A month was way too short of time to spend in New Zealand and we knew it when we booked it. But I love the saying “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.” If we only had a month, we were going to make the absolute most of it. But in doing so, I discovered that the best parts of New Zealand can absolutely be crammed into an epic 21 day road trip. Here’s how I would do three weeks in New Zealand if I were to go back.
When I was planning our trip I was overwhelmed with all the places to visit because it seemed like all the blogs said that every destination was a spot you had to see. After spending a month here I realized not every destination is worth the effort and I wanted to help others narrow down their trip so they don’t spend as much time driving as we did.
If you are looking for a blog with the best restaurants, hotels, and pricey excursions, you won’t find that here. We travel on a budget and love the outdoors. Our travel focuses on ways to be active in nature so these are the top destinations if you are looking to hike, bike or surf. We tent camped through New Zealand so we will mention lots of great campsite we stayed at on our 3 week road trip but we will also mention alternatives such as as nearby towns where I’d recommend getting accommodation.
Road Trip Day 1 & 2: Fly into Auckland; Drive to Raglan
I’ve surfed a lot of places in the world and this one is special. In a good way and a bad way. It’s good because it really is a perfect wave. It sets up in a perfectly peeling left that can give you a couple hundred yard ride across the bay. It’s also a very forgiving wave, making it easy to catch.
Catching a wave is the bad part. Because it breaks so predictable, the competition at the point in the lineup is fierce and mainly from the groms who don’t like to share.
Beware that getting in and out requires navigating a fierce field of lava rocks. Booties are certainly helpful but will also stamp KOOK on your forehead and make fighting for the peak even more of a challenge. With or without the wave, I loved this town and found as much joy, if not more, just walking through town, eating delicious gelato and homemade fig sourdough bread.
Road Trip Day 3 & 4: Drive to Rotorua; Mountain bike Whakarewarewa Forest
Mountain biking the Whakarewarewa forest was one of the top highlights for me in New Zealand. This was so much fun for the entire family that I had to make a YouTube video of our incredible experience.
We rented our bikes at the trailhead from Mountain Bike Rotorua. I can’t emphasize enough how incredible their customer service is. They were so helpful in getting everyone sized up (there are a lot of us) and made sure our experience was top-notch. Check out our YouTube video of our biking adventure and don’t forget to subscribe to our channel.
The trails in the redwood forest here are so great for kids and adults alike. My two youngest, who aren’t always excited to go hiking, begged us to do this again and again. I was amazed at how good my 7 year old got at bike handling in just an hour and the trails were so fun and flowy that even my older kids had a blast on them.
If mountain biking isn’t your thing, you can opt to hike in the Whakarewarewa forest or head over to Blue and Green Lake. There is a nice trail that goes around Blue Lake and at the far end of Blue Lake there is a nice view of both lakes.
Road Trip Day 5: Hot springs and mud pools; Drive toward Tongariro
Getting to Kerosene Creek hot springs from Rotorua is about 45 minute drive. You’ll turn down a bumpy dirt road and take it for 6 kilometers until you get to a large parking area (also the start for some great mountain biking if you have bikes). From here it’s a short 5 minute stroll to the hot spring. Though there are no signs here with warnings, at some other hot springs we saw signs about dangerous bacteria so stay on the safe side and don’t put your head in the water!
Our next stop was the mud pools. They are cool to see, but certainly not a destination in themselves. Plan on only needing a half hour here. This is right next to Wai-O-Tapu, which we skipped since it cost money and we had just gone to Yellowstone last summer but is home to the Lady Knox Geyser and other geothermal features.
One more quick free sight to see in right next to the mud pools is Under the Bridge. I wouldn’t recommend swimming in it since there are warning signs but it is very pretty to see.
After exploring the geothermal wonders of New Zealand, try to camp or get an Airbnb close to the Tongariro trailhead to save some time tomorrows. It’s a long day hike and you’ll want most of the day to do it.
Road Trip Day 6: Hike Tongariro; Drive toward Wellington
Today is a big day! In the high season you aren’t allowed to park at trailheads for more than four hours and this hike will take you at least six so you’ll want to make sure you get a shuttle to the trailhead, unless of course you have someone in your group who isn’t hiking and can shuttle you.
While you can hike in either direction, I recommend starting at Mangatepopo so that Mt Doom is in your view for the first half of the hike. Going this direction makes the downhill a little more gradual, but I’m warning you, it’s a really long descent.
Remember to pack layers of clothing because it can get very cold at the top, but the hike up is strenuous and you will want to be able to take layers off for it.
This is definitely one of those #GOAT hikes so I encourage you to go for it.
It’s a challenging hike but doable for most people. The trail is very well maintained. My 9 year old did it, but it was a lot for him.
Road Trip Day 7: Cross on the early afternoon ferry
It’s usually cheaper to book the ferry ahead of time.
