Driving across New Zealand is an adventure that takes you through rolling hills, along the rocky coast, and through winding mountain paths. These are 7 New Zealand road trips that show off the diverse landscape of this stunning country.
Without a doubt, one of the best ways to take in everything the country has to offer is by a good old fashioned New Zealand road trip! New Zealand is a free camping nation - which means that you can park up pretty much everywhere (excluding no parking or no camping signed areas common in popular towns). If you are planning on travelling New Zealand by one of the hop on hop off bus tours, we suggest hiring a car or campervan in one of the major towns and enjoying a 3 to 5 day road trip.
New Zealand Road Trips - North Island
1. Auckland to Cape Reinga
Suggested time: 3 to 4 Days
Some of the finest landscapes in New Zealand are just north of Auckland. Check them out for yourself on a road trip up to Ninety Mile Beach and the 'very top of New Zealand.' Heading north of Auckland, make your way to the sea side town of Paihia - the gateway to the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands are made up of 144 islands that remind us a lot of the Whitsundays - picture green countryside, coastline roads and blue waters.
Paihia is a great place to swim with Dolphins, explore the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds - the birthplace of New Zealand's founding document, and take a sailing tour around the islands with a visit to the infamous Hole in the Rock! Another tip - take a ferry to the historic island town of Russell before knocking back a few Pipi Bombs at the Pipi Patch Bar at Base Bay of Islands. The hostel also has a campervan 'park up and go' option where you can use the hostel's facilities while sleeping in your campervan.
Leaving Paihia you can make your way to 90 Mile Beach and Cape Reinga (which is actually only 55 miles long) - the very top of New Zealand. Cape Reinga is a popular spot for sand boarding and taking a walk to the iconic lighthouse as you gaze out to the Pacific Ocean.
As you make your way to the Cape, you can travel inland to explore the ancient Kauri Forests and waterfalls! There are also some great natural rock pools and rock jumping spots just a short drive from Paihia - ask our staff at Base for local tips on how to get there!
Recommended Itinerary and Suggested Stops on the way
Day 1 - Auckland to Paihia
Distance - Auckland to Paihia ~ 248km (via State Highway 1 - SH1)
Driving Time - 3hrs 20 minutes if driving directly to Paihia
Points of Interest
If you love cheese head to Puhoi, not only is there a great pub with a beer garden in Puhoi itself but drive a little further to find the excellent Puhoi Valley Cheese. There's a nice little tea room on this road too. Just a slight detour off SH1
Whangerei is just over 2 hours from Auckland. This is a great place to have a short break on the way to Paihia. You could visit Whangerei Falls or the Kauri Park. If you have a bit more time and love scuba diving then you should visit the Poor Knights Island Marine Reserve.
Just 45 minutes up the road from Whangarei and just before arriving into Paihia take a little detour into Kawakawa to see the public toilets. Huh? You'll thank me, the Hundertwasser toilets are like no other public toilets in the world and well worth the short pit stop.
Paihia is between 30 and 40 minutes away from Kawakawa depending on which route you take. I suggest the shorter route, which will take longer (around 40 minutes) but is really scenic.
Day 2 - stay in Paihia to explore the area.
Day 3 - Paihia to Cape Reinga
Distance - Paihia to Cape Reinga ~ 212km
Driving Time - 2 hrs 50 mins (approximately) if driving directly there.
Points of Interest
Ancient Kauri Kingdom (Ka-uri Unearthed)
About half way to Cape Reinga take a break at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom. See some impressive Kauri wood carvings and a have bite to eat at the onsite cafe.
Ninety Mile Beach
Ninety Mile Beach is officially a highway. However your car rental company is unlikely to allow you to drive here as it's only suitable for 4WD vehicles and should only be attempted at low tide. Too many tourists have had to abandon their cars / campervans on this beach so don't risk it. If you did want to drive a long the beach then we suggest taking a day tour with Dune Rider from Paihia to Cape Reinga instead of self driving.
Some lovely places to walk around here, including the absolute must walk to the Lighthouse. The views are really lovely, so have a good lunch break here. One thing you absolutely should do when here is go sandboarding at the Te Paki Stream sand dunes. (Must be booked in advance)
Return to Paihia
I recommend driving back to Paihia (and civilisation!). So that you have a full day ahead of you tomorrow to explore more of Paihia or to head back to Auckland.
