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New Zealand: South Island West Coast Drive

This post will show you a long drive in New Zealand, down the South Island West Coast. We will take State Highway 6 from Punakaiki Pancake rocks and drive down to Lake Matheson and Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. From the glaciers our 370 km drive will continue to Haast where we will turn inland. 

What is driving in New Zealand and on its South Island West Coast like, in an area of rugged coastline, stormy seas and green rainforests?

Lake Matheson, South Island West Coast drive

Lake Matheson with Mount Cook in the background, New Zealand South Island West Coast

West Coast is beautiful, the green coastline is backed by New Zealand’s highest mountains. The mountains also make that West Coast is far away from everything: only 40 000 people of New Zealand’s total of 4,5 million live here.

No cities exist on the West Coast, people live in isolate houses and small settlements. They don’t even have an internet connection outside the villages.

West Coast: Part of Our South Island Trip

West Coast is a part (section number 2) of our South Island round trip for which we rented a campervan.

To get to West Coast we crossed the mountains along the Arthur’s Pass road from Christchurch and to leave West Coast we took the road to Queenstown across Haast Pass. These are the two main roads leading to the West Coast. Plus there is a third road in the north, the Buller Gorge road from Nelson.

If you want to know how we arranged our New Zealand campervan trip that information is in my post New Zealand in Campervan: Christchurch to Greymouth.

On the way to the New Zealand West Coast

On the way to the New Zealand West Coast

And finally, to find all posts on our South Island road trip check out my main post New Zealand South Island Road Trip in 11 Days.

South Island West Coast Drive on the Map

 

The map shows our South Island West Coast driving itinerary, 5 hours of driving without stops which I of course don’t recommend. You will want to stop, often.

We stayed three nights on the West Coast, first in Greymouth in the north, then in Franz Josef Village in the middle and last in Haast at the south end before turning inland.

I will show you West Coast attractions from north to south. The first attraction is Punakaiki and its Pancake Rocks.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Punakaiki Pancake Rock formations

South Island West Coast drive: pancake rocks

Have you ever seen piles of petrified pancakes? I have. In Paparoa National Park near the small settlement of Punakaiki. These piled stones really look like pancakes. They are layers of limestone, separated by thin bands of soft stone.

There are thousands of piles like this in Paparoa and that all looks dramatic. The piles have not been like this from the beginning of time, they have been formed by sea storms and rain during thousands of years and they will be formed in the future.

Dolomite Point Walk to the Pancakes

Paparoa National Park gorge

Pancakes and the ocean

To see the pancakes you only have to take a 25 min loop walk from the information centre on main road. Most of the pancakes are at the Dolomite Point so that’s what the name comes from. The Dolomite Point walk is an easy walk and the first part is accessible.

 

Punakaiki Pancakes

Paparoa National Park Pancakes

Petrified pancakes of Punakaiki

But look at these layered limestones, Paparoa National Park pancake rocks! To view the small photos in a bigger size, click on them.

 

The rockes are in Paparoa National Park, South Island West Coast.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Pancake rocks and rainforest 

Truman Track Rainforest Walk

Ferns in Punakaiki rainforest

South Island West Coast drive: Truman Track rainforest

Paparoa National Park offers more walks. The 15-minute Truman Track takes you through a rainforest to a rugged coastline with caverns and blowholes.

Truman Track caverns become blowholes at high tide and during storms. The wind pushes the water into the cavern from where it explodes high up with a spray.

Punakaiki rainforest path

Walking on Truman Track, Paparoa National Park

Paparoa National Park rainforest

Truman Track vegetation, Paparoa National Park

Punakaiki Beach

Punakaiki beach South Island West Coast

A South Island West Coast beach

Truman Track also leads to Punakaiki Beach. Punakaiki Beach is sandy and looks pretty, but the weather doesn’t make you want to swim. It’s a cold and rainy day, like many other days in this area. The South Island West Coast is a high rainfall area. It rains 5000 mm a year.

 

And there’s one more walk, a 2 hour walk to a limestone formation that’s called the ballroom overhang. But to see more of the West Coast we skipped that walk and headed 43 km south to Greymouth, first driving in a deep rainforest.

