Looking to step out of your daily life and into some of New Zealand’s most untouched nature?
On the West Coast, you can choose your level of adventure: is it a gentle guided tour through a magical underground world, or a self-propelled epic backcountry mission? Or perhaps it’s trying some wild foods in an even wilder setting?
Whatever your appetite for adventure, here are 10 ways to switch off, get outside, and enjoy the West Coast’s vast natural playground.
New Zealand’s newest Great Walk, the Paparoa Track, is a 55-km tramp (or bike) through lush coastal forests up onto alpine ridges. It’s a spectacular three-day adventure staying in well-equipped modern huts, but day walks are possible too. The best taster for Great Coast Road trippers is exploring the pedestrian entrance of the trail at Punakaiki, where it follows the Pororari River through a boulder-strewn gorge flanked with dense rainforest.
Further north, the Heaphy Track is a classic amongst walkers for good reason. Starting in Golden Bay, the 4 – 6 day hike traverses tussock downs, lush forests and nīkau palms before emerging on the West Coast, not too far from the otherworldly Ōpārara Arches. Mountain bikes are allowed on the trail between May and November.
Short on time? What the 18-km Copland Track lacks in distance, it makes up for in scenery. This popular trail shows off Westland’s spectacular forest, river and mountains, with natural hot pools at Welcome Flat an added attraction.
If you’re looking for an epic backcountry adventure, you need to travel The Old Ghost Road, a long-forgotten gold miners' road revived as an 85-km mountain biking/tramping trail. It takes you deep into the Kahurangi National Park, and also into the mindsets of the 1900s pioneers who founded the remote ghost towns en route. Top tip: book your final night at the trail-end Rough and Tumble Lodge.
More into a milder multi-day mission? Try the four-day West Coast Wilderness Trail, where you will wind through ancient rainforests, along rocky river banks and beside rugged coastline. Small towns and heritage sites offer a chance to delve deep into the region’s fascinating history. Do the whole thing, or dip in for a day-ride.
The beech forest and historic goldfields surrounding Reefton also feature a range of mountain biking tracks. Most tracks can be accessed by bike or a short 10-15 minute drive from Reefton.
Ever in motion and retreating fast, there has never been a better time to visit the glaciers. You can spot the creeping ice flows from some local look-out points, but for a truly overwhelming experience, take a guided heli-hike on the luminous blue ice.
Either glacier is astounding – try Franz Josef for its dramatic new landing zone, or Fox Glacier Guiding, rated by TripAdvisor as the World’s Best Out of the Ordinary Experience for 2021.
No West Coast roadie should miss the natural spectacle that is the pancake rocks at Punakaiki. Understandably the Coast’s most visited attraction – geyser-like plumes of salt water spray through massive blowholes and thump and pound in the limestone tunnels. But wait, there’s more to see here – just across the road, the Paparoa National Park beckons.
Here you can wander by the water in a rainforest of nīkau palms on the Pororari River Track or take a short 30-minute forest walk to a stunning beach on the nearby Truman Track. Get waterside for a serene stand-up-paddle or kayak on the Punakaiki Lagoon or Pororari River.
Surfing on the West Coast sounds like it might be for pros, but conditions at Tauranga Bay are perfect for newbies too. Professional surfer and national surfing judge Mark Perana offers lessons and coaching for all levels, in sheltered Tauranga Bay with its long sandy beach and world-class waves. Or call Bazils Hostel & Surf School for a lesson or board hire. If you’ve never been on a board or you’re looking for some one-on-one pro tips, this is the place to come.
With rapids to suit all abilities, stunning gorges, and underground river options, there’s lots to love about rafting on the West Coast. Based in Reefton, Inland Adventures can arrange grade 3 and 4 rafting adventures on the Grey and Waiau rivers.
South of Westport, historic Charleston offers caving adventures of a different kind. Here you get to float through glow-worm caverns before tumbling down some gentle rapids on the Waitakere River.
Looking for an even lower-effort adventure? In Greymouth, On Yer Bike Adventures offer muddy missions into the 'enchanted' West Coast rainforest via quad bike.
Aotearoa at its best, and recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s most outstanding natural treasures, the vast area of Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand is the place to leave digital distractions behind and immerse yourself in nature.
Start in the little town of Haast, the western gateway to Te Wahipounamu. Perched on the edge of all that wilderness, it’s a base for outdoor adventures of all kinds. There’s walking and hiking, hunting and fishing, as well as a unique jet boat ride. An eco-friendly river safari takes you up the turquoise Waiatoto River into the depths of the dramatic and diverse wilderness that caught UNESCO’s attention (not to mention Lonely Planet, who rate it as one New Zealand’s best boat tours).
Another way to appreciate all this world heritage wilderness is from the air. Scenic helicopter flights take off from Haast and survey cascading waterfalls, alpine lakes, giant glaciers and rugged coastline (look out for Hector’s dolphins).
One of New Zealand’s rarest, Fiordland crested penguins can be spotted on the short but scenic Monro Beach Walk near Haast. They nest here and are often seen bobbing up and down in the surf in spring. Look out for Hector’s dolphins whenever you are near the sea, and New Zealand fur seals too (the largest colony can be seen from the short Cape Foulwind Walkway).
Between Hokitika and Franz Josef, Ōkārito is one of the West Coast’s hidden natural gems.
This tranquil lagoon is best explored by kayak with spectacular mountains-to-sea views and the chance to encounter the rare and mythical kōtuku/white heron. Rare rowi kiwis can be seen (and heard!) in the nearby Ōkārito Forest. For their origin story (and to hear more about conservation on the Coast), visit the hatchery at the West Coast Wildlife Centre.
To get the most out of your day in nature, retreat to a secluded stay after the sun sets. Or watch it go down from your hot tub at the cliff-top, off-grid Woodpecker’s Hut which offers all the simple luxuries you need. Nearby Punakaiki's Ocean Resort is a classic, with the waves so close you will hear them as you fall asleep at night.
South of Punakaiki, Breaker’s Boutique Accommodation is a peaceful beachfront retreat with just four guest rooms, nestled between the Paparoa mountain range and the mighty Tasman Sea. Even further south, you’ll find the Franz Josef Rainforest Retreat. Laidback luxury is the theme here, you can enjoy spa-gazing from your private hot tub under the lush canopy after a day’s exploring.
Wild landscapes, wild food. If you are feeling like getting out of your comfort zone in more ways than one, visit the annual Hokitika Wildfoods Festival (next edition, March 2024). Just about anything goes (in the mouth) here – from barbequed huhu grubs to wasp larvae ice cream.
Many entrepreneurial brewers and distillers have sprung up here in recent years. Try the stylish Reefton Distilling Co. for tastings and tales about their flagship Little Biddy gin, or visit down-to-earth Hopaholics in Greymouth, a sustainable craft brewery that uses pure rain water in their wide range of beers.
Other West Coast classics include whitebait pizza from Fat Pipi (Hokitika), pub grub with a side of history at the Theatre Royal Hotel (Kumara), and the freshest fish ‘n chips on the beach at the quirky Craypot in Jackson Bay where you’ll feel at the end of the world (in the best possible way).