An epic South Island roadtrip: 25 Campsites we can recommend.

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New Zealand’s South Island has snowy mountains, glaciers, beaches, forests, vineyards and coastlines. It’s rugged, beautiful and oh-so-postcard-worthy. Road-tripping gives you the ultimate freedom to see as much as you like, or all of that. And in case you are wondering where to start? We have created a list of the best South Island camping spots we’ve stayed in. All 25 of them to be precise!

It doesn’t matter where you start your roadtrip from. The South Island is perfectly shaped with roads that loop and can be navigated easily and independently. Regardless of how long you are travelling for, whichever route you choose, and whatever your budget and travel style. A road trip in the South Island is an epic adventure.

Table of contents

Our South Island route
Freedom camping in New Zealand
Alternatives to freedom camping
Finding free and DoC campsites
How long are you travelling for?
Where we stayed – 25 campsites we can recommend
Our top 3 South Island experiences
Enjoy your adventure


NZ’S South Island; Quickly

Land area: 150,437 square kilometres (58,084 sq mi)
Length: 840 km (522 mi)
Population: 1,155,400 (June 2019)
Climate: Temperate. Average annual temperature of 8 °C (46 °F).
Weather: South Island weather can change quickly. Average rainfall is higher in the winter but expect it year round, especially on the West Coast.
Landscape: Mountains, glaciers, lakes and coastal scenery.

A warm spring near Franz Josef Glacier.

Our South Island route

The list of towns we visited on our route through the South Island looks enormous! We spent time in each of the five regions of the South Island – Nelson-Marlborough, West Coast, Canterbury, Otago and Southland. We even passed through each of the sixteen districts of the island!

Starting from Picton where we arrived by ferry from Wellington on the North Island, here is the route we took through each region:

Nelson Marlborough > Picton, Nelson, Mapua, Motueka

West Coast > Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Haast, Jackson Bay

Otago > Albertown, Wanaka, Queenstown

Southland > Te Anau, Milford Sound, Invercargill, Bluff, the Catlins

Otago > Dunedin, Oamaru

Canterbury > Twizel, Mt Cook, Tekapo, Ashburton, Christchurch, Akaroa, Hanmer Springs, Kaikoura

Nelson/Marlborough > Blenheim, Nelson Lake District, Picton

Here is a map of our South Island route:


Freedom camping in New Zealand

In New Zealand, freedom camping is when you camp on public land that isn’t a recognised camping ground or holiday park.  You can freedom camp on council land or DOC (Department of Conservation) land. Some places are literally car parks. Others are designated freedom camping areas on reserved DOC land.

There are different restrictions in each area and region. These dictate whether your vehicle needs to be self-contained in order to freedom camp in certain areas. It is important to make sure you’re following the bylaws for the area. You can check online or with the local Council office, DOC visitor centre or i-Site visitor centre.

Look out for signs that tell you what is allowed, and remember:

  • don’t camp on private land
  • don’t leave behind rubbish or toilet waste
  • use public toilets if you don’t have a self-contained vehicle.

Finding freedom camping and DOC sites

For more information on responsible camping and campsites available in New Zealand, check out:

  • CamperMate app We found this app amazing! It shows you locations of public toilets, rubbish bins, campsites, dump stations and more. It is easy to use and allows you to select different categories (eg. free campsites, DOC sites).
  • Department of Conservation Extensive website search engines to find DOC campsites and facilities for camping all over New Zealand.
  • Freedomcamping.org Useful guides and maps to help you plan in advance for your New Zealand roadtrip.
  • Motor Caravan Association We joined the NZMCA for our roadtrip, as we were away for over a month. As members, we were entitled to discounts at participating Holiday Parks and also received a discount of over $100 for our ferry trip with Interislander (the rate is proportionate to the booking fee, based on the length of our vehicle).
Watching surfers at Robin Hood Bay, near Blenheim.

