New Zealand’s South Island is a showstopper packed with landscapes that’ll make your jaw drop. Think towering Southern Alps, sun-kissed beaches of Abel Tasman – it’s all here.

Now, if Christchurch to Nelson is on your driving agenda, don’t just step on the gas and whizz by everything. We’ve got five epic stops Travellers Autobarn highly recommends. Each one’s a star in its own right, showcasing New Zealand’s beauty and distinct character.

How about we hit these spots? These aren’t your typical pit stops – they’re memory-makers. So, buckle up, let’s make this drive count!

What is the Christchurch to Nelson drive distance?

Heading from Christchurch to Nelson is driving about 430 km via State Highway 1. Expect to be behind the wheel for roughly 5 and a half hours, without traffic of course. But with our 5 highly suggested stops, you’ll probably need more time. That’s a good thing because you wouldn’t want to rush through these beauties.

What are some places to visit between Christchurch and Nelson?

  1. Waipara
  2. Hanmer Springs
  3. Lewis Pass
  4. Murchison
  5. Nelson
Quick stats

430km trip distance

day roadtrip

Campervan recommended

road trip map

Stop #1: Waipara


So, you’re on the road, about 45 minutes out of Christchurch, and you hit Waipara. The place is a wine wonderland! You’ve got over 75 vineyards dotting the landscape, perfect for indulging your inner wine enthusiast. But hey, it’s not all about the wine here (although the Pinot Noir and Riesling are pretty amazing). You’ve got olive groves, nut farms, and fields of lavender to explore, too.

Fancy art? There’s Iron Ridge Quarry Park with its cool steel sculptures. And if you’ve ever dreamed of sleeping in a converted railway carriage, well, you’re in luck. Waipara has that and more waiting for you.

Sightseeing #1: Waipara Springs Winery and Restaurant

You know those places that just feel like home? That’s Waipara Springs for you. A family-run winery with over 30 years under their belt. Here, you can kick back, enjoy delicious food, sip on some fantastic wines, and soak up the relaxed atmosphere. And if you’re up for a wine tasting and lunch, you’re in for a treat.

Sightseeing #2: Torlesse Wines

But don’t fill up too much at Waipara, because you’ll want to save room for Torlesse Wines. They make some truly excellent wines from their own vineyards. You’ll find the staff here are not only friendly but also have a great sense of humour. And the platters they serve? Yum! It’s a fun and enjoyable experience all around. Highly recommended.

Stop #2: Hanmer Springs

Hanmer Springs

Ever felt like you needed a dose of adrenaline followed by a relaxing soak? Then Hanmer Springs is your place. Just picture yourself cycling through rugged terrains, heart pounding, wind in your hair. You’ve conquered the wild, now it’s time to conquer relaxation.

Slide into one of the 22 thermal pools at the local spa. Feel the day’s adventures wash away in the warm, soothing water. And don’t forget the Conical Thrill ride – it’s not for the faint-hearted, but trust us, it’s worth it.

Sightseeing #1: Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools

Ever had one of those days where you just need to take a step back and chill out? Well, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools are exactly what you need. These aren’t your average hot pools, they’re the best in New Zealand! The water journeyed for 173 years from rain and snow in the mountains, resulting in a soothing soak that’s pure bliss. And with the recent upgrades, it’s comfort like you wouldn’t believe.

Sightseeing #2: Conical Hill Walking Track

And if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, check out the Conical Hill Walking Track. Don’t worry, it’s not a tough hike, but the payoff is huge. As you wander up the trail through the beautiful greenery, you’ll reach a lookout at the top with a killer 360-degree view of the town and mountains. Sure, it gets snowy in winter, but trust us, those views are worth a little cold. You won’t want to miss this!

Stop #3: Lewis Pass

Lewis Pass Landscape In New Zealand's South Island

Got a thing for stunning landscapes and roads less travelled? Then Lewis Pass should be the stop not to miss, just between the West Coast and Canterbury borders. Elevated at 907 meters above the ground, it’s a mountain pass that’ll give you views to write home about. Meander through the trail or take a break by the Maruia Springs – either way, you’re in for a treat.

