New Zealand’s roads and trails cut through incredibly diverse landscapes: snow-capped peaks and watery fiords, fertile plains, subtropical forest, glacial lakes and rugged coastline can all be explored on four wheels. Here is a selection of our favourite road trips in New Zealand.
1. For adventure: Ninety-Mile Beach
Officially called Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē, this seemingly endless stretch of beach from Ahipara to Scott Point in the far north of New Zealand is actually only 55 miles (88km).
Incredibly, it’s a designated public highway and alternative to SH-1 – though to traverse the sands you need a 4WD, a sense of adventure and some advance planning to avoid high tide. On one side is the crashing surf, and on the other, rolling dunes backed by green forest.
2. For coves and beaches: the Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway hugs the awe-inspiring coastline of the North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula, Bay of Plenty, East Cape and Hawkes Bay.
Setting out from Auckland you can take it slow on a six-day tour and take your pick of picturesque coves and bays to explore. Ridiculously beautiful highlights include Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach, Ohope Beach and Ohiwa Harbour, Waipiro Bay and its three historical marae (Maori meeting grounds) and the beaches of Mahia Peninsula. Be aware that the East Cape in particular is winding and steep and can be a challenging drive.
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3. For Lord of the Rings: Tongariro National Park
For One Drive to Rule Them All, head deep into the volcanic plateau of Central North Island where Peter Jackson found the perfect location to bring Mordor to the big screen. Most people come here to ski or tramp, but there are some incredible landscapes and lookouts to be seen from the highway: the long, straight Desert Road (SH-1) to the east of the park is a dry and bleak stretch with amazing views toward the trio of volcanoes.
For even more epic views of Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom), loop round to the southeast of the park to Whakapapa Village (off SH-47) to access the skifield.
4. For high country: Molesworth Station
Open for the summer months only, Acheron Road bumps through the stunning scree-covered hillsides and open valleys and grasslands of New Zealand’s largest farm. Drivers who brave the 207km gravel road between Blenheim and Hanmer Springs experience all that comes with exploring remote high country.
There’s no mobile phone coverage, let alone any services, but there is a real sense of excitement and solitude.
5. For the Southern Alps: the Great Alpine Highway
The dramatic and scenic east–west road from Christchurch to Greymouth (SH-73) traverses the Canterbury Plains, Porters Pass and Arthur’s Pass National Park, cruising through laidback communities and panoramic lookouts along the way.
Taking it easy, the 255km-route can be covered in a couple of days – Lake Pearson is a spectacular place to camp overnight, or for a little more comfort (and some incredible walks nearby) push on to the alpine village of Arthur’s Pass.
6. For paradise: Queenstown to Glenorchy
This absolute stunner of a short drive is a South Island highlight. The 46km to Glenorchy is on a sealed road alongside achingly beautiful Lake Wakatipu, and then Paradise – an alpine getaway with nothing but scenery to admire – is a further 20km (the last eight or so is unsealed). The looming mountains and their reflection in the still waters is incredibly scenic, and it’s a million miles away from the commerce of Queenstown.
7. For valleys and fiords: the Milford Road
The epic landscapes of this 120km stretch are what you see in your mind’s eye when you imagine road tripping in New Zealand. The jaw-dropping road (SH-94) from Te Anau to Milford Sound cuts through the heart of Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage area. It takes in lush steep-sided valleys, snow-capped peaks and glacial lakes and waterfalls, before cutting deep into solid granite at the narrow Homer Tunnel.
It can be driven in a couple of hours, but you’d be crazy not to allow a full day to take photos, walk some off-road trails and take a spine-tingling cruise of Milford Sound.
8. For marine wildlife: Otago Peninsula
If you’re in Dunedin, a leisurely day-trip driving the Otago Peninsula is a must-do. Leaving the city from the southeast, take Portobello Road, which becomes Harington Point Road after Portobello village.
The coastal drive is breathtaking, with consistently beautiful views of rocky shores and bays all the way to Taiaroa Head, at the very tip of the peninsula. Here you’ll find the Royal Albatross Centre where you can tour the albatross breeding sites and nearby Pilots Beach, home to a colony of Little Blue Penguins that gather here in the evening.
A superb side-trip takes you up and over the rugged central ridge of the peninsula, to the wild Pacific Coast and Sandfly Bay, where seals, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins can be seen – though you’ll have to park up and walk the 3km path down to the isolated bay.