This is part two in a series of posts about driving New Zealand’s South Island. Don’t forget to check out part one, driving from Christchurch to Marlborough.
And if you’re looking for more of what to see and do in Marlborough itself, you can check out these posts:
- Sipping Sav: A Tour of the Marlborough Wine Region
- Cruising the Marlborough Sounds on a Mail Boat
- Things to Do in Marlborough
Leaving Picton or Blenheim in the Marlborough Region of New Zealand’s South Island, there are two routes you can take to reach the Wild West Coast. Both routes join about halfway to the coast, one offering a quicker more direct route, the other is a bit more scenic.
For this New Zealand West Coast drive we will look at the scenic route because really, that’s what a road trip all about, spectacular scenic drives.
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New Zealand West Coast Map
Here is a map of the New Zealand West Coast road trip leading from Picton and ending up in Franz Josef. You could easily do the drive in reverse or from another starting point like Nelson in the north or Wanaka in the south.
New Zealand West Coast Road Trip
This route is just over 600 km which could easily be driven in one day. However, if you want to see many of the sights and experience some of the beautiful nature along the way, I suggest tackling it over two days with an overnight stop in Punakaiki which is right on the halfway point.
Day 1 – Picton to Punakaiki
Start your New Zealand West Coast drive in Picton, gateway to the Marlborough Wine Region. The drive time from Picton to Punakaiki is around five and a half hours without stops, so make an early start to give yourself plenty of time for scenic stops along the way.
Still part of the Marlborough region, Havelock is just over a 40 minute drive from Picton (closer from Blenheim). From Picton there are two routes you can take, one along the edge of the sound and the other back towards Blenheim, cutting through the mountains.
The town of Havelock is small and its biggest draw card is that it is situated on the Sounds, similar to Picton. If you’re ready to stretch your legs, park the car at the marina and take a short walk around the waterfront. If you’re spending more time here you can take a mail boat cruise through the Pelorus Sound, similar to those that leave from Picton.
It’s just under an hour’s drive from Havelock to Nelson with the picturesque road heading up, down and around mountains, over rivers and streams and through forests.
Nelson itself is set on the Tasman Bay which you’ll see on your right as you approach the city centre, and you will continue to follow the bay all the way out of town as you head south.
If you decide to stop in town you’ll find it to be a thriving city that has more artists per capita than any other city in New Zealand. There are plenty of stores and galleries in town where you can browse and buy artisan goods from the locals. It is also the perfect jumping off point for day trips into the Abel Tasman National Park.
If you decide to stay in Nelson for a while, there are many tour option that will take you into the Abel Tasman National Park. Here are the best of the best!
After leaving Nelson and the Tasman Bay behind, it’s a further one hour drive to Murchison which is about the halfway point between the Marlborough region and the Wild West Coast.
The road starts out flat as you head through farmland and open plains. This leads to the scenic mountains again and takes you through the Buller Gorge along rivers and through gullies with mountains towering high above.
Murchison is a picturesque small town set on the mighty Buller River. If you’ve got the time and enjoy a bit of adrenaline pumping action, you’ll find the whitewater rafting and jet boating activities on offer to be among the best opportunities in New Zealand.
Otherwise Murchison is a great chance to stretch your legs near the river or grab a bite to eat. The Rivers Cafe at 51 Fairfax Street is an excellent choice. Make sure you try a scone!
Hawks Crag & the Kilkenny Lookout
From Murchison continue towards the West Coast for another 50 minutes or so through the Buller Gorge along the river until you get to Hawks Crag.
This craggy one way road is cut into the cliff that drops into the Buller River below. Make a stop at the Kilkenny Lookout just before the bridge to get a good look at the road, fast moving river below and the beautiful surrounding scenery.
Westport & Cape Foulwind
It’s just a further 20 minutes to the coast and the town of Westport. The drive into Westport follows the Buller River which empties into the Buller Bay.
The town itself is quite frankly dull so make your way through it quickly and jump onto Cape Foulwind Road which leads to the Cape of the same name and its seal colony.
At the Cape there is a short walk you can do up to the point which offers great views of the wind swept beach and coast. It also leads to the seal colony which, if you’re lucky, you’ll see large numbers of seals chilling on the rocks below the track. There are information boards along the walk that tell you about the local flora and fauna including info on the seals and their habits.
Now you’ve finally reached that Wild West Coast it is time to head south and make your way to Punakaiki and the Paparoa National Park where I suggest you stay the night to make the most of the area.
The road from Westport follows the coast all the way to Punakaiki and is dramatic with the ragging sea on the right and steep rainforest covered mountains on the left.
If you’re planning to take a few walks in the area I suggestion heading straight to the iSITE just south of the town to pick up a map and some information.
