Want a ‘great walk’ in untamed wilderness without blisters or slogging it out on a multi-day trek? Here’s how to get away from practically everything and nearly everyone without going out of your way, West Coast style!
Wild, green, spectacular and surprisingly accessible. From 2- to 20-minutes, to a couple of hours return (or longer), the West Coast bristles with easy walks to sublime beauty spots and awesome natural wonders. No two ever the same!
Impressive sights and unmissable photo ops are literally just a couple of minutes off the main highway. Keep an eye out for road signs, pull up in a dedicated parking and rest area, follow a path through serene beech forests, or over verdant wetlands to discover languid blue pools, rushing rivers, waterfalls and cascades issuing from mountainsides.
Spectacular Haast Pass demands attention so allow enough time to appreciate the powerful, dynamic landscape this scenic route traverses. A short 200m bush walk off SH6 reveals impressive Thunder Creek Falls crashing down a 28-metre rock face. The easy sealed path finishes at a viewing platform high above the turquoise blue Haast River.
Pretty Fantail Falls (also on the Haast Road) is well worth stopping for. The waterfall is hidden from the road, but comes into view after a quick 2-minute stroll through atmospheric beech forest. It’s located on the opposite side of the valley, but there’s good viewing across the boulder-filled river, extra beautiful when it’s raining.
A whopping 80% of the West Coast is conservation estate admirably managed by DOC (Department of Conservation) which develops and maintains tracks and trails, provides facilities and information hubs highlighting wildlife, the environment and local history.
Climb the wooden observation tower at Ship Creek Tauparikaka (beside SH6, between Haast and Fox township) for a birds’ eye over a luxuriant swamp forest to one side, a dune lake and the pounding Tasman Sea on the other. Walk across water on the Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk (20 mins) on boardwalks suspended over the wetlands and between towering kahikatea (New Zealand’s tallest trees), or follow the sandy trail on the Dune Lake Walk (30 mins).
Nature unplugs at Punakaiki. The 20-minute walk on the wild side to the Pancake Rocks & Blowholes — any time of the day, but most spectacular at high tide — is a powerful demonstration of nature’s creative forces in action. It’s an easy loop walk but you’ll find it hard to tear yourself away. When you can, Punakaiki has some lovely short walks through groves of nikau palms.
You don’t have to be a serious tramper or mountaineer to enjoy some of the top walks around Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. It’s well worth staying over for a couple of nights to explore these varied and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.
Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk is the most popular glacier country walk. The easy track (15 mins / 1.5km return) passes through rainforest and along the riverbank to a viewpoint about 2000m from the Franz Josef terminal face. It’s the closest you can get to the glacier on foot; the other option is to go on a guided heli hike on either Fox or Franz Josef.
Peter’s Pool is a tranquil little alpine lake with gorgeous reflections of the mountains surrounding Franz Josef Glacier valley. It’s an example of a kettle lake, a glacial remnant from 200 years ago, and an easy 25-minute (1.1km return) walk through rainforest. If you want to get off the beaten track, Glacier Valley Eco Tours offer guided walks in their secret local spots.
Don’t forget the camera! Mirror lakes and alpine reflections are an iconic West Coast experience inspiring a multitude of photographic opportunities along many easy trails. The views may vary but the reflections are due to a happy natural combo of vegetation, soil, water and proximity to the spectacular alpine backdrop.
Largest lake on the Coast, lovely Lake Brunner offers a variety of short easy walks. From the lakeside village of Moana follow the Rakaitane Track (30 mins / 1.2km return) for forest reflections and panoramic lake views, or the Velenski Track through regenerating bush up to a ridge viewpoint (40 mins return).
Take the easy route to the top on the West Coast Treetop Walk at Lake Mahinapua. Here, you can join the birds at 47m above ground in the forest canopy on a suspended walkway accessible to both pushchairs and wheelchairs. You could walk it in 30 minutes but leave time to enjoy the lake, forest and mountain vistas.
Of all the great walks on the West Coast, the two most iconic are the Hokitika Gorge for its stunning backdrop of turquoise waters and Lake Matheson with its dramatic alpine reflections. There are no significant ups and downs on these super scenic walks, and both offer a shorter wheelchair-accessible section to a viewing platform.
Selfie-heaven exists at Hokitika Gorge in the brilliant colour contrasts between the deep turquoise water, white limestone gorge and lush green bush. The well-formed walkway through pretty beech forest includes several viewing platforms and a 90m suspension bridge with spectacular views. It’s a 60-minute (4km) return trip.
Famed for its still waters with spectacular reflections of New Zealand’s highest mountains (Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman), Lake Matheson is a photographer’s dream destination. Follow the boardwalk on an easy 1.5-hour loop trail around the lake (4.4km) to find the perfect shot (best conditions are at dawn or dusk), and finish up with a coffee at Lake Matheson Cafe.
Looking for more of a stretch? Take your legs on these two short hikes into West Coast untamed natural wilderness.
Ōkārito — a tiny seaside settlement north of Franz Josef — is one of the West Coast’s (many) undiscovered gems. There’s a wild beach, a sheltered lagoon, a kiwi sanctuary and a lot more wildlife than humans. The Ōkārito Trig Walk (an easy 1.5-hour/4.2km return) is a bit of a climb but well worth the 360-degree views of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the snow-capped Southern Alps, forest, coastal wetlands and beaches. There’s also the shorter 20-minute (1km) Ōkārito Wetland Walk along the boardwalk to an estuary viewpoint.
The Pororari River Track, at Punakaiki, offers a chance to test your legs on a pretty rainforest section of the Paparoa Track — New Zealand’s newest multi-day Great Walk experience. Starting from Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre, highlights on the 1.5-hour (7km return) trail include the gorge, deep pools surrounded by massive limestone boulders, a spectacular lookout and a suspension bridge.
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NOTE: While walking, tramping and hiking is a year-round activity on the West Coast, you should always check weather and track conditions before setting out. Always take warm, waterproof clothing as the weather can change rapidly.