YHA Franz Josef coastline view

Ready for a West Coast Adventure?

The Great Coast Road on the South Island’s West Coast is a treasure trove of bucket list travel experiences. This rugged coastline has a rich history of survival in an unforgiving landscape.

South Island
Walking and Hiking

We’ve put together the top 10 bucket list experiences you shouldn't miss on the West Coast -  each with bonus things to do while you’re in the area!

So grab your shoes, your camera, your sense of adventure and your insect repellant to start ticking of these bucket list experiences!

1. Go way back in time

At the top end of the Coast, nestled in a corner of Kahurangi National Park is the Oparara Basin. Home to Australasia’s largest limestone arch, Oparara Arch, and a 35-million year old complex of caves, arches and channels.

Make sure to bring flat walking shoes, your lunch and a torch to spend a few hours exploring the different arches and caves deep in the beech and podocarp forest. If you’re lucky you may even spot an iconic Whio (Blue Duck) playing in the rapids of the Oparara river on you way to the Arch.

For an even more memorable experience book a guided tour to the restricted access Honeycomb Hill Caves and Arch. This Specially Protected Area is a delicate ecological zone and home to the large and varied fossil collection of more than 50 species including Moa!

Stay at YHA Westport

While you’re in the area:

Halfway between Westport and Karamea is Charming Creek Walkway. And the name doesn’t disappoint!  Following a disused railway line this all day walk has stunning views of Ngakawau Gorge going through railway tunnels, over wooden and suspension bridges and past historic sawmilling and mining remains. As always make sure to check for updates from DOC before setting out!

2. Walk in the footsteps of Pioneers

High above Westport (518 meters to be precise) walk the historical tracks of miners and residents of the isolated Denniston Plateau. At the turn of the 20th century Denniston Plateau was a coal mining hub of the most extreme conditions with only one way up and down – a 1,670 meter incline railway!

Today the views of the coastal plains are unrivalled and you can now drive up! Once at the plateau follow the story boards for a unique glimpse of life in a historic coalmining town, and explore the mining relics left behind. There are three walks to immerse yourself in the history of Denniston including to the top of that famous incline, between the old settlements and mines, and through regenerated native forest.

Stay at YHA Westport

While you’re in the area:

On your way back to Westport locals recommend stopping at Waimangaroa for a coffee and a tour of the Waimangaroa Arts Sculpture Garden – filled to the brim with carving and sculptures!

If you want to keep actively exploring you can’t forget about the Old Ghost Road, the more gentle Kawatiri River Trail, and the Kawatiri Coastal Trail of which stage one opens 6 December 2020.

3. Learn to Surf with a NZ Legend

If you’ve never been on a surf board before (or if it’s been a few years!) Tauranga Bay is the perfect place to give it a go.

Professional surfer and national surfing judge, Mark Perana, offers lessons and coaching for both newbies and advanced surfers for everything from how to stand up to the tricks of the pros. Tauranga Bay is an idyllic sheltered bay free of crowds with a long sandy beach and world-class waves.  

Stay at YHA Westport

While you’re in the area:  

The Cape Foulwind Walkway has panoramic views of mountains and the West Coast’s rugged coastline. The track is 1.5 hours one way or for a shorter walk you can’t miss one of New Zealand’s most accessible kekeno/NZ Fur Seal Colonies. The viewing platform is just 10 minutes from Tauranga Bay car park and suitable for wheelchairs. Between October and March you’ll spot adults (seals that is) lazing on the rocks and pups frolicking in the pools.

4. Go underground

Between Westport and Punakaiki is the tiny town of Charleston where you’ll find one of your biggest adventures on the West Coast. Underworld Adventures take you cave rafting and glow worm spotting in the hidden world of one of NZ’s largest, unmodified cave systems. It’s a breath-taking experience suitable for old and young!

While you’re in the area:

Make sure you don’t skip Westport township! In between exploring ancient landscapes, learning new skills and immersing yourself in history make sure to have a little down time. You won’t regret it! Westport’s main street is home to a variety of boutique shops and bursting at the seams with New Zealand handcrafted gems (not always the sparkly ones sorry!).

5. Marvel at blow holes

Punakaiki is home of the famous pancake rocks! Naturally-formed limestone ravines that look like big stacks of pancakes. Watch the sea surge through gaps in the pancake stacks, waves crash high on the walls, and sea mist spray from holes in the wall! The blow holes in these marvellous formations are most active from a bit before high tide and when the seas are turbulent.

While you’re in the area:

Slightly north of the blowholes and Punakaiki village is the Truman Track. Conveniently, right next door to YHA Punakaiki, Te Nikau Retreat!

“It's truly one of the most amazing short walks with a beautiful beach, a wee waterfall and an impressive rock overhang. Standing on the platform up on the rocks and watching the waves crashing against the rocks is just magnificent!”  - Tami, YHA Punakaiki, Te Nikau Retreat

6. Test out our newest Great Walk

Paparoa Track, New Zealand’s newest Great Walk ends right here in Punakaiki. But never fear if you’re not cut out for multi-day hikes or you just don’t have the time – you can sample the walk!

Set aside a couple of hours for the Pororari River Track, the walkers entry/exit to Paparoa Track. The track follows the tannin stained river through a nikau valley surrounded by towering sheer limestone cliffs on either side. The suspension bridge approximately an hour up the river is your turning point and photo stop for your sample Great Walk!

