New Zealand, renowned for its diverse landscapes and stunning natural beauty, is home to some of the most breathtaking scenic drives in the world. This island nation offers a rich tapestry of rugged coastlines, lush forests, and majestic mountains that captivate the imagination of travelers. Each route provides an unforgettable experience, combining thrilling journeys with spectacular views. Whether you're winding through alpine passes, cruising along dramatic coastlines, or exploring serene lakeside roads, these drives are perfect for adventure seekers looking to immerse themselves in nature's grandeur. Here are the top 10 scenic drives in New Zealand that promise to leave you in awe.

1. Milford Road (State Highway 94)

Milford Road, also known as State Highway 94, is often hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the world, and for good reason. Stretching from the tranquil town of Te Anau to the awe-inspiring Milford Sound, this 120-kilometer journey is a must for any adventure seeker. The road meanders through Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its dramatic landscapes, dense rainforests, and towering peaks.

One of the key highlights of this drive is the Homer Tunnel, an engineering marvel carved through the Darran Mountains. The tunnel itself is a thrilling experience, with its narrow, dark passageway leading drivers into the heart of the mountains. Emerging from the tunnel, you'll be greeted by breathtaking views of the Cleddau Valley and its cascading waterfalls.

Along the route, the Mirror Lakes offer a serene stop, where the perfectly still waters reflect the surrounding mountains, creating a picture-perfect moment. The Chasm, another notable stop, features a series of powerful waterfalls and unique rock formations carved by the rushing water over millennia.

The journey culminates at Milford Sound, a fjord known for its striking beauty and tranquil waters. Here, adventure seekers can embark on boat tours to get up close to the towering Mitre Peak, cascading waterfalls, and even spot wildlife such as dolphins, seals, and penguins. For those looking for more adventure, kayaking through the sound offers a unique perspective of this natural wonder.

Driving the Milford Road is not just about the destination but the journey itself. The ever-changing scenery, from lush forests to rugged mountains, makes every kilometer a visual feast. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or a first-time visitor, the Milford Road promises an unforgettable adventure through one of New Zealand's most pristine landscapes.

2. Great Ocean Road, South Island

The Great Ocean Road in New Zealand, distinct from its Australian namesake, offers a spectacular coastal adventure that should be on every traveler's list. This scenic route begins in Christchurch and winds its way down the eastern coastline towards Dunedin, covering approximately 360 kilometers of diverse and stunning landscapes.

Starting from Christchurch, the drive takes you through the picturesque Canterbury Plains, where rolling farmlands stretch as far as the eye can see. As you approach the coastline, the road hugs the rugged cliffs, offering breathtaking ocean views and the occasional glimpse of playful dolphins and seals in the surf below.

A notable stop along the way is the charming town of Kaikoura, renowned for its marine life. Here, you can take a break from driving to enjoy whale watching tours, swim with dolphins, or feast on fresh seafood at one of the local eateries. The town's stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains meeting the sea adds to its allure.

Continuing south, the road passes through the wine region of Marlborough, where you can indulge in a wine tasting session at one of the many renowned vineyards. The route then leads to the quaint town of Oamaru, famous for its Victorian architecture and the blue penguin colony that resides there.

As you near Dunedin, the landscape transforms into rolling hills and lush greenery. The city itself, with its rich Scottish heritage and vibrant cultural scene, is worth exploring. Don't miss a visit to the Otago Peninsula, where you can spot albatrosses, sea lions, and other wildlife.

The Great Ocean Road is not just a drive; it's an experience that showcases the best of New Zealand's coastal beauty. From pristine beaches and rugged cliffs to charming towns and abundant wildlife, this route offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration. Whether you're driving solo or with companions, the Great Ocean Road promises an unforgettable journey through one of the most scenic regions of New Zealand.

3. The Coromandel Peninsula Loop

The Coromandel Peninsula Loop is a quintessential New Zealand road trip, offering a perfect blend of coastal beauty, lush forests, and charming small towns. This 309-kilometer loop starts and ends in the town of Thames, making it a convenient and popular choice for both locals and tourists looking for a scenic drive filled with adventure.

One of the most iconic stops on this route is Hot Water Beach, located on the eastern side of the peninsula. Here, visitors can dig their own hot pools in the sand at low tide, thanks to the geothermal activity beneath the beach. It's a unique and relaxing experience, perfect for unwinding and enjoying the natural warmth of the earth.

