A New Zealand South Island road trip should be on the bucket list of every travel or landscape photography enthusiast. From beautiful beaches, wild coastline, and epic glacial fjords to the snow-capped Southern Alps, it can be hard to plan a trip that takes it all in. That’s why I’ve done the hard work for you!
New Zealand South Island Map – Road Trip Itinerary
New Zealand South Island Road Trip: 11 Epic Photography Spots
Most visitors to New Zealand’s South Island fly into Christchurch or Queenstown, however, if you are including the North Island on your trip, then you may take the ferry into Picton. This New Zealand itinerary runs from the Northern tip and is mostly circular in an anticlockwise direction, so you can start and end at your convenience. And don’t forget there are endless options for side trips off my marked route!
1. Wharariki Beach
At the very top of the South Island, you will find this secluded and vast beach, camping is available within walking distance or you can opt to stay in a lodge a short drive away. The best time for photography here is a sunset to capture the rock formations and the huge sand dunes. Wharariki Beach is also home to New Zealand Fur Seals that will allow you to get close enough for some epic wildlife shots.
2. Nelson Lakes – Lake Rotoiti
Even if you only stop briefly at the Lake Rotoiti carpark you will be rewarded with an amazing view. The classic shot at getting here is of the jetty looking out across the lake with the steep mountain sides towering on either side of your frame. Be warned, the weather can leave the whole place covered in fog for days at a time!
3. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
These strange rock formations provide an interesting subject for a beach landscape shot. As they are on the west coast, you will want to hang around for sunset to get the best light.
4. Lake Matheson
A short walk around this small lake leads you to one of the best views of New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt Cook. The lake is known for providing a perfect reflection of the mountains, as long as the water is still. Early morning usually gives the best conditions here.
5. That Wanaka Tree
New Zealand’s most famous and most photographed tree earned its own hashtag for a good reason. A lone willow tree sticking out of lake Wanaka right in the township itself makes for an amazing photograph. Try a long exposure here to make the water look silky smooth.
6. Roy’s Peak
This classic New Zealand view requires a bit of a hike, but it is well worth the effort. Position your subject at the point, and they will look tiny in this epic landscape. It can get crowded here with everyone wanting the same shot, but the hike provides plenty of similar viewpoints.
7. Milford Sound
Probably the most recognizable New Zealand view comes from Milford Sound. Deep dark water and huge steep mountains rising from the deep make it easy to get amazing landscape shots here. A boat or kayak trip is a great way to get a unique perspective, and you may even be lucky enough to spot dolphins.
8. Moeraki Boulders
Another peculiar rock formation, this time on the east coast. The perfectly round ‘boulders’ are best photographed at sunset with long exposure to help them stand out from the beach.
9. Mt Cook village
The drive up to Mt. Cook village will have you stopping every 2 minutes with a new view to photograph. On a clear day, one of the best shots is along the coast of Lake Pukaki, with a long lens to make the mountain larger in your frame.
10. Arthurs Pass
This has to be one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives. Best photographed in Winter or Autumn when the peaks are snow-covered, there are countless opportunities for shots of epic highways and bridges amongst the wilderness.
Kaikoura is the capital of whale watching in New Zealand and also has resident seals that you can get close to. Take a boat trip and try for a shot of a whale or dolphins with the mountain peaks in the background.
When should you go?
The South Island can provide amazing photographs in all seasons, but in my opinion, winter/autumn is the best time to visit when the mountains are covered in snow. Fringe seasons will be slightly cheaper in terms of accommodation, and the roads are full of camper vans and tour buses in the summer.
How much time do you need?
For travel photography, you will need to be flexible with times as the weather is notoriously unpredictable here. Allow yourself extra days to wait out the rainy days when you want that perfect view. I would suggest a minimum of two weeks to get around the whole island comfortably and to give you time for unplanned side trips.
Side trips are a must here…
Driving the main highways, you will almost constantly come across signs promising waterfalls and viewpoints, and you should absolutely follow some of them. The best road trips include getting a bit lost and following gravel roads just to see what’s at the end. Just be warned; New Zealand is riddled with gravel roads that seem to go on forever!
How much will it cost?
Hiring a camper van is the best and most common way of getting around. This allows you to stop wherever you want, and a good network of campsites in almost every town provides toilets and kitchen facilities for a small charge. Top 10 Holiday Parks has many campsites throughout the Island. If you have the budget, you can easily drive between larger towns each day for better hotels, but these can get expensive in tourist hot spots such as Wanaka.
For the budget conscious, take advantage of the countries ‘freedom camping sites. This is a network of parking spaces that are available free of charge for ‘self-contained’ vehicles only (meaning you have to have a toilet onboard). Some freedom campers have given the practice a bad name by littering the areas, and this has rubbed locals the wrong way, so make sure to take all your rubbish away with you!
It is a big no-no to camp in an undesignated spot in New Zealand due to littering and the large numbers of tourists that visit each year.
If you pitch a tent illegally, you can expect to wake up to a ticket slapped in your tent or worse, be woken in the middle of the night and told to move on. Instead, make use of DOC campsites which usually have a toilet on-site; you can purchase a pass that is valid at all South Island campsites, excluding the busy huts in tourist hot spots at www.doc.govt.nz
New Zealand South Island Road Trip | Conclusion
The best advice I can give you is to be flexible. The weather will thwart your plans, and you may find a side trip that you want to spend a day exploring. This is all part of the fun! You never know what you may find in New Zealand’s South Island.