From ancient glaciers to rugged peninsulas, sparkling lakes to cascading waterfalls, the South Island offers a selection of the most diverse and beautiful tourist attractions on the planet. While some of these wonders are reserved for only the fittest, most experienced hikers, plenty of natural curiosities are accessible to everyone to pique interest and awe.
It’s hard to go past Glacier country for its spectacular range of views and unique glacial formations, which are among the most accessible in the world. Lake Matheson takes the highlights of the South Island and combines them into a 1.5-hour round trip with lush forest and glistening lake views, accompanied by natural birdsong and set against a mountainous backdrop.
Split Apple Rock
Nestled between the towns of Kaiteriteri and Marahau, the atmospheric location of Split Apple Rock has become one of the top tourist attractions in the Nelson/Tasman Region.
Science claims this unique rock results from an ice age that occurred more than 120 million years ago. Water held in the rock cracks would have expanded as temperatures dropped, eventually causing the stone to split. But traditional Maori legend says the split rock results from two feuding Gods who fought to own the rock, finally using their strength to break it in two.
There are multiple ways to enjoy this natural beauty, including a walking track, cruise, or kayaking tour. Split Apple’s granite mass lies around 160 feet from the shore; at low tide, you can wade through the shallow water to reach it while exploring the caves and crevices of the beach’s northern end.
Take your togs and enjoy a swim in the refreshing blue waters in summer.
Stilwell Bay, Abel Tasman
If you’re looking for an idyllic setting for a lazy afternoon, look no further than Stilwell Bay, with 13km of golden sand and an expanse of turquoise seas.
This is one of several beaches nestled among the walking tracks of the Abel Tasman National Park and one of many places where you can enjoy a refreshing swim. Taking a slight detour from the main walking trail, you’ll find Cleopatra’s pools – a set of natural rock pools filled with water from the Torrent River.
The two locations are within one hour’s walking distance and make the perfect destinations for a scenic and relaxing day trip, so make sure you pack a picnic.
Jollie Brook Track, Lake Sumner
The Jollie Brook track is a two-day trek that starts and ends at Lake Sumner. This walk is for experienced hikers as it covers more than 30kms of ground, though most of it is flat terrain that is easily navigable.
With mountainous backdrops and flowing rivers, this walk is a picturesque track that offers some gems, such as Lake Marion. During your 48-hour trip, you’ll leave civilization behind and get back to the joys of nature. And the swing bridges throughout the walk provide the perfect spot for quiet reflection as you admire the awe-inspiring views around you.
Avalanche Peak, Arthur’s Pass
The road between Christchurch and Hokitika offers an abundance of beautiful landscapes and walks. One of the best options for a day’s hike is the Avalanche Peak track, a 1,100m vertical climb that offers unmatched views of the mountain peaks surrounding it. There are two alternative routes to ascend this peak; both beginning in the Arthur’s Pass village.
From flat tussocks to rocky ridges, the landscape of this walk is diverse and offers the chance to spot some native wildlife, including the world’s only Alpine parrot – the Kea.
These tracks provide a steady climb through forested surroundings that traverse the creeks and open out onto several beautiful waterfalls. You’ll need a good fitness level to complete this six-hour hike, and a good head for heights as the path narrows in its final section, with cliffside drops. But for those who successfully complete the walk, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts as you reach the summit.
When walking this track, it’s essential to stick to the marked routes and not deviate to potentially dangerous areas. If there is snow on the peak, the terrain becomes a hazard and should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers.
If you’re looking for a lower-key alternative, try the Devil’s Punchbowl track which meanders through the forest to a stunning cascade of water without the risks of scaling a cliff face.
The West Coast offers some particularly unique and sublime views, none more so than the Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki. Here, you can explore curious rock formations and impressive blow holes via a 1km, easy access path that offers close-up views of these striking rocks formed more than 30 million years ago.
You’ll also see the blowholes that form thanks to a combination of compressed water and escaping air, which is forced upwards, creating a spray. When pumping, these holes can make a loud whooshing sound as they squirt sea spray at you; for the best effect, visit during high tide.
And geological oddities aren’t the only thing you’ll spot during a trip to the pancake rocks. The area is alive with marine life such as seals, shags, and starfish that you can spot in the thrashing waves below.
While the pancake rocks and blowholes are the main draws for the Punakaiki region, there are plenty of other magnificent sites to check out while you’re here, including mysterious caverns, sparkling rivers, and towering limestone cliffs. Allow yourself an entire day or two to fully absorb the beauty of this area.
If you want to see turquoise waters that look just as stunning in real life as in photographs, add the Hokitika Gorge to your Bucket List of scenic destinations. This 2km walk weaves the path of the gorge, taking you right down to the water’s edge.
The colour – a vibrant shade of blue/green – is created by the surrounding landscapes. In an area famous for its glaciers, these incredibly dense bodies of ice ground the surrounding rocks into a powder so fine that it is suspended in the water.
As you approach the edge, you can’t take your eyes off the inviting waters, but when you touch this icy substance, you’ll understand why it’s called “glacial soup.”
Lake Matheson – better known as the “mirror lake”, is famous for its ability to reflect the striking views of its surrounding landscape.
Beginning at the Matheson Cafe, this 1.5-hour walk weaves alongside the lake through lush native forests teeming with birdlife. When you reach the viewpoints, you’ll have an unmatched perspective of Mt Cook. At the right times of day – namely sunrise and sunset – you’ll see this epic view reflected in the waters of the peaty Lake Matheson.
This easy walk offers some of the most spectacular views on the South Island and creates a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime photo.
Mt Cook National Park
Aoraki Mount Cook contains 23 peaks more than 3000 metres high – none more famous than Mount Cook itself, which aided Sir Edmund Hillary in preparing for his ascent of Everest. Despite this wild terrain, the park remains very accessible, with various experiences and highlights on offer.
The best ways to enjoy this beautiful tourist attraction are following the hiking trails, boarding a scenic flight, kayaking, and stargazing.
This is an alpine park in its purest form with the country’s highest mountains and longest glaciers. One of the most popular and accessible walks is the Hooker track, a 10km flat return that caters to almost all fitness levels. A short walk that provides spectacular views is the Mueller Lake viewpoint, a 20-minute trek that allows you to look down on the deep blue waters of Lake Mueller while admiring the mountainous backdrop.
Thanks to its status as a dark sky reserve, this park offers stunning nighttime views as it does in the day. Protected from artificial light pollution, this unspoilt haven allows you to enjoy an unblemished picture of the night sky.
A short distance from Queenstown, the Routeburn offers a two to four-day alpine adventure through 33km of well-established track.
Highlights of this walk include sparkling lakes, towering peaks and moss-draped forests. With its highest point at 1,255 metres above sea level, you’ll experience some truly spectacular views of the surrounding area. During your walk, you can also enjoy an array of native birds such as the tomtit, robin, and woodpigeon.
Bowen Falls, Milford Sound
Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful tourist attractions in the country and offers an array of scenic landscapes, from lakes and rivers to mountains and forests. It also holds several waterfalls, none more spectacular than the Lady Bowen Falls.
A short return walk only accessible via boat offers a striking view of the 162m falls that cascade from the side of a tree-covered mountain. With only birdsong and the song of the water plummeting to the pool below, you’ll experience a sense of tranquillity as you stand beneath this wonder.
Cathedral Caves, The Catlins
Located at the northern end of Waipati beach, the Cathedral Caves are a highlight for anyone visiting the Catlins. These outstanding natural features reach 30m in height and stretch a combined length of 200m.
Accessible for an hour on either side of low tide, you’ll be able to walk right through these caves end to end, but prepare to get your feet wet.