Travel map of the West Coast of the South Island

West Coast Travel Guide for Kiwis

The West Coast of the South Island is a stunning wilderness area of untouched natural beauty. With rugged coastline, pristine native forest and stunning mountain & glaciers, the West Coast is also home to rich Maori & European history as well as a friendly 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. 

Why visit the West Coast?

The West Coast isn’t like anywhere else in New Zealand, it’s so much more than just a stretch of road you travel over to get to your destination. Travelling the coast is to take a journey through our past, both human and natural.

Why visit the Coast? Well where else can you do all this in a couple of days?/

  • Visit a rainforest, a glacier and a beach all in the same day – a unique Kiwi experience.
  • See the beautiful white heron (kotuku) on a wildlife cruise on Okarito Lagoon.
    Immerse yourself in the West Coast’s fascinating history, from Māori settlement to the arrival of European gold prospectors and beyond.
  • Step into the worlds of New Zealand’s two Man Booker Prize-winning novels, The Luminaries and The Bone People – both set on the West Coast.
  • Discover the mana and wairua of pounamu (greenstone or jade). See carvers forging it into beautiful jewellery and get your own piece to take home from Hokitika.
  • Be awed by the stunning geographic landforms along the West Coast Road – one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world according to Lonely Planet.
  • Enjoy short walks amongst lush beech forest 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.
  • Enjoy wide open spaces and clear night skies, “social distancing” is not a new thing on the Coast!

See some of our favourite pictures from recent West Coast trips 

Where is the West Coast and how to get there?

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.

The best way to travel the Coast is to start at either Queenstown or Christchurch and travel the Coast Road over a couple of days. You can also head in to the Northern end of the Coast from Nelson, through the Buller Gorge. If you’re visiting from the North Island you’ll need to fly to one of these airports, Christchurch, Queenstown or Nelson and plan a road trip in between. Having your own transport is definitely the way to go so you can explore all the best off the beaten track spots like Okarito Lagoon, Ship Creek or even the Denniston Plateau.

Take a look at our interactive West Coast Travel Map on Google Maps below, complete with our suggested West Coast itinerary from Queenstown / Wanaka to Christchurch, with all our favourite recommended stops and walks along the way. 

What’s the best time to visit the West Coast?

Our mates on the Coast always tell us there is no bad time to visit! Late summer and early autumn (February – April) tends to have the most fine 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 actually (June – August) has many sunny days.

How long do I need to travel the West Coast?

Time always seems to be the most precious commodity when travelling nowadays and while it’s nice to think we could take weeks to explore a place like the West Coast but most of us have some constraints on our time.

We suggest spending three nights on the West Coast. This allows you to explore all the famous spots and a few more off the beaten track ones too, see much of the stunning coast road without hurrying and combine with other iconic South Island spots in a week or so. The coast can be explored in either direction but we like travelling from South to North, with a night in Franz Josef then two in Punakaiki to finish off before taking the scenic Arthur’s Pass route across to the east coast city of Christchurch. 

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
Perhaps the most popular activity on the West Coast, heli-hiking at Franz Josef or Fox Glacier combines an exciting helicopter ride with the unforgettable experience of hiking across an ancient glacier. If you prefer to stay on terra firma, valley walks at Franz Josef Glacier are a great way to experience the rainforest, valley and glacial views in an easily accessed way.

Nature Cruise on Okarito Lagoon
A visit to Okarito Lagoon is a must for wildlife lovers. The lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified natural wetland and home to an abundance of native birdlife, most notably the Kotuku or White Heron. Other species include eastern bar-tailed godwit, royal spoonbill, bitterns, stilts and dotterels. The best way to experience Okarito is a wildlife cruise with long-time local guides Swade and Paula, you’ll learn all about the local ecology, plant life and history. The views across the lagoon and forest out to the Southern Alps are stunning too!

Explore Punakaiki & Paparoa National Park
The northern portion of the West Coast is famed for its unusual rock formations, towering limestone formations and of course the famous Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. The surrounding national park is a beautiful collection of native forest and picturesque rivers flowing down from the Southern Alps. There are lots of great walking tracks, easily accessed from the Punakaiki Village area, our favourites are the Truman Track or Pororari River track.

Nile River Glowworm Caves
One of the Coast’s true hidden gems is the Nile River glowworm cave, in Paparoa National Park, close to the town of Charleston. The only way to go into these caves is with our mates at Norwest Adventures, who will guide you on an amazing underground journey into this incredible landscape of calcite formations, limestone rock structures and luminescent glow worms! There are a couple of options to go underground, the guided “wet” trip where you’ll actually raft through the glowworm cave or the “dry” option where you walk, you don’t see as much on this option but you get to stay dry. Another cool part of your day is the trip into the river on the rainforest train, specially built for access to the caves.

Explore Hokitika
The picturesque beach-side town of Hokitika is a must-see stop on any West Coast road trip. From its rich history of pounamu/greenstone and gold discoveries, to its collection of art and craftspeople, Hokitika is a fascinating little place with a lively vibe and ideal for exploring on foot: visit the numerous galleries; watch carvers and craftspeople forge unique works of art from pounamu, copper, wood and glass; discover the locations brought to life in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries or wander the wild local beach. Hokitika is a fascinating microcosm of everything from the Coast, with great coffee too!

See some of our favourite recent West Coast activity pictures

What are the roads like on the West Coast?

If you’re used to driving in cities and towns in the North Island you’ll find the roads on the West Coast quite different, there are no motorways on the Coast and the roads are narrow, winding and surrounded by unbelievably beautiful scenery!

It’s always a good idea to add an extra time to your journey to allow for unexpected photo stops, or to navigate a particularly windy section of road. West Coast roads can also be subject to hazardous conditions caused by extreme weather events such as heavy rain and slips. You need to be careful driving on the Coast at all times as the scenery, weather and road conditions 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 Kiwi Guides have driven these roads for years and know all the best places to stop, meaning you can sit back, relax and enjoy the views (not to mention all the amazing scenery you would otherwise miss!).

Visit the New Zealand Transport Agency|Waka Kotahi website for up to date West Coast road conditions and a handy journey planner. 

Discover the West Coast with MoaTours

The West Coast of New Zealand is like nowhere else on earth and we consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have been showing travellers around the Coast  for decades, sharing our favourite spots, unforgettable experiences and rich history.

If the West Coast is on your bucket list you’ll love our 7 day Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails, a fully guided all inclusive small group tour of all the South Island’s West Coast’s iconic spots, including Hokitika, Franz Josef, Punakaiki and Karamea.

Our team of expert, friendly Kiwi guides will take care of you all the way as you explore the South Island with a small group of like-minded travellers. Get in touch with one of our friendly team to talk about your South Island trip now!

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Karamea & Wild West Coast Trails 7 Day Tour

Follow old gold rush and pounamu trails to discover stunning seascapes, nikau groves and the beauty of Kahurangi National Park.

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