This fascinating national park, towards the northern end of the South Island's west coast, runs all the way inland from the ocean to the rugged ice-carved Paparoa Mountain Range.
In the interests of science, the boundaries of the park were carefully established to encompass a complete range of landscapes and ecosystems - from the granite and gneiss summits of the Paparoa Range down to the layered rock formations of Punakaiki.
Limestone underlies most of the park, and is responsible for the area's impressive landforms. Sculptured mountain ridges, mysterious river canyons, delicate cave decorations and the bizarre, pancake-like coastal formations will keep your camera busy. Maori travellers knew Punakaiki as a place for feasting (Punakaiki means 'a spring of food').
The park is the overlapping point between subtropical and cool climate trees. Nikau palms, northern rata and cabbage trees give the lowland rainforest a lush, Pacific feeling. Further up, silver beech forest merges with sub alpine shrubs. Higher still, daisies and gentians provide colour among the alpine tussocks. Some plants are unique to the area, suggesting that it was a botanic refuge during the ice ages.
Birdlife is prolific in the Paparoa National Park. The endemic Westland Black Petrel breeds only on the Punakaiki coast, and the Great Spotted Kiwi combs the forest by night.
The seaside village of Punakaiki offers a choice of accommodation styles - from bed and breakfast to luxury seaview villas. There are no Department of Conservation hikers' huts in the park. Hikers walking the Inland Pack Track can park their tents at the Ballroom Overhang campsite.
The historic towns of Westport to the north and Greymouth to the south are within easy driving distance of the park. Both provide a full range of accommodation.
Blowholes, rocks and caves
The short track to the blowholes at Punakaiki is one of New Zealand's most travelled trails, with good reason. When high tides coincide with westerly swells, seawater geysers shoot for the sky. Behind Punakaiki there are accessible limestone caves - you'll need a torch. Local caving companies can help you to explore the deeper cave systems in the park, including the five kilometre Xanadu cave.
Kayaking on the Pororari River is a peaceful way to soak up the ambience of the park. Highlights include a dramatic limestone gorge and bird spotting in the rainforest.
The park's shorter walks include the Truman Track (30 minutes return) and the Pororari River Track (3 hours return) and the Fox River Caves Track (3 hours return). You'll need a tent to complete the two-day Inland Pack Track - there's a campsite, but no huts. The newest great walk of New Zealand, Paparoa track also opened in 2020 and is a 2-3 day hiking and mountain biking track.
The inner beauty of Paparoa National Park can be enjoyed through caving experiences – some are suitable for beginners, others are only for experienced cavers. The Punakaiki Cavern is just off the coastal highway and all you need is a torch and good footwear.
Further north, a 1.5 hour return walk includes the popular Fox River Caves. Other cave systems within the park, like the Metro/Te Ananui, require special entry permits and are accessible only to guided parties – contact the park visitor centre(opens in new window).
- Avoid touching the notorious native tree nettle (ongaonga), which looks as nasty as its name
- Stay on the walking paths - there are dangerous sink holes in the undergrowth.
- While the area is famous for its high rainfall, the climate is temperate and in winter snow never reaches the lower portions of the park.
- Horse riding on the beach is an excellent way to see the extraordinary Pancake Rocks.
- Watch the ocean closely when you're at Punakaiki - you might see a pod of Hector's dolphins.
- Conditions, facilities and services change - always check the latest information at the nearest DOC visitor centre before you venture out.