The best way to see New Zealand is on a road trip. You can take your time, enjoy the scenery, and stop off wherever you like to breathe it all in, all whilst listening to your favourite tunes.
If you’ve got a campervan, all the better – there are loads of incredible places to spend the night immersed in the beauty of nature. If you can’t afford a camper van, you might consider renting a car in New Zealand, giving you the flexibility of staying in hostels or hotels, whilst packing a tent for those under the star moments.
Check out this list of New Zealand camping tips from a fellow blogger to be sure you are full prepared for your trip.
The drives I’ve selected are best enjoyed over at least a couple of days, although you could in theory do some of them in a shorter time. But then, you’d probably miss out on a number of awesome attractions on the way. Without further ado, and spanning the north and south islands, here are:
The Best Drives in New Zealand
1. The Lost World Highway
The route winds its way across some seriously crinkly landscape, through gorges, tunnels and dense forest. On the way you will have the chance to take in the north islands highest waterfall, a town which has formed it’s own republic, and the remarkable Tangarakau Gorge.
The route isn’t too far, and could be done in three or four hours, but with all the places you’ll want to visit on the way, I’d recommend giving this one a couple of days with a nights stop over in the middle.
The backcountry campground, if you’re camping, offers one of the best views of any campsite in New Zealand, with views of both the Tongariro National Park in the centre of the north island, and across to Mount Taranaki on the west coast.
2. East Cape
The East Cape region of New Zealand’s North land made it into my top five destinations on the north island, and with good reason. The scenery here is just epic, from endless driftwood coated beaches to lush forest and more.
Here you will find New Zealand’s most easterly mainland point, incredible Maori sculptures, black sand beaches, the longest wharf in the southern hemisphere and endlessly curvy roads to wind your way through. The scenery is truly mind blowing – more people need to experience it!
The East Cape is likely to take you a few days to truly explore – I’d recommend setting aside at least three days. There are a variety of accommodation options en route, from cozy guesthouses and hostels to remote and gorgeous campsites. Something for every taste and budget!
3. West Coast of the south island
The drive down the west coast of New Zealand’s south island is one of my favourite drives in the world. The best parts of this drive stretch from Greymouth down to Haast, although adding on a trip through Arthurs Pass National Park at one end and Haast Pass at the other end is entirely worth it.
The trip is incredible largely due to the presence of the southern alps – the mountain range which runs down the entire length of the south island, and has multiple peaks over 3000m. These snow capped beasts are awe inspiring in their splendour, and offer countless opportunities for gawking.
You’ll find eerily blue glacial rivers, eerily blue actual glaciers, and no other end of delights including surf pounded beaches, geological marvels, and, well, pies made from possum. If you only do one drive in New Zealand, make it this one.
4. Into Milford Sound
Milford Sound is without doubt one of New Zealand’s must see attractions, and it easily made my list of top five things to see on the south island. Whilst the sound itself is tremendously impressive (it’s hard to argue with a mile of vertical mountain coming out of the sea), the 121km drive in from Te Anau is no less so.
There are a multitude of attractions on this drive, which takes you across the southern alps through a variety of incredible landscapes, from lakes to wide open plains to forest and mountains.
Particular favourites include the roaring water filled Chasm, the engineering achievement that is the Homer Tunnel, the awesome reflections in the mirror lakes, and of course, the ever present towering majesty of the southern alps themselves.
There are ten campsites with limited facilities on the way into Milford, which are excellent places to base yourself if you have time for exploration beyond the mandatory cruise on Milford Sound itself. I can recommend taking more time to explore this area, with a hike up to Key Summit being a particular favourite.
5. The Catlins
Tucked away down on the south eastern corner of New Zealand’s south island, the Catlins are less about rugged towering beauty and more about stunning waterfalls, tree filled vistas and epic coastal views.
They are home to a number of quite wonderful sights, including New Zealand’s most southerly mainland point, a massively spectacular blowhole, fossilised forests, sea lion colonies, incredible cliff top views and many more waterfalls than you can shake a stick at.
There is so much beauty to behold in the Catlins that you are going to want more than a day to explore it all, and driving through will give you the chance to take the many many stops that you are going to want to take. I’d recommend a couple of days at least to take it all in.
Further reading & resources for visiting New Zealand
That’s that for my five favourite drives of New Zealand, which will take you through some of the best scenery New Zealand has to offer! If you need more information to help you plan your New Zealand adventure, look no further than my series of New Zealand guides, which cover everything from finding free internet to buying and selling a vehicle, to the perfect one month itinerary in New Zealand.
If you’d like some physical resources to further plan your trip, then the following should help:
- This collection of New Zealand travel guides on Amazon.com (Amazon UK for EU readers)
- The Lonely Planet Guide to New Zealand on Amazon.com (UK / EU link)
- The Rough Guide to New Zealand on Amazon.com (UK / EU link)
Free options and other online resources
If you prefer your guides less physical and a bit more free, then the following are good resources:
- The Wikitravel guide to New Zealand
- New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website
- The official New Zealand tourism portal
Finally, if you’ve got a drive in New Zealand that you absolutely love, please share it in the comments below!