The best scenic drives in New Zealand

The best scenic drives in New Zealand

Epic road trips and scenic roads across the north and south island in New Zealand

Road trips are the most fun way to see all of New Zealand. The scenic drives go through the whole country and are among the most beautiful in the world. If you love driving you will never wanna leave New Zealand again. Also if you are just the fellow passenger.

The roads in New Zealand go through rain forests and country sides, with green fields full of fluffy sheep. Some roads go along sea side cliffs and beaches as well as dreamy lakes. On the ways you gonna see valleys and mountain ranges and even spot New Zealand´s biggest volcanoes.

So let´s hit the road! Adventure awaits!

Renting a car in New Zealand

When going to New Zealand most people rent a car or camper van to hit the road. In that way you are able to stop at every view point and place you want. Your own vehicle gives you a lot of freedom and you are always flexible with time. Some places in New Zealand are just to beautiful you might decide to stay longer than originally planed.

Renting a car in New Zealand is very easy and uncomplicated. You have to be at least eighteen years old and need to have a valid drivers license. Some countries require an additional international license.

The good thing about renting a car is that you are not obligated to return your car at the same place you picked it up. Most of the rental companies offer you to drive the car one way and to drop it off at a different branch. That is very useful. 

A regular car is absolutely fine when driving in New Zealand. Just in certain places you should consider a four wheel drive. For example if you wanna drive on the Ninety Mile Beach, or if you plan to drive a lot off road.

Lookout across the Otira viaduct in New Zealand
The scenic drive through the Arthurs Pass National Park is spectacular –
like this view over the Otira Viaduct

How much time to plan?

Some scenic drives can be done in one day (Queenstown – Glenorchy), but depending where you go it is always good to plan enough time. Most of the roads you gonna drive anyways when traveling through New Zealand. They connect major destinations like Auckland – Wellington or Christchurch – Queenstown.

You can either do a day road trip around the area you stay or you combine the drives with your travel itinerary. It is up to you where you wanna go and how much time you want to spend.

To help you decide where to go here are some of the most popular and beautiful scenic drives in New Zealand.

road trip to Paradise in New Zealand
Road to Paradise near Glenorchy

Auckland – Matakana – Cape Reinga

From Auckland the Motorway 1 goes all the way up the north land to the top of the north island. The curvy road goes through forests and farm land, along the coast and beautiful beaches.

Auckland´s north shore has some beautiful white sand beaches and regional parks along the way. Those are great day trip destinations. The most famous ones are Shakespear Regional Park and Wenderholm Regional Park.

On the way further up north you can stop in Matakana, Goat Island and Pakiri Beach. This trip can be easily done in one day.

Auckland View New Zealand road trips
View of Auckland CBD by going over the Harbor Bridge

If you have a couple of days (between 2 and 3 days) drive further to the Bay of Islands and to Cape Reinga. The scenery along the way is beautiful and if you have a four wheel drive car you can even drive along Ninety Mile Beach, which is officially a “street” in New Zealand and part of the motorway.

Stops on the way from Auckland to Cape Reinga

  • Shakespear Regional Park
  • Orewa Town
  • Wenderholm Regional Park
  • Mahurangi Regional Park
  • Matakana
  • Goat Island and Pakiri Beach
  • Mangawhai Heads and Cliff Walk
  • Whangarei Heads and Ocean Beach
  • Whangarei Falls
  • Bay of Islands
  • Karikari Peninsula and Matai Bay
  • Ninety Mile Beach
  • Giant Sand Dunes
  • Cape Reinga Lighthouse
Mahurangi Regional Park - Road trips from Auckland
Mahurangi Regional Park on the way from Auckland to Matakana
Ninety Mile Beach – official part of state highway 1

Rotorua – Taupo – Tongariro NP

In the center of the north island you will spot a lot of geothermal activity on your drive from Rotorua to Taupo. You can stop at the famous Wai-O-Tapo Thermal Wonderland with the famous Champagne Pool and the Lady Knox Geyser (allow at least two hours here).

Wai-O-Tapu Wonderland between Rotorua and Taupo

Before arriving at Taupo you can see the Huka Falls with millions of liter water rushing down the narrow gorge. Just to watch the falls is absolutely spectacular.

Taupo itself is a very charming little town on the shore of the lake. It has a lot of cozy restaurants and bars on the lake front and it is worth to stay a night or two.

The scenic drive continues around Lake Taupo, New Zealand´s center of the north island and biggest lake, which used to be a huge crater of a volcano.