Another highlight is Cathedral Cove, accessible via a short walk or by kayak from Hahei. This stunning coastal spot features a massive arched rock formation that frames the beautiful beach beyond. The clear turquoise waters and the dramatic cliffs make it a photographer's paradise and a must-see destination.

The loop also takes you through the Coromandel Forest Park, home to some of New Zealand's most beautiful native forests. The Kauaeranga Valley offers numerous hiking trails, including the popular Pinnacles Walk, which provides panoramic views of the peninsula from the summit. For a less strenuous adventure, the Waiau Falls and Kauri Grove offer scenic spots for a leisurely walk and a picnic.

Driving through the peninsula's winding roads, you'll encounter charming small towns such as Coromandel Town and Whitianga. These towns offer a glimpse into the laid-back lifestyle of the region, with their artisanal shops, cozy cafes, and friendly locals. Whitianga, in particular, is a great spot to enjoy fresh seafood and take a boat tour of the surrounding bays and islands.

The Coromandel Peninsula Loop is a drive that caters to all kinds of adventure seekers, from beach lovers and hikers to those who simply enjoy a scenic road trip. With its diverse landscapes and numerous attractions, this route promises a memorable journey through one of New Zealand's most cherished regions. Whether you're soaking in a hot pool, exploring a hidden cove, or hiking through ancient forests, the Coromandel Peninsula Loop offers endless opportunities for adventure and discovery.

4. Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass, a spectacular drive through the Southern Alps, offers one of New Zealand’s most dramatic and picturesque routes. This highway connects the Canterbury region to the West Coast, traversing 140 kilometers of awe-inspiring landscapes. Adventure seekers will find this journey not just a drive but an exhilarating experience that showcases the rugged beauty of New Zealand’s interior.

The journey begins in Christchurch, with the road winding through the Canterbury Plains before ascending into the alpine environment of Arthur’s Pass National Park. The road here is a marvel of engineering, with its steep gradients, hairpin bends, and viaducts that offer breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks and valleys.

One of the standout features of this route is the Otira Viaduct, a modern engineering masterpiece that spans the Otira Gorge. This viaduct, with its sweeping curves and towering height, provides stunning vistas and is a highlight for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike. The journey through the Otira Gorge itself is an adventure, with its dramatic rock formations and cascading waterfalls creating a spectacular backdrop.

The Devil's Punchbowl Falls is a must-see stop along the way. A short but steep walk leads you to this magnificent 131-meter waterfall, which plunges into a deep pool below. The trail offers a close encounter with the native flora and fauna, making it a rewarding experience for hikers and nature lovers.

Arthur’s Pass village is another key stop, offering a quaint and welcoming rest point. Here, travelers can find a visitor center with informative displays about the area’s natural history and numerous trails that cater to all levels of fitness. For those seeking a bit more adventure, the Avalanche Peak Track provides a challenging hike with unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains.

Wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate the chance to see the kea, a native alpine parrot known for its curious and playful nature. These birds are often spotted around the village and along the road, adding a unique touch to the journey.

Completing the drive, you descend into the lush rainforest of the West Coast, a stark contrast to the alpine environment left behind. The road eventually leads to the town of Greymouth, where you can explore the coastal attractions or continue your adventure along the rugged West Coast.

Driving Arthur’s Pass is a thrilling adventure that captures the essence of New Zealand’s natural beauty. The diverse landscapes, from the open plains to the towering alps and dense rainforests, offer an ever-changing panorama that keeps travelers captivated. Whether you’re an avid photographer, a hiker, or simply someone who appreciates a scenic drive, Arthur’s Pass promises an unforgettable experience.

5. The Forgotten World Highway (State Highway 43)

For those craving a journey off the beaten path, the Forgotten World Highway offers a unique and adventurous drive through some of New Zealand’s most remote and untouched landscapes. This 150-kilometer route, officially known as State Highway 43, stretches from Stratford to Taumarunui, traversing rugged terrain, historic sites, and quaint settlements that feel frozen in time.

The Forgotten World Highway begins in Stratford, a town famous for its Shakespearean-themed streets and the glockenspiel clock tower that chimes excerpts from the Bard’s plays. As you leave Stratford, the road quickly transforms, winding through the lush, rolling hills of Taranaki.