Punakaiki to Greymouth

Driving in Punakaiki rainforest

Driving in New Zealand: raod and rainforest

Greymouth with its 13 500 inhabitants is the largest town on the West Coast. It’s and old gold and coal mining town and it still is the center of a coal mining area.

Greymouth also is a greenstone town. It is that since the 14th century when the Maoris settled in the area in. They came to West Coast for greenstone, jade, that they found at the mouth of the Grey River. You can learn about greenstone at the Greymouth Jade Boulder Gallery.

Driving in New Zealand

West Coast cattle

As the biggest resort on the West Coast Greymouth has developed to an adventure center that offers commercial tourist activities: drafting, dolphin watching and so on.

But we didn’t want to take any tourist activities in this weather so we took State Highway 6 from Greymouth to the next settlement that has a nice name, Hokitika.

Hokitika

Hokitika beach

The beach of Hokitika on a stormy day

Hokitika is in a stormy location. It was rainy and windy and there had been a huge storm a week before cutting trees in forests and gardens. But this weather is not bad at all, there was a time when 32 shipwrecks occurred on Hokitika coast, all within three years.

 

Photos of Hokitika, New Zealand West Coast drive

Hokitika was an important town during the gold rush and many buildings still remain from that time, like the clock tower and the Carnegie Library that you can see on the photos.

To see all 22 historical buildings you can walk a marked heritage trail and to see glowworms there’s a glowworm walk.

And since Hokitika too is a tourist town there are more attractions: an aquarium, a gold-mining museum, a kiwi centre and jade galleries.

Hokitika to West Coast Glaciers

Driving in New Zealand, State Highway 6

Driving down the South Island West Coast

But it’s still 150 km to the glaciers where we booked the next night so we have to drive again.

South Island West Coast roads are good and there’s hardly any traffic. I like the place names in road signs : Lake Mahinapua 10 km south of Hokitika, followed by Pukekura, Harihari, Whataroa. The village of  Ross 28 km south of Hokitika has a gold-mining museum with the largest gold nugget found in the region.

Driving in New Zealand, West Coast road

New Zealand road

West Coast Jade Rivers

New Zealand West Coast river

This is what South Island West Coast rivers look like

West Coast has many pretty rivers and many of them contain jade. But it’s not the jade that gives the rivers their colour, it’s small particles that come from melting glacier ice. West Coast rivers are mountain rivers and we are approaching the glacier mountains.

 

More river photos

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

Franz Josef village

Franz Josef Village, New Zealand

And then, the mountains got higher and we reached Franz Josef Village, a small mountain village where we stayed a night in the rainforest, bathed in hot pools and looked for kiwis in a kiwi house. And above all: we hiked to two glaciers, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.

 

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers

These are the only two of the 140 New Zealand glaciers that reach down from 3000 m to the rainforest at only 250 m.

So we walked to both glaciers. It was not a long walk so almost anyone can do it. You can read about the glaciers and our glacier walks in my post New Zealand: Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. The post also tells more about Franz Josef Village.

In this post we will continue our trip south and the next attraction is only 6 km from Fox Glacier Village: Lake Matheson.

Lake Matheson
Lake Matheson cattle

South Island West Coast scenery

The Glacier country also has lakes and the most famous of them is Lake Matheson. Lake Matheson is what you see on all New Zealand postcards. On calm days the lake shows stunning mirror-like reflections of Aoraki Mount Cook and the other snow-capped tops next to it.

They say the reflection looks best in the early morning so we made a morning trip to Lake Matheson, the reflecting lake on New Zealand South Island West Coast.

 

These photos are from the village where you turn to Lake Matheson from State Highway 6. We saw some pubs where walkers were sitting outside having their breakfast and some other buildings looked like hotels.

Walking to Lake Matheson

Mount Cook from Lake Matheson

New Zealand West Coast drive: view from the Lake Matheson road

To see Lake Matheson and the postcard view: take a 40 min walk (20 min one way) from the Lake Matheson Cafe car park. The track crosses the river to an ancient rainforest with kahikatea and rimu trees, the exotic forest makes you believe you are in a fairytale forest. Never seen a forest like this!

 

Less than halfway along the lake is the Jetty viewpoint where you can watch the world famous reflection.

Lake Matheson Jetty viewpoint

Lake Matheson from the Jetty viewpoint

Can you see the dark brown colour of the river and the lake? That’s what makes the reflection so special. The dark colour comes from organic humus in the water.

