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New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary

BackpackerGuide.NZ

How to make the most of New Zealand in three weeks.

You might heard a thousand times that three weeks is not enough to see New Zealand. However, you can see a hell of a lot in three weeks if you have a sense of adventure! That’s what this three-week New Zealand itinerary entails with a mix of landscapes, activities and experiences on both the North Island and the South Island. Sure, you’ll be spending some time behind the wheel, but you’ll also be spending time hitting the most popular New Zealand sights and more.

Three weeks in New Zealand is enough time to experience the wildlife, Maori culture, landscapes and adventure activities this country is famous for. What’s more, three weeks allows you the time to explore the country in a number of ways, whether it’s renting a car or campervan or hopping on a bus with like-minded travellers. All of that and more will be explained in the travel itinerary below!

How to Get around New Zealand in three weeks

We’re not going to beat around the bush there is going to be a lot of driving – A LOT. If you can handle it, then get yourself a rental vehicle and continue down to the itinerary below. Otherwise, if driving almost every day for an entire month does not quite sound like the trip you were imagining, then consider travelling New Zealand by bus. Here are your options when it comes to travelling New Zealand in three weeks.

  • Rent a car or campervan – the itinerary below begins in Auckland and ends in Christchurch. Because of this, we recommend searching for a car rental company with no or low one-way fees. Get started with planning your vehicle rental in New Zealand with Guide to Renting a Car/Campervan in New Zealand.
  • National Coach – by far the cheapest option for getting around New Zealand is by coach. Get one of these bus travel passes to hit all of the destinations listed below.
  • Take a hop-on hop-off bus tour – A hop-on hop-off bus is a flexible bus tour where you can hop off the bus at any point on the route and jump back on the bus at a later date. There are three hop-on hop-off bus companies in New Zealand, where their national bus passes have a minimum travel time of around 20 days. Find out more about them in What is a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus?
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Tourism NZ

Day 1 – Auckland

Drive Time: 0 Hours

Welcome to New Zealand! Now, we’re guessing you took a long flight to get here and where else to recover than Auckland? Before hitting the road, take some time to explore New Zealand’s largest city otherwise known as the “City of Sails”. It’s also the city of volcanoes, many of which you can explore. Climb Mt Eden for some of the best views of the city, or take a ferry out to Auckland’s youngest volcano, Rangitoto Island. However, if you want to relax after your flight, enjoy the bars and eateries of the city.

Things to Do in Auckland
  • Walk on the volcanic and wildlife-filled island of Rangitoto Island
  • Take a whale watching cruise
  • See the city from the top of the Sky Tower, the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest building
  • Walk to Mt Eden for more awesome views
  • Grab some cheap but good eats
  • Get a taste of the New Zealand nightlife
Accommodation in Auckland

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 2 – Auckland to Hahei

Drive Time: 2h15mins

Now it’s time to hit the road  and start travelling New Zealand. First up, head to Hahei in the Coromandel for some of best beaches on the North Island.

Things to do in Hahei
  • Cathedral Cove. Take the easy coastal walk (1h30min walking track) to a beach with white cliffs and giant archway to walk through. There are also options to visit the beach with activity operators by kayak or boat.
  • Hot Water Beach. Go to Hot Water Beach at low tide to dig yourself a hot pool in the sand.
Accommodation in Hahei

Tourism NZ

Day 3 – Hahei to Waitomo (Via karangahake Gorge)

Drive Time: 3 hours

Your final destination today is Waitomo, famous for its glowworms and caving activities. Before you get there, don’t miss the Karangahake Gorge, halfway through the drive. There are a number of walking tracks in the area between 45 minutes to 4 hours going through a historic mining area taken back by the forest and the river. Walk through mining tunnels, through native forest, along mining relic and to magnificent waterfalls.

