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Ahh, the West Coast. Arguably one of the most travelled sides of New Zealand. Glaciers are the main course along this yummy road and it’s easy to get sucked into the flow of the tourists, but even on this well-trodden path, you can still find some secret West Coast locations and hidden gems to keep you away from the crowds! 

This week we’re sharing all the best places to see along New Zealand’s West Coast, from Haast all the way up to Westport. Some you’ll have seen mentioned a thousand times before, others you might not have heard about before!

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Important things to know before you set off:

 

Weather;

The wild west is often used to describe the Barron, dry lands of Western America but it applies to New Zealand’s West too.

The rugged coat hasn’t happened out of the blue. Wild weather often turns up almost unexpectedly here, tearing through the area with a ferocity strong enough to wipe out roads and flood most rivers.

It should come as no surprise when I say you need to either plan your trip around the seasons; eg. there is a heightened risk of bad weather during winter. OR simply be aware of what the weather is doing by using the Met Services website and app. Be prepared for all weathers when planning a trip to any (or all) of these secret West Coast locations!

Roads;

Not everyone drives as well as you do – treat everyone as if they’re a bad driver. This is a piece of advice that might seem obnoxious at first, but it could unstick you from some could-be-nasty situations.

We’ve seen an unprecedented amount of near-misses while in New Zealand because people aren’t paying attention or are trying to cut corners – literally. And it’s not just tourists. Kiwi’s are just as guilty of this, don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise.

Corners are tight, roads are narrow and the drop on one side is often further than you’d care to imagine. If you’re over-cautious, especially in bad weather, you’re more likely to make it out alive.

Now, I don’t mean crawl your way along the roads either. Just use your common sense. Pullover if you feel you can’t make it up the next hill without slowing everyone down, stick to a safe speed and DON’T cross the white lines – you’re not a race driver.

… Can you tell we’ve seen some pretty bad driving while we’ve been here? Here’s an official guide to safe driving in New Zealand.

bendy roads leading to secret west coast locations
Windy roads leading to secret West Coast locations

Timing

The last thing we want you to know before you head off on your secret West Coast locations road trip is this – don’t believe google maps times.

Google Maps has been reliable for distances but not times. Sometimes there’s traffic but more often than not the delays have been caused by our favourite thing – photo stops!

The West Coast has an abundance of them, on top of everything we’re going to talk about next, and google isn’t a mind reader – it doesn’t know to add on extra time for the odd photo or viewpoint break.  When planning your trip to these secret West Coast locations, remember this; If your google route says 2 hours… you can easily add an extra 30-60 minutes. 

Sandflies;

The West Coast is home to some of the best landscapes in New Zealand… it’s also home to its nastiest predator… the Sandfly.

This tiny little bitey insect only has one thing on the menu – your blood, and it’s determined to get it. They’re resilient to most bug sprays and while Aerogard has been the most effective for us, it’s still not 100% effective.

Wear long, loose layers and light layers, keep moving and pray for wind/rainy weather to keep them away. It’s also worth noting that insect repellents bought in New Zealand are more effective for our own insects than ones bought abroad.

Drones;

Leave it in the car. The West Coast has some of the busiest airways when it comes to helicopters and light aircraft. You’ll find it pretty noticeable, especially around the Glaciers.

Most of the land is DOC or privately owned, meaning Drones are strictly prohibited along most of the central section of the West Coast so it’s best to just leave them in the car. If you’re caught flying in prohibited areas not only is there a huge fine, you could also have your drone confiscated. It’s not a risk worth taking.

drones are banned within these secret west coast locations

Our secret West Coast locations itinerary

By now you’re probably wondering how I’m going to help you road trip the West Coast like a local?

This complete West Coast itinerary is jam-packed with everything you need to see along the way.

I’m going to assume you’ve just completed the Haast Pass, meaning you’re starting this road trip from Haast. If that’s not the case, simply reverse this route and you’re on to a winner!

Haast + Jacksons Bay

I’m not going to lie, we aren’t overly fond of Haast. We experienced it briefly after a separate trip up the Haast Pass and found ourselves ‘underwhelmed’ by this coastal town, it felt more like an essential place to stop between the West and Central New Zealand than the welcoming beach town we expected.

Since our first visit, however, we’ve learned that we missed out on hidden gem #1 – Jacksons Bay. To get here you need to take a small 40-minute detour South, but you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful beaches and a great spot to top up on some food at Jackson Bay’s fish + chip shop – The Cray Pot. Take some time to relax on the golden sand beach and enjoy the serenity before you head up the madness that is the West Coast.

