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The west coast of the South Island of New Zealand is a wild, ragged yet beautiful part of an extraordinarily beautiful country. Blessed with incredible nature, it is a must see on any trip to New Zealand.
I was fortunate enough to live on the West Coast for 3 years and loved every second of my time there, even though it is sometimes call “the wet coast” due to the massive amounts of rainfall they get, totalling more than 5000mm (yes over 5m worth!) of rain per year, 10 times that of London!
If you can travel to the West Coast of New Zealand when it isn’t raining, be prepared for some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, the most remote hikes and breathtaking geological phenomenons.
The West Coast region reaches from Karamea in the north to Haast in the south and extends inland to cover half of the southern alps, the longest and highest mountain range in New Zealand.
If you’re wondering what are the best places to visit on the West Coast of New Zealand, this guide will tell you everything you need to know for an unforgettable experience.
Top 11 Things to do and see on the West Coast of New Zealands South Island
The Franz Josef Heli Hike
Imagine taking a helicopter that soars you through a valley with mountains towering over you before placing you gently on one of the longest glaciers in the country, where you get out and explore the icy other world. Don’t imagine, go and do it.
The heli hike in Franz Josef is one of the highlights of not just a trip to the West Coast, but consistently ranks as one of the top things to do in all of New Zealand. Spending a couple of hours walking on a large chunk of ice as it slowly meanders its way down a valley it has been carving for thousands of years.
This isn’t something you can do by yourself, but with expert guides providing crampons and safety equipment, you’re in good hands as you have an adventure that can’t happen in many other places on earth.
The Blue Pools, on the Haast Pass, are technically just over the border of the West Coast in Otago, but still deserves a place on this list because of its beauty.
The crystal clear glacial waters form pools with the most incredible blue colours with a bridge crossing over. Only the brave jump from the brige into the icy waters, no matter the time of year the glacial water is cold.
The Blue Pools are just a short walk from the car park off SH6 and makes the perfect stop on a drive from the West Coast to Wanaka or Queenstown. Photos don’t do this place justice!
Mount Brown Hut
Visiting Mount Brown hut is a challenging steep hike, just outside of Hokitika. A 3 hour hike up steep climbs and sometimes muddy paths make it a test of endurance for those that aren’t accustomed to hiking, but those with some experience should still find it an interesting hike.
The small bright orange hut at the top has stunning views over the Southern Alps and Lake Kaniere on the way up. Take a sleeping bag and book a DOC pass and spend a night in the hut. Listen to frogs squawking outside as you drift off to sleep before waking before sunrise for million dollar views.
There are additional paths to follow to get down or take the same, well maintained path as on the way up.
Combine your hike with a trip to visit Hokitika Gorge, another incredible natural phenomenom on this part of the West Coast.
From the car park, the short walk over the swing bridges that are ubiquitous with the West Coast, to the view point of azure blue water coloured by the glacial flour, a fine powder of rock that give water in this part of the world its colour.
Get there early to have the place to yourselves and dip your feet in if you’re brave.
Copland track and Welcome Flat Hut hot springs
The Copland track is one of the most popular overnight hikes on the West Coast. The relatively easy walk, that remains flat for most of the 6 hour hike, starts south of Fox Glacier and heads inland following the Karangarua and then the Copland river.
At the end of your hike through typically stunning West Coast scenery, you arrive at Welcome Flat Hut, a DOC hut with beds for 31 people. In peak season it’s advisable to book in advance as space can fill up and can be booked online at the DOC website from August for the following summer period. There are also spaces to pitch your tent if needed. Price start at $20 for a bunk or $10 for a camp space.
After an enduring hike in hopefully warm weather, what better way to relax at the hut that to head to the natural hot springs a couple of minutes walk away from the hut. Bring your swimming costume and take a dip in the water that has been warmed by the geothermal energy New Zealand is so famous for.
Karamea is well off the beaten path, but it is well worth the effort to go to. I’ve written about it previously in one of the most underrated places I’ve been to.
At the end of a very long road heading north, its as far up the coast as it’s possible to go. You don’t accidentally end up in Karamea, you have to plan it.
The main attraction in Karamea is the Oparara Arch, a natural formation that forms a sheltered arch and brown tea like water flows through it. The arch formed when a layer of limestone dissolved over the last one million years, leaving the vast granite structure behind. Like the rest of New Zealand, it is a freak of nature that leads to its beauty.
