Dunedin to Queenstown – Southern Scenic Route in 9 days

Driving Tour

The Southern Scenic route is an iconic tourist highway in New Zealand that links Dunedin to Queenstown taking you across some of the most idyllic natural landscapes seen anywhere in the world.

We’ve put a lot of itineraries together over the years and decided it was about time we dedicated one to this treasured route. We’ve spanned it out over 9 days and although we know it could be done much quicker, we think it’s the sort of route that deserves time and appreciation and we’re confident you’ll agree!

If you’re still in the planning stage of your trip, make sure you check out the great deals on car hire in Dunedin or our rental cars in Queenstown – we’re not one of New Zealand’s favourite rental car companies for no reason!


  1. Route map with key locations
  2. Recommended vehicle for this trip
  3. Trip itinerary

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Trip Itinerary

1Dunedin to Balclutha (87kms – 1 hour 17 mins)

Before we get underway on the Southern Scenic Route you need to first to take time for the great city of Dunedin, a decision you won’t regret.

Dunedin has a fascinating history with strong Scottish Roots and evidence of this can be seen and experienced all over the city. Here are a few suggestions for doing exactly that!

Larnach Castle

The only castle ever built in New Zealand is based in Dunedin, which is, of course, Larnach Castle. The castle has tremendous historical significance dating back to the 1870s. It’s been lovingly restored to its original glory both inside and out and is one of the most popular attractions in the city. The surrounding gardens are equally superb and they also offer a High Tea experience in the Ballroom Cafe. It’s a great time capsule-like experience and a fantastic way to start your trip.

Toitu Settlers Museum

Toitu Otago Settlers Museum
Another great way to get a taste of history in Dunedin is to go to one of their many fantastic museums. One of the best of these has to be the Toitu Settlers Museum, a museum of social history that paints an incredibly vivid picture of the people and their past. It covers all aspects like their relationships, arts, fashion, culture and more. The facility itself has had an additional wing added to it and is truly a modern state-of-the-art facility.

Having got your fix of Dunedin attractions it’s now time to hit that Southern Scenic Route towards your final destination for Day 1 being Balclutha. It’s not just about getting to Balclutha, however, as you’ll come to find in this itinerary, as there are plenty of great stops along the route you’ll want to do.

The first stop in your journey is Brighton which you can get to via Blackhead Rd and Brighton Rd. Incidentally, if you’re after a really lovely walk, there’s a fantastic one at Blackhead Rd called the Tunnel Beach Walk that takes about an hour.

Brighton (18kms – 24 mins from Dunedin)

The first of these is the seaside town of Brighton, similarly named to the seaside town in the UK! If you’re doing this trip in the Summer, then stopping here is a no-brainer as there’s a beautiful beach with calm waters, green spaces and lots of picnic spots to enjoy. It’s a favourite of locals from the Deep South and family-friendly too.

Upon leaving Brighton you’ll head south via Brighton Road which soon turns into Taieri Mouth Rd taking you to your next stop along the way.

Taieri Mouth (17kms – 14 mins from Brighton)

The Taieri Mouth is where the Waipouri River meets the sea in a picturesque way that can only be found in New Zealand. There’s a nice little 45-minute return walk you can do here called the Picnic Gully Track which is a nice excuse to stretch the legs.

From Taieri Mouth you follow Finlayson Road back inland until you hit State Highway 1 where you turn left to continue south towards Balclutha. We’ve one more little unique stop before you get there though that will charm your socks off.

Sod Cottage (40km – 42 mins from Taieri Mouth)

Sod Cottage is a quaint little cottage with a rich history. Originally built in the 1860s, it served as a place for miners to stop before heading to the Goldfields. It’s been beautifully restored and has a lovely little garden to rest in.

From here, Balclutha is only a short distance away and your first place to rest for the night.

Balclutha (13kms – 12 mins from Sod Cottage)

Balclutha is one of the largest towns in the region and a nice and easy place to spend your first night. It’s situated at the heart of the mighty Clutha River, the largest by volume in all of New Zealand. If you’d like a nice stroll, the Blair Athol Walkway comes highly recommended which will treat you to fantastic views of the river in all its glory. Balclutha also has the South Otago Museum which shares the history of the region focusing in particular on the Gold Mining Era.

