west coast natural wonders
With natural wonders along the entire West Coast of the Southern Alps, New Zealand you're likely to end up with a sore jaw as it keeps dropping open. It is highly likely that the glorious images you see of New Zealand in a book, calendar, magazine or poster is of the West Coast. Most of our natural wonders are easily accessible, some require you take a guided trip. But one thing they have in common is that they are truly spectacular.
Here is a list of our favourite natural wonders on the West Coast. They are listed from north to south to help you find them. For other natural wonders to visit, ask the local iSites or even a local, they will be happy to share their favourite spots.
Karamea's Oparara ValleyKahurangi National Park near Karamea, the Oparara has a magic all of its own, born of a million years of undisturbed isolation. Hence the many Lord of the Rings names that are scattered throughout the Basin. There are three magnificent arches sculpted by the Oparara River and a highly complex cave system.
There is easy access to view many of the interesting geological features from the Oparara carpark including the Oparara Arch and the Moara Gate Arch. If you want to visit the Honeycomb Hill Caves, world famous for their collection of Moa bones and other extinct bird species, you will have to take a guided tour with the Oparara Experience.
Tauranga Bay Seal Colony WalkTauranga Bay Seal Colony Walk is an excellent walking track leading to viewing platforms overlooking a large seal colony. Depending on the season, anything from 20 to 200 NZ fur seals dot the rocks and pups are born from late November to early December. This makes for a pretty loud and boisterous gathering!
The track allows wheelchair access and is an easy 10-minute walk from the Tauranga Bay Carpark, 16 kms from Westport. Interpretive panels at the platforms provide information on the activity in the colony and the seals breeding cycle. They also showcase historical information about the sealing industry that once existed in New Zealand.
Charleston's Constant Bay and Nile RiverDOC picnic area and a great place to stretch your legs. The well maintained Constant Bay walking track gently winds through giant flaxes and climbs slightly to open cliff tops. If you dare, take a peek over Charleston Rocks, a 60 metre cliff face and a favourite area of rock climbers.
For the more adventurous, head inland along the Nile River to explore the vast cave system here. Guided tours with Norwest Adventures are available and range from an easy rainforest train ride and glowworm cave tour to a hard out full day caving experience.
Punakaiki's Pancake RocksPancake Rocks of Paparoa National Park in Punakaiki are the most visited natural attraction on the Coast, with good reason. The coastal views, strangly eroded limestone shapes of the rocks and exciting blowholes make for an awesome natural experience. Check at the local DoC information centre for the best viewing times for the blowholes.
The West Coast's largest lake, Lake Brunner covers Gates of Haast an area of over 40 square kilometres. It is set in scenic mountain surrounds and its reputation as a trout fishing mecca means it is growing in popularity as a stop on touring routes. The TranzAlpine Rail Journey also stops here so passengers can disembark to enjoy the peace and quiet of the township of Moana on the northern side of the lake. Lake Brunner walks give access to some nice rainforest and vibrant birdlife.
"The Barber" as it is infamously known because it "cuts you to the bone" is a katabatic wind. Cold wind streams down the Grey Valley where it then funnels through the tight Grey River/Māwheranui gap between the mountains, aiming it straight at the central business district of Greymouth as it heads out to sea. It is marked by a trail of white mist that creeps over the surrounding hills, making for some dramatic photographs. It is one of only a few locations around the world where this occurs, it is a beautiful but chilly natural wonder.
Hokitika GorgeHokitika township is one of those places. The vivid turquoise water surrounded by lush native bush looks too good to be true...but trust us, it is well worth the visit.
A 40 minute drive from town, it is a wheelchair accessible 5 minutes to a viewpoint overlooking the gorge along the Hokitika Gorge Walkway. Walk further down the track to cross a swingbridge and get right along the edge of it. For one of the best West Coast half day scenic drives, return to Hokitika via Lake Kaniere.
Franz Josef and Fox GlaciersFranz Josef and Fox Glaciers are well worth a stop. You can walk the valley floors to the front of the glaciers (called the terminal face) to see these "rivers of ice" up close. Just please don't go past the warning signs. Rocks and ice can fall of the faces at any time.
Lake MathesonFox Glacier, nature has provided the "View of Views". The waters of Lake Matheson are dark brown, so on a calm day they create the ideal surface for reflections of New Zealand's highest mountains including Aoraki / Mt Cook. Lake Matheson was formed about 14,000 years ago when the Fox Glacier retreated and left a depression which later filled with water.
The Lake Matheson Walk is an easy walk that heads through ancient native forest, including tall rimu and kahikatea trees, to a pontoon that extends out onto the lake and continues around the lake. The walk from the car park takes 40 minutes to the pontoon, or 1.5 hours around the lake.
Gates of Haast and the Blue PoolsMt Aspiring National Park and provides a great photo stop. The highway passes directly over these raging rapids but please don't stop on the bridge to take your photo, use the pullover area near the bridge instead.
Just a bit further on near Haast Pass Summit is the short Blue Pools Walk. The glacier-fed water in these deep pools is the colour of deep azure blue, and so clear that you can see right to the bottom, making the resident brown trout look like they are suspended in the air. But don't think you will be having fish for dinner, they are off limits.