If dropping out of reception and tuning into nature appeals to you, the West Coast national parks can offer just that.
A multitude of missions in these treasured natural spaces will take you from pounding seas to rugged rainforest, giant glaciers to underground adventures.
From north to south, here are three of the West Coast’s national parks you can’t miss out on.
Nature’s artistry with water and time has created the impressive and beautiful Ōpārara Arch near Karamea.
At the northern tip of the West Coast, you’ll find the Kahurangi National Park, which translates from te reo Māori as “treasured possession” — a good indication of what lies within New Zealand’s second largest national park.
Here, you’ll find a world that feels primeval both above and below ground, attracting fossil hunters, cavers and geology lovers. Near Karamea, the dense moss-covered forest of the Kahurangi National Park gives way to the Oparara Basin and its 35 million-year-old cave system. Its largest and most iconic feature, the Oparara Arch, can be accessed via a short, well-formed track. At the nearby Honeycomb Hill Caves, a guided tour can take you face-to-face with the fossilised remains of giant moa and hokioi (Haast’s eagle) — who fell through holes in the limestone cave ceilings thousands of years ago.
While much of the park is untouched, a network of walking and hiking tracks allows you to explore the alpine tussock downs and vast swathes of lush coastal rainforest.
White-sand beaches and palm trees bring a touch of the (sub) tropics to a hike or bike on the Heaphy Track, an intermediate 4–6 day hike or advanced 2–3 day ride that delivers the strongest contrasts of all New Zealand’s Great Walks. You’ll discover all sorts of natural treasures, including rare native species only found in this part of the country. Look out for rare, flightless takahē during daylight hours, giant carnivorous snails at dusk and great spotted kiwi at night.
NOTE: Due to storm damage, a section of the Heaphy Track is currently closed. Until repairs are completed helicopter transfers are available over the closed section. See the Department of Conservation (DOC) website for more information.
Getting there: The West Coast gateway to the Kahurangi National Park is via Karamea, 92 km north of Westport. A laidback little settlement, it has a supermarket, gas station and several accommodation options.
Take a walk on the wild side on the Pororari River Trail, at the Punakaiki end of the Paparoa Great Walk.
Home to the West Coast’s most visited natural attraction — the Punakaiki pancake rocks and blowholes — Paparoa National Park packs a punch with its diversity of natural wonders.
Limestone is the common denominator here, and responsible for the park’s many impressive and sometimes otherworldly landforms — from sculpted, overhanging cliffs to the bizarrely stacked coastal rocks, between which salty geysers shoot up into the sky.
New Zealand’s latest Great Walk, the Paparoa Track, traverses the park’s terrains — across mountain ridges, through a dramatic limestone gorge to reach lush coastal forests. The 55-km hiking and biking trail, which opened in 2019, starts near the sleepy settlement of Blackball and ends at the well-known Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. Lucky walkers might spot a cheeky alpine parrot (kea) and hear the shrill calls of roroa – a giant among kiwi birds, rarely spotted outside of their mountainous South Island habitat.
It’s a stunning three-day adventure staying in well-equipped Department of Conservation huts, but you don’t need to go all out. From the Punakaiki side, explore the pedestrian trail entrance on a short walk, following the deep Pororari River through a lovely limestone gorge surrounded by sub-tropical nikau palms.
You can paddle into the park here too — rent a kayak or paddleboard and gently make your way up the slow-flowing river to soak in the park’s ambience from a different perspective. Keep an eye out for the Westland Black Petrel, endemic to the Punakaiki coast.
For a shorter hike to experience some of the park's finest limestone features, the 6km Ballroom Overhang Track near Fox River takes you to an impressive limestone outcrop which doubles up as a sheltered spot to camp overnight.
Discover the inner beauty of the Paparoa National Park by going underground — many caving adventures here are for experienced spelunkers but for others you’ll just need a torch and some sturdy shoes, for example the Punakaiki Cavern, which is just off the Great Coast Road (State Highway 6).
Getting there: Punakaiki is the best base for adventures in the Paparoa National Park. Stay in one of the boutique B&Bs, campsites or the 4* beachfront hotel. There are several operators providing shuttles to/from the Paparoa Track: The Punakaiki Beach Camp; Paparoa Shuttles; Coastwide Helicopters (for heli-shuttles).
Adventures on Fox Glacier include easy heli hikes, ice climbing lessons and expeditions.
The number one attraction in Westland Tai Poutini National Park is in fact two huge rivers of ice, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The push and pull between heavy snowfall high in the mountains and melting ice at sea level has created vibrant, creeping rivers of ice. Walk up the low-lying valleys the glaciers have left in their wake to spot their terminal faces, and you might even hear the creaking and cracking of ancient ice on the go.
Up high, snowfall compacts to create walls of clear blue ice, carved out by huge crevasses and caves. This otherworldly landscape needs to be seen up close to be believed — guided heli-hiking tours can take you to a remote part of the glacier for an ice hike.
But that’s not all there is to see in this UNESCO World Heritage site, recognised for its exceptional and outstanding environment, alongside places like the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef.
Between the glaciers and the Tasman Sea, the park is a paradise for rare bird species. Ōkārito, a tiny settlement just north of Franz Josef sits beside New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland area, framed by lush native rainforest and the snow-capped Southern Alps. It’s a haven for rare wildlife and a destination for those wanting to quietly observe it.
Gliding slowly through the still rainforest waterways in a custom-built boat or kayak (with Okarito Kayaks), you might spot the mythical, magnificent kōtuku (white heron) as well as royal spoonbills, godwits, oystercatchers and dotterels. Rare rowi kiwi birds can be heard and often spotted on an evening tour with Ōkārito Kiwi Tours.
To really experience the wilderness of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, go on an overnight hike to Welcome Flat Hut. Seven hours’ hiking through native forest and ancient alpine landscapes alongside the rushing Copland River will take you to the 31-bunk Welcome Flat Hut. Your weary muscles will appreciate a soak in the natural hot pools with magnificent mountain views.
More casual strolls and short walks in West Coast national parks.
Getting there: The small towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef provide a full range of accommodation, from backpacker lodges to luxury hotels. You’ll also find a range of tour companies specialising in guided glacier walks, scenic flights and other adventures in Westland Tai Poutini National Park.