The Wild West Coast. With its rugged coastline, abundance of waterfalls and some of the very best sunset's we have seen in New Zealand. Maybe it's true what they say? West is Best?
Now before I get into it I will add the disclaimer that the weather on the West Coast can be a bit of a rollercoaster. You can be promised a forecast of bright blue skies and minimal wind, and next minute find yourself handing over $10 for an overpriced (but much needed!) poncho. Bear this in mind, and try and find a patch of 2-3 clear(ish) days for your visit (if you can). And also BYO jacket, I'm of the belief that ponchos should never be more than $4.
Ok, onto some of our FAVOURITE spots in the West Coast. Each included for different reasons, and each with that little somethin' somethin'.
1. Lake Matheson Reflection
This is a spot that will leave you speechless.And also maybe a little frustrated. I say frustrated because it took us four visit before we got what we were looking for; that perfect mirror reflection of Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Fox Glacier is home to the beautiful Lake Matheson Mirror Lake Walk which has three different view points on it, all perfectly positioned to give you an incredible view of Aoraki/Mount Cook. The walk to Reflection Island takes 30-40 minutes and is part of a loop, however at January 2020, part of the track was closed meaning you could walk all the way to Reflection Island but then had to return to the carpark the same way. The walk is very flat and well defined so you would be a-ok doing it at night time and/or before sunrise.
While this spot is absolutely beautiful at any time of day, try and time it for a sunrise or sunset if you can! And this (like 99% of the West Coast, is also a spot you will also want insect repellent for!).
To read our travel guide - the CJ Way to Lake Matheson - including which view point we took our photo at and our camera settings for the above shot, please click here.
Lake Matheson Summary
best at sunrise or sunset
best on clear/ low cloud day so you can see Mount Cook/Aoraki
30-40 minute walk to Reflection Island from Carpark (one way)
insect repellent required
2. Haast Blue Pools
The most incredible water colour you ever did see. The Haast Blue Pools are very much worth a visit on your West Coast road-trip. However to have the best time here you really want to make sure you are LATHERED in insect repellent. (This, along with Hokitika Gorge [below] and Milford Sound Foreshore are in our top three sandfly hot-spots!). Side note, would this be a good blog? Sandfly Spots in NZ? Probably not haha. I digress.
A quick 15-20 minute walk from the car park (on State Highway 6) will find you walking through beautiful NZ forest and over two old swing bridges. If you're game (like James), you can jump from the second swing bridge (where the water is deeper). Otherwise if you're more like me (Charlotte), you can dip your toes in, squeal at how cold the water is and put your effort into cheering James on.
We think early morning is the best time to visit the Blue Pools as it can get very busy around lunch. Note, if there has been recent rain, the Blue Pools can also be a bit murky in colour. It usually takes a second rain to return them to their original blue colour. We recommend checking the weather forecast (including previous days) before you go.
To read our travel guide - the CJ Way to the Haast Blue Pools including our photography tips and camera settings, click here!
Haast Blue Pools Summary
best early morning
best on clear and sunny day
15-20 minute walk to second swing bridge from carpark (one way)
insect repellent required
3. Hokitika Gorge
This beautiful Gorge is about 20-30 minutes drive out of Hokitika, but well worth the detour. It's a quick and easy 10-15 minute walk to the Gorge from the car park (one way) which is actually wheel chair accessible up until the first view point. As you start to see the vibrant turquoise water surrounded by lush native bush you won't be able to help yourself - I promise "wow" will slip right out of your mouth.
Again, like Blue Pools this is a spot that really requires you to be LATHERED in insect repellent before you visit! In fact, on the West Coast, sandflies basically destroy any dreams you might have previously had of smelling nice. But who knows, maybe you will find yourself starting to like the scent of Aeroguard.
