Family Road Trip - Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand

8 Most Stunningly Scenic Drives in New Zealand

New Zealand is a land of breathtaking beauty and unparalleled natural landscapes, which lures travellers from across the globe to witness its awe-inspiring vistas and unspoiled wilderness.

Spread across two islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, this island nation is a haven for adventure enthusiasts, nature lovers and, in particular, road trippers.

New Zealand offers a road trip experience like no other, boasting a diverse tapestry of landscapes, including rugged coastlines, snow-capped mountains, verdant forests, and serene lakes.

This article will reveal the 8 Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand. Each of these drives promises stunning visuals and an opportunity to connect with the country’s rich cultural heritage and vibrant local communities.

So, if you are looking for inspiration on how best to explore Aotearoa, please keep reading till the end to discover the winding roads and picturesque byways that make New Zealand a paradise for road trip enthusiasts.

Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand

When it comes to scenic places in New Zealand to drive to, the road tripper is spoilt for choice. On both the North and South Islands, there are a host of routes you can explore.

Whether you plan on hiring a car or using your own, here is a selection of the best drives in New Zealand to put on your itinerary.

North Island

East Cape Coastal Drive (State Highway 35)

  • Distance: 334 km
  • Driving Time: 5 hours 30 minutes (non-stop)

The East Cape Coastal Drive is a journey that unveils a unique blend of natural beauty and cultural richness on the North Island. 

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - East Cape

One of the most scenic drives in New Zealand, this road trip spans State Highway 35, showcasing remote coastal villages and communities where Maori culture thrives. As you traverse this route, you’ll encounter traditional marae (meeting grounds), intricately carved pouwhenua (totem poles), and warm greetings from the local iwi (tribes).

What makes this one of the best roads in New Zealand to drive is that you pass plenty of pristine beaches that stretch endlessly along the coast. The highlight of this journey is undoubtedly the East Cape Lighthouse, perched atop the easternmost point of New Zealand.

The climb to the lighthouse rewards you with panoramic views of the vast Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastline below, creating an awe-inspiring backdrop for the region’s cultural significance.

Ultimately, this drive conveys the country’s rich heritage and natural splendour, offering a profound and unforgettable experience for those who venture along its winding roads.

Forgotten World Highway (State Highway 43)

  • Distance: 148 km
  • Driving Time: 3 hours (non-stop)

The Forgotten World Highway – also known as State Highway 43 – provides you with a road less travelled, a journey back in time and an adventure into the heart of the country’s history and rugged beauty, all in one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives.

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Forgotten World Highway

Stretching across the North Island’s Taranaki region, from Stratford to Taumarunui, this scenic route transports travellers through a landscape where lush native forests envelop the winding road. One of the most captivating features of this highway is the historic Whangamomona Republic, a quirky and self-declared independent nation that adds a touch of whimsy to the journey.

As you continue along the Forgotten World Highway, you’ll pass through deep gorges, traverse one-lane bridges and venture into the eerie and enchanting Tangarakau Gorge. The landscape transitions from dense forests to open farmland, all against the backdrop of Mount Taranaki – an impressive dormant volcano.

Overall, this drive embodies the essence of New Zealand’s backcountry, where tranquil landscapes are interrupted only by the occasional bleat of a sheep or the tuneful warble of a native bird.

Thermal Explorer Highway (State Highway 5)

  • Distance: 767 km
  • Driving Time: 9 hours (non-stop)

You will find some of the most impressive examples of New Zealand scenery on the Thermal Explorer Highway. This captivating route – aka State Highway 5 – unveils some of the North Island’s most incredible geological wonders and cultural richness. It takes you on a journey through the heart of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, where the Earth’s fiery forces have sculpted a landscape like no other.

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Rotorua

Beginning in the vibrant city of Rotorua and winding its way to the serene town of Taupo, the Thermal Explorer Highway offers a front-row seat to the fascinating world of geothermal activity. Along the way, visitors can witness boiling mud pools, shooting geysers, and colourful mineral terraces that seem to belong to another planet.

However, this highway isn’t just about geological marvels; it’s also a passage through Maori culture and history. Rotorua, in particular, is rich in Maori heritage, with opportunities to experience traditional performances, indulge in a hangi feast, and visit ancient pa sites.

The fusion of Maori traditions with the Earth’s natural spectacle creates a unique and immersive cultural experience that renders it one of the best drives in New Zealand.

Coromandel Peninsula (State Highway 25)

  • Distance: 216 km
  • Driving Time: 4 hours (non-stop)

Few can match what the Coromandel Peninsula has to offer when it comes to drives that take you to scenic places in New Zealand.

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Hot Water Beach

This delightful stretch of State Highway 25 takes you through a landscape patchwork incorporating pristine beaches, lush forests, and charming coastal towns.

As you cruise the winding road, the surreal beauty of Cathedral Cove will reveal itself – a hidden gem where a natural arch frames the azure waters beneath. Nearby, Hot Water Beach allows you to dig your own thermal pool in the sand, a unique experience courtesy of the area’s geothermal activity.

