For the conscious eco-traveler, the small settlements of Ōkārito, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, and Haast have some of the best wilderness tours, wildlife encounters and activities to be found in New Zealand — and some of Aotearoa’s most passionate small tourism operators.
Surrounded by untouched wilderness, these tiny but vibrant communities sit proudly within Westland Tai Poutini National Park and on the western edge of the vast UNESCO World Heritage Area of Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand. Incorporating four national parks and 10% of New Zealand’s total land area, this region is recognised for extraordinary natural and cultural attributes and the people who choose to live here are passionate about protecting this precious environment and sharing it with visitors.
Whichever way you package your Westland short break, plan your itinerary to allow time to fit in at least one guided tour while you’re away. Meeting the locals will be a highlight along with the opportunity to see and experience awesome environments and places that are otherwise not easily accessible to visitors.
Spectacular views from the calm, wildlife-rich waters of Ōkārito Lagoon near Franz Josef village.
The friendly little coastal settlement of Ōkārito, north of Franz Josef, is a rare wilderness gem where rainforest meets coastal wetlands and wild beaches lie within sight of the snowy peaks of the country’s highest mountains. With kayak and boat tours, and walking tracks, there are plenty of activities to choose from.
Ōkārito Lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland. This watery wonderland tucked between sand dunes and forest is a haven for an amazing 70-plus species of native birds including kōtuku/white heron, royal spoonbills and rare Ōkārito rowi kiwi — and the best way to explore this awesome environment and see the wildlife is most definitely by water.
Sustainability and community is at the heart of Okarito Kayaks, a small family business operating on Ōkārito Lagoon. While international tourism has been quiet, owners Baz and Gemma have been busy organising volunteer ‘gorse-busting’ efforts keeping exotic weeds away from the lagoon shores.
Okarito Kayaks offers a variety of guided tours and kayak hire for independent paddling, including an overnight option for anyone wanting a wilderness camping experience. On a still day the mirror images on the water are spectacular plus the kayak hub at the red sheds beside the lagoon also serves great coffee and delicious home-made counter food.
STAY: There is a range of accommodation available in Ōkārito, mostly in baches (cribs) and holiday homes. It’s a small town with everything in walking distance, so leave the car behind and make the most of life in the slow lane.
● The gentle Ōkārito Trig Walk (easy 4.2km / 1.5 hours return) leads to a viewpoint with breath-taking views of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, snow-capped Alps, forest, lagoons and beaches.
● The short 1km Ōkārito Wetland Walk follows a boardwalk to another viewpoint overlooking the estuary.
● For these and more, see Glacier Country Walks
GETTING THERE: Turn off SH6, 15km north of Franz Josef Township / 114km south of Hokitika / 86km south of Ross, and follow the road another 13km on to Ōkārito.
Relax after a day's adventures with a soak in the Waiho Hot Tubs in the rainforest at Franz Josef.
Lively Franz Josef village is surrounded by lush rainforest and dominated by the steeply rising slopes of the glacier valley and the snow-capped Southern Alps above.
It is home to Westland Tai Poutini National Park headquarters and a full array of activities in ‘glacier country’ from heli hikes on the glaciers to kiwi conservation at the West Coast Wildlife Centre and wood-fired hot tubs for relaxing after a day outdoors.
Nestled into the Franz Josef Glacier valley — and only a few minutes north of Franz Josef township — serene Lake Mapourika is a large kettle lake, created thousands of years ago when the glacier retreated after an ice age. It’s the largest mirror lake in the South Westland region and a perfect setting for wilderness kayaking and eco boat tours.
Nobody knows Lake Mapourika quite like local tourism operators Dale and Bronwyn Burrows of Franz Josef Wilderness Tours (formerly Glacier Country Kayaks). Respect for the environment is at the heart of their top-rated visitor activities that include guided kayak, SUP, scenic boat and fishing tours on the lake and associated waterways.
Paddle your way through ancient rainforests and wetlands into the Ōkārito Kiwi Sanctuary on the far side of the lake. Watch the early morning fog lift from over the water to reveal panoramic mountain reflections in autumn and winter, or embark on a sunset tour as the soft evening light glows pink over the Southern Alps. They also hire out kayaks, paddle boards and mountain bikes.
STAY: There is a full range of accommodation at both Franz Josef and Fox townships, from holiday parks to motels, hotels and eco-retreats. Sleep easy at the Rainforest Retreat — self-contained tree-hut style apartments nestled in lush native bush, built and operated with sustainability in mind.
