West Coast Travel Guide - Common Questions & Answers
Here's a handy travel guide to the West Coast of the South Island, answering common questions like what's the best time to go, what are the best walks and activities, what's the weather like and where should I stay?
The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a remote wilderness of seemingly untouched natural beauty. Famed for its stunning glaciers, wild coastline and lush native forest, the West Coast is also home to a rich and rugged history as well as a friendly - albeit a little quirky – local population. Covering an approximate 500km stretch of winding roads and tiny townships, the West Coast can be something of a conundrum to visitors with limited time. So we’ve put together your go-to guide for travelling the West Coast, covering all the key questions about where to visit, what to do, what to expect and what not to miss.
Where is the West Coast?
Let's start with the basics, New Zealand has two islands but you'll often hear people talk about travelling the "West Coast" so you would be forgiven if you wondered which part of the country we're talking about. Especially if you're visiting from overseas, when you hear people talk about the West Coast they're usually referring to the West Coast of the South Island. Specifically the route which SH6 follows from Haast, through Glacier Country, up to Punakaiki and on to Westport.
Take a look at our West Coast Travel Map on Google Maps below, complete with our suggested West Coast itinerary and recommended stops.
Why visit the West Coast?
The West Coast isn’t just a destination; it is a journey of itself. With each of ‘The Coast’s’ destinations offering something a little bit different, the need to explore is vital. Wild, windswept beaches with not a soul in sight; verdant native rainforest, filled with the trill of birds found nowhere else on earth; enormous icy glaciers, so close you can almost touch them; welcoming little towns, home to larger-than-life characters... There are so many reasons to visit the West Coast, but here are some of the best:
- Walk on a glacier, a beach and a rainforest track in the same day – a unique New Zealand experience.
- Immerse yourself in the West Coast’s fascinating history, from Māori settlement to the arrival of European gold prospectors and beyond.
- Uncover the locations written about in New Zealand’s two Man Booker Prize-winning novels, The Luminaries and The Bone People – both set on the West Coast.
- Discover the beauty, history and spiritual significance of pounamu (greenstone or jade). See craftspeople forging it into beautiful jewellery and purchase your own piece to take home.
- View the beautiful white heron (kotuku) at New Zealand’s only white heron breeding ground in remote Okarito.
- Be awed by the stunning geographic landforms along the Great Coast Road – one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world according to Lonely Planet.
- Enjoy the tranquil beech forests and abundant waterfalls along the beautiful Haast Pass – part of Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Get off the beaten track to meet the quirky locals and their unique businesses like the Possum Fur Trading Centre or the Curly Tree Whitebait Company.
Here are some of our favourite West Coast pictures from recent trips
What’s the best time to visit the West Coast?
With a temperate climate, there is no bad time to visit the West Coast. Late summer (February) tends to brings a number of drier days with pleasant temperatures, while winter days will often start with frosts but clear into beautiful, clear and crisp afternoons. Spring (September – November) is typically the wettest season. Because of it's low altitude it very rarely snows on the coast and winter (June - August) has many sunny days.
Monthly temperature, rainfall and sunshine hours for the West Coast
|When are you visiting?||Temperature Range||Average Rainfall||Average Sunshine hours|
|January||12 - 20°C
54 - 68°F
|February||13 - 21°C
55 - 69°F
|March||11 - 19°C
53 - 67°F
|April||9 - 17°C
48 - 63°F
|May||6 - 14°C
43 - 58°F
|June||4 - 13°C
39 - 55°F
|July||3 - 12°C
38 - 54°F
|August||4 - 13°C
40 - 55°F
|September||6 - 14°C
43 - 58°F
|October||8 - 16°C
46 - 60°F
|November||10 - 17°C
49 - 63°F
|December||11 - 19°C
52 - 66°F
How much does it rain in the West Coast?
You can’t have rainforest without rain! So, although beautiful year-round, the West Coast is well-known for its abundant wet weather. Rainfall varies along the whole western side of the South Island and in some places, such as Karamea near the top of the West Coast, the annual rainfall figures (1,868mm / 73.5 inches per annum) aren’t much higher than those for central Auckland (1,284mm / 50.5 inches per annum).
How long do I need to travel the West Coast?
If, like many visitors, you have approximately three weeks in New Zealand, we suggest spending three nights on the West Coast. This allows you to explore the key destinations, drive much of the stunning coast road without hurrying and continue easily on to your next New Zealand destination. The coast can be explored in either direction, but we think south to north makes the most sense, starting in beautiful Wanaka. This means you can drive the spectacular Haast Pass as a gentle introduction to the wonder of the wild West Coast. From there, you have numerous options for your first overnight, depending how far you wish to travel, and can then continue north to Nelson, or take the scenic Arthur’s Pass route (by car or train) across to the east coast city of Christchurch.
What is the best itinerary for the West Coast?
There are many ways to experience the West Coast depending on your timeframe and interests. However, over decades of visits, we believe we’ve honed the perfect itinerary for those wanting a true West Coast experience.