In the distance you can see the three majestic, still active volcanos of the Tongariro National Park. The mountains Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro are located in the central volcanic plateau and worth to visit for many reasons.

In the winter it is a popular place for winter sport and in the summer famous for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

The Tongariro Crossing is 19.4 km long and officially rated as one of the most beautiful day walks in the world!

To get more information about the track visit the official Department of Conservation website about the Tongariro Crossing.

Must stops on the scenic road from Rotorua to the Tongariro National Park

  • Rotorua Redwoods Forest
  • Te Puia and the Pohutu Geyser
  • Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
  • Orakei Korako Geothermal Park
  • Huka Falls
  • Craters of the moon
  • Lake Taupo
  • Tongariro National Park
  • Tawhai Falls
  • Whakapapa Ski Fields

Christchurch – Arthurs Pass

This scenic drive goes directly through the south island from the east coast to the west coast, or the other way around, with many beautiful stops on the way.

The drive over the mountains is spectacular. Famous spots are Castle Hill, Arthurs Pass village and the Devils Punchbowl Falls and the look out over the Otira Viaduct.

This spot is also famous to watch New Zealand´s native kea parrots. These cheeky birds are very used to tourists and not shy at all.

Must stops on the way

  • Castle Hill
  • Arthur’s Pass Village
  • Devils Punchbowl Falls
  • Otira Viaduct Lookout

Queenstown – Glenorchy (Paradise)

Queenstown is famous for its many activities and amazing scenery. If you have a spare day or afternoon you can drive from here to the little town of Glenorchy, on the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. The road, what a surprise, goes all the way along the lake. It is one of the best scenic drives in New Zealand that can be easily done in one day.

You can have a relaxing day in Glenorchy and do some of the easy nature tracks or you drive further to the real Paradise on earth! Yes, it does really exist!

Paradise is not a town but an area that got its name because of the incredible beauty of this place. You will need a four wheel drive on this road as it is just a gravel road. However if you drive careful, you should be also fine with a normal car. The area includes beautiful farm fields with cows and sheep, green hills and the southern alps in the background.

And for all the Lord of the rings fans – Paradise was used as filming location in many scenes of the LOTR and Hobbit movies.

Stops along the scenic drive

  • Bennetts Bluff Lookout across lake Wakatipu
  • Glenorchy wharf
  • Paradise sign and area

Te Anau – Milford Sound

If you travel to New Zealand you can´t leave the country without going to Milford Sound and without driving this scenic drive. Not only the destination but also the way going there is absolutely stunning. The Milford Road starts from Te Anau and goes through the biggest national park in New Zealand.

On the way through the Fiordland the road will go through huge valleys and forests, along waterfalls and lakes and through a narrow tunnel inside the mountain.

Apart from all the others this one is my personal favorite scenic drive in New Zealand.

To find out more check out these related articles about Milford Sound and How to get to Milford Sound and the Fiordland National Park.

Fantastic photo stops on the way

  • Lake Te Anau Lookout
  • Eglington Valley
  • Mirror Lakes
  • Lake Gunn
  • Hollyford Valley Lookout
  • Falls Creek Waterfall
  • Homer Tunnel

and many many more…

West Coast Road

The West Coast Road on the south island is another beautiful scenic drive you should put on your New Zealand bucket list. The scenery is different from the rest of the south island. It is more wild forests and bushes, high rocks and mountains with a spectacular coast line where the ocean hits the shore.

This area looks a lot like Jurassic Park!

The West Coast road goes along the Pancake Rocks as well, a popular rock formation that looks like hundreds of pancakes that are build up.

Must stops on the West Coast Road

  • Pancake Rocks
  • The Paparoa River Track
  • Truman Track to the beach
  • Irimahuwhero Lookout
  • Seal Colony Tauranga Bay

Going further south the roads goes to two popular New Zealand destinations. The two glaciers Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier. These two places are an absolute highlight on every NZ journey.

Haast Pass Road

The Haast Pass road connects the West Coast and the town of Wanaka in the south island and goes through the Mount Aspiring National Park.

Along the road you can stop at some beautiful waterfalls as well as the Blue Pools. The pools have their name because of the unreal blue color of the water. You can walk over suspension bridges and if you are brave enough you can swim in the freezing water.

The roads leads further along Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea with incredible views across the lakes and mountains before you reach the town of Wanaka.