Blue Bridge even give the kids a bag with an activity book to do while sailing! I also liked that there are bench seats which allowed us to lie down and sleep for part of the journey.
Keep in mind that the entire process of checking in, waiting to board, and sailing is a long endeavor (especially for kids). I recommend having healthy snacks or even bringing a meal on board since the food onboard isn’t good or healthy.
If you can take the afternoon or early evening ferry then you can go explore Wellington for half the day. I’m not a city girl so half a day here was enough for me, although I really enjoyed eating amazing craft food at the farmers market and grabbing some fresh produce and cheese. We saw a really cool street performer while walking through the downtown area. Wellington is the windiest city I’ve ever been to. I saw parked motorcycles blow over!
When you get to Picton, get an Airbnb here or if it’s still daylight drive along the sound towards Abel Tasman. If you are camping, there are some great campgrounds and free camping areas along the highway to get there, but I don’t recommend driving this at night as it is very windy and you’d miss out on the gorgeous views.
Related: I’m Not a City Girl
Road Trip Day 8-10: Arrive in Abel Tasman; Take the water taxi to for a two night backpacking adventure
This was my second favorite experience in all of New Zealand, which means you totally should do it.
Hiking from Marahau to Anchorage doesn’t do this park justice. You really need to experience the areas from Anchorage to Bark Bay and preferably to Awaroa in order to get the most value out of this park.
Road Trip Day 10: Drive towards the West Coast; Camp at Lyell Campground/Old Ghost Road Trailhead (Optional: add a day mountain biking)
This was one of the coolest places we camped at mostly because of the amount of stars we could see at night.
This is also the trailhead for the famous 85km-long famous Old Ghost Road trail that is on our priority list to go back and bike although we may need to up our game since this is a grade 4/5 trail and we don’t want to recreate our experience in Jackson Hole WY (click here to read about our epic fail). You can also walk this as a five day backpacking trip.
Remember: Driving on the South Island takes a lot longer than most places so don’t cram too much into today.
There are plenty of gorgeous lookouts on the way to Westport to stop and stretch you legs.
Take a quick detour to stop in Westport to stock up on groceries. Westport is the last town with grocery stores until Greymouth, 100 kilometers away. If you feel like surfing or a surf lesson, go surf Tauranga Bay in Westport before heading to your secluded beach house. Supposedly it can become a really long left but it takes quite a bit of swell and no wind. This however, is a really great place to learn to surf.
For more details on the next 2 days of this New Zealand itinerary, check out out related blog: 7 Stops You Must See on the West Coast of New Zealand
Road Trip Day 11: Relax and take in the views
I felt so spoiled staying at this Airbnb and I highly recommend you stay here. After driving so many miles and hiking/backpacking, it was really nice to spend one full day doing absolutely nothing, especially in such a beautiful location. This AirBnb literally has its own private beach!
There is great WiFi here so you can catch up on some work before the next half of your New Zealand adventure. Personally, I was just stoked to have a shower and washing machine!
Road Trip Day 12: Drive towards Franz Josef
I personally don’t think the town of Franz Josef is worth staying in. It is very overpriced but it’s the only actual town, if you can call it that, for a long time and so it can demand the high ticket price.
The drive from Fox River to Franz Josef Glacier is, guess what, LONG. Stopping in the cute town of Hokitika is a good place to stretch the legs, grab some food, stock up on groceries, and fill the gas tank because there won’t be much until you get to Wanaka and IMO, this stretch from Franz Josef to Wanaka is a great area to spend more days than I put in this itinerary if you can.
There are also good surf breaks in nearby Greymouth. We spent a few nights in the area and camped at MacDonald Campground, which was very pretty and had good facilities, and stayed in this Airbnb which I also recommend if you need more r&r or didn’t get a chance to stay at the previous airbnb. There isn’t much around here though so I recommend it as more of a rest day than as a home base.
Road Trip Day 13: Hike Franz Josef & Fox Glacier
You brought rain gear right?! It’s a very easy, but often wet, hike to see the Franz Josef glacier. Parking can be tough so get there early. I really wanted to hike to Robert’s Point but we didn’t get a chance to because the fog was so dense the day we were there.
Another popular option is to Heli-Hike Franz Josef meaning you take a helicopter up onto the glacier and then hike around and explore ice caves. Click here to find a tour.
The road to Fox Glacier was closed due to damage from Cyclone Gita, but if the road is open, this should be your next stop.
Bonus: If you can squeeze in another day or two, stop to hike part or all of the Copland Track. Click here to learn more
If you are pushing onward, I highly recommend camping in Mount Aspiring National Park because it too is gorgeous and you’ll want a full day to explore.
I recommend Pleasant Flat Campsite, which is a low-cost campground with toilets, water, and a nice flat grassy area for your tent, but mainly I’d camp here for the view of the mountains. There is not much accommodation here besides camping so if you are looking for a house/hotel/etc, you’re going to want to stay in a town right before Mt Aspiring such as Haast. Click here to find accommodation.
