Known for its untamed, rugged and beautiful wilderness, the West Coast is an area where you feel like you’re constantly pulling over on the side of the road and hopping out to explore.
This blog details six of the hidden gems that we have explored and ADORED on the West Coast. (I am hoping to update this with a seventh spot soon... watch this space).
Now before I get into listing the beautiful spots, it’s really important to note that majority of these spots are rather risky and definitely not for the faint hearted. Admittedly, on a couple, it even became a real 'mind over matter' thing for me (Char), and I had to stop and take stock. I had to make sure I was comfortable and happy to continue.
As a general rule of thumb, majority of the spots listed in this blog:
are somewhat remote and isolated;
require a good level of fitness (e.g. walking through waist deep icy cold water, pulling yourself up ledges on cliff edges, using ropes to guide yourself down rocks etc.);
aren’t for the faint hearted; and
require proper footwear (typically hiking boots or water shoes).
They are quite simply, what the West Coast is all about - ADVENTURE!
And just quickly, I want to note that if you're already on our website, you're probably a bit like us. Looking for adventure. Joy. Fun. To get off the beaten path a bit. We are big believers in sharing spots and tips, and believe that anyone reading this blog, will appreciate the importance in respecting and caring for these beautiful spots. So for that, thank you, and thank you for letting us share.
1. Wilson Creek Chasm
This Chasm is beautiful beyond words. The mossy green rocks, the shafts of light beaming through the top, the gentle mist hitting your face. It’s a spot you could stay at for hours, just taking it all in. Except the water temperature is blimmin' chilly, so you probably won’t!!
We have visited this Chasm three times, and every time, have had the entire place to ourselves (plus of course the hordes of classic West Coast sandflies). It's not very big, so would likely feel quite crowded if there was another group there. Of all the hidden gems in this blog this, in our opinion, is the most accessible (and consistently accessible). You pull over on the Highway, walk a quick minute down the road until you reach the Wilson Creek bridge and then into the Chasm. All up, it only takes 5-10 minutes to get into the Chasm (from parking). You may be able to continue exploring the Chasm further up, but we believe this would likely require canyon-ing/abseiling skills. As we do not have these skills, we therefore stopped where we were comfortable.
To get into the Chasm you will get wet feet so water shoes/hiking boots are required. The rocks can be quite slippery, and there is a wee bit of a current in the water so you want to be steady on your feet. If you’re wanting to take photos here, the chasm is in shade most of the day and we have found late morning or early afternoon the best time to visit. You will also need to make sure you bring a cloth as the mist/spray from the waterfall can hit your camera pretty fast!
WILSON CREEK CHASM SUMMARY
5-10 minute walk from carpark
Low - medium difficulty
Best time to visit: early afternoon or late morning
QUICK TIPS FOR WILSON CREEK CHASM:
Feet will get wet
This beautiful chasm is the home to about 10,345,634,29 sandflies so lather up!
Proper footwear is a must – either hiking shoes or water shoes (must have good grip).
Water is bloody cold. Bloody bloody cold. Be prepared for this and try visiting during the warmer part of the day.
Do not attempt this walk after rain!
Although the Chasm is crazily close to the road, there is no cell phone service here (or along this stretch of State Highway 6). It is therefore unlikely anyone will be close by. You should be prepared for this. We carried our Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) on us and would highly recommend making sure you have one too!
Make sure you have your first-aid kit on you and carry it in your backpack.
Best time to visit is late morning or early afternoon so the chasm has some light but isn’t blown out.
To find out more about where this spot is located, plus our photography settings for the above images, check out our travel guide - the CJ Way to Wilson Creek Chasm here.
2. Secret Fantail Falls (or Fantail Falls 2.0)
I’m not sure if this (Fantail Falls 2.0) is the official name for this waterfall but it’s what we (super imaginative, creative types) have called it. We have visited this waterfall twice and had totally different experiences here based on the water levels!
Last Summer (Feb 2019) we visited the Falls and didn’t quite appreciate how low the water level was (image below). We parked in the Fantail Falls car park and walked left (rather than right - as if you were going to the popular Fantail Falls) and followed the creek the whole way up until we reached the waterfall. All up, this relatively straight-forward path only took us about 15-20 minutes (and this wasn't rushing as we wanted to be careful when walking through the deeper parts of the creek as there was a current). The water was only knee deep on this occasion.
This Summer (January 2020), we were absolutely shocked at the landscape in front of us (first pic of James and pic below of Char). The quiet, peaceful falls we were expecting were transformed into a wild, rugged adventure fall. This meant we were unable to walk along the creek like last year as the current was far too strong/there was too high a risk. Instead we crossed the creek at the very start (shallow - only ankle deep - and again this means going left rather than right as if you were going to the main Fantail Falls), and then found a path leading up the hill to the right. All up, taking this ‘route’ to get to the waterfall, I would say it took us about 45 minutes one way, whereas last year, walking along the water only took us 15-20. You should be prepared to take the longer route when visiting if walking through the water doesn't seem safe. This route is also pretty hairy and you are on (what feel like unstable) cliff edges for part of it. Definitely not one for the faint-hearted. Am I saying faint-hearted too much? Probably.