Things to Do in Waitomo

After the drive and walking at Karangahake Gorge, you will have time to do one of the short activities in Waitomo. For example:

  • Do a walking tour of the Ruakuri Cave or Waitomo Glowworm Cave
  • Do the Ruakuri Bush Walk (45 minutes) at night to see glowworms
  • For more inspiration, take a look at Waitomo – Guide for backpackers
Accommodation in Waitomo

BackpackerGuide.NZ

day 4 – Waitomo to Rotorua (Via Hobbiton)

Drive Time: 1h50min

If you want to do one the caving activities in Waitomo, or didn’t get to do one of the Waitomo activities yesterday, this morning would be a great time to do so! Join one of the caving operators in Waitomo, throw on a sexy wetsuit and tube/abseil/climb your way through the Waitomo Caves! Once the adventure is over, it’s time to hit the road to Rotorua! Depending on what you prefer, there are things to do along the way to Rotorua,such as Hobbiton in Matamata, or save some time for more things to do in Rotorua this evening.

Things to Do on the Road to Rotorua
  • Stop by Otorohanga to see a kiwi bird in the kiwi house or quickly learn a bit of New Zealand history down the Ed Hillary Walkway situated in the centre of Otorohanga.
  • See the Arapuni Swing Bridge, a huge suspension bridge crossing New Zealand’s longest river.
  • Do the Te Waihou Walkway (1h30min or 3 hours walk) to the Putaruru Blue Spring to see some of the purest and clearest water flowing in a stream.
  • Take a detour to Matamata to visit The Hobbiton Movie Set. This will add an extra 30 minutes to your drive time
Things to Do in Rotorua
Accommodation in Rotorua

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 5 – Rotorua to taupo/TOngariro National Park

Drive Time: 1 hour to Taupo or 2h15min to National Park Village

Today, spend some time doing awesome stuff in Rotorua before hitting the road. But why the crazy drive time? Well, if you are into hiking and landscapes, then we suggest that you pass through the town of Taupo and base yourself in the Tongariro National Park so that tomorrow morning, you can tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing or another hike in the national park. However, we know long hikes are not for everyone, so another option is to stay in Taupo which has a huge variety of activities on offer. Find out more about what there is to do in either Taupo or Tongariro National Park in tomorrow’s section. Before then, you have a day in Rotorua to enjoy before hitting the road!

Things to Do in Rotorua
  • Visit a geothermal park. Geysers, steaming lakes, bubbling mud, silica terraces and so much more can be seen in one of the many geothermal parks of Rotorua.
  • Catch a Maori cultural performance (if you missed doing so yesterday).
  • Do some adrenaline activities. Zorb/Ogo your way in a giant hamster ball down a hill, go luging from the top of the gondola, mountain bike in the Redwood Forest, jet boat or do a freefall experience at the Agroventures Park, and so much more!
  • See native New Zealand wildlife at Wingspan or Rainbow Springs.
Accommodation in Taupo
Accommodation in National Park Village

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 6 – Taupo/TOngariro National Park

Drive Time: 0

Spend the whole day in Taupo or Tongariro National Park doing awesome activities. There’s no driving to do today other than to your chosen activity. Plus, you can stay in the same accommodation as last night.

Things to Do in Tongariro National Park
Things to Do in Taupo

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 7 – Tongariro National Park to the Ruahine Forest Park

Drive Time: 2 hours

The mission today is to spend some time in the New Zealand wilderness. The Ruahine Forest Park is an awesome place to do that and a locals’ favourite! There are a few different wilderness lodges and camping options in the Ruahine Forest Park, as well as activities from hikes to horse riding to white water rafting. To break up the journey, stop is Ohakune for a coffee or check out the Mangawhero Walking Track (1 hour loop) to walk in the forests at the base of Mt Ruapehu. You final destination today will be at one of the accommodation options listed below. You’ll get more time to explore the area or do an activity there tomorrow.

Accommodation in the Ruahine Forest Park

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 8 – Ruahine Forest Park

Drive Time: 0 Hours

It’s time to relax/go wild in the Ruahine Forest Park! Whatever your bag is, you could do some white water rafting or horse riding at River Valley, horse riding, 4x4ing or claybird shooting at Makoura Lodge, or hiking in the Ruahine Ranges. Alternatively, relax in your farmstay or accommodation to get a taste of Kiwi life.

Things to do in the Ruahine Forest Park

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 9 – Ruahine Forest Park to Wellington

Drive Time: 3h20mins

Your final destination today is the capital city of New Zealand! However, we recommend breaking up the drive by stopping along the Kapiti Coast, full of beaches and walks to check out! Walk over a sand dune walkway in the Queen Elizabeth Park, relax on Peka Peka Beach. How about getting a kite landboarding or kite surfing lesson on Foxton Beach?