On our two most recent visits here we unfortunately didn't get to see the Gorge in all it's colourful glory. As the water here is glacier fed, it will always have some of the rock flour in it (this is what gives it its characteristic turquoise colour), but when it rains, that 'turquoise effect' is diluted and can create a more 'milky' looking colour. I have included a photo of the Gorge in Summer 2018/19 (when murky) and Summer 2015/16 (when vibrant and blue) so you can see the difference in colour. Please note our Summer 2015/16 photo was taken on an iPhone and about 10 days after we got engaged (just in case you're thinking WOW THOSE ARE BIG SMILES).
If you can play around with the timing of your visit here, we would suggest waiting until there has been no rain for a week or so and then going. Although we appreciate this may be easier said than done on the West Coast!
To read our quick travel guide - the CJ Way to the Hokitika Gorge (Which has exact GPS coordinates) please click here.
Hokitika Gorge Summary
best early morning or late afternoon
best on clear day (blue sky will reflect in the water making it appear even bluer)
10-15 minute walk to main viewing point from carpark
insect repellent required
4. West Coast Drive
This might seem a bit flakey, me putting this on here as a must do. But the drive was one of our absolute favourite things in the West Coast and as such I would like to give it the shout-out it deserves. So SHOUT OUT TO WEST COAST DRIVE!
The drive in the West Coast is scenic beyond words. Snaking its way along the coast, it provides you with incredible vistas of beaches and podocarp forests at every glance. There are also a heap of pull-offs and benches along the coast and we made a real conscious effort to stop at these for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They offer some of the most beautiful views and for some reason, are always deserted!? We also watched the sun go down from one of these random road-side pull offs and it was just glorious. A memory we'll always hold on to.
So wind your windows down, put your favourite song on and enjoy the view. We promise you won't be disappointed.
West Coast Drive Summary
scenic all day but especially beautiful in golden hour
the section between Rapahoe and Punakaiki is our favourite
exercise caution on this drive - there are a lot of steep inclines, one way bridges and tight corners!
5. Brewster Hut
A wee red hut nestled high up in the quiet mountains with no noise other than the roaring waterfalls in the distance? Pure magic. Brewster Hut is one of those spots that really makes you stop. Stop and feel your feet on the ground, the sun on your body and the smile that's starting to make its way across your face.
It's a place where you try your hardest to look around everywhere. You do a full 360 in-fact, trying your absolute best to mentally capture the sights, the views, the landscapes in front of you. Because you know it's a place you don't ever want to forget.
And the good news is that to feel this, to see this, to hear this, only requires a two hour walk! Albeit the two hour walk is rather a tough slog, and mostly uphill haha. But it's oh so worth it. I should also note you need to do a creek crossing at the beginning so get ready for some wet feet fun!
In our opinion, we think it's best to visit Brewster Hut at sunset. Watching the sun slowly dip behind the mountains and turn the beech forest golden is quite an enchanting sight. Sunrise would also be lovely here (if you are planning on staying in the Hut over night), but do note at sunrise, the sun will be behind the mountains for the first part.
To read our travel guide - the CJ Way to Brewster Hut , including the section of path we found the most scenic for photography (image below), and more details on the track and what to pack, please click here
Brewster Hut Summary
scenic all day but especially beautiful at sunset
approximately two hour walk from carpark to hut (one way)
must be relatively fit for the uphill climb!
6. Motukiekie Beach
An absolute jewel of the West Coast. And one you only want to visit at Low Tide. Not sure why I capitalised that. Perhaps for emphasis?
Now this beach gets a mention for two special reasons.
Firstly, at low tide, you get the chance of witnessing 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.
You see, situated on Motukieie Beach is a rock-shelf where thousands of mussels feed off the rock, and then feeding on them, are masses of bright orange starfish. They create one of the most incredible, vibrant displays we have ever seen.
If you can time low-tide so it coincides with sunset we would absolutely urge you to spend it here. Watching the sky flash pink and purple above while below sparkles with bright orange starfish is just amazing.