And when you drive through, don’t rush. The road is as much a part of the journey as the destination. With every twist and turn, there’s a new scene waiting to steal your breath away. Lewis Pass, where driving never felt so good.

Sightseeing #1: Alpine Nature Walk

Feel like you’re in need of a quick break from a long drive? Then, the Alpine Nature Walk is what we highly recommend. Nestled in Lewis Pass, this 15-minute loop track offers breathtaking views and a serene beech forest that’s perfect for a relaxing stroll. And the best part? You can enjoy a nice little picnic right there, with tables ready for you. Just swing by the St. James Carpark, and you’re all set.

Sightseeing #2: Lake Daniell Track

Whether you’re a newbie to nature walks or are on a family outing, the Lake Daniell Track is the real deal. Starting off at Marble Hill Campsite, this track takes you through a beautiful red beech forest all the way to the lake edge and the Kōhanga Atawhai – Manson Nicholls Hut. You can find it from Springs Junction on Lewis Pass Highway.

Just keep in mind that there are some restrictions on the 4WD track and hut on Station Creek/Sherriff River, no mountain biking allowed, and watch out for wasps from December to April.

Stop #4: Murchison


Ready for your adrenaline fix? Murchison is where it’s at. This place, hailed as the ‘whitewater capital’, is a dream come true for anyone with a love for water sports. Whether it’s rafting, kayaking or canoeing, you’re in for a wild ride.

But don’t worry, if you’re more of a land lover, there’s plenty for you, too. Mountain biking trails that wind through picturesque landscapes and walks that take you back in time. And when you’re ready to slow down, you can try gold panning or fishing. It’s all here in Murchison, an adventure haven without the touristy crowds.

Sightseeing #1: Buller Canyon Jet Boating

Ever thought about how it feels to zip through white water rapids while surrounded by stunning scenery? Buller Canyon Jet Boating offers just that – a thrilling ride on a V8 River Shark Jet boat down the mighty Buller River. It’s not just a ride but a 45-minute journey filled with high-speed action and unforgettable moments. You won’t leave without some epic stories to share!

Sightseeing #2: Maruia Falls

A short drive from Murchison, you’ll stumble upon the breathtaking Maruia Falls. Born from the tremors of a 1929 earthquake, this 10-meter waterfall is a sight to behold. It’s a perfect spot to stretch your legs, take in the beauty around you, and capture some photos. But remember, the river may look inviting, but its fast and cold undertow means you should admire it from the safety of the shore.

Stop #5: Nelson


Of course, as your last stop, Nelson has all the beauty you’d expect from New Zealand – golden beaches, untouched forests, and rugged mountains. But Nelson isn’t just a feast for the eyes. It’s also a hotspot for creativity. You’ll find artists and galleries at every corner, craft markets buzzing with activity, and local artisan products that are simply out of this world.

Yearning for some outdoor adventures? You can stroll along the beach, kayak around the coast, or bike through some stunning trails. And let’s not forget about the food. Nelson Bay scallops are famous for a reason, and they’re the perfect way to end your day.

Sightseeing #1: Centre of New Zealand Monument

Want to feel at the centre of it all? There’s a spot on Botanical Hill where you can do just that. It’s a hike that’s not too hard on the legs, about 15 minutes, and the views of Nelson Tasman from the top are absolutely worth it. Trust us, you’ll want to take a moment in one of the seating areas to soak it all in. And if you’re feeling adventurous, there are other trails and gardens begging to be explored.

Sightseeing #2: Queen’s Gardens

Now, let’s talk about a place where time seems to pause – and no, it’s not Abel Tasman National Park nor Nelson Lakes National Park, as they are too far for your detour. We’re talking about Queen’s Gardens, just a short 15-minute walk from the Nelson city centre. This Victorian-era park is like stepping into a beautiful history book. You’ll find everything from a rose garden to a water wheel, memorial structures, sculptures, and bridges. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic or a lazy afternoon feeding ducks.

Have a few ideas in mind already?

Kick start your South Island adventure with us, and check our deals on campervan hire in Christchurch. Our Christchurch branch is conveniently located near the airport, making it easy to get on your way — north or south.

Looking for other amazing travel ideas on New Zealand’s South Island? Check out our South Island Road Trips, packed full of itineraries and tips.

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