Once you reach Wellington you have the evening to enjoy the eateries and nightlife of the capital city!

Accommodation in Wellington

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 10 – Wellington to Picton

Drive Time: 0 Hours (Ferry Crossing)

Today you have the treat of taking the ferry from the North Island to the South Island! We recommend a sunrise or sunset sailing for the best prices and the best light for a stunning journey across the Cook Straight and through the Marlborough Sounds. Depending on what time your sailing is, you will either have time to do something in Wellington or Picton. Here are some ideas.

Things to Do in Wellington
Things to Do in Picton
Accommodation in Picton

If everything goes to plan and you do not miss your ferry then these are the budget accommodation options in Picton.

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 11 – Picton to Nelson (Abel Tasman National Park)

Drive Time: 1h50min

Do one of the activities that you missed in Picton yesterday or hit the road to Nelson. Stop by Havelock to take a boat cruise out into the Marlborough Sounds or join a kayaking tour down the Pelorus River – one of The Hobbit filming locations. Then you will reach New Zealand’s sunniest city, Nelson, where you will have more opportunity to do some of the following activities.

Things to Do in Nelson
Accommodation in Nelson

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 12 – Nelson (Abel Tasman National Park)

Drive Time: 0 – 1 hour

Nelson is the gateway to three national parks in the South Island. One of which is the Abel Tasman National Park, full of pristine golden sand beaches backed with lush forest. Tours operate from Nelson daily taking you into the Abel Tasman National Park via Kaiteriteri. Either drive to Kaiteriteri yourself (1 hour one way) for maximum flexibility or take one of the shuttle services. In Kaiteriteri, you have a great deal of Abel Tasman options from kayaking tours, water taxis to hikes, or boat tours.

Things to Do in Nelson (Abel Tasman National Park)
  • Take a water taxi to do a day hike of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track – one of New Zealand’s Great Walks
  • Kayak in the Abel Tasman National Park
  • Take a boat tour to explore the bays and beaches of the Abel Tasman National Park
  • Board a sailing trip into the national park
  • Do some mountain biking in Kaiteriteri, Nelson or in the Abel Tasman National Park
  • Take on some canyoning in Abel Tasman

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 13 – nelson to Punakaiki (Via Nelson lakes National Park)

Drive Time: 3h45min

There’s a fair bit of driving to do today but the beautiful views of the Buller Gorge helps pass the time quickly. There are a few quaint towns to stop by for a coffee, such as Murchison. However, to really make the most of the drive we suggest taking a detour into the Nelson Lakes National Park to see the beautiful Lake Rotoroa or Lake Rotoiti. Both are very similar in terms of views and short walks available so take your pick! This will add on an extra 20 minutes onto your drive time, but they are simply too good to miss.

Once you arrive in Punakaiki, you have a great deal of options, but don’t miss the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes for their impressive and bizarre rock formations.

Things to Do in Punakaiki
  • Do the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes Walk (20 minute loop)
  • Visit the Punakaiki Cavern (just off the side of the state highway)
  • Horse trek into the Paparoa National Park
  • Sample the Paparoa Track, one of the New Zealand Great Walks
  • Check out the stunning overhang and waterfall onto the beach on the Truman Track (15 minutes one way)
Accommodation in Punakaiki

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 14 – Punakaiki to Franz Josef

Drive Time: 3 Hours

Head to the Glacier Country with one of the world’s most accessible glaciers! Franz Josef is your opportunity to walk on, crawl inside, fly over, skydive over or walk up to a glacier. Get some ideas on how you can take on the glacier here. Nevertheless, there’s actually more to do here than glacier gallivanting! Check it out in the list below.

Things to Do in Franz Josef
Accommodation in Franz Josef

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 15 – Franz Josef to Wanaka

Drive Time: 3h40min

You’ve got a long drive ahead today but plenty of reasons to stretch your legs. You’ll be going through another super scenic rode on the Haast Pass where we recommend you stop at Thunder Creek Falls – just a minute’s walk from the road. Then don’t miss the Blue Pools of Haast. This is an 1 hour return walk through forest to some of the clearest and bluest rivers you will ever see.