While you’re at the iSITE you might as well check out the most popular thing to see on the west coast, the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. The staff in the iSITE will be able to tell you when the next high tide is so you can time your visit to these rocks when the blowholes are most active.
The Pancake Rocks are limestone formations which began forming 30 million years ago and are made up of lime-rich fragments of dead marine creatures which were deposited on the seabed, then overlaid by weaker layers of soft mud and clay.
The rocks that you see today have been shaped and formed by the crashing seas, rain and wind that this area is prone to. During high tide each day the sea rushes under the rocks and up through holes in the rocks to create blowholes, spouting water metres into the air.
As for the walks in the area, there are about ten, four of which take under an hour to complete and are pretty easy for all fitness levels (although some lead you through narrow rainforest tracks and up and down steps).
If you only have time for one more walk after Pancake Rocks, I recommend the Truman Track. Located north of town, the path leads from the road through lush rainforest to the headland and beach with spectacular coastal views. Here you can descend the stairs and walk the beach, getting a closer look at the wind carved rock formations.
In the evening, things close early, so make sure you head on down to the Punakaiki Tavern for a dinner and a drink before it gets too late. Some nights the kitchen closes as early as 8pm.
Where to Stay in Punakaiki
There is limited accommodation in Punakaiki, however there is at least one place that suits each budget range. Here are my recommendations.
Budget – Te Nikau Retreat
Mid-Range – Punakaiki Beachfront Motels
Luxury – Tasman Sea Retreat
Or why not book an Airbnb stay. Use this link to get up to $45AUD off.
Day 2 – Punakaiki to Franz Josef
On day two of your New Zealand West Coast road trip make your way further south along the coast to Franz Josef. The drive time is about three hours, giving you plenty of time for stops along the way.
Leaving Punakaiki refreshed after a good night sleep, the road continues to follow the rugged coastline with stunning views of the ocean and surrounding rainforest covered mountains.
It’s about 40 minutes before you’ll reach Greymouth, the largest town on the West Coast. There isn’t a huge amount see in Greymouth, but if you feel like a coffee you’ll find plenty of cafes in town. There is also the Monteith’s Brewery where you could stop in for a quick one hour brewery tour.
Another 30 minutes south is Hokitika, a former thriving gold mining town which is now known for its production of greenstone and interesting festivals throughout the year, including the Wild Food Festival which is usually held around March each year.
If you’re not lucky enough to catch a festival you can still wander the local stores and galleries for greenstone and other locally made goods.
Just 10kms south of Hokitika is the Mahinapua Scenic Reserve and Lake Mahinapua. Here you can take a walk around the lake and through the reserve. Walks range in length from 10 minutes to two and a half hours long, all of which are flat and suitable for all fitness levels.
The conservation area is home to black swans and mallard ducks, so as you’re taking a walk keep your eyes peeled for these graceful creatures.
Even if you don’t have time for a walk, the lake is a nice place to stop for a short time and take in the stunning lake and views of the snow-capped Alps in the distance.
The journey along the West Coast is just about over with the road leaving the coast not long after you leave Lake Mahinapua. The one and a half hour drive to Franz Josef is very scenic with flat farming land on your right and towering snow-capped mountains on the left. Glimpses of peaks higher than any mountains I’ve ever seen come into view the closer to Franz you get.
One last stop before arriving at the final destination on this leg of the trip and it’s for lunch.
Hari Hari is one of those blink and you’ll miss it kind of towns. It has a population of around 300 and the main street is just a few shops along the highway.
I stopped here only because the map showed a lack of other places to stop further down the road. And boy was I glad! Set up along the highway on the southern side of town is a food truck called West Coast Food Co.
Here I bought the most delicious pork sausage roll and pesto salad and sat in this totally deserted town surrounded by mountains and ate.
Looking for things to do in Franz Josef and surrounds, check out my post Things to Do in New Zealand’s Glacier Country for more information.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
Arriving in Franz Josef, there are many great places to stay in this resort style town. Here are my picks for budget, mid-range and luxury stays.
Budget – Chateau Backpackers & Motels
Mid-Range – The Terrace
Luxury – Westwood Lodge
Or why not book an Airbnb stay. Use this link to get up to $45AUD off.
PIN THIS FOR LATER!
Over to you!
What would you most like to see and do on the road driving New Zealand’s Wild West Coast?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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33 thoughts on “Driving New Zealand’s Wild West Coast – Things to See & Do”
I’m so glad you got to enjoy this part of New Zealand! This is where I grew up so it’s very much part of my childhood memories. I love Punakaiki in particular.
What a beautiful area to grow up in. Punakaiki was wonderful and it felt so wild and isolated. I loved being there.
Gosh I forget how beautiful New Zealand is! We haven’t made it past family in Auckland for years but we really must get back to the South Island. Your photos are stunning, what month did you travel in?
