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All about Paparoa National Park
One of our lesser known parks internationally, but as we say here ‘World Famous in New Zealand’. The famous Pancake Rocks are right here at Punakaiki, but it’s the amazing karst landscapes and tropical looking forest which sets Paparoa apart from anywhere else in New Zealand. Looking up the Pororari River valley, with it’s towering limestone cliffs, Nikau Palms and tree ferns, you wouldn’t be surprised if a pterodactyl came flying past - it looks that ancient and untouched!
We’ve been going to Punakaiki and Paparoa for years on holiday now, so here’s our guide to visiting including how to get there, how to fit Paparoa into your holiday, weather, things to do, our favourite walks and a few Kiwi travel tips.
Our favourite thing to do in Punakaiki
Head up the Pororari River for a walk on the riverside track and you’ll really feel like you’re in another world. Or you can rent a kayak for a lazy paddle if you prefer. We just reckon the Pororari Gorge is heaven on earth, take a look and see what we mean, close your eyes and imagine yourself in the picture.
Other Punakaiki activities we love
Paparoa National Park Short Walks: Around Punakaiki, as well as the Pororari Gorge, there are some great short walks close by, like the Truman Track, the Pancake Rocks walks and the Punakaiki Cavern. These are all close to the village, but having a car or someone to drop you off will probably help as they are a bit spread out.
Day Walks - The Punakaiki and Pororari River tracks form a loop track, which connects to the Inland Pack track and Bullock Creek route, where you’ve got a whole range of walks to choose from. You need transport, but there are a whole range of loops tracks around here, ranging from half a day to two days.
A new Great Walk in Paparoa National Park - Planned for 2018, a brand new walking track and huts are being built in the national park to honour the victims of the 2010 Pike River Mine disaster. It will be a three day / two night dual purpose walking and cycling track, starting near Blackball and crossing the ranges to Punakaiki.
Kayak the Pororari River - Is there anything more idyllic than a lazy kayak on the most beautiful river you’ve ever seen? Rental kayaks available in summertime just next to the pub.
Horse Trekking on the Beach and up the Punakaiki River - Just at the other end of the beach from the main hotel, there’s a little shed run by friendly locals who offer half and full day horse treks. The main route they take is up the Punakaiki River, which is the first bridge you cross coming into town from the south.
Underworld Rafting and Glowworm Caves on the Nile River - This is one of our favourite activities in the whole country, no joke! Go and see our mates at Underworld Adventures and they’ll sort you out with everything you need for this unbelievable trip into the underworld, the highlight of which is floating on your back through a cavern of glowworms on your own little raft. Best. Activity. Ever.
Something you can’t do anywhere else but in Paparoa
Well that’s easy, put on a wetsuit, ride a train through the rainforest, explore these stunning caves, float through a cavern with millions of glowworms above you, then an easy raft back down the Nile river to your starting point! These caves are so precious they’re locked to the public, so you’re guaranteed exclusive access.
Kiwi Favourites in Paparoa
If you said to us we had to take someone from a busy stressed out life in a big US or UK city and drop them in one spot in New Zealand that would automatically relax them - then we would pick Punakaiki. When was the last time you roasted marshmallows on a campfire on the beach and watched the sun set? There’s even a campfire pit and some logs laid out for you to sit right here on the beach here at Punakaiki, all it needs is you! Actually, we’ve done this hundreds of time and it works!
The Pancake Rocks
The most recognizable image of Paparoa National Park and Punakaiki, for both Kiwis and overseas visitors, is the Pancake Rocks at Dolomite Point. The rocks are really easy to get to, they’re right on the main road, opposite the Paparoa National Park information centre, it takes about half an hour to walk the whole loop, longer if you want to get lots of photos. What are the Pancake Rocks? Weird looking layered rocks, with awesome blowholes throughout, set out on a headland with beautiful views up and down the West Coast. Google some images for ‘Punakaiki Pancake Rocks New Zealand’ and see what we mean! They’re a really cool spot for sure, but here’s a tip - most people just stop in at the rocks on their way north or south, including lots of big bus tours too, so if you really want to take your time and enjoy the views in a little solitude then the later you go the better. Sunset is not until really late in the middle of summer so you’re not going to run out of daylight and as you’re looking west, you may just get that awesome Kiwi sunset photo you’ve been waiting for!
