With the Southern Alps jutting into the sky, glaciers crashing down into coastal rainforests, lakes in myriad shades of blue, and the otherworldly Fiordland National Park offering endless exploration, New Zealand's South Island is an outdoor enthusiast's dream. Whether you're an avid hiker or one who simply enjoys stunning scenery, the South Island has it all. The following were my top destinations on a recent visit to the South Island (do note that I didn't make it to the northern part of the island and thus missed Abel Tasman National Park, the Marlborough Sounds, the Hokitika Gorge and other popular destinations).
AORAKI MOUNT COOK NATIONAL PARK
A visit to the South Island is not complete without a visit to the stunning Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. The park is sizable and offers a variety of hikes at varying difficulty levels. There are several hotels and places to stay within the park, but they tend to book up quickly in peak months so plan accordingly! Don't miss the Tasman Glacier lake that offers beautiful views at sunrise and the Hooker Valley track, an easy 2-3 hr hike that has an excellent mix of scenery, boardwalks, bridges, glacier lakes, and on a nice day close-up views of Mount Cook. Even on overcast days the Hooker Valley Track has plenty to offer.
New Zealand as a whole had an impressive array of beautifully colored lakes, but Lake Pukaki had my favorite electric blue hue. The Visitors Center at one end of the lake near the main road is a good spot for views, but for those heading to Mount Cook stopping at Peter's Lookout is a must to enjoy views of the lake with Mount Cook and the Southern Alps in the background.
Roy's Peak in Wanaka
Roy's Peak in the mountains above Wanaka is a reminder that waking up for the sunrise is almost always worth it. Do yourself a favor and wake up early enough to arrive at the trailhead two hours before sunrise. The uphill climb is steep and strenuous but you have panoramic views of the lake and mountains from 5 mins in and as the sun rises the views become even more magical. Additionally, starting early allows you to beat much of the crowds, allowing you the opportunity to take photos in peace. The hike is about 4-5 hours roundtrip.
Fiordlands National Park (as a whole)
On the southwestern corner of New Zealand is the glacier carved wonderland of Fiordland National Park. It is here that I perhaps felt the profoundly wild beauty that is New Zealand more than anywhere else. The scale of the park is hard to describe and it is notoriously inaccessible. The best way to see the Fiordlands is by doing a multi-day hiking expedition (Milford, Kepler, Routeburn) or by flying over it. Thanks to the gift of a friend I was able to see the park from above with a flight over the sounds and mountains with Fly Fiordland - highly recommended if the weather allows. The small lakefront town of Te Anau is the base for most Fiordland adventures and is home to a handful of restaurants, cafes, b&bs, and friendly New Zealanders.
Within the Fiordland National Park is the world famous Milford Sound. Although as mentioned above there are many sounds within the park, the Milford Sound is the only one that is easily accessible by car and definitely worth a visit. Do book passage on a two hour boat ride (several outfitters) to enjoy the sound close up. You will find waterfalls, seals and other wildlife, staggering rock faces, and crashing ocean waves at the mouth of the sound. The weather in the Milford area is mercurial, but it is equally enjoyable in rain! On the road to Milford there are plenty of other short hikes and vistas to enjoy including the popular Mirror Lake.
Nugget Point Lighthouse & The Catlins Coast
The southeastern coast of New Zealand feels wild and untamed with a rugged coastline marked by small towns, natural features, and a plethora of wildlife. For the most part there is no cell connection in this area so you can truly disconnect and unwind whilst enjoying the coastal breezes and the friendly people. Do wake up for the sunrise at the Nugget Point Lighthouse and check the penguin schedule at the beach near the lighthouse to see what time you might be able to see them on the beach (varies by season). The Purakaunui Falls and the Cathedral Cave are other worthy sights in the Catlins.
Sunrise at Lake Matheson
To see the Southern Alps perfectly reflected in a lake surrounded by a peaceful calm make sure to visit Lake Matheson at sunrise. The mirror effect only materializes on clear, calm days so try to avoid windy / stormy days if possible. The whole walk around the lake takes about an hour, but there are several viewing platforms along the way that you should linger at for the sunrise itself. The mist coupled with the morning light lends an ethereal quality to this magical sunset spot. There is a nice little cafe at the parking lot so you can enjoy a coffee or a pretty large selection of breakfast items and dishes after your walk.
Turquoise Waters of Lake Wakatipu near Glenorchy
40 or so minutes from Queenstown is the charming coastal town of Glenorchy, where a lazy afternoon is easily spent. Check out the insta-famous Glenorchy Boat Shed and dock for impressive vistas or just relax on the beach. There are a handful of cafes and small restaurants in town with indoor and outdoor seating to have a nice meal or snack. If you want a bit of exercise do the short hour long Glenorchy Lagoon Boardwalk hike (completely flat but pleasant!). Many of the longer multi-day hike tracks begin in Glenorchy as well.
Mt Aspiring National Park
For those visiting Wanaka, the Mt Aspiring National Park is typically on the agenda. The drive from Wanaka to the park takes you along the uber scenic Haast highway that loops around Lake Wanaka & Lake Hawea - make sure to pull over at a few of the viewpoints to take it all in. There are a variety of shorter and longer treks throughout the park, but an easy and picturesque stop just off the road is the Blue Pools Walk (flat walk, easy for all ages) that leads through a forest to pools of striking blue shades (the day I passed through was incredibly rainy so I didn't bring my camera out, but the blue is beautiful!).
Franz Josef or Fox Glacier
The western coast of New Zealand's South Island is home to glacier country and is notably one of the few places in the world where glaciers descend into coastal rainforests. Both the Fox Glacier & the Franz Josef Glacier are easily accessible from the road and can be seen with a short, relatively flat hike. There are a variety of longer more strenuous hikes in the area as well as opportunities for glacier trekking, helicopter flights, and more. These glaciers are rapidly melting, so don't miss your chance to see them.
NEW ZEALAND OUTDOORSY PACKING LIST