Places to See on the West Coast, New Zealand: A Fun Road Trip Itinerary
The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a wild and wonderful place, full of rugged beaches, mountain views and glaciers. It’s a bit of a detour from the main route through the South Island but you’ll want to spend at least a few days there if you can. I’ll show you some of the best things to see, including natural wonders, rock formations, waterfalls and short hikes and I’ll also give you some tips so you get the most out of your trip to the West Coast!
Getting to the West Coast
There are two main routes in and out of the West Coast. One is through the Haast Pass from Wanaka and the other is through Arthur’s Pass (which you’d use if coming from Christchurch). You can also drive through the Buller Gorge if coming from Nelson. It’s a good idea to go in one way and out the other. I’m going to assume you’re visiting the West Coast from Wanaka, so we’ll start there first and move up the coast.
The road between Wanaka and Haast is one of the most scenic in New Zealand – it’s an experience in itself rather than just a road to get somewhere. The road first winds around Lake Hawea and then continues around Lake Wanaka and then eventually through the Haast Pass / Mount Aspiring National Park area. You’ll see great views from the road, but it’s also good to stop at the Blue Pools along the way, as well as some of the waterfalls. Thunder Creek Falls, Roaring Billy Falls and Fantail Falls are all close to the main road and fall into very scenic stretches of river.
There isn’t a lot to see in Haast itself, but it’s close to some interesting spots. First up is Ship Creek, where you can do a short walk to a dune lake and look out over a long stretch of coastline. From there it’s a short drive to Knights Point Lookout, where you can see a nice view right from the car park. Next up is Bruce Bay, a long beach backed by some interesting trees – there’s also a coffee cart by the beach (maybe not in winter) which makes this a good place to take a break from the road.
The other main glacier on the West Coast is Fox Glacier, but road damage means it isn’t quite as convenient to visit as Franz Josef Glacier. You can apparently still walk there but it’ll take a couple of hours extra, and I’m not sure it’d be worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved this walk, but it wasn’t quite as nice as the Franz Josef Glacier Track and with the road closure it makes it a lot longer.
The tiny town of Fox Glacier is a good option if you’re looking to spend the night somewhere (although I prefer Franz Josef). There are a few other things to do nearby, including Lake Matheson, which is one of the most scenic lakes in New Zealand (assuming you visit in the right conditions). You can see Mount Cook and other Southern Alps peaks reflecting in the water – such a nice spot!
If you’re looking for somewhere to camp nearby you could head to Gillespies Beach. It’s one of the better beaches on the West Coast and is great at sunset. Turn around and you’ll see the last remnants of sun hitting the Southern Alps!
Franz Josef is a small tourist town within walking distance of Franz Josef Glacier (although it’s better to drive to the start of the track). The hike to the viewpoint closest to Franz Josef Glacier is awesome – you’ll see some stunning valley / mountain views as well as waterfalls and, at the end, a glacier. The glacier is mostly covered in grey sediment, which dulls its impact a bit, but it’s a still a nice spot and the walk to get there is special.
Pretty much right in town you’ll find a short forest track which is home to glow worms. It’s a fun night-time activity, which is a bit of a rarity on the West Coast (there isn’t too much in the way of nightlife etc). There are several other walks in Franz Josef, including the Alex Knob Track which takes you above Franz Josef Glacier. I haven’t done it yet, but the views look incredible (let me know if you’ve done it in the comments below). If your legs are a bit sore you could opt to soak in a hot pool. Glacier Hot Pools has romantic private pools surrounded by trees and is the ultimate relaxation spot.
Hokitika and Greymouth
It takes just under two hours to travel between Franz Josef and Hokitika – we didn’t really stop much on this journey but it seems like there are a few places to see. We had planned to visit Okarito but ran out of time (again, let me know if you’ve been in the comments below). Hokitika is a nice town right by the beach and is a good option if you’re looking to spend a night in the area (I prefer it to Greymouth). The obvious highlight of this area is Hokitika Gorge – easily one of the most beautiful stretches of river in New Zealand. You probably won’t want to linger too long though – the sand flies are rife, especially in summer.
I didn’t find too much of interest in Greymouth, but I’m sure it has its charms if you look close enough. A little further north of Greymouth you’ll find Coal Creek Falls, and from there you’ll head up the coast towards Westport. The drive from Greymouth to Punakaiki, and then Westport (Great Coast Road), is probably the most scenic stretch of road on the West Coast. There are several places to pull over and admire the rugged coastline and there are some walks if you want to stretch your legs a bit.
You’ve probably heard of the Pancake Rocks by now, as it’s one of the most popular spots on the West Coast. It’s worth the hype, especially if you visit close to sunset. It’s a short walk down to the viewpoints above the rocks and there are some other walks nearby, including the Truman Track.
Another interesting walk in Punakaiki is the Pororari River Track. You’ll walk by an exotic stretch of river that could easily be confused for somewhere in Southeast Asia – think clear water, lots of greenery and limestone hills.
Again, this is a decent town to spend the night but there isn’t too much to see. There is one good walk though – the Cape Foulwind Walkway. It’ll take an hour or two and there is a good variety of views along the way.
Kahurangi National Park
From Westport you can drive all the way up to Kohaihai, where the road ends. It’s annoying how the road doesn’t go all the way up – you’ll need to backtrack quite a bit if you want to travel north to Nelson, Abel Tasman and Marlborough. We didn’t quite make it to Kohaihai as we had a bit of car trouble at the Oporara Arches (near Karamea) and had to head back early. The arches were cool to see but the road is dodgy – the car damage was the road’s fault, not mine!
If you’re following this route, you have two options for onward travel. If you’re going south (Christchurch, Mount Cook etc) you’ll want to drive back towards Greymouth and travel through Arthur’s Pass. Again, this a lovely stretch of road and there are some good walks. You could stop off at Carew Falls on the way, and I highly recommend the walk to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, which is located close to Arthur’s Pass Village.
If you’re travelling north, you’ll want to go back to Westport and take State Highway 6 north (the turnoff should be obvious). This will take you through Murchison and close to Nelson Lakes National Park, which is a cool place to visit (especially in winter).
A Sample Itinerary
Obviously, I don’t know how long you plan on spending on the West Coast, but I’m going to assume it’s 3 – 4 nights. I’d spend the first night in Fox Glacier after the long drive from Wanaka. From there it’s a short drive to Franz Josef – there is heaps to see around these two glaciers, so I’d spend a night in each. After that I’d stay in Hokitika, Greymouth or Punakaiki the next night. If you only have three nights I’d probably turn back after Punakaiki (unless you’re heading north, then you may as well go as far as Westport). You could obviously spend a lot longer if you wanted – I haven’t seen everything the West Coast has to offer so get out there and explore if you have the time (and let me know of any gems you find).
Are you planning a trip to the West Coast? Let me know in the comments below!