Main street of Balclutha New Zealand

2Balclutha to Papatowai (57kms – 50 mins)

Day 2 follows a journey that takes you to a place you probably haven’t heard of, Papatowai, keeping with the theme of discovery for this fantastic route. You’ll probably be surprised at the number of things you have to do there but before we get there you’ve got a couple of nice stops to enjoy.

Leaving Balclutha you’ll follow the Owaka Highway South past a couple of interestingly named places like Finegand and Romahapa. After about 20 minutes you’ll have your first stop for the day.

Tunnel Hill (25kms – 19 mins from Balclutha)

A great little slice of history can be seen here with a 250-metre railway tunnel that was excavated by hand in the 1890s, yes by hand! It is signposted and has its own carpark and takes around 20 minutes to get to via a walking track. It’ll help to have a torch for this one!

Heading back on the road and continuing on the Owaka Highway you’ll keep following it until it turns into the Papatowai Highway. Before getting there, you’ll have one more stop you’ll want to make.

Matai Falls (23km – 21 mins from Tunnel Hill)

Who doesn’t love a waterfall? We’ve got some beautiful ones in New Zealand, especially and in the South Island and this is no exception. It’s an easy 30-minute return walk to the viewing points for the waterfall.

Having taken a few nice photos you’ll resume following Paptowai Highway until you reach Papatowai itself!

Papatowai (8kms – 9 mins from Matai Falls)

Papatowai is a small little settlement at the mouth of the Tahakopa River. Its appeal, like many places in New Zealand, is its untouched wilderness, particularly its lush podocarp forest. It was also a site of an early Maori settlement and there have also been Moa fossils found here too. There are a number of things you can do in Papatowai to keep you busy for the rest of the day which includes the following.

Tautuku Bay near Papatowai

1) Old Coach Road Walk – This is a 40-minute walk that starts at the Tahakopa River carpark and ends at the beach. It follows a route used by old coaches and has a number of interesting historical sites along the way.

2) Papatowai Scenic Reserve – There are a number of lovely short coastal walks around the Papatowai Scenic Reserve. The beach here is rich with marine life and seabirds too which is a great added bonus.

3) The Lost Gypsy Gallery – The Lost Gypsy Gallery is a legendary attraction in this region that’s hard to explain but is utterly magical. It’s a gallery that’s filled with humorous pieces that make you laugh out loud. A great one for the kids.

3Papatowai to Invercargill (108kms – 1 hour 32 mins)

Day 3 is quite a big one in the context of the trip, mostly because the route from Papatowai to Invercargill has so many hidden gems to choose from. We’ve listed a number of those below which we think of great, even if you don’t quite manage the time to get to all of them.

Leaving Papatowai you’ll follow the Chaslands Highway but only for a short distance for your first great stop for the day.

Florence Hill Lookout (3kms – 4 mins from Papatowai)

Told you it wasn’t far! Less than 5 minutes in the car and you arrive at the Florence Hill Lookout, a wonderful vantage point to appreciate the surrounding peninsula and bay you’ve just come from. A beautiful spot.

Another short drive down the road and you’ll have your second stop for the day.

Tautuku Estuary Walkway (4kms – 4 mins from Florence Hill Lookout)

The Tautuku Estuary Walkway is made up of trails and boardwalks through podocarp forests into the Tautuku Estuary in a track that takes about 30 minutes. It’s a different type of landscape altogether and home to a population of fernbirds.

It’s not far to the 3rd stop either which features, yet again, another unique experience.

Cathedral Caves (7kms – 9 mins from Tautuku Estuary Walkway)

Cathedral Caves in New Zealand
We love our caves in New Zealand and the Cathedral Caves are fantastic ones to check out. Made accessible by the Maori landowners, there’s a small fee for entry but it’s definitely well worth it. The 50-minute walk takes you through some amazing native bush to the beach where you’ll find the caves.

The next stop is a little further away that sees you take a momentary detour off the Southern Scenic route turning left at the end of the Chaslands Highway. Here you’ll come to a landmark that is rather infamously named.