Don’t forget to make time to do the Ellery Lake walk, a 2-hour return track that leads you to a glacier-formed lake tucked behind a beech tree forest.

Jackson bay is the first of the secret West Coast locations
Jackson Bay is the quietest of these secret West Coast locations

Ship creek

Nobody likes being up ship creek without a paddle, but this Ship Creek is worth visiting! Just 15 minutes from the main township of Haast you’ll Ship Creek surrounded by ancient kahikatea swamp forest and looking like a West Coast you could never have imagined.

There is a short 30-minute walk that will take you through sand dunes to a small dune lake. Relax here and keep your eyes peeled for yellow-eyed penguins and hector’s dolphins. Be warned though – this is where the sandflies really start to bite. Make sure you’ve packed plenty of sprays!

Knights Point

Don’t drive past Knights Point without stopping and getting out of the car! It’s ‘only’ a roadside stop, with no walks available but it’s worth it as not only is it beautiful but it’s also jam-packed with history!

Māori people were the first to settle in this area, using it as a hub for fishing from canoes and finding jade stone (pounamu). European settlers arrived later, relying on ships to get them to and from the area until the road was completed in 1965… which is pretty recent really!

There’s plenty of parking here along with drop toilets. No overnight parking as it’s part of the World Heritage area and no drones!

Look out on the rocks just off the shore, there’s often a seal colony taking refuge from the waves!

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Lake Matheson

For us, Lake Matheson was one of our favourite West Coast secret locations of the entire trip. Many of you will have already heard about this place (maybe?) but for us, it was a complete fluke to stumble upon it when we chose to camp nearby for the night – but we’ll cover West Coast camping locations soon!

So for the few who may not have heard about this secret place on the West Coast, Lake Matheson is a mirror lake that lies in the shadow of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. On a calm day, it offers an amazing mirror-like reflection of the mountains.

We highly recommend getting to Lake Matheson for sunrise as this is possibly the only time you will get it to yourself. It might be a West Coast secret for many, but it’s one that is firmly on the tour bus itinerary. Once the sun starts to rise you can guarantee there will be heaps of tourists walking around, making it hard to find a nice spot to enjoy the tranquillity that this lake has to offer.

The whole loop walk will take you about 1.5hours without photo stops. We were there for about 3 hours, most of that spent sitting watching the sunrise and listening to the Bellbirds and Tui. It’s a very magical place at the crack of dawn! 

Top tip – don’t head straight for the signposted reflection lookout. Instead, go to ‘the views of views’. This will give you an elevated view over the lake, one we preferred over the busier lookout island.

Lake Matheson is the prettiest of these secret west coast locations
Lake Matheson at sunrise – the prettiest secret West Coast Location

More secret West Coast locations

Fox + Franz Joseph Glacier

These are the ultimate West Coast secret locations. Nobody visits here at the moment and they’re very qui… Nope, who am I kidding?

Both Glaciers along the West Coast are the busiest attractions you’ll come across during this West Coast road trip, they’re certainly not one of our secret West Coast locations.

Although once upon a time they were.

These days the skies are full of helicopters, the car parks are full of tour buses and the walks are bustling with tourists. If you want a peaceful glacier experience – this isn’t it.

I’m not going to say don’t visit, but what I am going to say is that for us they were a very underwhelming and overrated part of the trip. We actually preferred the Hooker and Tasman Glaciers at Mount Cook.

You can see Fox Glacier after a short 30-minute walk along a very well-defined track through lush forests. It’s quite a peaceful experience during the 2-3 minute window when there are no choppers overhead.

Franz Joseph Glacier has a little more to offer when it comes to walking tracks.

We found this one a lot more enjoyable, although I’ve since come to realise there was a partial track closure during our visit which could be part of the reason we found the viewpoint underwhelming. With this in mind, I’m going to point you towards our friends over at ‘The backyard Family’ who have a great guide to the Franz Joseph walks!

While you’re passing through town, we highly recommend stopping for a bite to eat at ‘full of beans’ cafe. They make a really delicious french toast which ending up being my highlight of Franz Joseph!

the glaciers aren't one of the secret west coast locations
The glaciers are by far not a secret West Coast location

Okarito

Ready to go off the beaten track? Okarito is a place that not many tourists will consider going to unless they’ve been told about it before they set off for their road trip. It really is one of the West Coast’s best-kept secrets.