Road Trip Day 14: Mount Aspiring National Park
Take your time driving through Mount Aspiring National Park. There are so many points of interest between Pleasant Flat and Lake Wanaka including Thunder Creek Falls, Fan Tail Falls (someday I want to go back to hike from here to the Brewster Hut), and Blue Pools.
If you are camping, stop before you get to Wanaka and camp at Kidds Bush Reserve, one of my all-time favorite places I’ve ever camped. If you are not camping, get accommodation in Wanaka (which BTW is one of my favorite towns in the whole world).
Note: There won’t be grocery stores after Hokitika until you actually get into Wanaka, other than the overpriced mini market in Franz Glacier, so if you are stopping at all these rad campgrounds, make sure you stocked up yesterday.
Road Trip Day 15: Wanaka + Isthmus Peak
Wanaka is a cute town with plenty of hipster food options, but before you drive into town, stop and hike to the top of Isthmus Peak. Yep, it’s another one of our favorites! We skipped Roy’s Peak and heard it was a good call since Isthmus was better especially for the crowd factor.
If you have time, spend an extra day here to explore the area. We had reserved tickets for the Routeburn Track so we had to press on. There’s a free campground about halfway between Wanaka and Queenstown called Bendigo. If not camping, try to get accommodation between Queenstown and Wanaka or in Queenstown.
Related blog: 5 Reasons to Visit Wanaka, New Zealand
Road Trip Day 16: Queenstown + Glenorchy
While I didn’t love this town, if I had more money to spend, it may have been a different story. This is the adventure capital of New Zealand, but here, adventure costs a lot of money. There are plenty of inexpensive adventures involving hiking up steep mountains, we just didn’t have time to explore them.
Do you have a favorite hike in Queenstown? Let us know in the comments below!
We picked up our tickets at the DOC office to hike the Routeburn Track and headed towards Glenorchy to camp near the trailhead.
Glenorchy is very cute but a bit limited in supplies so stock up of food and cash in Queenstown. There are really nice views on the drive to Glenorchy and even if you aren’t thru-hiking the Routeburn Track, it’s still totally worth hiking half of it from the Glenorchy side.
Camp at Sylvan Campsite, which is about 30 minutes past Glenorchy and only a few minute drive from the start of the Routeburn. It’s absolutely gorgeous and lies in a valley with dramatic mountains surrounding you. If you’re not camping, click here to see other accommodation in the quaint town of Glenorchy.
Road Trip Day 17-18: Routeburn Track (or Kepler Track)
This was definitely the highlight of our trip. It was our first backpacking experience and I can’t recommend it enough.
If you backpack it, you have to reserve your tickets WAY ahead of time and if you can’t get them I recommend just day hiking all the way to Harris Saddle and back. The views at Harris Saddle are incredible whether you backpack or hike it!!! See our related blog for more info on getting backpacking permits. PS we made our March reservations in November.
If you are day hiking, use the remainder of Day 17 to drive toward Milford Sound after the hike. It’s going to be a very long drive, but there are many campgrounds on the way and plenty of places to stretch your legs on smaller hikes. Day 18 is then a bonus day and I’d recommend spending it at Arthur’s Pass at the end of your trip (see bottom of this post).
If you do the Routeburn Track like we did and only camp one night at Lake Mackenzie, you should be done hiking by 1 p.m. on day 18.
This way, you can use the rest of the day to get a shuttle back to Glenorchy to get your vehicle. (See related blog below for details on how to hike this Track).
Related blog: How to Backpack the Routeburn Track
When you finish hiking the Routeburn, head down the road another 45 minutes to see Milford Sound. You may want to book a cruise into the sound as there isn’t much to see from the harbor, but keep in mind the drive back to Queenstown is about 4 hours.
You will want to camp/stay as close as you can to Queenstown. You can free camp at Lumsden Parking Area which is a little more than halfway to Queenstown however it is not scenic, but it’s on the way and FREE.
Personally, I’d skip Milford Sound unless you can afford a cruise or a kayak excursion. That being said, a cruise and kayak excursion looks AWESOME! Click here to check out the top deals on kayak/cruise excursions on Milford Sound.
Road Trip Day 19: Mount Cook
It’s a long drive again from Queenstown to Christchurch. I would break it up by spending a night at Mount Cook Village.
The glaciers here are mind-blowing, especially the one that you can see from White Horse Hill Campground. If you aren’t going to camp here (which is almost a crime) get accommodation in Mount Cook Village so you’re wishing walking distance of the hikes.
Since the hikes can get a bit touristy, I recommend trying to camp here overnight so you can experience the magnificence of the area in peace. Seriously, I think I was the first person awake in the campground and it was a magical feeling sitting under the glacier in silence in the morning.
Related: Tips for Camping in New Zealand