18 BEST Things to do on New Zealand’s West Coast
The West Coast of New Zealand is one of the most amazing regions on the South Island. I’ve been lucky enough to visit here many times and explore much of what this untouched wilderness has to offer.
To say the least, the things to do on the West Coast of New Zealand are some of the best things to do in all of NZ and this is one area every visitor should add to their South Island travel itinerary.
However, the West Coast stretches far and wide and finding some of the best attractions on the West Coast is difficult. In fact, some of the items listed below were found by chance and could have been missed very easily.
So for that reason, I’ve decided to create the ultimate New Zealand West Coast bucket list so other travelers like yourself don’t miss out on all the amazing places to stop on your visit here.
Here are the best things to do on the West Coast of New Zealand that if done in the right order, also creat the most epic West Coast road trip!
West Coast, New Zealand Road Trip Guide
Below I have described all 18 stops on this West Coast road trip in detail. If you even just do a fraction of the things on this list, you’re sure to have a great time.
Of course, you’ll have to pick and choose what you do and where you stop based on how much time you have. To me, the perfect amount of time to enjoy the West Coast is 4 to 6 days. However, it is possible to fast-track it and just hit the highlights spending 3 or fewer days – just be prepared for longer driving days!
The below list of things to do on New Zealand’s West Coast is in order from south to north (as shown on the map above), so you can plan your road trip accordingly!
*Tip: If you haven’t booked a campervan or motorhome for your West Coast raod trip yet, check out the website Motorhome Republic. It is often used in New Zealand as you can easily compare companies, reviews, prices, and book all in one place!
18 Awesome Things to do on the West Coast of New Zealand
1. Hike Isthmus Peak
What better way to kick off a West Coast road trip than by stretching your legs on the not so famous Isthmus Peak. This day hike is the rival of the famous Roy’s Peak and the views from the top are just as beautiful.
Starting 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside of Wanaka, this epic trail is only a 16-kilometer (10 miles) hike up and back, but with an elevation gain of 1133 meters (3,700 feet) it really isn’t easy. However, if you have already done Roy’s Peak then you’ll know what you’re in for as both hikes are almost identical in length and elevation.
I personally prefer hiking Roy’s Peak but Isthmus Peak is still easily one of the best trails in NZ as the views are breathtaking. Also, because it’s not as popular as Roy’s Peak, you’ll also avoid the large crowds and the now-famous Roy’s Peak lineup at the famous Instagram spot!
2. Explore the Blue Pools
Few places in NZ are as famous as the Blue Pools on the West Coast. As the glaciers high in the Southern Alps melt they send ice-cold water down the mountains and into the Makarora River. Then, the river pools creating the perfect place to enjoy a swim or take some photos of the stunning blue water.
But why is the water blue?
Well, I’m glad you asked because I know the answer. You see, the glaciers crush rock into a fine powder as they grow. This is called rock flour and this flour reflects light from the sun and creates a blue color. The more flour the darker the color and the less flour the lighter the water will appear.
The Blue Pools, New Zealand is a must-visit attraction and once you park and lace-up your shoes it’s only a 20-minute walk to the pools where you can enjoy two very cool suspension bridges and take a dip – that is if you can brave the cold water!
3. Spend a night at the Brewster Hut
The best overnight hike on the West Coast of New Zealand is, of course, the hike to the Brewster Hut. This short but grueling climb takes around 3 hours each way and climbs 1000 meters (3,280 feet) in elevation over only a few kilometers. This makes the trail difficult and in some spots, you’ll be required to literally climb up the path.
However, the effort doesn’t come unrewarded and once you reach the Brewster Hut you’ll be able to enjoy stunning views of the Southern Alps and New Zealand’s beautiful West Coast. If you get a clear night the stars are breathtaking!
Important info: The trail to the Brewster Hut starts at Fantail Falls and at the start of the hike you are required to cross the Haast River. In the summer months this usually isn’t an issue especially if it’s been dry, but if it has been raining recently the river lever can be much higher. Please only cross when safe to do so and check with a local DOC office for updated conditions.
Bookings: The Brewster Hut is a popular track and does need to be booked in advance between December and April. The hut costs $15 NZD per person during these months. The hut is a serviced hut with 12 bunks and a kitchen. You’ll need to bring your own sleeping bag.
4. Visit Thunder Creek Falls
With so much to see on the West Coast of NZ, it can be hard to fit it all in. Luckily though, a visit the Thunder Creek Falls only takes a few minutes.
The 28-meter high waterfall is beautiful and from the highway, it only takes 5 minutes to reach via a very flat trail. At the falls is a viewpoint and stairs that take you down to the Haast River. You’ll only need a few minutes here and don’t worry if you lose track of time as the sandflies will remind you to get going!
5. Hike to the Fox Glacier Viewpoint
New Zealand’s West Coast is home to two very famous glaciers and if you ask me, I say they’re both worth a visit. The first you’ll come to is, of course, Fox Glacier.