This town shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re a nature lover as it’s home to New Zealand’s largest untouched estuary and over 90 species of birds.

There are several walks to do in Okarito that will give you the chance to see their local wildlife. However, if you want to see the rarer of the occupants like the Rowi Kiwi, you’ll need to join one of the wildlife tours.

  • The Okarito wetland walk is the easiest and shortest of the options. At just 20 minutes return, this boardwalk will bend through the bush before taking you across the Estuary where you’ll be able to start spotting wildlife.
  • Okarito Trig walk is slightly longer at 1.5 hours and follows the wetlands walk before branching off and uphill towards the trig point. On a clear day, this viewpoint offers incredible views over the wetlands and across to the snow-capped Southern Alps.
  • If you’re looking for a longer walk, the Okarito three-mile pack track is the one for you. This 3.5-hour return beach walk is a great way of getting a feel for everything Okarito has surrounding it. Starting at the wetlands walk, you’ll cross hills and filter through beech tree forests before the track opens up at Three Mile Lagoon on the edge of Rimu Forest.

Ross

Don’t drive through this small gold mining town without stopping off to at least do the short historic walk. The little town of Ross is another hidden secret of the West Coast, even though everyone will have to drive through it to get from Franz Joseph to Hokitika.

You’ll see remnants of the gold mining boom all over this town but the Historic Goldfields walk is the main thing to do here. The 1-hour trail starts at the Ross heritage centre and will walk you through history as you follow old waterways, visit dams built for the gold rush and even be able to see replica mining huts. Take a moment to stop off at the old cemetery and read some of the headstones to really get a feel for what life was like Ross.

Hokitika

This quirky town deserves at least a few days to itself but if you don’t have the time to spare, there’s still plenty you can fit into a day.

Hokitika Beach and its driftwood gallery is the first stop in Hokitika. If your visit coincides with the annual driftwood festival (usually somewhere around Jan-Feb time) you’ll be able to see fresh pieces of art being installed on the beach. If not, don’t worry, there is always something left standing later in the year.

After the beach, the next stop is inland to Hokitika Gorge, possibly the town’s most popular spot but for a really good reason. After a nice 15 minute walk through some woodlands, the trees open up to Hokitika Gorge, a stunning white stone gorge with crystal clear turquoise blue water flowing through it. Like the Blue Pools at Haast, the water at Hokitika Gorge is mesmerizing if you catch it on a day where it’s running clear. After rain or floods, the waters turn murky blue/grey but it’s still pretty to see! Relax on the purpose-built lookout or head down the steps to the sandy beach.

Did you know you can see glow worms for free in Hokitika too? The Hokitika Glow Worm Dell is one of the lesser-known places to see glow worms in New Zealand and it makes the perfect excuse to hang around Hokitika for a little longer. Head up the track just after dark and admire the little blue lights of the local glow worms.

Hokitika is one of the more beautiful secret west coast locations
Hokitika Gorge. The prettiest place on the West Coast

Dorothy Falls

Here’s a secret West Coast location to visit on your way to/from the Hokitika Gorge. This hidden waterfall sits on the edge of Lake Kaniere where a handful of short walks help you explore the lake. The waterfall itself is simple to reach as it is easily seen from the car park, meaning you can either use it as a ‘drive-by’ stop or get out, stretch your legs and enjoy the quiet.

Blackball

Are you a fan of Salami? Not a question you were expecting to get asked in this post, eh? Well, if you are, Blackball is the town you need to visit while travelling the West Coast. Not only is it packed with history – like most small towns along the west – it’s also home to the Blackball Salami Company, possibly New Zealand’s favourite company for smoked meats.

The Blackball Salami Company started in 1992 and have since grown so popular, you might have seen their choice in shops like Pak’n’Save, New World and even Countdown! Cut out the middle man by nipping into their original store to pick up some Salami straight from the source!

Formerly the Blackball Hilton is also a must-see while you’re in Blackball and yes, that’s its official name. In 1992 It was forced to change its name after a run-in with the global hotel chain ‘Hilton Hotels’ and that was what it settled on.

Like most small towns, this vintage pub is the heart of Blackball. You’ll find the area’s most quirky characters here and should you decide to extend your visit, you can even book a room and stay the night!

Blackball

Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

Here’s another unique landscape for the list, but not quite a secret West Coast location. The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks feature on more West Coast road trip itinerary because of how crazy-different they are to the rest of the seascapes you’ll see along the way.

