The Best Places to Visit on New Zealand's West Coast
The West Coast of New Zealand is a remote and beautiful stretch of our South Island that we love to visit on our New Zealand hiking tours. Its unique climate, towering mountain peaks and lush native rainforest make for a magical journey full of unforgettable experiences you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world. If exploring New Zealand’s West Coast is on your must-do travel list, read on to find out what it’s like exploring with New Zealand Trails.
Getting to the West Coast
Stretching over 650km(400 miles) along the edge of the South Island, the West Coast is a magical, ever-changing place that is an absolute must-visit for anyone coming to New Zealand. Separated from the rest of the South Island by the Southern Alps mountain range which runs nearly the entire length of the island, it is only accessible via three alpine passes. Each of these are magnificent feats of engineering in their own right and favourite drives of all New Zealand Trails guides who are lucky enough to call this place their office.
Today we’re heading to the West Coast from Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass on a lovely spring morning, myself and my excited new group heading towards the mountains still covered in snow above the treeline. The drive through the pass is one of amazing contrasts, with the open fields and braided rivers of the Canterbury region slowly giving way to the dense native bush and mountains of the West Coast. This special area is protected as one of New Zealand's 13 National Parks. Many of New Zealand’s ski fields are passed along the way before we cross the Great Divide and officially enter the West Coast region. The Southern Alps lie directly above where the Pacific and the Australian tectonic plates meet, the force of which has caused these mountains, some over 3,000m (10,000ft) high, to slowly rise from the ocean below over millions of years
Exploring the West Coast
As we follow the mighty Otira River to the Tasman Sea, a clearing in the mountains appears and we get our first glimpse of the thin strip of fertile land that announces our arrival on the coast. The West Coast is only 33km (20miles) wide at the most from the mountains to the sea, with this dropping to zero in places where the peaks seemingly disappear into the ocean below. The population of the entire region is only 40,000 people, of which nearly half live in or around our first port of call, Greymouth.
Being the largest town on the coast, Greymouth is a hub for locals and visitors alike and has a rich history of mining and fishing. The famous Tranz-Alpine train between here and Christchurch has been voted one of the world’s most scenic railways, crossing a series of bridges and tunnels as it carves its way through the mountains above. Greymouth is also home to a West Coast institution, the Monteith Brewery, which has been brewing the local’s favourite drop for well over 150 years. It is so ingrained in the community that when it was sold to a larger brewery and operations moved away, locals protested by refusing to buy the beer until they were forced to return due to lost sales. Daily tours and tasting are available onsite along with an amazing restaurant.
Half an hour up the road is one of the true geological wonders of not only New Zealand but the world. Punakaiki, more commonly known as the Pancake rocks, are an amazing formation of limestone cliffs shaped like, you guessed it, stacks of pancakes. Formed initially under the ocean, then smoothed by the weather once above the surface. They have to be seen to be believed and luckily a fantastic walkway has been built to explore the best of them. With the ocean constantly moulding the formations, natural bridges and blowholes have formed, while native trees and plants still cling to the tops of the rocks.
*Being one of the most popular sights in the whole South Island, we plan our timings carefully to avoid the crowds, adding to the serenity of this magical place.
Besides the main attraction, Punakaiki has countless amazing beaches and walkways, including the start of the Paparoa Trail, one of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks. As part of our Grand Explorer Trip, we enjoy a delightful night here in our beachfront accommodation. After a great night's sleep, we make our way back down The Great Coast road, voted one of the top 10 coastal roads in the world, as we head to the beautiful seaside town of Hokitika. The town sits on the northern shore of its namesake, the Hokitika River, whose emerald water cascades down from the mountains through the famous Hokitika Gorge.
Hokitika itself has an amazing array of shops and cafes run by friendly local residents but is best known for its incredible Pounamu/Greenstone galleries. Similar to Jade, this stone is only found on the West Coast and is highly prized by the indigenous Maori people. So much so that the name for the South Island in the Te Reo Maori language is “Te Wai Pounamu”, which means “Land of the Greenstone”.
