6-Day self-drive tour of the South Island during winter

Decide when to visit and where to go on the South Island of New Zealand for snow on mountains and set up a self-drive itinerary by using this article.

This article helps you set up a driving itinerary for seeing some of the most impressive and beautiful mountains on the South Island of New Zealand during winter.

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After reading this article, you will know the following:

  1. When to go to the South Island
  2. Which airport to fly to
  3. Sample itinerary for where to go and what to see on the South Island

1. Best time for a South Island winter road trip

As you may already know, winter in New Zealand runs from June through August. July is generally the busiest month for skiing, but you should not be concerned about that if the only thing you want to do is drive and sightsee in winter.

Queenstown holds a winter festival every year. The Queenstown winter festival is all about celebrating the arrival of winter. It attracts large crowds and Queenstown is very busy when the festival is taking place.

The end of June would be the month to visit the South Island if you want to experience the winter festival in Queenstown. You can check the exact dates when the festival is held, here.

Many New Zealanders take a vacation along with their children when the school holidays are taking place in July.

Therefore, the demand for rental cars and accommodation goes up in this period of time, which in turn makes July a relatively expensive month to visit the South Island.

And finally, there is August when everything slows down in preparation for the arrival of spring.

When does snow arrive on the South Island?

I’ve written an entire article about the best time for snow in New Zealand, which you can take a look at, but here is a quick summary...

Road out of Queenstown in winter on the South Island of New Zealand

Road out of Queenstown in winter on the South Island

You can expect snow to fall in New Zealand anywhere between April and late October. The amount of snow depends on weather conditions, which vary year after year.

Snow generally starts falling high on the mountains in April. While it may not be plentiful yet, you could see a dusting of snow here and there on the mountain tops.

You can expect large loads of snow to start falling from the end of May. And by July you can expect to see mountains covered with snow. You have the best chance to experience and see snow on mountains in July, but the end of June is not too bad to visit New Zealand.

Snow continues to fall till well into October, so you do not have to be afraid that you will miss the snow because that’s not the case, unless the South Island experiences a very warm winter season – and I have yet to experience a winter season in New Zealand when there was absolutely no snow on the mountains on the South Island.

So while you will be almost guaranteed to see snow-covered mountains on the South Island in July, you could also pick a month at either end of winter – June or August – or even a bit later, for example, September.

2. Airports to fly to on the South Island for a winter tour

If you are flying to the South Island, you have one of two options to start your self-drive winter tour:

  1. Christchurch
  2. Queenstown

Starting your South Island road trip from Christchurch Airport

While there has been a lot of fear from tourists for visiting Christchurch due to the earthquakes that take place in the city, you can rest assured that Christchurch Airport is still a great airport to start your South Island self-drive winter tour.

Christchurch Airport is the largest airport on the South Island of New Zealand, and unlike Dunedin, Queenstown, or Invercargill, most international flights land at Christchurch Airport.

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So if you are living outside of New Zealand, it should be possible to fly directly to Christchurch and avoid Auckland, which has the largest airport in New Zealand.

There are a lot of car rental companies at Christchurch Airport, so your selection of rental cars is greater than in any other city on the South Island.

In addition, it is a breeze to get onto State Highway 1 from Christchurch Airport and completely avoid driving anywhere in or near Christchurch city center on your way to the mountains.

And if you are getting off a long haul flight and want to rest before starting your 6-day self-drive winter tour, there are several hotels and motels near Christchurch Airport you can choose from.

Starting your South Island road trip from Queenstown Airport

The other option for starting your South Island holiday is to fly to Queenstown Airport. Queenstown does not have a very large airport, but you can still easily start your South Island winter self-driving tour there.

If you are flying to New Zealand from any other country that is not Australia, you may not be able to fly directly to Queenstown but would have to book a domestic flight to get to Queenstown Airport by air after you arrive in New Zealand via Auckland or Christchurch.

In any case, because Queenstown itself has been experiencing a tremendous growth in the last couple of years, it should be relatively easy to book a rental car at Queenstown Airport.

And don’t forget to rent snow chains and know how to fit them on the rental car, because you might need them for the 6-days self-drive tour suggested in this article.

Making smart choices for your South Island winter holiday

Since winter can be a hazardous time to drive in New Zealand, especially when the roads are covered with ice or snow, you may want to try to minimize the amount of time you spend driving on the road.

To minimize driving, I would suggest that when you book your rental car, you choose your return location be different from your pickup location.