Thanks Toni! We were there in October and while the weather was getting a little cold (well colder than I am use to anyway) it was beautiful blue skies for most of our time there with a few rainy days.
This is a valuable narrative with the attention to detail you’ve given to where to stop, etc. It’s hard sometimes to know ahead of time what can be skipped and what you should see. I’m most taken by the Pancake Rocks and the rugged scenery. This looks like a lovely road trip.
Thanks for your kind words Betsy.
Great post, I did a road trip of the south island but missed some of these stops. Nelson is such a lovely city and a great place to do a skydive. Abel tasman is a must for hikers, and if you go to pancake rocks ignore the warning signs and hop over the railings for a better view!
Definitely with more time we would have loved to visit Abel Tasman. I’ll be back though……..
What an amazing country with so many highlights!
Yes it is.
This looks like an incredible road trip! I was fortunate to be able to visit NZ earlier this year and spent some time in Nelson. It’s an awesome city exactly as you described. I’m already looking forward to a future visit someday, I’d love to follow your itinerary.
Thanks Heather. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit. I think Nelson is a city that is underrated and should be on more people’s itineraries.
Driving in NZ is something that I would love to do although I think I’d need at least 2 weeks to spare to do that. I know I’d have a hard time sticking to an itinerary when driving there. I mean, with views like these, I’d probably have to stop every few minutes just to take photos and some video footage. 😀
And this isn’t even the best part of NZ! (in my opinion anyway)
I have never been to New Zealand and I keep reading how amazing it is. I am not sure I’d dare to drive there though – they drive on the wrong side of the street!! BTW for some reason (well, call it ignorance) I really had no idea that New Zealand produces wine. I really don’t know much about the country, so your post came in handy 🙂
Thanks Claudia. They are very famous for the cool climate Savignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines. Hope you get to visit NZ someday soon!
New Zealand is so beautiful and I’m looking forward to going there soon. I can’t think of a better way to really see the country and all it has to offer, smart choice. I’m a huge advocate for walking, driving or taking the train instead of flying so you don’t miss those great places in between. I’m going to bookmark this so I can check out your route on my trip!
Me too! I’d hate missing out on anything when I’m travelling.
A NZ road trip. This was my dream since I was a little kid…thank you for this article and for beautful images. Nature there is incredible. I love Punakaiki the most.
Thanks Zof! I hope you get to live out your dream someday soon.
Thanks for this! I love that you included an embedded Google map – we’ve just arrived in Australia and will be setting up a home base here for the forseeable future. After 4 years of traveling we’re looking forward to settling down…though not too much that we won’t be traveling any more. Really looking forward to traveling throughout the country, and would you believe, right now it’s actually cheaper to get flights to NZ than it is the other side of AUs!! So we’re going to be planning a roadtrip – this came at the perfect time!! Thanks!!
I know the flights are ridiculous! That’s why we have been to NZ so many times and still haven’t seen any of the Western part of Australia. All the best with settling back into Australia Meg.
Wow New Zealand is beautiful! I’ve heard so many people say that they best way to see NZ is by road tripping – and I think the one you did is one of the best – stunning!
It really is a beautiful place.
Oh this brought back some memories! I did the Nelson-Franz Josef trip in one day on a Greyhound bus, but we fell on an amazing driver who fancied himself a bit of a tour guide and made a lot of stops to show us the sights along the way… a lovely and unexpected extra! Your photos capture mood and atmosphere brilliantly btw.
What a great trip that sounded like Camille. You were so lucky to have a great driver.
Looking forward to the wild food festival in March 2016. I wonder how wild it is 🙂
I’ve heard such wonderful things about it. I’ll be in the area in March and am trying to get up there but not sure I’ll be able to.
Hi we are driving through North and South Island NZ in April so weather conditions should be good.
Seeing we will go all the way from Auckland to Queens town and back to Auckland do you suggest we take the West coast going and east coast on our return. Ot sure if anyone has been on the east coast to tell me what to see there.
Yes that sounds like a good plan to me. We have driven around the whole of the south island and definitely recommend the east coast. You can check out all our posts about New Zealand here https://thetrustedtraveller.com/travel-guides/new-zealand-travel-guide/ Let me know if you have any questions.
Have a great trip!
Thanks for the great itinerary and pics – very useful! My wife and I have a very tight schedule- would you recommend this route over the southern highway through Christchurch, Lake Tekapo etc.? So many interesting places, it’s hard to choose what to leave out.
How long do you have? I guess it would depend on what you would prefer to see. Lake Tekapo is stunning and while I loved it, I also loved the southern route through the Catlins. If you love beaches and rainforest over lakes then go south. Otherwise the route through Tekapo is amazing too.