By Isobel Campbell and Hazel Ross
With its expansive rainforests, dramatic coastline and incredible wildlife, the West Coast 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 south of the Waiho River from Fox Glacier, to Haast and beyond. If you are interested in locations north of the Waiho, check out our first blog in the series.
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. 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.
With its mirror-like reflections, this is a must-visit location for any explorer on the West Coast. On a clear, still day, Lake Matheson delivers awe-inspiring views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Formed 14,000 years ago as Fox Glacier retreated, the magnificent reflections are due to the dark brown tea colour in the water, resulting from organic matter breaking down in the surrounding native forest. These dark waters hold more than just reflections; you might even see the native long-finned eel lurking beneath. These can reach 2 metres long weighing in excess of 25kg. Surrounded by ancient podocarp forest, this family friendly walk loops around the lake.
When a trail climbs over 1000 metres in less than 4 kilometres, you know you’ve got a serious climb. With the support of well-placed tree roots, this steep and challenging scramble will reward you with spectacular views. On a clear day the lovely tussock covered peaks provide 360-degree views overlooking Fox Glacier, the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, and the Tasman Sea. Beware, if the top is shrouded in cloud your views are seriously limited. Make sure you check the forecast and start early to reach the summit before the cloud rolls in (often around mid-day). Remember your layers and a raincoat as alpine conditions can change rapidly. Needless to say, this track requires good fitness, confidence in steep and uneven terrain, and route-finding experience to ensure you make it back in one piece!
Leaving Fox Glacier wind your way down a narrow, unsealed road to the picturesque Gillespies Beach. There are a variety of short tracks exploring historic gold mining relics from the 1860s. If you stand at the shore and look back over the estuary and ancient forest, you will see the imposing snow-capped peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Lastly, settling in for the night at the DOC campsite will perfectly set you up for a stunning West Coast sunset over the pebbled coastline.
Natural hot pools. Pristine blue rivers. Giant swing bridges. What more could you want on an overnight tramp? Welcome Flat offers some of the best natural hot pools in the South Island surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Ranges. While soaking in the pools keep an eye on the sky for cheeky kea flying above by day or the Milky Way by night.
The track to Welcome Flat Hut creeps alongside the Karangarua and Copland rivers for 18 km with several river and stream crossings. The luxurious double storey 31 bunk hut is complete with flushing toilets and a wood-fired stove for heating. However, as this is a back-country hut ensure you bring all your own gear including sleeping bags and food. There are no gas cookers or utensils provided. Make sure you have a booking before heading out as this popular overnight spot can fill up.
As you cruise along SH6, Lake Paringa is a great place to stretch the legs or settle in for the night at the DOC campsite. With stunning lake views and cheeky kea, it is a perfect family location. There is plenty of space for swimming or leisurely fishing. You can also bring your boat or kayaks if you want to explore further out onto the lake!
Monro Beach is a wildlife-lover’s dream. Meld ancient rainforests with rich coastal food sources, and you have the perfect home for the forest-dwelling tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins. Spotting these endangered critters with their dapper yellow brows is a real treat. The best time to see them is during their breeding season from July to November. They can also sometimes be seen during their moulting season from January to March. If you are lucky enough to find them, make sure you keep your distance as disturbance can cause penguins to abandon their nests. Even if they aren’t around, the walk through gorgeous Gondwana-age forest to the coast is well worth the visit.
Knight’s Point provides exceptional views along the coast, drawing in stunning turquoise waters and waves crashing around the cliff-lined shore below. Looking towards Arnott Point you may be able to make out New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on the beach below. There is also a picnic area and bathroom facilities, making it ideal for a driving break. The views from the lookout platform make this spot well worth a stop, the ideal backdrop for that perfect Instagram shot.
Home to the Tauparikākā Marine Reserve this convenient stop north of Haast is well worth a look. Just out of the carpark is a two-storey viewing tower with incredible coastal views. It’s great fun for the kids! If you’re lucky, you may spot Hector dolphins playing in the surf. These special creatures are the world’s smallest marine dolphins and have a distinctive rounded black dorsal fin.
Ship Creek also has some fantastic short walks showcasing the UNESCO World Heritage site. The 20-minute wheelchair-accessible Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk winds through a wetland area with the ancient trees towering over the easy boardwalk track. The 30-minute Dune Lake Walk is a refreshing track heading out on a boardwalk over sand dunes, then looping through coastal forest to viewpoints along the rugged coastline and beautiful sand dune lake.
This serene coastal wetland is home to a large variety of native birds. South Westland estuaries are one of the few places you can see the southern crested grebe, fernbird and bittern.
The board walk winds its way through the intertidal zone surrounded by reeds and flax bushes. Over summer the flax flowers attract tūī and bellbirds who regularly visit to collect nectar. It is a fantastic stop for families and even has a tower to climb to soak in the views.
Glacier-formed lakes are dotted across South Westland, and Lake Ellery is a stunning afternoon walk. The well-formed forest track is as gentle as the slow-moving Ellery stream that it follows. Keep an eye on the water as you may spot trout waiting in the larger pools for their next meal. After 3 km the track emerges to a picnic table and pristine views of the lake. The dark waters create beautiful reflections of the surrounding ancient forest.
Jackson Bay is the hidden gem at the bottom of South Westland, 30 minutes from the SH6 Haast turnoff. Follow the coastal Haast-Jackson Bay road as far as it will take you to explore this peaceful harbour. The coast along here is sheltered from the rough West Coast waves and is an ideal location for a swim. You may even see NZ fur seals and Hector dolphins!
At the end of Jackson Bay the Wharekai–Te Kou Walk winds its way across the forested headland to a secluded bay on the far side. At high tide the waves wildly crash against the rocky shore, while low tide exposes rich rockpools teeming with shellfish and small fish.
No trip through the Haast Pass would be complete without capturing at least one of the three spectacular waterfalls adorning this route. Each with its own unique and special flavour, you won’t be disappointed.
From the lovely fan-shaped Fantail Falls, to the immense power of Roaring Billy cascading down the slope, to the pin drop beauty of the 96 metre Thunder Creek, there’s something for everyone. A photographer’s delight! You may just have to check out all three to pick a favourite. And don’t despair if it’s a little wet, the waterfalls are most impressive after rain, so count yourself lucky!
The Blue Pools are worth visiting for more than the crystal-clear waters from which it draws its name. This is home to some of our more uncommon birds including rifleman, yellowheads, tūī, bellbirds and tomtits. NZ’s smallest bird, the rifleman, flit from tree to tree perfectly camouflaged against mossy trunks with a distinctive high-pitched chatter as they search for insects. As the walk meanders across spectacular swing bridges, the full magnificence of the blue pools will come into view. The vivid turquoise colour is a result of light refraction in the clear icy water.
If you are interested in locations north of the Waiho, check out our first blog in the series which explores fantastic spots from Franz Josef Glacier up to Hokitika.
If you are also looking to visit the glaciers, before heading out 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.