungee jumping, heli-skiing, or ziplining adventures. If you're a wine enthusiast, take a trip down the Gibbston Valley Wine Trail to sample some of the region’s best grapes. Or join a small group tour for an afternoon amongst the boutique vineyards and splendid alpine scenery of Central Otago. Enjoy visits to four, premium wineries over two contrasting wine sub-regions, learn about the wine and pioneering history of the area, and visit the historic precinct of Old Cromwell.

Day 2: Drive to the Lakeside Town of Wakana

Lake Wakana
Cross the Crown Range to reach Lake Wakana

Pick up your rental car this morning and set off on your road trip adventure. Leaving Queenstown, enjoy spectacular scenery as you drive the Crown Range, the country's highest sealed road. Your destination is the resort town of Wanaka, a quaint village nestled amongst breathtaking scenery on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka. Set in the world’s first protected lifestyle reserve, this area boasts lakes, mountains, rivers, diverse attractions, and endless activities. Get settled into your lodge for the night and rest up for a day of exploration tomorrow.

Day 3: Explore Wanaka & the Mou Wahu Island Nature Reserve

Vineyards overlooking Lake Wanaka
Vineyards overlooking Lake Wanaka 

The alpine village of Wanaka sits on the shores of the third largest lake in the Queenstown Lakes District and is surrounded by the soaring Southern Alps. Wanaka draws those seeking adventure, spectacular scenery, and a relaxed atmosphere. Known as the gateway to the Mount Aspiring National Park, Wanaka is a walker's paradise of remote wilderness, high mountains, and beautiful river valleys. For those seeking an adrenaline rush, try skydiving, rock-climbing, jet boating, or choose a scenic flight over the area in a historic Tiger Moth airplane.

Discover the region's stunning scenery firsthand with a visit to the Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve. Lying close to the center of Lake Wanaka, the island is a unique glacial remnant of the last ice age, as well as the historic site of early shipbuilding and a stopping place for the steamers and log rafts that once plied the lake. Board a 35-minute boat cruise to reach the eastern side of the island, where you can follow a well-worn track from the landing and climb steadily through native bush to reach the summit of Tyrwhitt Peak. From the top, you'll have a sweeping 360-degree view of Lake Wanaka and its surrounding mountains and valleys. Enjoy a soundtrack of diverse birdlife on your way back down the track, re-joining the boat for the cruise back to Wanaka. 

Day 4: Drive the Wild West Coast to the Franz Josef Glacier

The Franz Josef Glacier at sunset
The Franz Josef Glacier at sunset

Today's driving route follows the shores of Wanaka and Hawea Lakes before reaching the village of Makarora, the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Stop here to visit the famous Blue Pools and walk through native beech forests to a glacier-fed swimming hole. Get back on the road towards the remote seaside settlement of Haast before heading up the wild West Coast, a 372-mile (578 km) stretch of bush and native rainforest. After passing Fox Glacier you'll reach the village of Franz Joseph and your destination for the night. 

In the afternoon, see two of New Zealand's most famous glaciers from the air with a scenic helicopter flight, or head to the nearby Glacier Hot Pools to unwind and rejuvenate in a forest paradise.

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Day 5: Explore Franz Josef & Scenic Glacier Helicopter Flight

View the glaciers by helicopter
View the glaciers by helicopter

Start today with a spectacular scenic helicopter flight over two of New Zealand's most famous glaciers. Cutting through dramatic glacial valleys to tumble into a temperate rainforest, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers still flow almost to sea level, making them unique relics of the last Ice Age. Land at the head of one and view the incredible sight of a frozen river as it winds its way through ancient carved valleys. 

In the afternoon you can explore at your own pace, choosing one of the many walks and hikes in and around Franz Josef. Head to the Department of Conservation Information Center in Franz Josef Village to get updates on track conditions and suitability, and learn about the area, its natural history, and its people. Suggested routes include the Lake Wombat track through lush rimu forest to an idyllic lake, a hike to the coastal settlement of Okarito (home to a lagoon and over 76 species of native birds), and the short Sentinel Rock walk for impressive views of the glacier, the valley, and the Waiho River.

Day 6: Drive the Southern Alps to Arthur's Pass National Park

Head into the Southern Alps and the magnificent Arthur's Pass National Park

Heading north today on State Highway 6, you'll pass through many small West Coast towns including Ross (an old gold mining town where you can stop and pan for gold) and Hokitika, home to excellent craft and gift stores offering a range of locally made items and souvenirs. Continue to State Highway 73, the main road between the West Coast and Christchurch that offers breathtaking scenery. Take your time on this route—with hundreds of waterfalls cascading down the bush-clad hillsides, it's not a road to be rushed. Crossing the Otira Gorge on the eastern side of Arthur's Pass, make time to stop at some of the numerous lookout points for great views of the valley.

Your base for the next two nights is Wilderness Lodge, a 4000-acre working sheep farm and nature reserve in the heart of the Southern Alps. Arrive at your destination, nestled in a mountain beech forest on the doorstep of Arthur’s Pass National Park, and rest up for a day of activity and adventure tomorrow.