Niagara Falls on the Waikawa River (25kms – 28 mins from Cathedral Caves)

This stop is worth it for the tongue-in-cheek name alone although it is also known as Manga Piri. It’s ironically nowhere near the size of its more famous big brother but that’s all part of the fun. Has a great little cafe nearby too (called the Niagara Falls Cafe) which is a great place to stop for some refreshments.

Continuing on from your minor detour we suggest following the Waikawa-Curio Bay Rd to your next nice stop.

Waipohatu Walk (17kms – 18 mins from Niagara Falls)

The Waipohatu Walk is in a recreation area that’s part of the Caitlins Conservation Park. It’s a wonderful area of natural flora and fauna with some amazing features (especially by way of waterfalls). There are two walks available being a 30 minute and a 4 hour, depending on your time and energy levels.

From here you follow the road north and rejoin the Southern Scenic Route at Tokanui. From there it’s straight on to Invercargill, your final stop for Day 3.

Invercargill (70kms – 1 hour from Waipohatu)

Invercargill is the southernmost city in the world, that’s right, the world. Mick Jagger loved it here when he toured here in 1965 and you will too. With all the stops you’ve done today, it’ll probably be too late to do much in Invercargill but don’t fret because tomorrow is another day and we’ve given you plenty of time to explore.

4Invercargill to Bluff (28kms – 24 mins)

A bright and early start will give you a good amount of time to do plenty in Invercargill before heading to Bluff for the evening. Here are our suggestions!

1) Queens Park – This is where your morning stroll will take place. The beautiful Queens Park is tree-lined, has its own Rose Garden and complements all this with a wonderful cafe too where you can stop and brunch.

2) Bill Richardson’s Transport World – Fans of trucks, tractors, vintage cars and petrol pumps will love Bill Richardson’s Transport World which boasts one of the largest collections of all of the above in the country.

3) The World’s Fastest Indian – If you haven’t already, first see the film of the aforementioned name starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. Then go to the E Hayes and Sons shop to see the original motorcycle on display.

Bluff (28kms – 24 mins from Invercargill)

Image of the oyster shucking at the Bluff Oyster and Food Festival
At some point in the afternoon, you’ll want to go to the final stop on State Highway 1 which is Bluff. Bluff, as you may or may not know, is famed the world over for its seafood delicacy. That delicacy is the Bluff Oyster and your dinner on Day 4 is going to be a feast of it. People travel from all over the globe to do exactly that. As for you, you’re lucky because it basically falls on your lap as part of the Southern Scenic Route. The Oyster even has its own annual festival that sells out months in advance, just to give you an idea of how much it is revered.

You’ll have plenty of places to choose from to indulge and you’ll be so satisfied afterwards you’ll easily doze off for a nice peaceful sleep, which is good because you’ll need it!

5Bluff to Tautapere (113kms – 1 hour 29 mins)

This is now past the halfway point in your trip. Hard to believe I know, but you’ve still got 5 days of fun and excitement that awaits.

Today’s journey yet again is all about the stops along the way and there are some great ones as you coast along the bottom of the South Island.

From Bluff via Invercargill, turn left at State Highway 99 until you get to Riverton.

Riverton (68kms – 59 mins from Bluff)

The seaside town of Riverton
Riverton is known as the ‘Riviera of the South’ and is one of the most popular seaside towns in the South Island. They have a great little estuary there and a wetland that has a 20-minute return walk. The Te Hikoi Southern Journey Heritage Museum is very highly rater and if you’ve time and the weather suits, the beach is great to check out too.

Leaving Riverton on State Highway 99 you’ll drive for about 15 minutes to the next stop turning right at Round Hill Road.

Long Hilly Walking Track (17kms – 15 mins from Riverton)

Another great walk steeped in history is the Long Hilly Walking Track, formerly used by Chinese settlers who came to New Zealand during the Gold Rush. It’s a 2-hour loop track that passes through some regenerating native bush and has remnants of the era including earth dams and tramways, everywhere you look. As you might have also guessed it gets a little hilly.

After your walk, you’ll jump straight back onto State Highway 99 stopping after a 13-minute drive.