Alternatives to freedom camping

We also used paid and private campgrounds in different districts of the South Island. This was usually if we (a) had no other option. Or (b), needed to do laundry! These South Island camping spots are not cheap…

Top 10 Holiday Parks are dotted around the North and South Island, and have very high standards for their campgrounds and facilities. This is however reflected in the price to stay. Depending on the length of your trip it may be worth joining the Top 10 Members Club to receive a discount at each campground. For our family of four, a powered campsite, is around $50-70 per night.

New Zealand Holiday Parks are another big chain, and the campgrounds can be found in most major destination towns around the South Island. For our family of four, a powered campsite is around $40-50 per night.

Private holiday parks and campgrounds are another good alternative to freedom camping. We found some of the campsites were associated with the NZMCA and offered a discount. For our family of four, a powered campsite is around $30-50 per night.


How long are you traveling for?

The spread of South Island towns and scenic destinations offers opportunity for a variety of different road trips. Normally, we are based in the North Island of New Zealand (right up the north of the North Island). But we’ve made three trips to the South Island as a family. We have done a four day roadtrip, a one-week campervan trip and a one month epic roadtrip by campervan.

With four days in the South Island we flew in and out of Queenstown and drove around Arrowtown, Cardrona, and visited Wanaka.

On our one week campervan adventure we flew in and out of Christchurch and drove over the Arthurs Pass to the West Coast. We stayed in Hokitika and Greymouth and and drove back to Christchurch over the Lewis Pass, via Hanmer Springs.

With one month in the South Island it’s possible to visit all of the major sites as well as enjoy plenty of downtime to find lesser known areas. We loved every opportunity for road tripping in the South Island and wouldn’t hesitate to go back again if we could.


WHERE WE STAYED – 25 SOUTH ISLAND CAMPING SPOTS WE RECOMMEND

The following is a list of 25 South Island camping spots we have officially stayed in and can recommend for your road trip.

West Coast region

WESTPORT: Kawatiri Beach Reserve (Freedom Camping Site)
Location: End of Derby Street, Westport
Cost: Free
Facilities: Toilets, picnic area.
About: There is also a NZMCA members parking area adjacent. This is one of the best free South Island camping spots we found.

Sunrise on the beach at Westport.

HOKITIKA: Lake Mahinapua Campsite (DOC Campsite)
Location:  51B Shanghai Road, Ruatapu 7883
Getting there: 10 km south of Hokitika. Turn off SH6 into Lake Mahinapua Access Road, opposite the hotel. 300m to road end.
Cost: $6.50 – $13 pp p/night.
Facilities: Flushing toilets, cooking shelter.
About: Boat ramp, jetty, short walks in the area.

Sunrise over Lake Mahinapua, Hokitika.

GREYMOUTH: Cobden Beach Carpark (Freedom Camping Site)
Location: Nelson Quay, Cobden, Greymouth 7802
Cost: Free
Facilities: Public toilets
About: Designated freedom camping spot on the Cobden Beach waterfront.

FRANZ JOSEF: Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park
Location: 2902 Franz Josef Highway, Franz Josef Glacier
Cost: Powered sites from $48 p/n.
Facilities: Amazing facilities. Great base for exploring Franz Josef. Big playground and jumping pillow. Friendly staff.

FOX GLACIER: Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park
Location: Kerr Road, Fox Glacier 7886
Cost: Powered site from $48 per night
Facilities: All the Top 10 Holiday Park facilities and great location to explore Fox Glacier as a day trip.

HAAST: Haast River Motels/Holiday Park
Location: 52 Haast Pass Highway, State Highway 6
Cost: From $44 NZD p/n
Facilities: Communal kitchen and dining area. Toilets and hot showers. Note: NO pots, plates or utensils supplied. Free Wifi (500 mb per device). Highly recommend visiting Jackson Bay while staying in Haast. We saw dolphins in the bay!

