NEW ZEALAND CAMPSITES – 12 OF THE BEST FROM THE SOUTH ISLAND
New Zealand campsites are not your average campsites.
Sure, there are things about them that you’ll find in plenty of other countries. The weekend crowds. The noisy neighbours. The drop toilets.
But for us, there’s something about them that just makes them so different. And that something can probably be summed up in one word.
New Zealand’s topography is such that you’d find it difficult to randomly place a pin on its map without there being a million dollar view on offer. And, coupled with the fact that the country is pure road trip nirvana, there’s no doubt that hiring a car or campervan and hitting the road for two or three weeks should be at the top of your list of things to do there.
It’s especially true for the South Island, which manages to pack in the most jaw-dropping scenery per square mile than just about anywhere else in the world.
So, if you’re planning a Kiwi road trip soon (and you really should) here are 12 of our favourite campsites to try along the way. They’re all accessible by road. Some are fairly limited in terms of amenities. In fact, some have very little amenities at all.
But having a full range of onsite amenities isn’t what makes a campsite great for us. It’s more about providing a safe place to stay in fabulous surroundings with easy access to the New Zealand outdoor experience.
You’ve literally reached the end of the road when you arrive at French Pass, a tiny village at the tip of a peninsula in the far north of Marlborough Sounds.
The journey there from Picton is worth the effort alone as the road winds its way through farmland, punctuated with sublime vistas of “The Sounds” on either side of the road.
The campsite is run by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and is nothing much more than a car park that backs onto the beach. But with bronze whaler sharks, seals and stingrays swimming in the shallows and a 30-strong pod of dolphins performing out in the bay, we found it hard not to fall in love with the place.
Elsewhere there are a number of excellent walks to enjoy and potential boat trips across to D’Urville Island.
It’s a small site and does get full so you’ll need to book ahead.
Also in the Marlborough Sounds, this private campsite arguably has an even more spectacular location than French Pass.
It’s a long, slow drive to get there beside Kenepuru Sound and then on past Mount Stokes until you reach the end of the road at Guards Bay.
Part of a working farm, it’s a popular site for boaters. But it also provides access to some great walks, not least across the rocks at the eastern side of the beach, where you can gather buckets of green-lipped mussels for an evening feast.
Kerr Bay (Lake Rotoiti)
Situated just off the shore of Lake Rotoiti, in Nelson Lakes National Park, this DOC site is perfect for exploring the wide range of walks in the area, including the Mount Robert Circuit Track.
The minimal light pollution here also makes for extravagant displays of The Milky Way. In fact, the little wooden jetty directly in front of the campsite is an ideal place for cracking open a bottle of Sauvignon Banc and gazing up at the sky.
This little gem is situated just off State Highway 1, south of Blenheim, and serves as a good overnight stop en route to Kaikoura further down the coast.
It’s a no-frills, out-of-the-way, strip of road that runs adjacent to the beach. But if the idea of spending an evening eating and drinking al fresco to the sound of crashing waves takes your fancy then it’s hard to beat. Keep an eye on the weather, though as there’s very little protection if there’s a storm rolling in.
White Horse Hill (Mount Cook)
Locations for a campsite don’t get much better than this. Situated in Mount Cook National Park and literally at the starting point for the fabulous Hooker Valley Track, it’s a must-visit.
Another DOC-run site, it operates on a first-come-first-served basis so you’ll need to time your arrival in the morning or early afternoon if you want to bag one of the best pitches (in other words, the ones with the best views). You’ll also need decent weather to get the best out of the many walks in the area so, again, keep an eye on the weather forecasts.
However, when it rains (and it rains a lot) make sure you visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in Mount Cook Village. Situated within the historic Hermitage Hotel, it’s got a nice museum charting the history of the hotel, climbing in the national park and plenty of information on the great man himself. Best of all, the in-house cinema shows a superb documentary about his life and the ascent to the summit of Mount Everest. It’s worth the entrance fee alone.
Although this campsite resembles something of a car park (and it gets full), it does have the advantage of sitting beside a beautiful lake which can be circumnavigated on foot in around an hour. And it’s just a little more than a stone’s throw from its sister, Lake Tekapo.
In addition, there’s easy access to the relatively unknown Lake Tekapo Peninsular Walkway, which features a 90-minute loop walk looking down on and alongside the lake. And there’s Mount John Observatory with its star-gazing tour and the lakeside town of Tekapo itself nearby, too.
Round Bush Reserve (Lake Ohau)
With little else in “facilities” than a couple of drop toilets, this is about as basic as it gets. But believe us, it’s as close as you can get to camping in true New Zealand wilderness without having to reach it on foot.
Situated beside beautiful Lake Ohau it can be reached by following the gravel road past Lake Ohau Lodge. Just claim your spot next to the lake, pull out your picnic furniture and thank your lucky stars you made the effort to reach it.
And, best of all, it’s free!
The Catlins is an area in the south-east of the island that’s renowned for its outstanding beauty and opportunities to see penguins, seals and many other forms of wildlife.
And there’s no better place to base yourself than the campsite at Puraukanui Bay. Most people set up near to the beach, but if you continue up the hill beyond you’ll find one or two pitches that overlook the cliffs. True, it might get a little breezy up there, but with a bit of strategic positioning, you can enjoy another fabulous table-with-a-view.
The landscape along the Te Anau-Milford Highway is some of the most spectacular in the whole of New Zealand. But it does get busy during the peak season as coach-loads of day-trippers head from Te Anau and Queenstown for cruises on Milford Sound.
Thankfully, there are basic DOC campsites along the route which double as both wonderfully scenic places to stay and as ideal locations for a head start on the following morning’s day-trippers.
Queenstown is New Zealand’s hub for adventure and thrill seekers and it’s likely you’ll be passing through at some point on your South Island trip.
If so, head for Moke Lake Campsite, another DOC gem just off the Queenstown-Glenorchy road.
Apart from having access to a beautiful two-hour walk around the perimeter of the lake, you’ll also be close to everything Queenstown and Glenorchy have to offer. And the camp host is what you might describe as a “character”.
Kahurangi National Park, in the far north-west of the South Island, is a wilderness of dramatic coastline and rainforest walks that stretches almost as far as Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay.
And the campsite at Kohaihai, north of Karamea, is perfectly positioned between an awesome beach and the entrance to the famous Heaphy Track.
Just be prepared for a battle with the vicious sandflies that can be a pest all along this coast.
Just down the coast from Kohaihai, the superb Gentle Annie Seaside Camping Ground at Mokihinu is probably the best kitted out campsite on our list.
But, after plenty of nights of back-to-basics camping, we really did appreciate its offering off hot showers, free wifi, indoor lounge and wood-fired pizzas!
Not to mention its access to another wild and unspoilt beach.
- Is This The World’s Best Road Trip?
- Exploring New Zealand’s South Island – The Essentials
- 3 New Zealand Walks You Won’t Want To Miss
…or visit our New Zealand page.
What did you think? Have you stayed at any New Zealand campsites? Do you have any recommendations to add to ours? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.