Gemstone Beach (14kms – 13 mins from Long Hilly Walking Track)

With a name like this, do we really need to explain why this is a great place to stop? Gemstone Beach is a unique New Zealand beach for all sorts of reasons. One is that it changes from sand to stone depending on the conditions and tide. The other is that gems wash up on it too including jasper, nephrite and quartz giving you free souvenirs to bring back home!

Having picked up your gems, your final stop of the day is the town of Tautapere, just 19kms away and 15 mins drive where you can kick up your feet, chill and relax.

6Tautapere to Manapouri (80kms – 59 mins)

Day 6 sees you enter the second half of your trip where you start to head north towards your final stop of Queenstown. Manapouri is absolutely lovely (more on that later) but, as promised, there are a few notable stops along the way.


The Clifden Suspension Bridge
Clifden is just a little further up State Highway 99 and is a place that offers not one, but two great sights to see. The first is the Clifden Suspension Bridge which was built in 1898 to move sheep and still stands today. The second is Clifden Caves which has its own glowworms and is great to explore. If you do decide to do the latter, just be sure you’re prepared with warm clothing and torches and check the weather forecast too as rain can cause the caves to flood.

The drive to the next attraction is straight up State Highway 99 for just over half an hour.

Rakatu Wetlands (49kms – 35 mins from Clifden)

This part of the country is blessed with a number of fantastic wetlands and the Rakatu Wetlands are another easy inclusion. There’s not only a network of walking tracks here but cycling tracks as well if you’ve happened to bring or hire a bike. Again it’s a great place for wildlife with resident populations of scaup, paradise shellduck and grey teal calling it home.

The final drive for the day is a cool 15 minutes up the road to Manapouri.

Manapouri (20kms – 15 mins from Rakatu Wetlands)

Manapouri sits on the banks of the beautiful Lake Manapouri, a fantastic place to kick your feet up and see out the remainder of the day. If you’ve still got a bit of energy to burn then we thoroughly recommend following the paths to Frasers Beach which is nothing short of blissful, especially in the Summer. Another great choice just back from the road you came is the 30 minute home creek loop walk. This follows a pleasant little stream where you’ll find peace and serenity.

7Manapouri to Te Anau (22kms – 20 mins)

Your final destination for Day 7 is so close you could almost walk it (not that we recommend that). Being so short, there are no stops along the way for this one but you don’t really need them as there are plenty of things to do here.

Lake Te Anau with big tree stump on the foreground, Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand

Our favourites (in no particular order) are as follows:

1) Te Anau Bird Sanctuary – Following the walk around the beautiful Lake Te Anau takes you to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary run by the Department of Conservation. You’ll be able to see the many species of native birds being cared for there including Kaka, Takahe, Morepork and Kereru.

2) Te Anau Glowworms Caves – If you missed the glowworms at Clifden Caves you’ve got another opportunity here in Te Anau. This is a slick operation where the providers will take you there by boat with guides who’ll have plenty of stories to tell.

3) Ivon Wilson Park – This park is a lovely 35-hectare open space that benefits from glorious views of the Fiordland Mountains. It also has a number of nice walking trails around Lake Henry which sits within the grounds.

These activities will easily see you through to the evening when you can then choose from the many great restaurants they have there and enjoy a lovely dinner.

8Te Anau to Queenstown (171kms – 2 hours 6 mins)

The Te Anau to Queenstown journey on Day 8 represents one of the longer days for distances travelled in the whole trip but Queenstown is no ordinary destination and definitely worth the effort.

Before you get there though there’s a good day’s worth of sights to see so once again it’s time to get busy.

Following State Highway 94 East (not North) you’ll drive about 15 mins to your next stop.

Wilderness Scientific Reserve (21kms – 15 mins from Te Anau)

There’s a great viewing platform that’s definitely worth pulling over called the Wilderness Scientific Reserve on Google. The reward for doing so is 360-degree views of the bog pine forest and farmland around as well as the impressive Takitimu Mountains.

Leaving the lookout you drive from State Highway 94 to State Highway 97 to State Highway 6 to the quaint little town called Kingston.