Otago Region

WANAKA: Albertown Campground
Location: Directly off State Highway 6, Albertown.
Cost: $10 per adult, $5 per child.
Facilities: Flush toilets.
About: Large reserve adjoining the Hawea River. A cheap alternative to staying in Wanaka. Basic facilities but the perfect location to use as a base to hike the Roy’s Peak track. (We did it with the kids).

Sunrise, halfway up the Roys Peak track.

QUEENSTOWN: Queenstown TOP 10 Holiday Park
Location: 70 Arthurs Point Road, Arthurs Point, Queenstown
Cost: Powered site from $50 p/n (50% off for second night)
Facilities: Amazing facilities; spa pool, drying room, laundry. Kids loved the big jumping pillow and playground.

DUNEDIN: Aaron Lodge Holiday Park
Location: 162 Kaikorai Valley Road, Glenross, Dunedin 9011
Cost: Powered site from $50 p/n
About: An ex-Top 10 Campsite. Dated, but with adequate bathroom and laundry facilities. Easy to find.

Southland Region

TE ANAU: Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park
Location: 77 Manapouri-Te Anau Highway, Te Anau Lakefront
Cost: Sites from $18pp.
About: Awesome kids playground. Great bathroom facilities. Very friendly staff. This was the perfect base for a day trip to Milford Sound.

BLUFF: Bluff Camping Ground
Location: 21 Gregory St (off Marine Pde), Bluff.
Cost: Powered site $50 (2 adults, 2 kids)
About: Basic campground setup. Handy location to check out the township of Bluff, with everything you need onsite.

Happy campers… We made it to Bluff!

THE CATLINS: Curio Bay Campground (Tuma Toka)
Location: 590 Waikawa-Curio Bay Road, Curio Bay 
Cost: Powered site from $40 p/n.
About: Beautiful location with parking sites hidden in behind flax alleys of flax. Great location to visit Slope Point and the petrified forest at Curio Bay.

Canterbury Region

TWIZEL: Lake Poaka Campsite (DOC Campsite)
Location: Turn off SH 8 (Tekapo Twizel Road) on to the private road on the north side of Pukaki Canal. Follow the road for 2.5 km to the campsite entrance.
Cost: Free
Facilities: Long drop toilet.
About: Great base for day trips to Mount Cook National Park.

A basic but beautiful South Island camping spot.
A frosty but beautiful morning waking up at Lake Poaka DOC campsite.

TWIZEL: Twizel Holiday Park
Location: 122 Mackenzie Drive, Twizel
Cost: From $30 per night with NZMCA membership
About: Easy to find, on the scenic route from Christchurch to Queenstown. An ideal stopover when visiting Aoraki/Mt Cook.

LAKE TEKAPO: Lake Tekapo Holiday Park
Location: 2 Lakeside Drive, Canterbury 7999
Cost: Lakeview, powered sites from $50 p/n.
About:Handy to the Lake Tekapo township and walking distance to the hot pools. All the facilities available. (Expensive: cost our family $62 for the night).

TIMARU: Caroline Bay (Freedom Camping site)
Location: Marine Parade, Timaru Port
Cost: Free
Facilities: Public toilets
About: Literally a public carpark. The camp site is right on the edge of the beach. Ideal for an evening’s stroll along the boardwalks or the beach itself.

A morning hot chocolate at Caroline Bay, Port of Timaru.

CHRISTCHURCH: Christchurch Top 10 Holiday Park
Location: 39 Meadow Street, Papanui, Christchurch 8542 
Cost: Powered site from $70
Facilities: Modern facilities but this was the most expensive campsite of our entire trip.

AKAROA: Akaroa Recreation Ground (Freedom Camping site)
Location: Carpark on Rue Brittan, Akaroa
Cost: Free
Facilities: Public toilets 200m away.
About: Literally a public carpark during the day. Certified self-contained vehicles only. 18 parking spaces available. Can stay for up to two nights in any 30 day period. 

