If you’re planning to explore the beautiful top of New Zealand’s South Island, then making the scenic drive from Picton to Nelson or Nelson to Picton at least once will be essential!
Luckily, the Picton to Nelson drive is one of the most impressive drives in the country. So, you may as well make the most of it by stopping off at all the impressive attractions along the way.
We’ve completed this drive on a few separate occasions and in this blog post we’ll outline the must-stop places on this epic road trip. We’ve done our best to keep it in order, so if you’re driving from Nelson to Picton just reverse the order.
About the Drive From Picton to Nelson
Firstly, there are two routes you can choose from: the scenic route, and the Blenheim route. If you’re planning to head both ways at some point then we’d recommend checking out both of these routes.
If your goal is to get from Nelson to Picton (or vice versa) as quickly as possible, then the slightly longer Blenheim route is actually quicker due to the fact that it follows the state highway. This route is 138.6km long and takes about 1 hour 56 minutes.
This guide will focus on the scenic route that travels along Queen Charlotte Drive. This route is only 114km long and takes about 2-hours, however, you’ll want to allow 3 – 5+ hours depending on how many stops you’re planning to take.
Best Stops on the Drive From Picton to Nelson
1. Picton & Queen Charlotte Sound
It will come as no surprise that the first stop on this awesome road trip is of course Picton and the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Sound.
Anyone taking the Interislander Ferry between Wellington and Picton will be stopping here making it the perfect place to start or end a South Island road trip (make sure to check out our guide to the best things to do in Wellington as well)!
You’ll find no shortage of great things to do in Picton, with our top picks revolving around exploring Queen Charlotte Sound. This scenic cruise and walk from Picton is our favourite way to spend a day here, or you can complete the entire Queen Charlotte Track over 5 days.
For accommodation, make sure you check out the top luxury resort in New Zealand, Bay of Many Coves. But for most people, we’d recommend Tombstone Lodge for a short, cheap stay.
2. Shakespeare Bay Lookout
Leaving Picton on the way to Nelson, the first stop you’ll reach is Shakespeare Bay Lookout. This lookout is an easy stop with your first glimpse of a view over the Marlborough Sounds and occasionally the ferry.
Don’t take more than 5-minutes here though as the views are marred by a logging facility – there are much better views to come.
3. Queen Charlotte Drive
Arguably one of the most scenic roads in New Zealand, Queen Charlotte Drive meanders along the coastline of the Marlborough Sounds.
You’ll find epic viewpoints all along the way (some of which we’ve mentioned later) that are worth stopping for.
The drive is very windy and, although it can be completed in around 40-minutes, we’d recommend taking your time and making sure to stop regularly to admire the views. Otherwise they can be very distracting for the driver!
4. Governors Bay Track
About 15-minutes along Queen Charlotte Drive you’ll reach a short track sign-posted as Governors Bay Track.
The track takes about 10-minutes each way and will lead you to a beautiful golden-sand beach surrounded by native bush.
This secluded, little beach is the perfect escape from the road, so consider packing a picnic and spending a bit of time here.
5. Momorangi Bay
Momorangi Bay is a sheltered bay along the drive with a great beach that is perfect for swimming, boating and fishing. There is a DOC campsite on-site for anyone interested in camping along the Queen Charlotte Sound.
If you are spending the night here there is a spot where you can see glow worms, and during summer you’ll find a shop offering fish ‘n chips and snacks.
6. Cullen Point Lookout
Cullen Point Lookout is our favourite viewpoint along the drive from Picton to Nelson, offering commanding views out over the Sounds.
We’d recommend anyone visiting to take the easy 10-minute track for an amazing view over Mahau Sound. The walk is so quick and easy that the effort-trade-off is high.
If you have a bit more time you can complete the 1-hour coastal track that offers even better views over Pelorus Sound and Havelock.
If you’re driving from Nelson to Picton, this is where you will want to turn off the state highway onto the scenic route via Queen Charlotte Drive. Otherwise, Havelock marks the end of the scenic views over the Marlborough Sounds.
As the mussel capital of New Zealand, if you like mussels you’ll need to make sure to stop off here to try some. The most popular spots are Mills Bay Mussels and The Mussel Pot.
If ice cream is more your vibe, we made a quick stop off at a food truck next to the Taco Shack, I think it was The Berry Shed.
8. Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve
Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve is a must-stop along the drive. For a quick stop you can walk across the bridge, take some snaps and walk down to the river, take a dip to cool off if you’re hot. In summer it’s a popular spot so you won’t be the only one.
Aside from the easy walks, there are a handful of longer tracks that avid hikers can try out, including the Tawa and Elvy Waterfalls walks.
The Pelorus Bridge Cafe is also located here and is a great spot to stop for a bite to eat. We highly recommend the delicious pies here, but the coffee is also good and you’ll find plenty of other options.
9. Cable Bay Adventure Park
Turning off the main road as you head towards Cable Bay, you’ll come across Cable Bay Adventure Park.
This tourist attraction is a 400-hectare park packed full with adventure activities that’ll keep any adrenaline-junkie busy for hours.
Activities include the skywire (one of the world’s longest flying foxes!), quad biking, mountain biking, argo (an amphibious, all-terrain 8 wheel vehicle), e-biking, paintball and climbing.
10. Cable Bay
Cable Bay is a beautiful beach just a 30-minute drive from Nelson. The beach is particularly picturesque with a scenic walk starting at one end. The Cable Bay Walkway is a 3.5-hour walk (one way, so you’d need a friend to collect you at the end), however, the first portion goes up the hill for 5-10 minutes and offers incredible views.
The beach itself is stunning with crystal clear water, making it great for swimming and beach activities. During summer you can rent kayaks and stand up paddleboards which we’d recommend.
There is limited shelter so also make sure to wear sunscreen and wear a hat.
11. Boulderbank Scenic Reserve
As you near Nelson you’ll see a huge ‘boulderbank’ extending out into the harbour. This pile of rocks is the longest naturally formed rock pile of its kind in the world. Conveniently, this 13km long pile of rocks has helped to shelter Nelson from the storms and tides.
It’s worth stopping to view Boulderbank Scenic Reserve, however, there is also the option to walk along the top of it. The track is 8km long (each way) and takes about 4-hours of climbing over boulders. A lot of visitors opt to just walk for around half an hour before turning back.
12. Miyazu Japanese Garden
Located right outside Nelson as you drive into the town, Miyazu Japanese Garden is an intriguing garden that has been beautifully landscaped in a Japanese style.
This tranquil garden contains a variety of interesting features including ponds, bridges, cherry trees, a rock garden and a tea house.
It’s well worth a quick visit, around 20-30 minutes should be enough, but I could easily spend hours sitting here with a book.
The end point of your Picton to Nelson road trip, or the start if you’re doing it backwards, Nelson is a vibrant, beachfront town located right between Picon and Abel Tasman National Park.
Due to its larger size, there are heaps of great things to do in Nelson, ranging from awesome beaches to dining and viewpoints. Nature-seekers should also venture out to Abel Tasman National Park which is one of the most beautiful places to visit in New Zealand.
Where to Stay in Picton and Nelson
Our favourite spots in Picton are Bay of Many Coves for travellers with deep wallets, or Tombstone Lodge for those on a budget.
In Nelson, we’d recommend The Sails for most travellers.
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