Beaches, Lakes & Coastlines

Stretching North to South some 600km - the same distance from Auckland to Wellington - the West Coast of New Zealand is a long, thin piece of paradise no wider than 70km at any one point. The vast coastline of the West Coast offers a wide range of opportunities for walks, activities, wildlife viewing and good old relaxation.

Coastline highlights

Coastal exploration on the West Coast is suitable for the whole family and offers a wide variety of coastal activities:

  • Beachcombing: There is something so special about walking a beach. Search for pounamu (jade) or just enjoy a stunning sunset.
  • Coastal Walks: The West Coast has a huge array of coastal walks available.
  • Fishing: Surfcasting or fishing from a boat out to sea is a great way to have some fun as well as hopefully get your dinner
  • Wildlife viewing: Many animals make their home on the coast including penguins, dolphins and NZ fur seals.
  • National Parks & Natural Wonders: Kahurangi, Paparoa and Westland Tai Poutini all have coastlines within their boundaries.
  • Coastal towns: Discover the personality of the West Coast’s coastal towns - Hokitika in the central area and Jackson Bay in the South.

If you are driving anywhere along the West Coast, you are bound to see some coastline. The roads hug much of the West Coast and where it doesn't you are often afforded coastal views from ranges and viewpoints.

Scotts Beach, Karamea

Scotts Beach in Karamea has stunning seascapes and amazing views. The big plus is you will probably have the beach all to yourself.

Drive 15 kilometres north of Karamea on the Karamea-Kohaihai Road, to the Kohaihai River and the end of the road. You will find an excellent camping and picnic area at road end, with toilets, shelter and a telephone.

There is a great, easy 2-3 hour walk that starts from the carpark and follows the Kohaihai River up the valley to the long swing bridge.  The Scotts Beach/Heaphy track climbs steadily through beautiful bush studded with nikau palms, karaka and rata. 

When you reach the saddle of the hill, you will see a short track to a lookout with views out to Scotts Beach below. Just an easy track down to the sand and a little further to a wonderfully sheltered picnic area with toilets and a drinking water fountain. N.B.It might look inviting, but do not be tempted to swim here – there are dangerous currents and undertow.

Driving the Great Coast Road

The main highway called The Great Coast Road between Westport and Greymouth has been named one of the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world according to Lonely Planet and is one of our West Coast Must Do's.

The Great Coast Road takes 90 minutes at full speed but we recommend you slow down and enjoy the journey. There are so many beaches, nooks and crannys you may want to take the whole day - and make sure you have your camera.

Ask a local where to find 9 Mile and 17 Mile beaches and make sure you stop for a swim and to walk over the original bridge at Fox River - where it may be hard to believe now that it was once a thriving gold mining township called Brighton.

The Lakes District

The Lakes District takes in the largest lake on the West Coast, Lake Brunner,  and its township of Moana, Jackson's and leads onto Otira and Arthurs Pass.

It comprises of 7 Lakes nestled up against a dramatic alpine and rainforest ecosystem to explore.

Glacier Highway - Hokitika to Glacier Country

The Glacier Highway is the long stretch of road hugging the coastline from Serpentine (where the Coast to Coast starts every year) through Hokitika all the way down the West Coast to Glacier Country.

One of the New Zealand's more scenic routes, along the side of the highway you drive through dense coastal scrub or natural West Coast rainforest bordering the road,untouched by human nature.

The Glacier Highway is a quiet drive which passes through three national parks, seal colonies, past beaches and lakes and the beauty of the mountainous glacier landscape.

Okarito lagoon and beach

Okarito Lagoon is New Zealand's largest unmodified wetland. A coastal lagoon, it is 130 kms south of Hokitika, covering an area of about 12km.

Turn onto Forks/Okarito Road where signposted off State Highway 6 and it is a 10km drive to the coast.

The lagoon is home of many species of wading birds, including the extremely rare Kotuku (Eastern Great Egret). Very near Okarito is Kotuku's only New Zealand breeding area.

