Guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand

Jan 03, 2019 BY Mark Pawlak

Planning a trip to New Zealand? Then check out this guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand, as you should spend a lot of time here. It has everything from towering peaks to lush rainforests, and is packed with activities. I can feel a road trip coming on!

Guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand flickr CC image by Tom

Guide to Southern Alps in New Zealand

Extending the length of the South Island, the Southern Alps – or Kā Tiritiri o te Moana in Maori – divide the landmass in two. It is the country’s longest (500km) and highest (3724m) mountain range.

Crammed with awe-inspiring peaks, ice-blue glaciers, verdant rainforests, volcanic lakes and sparkling rivers, it is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. It comes loaded with National Parks, ski resorts and welcoming towns.

Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand encompass everything life in New Zealand offers. It’s outdoor activities and excess of adventurous opportunities are best explored on a road trip. This way you can travel at your own pace and stop whenever the fancy takes you.

So get a hire car in New Zealand and make your own adventure. The highway network is extensive and in great shape, and driving in New Zealand will take you along some of the most scenic roads on the planet.

Guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand flickr CC image of Southern Alps in Mackenzie region by Bernard Spragg

You should of course pick up a map, but there are not that many roads so it is quite hard to get lost. Also the sign posts are good and locals very friendly should you ever need help!

If you’d like to save money, consider renting a car in July. Although it’ll be winter in Southern Hemisphere, getting a car in July will be around 30% cheaper than the year’s average (and a whopping 44% cheaper than renting in February).

The temperature is colder in winter, for example in Queenstown -1°C to 8°C compared to 9°C to 22°C in the summer. But winter is the best time to visit New Zealand for skiing and snowboarding, whale watching and visiting hot springs. Also winter is much quieter but still just as beautiful.

Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand

There is a lot to do and many places you just have to see in the Southern Alps. So here are a few ideas to get you started:

Guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand flickr CC image of Shotover River in Otago by Bernard Spragg

Overland travels

Overlanding comes in many forms. You can take a guided tour, drive yourself or join up with other like minded travellers. You can also stick to the roads or take the adventure away from the tarmac – if you have a hire car be sure to check this is allowed.

The Southern Alps are criss crossed with rugged mountain tracks. You can go splashing through mountain streams whilst taking in scenes fresh from The Lord of the Rings. You can stop to fish in glacier-fed rivers, filled with salmon and trout.

Alternatively, sticking to the roads is also an adventure. Around every corner you see a different stunning vista that makes you want to stop and take photos. Plus all the parks and hiking trails are well sign posted so you won’t miss out.

Places you have to visit include pretty much the entire West Coast! You should pay a visit to either Franz Josef or Fox Glacier. The towns of Queenstown and Wanaka are well worth a visit. Also Milford Sound, Lake Tekapo, Nelson Lakes and Mount Cook should be on your list during Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand.

NZ trekking holidays: 11 best treks in New Zealand Milford Sound flickr CC image by paul bica

Skiing and Snowboarding

New Zealand’s ski season runs from June until October. As southern-hemisphere ski options go it’s probably the best place to visit during Europe’s summer months.

And the Southern Alps is where it’s at. With Mount Hutt, The Remarkables, Cardrona, Treble Cone and Coronet Peak the best known ski areas. Mt Hutt is near Christchurch and is the most commercial with terrain to suit everyone from first-timers to pros.

Staying in Christchurch and fancy a day on the slopes? The Selwyn Six ski area is the nearest to the city and can be reached in just over an hour. Of the six areas on offer, Mount Cheeseman is best for families and Mount Olympus for backcountry.

Other Southern Alps options include Mackenzie Country. At 1725m it’s one of New Zealand’s highest ski areas. Also Mount Lyford, in North Canterbury, which is so close to the ocean, you can ski and surf in the same day.

Mt Hutt one of the best NZ ski resorts for New Zealand snowboarding holidays image from Mt Hutt facebook

For off-piste purists, heli-skiing is big business in the Southern Alps. So if your wallet allows it’s an experience not to be missed. Check out this article about the best ski resorts in New Zealand for more info.

Tramping (Trekking/Hiking)

Tramping is one of the most popular and diverse year-round activities on offer in the Southern Alps. Go bush walking through emerald rainforests, up stunning peaks or around beautiful lakes.

Perhaps take-on the Heaphy or Cascade-Hollyford Track – two of New Zealand’s ’12 Great Walks’. Grab your backpack and strive for the summits. Or take tramping to the next level and strap on crampons to tackle one of the 140 glaciers in the Southern Alps.

In the Canterbury region you’ll find Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. It is an obvious place to start with many hiking options. You can take an easy hour-long loop in the foothills, or a multi-day expedition to the summit. The views are out of this world – some would say rather Middle-Earth.

Guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand flickr CC image of Mount Cook by Exeligmos Photography

The gorgeous Caples and Greenstone river valleys are other popular tramping spots. As is Arthur’s Pass National Park, a place of steep gorges and braided rivers in the heart of the Alps. Further south you’ll find the inspiring Mount Aspiring.

Cycling and Mountain Biking

Cyclists are spoilt for choice in the Southern Alps, with hundreds of quiet roads and dirt tracks at your disposal. Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand can be done entirely on a bike, with many people choosing that as their only mode of transport.

In some National Park areas, mountain biking is restricted to marked roads. So single-track can be limited, but check guide books and online as new trails are opening all the time.

Craigieburn Valley, near Christchurch, has plenty of stunning alpine climbs and sweeping dirt track descents. It is an area of native beech forest, rough scree slopes and loose boulder fields that will leave a smile on any mountain bikers mud splattered face.

Best mountain biking trails in New Zealand flickr imge by Mountain Bike Mt Cook

Enthusiasts wanting more physically demanding riding could enter the six day 424km Pioneer race in the Southern Alps. You ride as a team and climb 15,124m. The race starts and ends in Queenstown.


Stables offering lessons, expeditions and day trips can be found throughout the Southern Alps. You can try anything from taster rides for complete beginners to two week-long wilderness adventures.

Saddle up and ride past snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes in North Canterbury. Swim with your horse through flowing rivers and ride through ancient forests. Or explore the high country sheep stations of Glentanner and take in stunning views of Mount Cook from the saddle.

Extreme activities

A guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand would not be complete without talking about the extreme activities you can try. From skydiving over Fox Glacier to doing the original bungee jump near Queenstown there are some very exciting things to try.

Interview with AJ Hackett: Inventor of bungy jumping? Ledge queenstown Flickr image by clobocopy

Queenstown is a hub for activities and by many is considered the adventure capital of the world. From jet boating to flying fox and bridge swings to bungee catapults there is always something new.

Have a go at kayaking, white water rafting or paddle boarding. Try quad biking, luge or a scenic flight in a helicopter. The Southern Alps are full of adventures, in fact you could say there is one around every corner.

We hope you enjoyed this guide to Southern Alps overland adventures in New Zealand. Whatever you plan be sure to check out our New Zealand adventure holiday discounts first, as you could save a fortune.


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