The Paparoa National Park is on the northern end of New Zealand's West Coast, a remote and wild part of the South Island chock-full of national parks and forested mountain terrain. With the Tasman Sea to the west and the Paparoa Range to the east, a variety of landscapes can be found in the park, making it a worthwhile addition to any West Coast or Top-of-the-South itinerary.
Paparoa became a national park in 1987. Like the larger Kahurangi National Park to its north, Paparoa is valued for the diversity of its geology, flora, and fauna. The Paparoa Range of mountains is comprised of craggy granite, while underlying limestone creates many of the park's most famous and popular features: cliffs, blowholes, canyons, caves, and the whimsical Pancake Rocks. Native New Zealand birds can be found in the park, including tui and kereru (wood pigeons), and there's a range of flora due to the shifting altitudes and wet, mild climate by the coast.
What to See and Do
There are lots of ways to explore the park's unique geology and mountainous landscapes. Here are some of the top activities to add to your Paparoa National Park travel plans.
Marvel at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
This amazing geological formation is a must-see but is especially attractive for travelers who are just passing through the park or don't have very long in the area. Long-distance buses even stop here for passengers to see. The Pancake Rocks were formed around 30 million years ago, from fragments of dead marine creatures and plants on the seabed. Pressure compressed them and caused the layers that can be seen today, and seismic activity eventually shifted the rocks out of the ocean. Blowholes and surge pools add to the drama, especially around high tide. The paved track to the lookout is suitable for kids and wheelchair users.
Explore Punakaiki Cavern
A staircase leads down into the Punakaiki Cavern, not far from the village of Punakaiki, where you can see glow worms, stalactites, and stalagmites. Bring your own flashlight and good shoes as the ground can be slippery. Suitable for kids.
Hike the Paparoa Track
Listed as one of New Zealand Department of Conservation's "Great Walks," the Paparoa Track is a three-day hike (or two-day mountain bike ride) through the Paparoa Range. It traverses Alpine and limestone landscapes, through rainforests and gorges, and across rivers. It's classified as an intermediate trek, and all Great Walks are well-maintained. Accommodation is in DOC-administered huts, which must be booked well in advance as all Great Walks are very popular in season.
Take a Shorter Hike
Many shorter hikes are also possible through the park, which will give you a taste of the longer three-day track without all the exertion. The Ballroom Overhang Track is a challenging 4-hour hike to a limestone outcrop, while the Cave Creek Track is an easy hourlong walk alongside a river. Trails along the Pororari River are of differing lengths and levels of difficulty. The Truman Track is an easy half-hour walk that passes through rainforest to the coast.
Go Mountain Biking
As well as the full Paparoa Track, experienced mountain bikers can enjoy a shorter ride (2.5 hours one way) up to the Pororari Hut on the Paparoa Track route. You can stay there overnight or return the same day. Both mountain biking trails are classified as advanced.
Best Time to Go
The best time to go is late spring (November), summer (December through February), or early autumn (March and April).
While attractions like the Pancake Rocks can be visited throughout the year, it's better to avoid traveling to the West Coast in winter. Because the access roads in all directions traverse mountainous terrain, you may encounter icy road conditions at best, and problematic snowfall at worst. Snow can (and usually does) fall in the mountains of the South Island well into spring (September and even October or later). Sometimes roads are closed.
Whenever you go, pack your rain boots: The West Coast in general is notorious for its high rainfall. Flooding can happen at any time of year, so stay informed about weather and road conditions before heading out.
How to Get There
The West Coast area is sparsely populated and remote, but is also firmly located on the South Island travel circuit for international and domestic visitors alike, so it's not hard to get to—it just takes a bit of time.
Paparoa National Park is between the two small coastal towns of Westport and Greymouth. With State Highway 6 (SH6) running along its western boundary, the park can be reached by car from the south, east, or north. If coming from the south, you will likely be traveling from Franz Josef and Fox Glacier (a 2-hour drive to Greymouth on SH6) or Queenstown/Wanaka (a 7-hour drive to Greymouth on SH6). There are many places to stop en route from either of these places, and because of the mountainous terrain and the views, it's not a journey that should be hurried!
If reaching the park from the east, you will be traveling from Christchurch (3.5 hours to Greymouth on SH73) or Hanmer Springs (3 hours to Greymouth on SH7). Although Christchurch itself is on flat plains, once you head east and inland, the terrain becomes more mountainous; this is another potentially challenging drive, which takes you through Arthur's Pass National Park, especially when there's snow and ice around. The drive from Hanmer Springs crosses the Lewis Pass.
For those driving down from the north, you will most likely be coming from Nelson (or, further afield, Picton or Blenheim), and passing in between the Nelson Lakes National Park and the Kahurangi National Park, inland. The drive from Nelson to Westport is about 3 hours on SH6, and from Picton/Blenheim it's around 3.5 hours on SH63 and SH6.
The Paparoa National Park can also be reached by bus or flight, but these are limited. The nearest airport is in Hokitika, about 20 minutes south of Greymouth. Long-distance Intercity buses pass the park.