Paparoa National Park: The Complete Guide

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki, West Coast, New Zealand
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Paparoa National Park

Address
Greymouth, New Zealand
Phone +64 3-731 1895

Paparoa National Park is on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, a remote and wild area that's chock-full of limestone structures 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 road trip itinerary around the South Island.

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.

Things to Do

Among the many ways to explore the park's unique geology and mountainous landscapes, perhaps the most famous attraction is the Pancake Rocks. This amazing geological formation is a must-see and ideal for visitors who are quickly passing through the park since it's conveniently located along the highway (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.

Of all the amazing landscapes within the park, the various caves are some of the most spectacular to explore. Next to the Pancakes Rocks, you can walk down a staircase into the Punakaiki Cavern where you can see glow worms, stalactites, and stalagmites. Bring your own flashlight and good shoes as the ground can be slippery. The Punakaiki Cavern is open to the public, but other cave systems in the park—such as the Te Ananui Cave—require a permit and a guide in order to enter.

Experienced mountain bikers can bring their wheels onto the popular Paparoa hiking trail. Biking the entire trail takes two full days, but you can also start at the Pororari Hut to cut the time down to a few hours.

Best Hikes & Trails

There are several hikes throughout the park of varying levels, although the multi-day Paparoa Track is one of the most popular reasons for visiting the national park. Many trails involve a river crossing that can become dangerous or impassable after heavy rain, so confirm your trail is fully open with a park ranger before setting off.

  • 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, like all Great Walks throughout New Zealand, is well-maintained.
  • Ballroom Overhang Track: This half-day hike takes about four hours to complete, but it's a challenging trail with frequent climbs and drops over the bluffs. Some of the park's most impressive limestone features are in this park, including the namesake overhang that creates a giant limestone roof.
  • Cave Creek Memorial Track: An easy trail that's about 2.5 miles roundtrip, the Cave Creek Memorial Tracks brings hikers down to a rocky gorge. The canopy trees and mossy rocks will make feel like you've escaped into a mystical forest far away from civilization.

Where to Camp

No campgrounds are run by the national park, but the Punakaiki Beach Camp is a privately-run accommodation that offers tent campsites, powered sites for RVs, and some small cabins available to visitors to spend the night. The campground is located in the small coastal village of Punakaiki, which is located on the edge of the national park and right next to the famous Pancake Rocks. You can choose a campsite that's next to the beach, secluded in the forest, or closer to the town center for easier connections.

Where to Stay Nearby

Huts maintained by the Department of Conservation within the park are ideal for trekkers embarking on the Paparoa Track. Other than those, nearly all of the accommodations with easy access to the park are in the town of Punakaiki.

  • DOC Huts: There are four different huts in the park that are geared toward hikers who are walking along the multi-day Paparoa Track. Each one of them offers hostel-type lodging with a shared bedroom and bathroom, sleeping up to 20 people. The hiking trail is very popular and these huts are typically booked up months in advance, so look into reservations early.
  • Punakaiki Beach Hostel: This beachside accommodation offers private rooms as well as shared dorm-style rooms. The deluxe suite is the Sunset Cottage, which is a detached unit for two and includes a private garden with stunning views of the sea.
  • Punakaiki Resort: For a more upscale experience, this four-star resort includes all of the amenities you would expect of a hotel, including a popular on-site restaurant. The guestrooms have large windows so you can take in the natural scenery from the resort, and the famous Pancake Rocks are just a 15-minute walk away.

How to Get There

The park is located in the sparsely-populated West Coast region, between the towns of Westport and Greymouth. It's located right off of State Highway 6 (SH6), which runs along the west coast of the island and connects the cities of Queenstown and Nelson.

Most visitors start their South Island trip in the biggest city of Christchurch on the east coast. From there, the fastest way to reach Paparoa National Park is to drive across the island, which takes about three to four hours. However, the route goes through mountainous terrain and can be challenging and icy. The park is more often visited as a stop when driving around the island, which takes much longer to reach but you'll be driving on maintained highways the entire time.

Regardless of what direction you're coming from, there is a lot to see along the way and it's not a journey to be rushed. If you come from the south, you'll drive by the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. If you come from the north, you'll pass right between two other national parks, Nelson Lakes National Park and the Kahurangi National Park. For those who want to drive straight from Christchurch, consider the route that passes through Hanmer Springs to enjoy the natural hot springs.

Accessibility

A paved road leads to the park's star attraction, the Pancake Rocks. It's fully accessible to visitors with wheelchairs or strollers, although some assistance may be needed because the road is on a slope. The other hiking trails within the park are not suitable for visitors with mobility challenges.

Tips for Your Visit

  • If you're staying in Punakaiki, be aware that there are no gas stations, supermarkets, or ATMs within the village (or within the national park). Make sure you are fueled up and stocked up with necessities before arriving.
  • The best time to go is late spring (November), summer (December through February), or early autumn (March and April). Even though the park is open all year, possible snow or icy road conditions in the nearby mountains from May to October make it difficult to reach.
  • Whenever you go, pack your rain boots. The West Coast region 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.
  • Always stay on marked hiking paths. There are natural sinkholes around the park and you could unwittingly step into one if you venture into the backcountry.
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Paparoa National Park: The Complete Guide