Mountains with snow near Glenorchy on the South Island of New Zealand

Mountains with snow near Glenorchy on the South Island

So if you fly to Christchurch, drop the car off in Queenstown and fly home from there. And if you fly to Queenstown, drop the car off in Christchurch and fly home from there.

If you do not have the option to fly home directly from Queenstown, you can always book a domestic flight to either Auckland or Christchurch and then fly back home with your regular air carrier.

This should allow for more time to see the sights rather than having to rush to catch a flight on your last day.

Considering that the winter driving tour suggested in this article goes from Christchurch to Queenstown or from Queenstown to Christchurch, you would have to drive through Lindis Pass, which may or may not be closed depending on the weather.

If you do not want to run the risk of not being able to drive through Lindis Pass, you could either fly to Christchurch and spend six days visiting the winter tour sights north of Lindis Pass or fly to Queenstown and spend six days visiting the winter tour sights south of Lindis Pass.

In any case, restricting the self-drive tour to either north or south of Lindis Pass would allow for a more relaxed trip and you would have ample time to see all of the gorgeous winter scenery without having to hurry to get to the next place.

Needless to say, I would recommend this option. And do not worry that you won’t have enough to do in six days, because there is a lot to see and experience.

3. Sample itinerary for a South Island self-drive tour

A 6-day self-drive winter tour itinerary to see mountains with snow when driving from Christchurch to Queenstown could look something like this...

Day 1: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

Drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo and spend the night in Tekapo or Twizel. Twizel is a 30-minute drive from Lake Tekapo and offers much more affordable accommodation than Tekapo.

Ben Ohau range with snow near Twizel in winter on the South Island of New Zealand

Ben Ohau range with snow in winter on the South Island

If you cannot find accommodation in Tekapo or Twizel, you can drive another 20 minutes down to Omarama. Omarama tends to be on the expensive side, though.

On day 1, I would suggest stretching your legs at Lake Tekapo after the 3-hour drive from Christchurch by either doing a lakeside walk or heading up Mount John if it is not too late in the day.

Day 2: Mount Cook National Park

Drive to Mount Cook National Park in the morning and do a short walk if you feel like it. Kea Point Track is a good short walk to do, or if you are looking for a long walk, try the Hooker Valley Track.

On the Kea Point Track you will see Mount Sefton with snow, while the Hooker Valley Track allows you to get up close to Mount Cook and Hooker Lake, which may have ice floating on it.

In the early hours of the afternoon, you can do a canal road drive. There are two canal roads that you can follow; they are private roads, so they could be inaccessible.

The first canal road is along the Tekapo – Pukaki Canal and the second one is along the Pukaki – Ohau Canal. Note that the Tekapo – Pukaki Canal Road has been closed to traffic, so you can only do the Pukaki – Ohau Canal Road drive if the road is open. However, you can walk or bike on the Tekapo – Pukaki Canal Road if you want to (see Tekapo canal access for more information).

What I would suggest is to follow Hayman Road (near Lake Pukaki) to the southern end of the Tekapo – Pukaki Canal Road and then drive up, pass the large pond, and then drive further on until you reach the road barrier. You can drive on this section of the road and it provides the best views anyway. Return the same way you came.

Day 3: Lindis Pass, Wanaka, and Cromwell

It is time to cross Lindis Pass. In the early morning hours, you can drive on the Pukaki – Ohau Canal Road if you did not get to do it on the previous day before driving down to Omarama and then further on to Lindis Pass.

Hopefully, Lindis Pass is open. If Lindis Pass is not open, you will have to take a detour to reach either Cromwell or Wanaka, depending on where you would like to spend your next two nights.

Sign at the top of Lindis Pass in winter on the South Island of New Zealand

Sign at the top of Lindis Pass in winter on the South Island

The detour would involve driving via Omarama to Kurow and then following State Highway 1 down toward Dunedin, and then following State Highway 85 north of Dunedin toward Central Otago, and then onward to Alexandra and then back up to Cromwell or Wanaka.

This detour could take anywhere between 4.5 and 6 hours of driving. If Lindis Pass is open, the drive to Cromwell or Wanaka should be a relatively short two hours from Lake Tekapo (also see the South Island driving distances and times map for driving distances and routes between cities/towns on the South Island).

If Lindis Pass is open and you have 40 minutes to spare, I would suggest you take a short drive to Lake Benmore and back. While Mount Benmore might not have much snow on it – you really have to be lucky to catch it with snow – the drive to Lake Benmore is worth doing to see the blue water of Lake Benmore and Lake Aviemore.

