By Isobel Campbell and Hazel Ross
The West Coast wilderness is a must-visit location for more than just glaciers. In this blog we cover some of the awesome spots in this untamed West Coast wilderness surrounding Franz Josef Glacier and north of the Waiho river toward Hokitika.
Where the mountains meet the sea, the unique intersection of ancient vegetation, glaciated valleys, and coastal ecosystems has created a land of hidden gems. Containing part of the Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage area, the almost untouched landscape is the world’s best representation of the ancient lands of Gondwana. That’s pretty special. So, as you plan your South Island road-trip, it is well worth adding a few of our favourite West Coast walks and stops to the list.
Got a glow-worm craving? Then it’s time to go caving! In the Tartare tunnels located behind Franz Josef township you can see these little critters anytime of the day or night. Constructed in 1897 for gold mining operations, the historic tunnel stretches several hundred metres, creating a pitch-black environment perfect for spotting glow-worms. This is a great walk for the kids and a bit more adventurous with ankle-deep water through the tunnel, so an extra pair of shoes and a flashlight is handy.
Wandering up through temperate rainforest, the track then drops down a rocky slope to the rushing Callery Gorge. Walk out onto the historic bridge to nowhere and watch the mesmerising power of the water carving through the rock walls. If you listen closely you might even hear boulders rumbling down the riverbed. As you walk through the forest, keep an eye out for some of the incredible birdlife including fantails, tomtits, and kererū if you are lucky!
With excellent mountain views Lake Mapourika is the perfect place to park up for a swim, some fishing (don’t forget a license) or a tasty picnic. The best spot for a dip is the lakeside beach behind DOC’s Otto campsite and is regularly frequented by locals. Just make sure you watch out for eels! If you are looking for somewhere to pitch your tent the campsite offers great facilities, excellent star gazing and picturesque sunsets with snow-capped mountains often mirrored in the lake.
Tucked a 30-minute drive north of Franz Josef, this historic coastal settlement is one of the West Coast’s hidden gems. Not only is it home to New Zealand’s rarest kiwi, the rowi, it also contains New Zealand’s largest coastal wetland. The Ōkārito Lagoon is packed full of birdlife from kōtuku/white heron to royal spoonbill and can be explored by kayak or on a guided nature tour. The surrounding bush and coastline can be discovered independently on foot with walks for different abilities and fitness levels.
Previously used to link Ōkārito to the historic gold mining towns of Three Mile and Five Mile in the 1860s, this historic pack track sets off through coastal forest before descending to Three Mile Lagoon. Particularly spectacular at sunset, this spot has incredible views along pristine coastline. Penguin tracks are a common along the beach so keep an eye out, and if you’re lucky you may even see the real thing! The track returns along the coast. This section can only be done at low tide so check the times before you head off (they’re printed in the carpark) or return along the inland track if it is not low tide.
A shorter, but equally spectacular alternative is the Ōkārito Trig Walk. It even has glacier views on a clear day! Branching off from the Three Mile Pack Track this walk climbs steeply to the trig point at 158 m. The viewpoint provides incredible panoramic views of native forest, the Southern Alps’ snow-capped peaks, and the Ōkārito lagoon and coast. This trig was used in 1865 when the West Coast was first mapped. From here you can clearly see the valleys carved out by glaciers 14000 years ago.
If you’re accompanied by little legs or are short on time the Pakihi Walk is a good alternative to the Trig Track. It starts by crossing swamp lands before steadily climbing through kamahi and rimu to a viewpoint overlooking the Ōkārito lagoon and Southern Alps. Stay alert for wildlife as visitors often spot curious kea and at night you may be lucky enough to hear kiwi calling in the forest.
A stone’s throw from SH6 and Hokitika, Lake Mahinapua is surrounded by a range of great walks, swimming spots and opportunities for boating. In particular, the Mahinapua Walkway is fantastic for both walkers and cyclists alike. Part of the longer West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail, the route follows a historic logging tramline and passes through wetland areas by boardwalk. The Picnic Bay side track is a worthwhile detour offering excellent mirror lake views.
One of the most popular spots near Hokitika, is the Hokitika Gorge which is famous for its stunning bright turquoise-blue waters. Surrounded by lush native bush and topped off with an excellent swing bridge this easy walk is a great photo stop. The first viewpoint is even wheelchair accessible so great for the whole family!
In our next blog we’ll explore the sights south of the Waiho River between Fox Glacier, Haast and beyond.
If you are also looking to visit the glaciers before heading up check the daily status on the Glacier Country Website or at the DOC visitor centre. Sometimes vehicle and foot access can be lost due to storm events and changing conditions in the valley. Both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are currently inaccessible as of April 2019.However, you can still fly up to the glaciers for the spectacular aerial views or guided walks on the ice. Read about the possibilities for flights and other activities in this article on the Tourism West Coast website.