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 rental in Queenstown or our hire cars in Dunedin – we’re not one of New Zealand’s favourite rental car companies for no reason!
- Route map with key locations
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1Queenstown and Around
Having landed in Queenstown you could hit the road straight away but that would be madness. That’s because, as you’re no doubt aware, 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
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.
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.
Likewise, if you think we’re mad for suggesting more walking than 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.
While we don’t suggest you party too hard on your first night, there are over 150 cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs in Queenstown that will be enticing you to do the opposite. It does make for a great night out one can’t deny but remember, it’s only day one!
2Queenstown to Te Anau (171kms – 2 hours 6 mins)
There are a number of awesome things to see on Day 2 on your way to Te Anau. As is the theme with this itinerary, we’ve tried to fit in as many great stops along the Southern Scenic Route because that’s essentially what makes it so special.
Let’s get straight to it!
Wye Creek Track (21km – 21 mins from Queenstown)
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!
The Devil’s Staircase (13km – 11 mins from Wye Creek Track)
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.
Kingston (13km – 11 mins from The Devil’s Staircase)
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.
Wilderness Scientific Reserve (105kms – 1 hour 9 mins from Kingston)
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.
Te Anau (21kms – 15 mins from Wilderness Scientific Reserve)
By the time you arrive in Te Anau it’s probably quite late but don’t worry, we’ve saved some time in tomorrow’s schedule to see the town in all its glory. In the meantime, take your pick of the fine restaurants and enjoy a great dinner.
3Te Anau to Manapouri (22kms – 20 mins)
Day 3’s final destination is only a short distance away so you’re in no rush to get away. That’s good because there are some great things to do in Te Anau first!
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.
When you feel its right to get moving Manapouri is only a short drive away.
Manapouri (22kms – 20 mins from Te Anau)
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 than 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.
4Manapouri to Tautapere (80kms – 59 mins)
Day 4 is again a fairly short day’s worth of driving but its all about the stops and there are some great ones to look forward to.
Rakatu Wetlands (20kms – 15 mins from Manapouri)
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.
Clifden (49kms – 35 mins from Rakatu Wetlands)
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.
Tautapere (12kms – 10 mins from Clifden)
Tautapere is a quiet little town and a great place to relax after a pretty full on first 4 days. It has a rich history of sawmilling and even has its own logging museum which is definitely worth a wander. Otherwise, use this night to conserve your energy for what is to come.
5Tautapere to Bluff (113kms – 1 hour 29 mins)
The end of Day 5 promises probably the best reward of the whole trip (more about that later). First, you’ve got to earn it with a number of stops along the way.
Gemstone Beach (19kms – 15 mins from Tautapere)
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!
Long Hilly Walking Track (14kms – 13 mins from Gemstone Beach)
A 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.
Riverton (17kms – 15 mins from Long Hilly Walking Track)
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 which 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.
Bluff (68kms – 59 mins from Riverton)
Finally, the reward we were talking about. 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 5 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.
6Bluff to Invercargill (28kms – 24 mins)
A bright an early start will give you a good amount of time to do plenty in Invercargill which has some great things going for it as Mick Jagger attested during his tour in 1965. He thought it was great and you will do, and these suggestions below are just a taste!
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.
7Invercargill to Papatowai(108kms – 1 hour 32 mins)
Day 7 is quite a big day (like most of the rest of them) so you’ll want to set out early from Invercargill if discipline allows. Your stops for the day are as follows:
Waipohatu Walk (70kms – 1 hour from Invercargill)
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.
Niagara Falls on the Waikawa River (17kms – 18 mins from Waipohatu Walk)
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.
Cathedral Caves (25kms – 28 mins from Niagara Falls)
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 its definitely well worth it. The 50 minute walk takes you through some amazing native bush to the beach where you’ll find the caves.
Tautuku Estuary Walkway (7kms – 9 mins from Cathedral Caves)
The Tautuku Estuary Walkway is made up of trail 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.
Florence Hill Lookout (4kms – 4 mins from Tautuku Estuary Walkway)
Less than 5 minutes away you’ll find the Florence Hill Lookout, a wonderful vantage point to appreciate the surrounding peninsula and bay. A beautiful spot.
Papatowai (3kms – 4 mins from Florence Hill Lookout)
After all the travel and stops on Day 7 you should be pretty knackered so we’ve kept some time aside for the morning of Day 8 to explore the town. The evening then is yours to chill with!
8Papatowai to Balclutha(57kms – 50 mins)
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 which includes…
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.
Tunnel Hill (23km – 21 mins from Matai Falls)
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!
Balclutha (25kms – 19 mins from Tunnel Hill)
Balclutha is one of the largest towns in the region and a nice and easy place to spend your final 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.
9Balclutha to Dunedin (87kms – 1 hour 17 mins)
It’s almost hard to believe that this is your last day on your fantastic Southern Scenic Route road trip that’s seen you travel all the way from Queenstown. But let’s not feel sorry for ourselves as there’s plenty of great things still yet to do!
Sod Cottage (13kms – 12 mins from Balclutha)
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.
Taieri Mouth (40km – 42 mins from Sod Cottage)
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.
Brighton (17kms – 14 mins from Taieri Mouth)
The seaside town of Brighton, similarly named to the seaside town in the UK is a great penultimate destination. 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.
Dunedin (18kms – 24 mins from Brighton)
The great city of Dunedin, your last destination is finally reached. Hopefully, you set out early and still have plenty of time to explore the city itself before returning your rental. Some quick suggestions from us would be…
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.
Toitu 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.
Thus concludes our awesome Queenstown to Dunedin road trip via the great Southern Scenic Route. We hope you’ve enjoyed the read and expect it will be one of the great road trips you’ve ever taken, should you decide to do it of course, which we expect you will!
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