You could also stop and do the Lake Benmore Peninsula walk if you wish, which should take you about two hours to complete. If that is too long, you can go part of the way to make it shorter.

After you reach the top of Lindis Pass, make sure to stop briefly and take in the scenery. Whether Lindis Pass has or does not have snow, it will take your breath away, so do make a brief stop.

Then drive on to either Wanaka or Cromwell. Wanaka is more touristy than Cromwell, but I like Cromwell because it is so central. The drive from Wanaka to Cromwell takes approximately 30 to 40 minutes.

If you are staying in Cromwell and still have time left in the day, drive to Wanaka to visit the lake and see more snow on mountains. You can also drive to Glendhu Bay where you might get lucky and see Mount Aspiring peeking through.

Day 4: Alexandra and Central Otago

Drive from Cromwell to Alexandra, and then from Alexandra, drive to Central Otago.

If you are pressed for time or cannot wait to see the gorgeous Hawkdun Range covered with snow, you can also take a shortcut to Central Otago when you arrive at the turnoff to Clyde before reaching Alexandra. Alexandra is a short 20 to 30 minutes from Cromwell.

Once you are driving on State Highway 85, continue driving until you reach St. Bathans. You could make a brief detour to St. Bathans to see historic buildings and the manmade lake if you wish.

Winter at St. Bathans in Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand

Winter at St. Bathans on the South Island of New Zealand

Hawkdun Range is best viewed during early afternoon hours to get suitable light for photographing the mountain range, so you would have time for a detour.

After you leave St. Bathans, enjoy the drive toward Hawkdun Range. Once the mountains start going out of sight, look for a spot to turn back. There are several gravel rural roads you can stop at to turn back.

Drive back to Cromwell in preparation to leave for Queenstown tomorrow.

Day 5: Queenstown

Drive from Cromwell to Queenstown via Kawarau Gorge Road.

This drive should take approximately 45 to 50 minutes. It is a pretty winding road in some areas, so be prepared to not drive too fast, especially if it is the first time you are driving on this road.

Kawarau Gorge Road is a low-level road, so it is highly unlikely to be closed, although that has happened in the past. If it is closed, you do not have many options to get to Queenstown other than driving to Wanaka and then toward Crown Range Road.

If Kawarau Gorge Road is all snowed in, I do not expect Crown Range Road to be any better, since it is at a much higher elevation. So have a contingency plan in place should you have to stay in Cromwell.

Once you reach Queenstown, it might still be morning, so I recommend driving from Queenstown to Kingston and back. The light should still be good enough to allow you to enjoy the mountains.

In the afternoon, if you are feeling energetic and if the trail allows for it, you can walk up Queenstown Hill. It should take you around 45 minutes to reach the Basket of Dreams where you can enjoy gorgeous views of Lake Wakatipu and mountains with snow.

If you are not feeling energetic or do not want to walk up a hill, you could hook off State Highway 6 and get onto Peninsula Road on your way back from Kingston and then drive to the Queenstown golf course and park your car near Lake Wakatipu. Get out and take a stroll along the lake. It does wonders to the soul...

Day 6: Glenorchy

Drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy. This road can get icy in winter and may have snow, so drive carefully.

Glenorchy Lagoon in winter on the South Island of New Zealand

Glenorchy Lagoon in winter on the South Island

It should take you approximately 40 to 50 minutes to get to Glenorchy. Do not forget to enjoy the gorgeous mountain views along the way.

When you reach Glenorchy, you can stop and do a short walk around the Glenorchy Lagoon, or if you do not feel like walking, continue driving toward the Dart River Bridge.

When you reach the Dart River Bridge, stop and enjoy the mountains from the Isengard Lookout.

Drive back to Queenstown, relax, or catch an afternoon flight from Queenstown Airport. Or if you are flying in the morning, do so then.

If you are spending the night in Queenstown, you could head up the Queenstown Gondola to get a late afternoon view of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and the surrounding mountains from above.

If you are flying to Queenstown and driving to Christchurch, you would just have to do the drives and activities mentioned in this sample itinerary in reverse order.

Things not to miss on your self-drive winter tour

Make sure that you do not miss the following sights when driving from Christchurch to Queenstown in winter:

I hope you have found this article useful and that you enjoy your 6-day self-drive winter tour on the South Island of New Zealand.

 

Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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