This once massive glacier has been retreating for quite some time but luckily there is still a short 1-hour return hike to the viewpoint of the glacier. Along the way, you can see markers from where the glacier once sat and at the viewpoint, you’ll enjoy a pretty good view of the glacier.
The trail isn’t long but it does have an incline, however, the journey isn’t just about the glacier as the entire valley is breathtaking!
Tour recommendation: If you want to learn more about the Fox Glacier and the area then joining this guided walk is a great idea. You’ll learn lots about the glacier and the mountains around it!
6. Stare in awe at Lake Matheson
Just outside of Franz Josef is one of the most underrated lakes in NZ. Lake Matheson is a stunning lake that on a calm day reflects the mountains like you wouldn’t believe. Of course, this is weather dependent but regardless, the short hike to the jetty viewpoint is beautiful anyway.
There is also another trail that leads around the lake and if you have the time it’s well worth checking out. My tip is to visit at sunrise especially if you love photography. Not only is this the least busy time, but the winds are usually calmer in the morning and you’ll get an epic start to the day!
From the car park, it takes around 20 minutes to hike to the jetty viewpoint and all up if you decide to hike around the lake allow at least 2.5 hours.
7. Hike to the Franz Josef Glacier Viewpoint
The second and most famous glacier on New Zealand’s West Coast is the Franz Josef Glacier. This glacier is visited by almost everyone who travels the region and the glacier valley walk to the viewpoint is a great short hiking trail.
A return trip from the car parking lot just outside of Franz Josef town takes around an hour and is a relatively flat trail. From the viewpoint, you can see the glacier well but if it keeps retreating they may have to extend the trail.
I’ve personally hiked to both the Fox and Franz Josef Glacier viewpoints and liked both hikes. However, if you only have time for one, I’d say the Franz Josef Trail is the one to do. Why? Well, the walk is nicer (and easier) and you pass a few waterfalls on the way!
Tour recommendation: A very popular tour to the glacier viewpoint is this 3 hour guided walk that includes transport to Franz Josef town.
8. Go glacier trekking
The most popular and exciting adventure activity on the West Coast is glacier trekking. This awesome tour involves a scenic flight from Franz Josef up to the glacier where you land on the glacier before being guided around this giant piece of ice!
Along the way you’ll stare into crevasses, drink pure glacier water, and learn all about the glacier. These trekking tours can be done on both the Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier and choosing which tour you do really doesn’t matter that much. In fact, when you’re in the air you’ll realize just how close both these glaciers are!
Of course, glacier trekking tours aren’t cheap and you can expect to pay around $500 NZD for a 3.5-hour tour. But this is really a once in a lifetime activity on New Zealand’s West Coast!
9. Relax in the Franz Josef Hot Pools
Road tripping the West Coast of NZ is tiring and at this point you’re almost halfway through the activities on this list, so it’s the perfect time to relax those muscles at the Franz Josef Hot Pools! I have personally visited these hot pools twice now and I love them!
Related blog: You can read my review of the Franz Josef Hot Pools here!
The Franz Josef Hot Pools are quiet and calm, surrounded by beautiful gardens, and they have three different pools at different temperatures which means there’s a pool for everyone (Bailey and I usually get split up as she likes the water so hot it burns me!)
Cost: General entrance to the hot pools is only $29 NZD and you can book tickets here in advance. They also offer a private pool and spa packages so you can choose just how much you spoil yourself! From any hotel in Franz Josef, you can easily walk to the hot pools.
10. Visit the West Coast Wildlife Center and see a kiwi
Kiwi birds are some of the rarest to see in New Zealand. In fact, after a year of looking, I only ever saw the arse end of one in the wild running along the trail I was on in the dark.
So if you haven’t seen a kiwi yet, then the best place to guarantee a sighting is at the West Coast Wildlife Center. Here you can visit a kiwi enclosure and look for these cute little guys.
Also, by visiting you’re helping support great projects to help bring the kiwi bird back from the risk of extinction. Many of the birds born in the Wildlife Center are taken to predator-free islands (some in the Marlborough Sounds) to live until they are old enough to evade predators and be returned to the Franz Josef area.
11. Visit the Hokitika Gorge
Just in case you didn’t get enough of the blue water at the Blue Pools there’s another West Coast attraction that showcases this even better, and that’s the Hokitika Gorge! Located 32 kilometers east of Hokitika the gorge is a must-visit.
From the car parking lot, it’s a short 650-meter walk to the first viewpoint and from here you can enjoy the perfect vantage point of this stunning gorge with sapphire-colored water. After enjoying that view you can continue on a hike up to another viewpoint for a birds-eye view.
You can also swim at the gorge but please be careful as this spot has claimed the lives of visitors.
12. Make your own souvenir at a jade carving lesson
If you want to take home a nice souvenir from New Zealand then keep well away from the overpriced souvenir shops that all stock the same products. Instead, stop in Barrytown as you road trip up the west coast and carve your own souvenir in a jade carving lesson.