The waterfall is in shade most of the day as it’s situated quite low down in the mountains. If you’re looking to take photos here, we think the best time of day to visit is mid-late morning. We also think the less water here, the better! As the base of the falls is such a beautiful clear turquoise colour and when there is lots of water (and it's rushing through), you miss out on seeing this.
Worth it? For us yes. It was quite impressive seeing the transformation in the falls and sitting there, catching our breath and feeling the powerful spray on us. It was also one of the two 'mind over matter' spots for me (Char), where I had to really stop, catch my breath and confirm I felt comfortable continuing on the 'route'. This definitely made it even more special to me, as I felt like I had conquered something. Plus I never fell over here, only James. haha.
And last note, if you do the two hour hike up to Brewster Hut (which we also highly recommend and I have linked our guide in here), when you're up the top, make sure you you look around and spot the two separate waterfalls! As you can probably guess, they are Fantail Falls 1 and Fantail Falls 2. It's pretty special seeing the falls start all the way up there and then finish all the way down here!
SUMMARY FOR FANTAIL FALLS (FANTAIL FALLS 2.0)
15-20 minute or 45-60 minute walk from carpark (one way)
Extreme/High difficulty if walking through the bush/over the hill
Medium difficulty if walking through the creek/water
Best in early afternoon or late morning and when water levels are lower
QUICK TIPS FOR SECRET FANTAIL FALLS (FANTAIL FALLS 2.0)
Feet will get wet no matter which route you take!!
If water levels are high (i.e. there has been a lot of rain recently) you will not be able to walk along the creek until you reach the Waterfall, and instead you must walk through the bush/cliff. This is quite a risky walk and you should be a confident bushwalker if attempting!
Proper footwear is a must – either hiking shoes or water shoes (must have good grip).
Do not attempt when raining (or after recent rain)
Although this waterfall is very close to the super busy Fantail Falls, there is no cell phone service here (or along this stretch of State highway 6) and it's unlikely anyone will be close by. We carried our PLB with us and would not do this walk if we didn’t have one.
Make sure you have first-aid on you and carry it in your backpack.
Best time to visit is late morning for photographing the falls.
You will need to pack a microfibre cloth here as your camera will get rather wet from the mist!
For more information on Fantail Falls 2.0, including detail on the track and what it's like, please see our guide - the CJ Way to Secret Fantail Falls here.
3. Hole in the Hill – Hidden West Coast Arch
Unsure whether you have the time to make it up to Oparara to see the incredible basin? Well you're in luck, there is an incredible arch which is *relatively* easy to access in Charleston! And even better, you get that same sense of adventure here too - but without the crowds!
We read about the 'Hole in the Hill' online a few months ago and ever keen for an adventure, we thought why not go and give it a go! Online, there isn't a whole heap of info on the walk, and the few statements you do read, can certainly put you off. In particular, statements like "be careful of sinkholes" haha. And on that note, I wouldn't say there are sinkholes on the 'path' per se, but the mud can definitely pull you in. At times we got sucked in right up to our calves!
To get here, you drive along a rocky, almost 4WD track for 5-6 km, then follow a (super) muddy path for about 10-12 minutes and then cut left. Thankfully locals have kindly put markers (usually pink) along this path, otherwise it would likely be too difficult to navigate. From there you start heading down the hill for another 10-15 minutes until you reach the creek right at the bottom. This leads you to the incredible Arch. Caused by thousands of years of erosion, this arch is quite simply one of those sights that makes you stop and think WOW. You can't help but wonder what it must have looked like years ago. And then you can't help but wonder what it will look like in the years to come.
For us, this arch was a lot of fun and a true adventure in every sense of the word. Going somewhere we had never been before. Slipping over in mud. Finding little waterfalls. Yelling in the arch and hearing the powerful echo.
We visited around lunch time, and while the light wasn't ideal, sometimes it's not all about the photos, but the adventure. But also, when we go again, we would definitely come early morning or late afternoon as we think this would be ideal for light. Yes, I just re-read that and we are super contradictory. Haha.
We ended up taking photos facing both ways here as there are endless opportunities to get creative with the rock-faces, the ceiling, or even the really cool lone tree that sits on the east side. Because this isn't a place you often see photos of, it's really fun to just go and do your own thing! Dance, jump, run, spin, do it all.
SUMMARY FOR HOLE IN THE HILL (HIDDEN ARCH)
Rough road in in but doable in a 2WD (just take it slow)
30 minute walk from carpark (one way)
Best in mid morning or late afternoon
QUICK TIPS FOR HOLE IN THE HILL (HIDDEN ARCH)
Feet will get extremely muddy and wet! If you have gumboots this is 100% their time to shine! Maybe even 110%.
