From cycling or hiking gentle trails, underground exploration of gigantic caves to hands-on history at every turn — the West Coast caters for adventurers of all ages.
The Kawatiri Coastal Trail has been designed with families in mind, and it’s easy to see why 80,000 trail users (and counting) have set off on the smooth, flat 22-km ride or walk between Westport and Ōkari Lagoon. With the rugged Tasman Sea on one side and the majestic Paparoa Range on the other, there’s stunning coastal views alongside wetlands and West Coast wilderness. Boardwalks and suspension bridges add to the fun, and curious kids can read up on local wildlife and the area’s historical heritage on the helpful interpretation panels along the way.
Once complete, the coastal trail will cover 42 km and connect Westport with the historic settlement of Charleston. There’s plenty of trailside family fun, including building bonfires at sunset at Carter’s Beach, learning how to surf at Tauranga Bay, spotting seals on the Cape Foulwind Walkway and underground glow-worm and tubing adventures in Charleston.
Parents might appreciate a visit to Shortjaw Brewing in Westport for a post-ride pint. Try the Trail Hopper pilsner — brewed with the Kawatiri Coastal Trail in mind, a portion of the sales go to the trail, so consider it koha for a fun day on the bike.
Outdoorsy families can combine the Kawatiri Coastal Trail with the West Coast Wilderness Trail, which runs between Greymouth and Ross and is also easily split into short sections for beginner bikers, with plenty of local shuttle options.
There’s plenty of ways to get stuck into the West Coast’s illustrious gold-mining history, but perhaps the most theme-park-esque and likely to appeal to little adventurers is at Shantytown Heritage Park, 10 km south of Greymouth. The faithfully recreated 1900s pioneer town — that could double up as a Hollywood Western movie set — is fun to wander around, but hands-on activities like gold panning and riding an original steam train through the rainforest give kids a real sense of what it was like to live through the West Coast gold rushes.
See remnants of the real thing at the ghost town of Waiuta, perched high up in the hills between Greymouth and Reefton. Once a bustling mining town of 600 residents, Waiuta has remained deserted since 1951 when the mining company shut down operations on the West Coast’s largest gold mine. Wander deserted streets, past remains of old shops, houses and even an olympic-sized swimming pool in what is now a Tohu Whenua Department of Conservation heritage site. If you want to stay overnight and do some spooky starlit exploring, there’s a 24-bunk DOC lodge on site.
For rainy-day fun, dig into Westport’s mining history with a trip to the Coaltown Museum. There’s all sorts of mining-related treasures on display here, including an 8-tonne coal wagon once used on the steep Denniston Incline, and a mine simulation. Or give the kids an appreciation of modern comforts and take the windy road up to the Denniston Plateau with Out West Tours, where alongside breath-taking views, you’ll find the structural remains of a hardy community that expected even children to take part in the search for “black gold”.
In the Ōpārara Basin, you’ll discover a (post) Jurassic world full of reminders of the curious beasts that once roamed Aotearoa. On a tour of the Honeycomb Hill Caves, you can spot subfossil bones belonging to nine types of mighty moa and the giant hōkioi (Haast’s eagle). Still alive today are the giant carnivorous snails that roam the Kahurangi National Park. As big as a fist, they slurp up earthworms like spaghetti. Often spotted on the nearby Heaphy Track, make sure the kids keep an eye out for them here too.
Other tour highlights include exploring glow-worm caverns and a walk through dense bush (or an enchanted forest, depending on your perspective). Base yourselves in nearby Karamea, a scenic outpost for outdoor adventures with several cosy accommodation and dining options.
Another special spelunking adventure can be found further south, in the Te Ananui cave system deep in the Paparoa National Park. Little kids will enjoy the miniature train ride through ancient rainforest to the cave’s opening, and those willing to walk a bit further will be rewarded with spectacular stalagmites and stalactites and glow-worm grottoes in the high-roofed cave system. For confident swimmers, there’s the option to float down the gentle rapids of the Waitakere River back to the train.
Starting near the sleepy settlement of Blackball and ending at the well-known Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, the Paparoa Track traverses the breath-taking Paparoa Range. A good day mission is the historic Croesus Track — a rough, steep remnant from the region’s gold rush, when European settlers sought better access to mines in Blackball Creek. These days, you can catch glimpses of rare whio (blue ducks) bobbing up and down in the rushing water through podocarp and beech forest. Up on the ridge and you’ll be rewarded with views from Lake Brunner to Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Stop for lunch at Croesus Top Hut, and feel the spirits of prospectors past — built during the 1930s, the timber-lined hut has been preserved for an insight into the lives of the men who worked on the Paparoa Tops. Upon descent, reward yourselves with a sunset meal and a comfy night at one of Punakaiki’s many family-friendly accommodations.
The walk to Scott’s Beach from the Karamea end of the Heaphy Track is another family favourite. Starting from the Kohaihai campsite, this 2-3 hour walk climbs steadily through beautiful bush studded with subtropical palms, before reaching the golden sands of Scott’s Beach. Follow the footsteps along the sand to a wonderfully sheltered picnic area, just don’t be tempted to swim here due to dangerous currents and undertows.