One of the free carpark style South Island camping spots. This is in Akaroa.
Gavin making dinner at our free parking spot in Akaroa.

KAIKOURA: Point Kean (Freedom Camping site)
Location: 40 Fyffe Quay, by Jimmy Armers Public Toilets, Kaikoura
Cost: Free
Facilities: Public toilets
About: Only space for 6 vehicles to park overnight. Beautiful, beach front spot and probably the most convenient of South Island camping spots… it is right next to the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk. (Try the whitebait fritter!).

One of the best South Island camping spots of our trip!
The view from our free park in Kaikoura.

Nelson/Malborough Region

BLENHEIM: Wairau Diversion Reserve, Cloudy Bay (Freedom Camping Site)
Location: 246 Neal Road, Spring Creek, Blenheim 7273
Cost: Free
Facilities: Basic long drop toilets.
About: Beautiful waterfront day parks 150m from the designated free parking area. We parked there for dinner and moved back to the freedom camping sites at dark. One of the beautiful free South Island camping spots we found.

A beautiful free South Island camping spot.
Sunrise from our free campsite in Cloudy Bay, Blenheim.

BLENHEIM: Robin Hood Bay (DOC Campsite)
Location: 8km north of Blenheim. Windy and gravel road from Whites Bay.
Cost: Free
Facilities: Basic long drop toilets.
About: Be careful of the drive out there! A beautiful location for the campsite, but take care driving the narrow road from Whites Bay to Robin Hood Bay, especially in winter. 10 non-powered/tent sites across from beach.

BLENHEIM: Whites Bay Camping Area (DOC Campsite)
Location: Port Underwood Road, Waikawa 7281
Cost: Adult $8 per night; child $4 per night
Facilities: Flush toilets, cold showers.
About: Pay cash on arrival at the self-registration stand at the campsite. Beautiful location for campsite. Short walk to glow-worm grotto that is easy to access with the kids at night.

One of the beautiful South Island camping spots we found. Whites Bay, Blenheim.
Set up for the night at Whites Bay camping area.

BLENHEIM: Riverlands Roadhouse (Truckstop)
Location: 3535 State Highway 1, Riverlands, Blenheim
Cost: $2 coin for hot shower
About: Make note of this one! The only truck stop we found. Modern, coin-operated Ablution Block, laundry facilities and Café. You don’t even have to stay the night but can call in for a hot shower or to recharge the battery.

MAPUA: Mapua Leisure Park
Location: 33 Toru Street, Mapua 7005
Cost: Powered campsite $40 per night
About: Beautiful location on the shore of the Mapua channel. Walking distance to Mapua village, waterfront and wharf.

NELSON LAKES: Lake Rotoroa Campsite (DOC Campsite)
Location: Off SH6, east of Murchison. Follow Gowan Valley Road to end.
Cost: $8 per adult, $4 per child.
Facilities: Flush toilets
About: Camping near the lake edge, surrounded by native bush. A beautiful spot to explore the Nelson Lakes area.

 

Our top three South Island experiences

This is tricky to narrow down! But if we had to choose…

Milford Sound – we travel the world for sights like this! You can’t visit New Zealand and not see Milford Sound. It’s visitable on a day trip from Queenstown, but if you have time its worth staying overnight in Te Anau to enjoy a day in Milford Sound at leisure.

Hiking Roys Peak – this is one of New Zealand most scenic day hikes with breathtaking views out over the lakes and hills of surrounding Wanaka. Hiking up the 1300m of Roys Peak with the kids was the most rewarding hike we have ever done; period.

Hooker Valley Track – Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is incredible. The track to Hooker Valley is a brilliant half day hike and an easy walk. Suitable for people of all ages and fitness levels.

At the Roys Peak lookout.

Enjoy your adventure

Let us know if you stay in some of these South Island camping spots and tell us what you think. Enjoy the South Island!

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