A Road Trip Tour of Southwest New Zealand National Parks

Tips for touring the national parks in the south west of New Zealand's South Island.

When you have your next holiday, take a week or even a long weekend road trip through some of southwest New Zealand’s most scenic mountainous National Parks. The South Island is known for its National Parks, but which ones do you choose to see if you are on limited time? Our pick for scenic views and mountain adventures are Fiordland National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, and Westland Tai Poutini National Park. The distance between Fiordland to the south and Westland on the north end is about 550km. A road trip to these three parks allows you to get the most bang for your buck without spending too much time driving to get to each National Park destination. This is especially the case if you map out your daily route in advance and break up the longer drive by staying overnight half way through.

Car Hire Tips

Start out with the right wheels. Hire an Apex car rental in Queenstown near Fiordland National Park so that you will have the right vehicle to traverse the mountains and the potential icy roads. When hiring a car, never be afraid to ask questions and travel tips from your agent. Remember, he or she is a local and has likely visited many of the places you are trying to get to. Locals always have the best inside information from safety tips to the best eateries, and not to miss little known destinations.

Fiordland National Park

You can start out your South Island National Park road trip by hiring a car in Queenstown and then travelling about two and a half hours to Fiordland National Park. Fiordland National Park is a strange mix of rainforest, icy mountain tops, and glaciers. It is a place to commune with nature. Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the park. Three of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” are located here in addition to many other trails and tracks. You can cruise the fiords and see the bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and penguins that call the waters here home.  You can camp in the park overnight in one of the hikers huts, or seek out accommodations in Te Anau, Manapouri, or Milford Sound.
Mount Aspiring National Park

Roys Peak Track in Mount Aspiring National Park

Depending on where you leave off from Fiordland National Park, the drive to Mount Aspiring National Park can be up to 5 hours. This is the longest road trip portion of the entire trip and is a stunningly scenic drive but doesn’t require you to drive through the mountains. Mount Aspiring is the highest peak in the park and one of the highest in all of New Zealand. The mountain range here is known as the Southern Alps. The park features the snowcapped peaks, love river valleys, glaciers and alpine lakes. It is ideal for mountain hiking with numerous tracks and during summer you can actually hike from one valley over the mountains to the next valley. What’s so striking here is the contrast between the icy snow topped mountains and the grassy, green, flowering valleys. You can plan ahead to stay in one of the many hikers’ huts within the park or make accommodations reservations in nearby Glenorchy, Haast, or Makarora.

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

From Mount Aspiring National Park, the road to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park once again takes you out of the mountains with a detour through some of the foothills and neighboring valley cities. It is a little over a 3 hour drive. Aorkaki Mount Cook National Park is the northern half of the Southern Alps and contain the highest peaks and longest glaciers. Despite the great heights of the mountains in the park, it is still accessible via State Highway 80 which takes you to Aoraki / Mount Cook Village. Mountain hikers are drawn to these peaks from all over the Asian Pacific region. However, if you are not an experienced climber, there are still mountain walks and trails that you can experience too. The village has a variety of accommodations from camp sites to backpacker lodges to luxury hotels. If you plan on camping out in the park, then hikers huts are available.

Westland Tai Putini National Park

Getting to Westland Tai Putini National Park is where you will need some creative planning. Although the park is adjacent to Aoraki Mount Cook, it isn’t drivable so you have to go around the long way. If you choose to go to Westland Tai Putini National Park from Mount Aspiring National Park, it is only a 2 hour drive. To get there from Aoraki Mount Cook, it is a 5 hour drive. Of course, you can choose to pick one of these two parks depending on your time frame and which you want to see most. Westland Tai Putini National Park is known as glacier country. The high peaks stretch down to rainforested valleys that meet up with the Tasman Sea. This park gives you to option to go kayaking through valley rivers and coastal lagoons, explore rainforests and wetlands, and hike to glaciers. It is one of the few places in the world with such diverse landscapes. Accommodations are available in the towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef where you can also hire out guided tours of all kinds.

Safety and Supplies Reminder

As you can see, most of these parks are cold year round and snow or ice can be present. use caution and plan well in advance. Bring warm clothes and survival supplies to have on hand just in case you need them. If you are not familiar with the area, hiking tours and guides are available and highly recommended. Even in cold temperatures, sunscreen and insect repellant are necessities that you should bring as part of your gear. Each park has different rules or permits for fishing and hiking, so be sure to get everything in order before you travel. A well planned trip is the key to the most enjoyable trips. Be sure to book reservations and hikers’ huts in advance.

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