One of New Zealand’s best attributes is its raw natural beauty. It’s easy to find yourself entirely in awe of the breathtaking landscapes across both islands, but today we’re talking about the wild West Coast.
Stretched across the western coast of the South Island, the West Coast is where mountains meet the sea. From the north in the Kahurangi National Park down to Mount Aspiring National Park, this region sits between the Southern Alps Range and the Tasman Sea. The weather is unpredictable, the mountains shine with glaciers, the rainforest is alive — almost enchanting, and the roads are windy and scenic.
It’s the perfect place to get away and get amongst New Zealand’s untamed wilderness. But where to start? Where to stay? What is there to do? We’re answering those questions and more in this West Coast guide.
Let’s begin from the southern region on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park at Jackson’s Bay. Boasting that it has more penguins and seals than people, Jackson’s Bay is a quiet fishing town, perfect for relaxing and enjoying a slow day.
Bring your pole to catch your lunch, or pop into The Cray Pot for a seaside dish. If you’re keen to move your body, check out Wharekai Te Kou Walk, an easy (and kid-friendly) stroll with tidal pools or follow the river inland on the Lake Ellery Track. If you’re after an adrenaline-seeking experience, head out with Waiatoto River Safaris for a speedy jet boat rides into the backcountry.
Are you planning on pitching up for the night? Book a night or a few at Haast River Motels and Holiday Park or the Haast Lodge, located just 15 minutes north of Jackson’s Bay. There is a small freedom if you are self-contained and arrive early enough in Jacksons’ Bay.
Continuing our trip up the coast, the next must-see stop is Fox. This little town, called Fox Glacier, is centered around, you guessed it, the glacier. You’ll find several hikes, scenic flights, and glacier experiences in this region.
Thanks to its picturesque views, a well-known spot is the Lake Matheson walk. A stroll around the lake with a handful of viewpoints at the stunning Southern Alps. Check out the Minnehaha Track, a 20-minute loop, for your chance to see glow worms. Bring a torch and go once it’s dark. To see and learn about the glacier up close, book a Fox Glacier guiding tour that includes a scenic heli ride, a glacier landing, and a hike on the West Coast’s largest glacier.
When most think of the West Coast, Franz Josef is the first place that comes to mind. It’s a two-hour drive north of Jackson Bay and named for its relativity to Franz Josef glacier. It’s the perfect spot to park up for a few days to enjoy all the incredible nature spots in the area.
The most popular activity is the Franz Josef Glacier Walk, an easy 30-minute journey through the rainforest into the valley where you’ll see the famous glacier. Strap on crampons, crawl through ice caves, and learn about this mighty glacier during a heli-hike. There are several easy walks in the beautiful bush and tougher tramps like Alex Knob, where you’ll see the ocean and glacier in one sweeping view. Or go big and book a spot on a Franz Josef Heli Tour.
The cute town has restaurants and shops and plenty of spots to stay, but we highly recommend you book early because this town fills up! To feel amongst nature, park your campervan at Rainforest Retreat or Orange Sheep Campervan Park.
If you want to stay farther away from town, there’s a Top 10 Holiday Park just a few km north, or head to Okarito and sleep near the beach.
Heading three hours north of Franz Josef is another staple on the West Coast. Pancake Rocks is located in the small village of Punakaiki. Imagine rocks stacked like massive pancakes jutting out into the sea with giant blow holes shooting up water every few seconds. Formed over 30 million years ago, these ancient rocks will amaze you as you follow the 45-minute track around this attraction.
While most come and go for this alone, it’s worth posting up for a day or two in Punakaiki and exploring Paparoa National Park. The beach is a stunning stretch of land with lush cliff faces lining the coastline, and make sure to keep your eyes on the ocean where Hector dolphins love to play. Another must-do is the Punakaiki Cavern, where you can explore a massive limestone cave that shines bright at night thanks to its glow worms.
One of the most scenic campsites on the West Coast is located in this tiny village. Punakaiki Beach Camp sits between the ocean and dramatic towering cliffs. It’s the only spot to camp in the area, but it has everything you need, including showers and a kitchen.
Just north of Pancake Rocks is Fox River, located on Woodpecker Bay. This quiet region is perfect for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the West Coast. Just south of the town, you’ll find a stunning lookout with views of the towering cliffs, massive rock formations in the water, and a clear view of Seal Island. Check out the Fox Cave Track, where you’ll find a number of hidden caves.
Fox River/Potikohua Freedom Camping Site is your only option for parking your van. It’s a beautiful spot that must be taken care of, so remember to leave no trace and take your rubbish with you.
This last spot we will share is more inland than the rest. Nelson Lakes National Park is situated north, and center of the South Island and is well known for its alpine terrain. Its lush beech forests are filled with trails, streams, and lakes, with plenty of multi-day tramps worth doing.
St. Arnaud is the main access point to the national park at the north end of Lake Rotoiti. Visit the pier here and jump in the water with the local eels swimming about if you dare. Bring or hire mountain bikes to explore the vast park enjoying the native flora and fauna. Stop by the Nelson Lakes visitor centre to learn about the area and get advice on access to the trails. Some more extensive hikes reach alpine conditions, so you must prepare and plan accordingly.
Park up for the night at Kerr Bay campsite, a budget option next to Lake Rotoiti. West Bay and Teetotal are other great options nearby, both DOC sites with basic amenities. Sleep next to Lake Rotoroa at the DOC site, where you can launch a boat into the water or paddle in your kayak. If you need hot showers, laundry, etc check out Riverside Holiday Park and Kiwi Park in Murchison.
And there you have it, the wonderful, wild West Coast of New Zealand. A place for unwinding, a place to be amongst nature, and a place you must see in your Jayco campervan or caravan.
Have you been to the West Coast? Let us know your favourite spot below.