One of the first notable stops is the Strathmore Saddle, a lookout point offering panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The road then descends into the Tangarakau Gorge, a scenic drive through dense native bush and alongside the Tangarakau River. This section of the highway is particularly isolated, giving a sense of venturing into the unknown.

A highlight of this journey is the Whangamomona Republic, a quirky, self-declared republic that holds presidential elections every couple of years. This historic settlement offers a charming glimpse into New Zealand’s past, with its well-preserved buildings and friendly locals. The Whangamomona Hotel is a must-visit, offering hearty meals and a chance to collect a passport stamp from the republic.

As you continue, the road leads you through a series of tunnels, the most notable being the Moki Tunnel, also known as the “Hobbit’s Hole.” This 180-meter tunnel, carved through solid rock, adds a touch of adventure and a sense of stepping back in time.

The Forgotten World Highway also passes through several historic sites, such as the Tangarakau Ghost Town, a relic of the early 20th-century coal mining era. Here, remnants of the once-thriving community provide a haunting glimpse into the past.

The journey concludes in Taumarunui, a town nestled in the heart of the King Country. This final stretch offers stunning views of the Whanganui River and surrounding hills. Adventure seekers can explore the nearby Whanganui National Park, which offers river cruises, kayaking, and hiking opportunities.

Driving the Forgotten World Highway is more than just a scenic drive; it’s an immersion into New Zealand’s history and natural beauty. The remote and rugged landscapes, combined with the quirky charm of Whangamomona and the historic sites along the way, make this route a must for those seeking an adventurous and unique experience. This highway truly lives up to its name, providing a journey through some of New Zealand’s most forgotten and fascinating regions.

6. Queenstown to Glenorchy

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, though short at just 45 kilometers, is often regarded as one of the most scenic routes in New Zealand. This picturesque drive follows the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu, offering stunning views of the lake, surrounding mountains, and vast open skies. It’s a journey that promises both tranquility and adventure, making it a favorite for photographers, hikers, and anyone seeking a peaceful yet thrilling experience.

Starting in Queenstown, known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, the road winds along the edge of Lake Wakatipu. The crystal-clear waters of the lake reflect the dramatic peaks of the Remarkables and other mountain ranges, creating a breathtaking scene that changes with the light and weather conditions. Early morning and late afternoon are particularly beautiful times to take this drive, as the low sun casts a golden glow over the landscape.

One of the first notable stops along the way is Wilson Bay, a perfect spot for a picnic or a swim. The calm, clear waters of the bay are ideal for kayaking or paddleboarding, and the surrounding area offers several short walking trails for those looking to stretch their legs.

As you continue towards Glenorchy, the road offers numerous viewpoints where you can stop and take in the panoramic vistas. Bennett’s Bluff Lookout is a must-see, providing one of the best views of the lake and mountains. The lookout is a popular spot for photographers, especially at sunset when the sky is painted with hues of pink and orange.

Upon reaching Glenorchy, you’ll find a charming small town nestled at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Known as the gateway to some of New Zealand’s best hiking trails, Glenorchy offers access to the Routeburn Track, one of the country’s Great Walks, as well as other trails like the Greenstone and Caples tracks. These trails take you through diverse landscapes, including ancient beech forests, alpine meadows, and dramatic mountain passes.

For those seeking adventure on the water, Glenorchy is also a hub for jet boating and kayaking. The Dart River, which flows into Lake Wakatipu near Glenorchy, offers thrilling jet boat rides that take you deep into the heart of the Mt. Aspiring National Park. Kayaking on the lake and rivers is another popular activity, allowing you to explore the serene waterways at your own pace.

Glenorchy itself is a delightful place to explore, with its rustic charm and welcoming community. The town has several cafes and eateries where you can enjoy a meal while soaking in the stunning surroundings. The Glenorchy Wharf is another picturesque spot, perfect for a leisurely stroll or a bit of fishing.

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is a journey that encapsulates the beauty and adventure of New Zealand’s South Island. With its stunning lake views, mountain scenery, and opportunities for outdoor activities, this route is a must for anyone visiting the region. Whether you’re looking for a peaceful drive, a challenging hike, or a thrilling water adventure, this scenic road offers something for everyone.

7. The Thermal Explorer Highway

The Thermal Explorer Highway is a captivating route that spans 459 kilometers from Auckland to Hawke's Bay, offering travelers a journey through some of New Zealand’s most geothermally active and culturally rich regions. This scenic drive is perfect for adventure seekers who want to explore the country's volcanic landscapes, hot springs, and Maori heritage.

