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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 create 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 long 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 road trip yet, check out the website Motorhome Republic. It is often used in New Zealand as you can easily compare companies, reviews, prices, and books all in one place! For even more information from our perspectives read our tips on how to score a cheap campervan rental!
New Zealand’s West Coast, South Island FAQs
Things to do on the West Coast of the South Island
1. Hike Isthmus Peak
What better way to kick off a West Coast road trip on the South Island 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 create 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. 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 (92 feet) 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!
4. Fantail Falls
This little waterfall hidden off the main road may end up being one of your favorite stops on the South Island west coast. Fantail Falls is a 23-meter (75 feet) waterfall with gorgeous, crystal-clear water cascading down into the Haast River. You can even wade through the water to get closer to the beautiful waterfall.
What’s great about Fantail Falls is that it’s so easy to get to – a great stop if you have kids in the car. Keep an eye out for the “Fantail Falls” sign on the Haast Highway. Then it’s only a two-minute walk from the parking lot to the falls.
Fantail Falls is located on the other side of the river, but you don’t need to cross the river to see it. If you don’t mind wading through the water, you can walk across the river and right up to the base of the falls. This is often a quieter spot, so if you’re here during the week or earlier in the day, you might have the entire place to yourself!
It’s truly one of the best places to visit in Mount Aspiring National Park!
5. 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. Read more about staying in a hut in New Zealand in our blog!
6. Haast Pass Lookout
For a quick hike to a nice viewpoint on the New Zealand West Coast, head to the Haast Pass Lookout. The Haast Pass is a stretch of road that runs between Wanaka and Haast and is surrounded by stunning scenery. While it’s great to view while driving, it’s best to get out of the car to really take the time to enjoy the sights!
The hike to the Haast Pass Lookout should only take 20-30 minutes round-trip to walk the 1.5 km (0.9 mi). You’ll pass through a beech forest full of moss-covered trees and mushrooms on the way. The well-maintained gravel path is mostly all uphill, but it’s still rated as an easy hike.
At the top, you’ll reach a small lookout with a bench where you can enjoy the stunning views of the Southern Alps, Mount Brewster to the northeast, and Mount Aspiring National Park.
7. Knights Point Lookout
For a view peering over the cliffs at the Tasman Sea below, the Knights Point Lookout is the place to go. There are some neat rock formations here and a great view of the ocean below. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some seals, dolphins, or jellyfish swimming in the water below.
This spot is famous for being the meeting point for road crews working here to link New Zealand’s east and west coasts. It’s actually named after a dog (Knight) owned by one of the construction workers who helped build the road.
There’s a large parking lot here along with toilets and picnic tables. It’s a good stop for photos and to stretch your legs. Just watch out for the high winds here!
8. South Westland Salmon Farm
Head to South Westland Salmon Farm for fresh fish at their café and a look at how they raise salmon here. The fish at this farm live in fresh water in circular nets attached to floating pontoons. It’s a small operation, so they focus on the quality of the fish, rather than quantity.
You can have a little tour here to look at the salmon in the ponds and even buy food for around $1 to feed them.
To feed yourself, there’s a little café with daily specials focusing on the key ingredient – salmon! Fresh salmon is harvested every day and there are some great dishes if you’re hungry. The smoked salmon on toast is especially good!
9. 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!
10. 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 parking lot, it takes around 20 minutes to hike to the jetty viewpoint and if you decide to hike around the lake allow at least 2.5 hours.
11. 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, stopping at a waterfall, and tea next to the riverbed.
12. 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!
13. Relax in the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef
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 Glacier Hot Pools! I have personally visited these hot pools twice now and I love them!
The Glacier 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.
14. Go Skydiving
If you aren’t scared of heights, see the New Zealand West Coast as it comes rushing toward you while you’re skydiving! Book a tandem skydive for the chance to jump out of a plane at 20,000 feet in the air!
On the plane ride up you’ll have amazing views of Mount Cook National Park, Franz Josef Glacier, and the Tasman Sea. Then, you’ll jump out of the plane for an 85-second freefall at 200 km/hr before you float safely to the ground with a parachute. This area is so scenic that it will feel like you’re jumping right into a postcard!
What’s great about tandem skydiving is it’s perfect for those who have never skydived before as you’re attached to an experienced professional the whole time. The tour also includes all your equipment and transportation to your takeoff point. The crew is also great at easing beginner’s nerves with lots of instructions and even some humor so you won’t be as nervous.
This particular skydive experience departs from Franz Josef town on the west coast and you should book it in advance to ensure you don’t miss out. It is, after all, one of the most popular activities on the West Coast.
15. 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.
16. Off-road adventure
See this incredible part of the world where ice and forest meet on an ATV. This off-road tour includes two hours on an ATV exploring the mountains and rainforest of the Southern Alps. You’ll follow paths that were carved by ancient glaciers and explore the landscape around the Franz Josef Glacier.
The tour includes an experienced guide as well as all the equipment you’ll need including wet weather gear – you’ll be driving through water and mud! If you’ve never driven an ATV before, don’t worry. I find it’s really easy to catch onto and this tour gives you lots of instruction and time on a practice track before you head out.