These naturally formed sea stacks look a lot like piles of pancakes – hence the name. They’re a free attraction and a great spot for watching the sunset. If you time your visit with the high tide you’ll even get to see the blowhole in action! Don’t forget to nip into the cafe for your own stack of maple and bacon pancakes too!

Westport

This marks the end of our West Coast itinerary and while it isn’t a secret place, it’s got plenty of secluded beach areas and bays to see including Tauranga Bay seal colony and seabird sanctuary. If you have a few hours to kill there’s a great clifftop walk that starts/ends at Cape Foulwind and leads to Tauranga Bay with great coastal views along the way. This is a 1.5-hour walk one way though, so make sure you pack plenty of snacks and suncream!!

Places to camp along the West Coast

There are tonnes of places available for you to set up camp while you road trip the West Coast. It’s worth noting, however, that freedom camping isn’t an option in many of the secret West Coast locations that we’ve mentioned. Each district along the coast have their own rules, you can find out more at this website. The DOC has done an amazing job at providing budget-friendly and well-maintained camps scattered along this route, along with privately owned holiday camps. Below is a brief look at DOC places to camp along the West Coast;

Gillespies Camp

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: By car only – terrible gravel track. Small campervans will be ok.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities: Tap water, 8 non powered tent sites, plenty of parking.
Directions: From Fox Glacier Weheka township turn onto Cook Flat Road and follow the road for 21 km to Gillespies Beach. Over half of the journey is on narrow, gravel road. Keep left and keep your speed to a minimum. Not suitable for large motorhomes or caravans.
Rental/Doc/NZMCA passes can’t be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk

Mcdonald’s Camp

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: Car, campervan and caravan.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities: Boat ramp, flushing toilets, tap water, wheelchair access with assistance. 20 non-powered tent sites. No dogs are allowed.
Directions: SH6, 15 km north of Franz Josef/Waiau at the northern end of Lake Mapourika. Short driveway off SH6. Gravel access
Passes can’t be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk

Lake Ianthe Matahi Campsite

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: Car, campervan and caravan.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities: Boat ramp, jetty, running tap water, wheelchair access with assistance. 12 non-powered tent sites. Do dogs allowed.
Directions: Adjacent to SH6, 15 km north of Harihari. Short driveway off SH6.
Rental/Doc/NZMCA passes can be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk

Goldsborough Campsite

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: Car, campervan and caravan.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities: Flushing toilets and running tap water. 40 non-powered tent sites.
Directions: Turn off SH 6 at Awatuna, 17 km from Hokitika. Follow Stafford Loop Rd to end. Gravel road.
Rental/Doc/NZMCA passes can be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk
this beach is our favourite secret west coast locations

Hans Bay Campsite

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: Car, campervan and caravan.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities: Boat ramp, jetty, flushing toilets, running tap water. No dogs are allowed.
Directions: 19 km southeast of Hokitika. From Kaniere, follow Lake Kaniere Rd to end. Take Dorothy Falls Rd at fork, follow to Hans Bay
Rental/Doc/NZMCA passes can be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk

Slab Hut Creek Campsite

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: Car, campervan and caravan.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities: BBQ area, flushing toilets, you can drink the water from the stream. 18 non-powered tent sites. No dogs allowed.
Directions: Off SH7 on Slab Hut Creek Rd. 10 km south of Reefton. Gravel road.
Rental/Doc/NZMCA passes can be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk

Lyell Campsite

Fees:
Adult (18+ years): $8 per night
Child (5 – 17 years): $4 per night
Infant (0 – 4 years): free
Access: Car, campervan and caravan.
Bookings: Bookings not required, first come, first served.
Facilities:  BBQ area, running tap water, wheelchair access with assistance. 18 non-powered tent sites. Dogs on a leash only.
Directions: On SH6 in the Upper Buller Gorge, 15 km northeast of Inangahua.
Rental/Doc/NZMCA passes can be used here. Pay cash on arrival at the self check-in desk

Were many of these secret West Coast locations were already on your itinerary? If so, which ones? We loved stopping off at all the little towns along the way. Each one unique and quirky in its own way. Hokitika Gorge was perhaps my favourite place along the West Coast and we’re hoping to return to explore it further. If you enjoyed this West Coast Itinerary, be sure to share it and drop us a comment to let us know what you thought!

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