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West Coast

Sandwiched between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea, this narrow region stretches some 500 km along the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. This is a natural wilderness filled with mountains, glaciers, lakes and rainforests, and no South Island road trip would be complete without visiting ‘The Coast’.

But this is no ordinary coastline. It feels remote, isolated and, for the most part, sparsely populated because it is, with less than 1% of New Zealand’s population living here. But don’t worry, the hardy locals, or Coasters as they like to refer to themselves, are happy to show you their interesting rock formations and sell you some much needed sandfly spray.

The towns of Westport to the north, and Greymouth and Hokitika to the south are the main centres in the region. Along with the tiny settlement of Haast in the far south, these towns are linked by four main routes across the Southern Alps to the east coast. Here are approximate travel times and distances to and from these centres.

Drive times

  • Picton to Westport: 285 km / 177 miles – 4 hours
  • Nelson to Westport: 222 km / 138 miles – 3 hours
  • Westport to Karamea: 96 km / 60 miles – 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Westport to Punakaiki: 36 km / 22 miles – 50 minutes
  • Westport to Greymouth: 100 km / 62 miles – 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Greymouth to Hokitika: 39 km / 24 miles – 30 minutes
  • Christchurch to Greymouth (via Arthur’s Pass): 244 km / 152 miles – 3 hours 20 minutes
  • Christchurch to Hokitika (via Arthur’s Pass): 248 km / 154 miles – 3 hours 20 minutes
  • Hokitika to Franz Josef: 134 km / 83 miles – 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Hokitika to Fox Glacier: 157 km / 98 miles – 2 hours 5 minutes
  • Fox Glacier to Haast: 120 km / 75 miles
  • Haast to Wanaka: 142 km / 88 miles – 1 hour 50 minutes
  • Haast to Queenstown: 207 km / 129 miles – 3 hours

Travel times can vary significantly, particularly in popular areas during peak visitor months (December – February). For current travel times and updates on delays, roadworks and road closures, use the NZ Transport Agency journey planner before travelling. It’s always a good idea to allow extra time for photo stops and, when travelling longer distances, rest stops.

Flight times
Hokitika Airport is the largest airport in the West Coast. Located just a few kilometres from the town centre, the airport handles flights to Christchurch.

  • Christchurch (CHC) to Hokitika (HKK): 45 minutes
  • Auckland (AKL) to Hokitika (HKK) via Christchurch: 2 hours 45 minutes
  • Wellington (WLG) to Hokitika (HKK) via Christchurch: 2 hours 10 minutes

Westport has a small airport located a few minutes drive from the town centre. Sounds Air provides flights between Westport and Wellington:

  • Westport (WSZ) to Wellington (WLG): 50 minutes

The thing about the West coast’s weather is that it’s either beautiful and sunny or it’s raining, and when it rains on the West Coast, it really rains. Fortunately, much of this rain occurs inland as the prevailing westerly winds are forced upwards by the Southern Alps. So while it can be wet and grey inland, on the coast it can be dry and sunny.

Overall then, the coastal climate is for more moderate than inland with an average high in summer (December – February) of 20 °C / 68 °F and an average summer low of 12 °C / 53.6 °F. In winter (June – August), while there is snow on the peaks, temperatures are cool but not freezing with an average high of 13 °C / 55.4 °F and an average low of 5 °C / 41 °F.

Two things to bear in mind when outdoors on the West Coast, particularly inland. Firstly, weather conditions can change quickly. You can be on a mountain in full sun one minute, and then completely clouded in minutes later. This was something we discovered first hand when we climbed Mount Fox. Secondly, all that rain falling on the mountains has got to make its way to the sea, resulting in raised river levels and sometimes flooding.


Featured West Coast adventures

Looking for ideas to help you plan the ultimate New Zealand outdoor adventure? Here are some of the top things for active travellers to see and do in the West Coast region.

Visit Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Driving down the West Coast’s spectacular Great Coast Road (Highway 6) is a must-do when visiting the South Island. Approximately 36 km / 22 miles south of Westport is the Paparoa National Park, home to the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. It’s only a short 20 minute walk to see these bizarrely shaped rock formations and they’re definitely worth stopping for.

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Visit the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

During the last ice age, a vast ice-sheet extended from the Southern Alps to way past the current coastline. Today, all that remains are two glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef. What makes these glaciers unique is that their terminal faces are less than 300 metres above sea level, making them some of the world’s most easily accessible glaciers.

Franz Josef Glacier - Photo: khunaspix/BigStock.com

There are a number of walking tracks in the area that will get you reasonably close but for a unique adventure, consider a guided experience on the ice with Fox Glacier Guiding or Franz Josef Glacier Guides.

The best way to see the full extent of the glaciers is from above and a helicopter flight is best for that. But if you’re up for a challenging climb instead, you could consider climbing Mount Fox for spectacular views over Fox Glacier.

Explore the Oparara Arches

At the far northern end of the West Coast is the small township of Karamea. It’s a 190 km / 118 mile return drive from Westport so quite off the beaten track but well worth visiting if you have the time as there are numerous scenic walks. The nearby Oparara Basin with its spectacular limestone arches is a definite must-do in the area.

Oparara Arches - Photo: Fraser Clements

Visit Hokitika Gorge

From the small coastal town of Hokitika, it’s about a 65 km / 40 mile return drive to Hokitika Gorge. It may seem like a fair distance to travel just to see a gorge, but this is no ordinary gorge because the river that runs through it is like few reivers you will ever have seen. Read about our visit to Hokitika Gorge.

Hokitika Gorge - Misa Mazurkova/BigStock.com