Many people with kids only explore the north island of New Zealand. Truth be told, if our family had less than two weeks to spend in New Zealand, we would skip the North Island and spend all our time on the South Island in the south. While we loved the first part of our trip (see our Part 1 – North Island with a Toddler), the South Island is otherworldly with lots more to do and see.
If you are going to New Zealand with your toddler, I recommend starting with our North Island article. It goes through some information on getting our RV, traveling in the RV with our toddler and taking the Interislander ferry from the North Island to the South Island.
This post picks up where we drove our RV off the Interislander ferry in Picton. Here is our itinerary for New Zealand’s South Island with a toddler.
What You’ll Find in This Article on New Zealand’s South Island with a Toddler:
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Itinerary for New Zealand’s South Island with a Toddler
Abel Tasman National Park
Once we drove off the Interislander Ferry in Picton, we headed three hours to Abel Tasman National Park. This park is easy to want to skip; it is 4 hours out of the way. Do not skip it. Your toddler will love Abel Tasman National Park and so will you. It is a jawdropping, verdant gem in the northern part of the South Island of New Zealand. The roads are narrow and there are rolling green hills most of the way.
We did zero planning to arrive at Abel Tasman other than booking our campsite ahead of time. We stayed 4 days at the Kaiteriteri Recreation Reserve. It’s across the street from a beach, next to a little grocery store, and it’s right next to the ticket office that books boat trips for the real fun.
Nearby restaurants were well prepared to accommodate toddlers and the campground was full of families with small children. At night we walked along the beach across the street and searched for starfish and shells. To fully explore this Abel Tasman National Park, you need to take a boat down the coast to explore. These areas are not accessible by car.
We booked boat tickets at the ticket office only 20 minutes before the boat left.
Travel tip: Opt for the later return ticket because you will want extra time once you get to Anchorage. The salesperson told us the best day hike with a toddler was a portion of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. We had our hiking bags packed with tons of snacks, layers for unpredictable weather, and always our top hiking essentials.
The boat ride was short and beautiful. It went past the famous Split Apple rock where many people kayak. We got dropped off near Apple Tree Bay Campsite and hiked a little over 4 miles ending in Anchorage. It was mostly flat, easy terrain that our 2 year old walked while holding my hand. It started along the beach and followed the coast through a beautiful, lush forest with side trails that lead to spectacular coastal lookouts.
Never feed wildlife and beware of wekas! These sneaky birds will steal anything, and feeding them is prohibited. As soon as they hear a zipper, they pop out from all directions. Our toddler loved being the weka lookout and would say : “piggy wekas!” with each sighting. The last part of the hike has particularly gorgeous sweeping views.
In Anchorage, you have several kid friendly options. There is a 20 minute hike to Te Pukatea, a secluded bay you won’t want to miss. There’s excellent bird watching and a cave on the side of the island you can safely explore at low tide. Bring enough water, snacks, and adequate sun protection! There are no facilities here other than bathrooms, picnic tables, and campsites.
Arthur’s Pass National Park
Next, we took off to Arthur’s Pass. The drive always takes longer than the GPS says. A predicted 6.5 hr drive to Arthur’s Pass took 8. Prepare for all types of weather; it changes without warning. We went in November, their spring.
Reefton is about halfway, and it’s a decent town to stop for fuel, food, and some toddler playtime.
Once you enter Arthur’s Pass National Park, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous, varied landscape. If you stop by the sign welcoming you, that’s a great place to stretch your legs on a flat dirt path along the river. Our toddler loved playing with rocks in the water and running through fields.
Freedom camping is not permitted outside of designated spots. We always use Rankers NZ App to plan our camping spots. Some like Andrew’s Shelter are first come first serve, others you can book ahead. They’re all kid friendly with basic amenities and often have showers and laundry facilities. Some are on the water like Moana Rua and others like Jackson Retreat Alpine Holiday Park have fun adventures such as 4 different glowworm spots to explore right on the property. Your toddler will love looking at the sparkling “magic” caves.
You may want to stop every 10 minutes. This area is gorgeous, and the trail options are endless. But one place you should not miss with your toddler in Arthur’s Pass National Park is Castle Hill. It’s a lesser-known rock climber’s heaven, and little kids love playing around on the rocks. Older kids can enjoy playing on short bouldering routes.
The main hiking path through Castle Hill only takes about an hour but we spent most of the day here. There are small trails throughout and having lunch by the back lake is lovely. We brought an umbrella to protect from the full sun exposure. There is a cow pasture on the walking path and our toddler loved saying hi to each cow. Because it was spring, we heard the chirping of baby birds safely nestled in the rocks.