Starting in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, the highway heads south towards the vibrant town of Hamilton. Known for its beautiful gardens and vibrant arts scene, Hamilton is a great place to start your journey. Don't miss the Hamilton Gardens, a stunning collection of themed gardens that showcase horticultural artistry from around the world.

As you continue, the road leads to the heart of the Waikato region, famous for its lush farmlands and the Hobbiton Movie Set, a must-visit for fans of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies. This unique attraction offers guided tours through the picturesque movie set, providing a magical glimpse into Middle-earth.

The next major stop is Rotorua, a city renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. Rotorua’s landscape is dotted with geysers, boiling mud pools, and hot springs. One of the highlights is the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, where you can witness the vibrant Champagne Pool and the Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts daily. For a relaxing experience, the Polynesian Spa offers soothing hot mineral baths with stunning views over Lake Rotorua.

Rotorua is also a cultural hub, offering numerous opportunities to experience traditional Maori performances and hangi feasts. Te Puia is a popular destination where you can learn about Maori arts and crafts, watch the impressive Pohutu Geyser, and see the endangered kiwi bird.

Continuing southeast, you’ll pass through Taupo, located on the shores of New Zealand's largest lake, Lake Taupo. The town is a hotspot for adventure activities such as skydiving, parasailing, and jet boating. The nearby Huka Falls, where the Waikato River cascades over a series of rapids, is a spectacular natural attraction.

The Thermal Explorer Highway then leads to Napier in Hawke’s Bay, a region known for its Art Deco architecture and world-class wineries. Napier was rebuilt in the Art Deco style after a devastating earthquake in 1931, giving it a unique and charming character. Wine enthusiasts will enjoy touring the vineyards and tasting the renowned wines of the area, particularly the robust reds and crisp whites.

The Thermal Explorer Highway offers a diverse range of experiences, from geothermal wonders and cultural heritage to thrilling outdoor activities and culinary delights. It’s a journey that encapsulates the essence of New Zealand’s natural beauty and rich history, making it an ideal route for adventure seekers and curious travelers alike.

8. The Southern Scenic Route

The Southern Scenic Route is a 610-kilometer journey through some of the South Island's most diverse and breathtaking landscapes. Stretching from Dunedin to Queenstown, this drive offers a mix of coastal beauty, lush forests, and rugged mountains, making it a perfect adventure for those seeking to explore the natural wonders of New Zealand.

Starting in Dunedin, a city with a rich Scottish heritage and vibrant student culture, you’ll find numerous attractions such as the historic Larnach Castle and the bustling Otago Farmers Market. Dunedin's coastal surroundings, including the Otago Peninsula, are renowned for wildlife viewing opportunities, where you can see albatrosses, penguins, and sea lions in their natural habitats.

As you leave Dunedin, the route follows the coastline through the Catlins Forest Park, a hidden gem known for its untouched landscapes and abundant wildlife. The Catlins offer a series of stunning sights, including the picturesque Nugget Point Lighthouse, the thundering Purakaunui Falls, and the Cathedral Caves, accessible at low tide. The area is also a haven for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts, with opportunities to see rare species such as the yellow-eyed penguin.

Continuing westward, the road takes you through Invercargill, New Zealand's southernmost city. Here, you can explore the city's parks and museums, such as the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, which houses a unique collection of exhibits on local history and wildlife. Nearby, the coastal town of Bluff is famous for its delicious oysters and offers stunning views from the top of Bluff Hill.

From Invercargill, the route heads north towards Fiordland National Park, one of New Zealand's most iconic destinations. The park is home to dramatic fjords, towering peaks, and pristine lakes. Milford Sound, often described as the “eighth wonder of the world,” is a must-visit, with its breathtaking scenery and opportunities for boat tours, kayaking, and hiking. The less-crowded Doubtful Sound offers a more tranquil but equally stunning fjord experience.

The final leg of the journey brings you to Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. Nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown offers a plethora of activities for thrill-seekers, including bungee jumping, skydiving, jet boating, and skiing in the winter months. The town also boasts a vibrant food and wine scene, with numerous restaurants, cafes, and wineries to explore.

The Southern Scenic Route is a journey through some of New Zealand's most spectacular and varied landscapes. Whether you're exploring the rugged coastlines of the Catlins, the serene beauty of Fiordland, or the adrenaline-pumping activities in Queenstown, this drive offers endless opportunities for adventure and discovery.