This is a very unique experience and you’ll learn about New Zealand jade as well as take home a beautiful (depending on how skilled you are) souvenir. Although it sounds difficult carving a nice piece of jade is easy with the help of your guide.
Company recommendation: The company we recommend is Barrytown Jade and here carving lessons start from as little as $100 NZD.
13. Visit Pancake Rocks and the Blow Hole
Pancake Rocks? Yep, you heard that right! In the town of Punakaiki on NZ’s West Coast are the most unique rock formations in New Zealand. Pancake Rocks are essentially what the name suggests and when you visit and see the oddly layered rocks, I think you’ll agree.
This cool rock formation took millions of years to form and each layer represents a different time. If you can, visit Pancake Rocks at sunset as this is the most ideal time to avoid the crowds. At the rocks, there is a large walkway that takes around 40 minutes to complete depending on how long you spend admiring the formations.
Also along this viewpoint is the blowhole and if you visit at high tide you’ll be able to see water shoot up from beneath the rocks through the blowhole. I haven’t seen this in action as I wasn’t there during high tide, but regardless, Pancake Rocks are worth a visit anyway!
14. Hike the Truman Track
As I traveled the West Coast I always tried to hike as many trails as I could. This, of course, leads me on a lot of wild goose chases that ended with nothing to show.
However, when I stumbled onto the short but sweet Truman Track I was amazed. This easy hiking trail is stunning and one of the best things to do in Punakaiki.
From the car parking lot only 1.7 kilometers outside of Punakaiki, it is only a 10-minute walk to the viewpoint but along the way, you are surrounded by beautiful native bushland before it quickly disappears and you can enjoy breathtaking views of the coastline.
From here you can walk down and explore the beach below (but only at low tide.) On the beach, you can see interesting starfish and explore the eroded rock formations and caves. If you’re lucky you can also spot blue penguins here which are the world’s smallest penguin!
15. Explore the Pororari River
One thing you’ll notice once you reach Punakaiki is just how much the landscape changes since you left the Lakes District. In this northern region of the South Island the vegetation and cliffs are so beautiful it amazed me!
So, why not get amongst it all and take a short hike or paddle down the Pororari River. The Pororari River Track is an easy way to enjoy the scenery and is also free. You can hike the entire 3.5 kilometers one way (7km return) track in around 1.5 hours.
If walking doesn’t sound like fun, then why not kayak down the river? You can rent kayaks from the river’s edge on the ocean side of the highway (you can’t miss it). Two-hour kayak rental will cost $50 NZD for adults and $20 for children.
16. See glow worms on a cave tour
Glow worm caves are everywhere in New Zealand but not all are created equal. Out of them all, a few stand out and some include the Waitomo Caves, Waipu Caves, and the Te Anau Caves. However, these places are hot on the tourist trail and as such, visiting these caves can be somewhat overcrowded.
But there is one cave not mentioned above that’s well off the beaten path and that’s the Nile River Caves in Paparoa National Park. From the town of Charleston, the company Cave Rafting has tours leaving to the caves. And the best part is that you can choose from two epic adventures!
The first is just a cave tour with where you’ll explore the cave in search of glow worms and learn all about underground life. The second (and our favorite) is glow worm cave tubing. This epic adventure sees you tubing through the caves along the Nile River exploring deep parts of the cave and learning about, well, caves!
So if the crowds of other tourist attractions in NZ have you a little excited to leave them behind, then this is the perfect stop on your trip along New Zealand’s stunning West Coast!
17. Sea wild seals at Cape Foulwind
One of the least known places to visit on the west coast of New Zealand is the Cape Foulwind Seal Colony. In fact, remember when I said I found some spots by chance? Well, this was one of those and if it weren’t for a quick glance at a sign that said “seals this way” I would have missed it.
Only a short drive north of Punakaiki is the turnoff to the car parking lot. From here, just follow the signs and hike the very short trail to the seal colony viewpoint. Here you can see lots of New Zealand Fur seals relaxing in the sun and going for a swim.
When I visited in December there were lots of little baby seals around which was really cool to see. So if you want to see New Zealand Fur seals, add Cape Foulwind to your West Coast road trip itinerary!
18. Visit the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge
Your last stop as you say goodbye to New Zealand’s West Coast is the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge. This swing bridge is the largest in New Zealand and crossing it can be scary for those afraid of heights! However, the views are spectacular and for only $10 it’s well worth it!
Of course, the bridge isn’t the only attraction here and you can also go jet boating down the Buller Gorge and even ziplining. The area is also a heritage site and you can find lots of information from the gold mining days in the area as well as the old equipment.
The Buller Gorge Swing Bridge is a great last stop on your way through the West Coast!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
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Before you go…
Wow! What a list of things to do on the West Coast of New Zealand. Looking back, this was one of my favorite places to road trip in New Zealand and I’m sure it will be one of yours.
If you have any questions about the above or NZ in general, please leave us a comment below.
Also, if you found this travel blog help be sure to jump over to our New Zealand travel guide page for more great travel guides or check out these related articles below!
March 12, 2020