Day 4 - either drive Back to Auckland or see more of Paihia
More tips: 10 Must Do's in the Bay of Islands
2. Rotorua to Gisborne
Suggested time: 3 to 4 Days
Keen to explore off the beaten path? The east of Rotorua is rarely explored by travelers and in our opinion, has some of the best views New Zealand has to offer! The East Coast is a great way to meet local "grey nomads" that tend to take advantage of New Zealand's free camping opportunities.
Drive east towards the town of Whakatane and then make your way south east towards Gisborne - a surfing mecca and the first place in the world to see the sunrise! It's also a great place to feed Stingrays (there are tours available). We suggest spending a night in Gisborne to catch the morning sunrise.
Next day, as you make your way north east towards Tokomaru Bay you will be blown away by the rugged coastline and uninhabited countryside - you will really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere! En route make sure you plan to jump off New Zealand's longest pier - Tolaga Bay Wharf, stop by the Tikitiki Maori Church and grab lunch at a local seaside pub. After Tokomaru Bay we suggest driving to Te Kaha - there is a beautiful ocean front hostel here run by a local family called Te Kaha Lodge. On the way, make sure you take a walk to the top of East Cape Lighthouse - New Zealand's most easterly point where the ocean extends to South Africa!
Base Rotorua also have a park up and stay package where you can use the hostel's facilities, a good way to get yourself prepared before your trip!
3. Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula
Suggested time: 3 Days
It is impossible to talk about road trips in New Zealand without mentioning the Coromandel. Some our favourite beaches in New Zealand are found in the Coromandel (check out our guide to New Zealand's secret beaches here). This little peninsula on the North Island boasts some of the most incredible coastlines in the country. There are amazing bluffs, lookouts, and beaches including the famed hot water beach, and Cathedral Cove.
Hot Water Beach is a place on the coast where you can sit in your own little man made sand Jacuzzi. The geothermal activity under the ground causes the ocean's water to reach temperatures of up to 60 degrees Celsius! A visit to Cathedral Cove is also a must - it is like nowhere else on the planet! Spend a night in Hahei and book a Kayaking Trip to the cove - if you're on a budget, you can walk along the cliffs to reach the cove. We will just leave this here...
4. Rotorua - Raglan - Waitomo - Taupo Return
Suggested time: 4 to 5 Days
Heading west of Rotorua will lead you through some of the most unique places in New Zealand! Head west to Raglan and spend a night in New Zealand's surf capital - this little town is compared to the likes of Byron Bay and is a great place to try a surf lesson. Our tip? Stay the night in the hippie retreat Karioi - there is an open rainforest shower well worth experiencing!
After waking up in Raglan, head back to the mainland and travel around 1.5 hours south to Waitomo - home to the infamous underground Waitomo Glowworm Caves! Here you can check out the cave system by Tubing, Abseiling or taking a boat ride underground.
Rather than spending the night in Waitomo, we suggest travelling 2 hours south to Taupo - home to New Zealand's largest lake! If you feel like ditching the van for the night or if you have a car, stay the night at Base Taupo. You will need a full day to hike along the Tongariro Crossing - one of New Zealand's 9 Great Walks. Taupo is also a great place to Skydive or take a party cruise on the Barbary. More tips on Taupo here!
Take a journey from Taupo to Hidden Valley to see hot springs, bubbling mud pools, massive caves, and silica terraces. Next, hop in the car and head to Tongariro National Park for extraordinary landscapes. On your way back to Rotorua make sure to stop and check out Huka Falls. This is a 100-meter wide river that plunges down a narrow gorge and is New Zealand's most photographed natural attraction!
Image: "Mt Doom" at Tongariro Crossing by Base Backpackers
New Zealand Road Trips - South Island
5. Queenstown to Milford Sound
Suggested time: 2 to 3 Days
When people picture Milford Sound most people see the sheer mile high cliffs and roaring waterfalls. However, a major highlight of a trip to Milford is the drive. Driving from Queenstown to Milford has not only been called one of the best New Zealand road trips, but it has also been called one of the best road trips in the entire world! The two hours from Te Anau to Milford towards the end of the journey are insanely good.