This evening you will have the time to relax by the beautiful Lake Wanaka.

Things to Do in Wanaka
  • Have a local craft beer or wine at one of the lakefront bars
  • Hire a stand-up paddle board or kayak and go exploring
  • Visit Puzzling World and get lost in their giant maze
  • Do a skydive if you missed the chance in Franz Josef
Accommodation in Wanaka

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 16 – Wanaka to Queenstown

Drive Time: 1 Hour

Time to hit the Adrenaline Capital of the World! Take the Cardrona Valley route to be the best views on the way to Queenstown. Once there you have so much to do! Take a look at Queenstown – Guide for Backpackers or the list below.

Things to Do in Queenstown
Accommodation in Queenstown

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 17 – Queenstown (or Milford Sound)

Drive Time: 0 Hours

Depending on what time your flight is, you can either squeeze in some short activities in Queenstown from the list above. However, if you have one more full day to spare then this is your chance to visit Milford Sound. We get it, Milford Sound is on almost everybody’s New Zealand bucket list, so this is a way to squeeze in the experience into a two-week itinerary for New Zealand. Although you can drive there (8 hours return), we recommend taking a break from driving and taking one of the bus trips to and from Milford Sound with a cruise included.

With towering mountains, untouched rainforest and unbelievable scenery, Milford Sound is an unforgettable journey. To have a break from driving, we recommend taking one of the many bus tours to Milford Sound then boarding a cruise of the fiord. Bus trips give you plenty of opportunity to hop off the bus and do multiple short walks on the way. For more information, get your head in Guide to Milford Sound and the Milford Road.

However, if you want a break from the road, you have plenty more options of things to do in Queenstown listed above as well as some more inspiration in 10 Queenstown Must-Dos.

When your trip in New Zealand is all wrapped up, return your rental vehicle to the Queenstown depot then head onto your next adventure!

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 18 – Queenstown to Mt Cook

Drive Time: 3 Hours

If you have not had enough of epic scenic drives, then here’s one more for you through the Lindis Pass on the way to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. On the way to Mt Cook, consider stopping by the Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell to challenge your travel buddies to go-karting or stop by Omarama for their hot pools with a view. Additionally, there are The Lord of the Rings filming locations in Twizel which are best seen with a tour.

Once at Mt Cook, you have a great deal of options to explore the heart of the Southern Alps with its glaciers, but we’ll get onto that more tomorrow.

Accommodation in Mt Cook

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 19 – Mt Cook

Drive Time: 0 Hours

There are many ways to enjoy the impressive landscape of the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, from glaciers to lakes to mountains, so you’ll want to spend a whole day doing some or all of the following activities.

Things to Do in Mt Cook
  • Take a scenic flight, helicopter ride or land on a glacier in a ski plane
  • If you missed out in Franz Josef, do a glacier heli-hike on the Tasman Glacier – New Zealand’s longest glacier
  • Do one of the many hikes listed in 10 Must-Do Hikes Around Mt Cook
  • Do some stargazing in this International Dark Sky Reserve
  • Take a boat trip or kayak on a glacier lake

BackpackerGuide.NZ

Day 20 – Mt Cook to Geraldine (Via Lake Tekapo)

Drive Time: 2h15min

Next stop, Geraldine! This is not without an obligatory stop at Lake Tekapo with its vibrant blue lake and the most scenic church in New Zealand, The Church of the Good Shepherd. Stop by the Fairlie Bakery for one of their award-winning New Zealand pies, then onward to Geraldine. You have time to either do an activity this evening or tomorrow morning so take your pick from the following!

Things to Do in Geraldine
  • Do grade 5 white water rafting on the Rangitata River
  • Horse trek in the hills of Peel Forest
  • Hike, swim, rapel, cliff jump and more on a canyoning tour
  • Go mountain biking or 4×4 off roading
  • Take an alpaca for a walk
Accommodation in Geraldine

BackpackerGuide.NZ

day 21 – Geraldine to Christchurch

Drive Time: 2 Hours

If you missed any of the awesome activities yesterday, take the time to do them before you hit the road to Christchurch. Journey through the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch where you now get the chance to explore the South Island’s biggest hub before catching your flight and moving on to your next adventure.

Things to Do in Christchurch
Accommodation in Christchurch

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