As we venture further South, the road enters amazing thick Beech forest, sometimes almost encircling the road before it gives way to crystal clear glacial rivers and snow-capped peaks. Small farms are dotted along the coast, with our visit in Springtime meaning lambs and calves fill the fields embracing the afternoon sun. Amazing kettle lakes appear through the bush, formed by massive chunks of ice the size of small towns left behind during the last ice age. The forest sediment which is washed into these lakes gives them an amazing reflective quality with a photo stop or two essential!
The Glaciers that formed these lakes also carved the large valleys which are a prominent feature of the West Coast, and in particular our next destination, The Westland/Tai Poutini National Park, more commonly known as “Glacier Country”. Covering an 85km (50 mile) stretch of the West Coast, this National Park is filled with amazing mountains, lakes, rivers and temperate rainforest. But these are just the entrée to its most impressive features, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Two of the only three Glaciers in the world that finish in a rainforest. Before you Google it, the other is in Patagonia (Chile).
Franz Josef Glacier is our first stop, with the lovely township bearing its name our home for the night. Set in the rainforest within walking distance of the glacial valley, it is a lovely township of roughly 300 people, with delicious cafes and restaurants for the weary traveller. After settling into our hotel we head down to the glacier valley and walk the winding trail up to the edge of the forest where we are greeted by amazing views of the Franz Josef Glacier descending over 2500m (8,000ft) from the mountains above. Franz Josef is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, sometimes moving up to 4 metres (12ft) a day. Sadly, the terminal face of the glacier has receded up the valley to a point where it is no longer possible to walk onto the ice without the help of a helicopter, although this space is now filled with waterfalls and rainforest slowly reclaiming the valley. The valley and township also has several other amazing walks and hikes offering different perspectives of the glacier.
Another must-do when in Franz Josef is make the short journey out to the small town of Okarito, set on a beautiful estuary in the shadow of the Southern Alps. We are lucky enough to get the chance to do a kayak trip around the estuary, a perfect sheltered spot to enjoy a relaxing paddle while enjoying the views and the array of local birdlife that call this area home. Our guides have a wealth of knowledge and a passion for nature, letting us know about the great work the locals are doing protecting endangered native species such as the Kiwi bird.
The next day it’s off to Fox Glacier, an equally impressive glacier 32km (20 miles) down the road. With New Zealand’s tallest mountains, Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, towering above, Fox Glacier flows like a river through the surrounding forest before an actual river carries the melted ice out to the Tasman Sea. An amazing viewpoint of the Glacier is down near Lake Matheson, a mirror lake that provides one of the best views of our tallest peaks, both normally and upside down. There is also a newly built walkway up the side of the glacial valley through the Jurassic rainforest which is a must-do when visiting. We are lucky enough to visit Fox Glacier on a lovely crisp Spring morning, with the mist giving the rainforest an almost mystical quality and the dead calm lakes providing a perfect reflection while the abundant birdlife act as the orchestra for our arrival.
A freshly ground coffee at the Reflections Cafe with a view of Aoraki/Mt Cook provides a perfect last stop for our time on the West Coast, with a scenic drive down to the town of Haast a final chance to soak up the magical few days we’ve spent in paradise. From here my personal favourite drive through the Haast Pass provides our gateway to the Central Lakes District, but that's a story for another day.
The three days we spent on the West Coast gave us a glimpse of a place that is a world of its own, carved by the forces of nature, with some of the most beautiful natural phenomena found anywhere in the world. The locals are equally unique, welcoming us to enjoy the laid-back lifestyle of “the coast” away from the worries of the world.
Explore the West Coast with New Zealand Trails
While the places we’ve mentioned are the highlights for good reason, in truth there is magic around every corner. The rainforest regulates the temperature meaning there is no bad time to visit, with the fresh mountain air seemingly breathing new life into you each time you inhale. The West Coast is a place everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime and is one of our favourite places to share with our guests, telling the tales of the land that bring this region to life.
We visit the West Coast on all of our 14-day, all-inclusive South Island tours. From our adventurous yet indulgent Grand Explorer tour to our true-blue hiking adventure the Kiwi Classic. If you’d like to find out more about our incredible New Zealand adventures grab a copy of our FREE BROCHURE or get in touch – we’d love to chat!