Best places to visit on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand

Horseriding at Wharariki Beach

It’s correctly said the scenery of New Zealand’s South Island is that of a dozen countries rolled into one. Huge beaches and remote coastal expanses, rainforests, stunning lakes, lofty mountains, raging rivers and deep gorges, massive glaciers and lengthy, twisting fiords. Better still is that you can visit any time of the year and not be disappointed with what the seasons have to offer.

Lake Matheson with Southern Alps behind

Why the West Coast? 

This voyage of discovery is designed to introduce you to the traditional destinations on the West Coast of New Zealand as we know them, though also suggest some others so as to make your time here truly worthwhile.

I’m John Dunne and born and bred not far away. Known to all as Dunney, I live in the high country of the South Island where I’ve been a tour guide, mountain host and ski teacher.  These are my recommendations for a great West Coast of New Zealand experience! Just be sure to pack plenty of bug spray!

Map of West Coast of South Island

Upper North West

Wharariki Beach.

Why go here? It’s wild, remote and picturesque.

Accessible via Golden Bay and the small settlements of Collingwood and Puponga the beach is arguably one of New Zealand’s finest. Just follow the road signs. It’s wind swept, vast and remote and is near the northern tip of the West Coast and dominated by two large archway islands on the Tasman Sea shore. If you’re up for an easy enough walk through some forest and farm land and into photography, then this place is for you. It’s rich in wildlife and not uncommon to see seals lounging around the rocky caves and outcrops while many a coastal and sea going bird can be seen diving about the place. Swimming is prohibited here though surfing isn’t, with the best conditions being in the winter months especially June. You could spend a day exploring this area though be warned the weather is often a potpourri of the wildest events on offer. The best time to visit the beach is at low tide and horse trekking is also popular. Cape Farewell short walk is also nearby.

Heaphy / Karamea.

Why go here? t’s a hiker biker paradise.

Speaking of remote the northernmost town of any real size on the West Coast is Karamea. It’s about an hour north of Westport by road with the settlement itself on a large flat coastal plane. Surrounded on three sides by the Kahurangi National Park with it’s western aspect the Tasman Sea. The area is hugely popular with mountain bikers and hikers. The southern end of one of New Zealand’s nine great walks, the Heaphy Track, is about 20 kms north of the town and the western end of another track, the Wangapeka, is in the same area. Karamea has all the usual services with a supermarket, fuel, hotel, motels and backpackers included. It rains in Karamea 40% of the time though with 2000 sunshine hours a year is the sunniest place on the West Coast.

South of Karamea, the still operational harbour of Westport is handy to it’s popular suburb Carters Beach and Cape Foulwind. Carters Beach is a sheltered swimming beach and has good accommodation options including a top ten holiday park. Nearby Cape Foulwind and Tauranga Bay offer good surfing too. Westport is the oldest town on the West Coast and is rich in gold and coal mining history too and back in the day boasted about 14 pubs on its main street.

West Coast Region

Pancake Rocks.

Why go here? Because, I told you why, because..

Trucking south and part way between Westport and Greymouth is the small village of Punakaiki and home to the famous Pancake Rocks. This a limestone landscape of flat shaped rocks like pancakes stacked on top of each other. There are pools and blowholes on a short and easy paved walkway in a loop track that’s wheelchair friendly and takes about 20 minutes. The rocks are old and began forming 30 odd million years ago when lime rich body parts of dead marine creatures mixed with the sea bed. 

Like a lot of places this is national park and dogs are not permitted. As expected the photo opportunities are huge, the nearby beach combing brilliant and the local rivers outstanding for paddling and swimming, with lots of hiking tracks handy. There’s also an excellent range of accommodation.

Gird your loins and continue south on the Great Coast Road towards Greymouth about 40 minutes south of Punakaiki and the Pancake Rocks. The Tasman Sea can be brooding, violent and unrelenting, though always makes for a magnificent sight.

Pancake Rocks


Why go here? It’s a hub the West Coast area.