Day 7: Explore Wilderness Lodge & Arthur's Pass National Park

Join one of the many activities or excursions at Wilderness Lodge

Today is devoted to exploring Wilderness Lodge's vast array of guided activities and adventures. Join naturalist and farmer guides to hike alpine trails, kayak wildlife refuge lakes, and experience life on a working farm. Twice-daily complimentary guided trips provide a wonderful introduction to the wildlife, landscapes, and history of the Southern Alps. Some of the trips include:

  • Sheep Farm Discovery: Join a guide to watch sheepdogs in action, hand feed lambs, see traditional blade shearing, and learn about growing merino wool for the fashion industry. This trip happens every second afternoon and is a highlight for many guests.
  • Birds and Special Plants of the Mountain Beech Forest: Explore with a naturalist guide and learn the secrets of the remarkable moss forests surrounding the lodge.
  • McKay Moa Forest Hike: Visit a special nature reserve on the Wilderness Lodge farm to take in spectacular mountain scenery, see bizarre moa plants and learn their fascinating history.
  • Stars of the Southern Night Sky: Take a gentle stroll after dinner to see the starry night sky. Identify planets, satellites, and constellations including the Southern Cross.

If you're feeling adventurous, book a longer guided excursion to explore further afield. Take a challenging hike to a glacial basin and enjoy alpine flowers and a mountain picnic below Mount Rolleston, or join a relaxed guided tour to the landscape made famous by the Narnia films, where you'll kayak a gentle mountain lake and enjoy lunch amongst natural limestone castles. Waterfall and photography enthusiasts can explore the cascades and bonsai mountain beech forests of Arthur's Pass National Park, while aspiring botanists can hike high above the Waimakariri River to learn about alpine plants and enjoy lunch at a historic shepherd's hut.               

Day 8: Drive the Canterbury Plains to Windwhistle

Today you'll cross the Canterbury Plains to reach Windwhistle
Today you'll cross the Canterbury Plains to reach Windwhistle

This morning you'll drive from Arthurs Pass to Windwhistle, descending from the Southern Alps through the Canterbury High Country. Pass the tranquil Lake Pearson, a good spot for fishing or bird watching, and continue towards Castle Hill, considered one of the best rock climbing and bouldering locations in New Zealand. Follow the inland scenic route through the tiny villages of Glentunnel and Glenroy before reaching your lodge in Windwhistle, near the spectacular Rakaia Gorge.

Day 9: Drive the Inland Scenic Route to Mount Cook National Park

The scenic drive towards Mount Cook

Today's drive begins with the magnificent Rakaia Gorge as you cross the narrow one-lane bridge spanning the river below. Continuing on, you'll hug the foothills of the Southern Alps and Peel Forest until you arrive in the township of Geraldine, an ideal refreshment stop before heading into the Mackenzie Country. Ascend Burkes Pass onto the high country plateau and reach the picturesque town of Lake Tekapo, the first of the large Southern Lakes. In another 30 minutes, you'll reach Lake Pukaki and be rewarded with sweeping views across Mount Cook National Park. Your destination is the iconic Hermitage Hotel, where you can get settled in and enjoy some relaxing downtime. Don't miss dinner at the Panorama Room, considered one of the best restaurants in New Zealand.

Day 10: Explore Mount Cook & Glacier Lakes

Explore Mount Cook today
Explore Mount Cook National Park today

Devote this morning to exploring your magnificent surroundings. At 12,316 feet (3,754 m) Aoraki/Mount Cook is New Zealand's highest mountain, located deep in the heart of the Southern Alps. From the visitor center at the southern end of Lake Pukaki, you will be rewarded with magnificent views of this immense peak. As well as its impressive beauty, Mount Cook National Park is also home to a huge range of awe-inspiring sights and activities. Set off on one of the short, well-signposted hikes in and around the park, join the Mount Cook Encounter Guided Walk for a fascinating tour, or take to the air with Mount Cook Ski Planes for a scenic flight that includes a landing on the Tasman Glacier.

In the afternoon, visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center for insight into this region's illustrious mountain climbing history, then hop on board a Glacier Explorers Tour to see 500-year-old icebergs up-close. From the safety of a specially designed boat, you can marvel at towering ice cliffs and floating icebergs, and view unseen and inaccessible areas of New Zealand's largest glacier.

As evening falls, enjoy the Hermitage Hotel's many fine dining options, then end the night with a stargazing tour under some of the clearest night skies in the world.

Day 11: Drive the Gibbston Valley & Return to Queenstown

Queenstown at dusk
Queenstown at dusk

Bid Mount Cook farewell today as you drive south, passing the lakeside town of Twizel and New Zealand's gliding capital of Omarama before ascending the Lindis Pass. Follow the road to Cromwell, located at the head of the Kawarau Gorge, then continue towards the Gibbston Valley, one of New Zealand's premier wine-growing regions. Pass the historic Kawarau Bridge, where you can bungee jump (or relax and watch others take the plunge). Approaching Queenstown, the Remarkables mountain range comes into view once again as you arrive back in the adventure capital of New Zealand. Get settled into your accommodation, then spend the afternoon browsing the waterfront cafés, taking a leisurely lakeside stroll, or riding the gondola for breathtaking views. 

For a memorable final evening, go back in time on a round trip to Walter Peak High Country Farm aboard the historic TSS Earnslaw Steamship. You'll be greeted off the boat and guided through beautiful lakeside gardens to a charming homestead. After a gourmet, locally sourced BBQ dinner, cruise home and breathe in the fresh night air as you watch the lights of Queenstown draw nearer.

Day 12: Depart Queenstown

Sunset over Queenstown
Sunset over Queenstown

This morning is free to explore more of Queenstown before dropping your rental car at the airport and catching your departing flight. Safe travels!

More New Zealand Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to New Zealand? Check out these other New Zealand itineraries, with outdoor adventures, cultural trips, and best-of tours to hit the highlights. 

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Map of New Zealand: Ultimate South Island Road Trip - 12 Days
Map of New Zealand: Ultimate South Island Road Trip - 12 Days