Day 1: Wanaka - Haast Pass – Franz Josef
Driving time: 4-5 hours
Starting in Wanaka (as opposed to Queenstown) not only allows you to experience the lakeside beauty of Wanaka but also gives you a head start on your journey, allowing more time to soak in the wonder of the stunning Haast Pass enroute to the spectacular glacier and rainforest of Franz Josef.
Tip: Make a side trip to see the incredible reflecting waters of Lake Matheson.
Day 2: Franz Josef – Hokitika – Punakaiki
Driving time: 3-4 hours
Spend some time enjoying the natural wonders and walking trails of Franz Josef Glacier before continuing on to the busy little town of Hokitika. The greenstone capital of New Zealand is home to an abundance of craftspeople whom you can watch work, and purchase their wares. Finish your day on the beach at Punakaiki.
Tip: Make a side trip to experience a guided eco tour of Okarito Lagoon.
Day 3: Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park
Driving time: Minimal
Stay put for a day to really enjoy the subtropical rainforest, limestone cliffs and unbelievable rock formations of the Punakaiki area. Walking tracks abound, through bush or along the coast. Enjoy a second night in Punakaiki.
Tip: Watch the sun set from the beach: a quintessential and unforgettable West Coast experience.
Day 4: Punakaiki – Arthur’s Pass – Christchurch
Driving time: 4-4.5 hours
Leaving the West Coast, you’ll head to Greymouth where you can choose to take the TranzAlpine train journey across the main divide to Christchurch, or continue by road, through Arthur’s Pass National Park and over the phenomenal Otira Gorge.
Tip: If driving, stop off at Castle Hill to explore the huge limestone rock formations.
What are the best things to do on the West Coast?
With so much on offer, it’s tricky to narrow down the top activities and attractions on the West Coast. Here are our favourites:
- Glacier Walks and Heli-Hiking
There are few places on earth where you can get up close and personal with a glacier. Perhaps the best-known activity on the West Coast, heli-hiking on either Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier incorporates the thrill of a helicopter ride with the unforgettable experience of hiking across an aeons-old glacier. If you prefer to stay grounded, the valley walks at Franz Josef Glacier are another excellent way to experience the grandeur of this mighty river of ice, bringing you very close to the glacier face.
- Lake Matheson
If you’re looking for an activity that exemplifies the rich natural beauty of the West Coast, you can’t go past Lake Matheson. Located 5km west of Fox Glacier township, this small lake is famous for its perfect mirror-like reflections of the surrounding ancient forest and towering snowy peaks of the Southern Alps. An easy walking track circumnavigates the lake, offering numerous photo opportunities amidst the dense native rainforest.
- Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park
This section of the West Coast is famed for its unusual rock formations, reminiscent of stacked pancakes – hence the name ‘Pancake Rocks’. But the surrounding national park is also worth a visit for its incredible ecological diversity. A range of interesting and easy walking tracks are on offer in and around Punakaiki, from short trails that lead to secluded beaches, to loop tracks amongst limestone cliffs, abundant rainforest and the song of native birds.
- Nature Cruise on Okarito Lagoon
A cruise upon Okarito Lagoon is a must for amateur ornithologists and ecologists. The lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified natural wetland and home to an abundance of birdlife at varying times of the year. Feathered residents include the white heron/kotuku, eastern bar-tailed godwit, royal spoonbill, bitterns, stilts and dotterels. Whether you tick all of those birds off your list or not, an eco-cruise at Okarito will teach you about the local ecology, plant life and history. And if none of that interests you, just sit back and enjoy the expansive coastal, forest and alpine views.
- Nile River Glow Worm Caves
Explore the depths of the phenomenal Paparoa National Park with this highly-recommended journey into the Nile River Cave system. Travel into the rainforest with an informative guide and discover an ancient underground world full of incredible calcite formations, limestone rock structures and luminescent glow worms! This magical eco-adventure into an untouched part of the world departs from the settlement of Charleston and takes 3.5 hours. While accessible to many, participants must be confident to walk unassisted over uneven surfaces for up to two hours.
The bustling beach-side town of Hokitika is on our list of must-visit destinations for so many reasons! From its rich history of gold and pounamu/greenstone discoveries, to its modern-day persona as a haven for art and craftspeople, Hokitika is a fascinating little place with a lively vibe. Explore the town on foot: peruse the numerous galleries; watch carvers and craftspeople forge unique pieces of jewellery and art from pounamu, copper, wood and glass; discover the locations brought to life in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries; wander the wild local beach and nearby rainforest tracks. Our tips: remember your camera and be prepared to stock up on beautiful, unique souvenirs to remind you of this great little West Coast destination.
See pictures from recent trips of guests enjoying the best West Coast activities
What are the best short walks on the West Coast?
With such a stunning backdrop of lush rainforest, wild coastline and awe-inspiring glaciers, short walks on the West Coast are always something special. Below we’ve selected our top picks from the many short walks you can do on the West Coast:
- Blue Pools Track: Located at the bottom of the West Coast on the Haast Highway, the Blue Pools Track is well worth a stop. This easy 45 minute-return track will take you through mature native forest, along boardwalks and over a swing bridge to reach the stunning clear Blue Pools.