Throughout Arthur’s Pass, endangered kea birds are likely to keep you company. Like most wildlife, it is prohibited to feed them and it’s important to keep food well secured. They have been known to dismantle RV’s and eat through tents where they smelled food. They’re wildly intelligent, very active at night, and they do not fear anything.
There are only about 5,000 keas left and it’s illegal to harm them. They won’t attack people and there are “kea sighting” research projects on the island so you can use a database app to report locations you’ve seen keas. This helps the ecologists working to rebuild their populations.
Next major stop for our family was 3 hours south to Lake Tekapo, a gorgeous place full of mountain views lined with wild lupine. This was the perfect place to stock up at the supermarket, plus there are great restaurants and gift shops within walking distance.
Near the Space Observatory, Lake Tekapo has big green fields kids can run around in. Right behind the supermarket there is a fun lakeside playground with slides, swings, and the coolest toddler approved zipline. Our toddler enjoyed pushing her stuffie on the swing and we stayed here for hours.
Our toddler found delight sitting in a giant jellybean seat and finding many animal statues around town.
We usually stopped at Countdown supermarkets to load up on food. At certain times of year, they hand out mystery miniature brick farm toys at checkout which are made from 100% recycled plastic. The toys are choking hazards for kiddos under 3 but our closely supervised daughter loved seeing which little animal she got each time. We passed on our little collection to a very excited child at a park at the end of our trip. These little collectables are hot commodities!
Before you leave Lake Tekapo, you will want to have a loaded RV because where you’re going next, there are very few options to stock up.
Mt. Cook National Park
From Lake Tekapo, it is only a little over an hour to White Horse Campground in Mt. Cook National Park. You and your family could spend two weeks or more here, go nowhere else, and be absolutely satisfied. This was by far the highlight of our time in New Zealand with a toddler and we extended our stay to further soak it in.
Towering snow-capped peaks, glacier fields, lush, varied terrain with diverse wildlife leading to powder blue lakes just begins to describe the beauty of this area.
There is no cell service or facilities near here. A shower and toilets are at the campground, but the closest supermarket is in Twizel (at least 45 minutes away).
The hiking trails are abundant and feel as if they’re made for toddlers. The trails are generally pretty flat, with minimal obstacles to navigate, and views that stunned us all.
Hooker Valley Track
We started with Hooker Valley Track, a famed 7-mile, 600 ft elevation gain hike that starts at White Horse Campground.
Our toddler did this hike by herself, sometimes holding our hand but mostly not. The paths are mostly clear but be prepared for sun exposure.
There are 3 suspension bridges that are extra fun for kids and the views are spectacular the entire way. The trail ends at a glacier lake with many keas in this area. If you do only one hike, pick this one.
Always stay on the trail, not only for conservation but also safety. Matagouri trees line many of these trails and are endemic to the area. Their thick needle-like thorns can do a lot of damage if grabbed by a little hand or stepped on. I was shocked when one of those thorns went right through my shoe and into my foot near the campground.
Blue Lake & Tasman Lake
We walked back to the first suspension bridge for sunset and spent the next day exploring short trails such as Blue Lake and Tasman Lake. This area is right down the road from Whitehorse Campground. These trails connect with each other and are worth a visit.
They’re easily done with a toddler within a couple hours. Don’t bother with Tasman Jetty because Tasman Lake is much better. The jetty is where kayak tours depart from and isn’t as scenic. Tasman Lake has a short, rocky descent to a gorgeous viewpoint and lovely picnic spots.
Helicopter to Tasman Glacier
Our next adventure day was the splurge of the trip; we took a helicopter to Tasman Glacier and explored ice caves with our toddler.
It was nearly impossible to find a tour willing to take a toddler on such a trip, as the minimum age for most tours is 12. But when I contacted Charlie Hobbs, owner of Southern Alpine Guides, I instantly knew we were in good hands. Charlie (known to my toddler as Cha-Cha) is a highly respected mountaineer legend and holds multiple records and first ascents. It was a relief to know our family was in the best hands for keeping our daughter safe during a big adventure.
This private tour cost about $1,900 USD and was worth every penny. We were impressed by the INFLITE helicopter company’s dedication to sustainability. They are New Zealand’s only nationwide carbon zero aviation operator. We bought baby ear protection and had her start wearing them months before.
We talked about helicopters, loud noises, and strong wind during the months leading up to this. Our toddler was fascinated by the whole excursion and we gave her a Skye Paw Patrol stuffie when the helicopter took off. The helicopter ride was her favorite part and she still talks about it.
The hardest part with a toddler on the glacier was having to duck down as the heli departed. The wind force and noise were overstimulating. Charlie had the pilot talk to her from his satellite phone and was so patient as we calmed her down afterward.