9. The Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway, stretching from Auckland to Napier, offers 412 kilometers of stunning coastal scenery, pristine beaches, and charming towns. This route is ideal for those who love the ocean and seek a road trip filled with beautiful vistas, exciting activities, and rich cultural experiences.

Starting in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, the Pacific Coast Highway heads southeast towards the Coromandel Peninsula. This area is renowned for its natural beauty, with attractions like the Coromandel Town, famous for its artisanal crafts and the historic Driving Creek Railway. One of the must-visit spots on the peninsula is Hot Water Beach, where you can dig your own hot pool in the sand at low tide, thanks to the geothermal activity beneath the surface.

Continuing along the coast, you’ll reach the town of Whitianga, a popular destination for water sports and fishing. Nearby, Cathedral Cove offers one of the most iconic coastal views in New Zealand, with its stunning rock archway and crystal-clear waters. This spot is perfect for kayaking, snorkeling, and photography.

As you drive further south, the highway takes you to Tauranga and Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty. Tauranga is known for its vibrant waterfront and bustling harbor, while Mount Maunganui offers a beautiful beach and a hike up the mount for panoramic views of the area. The Bay of Plenty is also famous for its orchards and gardens, making it a great place to sample fresh local produce.

The next major stop is Rotorua, a city celebrated for its geothermal wonders and Maori culture. Here, you can explore bubbling mud pools, geysers, and hot springs. The Te Puia cultural center offers a comprehensive insight into Maori traditions, including performances and traditional crafts.

Continuing along the coast, the Pacific Coast Highway leads to the town of Whakatane, known as the gateway to White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano. Guided tours offer a chance to explore the otherworldly landscape of this volcanic island, providing a thrilling and educational experience.

The final stretch of the journey brings you to Napier in Hawke’s Bay. Napier is renowned for its Art Deco architecture, a result of the city’s reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in 1931. Walking tours of the city offer a fascinating glimpse into its architectural heritage. Hawke’s Bay is also one of New Zealand’s premier wine regions, making it an excellent destination for wine tasting and vineyard tours.

The Pacific Coast Highway offers a rich tapestry of experiences, from relaxing beachside retreats and thrilling volcanic explorations to cultural discoveries and gourmet delights. This scenic drive encapsulates the essence of coastal New Zealand, providing adventure seekers with endless opportunities to explore and enjoy.

10. The West Coast Wilderness Road

The West Coast Wilderness Road, stretching from Greymouth to Westport, is a 100-kilometer journey that showcases the raw, untamed beauty of New Zealand’s West Coast. This route is perfect for adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts looking to explore some of the country's most dramatic landscapes.

Starting in Greymouth, the largest town on the West Coast, the road heads north along the rugged coastline. Greymouth itself is a historic town with a rich gold mining heritage. Before embarking on your journey, visit the local museums to learn about the town’s history and the gold rush era that shaped the region.

As you leave Greymouth, the road winds through dense rainforests and past rocky cliffs that plunge into the Tasman Sea. One of the most striking features of this drive is the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes at Punakaiki. These limestone formations, which resemble stacks of pancakes, have been sculpted by the relentless forces of wind and water over millions of years. The blowholes, where seawater is forced through narrow vertical shafts and erupts into the air, provide a dramatic and mesmerizing spectacle, especially during high tide.

Continuing north, you’ll pass through the Paparoa National Park, an area renowned for its karst landscapes, limestone caves, and lush native forests. The park offers numerous hiking trails for those looking to explore on foot, including the popular Truman Track, which leads to a secluded beach with stunning rock formations.

The road then leads to the charming town of Westport, known for its vibrant arts scene and outdoor activities. Here, you can visit the Cape Foulwind Seal Colony to observe fur seals in their natural habitat or take a hike to the Cape Foulwind lighthouse for panoramic views of the coastline.

Driving the West Coast Wilderness Road is an immersive experience that takes you through some of New Zealand’s most pristine and untouched environments. With its combination of dramatic coastal scenery, rich history, and abundant wildlife, this route offers a memorable adventure for all who traverse it.

Embarking on any of these scenic drives in New Zealand will reward adventure seekers with unforgettable memories and breathtaking views. From coastal routes to mountainous paths, these drives offer a perfect blend of thrill and natural beauty.

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Jun 10, 2024

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