You’re now at the western end of the midland rail line for the world renowned Tranz Alpine Scenic Train which traverses the South Island from Christchurch. Greymouth has a rich gold, coal mining and timber history and the Grey River is still a busy fishing port.

A little further to the south of Greymouth is the Shantytown Heritage Park.  This is a faithfully recreated mining town staffed by characters re enacting old town scenarios as well offering activities like steam rides and gold panning. There’s a range of accommodation in the area too.


Why go here? For the Greenstone.

40 kms to the south of Greymouth is the popular destination of Hokitika. The town of a few thousand people is near the river mouth of the same name and handy to the beach on the Tasman Sea.

It’s a great shopping area to walk around. The main street dominated by the old clock tower has greenstone outlets and a carving centre, where you can watch the greenstone artists in action. There’s a saying ‘you don’t find greenstone, it finds you’ and so it’s likely that of the many pieces of fashioned stone, one of them will grab your attention!

The West Coast can have some stunning weather and clear days, with views stretching to the mountains including New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt Cook. 

As iconic South Island mountain sage Claver Esmond says ‘Clear eyes, clear skys, cleave the clouds and crown the mountain’.

The famous Tree top Walk and Zipline isn’t far from here either. These are structures 20 metres or so above the ground that clip the tops of the native rimu forests and boasts a viewing tower, with a café and a shop handy. The local scenery is exquisite with ocean, lake, mountains and wildlife views aplenty. The walkways are wheelchair friendly and pricing starts from the mid $30 mark.

Although an hour or so round trip inland from Hokitika, the gorge of the same name is a beautiful place to go. You drive through rich green farmland to a carpark where signs point you in the right direction. Although access to the popular lower swing bridge closed down in October 2023, the 45 minute walk that remains is still worth it. The waters of the Gorge are a vivid blue and this is because of the ‘glacial flour’ sediment present in the flow and against the rocks and forest, makes for an amazing photographic backdrop. However the river is dangerous and swimming not advised though walking the area is free.

Like most destinations on the West Coast, rain can be a factor. As Albert Hammond sang in the 1972 release ‘It never rains in Southern California, man it pours’, Southern California could easily be substituted for the West Coast of New Zealand!

Still on the main highway, Ross is a small town about near 30kms further south of Hokitika. Home to about 30 people it’s a real West Coast treasure. Chinese worked here as miners in the late 1800’s and some very large gold nuggets have been discovered here. Beautification efforts have restored some of the town’s historic areas and buildings and the Pub is an absolute must visit. It’s big open fire and original looking bar and artifacts are a treat, as are the few locals you might find sitting there enjoying a drink. There’s accommodation here too.


Why go here? The estuary

Lets get off the beaten track for a bit and take the short though narrow road trip out to the coast and the Okarito settlement. Set on a huge estuary by the ocean with cliff tops and dense forests nearby this place is a real sanctuary. The estuary especially is alive with wildlife. Dozens of bird species live here, with the king or queen of the castle being the elegant White Heron or Kotuku. Hire a kayak and go for a paddle and lots of wading birds will join you. Revel in the smell of the salt air and the snow on the soaring mountains beyond. Boat tours start at $55 for kids. 

Okarito Lagoon

Glacier Country

Franz and Fox and the Glacier Country.

Why go here? The Glacier country is breathtaking.

It’s probably fair to say ‘The Jewell in the Crown’ of West Coast destinations is Glacier Country and the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier townships. These glaciers are New Zealand’s best known and while always on the move, both are currently receding. Yet the glacial moraine walls remain close to sea level. This is untamed country with huge mountains, many glaciers and vast rain forests. 

As Claver Esmond puts it ‘Reach for the farthest peak and feel how small you are’.

Remember the warning about the rain earlier? It pays to be aware of it in this part of the world. The rain drops are enormous here when it kicks in and there’ve been some tragic stories of flash flooding just as the alpine fault also runs through the main road which is merely another factor adding to the uniqueness of the wild west coast label!

