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  • Writer's pictureLauren H

Three Days on New Zealand's West Coast

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

A swing bridge on the way to Hokitika Gorge
A swing bridge on the way to Hokitika Gorge

Jump Ahead to a Section below:

Day One

Hokitika Gorge, Jade Shopping, Glow Worm Cave

I built day one’s itinerary to be a shorter day, assuming that you will be driving or flying in from somewhere else.

In the afternoon, drive to explore the Hokitika Gorge. It is half an hour's drive outside of Hokitika. There is a short 2 km hike that travels over a swing bridge and down next to the gorge’s brilliant turquoise water. Note this hike does have bugs in the summer, especially down by the water, so wear long pants and sleeves.

Hokitika Gorge
Hokitika Gorge

Back in Hokitika, explore the town. Hokitika is known for having a large selection of New Zealand Jade stores. Many of the stores offer carving demonstrations and will teach you about the Maori’s (the local indigenous population) history of the stone.

The waterfront in town is a perfect spot for watching the sunset over the water. Stop by the Hokitika town sign made of tree branches too. See Where to Eat for dinner options in town.

If you are staying overnight in Hokitika, go visit the free Hokitika Glow Worm Dell located right outside of town. It is right off State Highway 6, and it is marked in Google. There’s a short 1-minute trail that leads you to the small dell. It’s not as impressive as some of the other larger glow worm caves in New Zealand, but it’s an easy way to experience them for free!

Day Two

Franz Josef and Fox Glacier

There are numerous options for exploring these glaciers up close, with a wide range in costs. I break down the options below. Depending on which hikes and activities interest you, you could easily spend two days in the glacier areas.

Free Options:

Franz Josef Glacier

  1. Franz Josef Glacier Trail- A 5.4 km out-and-back flat trail that will take 1.5 hours to complete. This trail is the easiest way to access views of Franz Josef from the valley below. The trail is often closed due to conditions, so check here before planning your visit.

The view at the end of the Franz Josef Glacier Trail
The view at the end of the Franz Josef Glacier Trail

  1. Robert’s Point Track- A 12.3 km hike with 1,797 feet in elevation gain that will take 5+ hours to complete. This is a more advanced hike. The trail leads you over a swing bridge, to Hende’s hut, and then up to Robert’s point to closer views of the glacier.

Fox Glacier

  1. Hike around Lake Matheson. This is a 2.6 km loop trail that will take an hour and a half to complete. It is on relatively flat terrain and leads you through a New Zealand forest full of ferns and moss around Lake Matheson. The Lake is known for its reflective waters and views of Mt. Cook reflecting in the Lake.

Hiking around around Lake Matheson
Hiking around around Lake Matheson

Not Free

1. Heli-Hike on the glacier

You have the option to hike directly on these glaciers as well! The only way they are accessible to hike is via a helicopter that will land directly on the glacier. Both glaciers have companies that offer helicopter rides combined with guided hiking experiences on the glacier. They will outfit you with crampons and ice picks for hiking on the ice as well. Franz Josef Glacier offers a 3-hour heli hike option (2 hours guaranteed ice time plus the helicopter ride) for $485 NZ per person. Fox Guides offers a similar package for Fox Glacier with a half-day heli hike for $399 NZ per person or a full day for $750 NZ per person. Both companies also offer an ice climbing option (rather than regular hiking). It is a fun and unique experience to explore the ice formations of a glacier up close.

Hiking on the Glacier
Hiking on the Glacier

2. ATV in the glacier valley

There are tour companies that offer guided quad bike tours through the rainforests and river valleys in the area. They outfit you with a waterproof suit so you will stay dry when you drive through creeks and small bodies of water. The areas you drive through are stunning and it’s a fun way to see the terrain while taking a break from hiking.

Riding an ATV in the glacier valley
Riding an ATV in the glacier valley

3. Go skydiving

If you have ever thought about trying skydiving, this is one of the most beautiful places to experience it. After the thrill of the free fall, you will float down with views of the glaciers and surrounding mountain ranges. The sky diving company is linked here.