Do not attempt when raining, or if there has recently been rain, we think the hill would likely be too slippery/hectic!
Proper footwear is a must – either hiking shoes or water shoes (must have good grip). Again, you must be happy for these to come back completely brown and muddy.
Make sure you have first-aid on you and carry it in your backpack.
Best time to visit is early morning or late afternoon for getting light in the arch. I would recommend packing a picnic and eating it down there.
There can be quite a lot of wind coming through the arch, so a wind proof layer at the bottom might be a good idea, especially if you're planning on staying there for a few hours.
For more information on the hole in the hill, including the detailed summary of the track and GPS coordinates, please see our travel guide - the CJ Way to the Hole in the Hill here.
4. Ford Creek Chasm
Hands down my favourite of all these hidden gems. This one is just the best. A bit of an adventure, a bit of fun, and then absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful scenery. In fact I would go as far to say it would be in my top top spots in all of the South Island. If you time your visit well, seeing the dappled light hit the chasm walls will leave you truly speechless.
So how do you get here? Crazily enough, this incredible chasm isn't actually all that hidden! It's located in Blackball, a town you might already be visiting for their museum of the working class (Mahi Tapuna - which by the way is well worth checking out!). We have visited this chasm twice and both times had the place to ourselves. On the second visit (January 2020), there were road-works blocking off where we had previously parked so we had to park a little way back. On this second visit, we parked at the lookout sign on Roa Road. From Roa Road, you then walk down the old 4wd track on the left hand side of the road to get to the start of the walk. Please note that even if you have a 4WD car, you will still want to park up on Roa Road as there is no space for parking at the bottom.
Getting into the chasm itself is a little tricky, but if you know you're going to get wet and where to go, you should be ok! All up it took us about 20-30 minutes to get to the chasm entrance from the car.
The colours in this mud-stone chasm are just gorgeous and you won't be able to take your eyes off them. Although I should note we (well I) almost gave up when we saw a giant eel about 20 minutes into the chasm (turns out I have quite the irrational fear of them haha). Slippery devils. There is also one section which is quite deep (where the eel resides) that went up to our tummies/chests. On our second visit here, James wore his boardies and I wore my togs (putting on my shorts when I started getting cold and then of course falling into the water minutes later and drenching them).
If you have the right footwear, the ability to take your time and be careful, we couldn't recommend this beautiful chasm any more. The palette of colours in front of you will be like nothing you have ever seen before.
In terms of lighting and photography, again, we would say this beautiful spot is best in the early-mid morning or late afternoon on a clear day. This is also one to AVOID if there has been recent rain or if any rain is forecasted. It was still very slippery when we went and there had been no rain for a couple of weeks (which is actually quite a feat for the West Coast haha. Well done West Coast, Well done!!). Also if it were to start raining, I expect flash flooding could easily occur here.
SUMMARY FOR FORD CREEK CHASM
20-30 minute walk from carpark (one way and to entrance of Chasm).
Medium difficulty to entrance, extreme difficulty from inside Chasm.
Best in mid-morning or late afternoon on a sunny day.
QUICK TIPS FOR FORD CREEK CHASM
You really need water shoes with good grip here.
Do not attempt if raining, or after recent rain. This track will be too dangerous.
If you're taking camera equipment into the chasm you will want a dry bag.
If going into the Chasm you should expect to be up to your waist in icy-cold water.
Make sure you have a first-aid kit and carry it with you.
Take a PLB if you have one. We personally wouldn't have attempted this walk without ours.
Best time to visit is early morning or late afternoon for getting dappled light in the chasm (noting you will need sunshine!).
Don't visit on a cold day unless you have a wetsuit. It will be too chilly otherwise.
Top tip - bring an extra set of clothes and leave them at the start of the Chasm so you can get warm when you come out. We felt like a million bucks when we were reunited with our puffers.
For more information on Ford Creek Chasm, including specific details on how we navigated the 'track' and exact GPS coordinates, please see our guide - the CJ Way to Ford Creek Chasm here.
5. Orange Starfish at Motukiekie Beach
Low tide at Punakaiki? You might be feeling a bit let down that you don't get to see the crazy force of the Punakaiki blowholes, shooting up a ferocious sea-salt spray. But there's a silver lining to low-tide. In fact there's an orange lining if you will.
At low tide, you have the chance to witness what I would call magic. Something the two of us had never seen before (or even come close to seeing!!). At low tide, you get a shot at seeing hundreds and hundreds of bright orange starfish appear at Motukiekie Beach. A very special spectacle.
Now there are two ways of getting to the rock-shelf where the starfish are. The easy way is to park at Motukiekie beach parking and walk about 20 minutes south along the coastline. Here you will spot a small number of good ol' kiwi baches on your walk to the rockshelf (I mention these so you can make sure you're starting in the right spot).