Now, to keep expectations realistic, I think this could be one of those West Coast spots that (also) requires a little patience. Last time we had it lined up perfectly (sunset and low tide), we arrived to the beach and the weather had turned, with the water actually being quite dangerous. The tides along the West Coast can be very rough, especially when there is a swell. On our second visit here the tide was still going out, so we felt quite safe standing in the water. If you don't have the luxury of waiting around for ideal conditions (which let's face it - with the West Coast weather - could be a while haha), we still highly recommend a visit during the day. But again, this must be at low tide.
Now, the second reason for mentioning Motukiekie beach here is all the incredible rocks and caves. Anyway you walk you can find a little nook, a little cranny, a little crevice, basically the whole beach screams "let's play an extraordinarily difficult game of hide and seek here". We took a few photos in the caves here, so we will edit one shortly and chuck it up so you can see.
Take a picnic down and spend the afternoon here playing at the beach. And you'll quickly realise that it really is the simple things that bring us the most joy in life.
Motukiekie Beach Summary:
only accessible at low-tide
look for the rock-shelf that is home to hundreds of orange star fish at low tide
sunset is absolutely beautiful here
To read our travel guide - the CJ Way to Motukiekie Beach and where to find the orange starfish, please see here.
7. Punakaiki Blowholes (Pancake Rocks)
It's funny I have done this walk a tonne of times as a child. And yet if you asked me what I most remembered, I would have to say getting a $2 paua shell ring from the shop across the road. And a vanilla ice-cream if Mum and Dad were feeling real generous. (You know those wee Tip Top Vanilla tubs? THE BEST!))
But paua rings and ice-creams aside, now I have returned to this incredible limestone landscape as an adult (am I an adult?!) and I have to say, it is the rocks that leave a lasting impression. The pancake-shaped rock formations really are out of this world.
This is a quick and easy walk, only taking about 15-20 minutes to do the full 1.1km loop, and is best seen at high-tide so you can watch (and feel!) the powerful spray of the blowholes! If you can, try and time high tide with a south-westerly swell as that makes the blowholes perform even better. Is that the right word? Do blowholes perform?? I feel like this blog is going downhill really fast sorry.
But if you're wanting to do the impossible and go for a real challenge, try and go three for three! Visit this spot when it's a) high tide, b) with a south-westerly swell and c) at sunset. If you can pull it off, I will be most impressed!!
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks Summary:
best seen at high tide to see the blow-holes in action
suitable any time of day
quick and easy 15-20 minute loop walk
To read our travel guide - the CJ Way to Punakiakiki, including the sections of the walk we found most scenic, please click here.
8. Dorothy Falls
What's that saying? Kill two birds with one stone? What about see two sights with one drive? (Trademark Charlotte Maddock 2020). Yes I think blog is in real trouble now. Lucky we're on 8/8 now.
If you're heading out to see Hokitika Gorge, why not make a day of it and continue on to Lake Kaniere to see Dorothy Falls. This quaint waterfall will give you all the feels, it's truly one of those 'awww' ones. You know the waterfalls that just look so darn happy and pretty. I sound like a right fool writing that but truly, that's what Dorothy Falls is all about. It's not powerful or forceful, it's not going to spray you or scare you, it's just happy and pretty. A nice wee slice of West Coast (gentle) wilderness waiting for you to explore it. And did I mention it's only a 1-2 minute walk from the carpark?
The best time of day to take photos of the falls is early morning or late afternoon so they're not blown out, but other than that, Dorothy Falls is beautiful any time of the day!! And if you are going during the day, pack a picnic and eat it at Lake Kaniere (and have a swing on the gorgeous big wooden swings - they too make for a great photo opportunity!!).
Dorothy Falls Summary:
early morning or late afternoon is best for photos
suitable any time of day
1-2 minute walk from carpark
To read our travel guide - the CJ Way to Dorothy Falls, including the GPS coordinates and our camera settings for the above images, please click here.
So there you have it, our eight must do's when exploring the West Coast of New Zealand. I hope you found this helpful and like always, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below if you have a question!
And if you're looking for some 'off the beaten path' adventures or even 'hidden gems' in the West Coast have a read of our 'hidden gems in the West Coast' blog (coming shortly!!)