From Buller to Haast, north to south (or whichever way the road takes you) the West Coast’s epic 600-kilometre coastline is a road tripper’s dream drive.
Tucked between the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps and the pounding Tasman Sea — covering almost nine percent of New Zealand’s land area — this region is packed with diverse, awe-inspiring landscapes and experiences that set it apart from anywhere else in this country.
Based on six significant natural icons, here are six different journeys and ways to experience the Coast.
Sub-tropical Karamea, Kahurangi National Park and the top of the West Coast have the feel of a final frontier. The road north from Westport travels into a primeval world of moss-covered, dense subtropical forests concealing ancient underground cave systems that have lain undisturbed for millions of years.
Explore the largest, most iconic feature, the Ōpārara Arch on the easily accessed, short public track. Or, take a guided tour to the Honeycomb Hill Caves to see the remains of extinct moa and the giant Haast’s eagle (hokioi) where trapped inside in ancient times their skeletons fossilised over time. To protect this special taonga, access is limited to approved guided tours (book at the Karamea Information Centre).
South of Westport, historic Charleston offers caving adventures of a different kind. A “rainforest train” drops you and your tube at the entrance of a giant cave system, ready to float through glow-worm caves before tumbling down gentle rapids on the Waitakere River.
Follow Lonely Planet’s advice on the Great Coast Road — between Westport and Greymouth — allowing time to stop and enjoy one of the world’s best scenic drives. It’s a 90-minute drive along the spectacular 100-kilometre Great Coast Road without accounting for unmissable photo stops and visits en route.
About halfway along, Punakaiki Pancake Rocks is a mesmerising demonstration of the power of the sea as it surges metres high through narrow blowholes in limestone formations sculpted by the forces of time and tide. From the roadside, there’s a short easy loop walk for the best views.
Staying over is recommended as it’s worth timing your visit for high tide when the blowholes perform at their best. Make the most of it with a wander in a rainforest of nikau palms on the Porari River Track or the Truman Track (1.4km / 30 mins), one of the best short walks on the West Coast.
Retreat from summer heat in a natural playground beside the tranquil deep waters of Lake Brunner. On a still day the water’s inky surface reflects mirror images of the snow-capped Southern Alps.
The largest lake on the West Coast is a taonga for tangata whenua and a top fishing spot year-round for wild brown trout.
In summer, Lake Brunner is a great place to relax on sandy beaches beside pristine water, to kayak, swim or try a spot of forest bathing in magnificent kahikitea forests. Explore lakeside trails such as Bain Bay Track and the short, photogenic Carew Falls Track. On a clear day, the hike up Mount French rewards with expansive lake and mountain views.
Photographers love the Hokitika Gorge for its stunning turquoise blue waters flowing between rocky white limestone banks and lush green rainforest. It’s a 30-minute drive from town towards the hills, then an easy forest trail with a spectacular pedestrian swing bridge leads to the gorge.
Hokitika proudly wears the title of the Coast’s coolest little town — there’s a distinct arty vibe to the ‘pounamu capital’ from driftwood artworks on the beach to the greenstone / jade carving workshops in town. There’s even a glassblowing studio, a lively food culture (unsurprisingly in the town of the Wildfoods Festival), and a range of accommodation.
While visitors are fewer, the world’s most accessible glaciers are at their most enticing. The heli hike on Fox Glacier — voted TripAdvisor’s #1 ‘out of this world’ experience — is an absolute bucket list experience with scenic flight, glacier landing and a thrilling hike across an icy wonderland.
Fox and Franz Josef are most famous for glaciers but they’re also the gateway to Westland Tai Poutini National Park — part of the UNESCO World Heritage Area of Te Wahipounamu South Westland, this unique wilderness fringed is by the Southern Alps on one side, temperate rainforests and coastal wetlands on the other.
By day, there are many lovely forest, coastal and alpine walks, from accessible family-friendly strolls to multi-day hikes, with lakes and lagoons to kayak or circumnavigate, untamed beaches and encounters with rare wildlife or, for the most adventurous, skydiving and ice climbing.
A little town on the edge of wilderness, Haast is the western gateway into Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand — a vast UNESCO World Heritage Area, this is epic Aotearoa New Zealand, one of the world’s most outstanding natural treasures.
An outdoor enthusiast's playground, Haast is a hub for adventures from walking and tramping to rare wildlife encounters, photography, boating, fishing and hunting, immersed in unforgettable landscapes. For visitors, a scenic heli flight or a jet boat river journey from the coast into the mountains is the best way to appreciate the grandeur of this wilderness.
West Coast's wild and spectacular mountain to sea landscape.Learn more