But the gorgeous New Zealand scenery is just half what State Highway 25 offers. It also introduces you to quaint coastal communities like Whitianga and Coromandel Town, where you can savour fresh seafood, explore local art galleries and mingle with friendly locals.

South Island

Milford Road (State Highway 94)

  • Distance: 118 km
  • Driving Time: 1 hour 40 minutes (non-stop)

The world-renowned Milford Road, also known as State Highway 94, is a legendary route that meanders through the heart of New Zealand’s awe-inspiring Fiordland National Park. It covers approximately 240 kilometres from Te Anau to Milford Sound, providing a visual symphony for the senses.

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Fiordland National Park

The journey begins amidst lush beech forests, where ancient trees create a serene and almost mystical ambience. As you venture deeper into the wilderness, you’ll encounter cascading waterfalls, some of which seem to tumble from the heavens, while mirror-like lakes, such as the stunning Mirror Lakes, reflect the surrounding snow-capped peaks.

A highlight of Milford Road is undoubtedly the iconic Homer Tunnel, a dramatic passageway that pierces solid rock, creating an unforgettable entry point to the Milford Sound region. As you emerge from the tunnel, the landscape reveals a breathtaking vista of towering cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and the tranquil waters of Milford Sound.

Cruising along the road, you’ll be serenaded by the melodious calls of native birds like the tui and fantail, adding an enchanting soundtrack to your journey.

Great Ocean Road (State Highway 6)

  • Distance: 224 km
  • Driving Time: 3 hours non-stop

Not to be confused with the iconic drive in Victoria, Australia, The Great Ocean Road in New Zealand is a magnificent coastal drive that epitomises the raw beauty of nature. 

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Pancake Rocks and Blowholes

This stretch of State Highway 6 extends from Nelson to Westport on the northwest coast of the South Island along the rugged Tasman Sea coastline. 

Against the backdrop of a refreshing sea breeze and the rhythmic crashing of waves on the rocky shores, cruising along the Great Ocean Road is one of the best driving routes in New Zealand. The coastal vistas are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and every turn reveals a new wonder, whether it’s a hidden cove, a dense rainforest, or a charming coastal village. 

The Great Ocean Road is a paradise for nature lovers, with plenty of opportunities to spot seals basking on sun-soaked rocks, dolphins playfully leaping through the waves, and, during the right season, majestic whales breaching the ocean’s surface.

A must-see attraction along this route is the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes in Punakaiki, where nature’s artistic prowess is fully displayed. Here, the relentless power of the sea has carved limestone formations into intricate, pancake-like layers, and the blowholes shoot plumes of seawater into the air, creating a mesmerising spectacle.

Crown Range Road (State Highway 89)

  • Distance: 68 km
  • Driving Time: 1 hour 10 minutes non-stop

If you are looking for roads in New Zealand that will take you to new heights – literally and figuratively – then it’s worth traversing the Crown Range Road.

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Lake Wakatipu

This remarkable road is renowned for being the highest sealed road in the country, offering a thrilling ascent into the Southern Alps. Beginning in the bustling resort town of Queenstown and winding its way to the tranquil lakeside town of Wanaka, Crown Range Road boasts spectacular panoramic views, which rank as one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand.

The journey along Crown Range Road rewards travellers with sweeping vistas of the surrounding valleys and the stunning Lake Wakatipu below. Hairpin bends and steep ascents provide thrills and breathtaking views at every turn.

The road takes you through the heart of the Pisa Conservation Park, a pristine natural environment that showcases the South Island’s rugged beauty. Along the way, there are opportunities to pull over and capture photographs of the Southern Alps, which are often dusted with snow, creating a picturesque backdrop.

Southern Scenic Route (State Highways 1 and 92)

  • Distance: 610 km
  • Driving Time: 7 hours non-stop

Have we left the best of New Zealand’s most scenic drives till last? Potentially.

AU Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand - Catlins

The Southern Scenic Route is an extraordinary journey that unfolds the diverse beauty of the South Island, offering a visual feast of natural wonders. Starting in the vibrant city of Dunedin and concluding in the picturesque town of Queenstown, the Southern Scenic Route unveils the untouched beauty of the Catlins, a remote region teeming with dense rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and rugged coastlines.

Wildlife lovers will be delighted by the chance to spot fur seals, sea lions, and yellow-eyed penguins in their natural habitats. As you traverse this route, you’ll also encounter Lake Te Anau‘s serene beauty and Fiordland National Park’s imposing grandeur – captivating areas you won’t want to leave.

Top Tips for the Most Scenic Drives in New Zealand

  • Most of the best driving routes in New Zealand can be done with a campervan. However, depending on the time of the year you go and weather conditions, some roads may not be passable. Ensure you check the road status with local road authorities before heading off – especially in winter.
  • Snow chains are mandatory on any vehicle when travelling around New Zealand’s backroads in the winter.
  • Download the app for information on your closest and cheapest fuel stops.
  • On some of these road trip routes, mobile phone coverage might be limited or non-existent. Have downloaded maps as a back up, or consider taking a satellite phone with you if you plan to be ‘off-grid’.
  • You may also want to check out our complete driving itinerary from Christchurch to Queenstown
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