Just north of Greymouth is another natural phenomenon, Pancake Rocks. The rocks have been formed by layers upon layers sediments that now give the appearance of stacked pancakes. The easily navigable path winds around the rocks giving different views and perspectives.
Go at high tide to see water spout out the blowholes causing a mist to descend over the rest of the rocks. Or go at sunset to see the sun dip behind the horizon giving the rocks an orange glow.
Thunder Creek Falls
Along the Haast Pass, heading south from the West Coast towards Wanaka and Queenstown, lies mountains and waterfalls galore. One of the most impressive is Thunder Creek Falls, a single drop waterfall with an incredible volume of water spouting down in a narrow slice into the rock.
A short drive from Fox Glacier township lies Lake Matheson. Another lake formed when glaciers retreated thousands of years ago, this lake is now known for having one of the best view points in all of New Zealand.
The 90 minute walk around the perimeter of the lake will take you through native bush, up close to the lake eels and native bird species with a variety of viewpoints en route, including Reflection Island to get the perfect mirror image of the Southern Alps.
Kayak Lake Mapourika
Glacier Country, the region south of Hokitika down to Fox Glacier, has an abundance of glacial lakes, bodies of water formed as the crushing weight of glaciers depressed the earths surface, leaving behind craters that filled with water as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age.
One such lake is Lake Mapourika, just north of Franz Josef. The lake has a campsite, small beach area and boat ramp that allows for recreation in the UNESCO area.
If you don’t have your own kayak, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours offers small group tours with leaders so you get to fully experience the lake, its small creeks and coves, the local nature on offer and the views of the southern alps and glaciers on a clear day.
Just 30 minutes away from Fox Glacier lies this small and secluded beach, not known by too many people. Mostly frequented by locals going fishing, there is also a DOC campsite and a seal colony a short walk away.
Being on the West Coast, expect stony beaches, green vegetation but potentially some of the best sunsets you’ll see. If secret beaches are your thing, also check out, Okarito, Hunts Beach (known as purple beach due to the colour of its sand) and Jackson Bay.
Bonus perks on the West Coast of New Zealand
Skydive from either Fox or Franz Josef for some of the highest skydives in the world with ariel views of glaciers and snow capped mountains as you fall.
Hot pools at Glacier base
A perfect rainy day activity, the hot pools are like giant outdoor jacuzzi’s tastefully built into the native rainforest around.
Waiho hot tubs
These hot tubs, heated by burning wood behind the tub themselves, provide a more romantic and intimate experience that the hot pools at the Glacier Base
Quad biking in Franz Josef can be done in all weathers and is even more fun in the rain. Head down the Waiho River with your guide and look back up the glaciers and southern alps from a distance.
Jade carving in Hokitika
Carve your very own piece of pounamu at the jade carving factory on the Main Street in Hokitika for the perfect Kiwi souvenir.
FAQs on travelling the West Coast of New Zealand
When is the best time to visit the South Island of New Zealand
My favourite time to visit is in early spring time, September and early October are perfect. At this time, it normally has the most stable weather, and there is still plenty of snow on the mountains to make it look even more beautiful. December and January is peak season, the weather may be warmer but it also rains often and prices are higher.
Why is it called the Wet Coast? Does it really rain that much?
YES! After living there for 3 years I can confirm that it rains a hell of a lot on the west coast of New Zealand. London is known for being drab and wet and receives 500mm of rain per year. The west coast averages 5000mm! There are valleys on the West Coast that are some of the wettest places in the world, only beaten by valleys in India that have a monsoon.
What is the best way to travel the West Coast?
In my personal opinion, you need a car to properly see the West Coast and to have the freedom to explore it to its fullest. You won’t be able to see half the highlights here without one.
The Intercity bus runs up and down the coast stopping at the small townships. Hitchhiking is also an option.
It may also be possible to see some of the sights on day trips from Christchurch.
Should I visit the West Coast of New Zealand?
Check out my other posts on New Zealand:
- 11 Best Things To Do on the West Coast of New Zealand
- The 5 Best Hikes Around Franz Josef, New Zealand
- 6 Best Weekend Trips from Christchurch
- A Night On Fox Glacier
- What to do with 48 hours in Christchurch: The Perfect 2 Day Itinerary
- 12 Best Day Hikes on the South Island, New Zealand
- How To Book A Helicopter Flight in Franz Josef
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.