While you’re in the area:

You can also view this stunning valley from below on a kayaking trip! Head to the mouth of the Pororari River to Punakaiki Canoes to hire a kayak or two to explore the lagoon, limestone gorge and rainforest from a whole other angle. Whether you’re a newbie or an adventurer the team have all the gear you need. Just remember your towel, sunscreen, camera and of course no trip to the West Coast is complete without insect repellant!

7. Carve your own Pounamu

Hokitika is known for its local Pounamu (greenstone/jade) but instead of just perusing the stores for locally carved jewellery why not try your hand at carving? For a truly unique bucket list experience book in with Bonz N Stonz to learn the art from a master carver! During the workshop you’ll learn the significance of carving in Māori culture and the skills to help design your own piece to take home.


While you’re in the area:

For a bite to eat, Hokitika Sandwhich Company is rumoured to offer the best sandwiches since sliced bread. Regularly home to lines down the footpath they’re that good.  Once you’ve had your fill, stop in at a local gallery with huge selections by local craftspeople from photography, to carving, to jewellery all celebrating the beauty of the coast. Then wander down to the beach for a photo in front of the famous driftwood sign!

8. Walk above Giants

For a unique perspective of New Zealand’s native trees drive just 15 minutes south of Hokitika to West Coast Treetop Walk.

The accessible walkway takes you 20 meters into the canopy of West Coast’s famous temperate rainforest of towering rimu and kahikatea. The Hokitika Tower takes you 40 meters above the forest floor for even more spectacular views and quite the adrenaline rush as you feel the forest sway around you! From this height you have sweeping vistas of the Southern Alps and the rugged coastline. And don’t forget to keep an ear out for korimako (NZ Bellbird), tūi, kererū and pīwakawaka!

While you’re in the area:

We’ve all seen the pictures of the bright turquoise water tumbling through a narrow gorge surrounded by a dark green native forest. Welcome to Hokitika Gorge where the water really is that blue (unless there’s been a recent storm!)! The easy 1 hour loop track takes you through lush, dense forest to views of the swift gorge and across the nearby farmland. The boardwalk has regular viewing points, two suspension bridges, small waterfalls and a small beach. You cannot miss adding this spot to your road trip itinerary!

9. Spot a rare NZ Bird

The only place in New Zealand you’re guaranteed to see the graceful and revered Kotuku (white Heron) is right here on the West Coast near Whataroa. The only known nesting site of Kotuku in the country, the brilliant white adults return here from all over the country in September and stay until early March. Visit with a guided tour by the highly rated White Heron Sanctuary Tours

While you're in the area:

For THAT picture perfect mirror image of Aoraki Mt Cook don’t skip Lake Matheson! The walk around the lake starts 30 minutes south of Franz Josef and just a quick 5 minute drive from the main road at Fox Glacier village. The crowds and those in a hurry tend to just do the 40 minute return walk to the first Jetty but for the the ultimate mirror image of Aoraki set aside time for the full 1.5 hour loop track to the aptly named Reflection Island! The best times for still water and a sky that lights up are of course at dusk and dawn.

10. Get up close with a Glacier

The absolute ultimate bucket list experience! Getting up close and personal with a glacier should be on every visitors list. For an on the ground perspective of the grandeur and size of glaciers do the Franz Josef Glacier riverbed walk. This beautiful valley is everchanging – so make sure to follow the signs and barriers! And then there’s our two favourite ways to really get up close with our stunning glaciers: a Glacier Heli-hike or Air Safari’s Grand Traverse. Two very different and equally spectacular experiences!

With the experienced, knowledgeable and friendly team at Franz Josef Glacier Guides you’ll get to walk on an actual glacier. The team will also teach you all about the formation of the glacier and surrounding area, take you past giant crevasses and if you’re lucky even give you a photo op in a blue ice cave!

According to our local staff, the Grand traverse is the best scenic flight in New Zealand! There’s no snow landing but instead you’re treated to 55 minutes exploring the Southern Alps from above and covering off 20 scenic spots. The feeling of how tiny you are and how massive the glaciers, mountains and lakes are leaves you feeling giddy!

While you’re in the area:

If you're continuing to head south to Wanaka (or North from Wanaka!) and are in the mood for some local food stop at Curly Tree Whitebait at the mouth of the Waita River just before Haast.  It’s just a little shack that sells fresh whitebait patties with sliced bread but it’s a pretty cool local thing to try!

For more of a detour turn south at Haast and head to Jackson Bay. The Craypot is a quirky caravan style Café/restaurant on the esplanade. “The Crayfish and fish and chips are amazing and the views are stunning!” – Georgie, YHA Franz Josef (now closed).

Then on the other side of Haast Pass finish off your West Coast Road trip with a stop at Fantail Falls before soaking in the very different views of the Wanaka area! But that’s another bucket list entirely!

Getting There

To fully appreciate the West Coast you’ll need two nights in each of Westport, Punakaiki, Hokitika and Franz Josef on your Great Coast Road Trip.

To get there we recommend flying into Christchurch or Queenstown and hiring a car. That way you can drive the length of the coast or even just to take a taster of part of it! With your own wheels you’ll be able to take in the remoteness and the alpine scenery at your own pace.

Other options include flying into Hokitika with Air New Zealand or to Westport with Sounds Air, or take the world class TranzAlpine Train from Christchurch to Greymouth before embarking on your road trip!

Jasmine Jellyman

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