Bigger, bolder and more breath-taking than any landscapes the kids have likely seen in their lives, the massive mountains, giant glaciers, primaeval rainforest and wild rivers of South Westland are so unique they’ve earned UNESCO World Heritage status.
Tucked away at the southern end of the West Coast, impressive Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are the better known stars of South Westland’s natural show — but they are just the beginning when it comes to igniting the kids’ sense of adventure on a family West Coast road trip.
Discover rare and ancient creatures.
For a taste of the ice age, visit Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, fast-moving frozen rivers that wind their way from high up in the snowy Southern Alps to low-lying valleys surrounded by lush green rainforest.
Unlike most, these glaciers are on view at sea level, meaning many easy walks can take you to stunning vistas, such as the short steady climb over to Sentinel Rock (which emerged from beneath Franz Josef Glacier in 1865), or the landscaped walkways around Te Kopikopiko o te Waka, a major new outdoor art installation with views of Fox Glacier and Aoraki/Mt Cook in the distance. To see the icescape up close, treat the family to a once-in-a-lifetime heli-hike or scenic flight to experience a surreal landscape of huge blue-tinged ice caves and crevasses.
Although a glacier experience is the drawcard for most visitors, there's plenty more to entertain kids of all ages in the area. See fluffy kiwi chicks at the conservation-focussed West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef and rare kōtuku/white heron at New Zealand’s only breeding ground, take a boat or kayak tour through scenic wetland at nearby Ōkārito, run little legs out at hidden gem Gillespies Beach, or get the adrenaline pumping with a muddy quad-bike ride through stunning scenery.
Spiritually significant and a long sandy beach to stretch the legs.
What kid doesn’t like a run on the beach? Leave behind the hum of helicopters and head south of the glaciers on State Highway 6 — you’ll soon be treated to sweeping vistas of the wonderfully wild Mahitahi/Bruce Bay. Bordered by towering trees, there’s plenty of driftwood to build dens (or bonfires) with, and at around 10 km long, it’s ideal for running races. It was once used as a highway for Māori travelling the region and legend has it, it's where Polynesian demi-god Māui first landed his waka (canoe) upon arrival to these shores.
Another family favourite is Ship Creek, where two walks take you on two different adventures. The Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk is a 10-minute wander along boardwalks through mystical, moss-covered forest and the Dune Lake Walk takes you through the sand dunes into a stunted seaside forest and on to some beach-combing and wild West Coast wave-watching. The kids will also love climbing the two-storey viewing tower at the start of the track (look out for dolphins!).
Premium salmon raised in cold alpine waters and smoked and cured on site.
Around 20 km south of Bruce Bay, you’ll reach Lake Paringa, the northernmost of South Westland’s glacial carved lakes. There’s plenty of photo opportunities for budding photographers, as the lake’s clear waters perfectly mirror the surrounding forest and mountains. Perfect for swimming, kayaking and fishing (the lake is teeming with trout), stay a few days at the lakeside Department of Conservation campsite or the low key, family-friendly Lake Paringa Lodge.
It’s also the start of the Haast to Paringa Cattle Track, a 19th century “main road” turned 21st century hiking track. There’s lots of historical relics trackside, but the Mataketake Hut isn’t one of them. Built in 2021, it can be reached via a loop track off the Haast to Paringa Cattle Track on (a weekend hike for outdoorsy families).
Travel tip: If you don’t fancy catching your own dinner in Lake Paringa, nearby South Westland Salmon Farm offers premium salmon raised in pure alpine waters and smoked and cured on site. Kids can feed the fish from the viewing platform while parents linger over lunch.
New Zealand fur seals can be spotted all along the West Coast coastline.
The ultimate motivator to get eyes off screens, some of the West Coast’s best wildlife spotting can be done in South Westland. It’s one of the few places in Aotearoa New Zealand to see rare tawaki/Fiordland crested penguins, as they ride the crashing waves into shore and make their way into the coastal rainforest that surrounds stunning Lake Moeraki.
Monro Beach, a lovely 30-minute amble through the forest, is a good place to wait for these rock stars of the penguin world to make their appearance while the kids explore the bouldery beach. Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki, a luxurious but family-friendly eco-lodge, runs penguin-spotting tours for guests alongside guided hikes and lake kayaking.
All along South Westland’s coastline you can spot all sorts of seals (fur, leopard and southern elephant), sea lions, and even rare Hector’s dolphins. End-of-the-road Jackson Bay is one of only two known dolphin nurseries, where you might spot mothers and calves. If they’re in hiding, a good alternative is fish ‘n chips at The Craypot followed by the gentle Wharekai-Te Kou Walk that takes you to rocky Ocean Beach (rock pool territory), or the Lake Ellery Track which meanders through beech forest to a glacier-formed lake.
Travel tip: On your way south from Haast to Jackson Bay, take a short walk into the intertidal zone at Hapuka Estuary, complete with boardwalks, rich native birdlife and views of the Open Bay Islands.
Glide over bright blue water, into world-renowned wilderness.
To see what makes this area world-renowned, stop for a while in Haast, a small settlement sitting on the edge of the vast and unique wilderness of Te Wahipounamu ‐ South West New Zealand. Spectacular glaciated landforms — giant fiords, lakes, mountains and river valleys — date back to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland, now covered in dense primaeval rainforest, untouched by humans and home to rare wildlife and plants.
There are plenty of ways to take in this astounding nature. Take a gentle jet boat (all ages welcome) up the deep blue Waiatoto and Haast rivers, soar above the alpine wilderness on a scenic flight, or land beside a sublime hanging lake.
Take your time travelling onwards towards Wānaka — the scenic Haast Highway is more than just that, with plenty of places to stop and wander in the wilderness. First stop: the Roaring Billy Falls, an easy 1-km walk along a fern-lined track to a broad gravel river bed, where the aptly named falls cascade over giant boulders into the impossibly blue Haast River. Perfect pebble hunting territory, and although it's not safe swimming, there are shallow pools to dip your toes in.
Another place to stretch little legs is at Pleasant Flat, a 5-minute walk to a picnic spot with excellent views of Mount Hooker in the distance. Just a 200-metre stroll through kāmahi and silver beech forest to the viewing platform, Thunder Creek Falls live up to their name as they crash down a 28-metre rock face into a deep pool beneath.
The scenic drive from Haast to Jackson Bay takes you alongside deserted beaches, through curious windswept forest.
Located in the southernmost part of the West Coast, most visitors to South Westland arrive by road on State Highway 6, either via Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch or the Haast Pass from Queenstown/Wānaka.
If you arrive by plane or train into Hokitika or Greymouth, pick up a rental car and head south. AVIS and Budget New Zealand both offer a range of vehicle rental packages, allowing you to discover the wilderness wonders of South Westland at your own pace.
Alternatively, let someone else take the wheel and book a guided tour of South Westland at the Greymouth isite Visitor Information Centre.