Skydiving near Franz Josef
Skydiving near Franz Josef

Day Three

Paparoa National Park (Punakaiki Pancake Rocks) and Rapahoe Beach

Day trip to these coastal areas for beach time and to explore limestone pancake-shaped rock formations, blow holes, and surge pools. The drive to this area is along the Great Coast Road, which has been ranked one of the top coastal roads in the world.

In the National Park there are a couple of short trails I recommend that you hike:

  1. The Truman Track- A 1.4km out-and-back hike that takes you through forests to the beach.

  2. The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk- A 1.1km loop that showcases the limestone pancake rocks blowholes

Then head to the nearby Rapahoe Beach to relax on the beach. There aren’t many amenities at the beach so bring a packed lunch.

Build an Itinerary

This itinerary works well as a stand-alone long weekend trip. Our trip to the area was part of a month-long trip throughout New Zealand. My post on putting together the whole trip is here. Any of the South Island stops (Queenstown, Nelson, Te Anau) or Auckland work as easy add-ons to make a longer trip. If you head East from this area towards Christchurch or Te Anau, stop in Arthur’s Pass for hiking. Details on the Arthur’s Pass area in my longer road trip itinerary here.

Lodging for The West Coast of New Zealand

For this itinerary, I recommend staying in Hokitika or near the glaciers. If you plan to spend two days exploring the glaciers then stay overnight near there, otherwise stay in Hokitika. Lodging in Hokitika will be less expensive. Both areas have a decent amount of restaurant options for the evenings. They also both have options for Airbnb rentals and in Franz Josef, The Glen Fern Villas are another apartment/home rental option.

Advanced Bookings for The West Coast of New Zealand

It’s easy to book excursions and activities online for New Zealand. We traveled during high season and were able to make bookings a couple of days out. We never had issues with excursions or rentals being booked up. Booking more last minute allows you to make last-minute decisions based on how the weather is looking those days. The Heli-hike tours are the one exception to this and should be booked in advance. They have limited capacity and only two tours a day.

What to Wear and Pack for The West Coast of New Zealand

What to Wear

  • Hiking boots or shoes

  • Warm water-resistant pants (if you plan to do the heli hike)

  • Gloves (if you plan to do the heli hike)

What to Pack

  • A daypack for hiking

  • A water bladder

  • A small packable beach towel

  • A collapsible beach bag

Where to Eat in Hokitika

A cute pizza and pasta place that has outdoor garden seating. The pizza and pasta were made with fresh ingredients and weren’t greasy.

This sandwich shop has the best sandwich of our whole month-long trip in New Zealand. They used daily-baked fresh bread, local free-range meats, and locally made cheeses. The owners told us the tomatoes on our sandwich were grown in his backyard. They also make all of their own condiments. Go at least twice!

Getting around

To follow this itinerary you will need to rent a car or drive your own car.

When to Go

December, January, and February are New Zealand’s Summer and its high season. The summer wildflowers make hikes and drives even more beautiful and you don’t have to worry about coming across snow on hiking trails. Temperatures are in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day. Summer also means crowded trails, overfull parking lots, and more expensive lodging. The local New Zealand Summer holiday runs from late December to late January so you will fight local tourism during those months as well. In Spring and Fall the weather will be much more unpredictable with chances of freezing temperatures and many trails could be snow-covered.

Other Tips

  • Be ready to adjust your itinerary based on the weather. One advantage of road-tripping is that the weather may vary in each location you are going. We were able to move around what day trip we took each day to avoid any rainy days affecting us during our hikes.

  • Credit cards are widely accepted in New Zealand. The only times we used cash were at farmer’s markets and when we stopped to buy roadside fruit.

  • Entrance to National Parks for day hikes in New Zealand is free

  • Parking at trailheads and parks in New Zealand is free.

  • Clean, modern, (and occasionally even music-playing) public restrooms are easy to find in New Zealand.

  • Tipping at restaurants is not customary in New Zealand


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