West Coast Travel Guide: Tips for a Fun Trip to the West Coast

Our West Coast Travel Guide will give you a good overview of the region. If you’re looking for posts about a particular area click on one of these links: Haast | Glacier Country | Hokitika | Punakaiki | Karamea

The main road along the South Island’s West Coast takes in a huge variety of landscapes on its run between Jackson Bay and the Kohaihai River. This 550 km stretch features glaciers, mountains, reflective lakes, ancient rainforests, coastal rock formations and plenty of long, lonely stretches of beach. Weaving it all together is a bunch of tourist towns where you’ll find history, good food and a bed for the night.

West Coast Travel Guide

This West Coast travel guide will attempt to condense our knowledge of the West Coast into one easy to read blog post — we’ve written about a lot of the places in this West Coast travel guide already, so if you want to know more about a particular place just click one of the blue links.

Towns and Regions

There are no cities on the West Coast. Greymouth, at around 8000 inhabitants, is the largest town. There are lots of interesting small towns though and heaps to explore in between (as you’re about to find out).

Haast

Haast is the first spot you’ll come to on the West Coast if visiting from the south. First you’ll pass through Haast Pass, one of our favourite bits of road in the South Island — so many beautiful views of mountains, rivers and waterfalls and no real towns.

READ MORE: The Scenic Drive Between Wanaka and Haast

Haast (the tiny town) is a decent spot to stay for the night or continue up to Fox / Franz Josef Glacier like we usually do. Places to visit in the Haast region include Jackson Bay, Ship Creek, Bruce Bay and Munro Beach. The road between Haast and Fox Glacier should take around 90 minutes, double it and you can stop at a few places along the way.

Glacier Country

You may wind up in Fox Glacier late if you’ve stopped at too many places on the way but do try and see it in the late afternoon / sunset time if you can. That’s to see Lake Matheson in the best conditions, although you’re never guaranteed to see the famous reflections.

Glacier country includes Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Ōkārito — it’s a small area packed with things to do, including walks (lots of them), scenic flights and viewpoints you don’t need to walk far to see. The towns are interesting too, especially Franz Josef, which is full of places to eat, sleep and drink.

READ MORE: 14 of the Best Walks in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef

Highlights of Glacier Country include the Alex Knob Track, short walks in Franz Josef, Lake Matheson, glacier views just outside of Fox Glacier and seeing the ocean meet the mountains at Ōkārito.

Hokitika

Hokitika, a town of around 3000 people, is a couple of hours up the road from Franz Josef. It’s one of the better towns for tourists in the South Island thanks to its beachside location and abundance of things to do nearby. The best of those is Hokitika Gorge — one of the prettiest sections of river in New Zealand.

Hokitika Gorge, West Coast, New Zealand

The town itself is set just back from the beach, with sunsets drawing people out for evening strolls. There are plenty of places to eat, drink and sleep and some of the best shopping on the West Coast.

Greymouth

Greymouth is the West Coast’s largest town, but since it’s only 30 minutes up the road from Hokitika and not quite as interesting it tends to get rushed through. That’s always what we’ve done too, preferring to stay in either Hokitika or Punakaiki. Greymouth has its charms though, especially in the eating and drinking department. There are lots of places to stay too and all the big town things you’d expect (fast food chains etc.).

Punakaiki

Located in Buller District (along with Westport and Karamea), Punakaiki is a heavily visited (but very small) tourist town. The Pancake Rocks draw in the crowds but there’s a surprising number of other things to see and do, including some excellent short walks (Pororari River, Truman Track) and Punakaiki cavern.

Punakaiki is a 45-minute drive from Greymouth. It’s a good alternative to the bigger towns if you’re looking for somewhere to stay, which is handy if you’re keen to see the Pancake Rocks at sunset.

Westport

Westport is a large town an hour up the road from Punakaiki. It sees less tourists than most places I’ve mentioned so far thanks mostly to its location off the main West Coast tourist trail (which ends in Punakaiki for a lot of people). There’s a coastal track with awesome views just south of town (Cape Foulwind) and the ruins of an old mining operation just north of it (Denniston).

If coming from Nelson or other points north you’ll drive through the Buller Gorge — a very scenic drive through emerald hills alongside a meandering river.