Of course, glaciers are dangerous so our toddler had to be carried by one of us the entire time. Charlie set anchors and we took turns getting roped up to descend into different caves along the glacier.
We hiked to a waterfall, learned the history of the area, and took in gorgeous landscapes. You must bring sunglasses to protect everyone from snow blindness, as well as many layers of clothing for sun and wind protection. This area truly deserves as much time as you can give it.
We moved on 2.5 hours to Wanaka for a few days. If your kids are getting tired of being in the RV, don’t worry! There are many gorgeous stops along this route including Lake Pukaki, Lindis Pass, and the Wanaka Lavander Farm to name a few. These places are worth visiting and there are enough roadside stops to turn this short drive into a whole day of fun.
Wanaka is a quaint, walkable town with parks, art stores, gift shops, and restaurants offering outdoor seating.
The waterfront is handicap accessible (meaning you could also use a toddler stroller here) and the famous Wanaka tree awaits you. There is a big parking lot and a short, paved path to the best views along the water; as well as trails that extend along the lake into a forest.
There are great hikes you won’t want to miss in Wanaka such as Roy’s Peak, Diamond Lake with Rocky Mountain Track, and Wishbone Falls on the way to Rob Roy Glacier Track. These trails are well known and highly rated on “Alltrails” which is a great resource for finding up to date trail information. Whole articles are written about each of these gorgeous tracks and your toddler can enjoy them as much as you do!
While in Wanaka we camped at Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park. I highly recommend this park for its lakeside location and huge onsite playground.
Milford Sound in Fjordland National Park
Next on our itinerary we have a 4.5+ hour drive to our next highlight of the trip: Milford Sound in Fjordland National Park. This is another must see area. It is one of the wettest places in the world, so come prepared with lots of rain gear (a full toddler rain suit is a must) and maybe an extra pair of toddler boots (no one likes wet shoes the next day!).
Some of the most spectacular views are right off the side of the road. A lot of people stay outside of the park in Te Anau (nearly 2 hours away), but I recommend staying at the Milford Lodge in the park if there is availability. Milford Lodge has a cafe with breakfast options, showers, and laundry facilities.
Freedom camping is not allowed in this fragile ecosystem, and you will get fined if you try to overnight park in a parking lot. We booked our campsite months ahead of time to ensure we got a spot.
Take your toddler on a night safari to look for some of the elusive nocturnal animals. Even if you don’t spot any animals, the whole process is exciting.
The trails that twist through the Milford Sound from the main parking lot are lovely and easy. Perfect for hiking with toddlers.
The trails unfold along wooden bridges and paths left from the parking lot and through gorgeous, lush forest. When it rains, waterfalls are born and gush from all directions. There is a hidden swing along the sandy coast. Just turn right from the trail at the first bridge from the main parking lot, you’ll see a small patch of sandy coast and a path that leads to the wooden swing. Our toddler loved playing in the sand and swinging with us.
If you have multiple days for the Routeburn Track, it won’t disappoint. It is regarded as one of the most biologically diverse and stunning Great Walks in New Zealand. But if you only want a day hike without the backpacking aspect, opt for the Key Summit instead.
The Southern Discoveries boat ride is quite popular. We had conflicting thoughts on the boat ride with our toddler. It felt very touristy and crowded but we saw towering waterfalls cascading over peaks into the sparkling water with lots of marine life. A school of dolphins followed our boat, delighting our toddler.
If our toddler were older, we would have opted for a small group kayak tour instead. We could not find a tour company to agree to take our toddler.
The Underwater Observatory is worth a hop off the boat to get a peek below the surface; the kayak trips also leave from this location.
Travel tip: There are thousands of microscopic sandflies that can bite through thin clothing and leave behind itchy, bleeding welts for a week. You need environmentally friendly bug spray (I recommend buying locally), antihistamine cream, and lots of layers (don’t neglect your toddlers ankles, ears, and other sensitive spots). We were happy to have our bug nets for hiking.
Our daughter had fun spotting them in our RV after we accidentally left the door open. She would hollar “BEEEE” with varying levels of urgency as we did acrobatics trying to catch them. Watch your RV’s vents, bathrooms, and check all windows; just a small crack can lead to hundreds of unwanted sandflies.
Next up on our South Island, New Zealand itinerary with a toddler was a 4 hour drive to Queenstown; an adventurous city with lots of parks and a mountain lined waterfront. This is a great place to regroup after having access to limited amenities for much of the trip. It has all the benefits of a big city with great restaurants, lots of playgrounds for toddlers, and community activities.
We camped at Queenstown Holiday Park Creeksyde. This was one of our favorite campgrounds with full hookups, sustainable values, and a fun quirky vibe. It is within walking distance to downtown, including Patagonia Chocolates. This is known as the best ice cream in town and offers a delicious, decadent vegan gelato.