● From the carpark on the Franz Josef access road, the Sentinel Rock Walk is an easy, steady climb to the summit (900m / 20 min return) with mountain, valley and river views.
● The Peter’s Pool Walk (1.1km return, 25 min) leads through rainforest to a small kettle lake with lovely alpine reflections.
Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki offers an immersive wildlife adventure in the UNESCO World Heritage Area.
For a truly immersive wildlife adventure, stay two or three nights in Lake Moeraki’s Wilderness Lodge (between Franz Josef and Haast).
Tucked inside the UNESCO World Heritage Area, Wilderness Lodge is another national treasure — a luxury eco destination offering an intimate wilderness experience with nature tours led by experts including owner /host and noted conservationist Gerry McSweeney.
The surrounding lake, river, rainforest and beaches are a sanctuary for rare wildlife such as tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins, tiny Hector’s dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, forest and marine birdlife. Among these, the comical tawaki with their inquisitive gaze are only found in the South Island’s southwest, most commonly around Lake Moeraki which is home to the largest population of these rare sea birds.
From Wilderness Lodge, guided walks follow an unmarked trail to spectacular Monro Beach to watch the penguins coming and going between the sea and their nests in the coastal rainforest. It’s a thrilling experience for visitors to watch the penguins from close quarters without disturbing their activity in this wildlife refuge that Gerry and his team helped establish almost 30 years ago.
GETTING THERE: Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki is on SH6, 90km south of Fox Glacier township, 30km north of Haast.
Waiatoto River is a natural highway into the remote World Heritage wilderness of Te Wāhipounamu South West New Zealand.
Here are a couple of extra options to check out, depending on whether you’re coming or going from north via Hokitika or south via Haast.
A little town on the edge of wilderness, Haast is a gateway into Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area, home to rare marine and alpine wildlife and one of the world’s great untouched natural environments.
For visitors, a Haast scenic heli flight or a jet boat river journey from the coast into the mountains is the best way to learn about and appreciate the grandeur of this wilderness. Hop aboard a jet boat and cruise up glacial blue rivers into ancient virgin rainforests, guided by friendly, knowledgeable locals who love to share these special places plus you’ll be helping to support local conservation efforts. Check out Haast River and Waiatoto River safaris for options that include a barbeque lunch or dinner.
Between Haast and Fox Glacier, there is a series of tiny settlements and scenic spots where short walks reveal lakes and deserted beaches shrouded with towering stands of native forest.
STAY: Accommodation options in Haast range from holiday parks to motels and hotels.
● The Monro Beach Walk — just north of Knights Point — is an easy short walk (1.5 hr, 4.7km return) through lush temperate forest onto a remote beach where you may spot some rare tawaki/Fiordland crested penguins.
● At Ship Creek, the Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk (800m, 20 min return) loops through dense swamp forest of soaring kahikatea (white pine).
● The Dune Lake Walk (1km, 30 mins loop) leads to a magnificent dune lake and expansive sweep of coastline.
Lake Mahināpua, just south of Hokitika, is a beautiful spot for a day out or a picnic. Once a coastal lagoon, it’s now a shallow inland lake enclosed by dunes, and is part of a network of historic waterways through the wetlands. The Wilderness Trail passes by here, too, so you could hire a bike from Cycle Journeys in Hokitika and ride a few kilometres.
For a bird’s eye perspective on this watery wonderland, join the tui, bellbirds and kereru in the virgin forest canopy on the West Coast Treetop Walk. Rising to 47m above Lake Mahināpua, the suspended walkway is a surprisingly accessible experience (suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs) with sensational vistas of the lake, forest and Southern Alps. There’s an excellent café serving hot meals and counter food.
The tiny settlement of Ross, 20 minutes south of Hokitika, was once a fabulously rich goldfield but now its appeal is found in the solitude of walking the surrounding hills or the coastline. Take an exhilarating tree top adventure among temperate rainforest giants.
STAY: For front row views of the Tasman Sea and glorious West Coast sunsets, Ross Beach Top 10 Holiday Park has it all along with New Zealand’s funkiest campsite accommodation — upcycled shipping containers transformed into modern accommodation units with all the amenities for a luxury overnighter. Drift off at night to the sound of the ocean and wake up to the birds in the flax.
● Walk the Ross Historic Goldfields trails.
● The super scenic Harihari Coastal Walkway — a 7.6km / easy 3-hour loop between following old logging trails through estuaries and swamp forest, with spectacular coastal and alpine views.