How to fit Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park into your holiday
If you’re planning to visit anywhere on the West Coast of the South Island on your trip, and you absolutely should, the great news for you is that visiting Punakaiki fits really easily into any South Island itinerary. If you’re travelling from Christchurch to the Glaciers, then make the little detour north from Greymouth and spend the night here instead of travelling all day. From Nelson or Abel Tasman to Glacier Country is the same, Punakaiki’s in the perfect spot to break the journey up so don’t drive past, you won’t regret it. We always travel north from the glaciers, which is really easy too, a cruisey half day from Fox or Franz Josef through to Punakaiki gives you plenty of time to check out all the little stops and spots on the way as well as a drink on the beach before dinner.
Suggested Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park Itinerary
We always visit Paparoa and Punakiki from Franz Josef Glacier
Head out nice and early from Franz Josef, if you haven’t visited Okarito Lagoon yet then pop in here for sure, head down to Hokitika, there’s always a park on the main street here, best coffee in town is in the little cafe inside the movie theater! Take some time to explore town, check out the jade carvers, possum fur shops and you can walk right out onto the beach from behind the main street. It’s just over an hour through to Punakaiki, find out what time high tide is for the best show at the Pancake Rocks, if you’re staying the night in Punakaiki waiting until later in the evening means you’ll miss the crowds. We always stay in the Punakaiki Resort, right on the beach, just a stroll out of our rooms onto the beach for that evening bonfire.
How to get to Punakaiki & Paparoa National Park
Flights to Punakaiki - The nearest airports are in Hokitika (just over an hour away) and Westport (just under an hour). Air New Zealand flies into Hokitika from Christchurch and Sounds Air flies from Wellington to Westport.
Travelling by Train to Punakaiki & Paparoa - The TranzAlpine runs between Christchurch and Greymouth, and from here to Punakaiki is about 40 minutes.
From Christchurch to Punakaiki & Paparoa by road. All up, it’s only 290 km / 180 miles between Christchurch and Paparoa, but whichever direction you’re travelling we always take our time and make a day of it. There are so many spots to stop along the ‘Great Alpine Highway’ and in Arthur’s Pass too, you won’t want to rush this one. There are some fairly narrow and windy bits on the road too, if you’ve just arrived in the country take it easy or even better, get someone else to do the driving for you!
From Glacier Country to Punakaiki & Paparoa - Just follow your nose north, there’s only one road so you can’t go wrong. It works out at 220 km / 140 miles but we reckon there’s a good half day in this. Make the trip to Okarito and spend a few hours in Hokitika, classic Kiwi spots and the ‘Coast’ locals will be chuffed to see you! Look out for the whitebait stalls on the road during the season.
From Nelson / Abel Tasman to Punakaiki - Good old Google says it take just under 4 hours to cover the 283 km / 175 miles (it’s a little less from Abel Tasman than this), but we reckon we know the country better than them so would tell you to take the whole day to do this and make plenty of stops along the way.
Getting into Paparoa National Park
Paparoa is wonderfully isolated from all sides which is why it’s so unspoiled. State Highway 6 runs along the coast and western side of the park, Punakaiki is where the National Park visitor centre is and starting point for the best known walks in Paparoa. About 45 minutes north of Punakaiki is the little township of Charleston, another smaller entry into the park, and where our good mates from Underworld Adventures live!
Weather in Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park
You’re right on the coast here staring out at the Tasman sea, which means year round sunshine and tropical temperatures! Well that’s what every local we ask tells us, and you would ever doubt a ‘Coaster’?. Funny thing about the coast is that it’s often doing the exact opposite to everywhere else and there’s often wall to wall sunshine in winter when the rest of us are getting rained on. Of course it can rain here too, so keep an eye on the weather or ask your guide for the latest.
Paparoa National Park Temperature:
• Summer, December - February. High:77F, 25C Low: 54F, 12C.
• Autumn / Fall, March - May. High: 63F, 17C Low: 48F, 9C.
• Winter, June - August. High:.59F, 15C Low: 41F, 5C.
• Spring, September - November. High: 63F, 17C Low: 48F, 9C.
Something you didn’t know about Paparoa National Park
It’s the most southern point you can see the Nikau Palm, New Zealand’s only native palm tree. The Pancake Rocks are actually made up of fragments of dead marine creatures like fish skeletons and shells. I was really struggling to find something else to write here, any help welcome!
Kiwi Tip for Paparoa National Park
See above, visit the Pancake Rocks in the evening to avoid the crowds.
Visiting Paparoa National Park with MoaTrek
Our stop in Paparoa is the very last night of our trip, so it’s a really special (and slightly sad) time! We take our time coming up the coast from Franz Josef, stopping off in Hokitika on the way, before getting into our beachfront accommodation mid afternoon. There’s plenty of time to visit the Pancake Rocks and some of the short walks in the area too. Your Kiwi guide will play host tonight, and break out the bubbles for a final cheer and campfire on the beach to watch your last MoaTrek sunset with all your new friends.
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