Haast to Hokitika - Rain Forests & Glaciers

The lower half of the West Coast, South Island, is an exciting drive through glacier country, rain forest, plus the arts & crafts of Hokitika and more..

The sense of an untamed region dominated by majestic mountains, rugged coastline,
pristine lakes and a magnificent rain forest has caused the West Coast to be named by the Lonely Planet as one of the great road trips in the world. A six hundred kilometre trip from Haast to Karamea this is about the southern half from Haast to Hokitika.

Heading north out of the World Heritage region of Haast and up the West Coast on Route Six you cross the Haast River on New Zealand’s longest single lane bridge turning inland through swamp and rain forest with glimpses of the Tasman Sea along the way. Sixteen kilometres along at the Waitai River there is a large parking area as well as parking along Ship Creek. At this point the road starts up a hill where you can get your first real outlook of the coastline. There are good pullover spots for photos. Another ten kilometres is Knights Point Lookout and the first place to really stop and enjoy the wild coast of this region. Plenty of room to park with a viewing platform and toilets. Commercial in appearance but still allows one to enjoy a spectacular view.

From this point the road heads inland into the lake country. Five kilometres along is Lake Moeraki. Several good pull off locations to stop and enjoy the view. Good pull offs also after Boulder Creek and Cedar Creek. Eighteen kilometres along is a place to stay at the DoC Camp on Lake Paringa. A beautiful lake where if you get a chance to cast a line for trout do so. Mt. Kinnaird at 1227 metres overlooks the area. Another ten kilometers you will find a salmon farm located at the edge of the Paringa River. You might want to stop and have a look at the gigantic salmon swimming in the round pools overlooked from the café or even buy some salmon for your trip.

Continuing along there is a stopping spot at Doughboy Creek and a picnic spot on the Mahitahi River. From this inland route you now head back fourteen kms toward the ocean arriving at Bruce Bay and a great pull off area along the ocean. I remember my first experience with sand flies here in ’89. If you trod the beach be sure you have repellant. That’s true for the entire West Coast actually. You wonder why these fabulous beaches aren’t covered with housing?

On through Jacobs River there is a place to park or picnic and also across the Karangarua River twenty-one kms from Bruce Bay. Here is one of the most well known DoC tracks, Copland Track. Take the short road to the right and have a read about the place. If you are into tramping check this out before you get here to make arrangements with DoC. There is a toilet on site.

From here you enter flat farm land for the next twenty-seven kms to Fox Glacier. A gravel road to the right takes you to the Fox Glacier parking area where a very short walk gains you access to the glacier for a closeup look. The town of Fox Glacier is just a short distance along the road north. Good coffee and food served at the Plateau Café & Bar in town. The best place on the coast to see the Southern Alps is down the Cooks Flat Road out of Fox Glacier that ends up at Gillespies Beach. At the end of the hardtop road, before the gravel begins, there is a stopping spot (Peak View) with the best view weather permitting. Lake Matheson nearby is also a quality place not to miss. If the weather is right do the walk around the lake. Worth the time and a very easy walk. Take a photo at the “View of Views” and see if you can match the one in all post cards of the area.

After the exploration of this area head north for twenty-three kms to the town of Franz Josef Glacier. Before entering the main part of town to the right is a road, just over the river bridge, that will take you to the foot of Franz Josef Glacier. This is a must. How many times in your life do you get to be that close to a glacier? You may want to take advantage of the many activities in the area such as a walk on the glacier, etc. Driving north from here you will encounter sixteen kms of steep winding road. Be sure to check your vehicle’s water before going on this part of the trip. Spectacular views from the heights, though, of the Waiho River and the many mountain peaks inland. Several good pull offs for photos and viewing.

You will cross a lot of small creeks with interesting names of the early miners such as Kiwi Jack and Smithy’s Creek. You wonder how the names came to be. The Westland National Park lies between the road and the ocean in this area. Lake Mapourika is on the left with a couple of great spots to park. Toilets available here and picnic tables. North end of lake is a giant parking area. Worth going out of Franz Josef this short distance to stop for the evening. You also will pass Lake Wahapo with a place to pull off. For the bird lover’s the lagoon at Okarito is home to thousands of native birds with over 76 species recorded with even a small brown kiwi hanging out in the nearby rain forest.

From Franz Josef it is thirty kms to Hokitika. Ten kms and the road levels out where you will be driving in a vast valley of farm land still going inland. Twelve kms you come to the small community of Whataroa. There you will find one of the most amazing Maori carvers and a small museum of Maori artifacts. It is hard to believe in this far out place in the middle of nowhere the quality you will discover. Don’t miss this one - the Kotuku Gallery and if you are lucky you may get to meet the carver and storyteller himself, Karamea. Five more kms on the Whataroa River on the right you will find another local has created an interesting place known as the Tourist Recreation Area.

Now it’s a climb up Mt. Hercules providing a view over the land to the sea on the left with the Southern Alps still dominating the inland area. After the climb there is a fourteen km drive that eases off to return to an easy flat valley between mountains and the town of Harihari. A very large Wapiti (elk) herd just before entering the town. There is a long one way bridge after Harihari and an eighteen km drive to Lake Ianthe. A thousand year old giant matai tree is conspicuous on the right just before the lake. You are now in the middle of the rain forest as never before. The canopy closes in around you.

What an area, the West Coast, where rain forest, glaciers and the ocean come together unlike any other place in the world. There is a good stop at Lake Ianthe and they provide a toilet. Six more kilometres and you will encounter one of the most fascinating stops in New Zealand. A town of two people, Pukekura, where Possum Pete and partner, Justine, winners of the Monteith’s Wild Food Challenge, offers great hospitality at the sawdust floor bar, restaurant, café and provide a true West Coast museum with the live animals and a film on the early deer hunting days. This is a must stop. They also provide hookups and a few accommodations along with hot rock pools open to the sky. We never pass this by without stopping.

Eighteen more kms through the bush and you are back along the ocean for a brief moment then on to the gold town of Ross. Stop and have a look at what they have provided for those interested in the early gold mining days. Grab some of the delicious local West Coast honey from the Waitani Apiaries in the centre of the town.

Finally 20 kilometres on we come back to the ocean after Ruatapu. You can see the dominate wind force by the tortured trees and bush along the ocean. One of the best DoC camps is on the right, Lake Mahinapua, with plenty of space. Not too far now to Hokitika one of our favourite towns on the West Coast for artists and craftsmen. Parking provided by the ocean right in town. Good cafes such as the Cafe de Paris and the Tin Shed and top shops for jade plus other fine works of talented craftsmen. The Shining Star Motor Camp on the north edge of town is our choice to stay. Out of town 6 kms north is one of the handiest dump spots on the left. By the way for the camoer vanner there are over 25 dump stations on the West Coast. You can pick up a list from the West Coast Regional Council.

What an area, the lower West Coast, where rain forest, glaciers and the rugged coastline come together unlike any other place in the world. Travel one of the world’s finest places to experience while on the road from Haast to Hokitika.