When New Zealanders refer to the West Coast, they're meaning the west coast of the South Island, a sparsely populated area spanning from the Mount Aspiring National Park and Haast in the south to Karamea and the Kahurangi National Park in the north. The area is famous for its rugged beaches, a rainforest that meets the sea, mountain vistas, dramatic gorges, small towns with gold mining history, glaciers, and very few people (apart from tourists in camper vans).
Although the West Coast is, naturally, coastal, the broader region also encompasses some inland and mountainous areas. The main towns along the coast are Westport (population 4,660), Greymouth (8,160), and Hokitika (2,967), with other notable settlements at Karamea (375), Franz Josef (450), and Haast (250). New Zealand is home to 13 national parks in total, 10 of which are in the South Island, and seven of which lie within or border the West Coast: Kahurangi, Nelson Lakes, Paparoa, Arthur's Pass, Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki Mt. Cook, and Mt. Aspiring National Parks. One road, State Highway 6 (SH6), runs the West Coast's length and actually runs along the coast most of the way between Karamea in the north and Hokitika in the south.
Due to its remoteness and the distances between sites of interest on the West Coast, a trip here requires a bit of planning and a solid week or two. Here's everything you need to know about traveling to the West Coast.
Where to Go and What to See
The West Coast is all about nature. There are many trails in the mountains and forests to explore if you're into hiking and mountain biking. But, you don't have to be incredibly fit to enjoy this region, as there are many accessible sightseeing spots, too.
- Karamea and the Heaphy Track: Karamea is the northernmost settlement on the West Coast and is the start or endpoint of the popular Heaphy Track 4-5 day trek. This passes through the Kahurangi National Park and ends at Golden Bay. Karamea itself, although tiny, has some outstanding attractions, such as the caves and arches at the Oparara Reserve and the strangely colored Karamea River, a color often referred to as "whisky."
- White-water rafting in Murchison: Although the small town of Murchison is just over the border in Tasman District rather than the West Coast itself, it's a great base for white-water rafting adventures around the West Coast. It's situated at the confluence of the Buller and Matakitaki Rivers, and the Gowan, Mangles, Matiri, Glenroy, and Maruia Rivers are nearby. There are many options for a range of experience levels and lengths, from half-day to multi-day trips.
- Maruia Springs: Located just on the Lewis Pass's western side, the natural hot springs at Maruia Springs are a convenient place to stop if you're coming from Hanmer Springs in the east. Located beside the Maruia River and surrounded by forested mountains, the Maruia Springs complex offers outdoor pools, private indoor pools, saunas, and accommodation.
- Punakaiki Pancake Rocks: The aptly named Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki were formed around 30 million years ago from bits of dead marine creatures and plants on the seabed. Pressure compressed them and formed the pancake-like layers visible today, and seismic activity eventually shifted the rocks out of the ocean. High-tide blowholes and surge pools are also fun.
- Paparoa Track. Like the Heaphy Track in the northern Kahurangi National Park, the Paparoa Track is classified as one of New Zealand Department of Conservation's 'Great Walks.' The three-day hike (or two-day mountain bike ride) through the Paparoa Range in the Paparoa National Park traverses Alpine and limestone landscapes, rainforests, rivers, and gorges. It's classified as an intermediate trek.
- Hokitika Gorge: Twenty miles inland from the town of Hokitika, the Hokitika Gorge is an absolute must-visit destination. A short walk from the parking lot leads to a swing bridge over the Hokitika River's vivid turquoise waters, running through the rocky Hokitika Gorge. The water's color is because the river comes from glaciers high in the mountains and contains ground up rock particles that appear blue when suspended in water.
- Gold Rush history: Gold was found on the West Coast in the mid-1860s, leading to a gold rush and European expansion into the area. Visitors to the coast can learn about this history at a variety of interesting sites, such as Shantytown Heritage Park (between Greymouth and Hokitika), the Ross Information Centre in Hokitika, or panning for gold at Goldsborough or Ross.
- Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers: Towards the south of the West Coast region are the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, starting high in the Southern Alps mountains and almost reaching the sea. The glaciers can be seen from afar or up-close via guided hikes and scenic heli-tours. The small village of Franz Josef is an ideal base for exploring the glaciers, and there's also a thermal hot pool there.
- Haast Pass: The southern entrance or exit to the West Coast region, the Haast Pass connects the coast to the mountains and plains of Central Otago and the towns of Queenstown and Wanaka. The drive through the pass can be quite challenging, especially if there's ice on the road, so take your time. You'll want to anyway, as there are spectacular mountain and gorge/river views to enjoy. The town of Haast is a good base for exploring the southern end of the West Coast.
Where to Stay
Many travelers to the West Coast drive RVs and either stay in serviced campsites or, if their vehicle meets sanitation requirements, at designated "freedom camping" spots. There are many private and DOC-run campsites in the West Coast region, the latter being particularly good for staying far from towns or settlements.
Although there aren't very many sizable towns on the West Coast, the larger towns of Westport, Greymouth, and Hokitika offer a wider range of accommodation options. Even at smaller places like Karamea and Punakaiki, you can find holiday parks or motels with decent non-camping accommodation. More upmarket accommodation can be found dotted around the place, particularly at Franz Josef and Maruia.
What to Eat and Drink
In general, the West Coast's food doesn't stand out as being much different from elsewhere in New Zealand. However, there's are a couple of stand-out food events that attract people to the West Coast: the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival in March and the whitebait fishing season between August/September and November.
Held in March every year for over 30 years, the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival attracts thousands of people from all over New Zealand to the small West Coast town. This isn't an ordinary food festival, though; as the name suggests, the food here is a bit "wild." Visitors can try things that can't normally be found on New Zealand menus, such as earthworks, possums, and huhu grubs. But don't worry, there are many "normal" foods to fill up on, too, such as the New Zealand seafood delicacies of paua (abalone), pipis, and scallops.
A special West Coast delicacy is whitebait, the immature fish of five related species of fish. They could once be found throughout New Zealand, but river pollution caused by agriculture has led to a decline in their population almost everywhere except for the West Coast. The fish swim upstream from the sea in spring, and whitebait fishers (white baiters) set up fine-meshed nets to gather them. They're usually eaten fried up in a batter as whitebait fritters.
How to Get There & Around
Many travelers take their own (or rental) car or RV, which is the most convenient way of getting around the West Coast. Alternatively, InterCity buses ply State Highway 6 to/from cities outside the area such as Queenstown, Wanaka, and Nelson. There are small airports at Westport, Greymouth, and Hokitika, but flights to other parts of New Zealand are few and expensive, as this is not a major route.
If driving (or taking the bus), stay up-to-date about road conditions on and to the Coast. All access roads (from the north from Nelson, the east from Christchurch or Hanmer Springs, and the south from Queenstown/Wanaka) pass through mountainous terrain that can get snowfall even outside the winter. The West Coast is also prone to flooding, and as there's only one road through the region, floods can easily disrupt travel plans.
When to Go
The West Coast, in general, is notorious for its high rainfall at any time of year, so be prepared with wet-weather gear. While some attractions on the coast can be visited throughout the year, it's better to avoid traveling to the West Coast in winter. The access roads may be blocked or very challenging to navigate. Late spring (November), summer (December-February), or early autumn (March and April) are better times to visit.