Chasing waterfalls in New Zealand

  • Roaring Billy Falls
  • Fantail Falls
  • Thunder Creek Falls
  • Blue Pools
  • Lake Wanaka Lookout
  • The Neck Lookout
  • Lake Hawea Lookout

Christchurch – Queenstown

Last but not least this scenic drive is one of the most popular ones as it connects two major towns in the south island: Christchurch and Queenstown.

The road leads its way through the center of the south island with a gorgeous scenery on the way.  You will drive along two central located beautiful lakes with such a unique blue color you did not know exist.

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Lake Tekapo

The first one is Lake Tekapo, which is also famous for stargazing and the Church of the Good Shepherd on the shore of the lake.

After Lake Tekapo you will reach after 30 minutes Lake Pukaki with perfect views towards Mount Cook, New Zealand´s highest mountain.

Further on you drive over the Lindis Pass, a mountain range with high tussock grass. Coming closer to Queenstown the road leads through Kawarau Gorge and along the Kawarau River.

You can also make a stop at the bungee bridge if you are brave enough or just watch the people jumping.

Before you arrive in Queenstown the scenic drive goes through one of the most beautiful wine areas in New Zealand. The Gibbston Valley has a lot of wineries on the way where you can buy delicious New Zealand wine, cheese and chocolates.

Stops on your way from Christchurch to Queenstown

  • Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd
  • Mt John Observatory
  • Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook Lookout
  • Clay Cliffs
  • Lindis Pass Lookout
  • Lake Dunstan
  • Gibbston Valley winieries
  • AJ Hackett Kawarau Bungy Centre
  • Lake Hayes and Arrowtown
Queenstown lookout New Zealand

Important things to know when driving in New Zealand

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road

In New Zealand people drive on the left site of the road. Most rental cars have a little sticker inside that reminds the driver to “keep left”!

If you are not familiar to drive on the other site of the road don´t worry. Most streets in New Zealand are only one lane per site and you get used to it very quickly. Outside the cities traffic is not heavy at all so you can be very relaxed.

Just be very careful when you drive into roundabouts as this can be confusing at the first time.

New Zealand speed limit is 100km/h

International drivers license

Inform yourself before you travel to New Zealand if you need an additional international drivers license. That applies also if you travel to Australia.

Distance in New Zealand is longer than it appears on the map

Driving in New Zealand can take longer than you might think.

Although places seem to be very near to each other it often takes longer to get from A to B.

Out of some reasons:

Streets in New Zealand are sometimes very narrow and curvy. You have to break many times and slow down.
Also the streets are mostly one lane, if there are trucks in front of you it can take a while until you can pass.

And don´t forget to take breaks on your way. There are many beautiful spots along the roads in New Zealand so plan a lot of time in advance.

One lane bridges and gravel roads

It happens very often that you have to cross a single lane bridge when driving in New Zealand. Just drive careful over the bridge and pay attention to the sign which lane has priority.

Gravel roads are also a thing you should know about. Drive slowly. It can be annoying to drive these roads but you eventually get used to it.

Be careful when sheep cross your way

New Zealand is the country of sheep. Pretty much everywhere you go you will find wide green fields full of fluffy white clouds. Sometimes it can happen that the sheep are walking on the road so just wait and drive extremely careful and slow.

copyright: Luckkikanum – www.shutterstock.com

It´s the journey, not the destination

Road trips in New Zealand are the biggest fun you can have on your journey. The drives and the things you see on the way are many times more important than the actual destination.

That´s why you should always plan enough time and don´t rush. In that way you can enjoy the best scenic drives in New Zealand, if not in the whole world! Can´t wait to go back!

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New Zealand Scenic Roads
New Zealand Road Trips

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4 Comments

  1. 3. July 2020 / 13:40

    Very good tips and stunning photos! If one day I will plan a trip to New Zealand, I will definitely choose a road trip with mountainous views! These are my favorite views! ♥

    • Alice
      Author
      5. July 2020 / 14:45

      Thank you Sandra! I agree, mountain views are the best and give that exciting feeling. But sometimes I also need relaxing ocean views when i drive. 😀

  2. 2. July 2020 / 2:13

    This post has just gotten me so excited about going to New Zealand for our elopement! Your photos have reminded me of the beauty that is there, and I can’t wait to say “I do” here and be back in these beautiful landscapes! 😀

    • Alice
      Author
      5. July 2020 / 14:43

      Wow that sounds so exciting Cherrod! I wish you all the best and hope you will have a wonderful time in NZ! 😀

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