Karamea

You can drive north for another 90 minutes or so after Westport until reaching the end of the road just north of Karamea. If you want to keep going north from there you’ll have to do it along the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks (or just do the walk to Scotts Beach).

Where are the best beaches in Karamea, New Zealand

Karamea has some decent places to sleep and eat and the beach close to town is a great place to watch the sunset. Karamea is the gateway to the Oparara Arches, an area of massive limestone arches and caves — don’t attempt the drive if your car isn’t up to it though!

READ MORE: Where Are the Best Beaches in Karamea?

Kohaihai is the end of the road. There’s a camping ground, a river, beach and walks, including the Heaphy Track. The walk to Scotts Beach should take a couple of hours and it’s awesome — a good reason to travel this far north if you like to hike.

Arthur’s Pass

If coming from Christchurch you’ll drive through the Southern Alps on a scenic three and a half hour coast to coast drive. The “West Coast” feels like it starts around Otira Viaduct, one of the most impressive sections of highway in New Zealand.

READ MORE: Driving From Christchurch to the West Coast: Best Places to Stop

Once close to the coast you can explore places like Lake Brunner and Kumara (which has some unique history).

Reefton

Reefton is off the main road through the West Coast — you’ll pass through when driving between Greymouth and Nelson. It’s a cute little town full of goldmining history — a fun place to stroll around and do some shopping and eating.

West Coast History

The West Coast has some of the most interesting history of any region in New Zealand. Gold mining boomed in the 1860s (and quartz mining around Reefton after that), with Hokitika becoming the largest town in New Zealand by 1866. It’s also where most of the coal in New Zealand has been mined since the 1860s. There’s lots of visible history left, from old mining operations, ruins on hiking trails and grand old buildings in the bigger towns (and museums in most towns).

West Coast Itinerary

You can see a decent chunk of the West Coast in a few days if leaving from either Wānaka / Queenstown or Christchurch. If you had three nights from Wānaka I’d spend one night in Haast and two in Fox Glacier or Franz Josef before driving back to Wānaka the way you came. From Christchurch you can drive through Arthur’s Pass and explore Greymouth, Hokitika and Punakaiki easily in a few days (add Westport and Karamea if a longer drive isn’t a problem).

If you’re keen to do more of the West Coast you’ll want a bit longer. Wānaka — Haast — Glacier Country — Hokitika — Punakaiki could take four nights if you rushed but leave a week for that journey and it’d be a lot more relaxed. Of course longer is better, so hang around as long as you can and you won’t run out of things to do!

If I was planning my first trip on the West Coast I reckon I’d stay at Fox Glacier, Franz Josef, Hokitika, Punakaiki and Karamea. With two or more nights in each place you’re looking at a 10 to 14-night trip — pretty relaxing but with so many cool things to see and do. Add another few days and visit places like Reefton and Blackball too.

Where to Stay

The main tourist towns (Haast, Fox Glacier, Franz Josef, Hokitika, Greymouth, Punakaiki, Westport, Karamea and Reefton) have a good selection of places to stay, and the bigger towns have plenty of eating and drinking options too. There are also smaller towns scattered around where you might find some good value places to stay.

Getting Around

There are buses running most of the way along the West Coast and from both Queenstown/ Wānaka and Christchurch (there’s also a train from Christchurch to Greymouth). While bussing is a viable option it’s nice to have your own transport in a vast region like this. 

We travelled by bus for Gia’s first trip to the West Coast back in 2015. We went from Wānaka to Franz Josef, did some walks around there and then bussed back to Wanaka a few days later (we were short on time). A longer bus trip could also take in Hokitika, Punakaiki and Westport. Franz Josef is easy enough to explore on foot (it’s about 45 mins walk from town to the main trailheads), as are Hokitika and Punakaiki. While a car is ideal you can still have a fun trip without one.

The West Coast is one of the most scenic and varied regions of New Zealand. Hopefully, this West Coast travel guide helps you on your quest to have a fun trip!

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out our South Island travel guide!

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Jon Algie

I'm a South Island local -- born in Timaru and raised in Dunedin. I left the island in 2006 and returned 10 years later. Having seen a good chunk of the world I realised how special this place is -- the most beautiful island in the world! Seven years (and almost 400 posts) later I'm still helping locals and tourists alike plan their trips around the South Island.