My best Lake Matheson postcard photos:

Lake Matheson and Mount Cook

Lake Matheson view to Aoraki Mount Cook and Mount Tasman

 

Enjoying Lake Matheson on a sunny morning

Mount Cook New Zealand

Aoraki Mount Cook, 3 724 m, and the Fox Glacier seen from Lake Matheson

If you like you can continue and take the circuit track around the lake. There are two more lookouts with similar views, the View of Views at the top of the lake and the Reflection Island on the opposite side.

The walk around the lake will take approximately 1,5 hours and it’s all the way forest.

More on Lake Matheson and the walkway on the Lake Matheson website.

Bruce Bay and Lake Moeraki

Bruce Bay New Zealand South Island

Bruce Bay on the South Island West Coast

After Lake Matheson the State Higway 6 runs through a forest until it meets the Tasman Sea at Bruce Bay at the mouth of the Mahitahi river.

The pretty beach is partly sand, partly moraine from the glaciers and it must be a windy place most time of the year. At least there’s tons of drift wood that Ocean waves have carried to the beach.

 

From Bruce Bay it’s still 80 km to Haast, forest again. And then, in the middle of the forest there’s a lake with a strong blue colour, Lake Moeraki.

Lake Moeraki

Lake Moeraki, the blue lake

Knights Point Lookout

Knights Point Lookout South Island West Coast

Knights Point Lookout further down the South Island West Coast

Just south of Lake Moeraki is the scenic Knigts Point Lookout with great views of the Haast area coastline and the Tasman Sea. The viewpoint was built in 1965 when the road from the glaciers to Haast opened. So the road opened first in 1965?

Admiring Knights Point Lookout

Enjoying the views

If the timing is right you might spot seals, dolphins and penguins.

There should be a penguin colony and the best time to watch them is August to November on late afternoon or early morning. Penguins only exist in the southern hemisphere so try to see them once you are in New Zealand.

Ships Creek

New Zealand West Coast Ships Creek

One more stop: Ships Creek

Ships Creek is our next destination, a wonderful place for a stop. There is a river mouth and a sandy beach with fine sand dunes and some driftwood. I liked the lagoon with dark brown river water.

 

Ships Creek beach, South Island West Coast drive

South Island West Coast lagoon

White sand and a brown lagoon

Ships Creek has two short walks. The 30 min Dune walk takes you along the beach to a small dune lake and the Kahikatea Forest Walk, maybe a bit more than 30 min, brings you through a Kahikatea swamp forest to a forest lake with seabirds. This is a place for bird lovers!

South Island West Coast bird lake

On a nature walk

Ship Creek with its two beautiful nature walks is worth a stop. They have built good boardwalks on the dunes and through the dense coastal swamp forest so it’s very easy to walk here.

 

West Coast coastline

And our last West Coast destination is Haast, before State Highway 6 turns inland.

Haast

Driving in New Zealand, Haast bridge

State Highway 6 bridge crossing Haast River

Haast really is a small community. It only has 300 inhabitants, one or two general stores, a gas station, some dining and accommodation for visitors – and a possum and merino gift store. So there’s not much to see in the township itself but the surroundings are magnific: the Haast area has been declared the South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Area.

We arrived at Haast in the evening and continued our journey the next morning so there was no time for more activities than a walk on Haast Beach, along a side road to the fishing village of  Jackson Bay (36 km south).

Haast Beach

Haast beach, driving in New Zealand

Driftwood on Haast beach, New Zealand 

 

Walking along Haast beach, South Island West Coast drive

Haast is on the western edge of Mount Aspiring National Park. My next post will show you the UNESCO listed national park as we drive inland from Haast:

From Haast to Queenstown

To see how our journey continues from Haast check out my next post New Zealand Drive: West Coast to Queenstown.

The post contains more photos of Haast and in addition you will see the Blue Pools, the Southern Lakes and the towns of Wanaka and Cromwell – and Kawarau Gorge bungy jumping.

Blue Pools, New Zealand

Driving from West Coast to Queenstown: Blue Pools

More on New Zealand Travel

This was section number 2 of our New Zealand South Island road trip. You will find our whole South Island itinerary and its all other sections here:

Crown Range Summit road by campervan

New Zealand South Island road trip in 11 days

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