We noticed trash along the main beach and park where tourists frequent in Queenstown. We played a game where our toddler spots “yuckies” and we pick it up. We cleaned up the whole beachfront in 20 minutes and noticed others immediately becoming conscious of the trash and helping. We had people laughing with us as our toddler yelled “yuckies here, mommy!”
Moeraki Boulder Beach
We then headed 3.5 hours for Moeraki Boulder Beach. This beach is lined with more than 50 boulders that formed 60 million years ago. There is a toddler friendly hike along the hills that follows the coastline.
There is a great gift shop with an excellent toddler book selection, plus a restaurant across the deck. As is typical for NZ, everything closes early. Be sure to have an idea when you want to eat and have extra meals stocked in the RV for the family.
We had Moeraki Boulder Beach to ourselves most of the time. Tour buses stayed for 10 minutes, just long enough for the passengers to take a barrage of photos.
Our toddler ran and played with us on this beach for the whole day until we watched the sunset. She loved climbing the boulders, tide pooling, digging and exploring on the shore.
Dunedin is a popular alternative stop to Moreaki and offers a lot of historical architecture, stunning scenery, and diverse heritage. It is also home to the rare yellow eyed penguin, the world’s only mainland albatross colony, as well as lots of other marine life. It carries all the benefits of a city, compared to Moeraki Beach which is secluded in the much smaller town of Hampden.
We had a packed itinerary, and Moreaki stretched us thin at the end. Our toddler didn’t seem to notice, but we sure felt exhausted.
We stayed in the empty lot to rest for only a few hours and drove 4 hours to Christchurch in the night. We freedom camped 10 minutes outside of Christchurch right off North beach. Mainly locals frequent this beach and it has a lovely coast with lots of trails through the brush.
We only had one day in Christchurch before our Auckland flight. While there is much to do in Christchurch with your toddler, we only stayed at the beach next to our campsite. If we had more time, we would have enjoyed the Margaret Mahy Family Playground, Botanic Gardens, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, Quake City, and the Airforce Museum of NZ.
My mom always says life is what happens when you’re making other plans. What happened next embodied that quote wholeheartedly.
Medical Services in New Zealand for a Toddler
No one wants or expects to have their toddler have health issues on vacation. But if you ever need emergency services in New Zealand, 111 is their 911 equivalent and always free. I was very impressed there is also a free non emergency medical number which can offer anything from immediate medical advice to notifying you where the nearest pharmacy is (0800 933 922 for children, 0800 611 116 for adults).
When we were returning our RV in Christchurch and getting ready to catch a flight in 3 hours, our daughter started screaming uncontrollably in pain. We knew something was wrong but had no idea what. One of the managers for Kiwi Motorhomes rushed us to the Christchurch Pediatric ER.
The ER had a long line of people ahead of us. We were completely terrified and overstimulated, with a howling thrashing toddler. Without missing a beat, a nurse instantly brought us back to a room with a doctor. They diagnosed our toddler with a bowel obstruction within 20 minutes.
That same team explained and completed the procedure immediately and we walked out of there in less than two hours. We paid a meager $400 for the whole ordeal and even made our flight! We received compassionate, competent, and efficient care from start to finish.
What to Pack for New Zealand with a Toddler
1. Travel Car Seat
We traveled with a collapsible car seat that folds down to briefcase size and had as a carryon. It worked perfect for every taxi we took and we could set it up in any vehicle in a few minutes.
2. Hiking Backpack Carrier
For this trip we knew we would want our hiking backpack child carrier.
Flying with our hiking carrier was easy. We brought it through security and checked it at the gate just like a stroller. Once you get to New Zealand, they hand it back to you when you exit the plane.
While November is spring in New Zealand, so there’s less crowds and more afforable flights but also more unpredictable weather. We brought many layers for our toddler and prepared for all types of elements.
4. Satellite Phone
We also carry a satellite phone for peace of mind in case of emergencies.
5. Lightweight Umbrella
A lightweight umbrella was a life saver on multiple occasions to protect our kiddo from the sun more than the rain.
Final Thoughts on New Zealand with a Toddler
The flight back to Auckland was short and we were thankful we worked in 3 rest days at the end before having to embark on the journey back to the US. If your trip is only on the South Island, you may decide to do it backwards and fly in/out of Queenstown and add/drop a few stops based on your timeline.
Renting an RV and traveling through the North and South Islands of New Zealand was more fun than we could have ever imagined it would be for us. Our toddler loved it and it was a beautiful month of bonding for our whole family. I hope this article helps you prepare for your vacation with confidence with your toddler.
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