- Ship Creek: Just north of Haast you’ll encounter the Ship Creek area, offering a couple of lovely short walks that highlight the diversity of the landscape here. The Ship Creek Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk is a short 20-minute stroll that showcases the ancient kahikatea swamp forest that made up much of the West Coast’s landscape before humans settled here. The nearby Ship Creek Dune Lake Walk incorporates sand dunes, boardwalks and coastal forest before reaching a picturesque dune lake. An easy 30-minute walk.
- Lake Matheson: So good we’ve mentioned it twice! The Lake Matheson track near Fox Glacier township is a 2.6km/1.6mile flat circuit on a well-maintained trail that takes around 1.5 hours to complete. The lake itself was formed thousands of years ago when Fox Glacier retreated, forming a depression which eventually became the lake. Bring the camera for this one: also known as ‘Mirror Lake’, Lake Matheson is renowned for the incredible mirror-image reflections it affords of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.
- Franz Josef Glacier Valley: An absolute ‘must-do’ when you’re on the West Coast is the 1.5-hour return walk into the Franz Josef Glacier Valley. With access to Fox Glacier Valley now closed, this is your only chance to view a mighty West Coast glacier face-to-face. The 5.5km/3mile long track will guide you through rainforest and along the valley to a glacier viewing point. Graded ‘moderate’, the track has some uneven surfaces, stream-crossings and variations in elevation – but it’s well worth the effort!
- Pororari River Walk: After visiting the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, be sure to allow enough time for this special 1.5 to 2-hour walk in the Paparoa National Park. Meander the easy trail at your own pace, following a limestone gorge filled with verdant West Coast rainforest. Take your time to enjoy the views from the lookout and the swingbridge before you return. 7km/4.3 miles return.
- Cape Foulwind Walkway: Considered one of the best short walks in the country, this coastal track is known for its populous seal colony and expansive ocean views. Located 16km from Westport, the wide gravel trail leads you to a viewpoint for a New Zealand fur seal breeding colony. Keep your eye out for the occasional seabird or blue penguin here too. Continue north along the stunning coastline to the picturesque Cape Foulwind lighthouse, with historic information panels along the way. This track is 3.4km/2.1 miles and takes around 1 hour 15 mins each way.
See pictures of our favourite short walks on the West Coast
Where is the best place to visit the Glaciers on the West Coast?
One of the big drawcards of the West Coast is ‘Glacier Country’. Many visitors come here to see, walk to or even walk on one of the two famous West Coast glaciers: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Both glaciers are equally special and you’ll never get us to favour one over the other! But here’s our tips for the best places to experience the West Coast glaciers:
- Franz Josef Glacier: Take the Franz Josef Glacier Valley walk (mentioned above) for excellent views of the entire glacier valley, and a close-up of the glacier itself. The other option here is to book a helicopter flight which will take you up onto the glacier for one of many experiences, from a scenic flight to a short glacier hike to an ice climbing experience (for the more experienced!).
- Fox Glacier: As of August 2019, access to the Fox Glacier Valley has been closed indefinitely. As such, it’s no longer possible to walk up the valley to the glacier face. However, we know of a few great viewpoints where it’s still possible to view Fox Glacier, like the short Chalet Lookout Track. Our favourite viewing spot, however, would be from Gillespies Beach, just out of Fox Glacier township. Where else in the world can you stand on a wild beach and stare across the rainforest to the towering alps and glaciers beyond? Despite limited road access, Fox Glacier can still be reached by air, whether for a scenic flight, a short heli-hike or an all-day heli-trek.
What are the roads like on the West Coast?
Like much of New Zealand, the roads on the West Coast are narrow, winding and surrounded by unbelievably beautiful scenery! As such, it’s often a good idea to add an hour or more on to your expected travel time to allow for unexpected photo stops, or to navigate a particularly windy section of road. With its high rainfall, West Coast roads are also often subject to hazardous conditions caused by extreme weather events such as flooding and landslides. Extreme caution and a good knowledge of New Zealand’s road rules is required if navigating these roads by car as the scenery, weather and unfamiliar rules can all become dangerously distracting. If you’re uncertain about driving the West Coast yourself, let us do it for you with one of our small group tours. Our experienced guides have driven these roads for decades and know all the best places to stop, meaning you can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride (not to mention all the amazing scenery you would otherwise miss!).
Discover the West Coast with MoaTrek
The West Coast of New Zealand really is like nowhere else on earth. At MoaTrek New Zealand we have been bringing visitors to the West Coast for decades, sharing the secret spots, unforgettable adventures and special scenery that we grew up with. If the West Coast is on your must-visit list, join our Kea 7 Day West Coast Tour. Our experienced guides will take you to all the key destinations on the West Coast with a small group of like-minded travellers. You’ll travel in comfort at a relaxed pace, allowing plenty of time to discover and explore the glaciers, beaches, rainforest and towns of the spectacular West Coast on a journey of a lifetime.