At the southern end of the lagoon is the small beach settlement of Okarito. Bird watching, eco-tours and kayak tours of the lagoon are available, and there are a number of local hikes. The rarest species of kiwi, the Okarito Kiwi - or Rowi - is also found near the town of Okarito in a DOC managed kiwi sanctuary.

Lake Matheson

The unsurpassed views and mountain reflections from the forested shores of Lake Matheson make this easy walk one of the most popular on the West Coast.  

Famous for mirror views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, Lake Matheson is nestled in ancient forest just 5 km from Fox Glacier Weheka.

Lake Matheson was formed when Fox Glacier Te Moeka o Tuawe retreated from its last significant advance about 14 000 years ago.  During the last major ice age, the glacier spread across the coastal plains towards the sea, dumping huge piles of rock. 

The glacier ground a depression which later filled with water, forming the lake.  Lake Matheson’s excellent mirror-like reflecting properties are due to the dark brown colour of the water, the result of organic matter leached from the humus of the forest floor. 

If you are lucky you may see an eel break the surface of the lake. The species most likely to be seen here is the long-finned eel, which made this an important foodgathering site (mahinga kai) for Māori travelling along the coast.

Gillespies Beach, Fox Glacier

Gillespies Beach, out of Fox Glacier, offers a scenic drive, lovely views of the Southern Alps, an historic cemetery and many coastal walks. You can camp near an old gold mining settlement and seal colony. The walking tracks lead to historic gold mining suction and bucket dredges and the beuatiful Gillespies Lagoon.

At Fox Glacier township turn onto Cook Flat Road and follow the road to Gillespies Beach. Over half of the journey is on narrow, unsealed road so keep left and keep your speed to a minimum.

In 1865 a prospector named Gillespie discovered gold here. Soon, a settlement of several hundred people established. By the 1920s, Gillespies was a ghost town, briefly revived from 1933 to 1946 when a large bucket-dredge mined the beach sands and the old town site.

Bruce Bay

Bruce Bay - or Mahitahi - is a small coastal settlement  (recently voted as one of NZ's ten most loved beaches) with stunning sea vistas and a wonderfully wild windswept beach, 40km south of Fox Glacier and 80 km from Haast.

It is where rimu rainforest meets the sea, a great place to take a walk along the beach. 

The beach was previously the highway for the first Maori inhabitants in New Zealand. The area is significant for its Maori history. Maui, the great Polynesian explorer, first landed at Mahitahi (Bruce Bay).  Hence the local Marae is named Te Tauraka Waka a Maui (the landing place of Maui’s waka).

Bruce Bay is named after the PS Bruce, a paddle steamer that travelled the coast bringing the early goldminers and explorers to these shores. 

Ship Creek walk and Monro Beach

Ship Creek Walk is one of the best examples of swamp forest that you will come across and well worth stopping for on your journey along the West Coast.

The walk is signposted on State Highway 6 as you head along the Coast towards or from Haast. Located within an ancient kahikatea swamp forest, it gives a glimpse back in time to what much of the West Coast may have looked like prior to human settlement.

An easy walk through luxuriant coastal forest to the remote Monro Beach, between July and December the yellow eyed Fiordland crested penguin  might be seen in the surf and on the beach, as well as Hectors Dolphins.

A second walk to a dune lake (30 min) winds through dense wind-shorn coastal forest stunted by wind. It opens out to provide magnificent photo opportunities from platforms overlooking Lake Mataketake to the sweep of coastline southwest to Jackson Head.

Jackson Bay

Jacksons Bay marks the farthest extent of the West Coast's road network: the small road which meanders along the coast from Haast, 32 kilometres to the northeast, terminates at the sleepy fishing village of Jackson Bay.

Jackson Bay is a working fishing port - boats are tied up at the long wharf that stretches out into deep waters. A popular fishing spot in summer, it's a great place to catch crayfish and just meander.

Beyond Jackson Bay sheer bluffs plunge into the sea and mountain ranges form an impenetrable barrier to motorised traffic. Feel the sheer isolation, as if  beyond the end of the road is the unknown; although south of here lies Fiordland and Milford Sound.