Franz and Fox offer plenty of action and the sound of helicopters departing and landing is like something out of the MASH TV series. Flights with glacier landings start at around $350 and are subject to weather conditions though it’s well worth it. A snow landing and you can almost see Australia from up there as the views are astonishing and the surrounding mountains still massive.

Yet there is more! Try tandem sky diving or a quad bike adventure. Hiking tracks will take you close to the glaciers, deep into the rain forests and up onto viewing points for a completely different perspective. There’s also trout fishing, jet boating up a glacial river and the awesome Lake Matheson near Fox township for some incredible mountain relections. The easy walking track circumnavigating the lake is also one for consideration with excellent photo opportunities. 

Both townships offer very good service centres and a wide range of accommodation facilities, with some difference in high and low season prices. Dining here is also supe with ‘The Landing’ on the Main Road in Franz and the historic ‘Fox Hotel’ popular places among others.

Glacier Helicopters

South Westland


Why Go there? The quintessential West Coast

Let’s keeping heading south ‘cos this country doesn’t disappoint. We’re heading deep into South Westland now and with that the human population diminishes even further. Farmland and trees bending from the prevailing westerly wind is something of a feature, with huge greenstone bearing rivers tumbling out to the coast. The driving is easy as you head to Haast township. You could be forgiven for thinking everything around these parts is called Haast. The Haast river, the Gates of Haast and the Haast Pass, all named after the explorer Julius Von Haast.

There’s hotel and motel accommodation in Haast as well as all the standard services. Side trips include the Roaring Billy Falls, Knights Point lookout and Ships Creek. There’s also fishing and jet boating on the Haast river. During and after rain the hillsides and cliffs in the area are a cascade of glorious waterfalls providing a most picturesque setting.

Remember this is about the quintessential West Coast and  therefore not just the traditional destinations. Although Haast is the point you’d swing inland eventually making your way to through to Lakes Wanaka, Wakatipu and Queenstown, there’s another 20kms of road south of Haast to Jackson Bay and the end of the west coast road that’s well worth navigating! 

The route is flat and sealed and passes a small settlement on the way though other than that the population in this part of New Zealand is sparse. Jackson Bay is one of the most remote spots in the country with only 30 or 40 people living there. It’s an established fishing port and a great place for catching crayfish. A unique highly recommended restaurant called ‘The Craypot’ is at the water’s edge by the wharf and the ‘fish and chips’ are to die for. There’re a couple of walking tracks above the sheer bluffs of the bay offering expansive sea and coastal views. 

This is isolation at it’s best!

Though there’s more. 

For those with genuine outdoors experience, chronic wanderlust and prepared to push themselves and hike some miles to the middle of nowhere, then the trail into the Cascade will test you. You’ll need landowner permission from the end of the Jackson Bay-Cascade road that finishes at a locked gate by the Martyr river. Allow 2 or 3 days, be sure you’ve plenty of stamina and a lot of patience for the sandflies that love nothing more than an unsuspecting visitor traipsing through the territory.

If you think this is really your thing, you’ll need to visit the DOC ( Department of Conservation ) visitor’s centre in Haast.

The Dunney summary of the best places to visit on the West Coast of New Zealand.

It’s a wonderland where depending on what you do all day depends on what you want. Wharariki Beach in the North, the Lakes, Okarito and Jackson Bay in the south are gems and generally far, far from the madding crowd, while the Pancake Rocks,

Hokitika attractions, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier country are busier and genuine tourist destinations.

Obviously you’ll cut your cloth according to time and budget though as a Kiwi who loves to know what’s at the end of the road, I’ve thrown in some side trips here. Either way, the West Coast of New Zealand is known for laid back and very friendly locals and in some respects can seem as if you’re in a delightful time warp.

So I’ve laid the cards on the table as I’d hate to think you’d leave here saying, ‘I wished I’d done that’.



John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 20 Mar 2024 (Last updated: 20 Mar 2024)

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