Best places to see on the West Coast, New Zealand
The West Coast of New Zealand's South Island is mainly known for two things; incredible scenery and incredibly bad weather. Don’t let that second part scare you off though, even with its often rainy weather a West Coast road trip is definitely worth your time, and on a good day, the West Coast is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Just don’t forget your rain jacket. There is enough to see to keep you entertained for at least a few days, so without further ado, these are the best things to do on the New Zealand West Coast:
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We recommend to start your New Zealand West Coast road trip by driving up from Wanaka and entering the West Coast through Haast Pass. The drive up past Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka is (although not officially part of the West Coast) already incredibly scenic, and then the Haast Pass offers even more beautiful sights to see. The Haast Region is in fact deemed so spectacular, that UNESCO declared it a “World Heritage” area.
When driving up from Wanaka, the Blue Pools should be your first stop in the Haast Pass. The Blue Pools are (you guessed it!) pools with incredibly blue, crystal clear water set amidst a beautiful river valley. A short 10-minute walk takes you from the car park to the Blue Pools, crossing two swing bridges. If you’re brave enough and like a bit of an adrenaline kick, you can jump off the second swing bridge into the Blue Pools. Braveness here isn’t necessary related to the height of the bridge, because it isn’t that high, but to the ice and ice cold water you’d be jumping in.
Best time to go: Early morning if you want to avoid the crowds, or in the afternoon if you want the water to be really blue, as its colour becomes brighter once the sun hits it.
WilsonS Creek Gorge
A 10-minute drive further up the road from the Blue Pools you’ll go over a small bridge. Under this bridge flows Wilsons Creek. Not far from the road, Wilsons Creek flows through an unmarked and unnamed but gorgeous little gorge (pun intended), with small waterfalls dropping down everywhere. You can find this gorge here. Park your car in the gravel pull off on the side of the road just after the bridge, and walk back to the bridge. Climb down the rocks next to the bridge and follow the stream up into the gorge. Wear water shoes if you have them, because the rocks can be slippery and the water is sooooooo frickin’ cold (we know that’s a lot of ‘O’s, but we’re not exaggerating)! Once inside you’ll hopefully forget about the cold for a few seconds as you see how beautiful this spot really is.
Best time to go: In the afternoon when the sun is high up. If the light hits right you can see the sun rays coming through the little waterfalls in the gorge, giving it an extra magical feeling.
Fantail Falls & Secret waterfall
Literally a 2 minute drive from Wilsons Creek lie the popular Fantail Falls. Personally, we weren’t really impressed with the Fantail Falls, but since they’re basically next to the road checking them out doesn’t really cost you any time. There is however another, more appealing reason to visit this spot. Close to the Fantail Falls, you can find another waterfall if you know where to look. Fortunately for you, we know where to look.
From the car park, walk towards the Fantail Falls untill you’ve crossed the water (the Haast River). Then, instead of going straight to the Fantail Falls, go left and follow the water untill you get to a T-intersection in the river. Follow the arm to the right upstream, and at the end you’ll find the secret waterfall. If there hasn't been much rainfall in the past few days, the water should only get up to your knees and you can walk to the waterfall through the water. If there has been a lot of rainfall, you might need to scramble up and down the riverbank a bit to reach the waterfall. Unfortunately we don’t have a picture of this waterfall, because we didn’t know how far we were able to go and did not want to risk our camera gear getting wet.
Best time to go: After midday. The waterfall is in the shade the whole day, and the water is really cold, so if you go in the afternoon you’ll at least be able to warm up in the sun after visiting the waterfall.
When you’ve made it through Haast Pass you actually arrive on the West Coast of New Zealand. From here beautiful coastal views stretch out on your left and impressive mountain ranges tower on the right. On this part of the drive you’ll pass quite a few lakes. There are many lakes scattered throughout the West Coast region, but none of them are as scenic as Lake Matheson. Lake Matheson is located in the forest close to Fox Glacier, but the scenery that makes Lake Matheson so memorable isn’t the Fox Glacier, but Mount Cook and Mount Tasman clearly visible over the lake. To make this spot even better, the dark water of the lake serves as a mirror, showing you perfect a reflection of these mountains on a clear and wind-still day. A walk around the lake takes about 1-1,5 hours and you’ll get the best views from the Jetty Viewpoint and a spot on the other side of the lake called Reflection Island.
Best time to go: On a reasonably clear and windstill day during sunset so you can see the reflection of the mountains and the sunset in the lake.
Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier
Even though the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are massive tourist hotspots, we won’t pay much attention to them in this blog post. That is because in our opinion these glaciers are kinda underwhelming. We’re sure that they used to be an incredible sight, but now they’re retracted so much that there really isn’t that much to see anymore. That is, unless you’re willing to splurge. If so, then have a look Heli Hiking.
A helicopter takes you up the the Franz Josef Glacier and lands on the ice. From here your guide takes you on a two hour hike, exploring narrow crevasses, blue ice tunnels and ice caves. That sounds pretty awesome right?! You can even take it a step further and opt for an overnight glacier hike. This also starts with a helicopter ride and a hike on the glacier, but the hike continues to an alpine camp on the glacier where you’ll spend the night. This camp is located on the edge of a dark sky reserve, where you can see the night sky clearer than almost anywhere else. For those who reach a bit deeper into their pockets the glaciers can be an awesome experience, but if you’re just driving through and want to check out the glaciers from a distance, then we don’t recommend spending more than a day here.
You know those places that look incredible in pictures, but then the real thing is a massive let down? We can assure you that with the Hokitika Gorge this is not the case. If anything, the Hokitika Gorge looks even better in real life. The Hokitika Gorge lies 33 kilometers inland from the small coastal town Hokitika and is worth every second of your detour. A short walk from the car park takes you to a swing bridge over the gorge with the blueest water you can imagine. Continue down the track for another 200 meters to get to a viewing point on the rocks from where you can see the gorge around the river bend upstream, and the swing bridge downstream
Best time to go: Just as with the Blue Pools, the colour of the water becomes the brightest blue when the sun hits it, so late morning is the best time to visit if you want the biggest “wow” effect.
The New Zealand West Coast is well known for its rugged coastline, and we honestly think that just driving along the coast on the Coast Road is one of the nicest activities to do on the West Coast. Even when, or maybe especially when it is a bit rainy and foggy, because it gives the coastline this mysterious, moody feel. Our favourite part is the windy and rugged section between Greymouth and Barrytown. Especially this lookout point provides a breathtaking view over the rugged cliffs, windy road, the hills to the east, the often rough sea to the west and some big picturesque rocks in the water just off the coast. Two kilometers further up the road is another roadside car park that looks directly onto these rocks, and is also the start of the Motukiekie Beach walk. We haven't done this walk ourselves, but we’re told that there are some cool caves in the cliffs, and that depending on the tide and the time of the year, you can see heaps of bright coloured starfish on the rocks.
Best time to go: Sunsets on the West Coast of New Zealand are absolutely breathtaking, so take a drive on this part of the Coast Road during sunset and you’re guaranteed that your jaw will drop (unless it is pouring down with rain)!
Pancake Rocks & Blowholes
The Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki are limestone rock formations that look like stacks of pancakes. This doesn’t sound like much of an attraction, but it actually looks very cool, with deep cracks in between them with seawater rushing through. Combine that with some pretty spectacular blowholes and you’ve got yourself another interesting stop for your road trip. From the car park, a 20-minute loop track takes you in between the pancake stack-shaped limestone rocks and past the blowholes, giving you several vantage points to witness the water blast up into the air. After seeing the Pancake Rocks, have a pancake at the café next to the car park.
Best time to go: High tide to see the blowholes in full effect.
Karamea is literally the end of the road. It is a 100-kilometer detour (one way) from the point where 99% of the people end their West Coast road trip and head inland so you can be sure that you won’t find many tourists, or people in general, in Karamea. We’re not making it sound very appealing, we can hear you saying, but if you love going off the beaten path, it most certainly is! Karamea is an untouched corner of the country with a bit of a post-apocalyptic feel. Here you’ll find empty but beautiful beaches, shipwrecks, trainwrecks, stunning rock arches, caves, waterfalls, windy rivers and plenty of walks where you’ll feel like you’re the last person on the planet. If you’re not a big fan of that feeling but still want to do some hiking; Karamea is also the starting (or ending) point of the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks.
The Buller River flows from Lake Rotoiti, in the middle of the Nelson Lakes district, all the way to Westport where it adds its water to the Tasman Sea. This river roars and winds its way through beautiful mountain valleys, and the best thing; the road inland follows the river upstream its whole 170-kilometers lenght, so you can see every gorgeous bit of it. If you’re keen on a bit of adrenaline, you can raft parts of the river, and there is a massive swing bridge and zipline going over the river as well.
The West Coast is an untamed region full of rivers, rugged coastlines, lakes, rainforests and other treasures of nature. Even with its often shitty weather, it is well worth a visit as it is one of New Zealand’s most pristine areas. Grab your camera, hiking shoes and raincoat, and were sure that you’ll come to love this harsh but oh so beautiful stretch of land.
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