Kingston (105km – 1 hour 9 mins from Wilderness Scientific Reserve)

The adorable town of Kingston sits at the foot of the great Lake Wakatipu, the focal point for so many of your activities in your final few days. There are a number of nice walks you can do here. The first is the Lake Front Track which is 30 minutes both ways and winds around the shore of the lake. The second is the slightly more involved Shirtail Track which is a 2-hour commitment leading you to Shirtail Creek and back around. This gets a little tricky at times so be mindful of that. The last thing to do is to take a photo from the Kingston Flyer Steamer Quay as there’s a great launch that makes for fantastic shots.

The Devil’s Staircase (13km – 11 mins from Kingston)

A view from Devils Staircase
Your next stop has a rather unfortunate name due to its previous reputation for being a windy and treacherous section of the mountain. It’s now much more negotiable and in fact, has a stunning lookout point that needs to be appreciated.

Wye Creek Track (13km – 11 mins from The Devil’s Staircase)

If you’re up for another excellent walk (and if you’re doing this road trip you probably are) then the 4 hour Wye Creek Track is a great one to prioritise. The track takes you through beech forest, past a small hydro dam and pipeline to the foot of a rocky bluff. Not a bad mix of landmarks there!

Queenstown (21km – 21 mins from Wye Creek Track)

After all that journeying, you’ve finally made it to the end of the epic Southern Scenic Route. Congratulations are definitely in order with a delicious meal and maybe one or two celebratory drinks as well. This will be easily done as there are over 150 cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs in Queenstown to choose from which really is the tourist’s paradise. Don’t worry about holding back either because all the fun takes place in this great city tomorrow as a fantastic way to cap off your trip.

9Queenstown and around

Your last day on this great road trip and you have Queenstown, the city with endless offerings. There are so many great things to choose from you could literally talk about it for hours. We’ve instead applied some editorial judgement and selected the best of the very best.

AJ Hackett Bungy

Image of someone taking a dive of the platform of a bungy jump in Queenstown New Zealand
One of the questions you need to ask yourself is do you want to be the person that says they didn’t go bungy jumping during their trip to New Zealand? No is the answer to that and Queenstown presents three opportunities to do so. These three options are the original Kawarau Bungy, the freestylers Ledge Bungy and the king of king’s Nevis Bungy. We’re going to recommend you go for the latter as it is the highest in Australasia at a jaw-dropping 134 metres, a jump that has a ridiculous 8.5-second freefall. You won’t find anyone on this planet who isn’t impressed by that which makes it something you have to do.

Skippers Canyon Jet

Another great attraction for the thrillseeker is the Skippers Canyon Jet Boat. If you’ve never seen a jet boat in action, it truly is an awesome spectacle to behold. Flying sometimes over no more than a couple of centimetres of water, jet boats can reach speeds of 90kmph and pull off some insane manoeuvers like 360-degree spins. In Queenstown, this is typically through the Shotover River Canyons with leaning cliff faces on every turn. It’ll definitely be heart-in-your-mouth stuff for an experience you’ll never forget.

Coronet Peak Ski Resort

If you happen to be visiting during the ski season you’re incredibly lucky because Queenstown is blessed with a number of great ski fields. One of these is Coronet Peak rated as one of New Zealand’s best resorts. They accommodate skiers of all abilities from novice to seasoned pro and it’s only 25 minutes drive from the heart of town.

Ben Lomond

If somehow you have some energy left for more hiking then Queenstown won’t let you down with a great summit walk of Ben Lomond. It takes a good 4 hours to get to the top of Ben Lomond so you’ll have to set out early but you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views of Lake Wakatipu, Mount Aspiring and more. You’ll really feel like you’ve come full circle having completed this.

Skyline Gondola

Likewise, if you think we’re mad for suggesting more walking then the Skyline Gondola is the perfect alternative. This relaxing ride gives you the same views without the physical exertion. On top of this, you’ll have the option of partaking in some of the other Skyline attractions like stargazing, mountain biking and the exciting luge! A great place to go to for young and old.

That brings to an end our awesome 9-day road trip via the Southern Scenic Route. We hope you’ve enjoyed the read and are without doubt that you’ll love this great adventure even more!

Book a vehicle for this trip

We recommend:

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Toyota Rav 4

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5 seats
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