17. West Coast Treetop Walk
See New Zealand’s West Coast from a whole new perspective with a treetop adventure! When you go on a West Coast Treetop Walk, you’ll climb high above the rainforest so you’re at eye level with the amazing birds here and have incredible views.
There’s a steel platform to walk along here that stretches 450 meters (1,476 feet) through the tall Rimu and Kamahi trees. There’s also an observation tower you can climb where you can see the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea on clear days. It should take you around 45 minutes to walk along the platform and enjoy the view.
You can buy tickets online ahead of time, which are good for any time during the day you choose. They are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. in the winter. Admission is $32 per adult if you don’t buy tickets ahead of time – if you do, it’s slightly cheaper!
18. 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 (20 miles) east of Hokitika the gorge is a must-visit.
From the car parking lot, it’s a short 650-meter (0.4 mi) 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.
19. 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.
20. 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!
21. 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.
From the car parking lot only 1.7 kilometers (1 mile) 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 penguins!
22. 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, they 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 (2.1 mi) one-way (7km (4.3 mi) 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.
23. See glow worms on a cave tour
Glow worm caves are spread out all over 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, there are tours leaving to the caves. And the best part is that you can choose from two epic adventures!
The first is just a guided cave tour 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 has 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!
Related Read: The best way to explore Milford Sound is through a cruise! It’s a must do thing while in New Zealand.
24. 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!
25. Visit the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge
Your last stop as you say goodbye to New Zealand’s West Coast, South Island 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 on the South Island!
Getting Around for your NZ Road Trip
The first step to planning your New Zealand road trip is choosing your set of wheels! Most people rent a campervan or motorhome to get around but you can also just rent a normal car and stay in hotels (as opposed to camping.)
You can search for rental cars online in advance to compare car models and prices.
You can also do this with motorhomes and campervans on a website called Motorhome Republic. It shows all of the available campervans and motorhomes for your specific New Zealand road trip dates. You can compare prices and company reviews here too!
Personally, we have rented a campervan from the company called Mad Campers before and had a great experience. Mad Campers is for budget travelers and they offer 1 and 2 berth campervans that are very comfortable and perfect for a road trip in New Zealand! You can read our full Mad Campers review for more info!
We also have a discount code for our readers. Use DTRAVEL5 at checkout to get 5% off your campervan rental with Mad Campers!
Kiwi Motorhomes is another company we personally recommend, but for motorhomes! They offer luxury motorhomes (as opposed to budget campervans) at really reasonable rates. Check out our full review on them as well as more info specific on renting a motorhome in NZ!
Kiwi Motorhomes has actually given us a discount code for our readers too! Use the code DEST5 at checkout to get 5% off your motorhome rental!
I’m not saying these are the only two good companies out there, because there really are lots! But both of these guys are great value and come approved by us – plus you get a discount!
Now that you have your wheels, all that’s left to do is go over your road trip packing list, pack your bags, and hit the road!
Important Tips and Info for Planning your NZ Road Trip
Now that you have chosen one of the different New Zealand road trip itineraries and have the route all planned out, there are a few other things you need to do to prepare for your road trip to New Zealand! Here is some other important information to help you out!
Packing for an NZ Road Trip
Packing the right items for your New Zealand road trip is super important. Some items often forgotten are:
- Travel adaptor – Try to get one with the USB plugins as well as a standard power plug.
- Flynet – In the South Island, the sandflies are bad. Getting a fly net for your face will protect it during your road trip from nasty bites that can last weeks.
- Lifestraw drink bottle – On many of the hikes in the New Zealand the water is generally safe to drink. However, to be sure a Life Straw Water Bottle is a, well, lifesaver!
- Reef-safe sunscreen – Protecting New Zealand’s pristine waterways is super important. Reef-safe sunscreen is a great way to do your part.
- Sand-proof towel – These towels are amazing. I can’t go back to a normal beach towel anymore.
- DEET-free bug repellent – The main ingredient in New Zealand bug repellent is DEET. It’s really bad for both humans and bugs and DEET-free options are just as effective.
- Road trip food – Make sure to pack some great snacks and easy food to make for your road trip. Stop at a grocery store before you hit the road and load up!
Booking accommodation in New Zealand
Would you believe it I told you Bailey and I have made over 250 hotel bookings since we started blogging! That’s a lot of bookings!
They are the best in our opinion and their price match guarantee (we have used this before) means you’ll always get the best deal. If you’re planning your New Zealand road trip and need a place to stay (we all need some luxury here and there!) or campground Booking.com is the best way!
- Travel insurance – Travel insurance to cover yourself in case of injury is very important in any country and New Zealand is no different. Travel insurance can also cover your bags, tech, and gear so if you want to stress less about your valuables this is the way to go to put your mind at ease.
- Car rental insurance – Did you know you can now get insurance for your rental excess. This new insurance is especially needed for campervans or motorhomes as the excesses on these vehicles can be $8,000 +.
Booking the Inter-Island Ferry
Booking your Inter-Island Ferry in advance is a great way to save money and hassle during your New Zealand Road trip. You can book the Inter-Island Ferry here.
A great company to book flights to and from New Zealand and internally is Kiwi.com. We have used them many times and find them to be one of the cheapest.
Thanks for reading!
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 helpful be sure to jump over to our New Zealand travel guide page for more great travel guides, or check out these related articles below!