The South Island’s sparsely populated West Coast is a skinny region squeezed between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps.
It is dominated by wilderness, with conservation land covering nearly 90 percent of its total area. Skirting along its coastline is State Highway 6, an incredibly scenic 410km driving route dotted with atmospheric towns, world-famous natural wonders, and hidden gems so spectacular you’ll wonder why they’re not world famous, too.
Westport to Haast
Best Time of the Year
- Franz Josef & Fox
- Jackson Bay
At the mouth of the mighty Buller River, Westport is a working town with coal-mining in its blood. This industrious history is evocatively retold at the modern Coaltown Museum, and atop the bleak but beautiful Denniston Plateau where you can wander a ghost town and even take a tour into an old mine. Just south of Westport, the Cape Foulwind walkway has vast coastal views and a lookout over a seal colony.
SIDE TRIP - Karamea, Oparara & Kohaihai
The 110-kilometre drive from Westport to the northern end of the West Coast Road is a slow but sure pleasure for its mountainous wilderness, windswept coastline, and pockets of lush farmland dotted with sleepy settlements. The largest of these is Karamea, a 400-strong town with a shop, two pubs and two riverside campgrounds. To its north is the turn-off to Oparara, famed for its limestone arches but equally distinct for their stunning rainforest setting. The road runs out at Kohaihai, the entrance to Kahurangi National Park where you can hike part of the Heaphy Great Walk, over a low hill to misty Scott’s Beach. There’s a basic DOC camp here, too.
Westport to Punakaiki
It’s not hard to see why SH6 south of Westport is known as the Great Coast Road. The major landmark along this wild stretch of country is Punakaiki, known as Pancake Rocks, incredible layered rocks sculpted by the waves and blowholes that spurt in high seas. Just north is the delightful Punakaiki Beach Camp, and across from that the Pororari River Track within Paparoa National Park. Even just a short wander up the limestone gorge will leave you breathless, particularly if you brave the waters for a dip.
Punakaiki to Greymouth
Distance 44km - Driving Time 40 mins
There are eyefuls of coastal and mountain scenery on the short drive to Greymouth, the West Coast’s capital. Shantytown heritage park and Monteith’s Brewery are the town’s big-ticket attractions, but a good draught of its flinty atmosphere can be absorbed on a wander around its characterful town centre. Along the Grey River is the Floodwall Walk, one end of the West Coast Wilderness Trail, an epic best explored by hire bike.
Greymouth to Hokitika
Distance 39km - Driving Time 35 mins
Continue south to Hokitika, the bonny old gold town featured in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries. Linger in the craft galleries along its wide streets and survey Sunset Point and the driftwood beach, then venture inland to Lake Kaniere where a jetty jump, grassy campsite and forest walks await. The not-to-be-missed Hokitika Gorge is another 20-minutes’ drive further inland.
Hokitika to Whataroa
Distance 103km - Driving Time 1 hour 30 mins
Just south of Hokitika are yet more scenic walks – the historic Mananui Tramline, which has outstanding historical interpretation panels, and the commercial Treetop Walkway, a canopy-level construction built from steel. Stop at Ross for refreshment at the Empire Pub, and at Harihari discover that town’s crash-hot claim to fame, then push onward to Whataroa. Should you arrive between September and March and be a bit of a bird fancier, you should seriously consider taking the White Heron Sanctuary Tour. What a bird!
Whataroa to Franz Josef Glacier
Distance 31km - Driving Time 30 mins
The twin glaciers of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, Fox and Franz Josef, offer similar icy experiences, with Franz Josef town the busier of the two. Ice hikes are available in both locations with Franz Josef and Fox Glacier Guiding, but there are other ways to view the ice. Short walks from the glacier car parks provide good viewpoints; extend the adventure by riding a hire-bike along the rainforest trails from town to the car parks. The ultimate glacier experience, however, is an aerial sightseeing tour over their flows and up into the Southern Alps, with the option of ogling Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Franz Josef Glacier to Fox Glacier
Distance 25km - Driving Time 35 mins
Although it lacks all the amenities and lively ambience of its neighbour, Fox has merits all of its own, including a centrally located holiday park in inspiring surrounds. There’s also a basic DOC Campsite at Gillespies Beach where there are walks and sunsets. Between the two is Lake Matheson, known as the mirror lake for its crystal clear reflections. If you can’t get the money shot of Aoraki/Mt Cook, don’t despair – the circuit track, cafe and excellent gift store are ample consolation.
Fox Glacier to Haast
Distance 121km - Driving Time 2 hours
The highway to Haast passes through stunning lowland forest in the foothills of the Alps, punctuated by the odd farm and other human endeavour. Pull over at Knights Point Lookout, 5km south of Lake Moeraki, and Curly Tree Whitebait further on if you haven’t yet sampled the West Coast’s supreme delicacy. The last town on the coast before SH6 swings inland, Haast township offers essential visitor services in a remarkable wilderness setting. To delve deeper, detour to Jackson Bay.
SIDETRIP - Jackson Bay Road
Few road-trippers give this line on the map the time of day, but the dead-end road south is a relaxing journey furnished with towering ranges and wild coastline, ending at Jackson Bay. The West Coast’s only natural harbour, there’s little to do here except amble over to Ocean Beach, and eat fish and chips at the Craypot if it’s open. On the road, keep an eye out for Ellery Creek Walkway, and Hapuka Estuary, across the road from the old-fashioned but warmly welcoming Haast Beach Holiday Park.