This epic road trip takes you past the fabled mirror lakes, through dense rainforest, and along snowy mountains. You venture through mountain ranges, and travel down through snowy valleys. The fact that you at the end your arrive at the 8th wonder of the world is icing on the cake. It takes around 8 hours to reach the foot of Milford from Queenstown so we recommend breaking up the driving time and travelling over 3 days. If you have time, stop by Mirror Lake and the Fiordlands National Park for a hike! Upon returning to Queenstown, don't forget to book a bed at Base Queenstown!
6. Queenstown, Lake Wanaka, Mt Cook Loop
Suggested time: 4 to 5 Days
Begin your journey north east towards Lake Wanaka (around 1 hour north of Queenstown). The road leading into Wanaka is stunning and will guide you past New Zealand's oldest pub - the Cardrona! Spend the night in Wanaka (stay at Base Wanaka). There's loads to do in Wanaka from snowboarding, skiing, hiring a bike along the lakefront, a hike to the top of the infamous Roy's Peak, a short walk to the top of Mt Iron, Puzzling World, Aerobatic Flying, Skydiving and more! Check out our Top 10 things to do in Wanaka guide here.
The following day make your way north east to Lake Tekapo (around 3 hours). The winding roads will lead you along the Lindis Pass through stretching valleys and through to the foot of the Southern Alps. En route to Lake Tekapo make sure you stop by Lake Pukaki - the blue waters will take your breath away! When you reach Lake Tekapo there is an ice skating rink, outdoor hot pools and an Observatory - the stars in New Zealand's south island are out of this world (literally)! If you are a keen trekker then you will need to factor in some extra time to explore Mt Cook - New Zealand's tallest mountain.
From there make your way to the east coast to the town of Timaru. A bustling seaside town great for a lunch or brunch stopover. If you are travelling in summer, the main beach is a great spot for a dip. Head south along the coast until you reach the historic town of Oamaru - you may have to pinch yourself to make sure you haven't stepped into a time machine and found yourself in the Victorian Age. There are loads of cafes, art galleries and the town is most famous for its colony of Little Blue Penguins that you can catch at night time!
Day 4 - follow the coastline and stop by the eerie Moeraki Boulders - sphere like rocks that sit within the ocean - look out for giant Sea Lions!
7. Queenstown to Dunedin via the Caitlins AKA "The Southern Scenic Route"
Suggested time: 3 to 5 Days
This is a popular road trip for those working and living in Queenstown. Travel south from Queenstown for around 2.5 hours on the State Highway 6 to the 'real New Zealand' - Invercargill. We're not going to lie - there's not much there. But it is the southernmost city in New Zealand and a great place to meet the locals over a beer or two.
From there make your way to the Caitlins - an adventure playground for adults. You could really spend a few days here due to the sheer size of the national park. There are stunning surf beaches, rugged coastline walks, forest and many rare and endangered animals. They say that the Caitlins best represent what New Zealand was like thousands of years ago. There's loads of walking trails on offer from short walks to day hikes. One of our favourite places in the Caitlins is the Cathedral Caves - amazing! TIP: Travel around 20 minutes east of the Caitlins and park up in Curio Bay for the night. There are loads of cheap camping spots!
From the Caitlins make your way along the Otago Coast towards Nugget Point. The viewing point there is a great place to sport for Fur Seals, Sea Lions and the Yellow Bearded Penguin. Here you can also check out Purakaunui Falls. Continue your journey to Dunedin - the University capital of New Zealand. Dunedin is home to abstract architecture, great nightlife, the world's steepest street, the Cadbury Chocolate Factory and Speights Brewery. TIP: Stop by Tunnel Beach en route to Dunedin.
Tunnel Beach By Ingolfson at English Wikipedia(Original text: Uploader.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After spending a night in Dunedin it will take you around 3.5 hours to drive back to Queenstown. Drive south to the town of Milton and the orchards of Roxburgh and through to the town of Alexandra - Otago's main town centre which is bustling! If you have time, take a walk to the clock on the top of the hill and check out the Gold displays at the local museum. From there, continue 1 hour along the State Highway to Queenstown - don't forget to stop in the quaint and historic town of Cromwell and grab a wine at one of the surrounding wineries.
Feel like a road trip? Contact us to get the best prices or advice for New Zealand Campervan and Car Rental: [email protected]
You may also like our Complete Backpacker's Guide to New Zealand. Churr Bro!