Wanaka to the West Coast: Driving One of New Zealand’s Most Scenic Roads
The best thing about a trip to New Zealand, assuming you’re travelling by car, is the abundance of scenic drives on offer. From curvy coastline roads to mountain framed passes, there’s a perfect road trip for every kind of traveller. Driving yourself, whether in a car or a campervan, allows you to stop at numerous viewpoints and scenic sights.
The road from Wanaka to the West Coast (part of which is the Haast Pass) is probably my favourite New Zealand drive so far. It features bright blue lakes, several waterfalls and plenty of mountain vistas. This is a road trip you need to do at least once — here are some things you can see along the way.
The first notable section of the road from Wanaka to the West Coast takes you past Lake Hawea. Make sure to stop off at the lookout for great mountain / road / lake views. If you have the time and want to do a hike, consider walking up Isthmus Peak. We hiked it at sunrise a few weeks back and it was a really fun experience.
After leaving behind Lake Hawea, the road skirts Lake Wanaka for a short time. There are a few places to pull over, and you can also stay at the Boundary Creek DOC campsite if you want to break up the journey.
The Blue Pools
One of the most impressive sights along the Haast Pass, which is part of Mount Aspiring National Park, is the area known as the Blue Pools. This spot, where the Makarora and Blue rivers meet, contains some of the clearest, bluest water I’ve ever seen. There are a couple of swing bridges to walk over and the green forest surrounds create such a relaxing atmosphere. On a sunny summer’s day it’d be hard to resist swimming in the Blue Pools — we saw a couple of people swimming but it looked freezing (we were there on a crisp November morning).
This small waterfall sits on the opposite side of a clear blue stream. While admiring the natural beauty you’ll probably feel a crawling sensation on your skin. That would be the sandflies, which are rife in this part of New Zealand.
The Gates of Haast
The little set of rapids dubbed the Gates of Haast is worth a quick look. There’s a big car park on the Wanaka side of the bridge but keep driving and stop on the other side. From there you can walk down below the bridge and get a better view of the river.
Thunder Creek Falls
Located right next to the main road, Thunder Creek Falls is the pick of the Haast Pass waterfalls. It’s 96 metres high and surrounded by trees. It gets busy due to its proximity to the road, but the crowds are easy to ignore.
A Riverside Viewpoint
I don’t think this viewpoint has a name, but it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s close to the Pleasant Flat Campsite (which is located just past a bridge across the Haast River). The view across the river to forested hills and snow-capped peaks is one of the best on the drive from Wanaka to the West Coast.
Roaring Billy Falls
A short forest walk takes you to the wide, stony shores of the Haast River. Roaring Billy Falls crashes down a hillside on the opposite side of the river — you can’t get very close to it but the whole river scene is really stunning.
Onwards to the West Coast
The road then continues on to Haast and then along the West Coast, eventually winding past beaches, lakes, glaciers and mountains. For us, the highlights of the West Coast were the walk to Franz Josef Glacier and seeing Mount Cook reflected in the calm waters of Lake Matheson. I’ll be writing more about the West Coast soon, so stay tuned for that!
Driving from Wanaka to the West Coast FAQs
- How long does it take? It takes around two hours to drive between Wanaka and Haast, but you’ll want to spend a lot longer than that. We did it in around five hours.
- Is it worth spending a night or two in the area? Yes, if you have the time. I highly recommend the Isthmus Peak track and Hawea is a really nice little town (a much quieter alternative to Wanaka). There are a couple of camping grounds in the area and there’s so much to see. Just be wary of the sandflies!