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All about Westland Tai Poutini National Park
New Zealand’s own ‘Glacier National Park’, tucked behind Mt Cook, this little Kiwi ’gold nugget’ has got it all. The highest peaks in the Southern Alps, World Heritage Glaciers, ancient rainforest, precious stones washing up on beaches and in rivers, long deserted coastlines and teardrop lakes and lagoons filed with rare wildlife. When we’re showing overseas mates around, we always tell them they have to make it down ‘the Coast’ and stop for a day in Westland to hike on the glaciers, kayak, get out on the windswept beaches and share a whitebait fritter with some crazy Coaster!
Funny thing is, a lot of Kiwis outside of the Coast probably don’t even realise there’s a national park here, but we know and here’s our handy guide to Westland Tai Poutini National Park. How to get there, what to do, our favourite spots and a few local tips.
Our favourite things to do in Westland National Park
Of course we love exploring the glaciers, but we like to combine it with our favourite little spot, Okarito, to make the day even better: Start the day with a helicopter flight up to Franz Josef glacier, follow your guide for a hike out on the ice then grab some lunch back in town. After lunch, we head off to Okarito lagoon for either a wildlife cruise or an easy kayak through the White Heron breeding ground. To top if off, a short but brisk climb to the Okairto Trig for stunning views of everywhere we’ve been today, and the entire West Coast and Southern Alps! If you get back in the village before about 5pm our mates Baz and Gemma will even make you a coffee! Hop in a private pool in the Glacier Hot pools that night to cap off one of your best days in New Zealand.
Other favourites Westland activities
Short Walks around Fox Glacier:
The terminal face walk to Fox links with the new Te Weheka Walkway meaning you can walk all the way from Fox township out to the glacier now, through the rainforest before reaching the glacier moraine. The Lake Matheson loop track is one of our favourite’s too, this is where you’ll get your own version of the famous Mt Cook reflection photograph.
Short Walks around Franz Josef:
Our friends at DOC have been doing lots of great work lately, and the track through from Franz Josef Village right through to the Glacier is a new edition and makes for a great day’s walk through the rainforest all the way to the main glacial valley and back again.
Heli Hikes and Snow Landings:
Nowadays the only way to get out on either Fox or Franz Josef glaciers is to fly by helicopter. The terminal faces of both glaciers have melted so much in recent years that it’s not safe to walk on them from the lower valleys, so the only access is by air. You can choose a short snow landing, a half day heli hike with a guide or challenge yourself with some ice climbing.
Something you can’t do anywhere else but Westland
Walk on a glacier, in a rainforest and on a beach, all in the same day. In fact, if you try hard enough you can knock this off by lunchtime around here!
Kiwi Favourites in Westland Tai Poutini
This is the heart of New Zealand’s Glacier Country, but you probably have figured that out already. So, for our favourite little spot in Westland, we’re going to tell you to get a little off the beaten track and head to the tiny settlement of Okarito. The beach, the lagoon and a cool little hike called the Okarito Trig, all in a sweet little spot off the main road that big tour groups and people in a hurry don’t get to. Keep it a secret though!
Our other Westland Favourites
The drawcards around here are Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier and Lake Matheson and we always make sure we drop in to all three on our trips up the coast - but we also love little off the beaten spots like Okarito and Gillespies Beach.
How to fit Westland National Park into your Kiwi holiday
Find Westland on a map and you’ll see realize quickly that it’s smack bang in the middle of the West Coast, quite a way from the either Arthur’s or the Haast Passes, the nearest routes over the alps. It looks really close to Mt Cook village, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you might think you can sneak over that way, but sorry, no road. So that means a West Coast Road Trip, which is really cool because nowhere says New Zealand like the West Coast of the South Island.
Suggested West Coast Itinerary
We always travel from Wanaka through to Franz Josef Glacier, and spend a night or two here in glacier country to check out Okarito, both the glaciers and favourites like Lake Matheson before continuing north. It’s a nice easy day trip from Wanaka to Westland, and from here you can continue on to Punakaiki, before heading over Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch or up to Nelson & Abel Tasman National Park.How to get to Westland National Park
State Highway 6 is the main road up and down the entire west coast and runs right through the park, you’ll see the Green and Yellow DOC signs everywhere. The national park visitor centre is in Franz Josef township and all the best spots are easily accessible from the main road. You’ll need your own vehicle or to be on a tour though, there’s very little public transport and shuttle services to the more off the beaten track spots (which are the best ones of course!)
Flying to Westland - Hokitika is the nearest airport, the 140 km (90 mile) drive will take at least 2 hours (take your time, you’re on the Coast now). The only flights to Hokitika are from Christchurch, so you’ll need to fly there first and change planes for the quick hop over the alps.
By Train - There are no railway lines down the coast, but the TranzAlpine runs from Christchurch to Greymouth and you can travel by road from there. The TranzAlpine leaves Christchurch every morning at 08.15 am and gets into Greymouth at 12.45 pm. Allow 2 to 2.5 hours for the 180km (110 miles), make sure you stop in Hokitika on the way!
From Christchurch to Westland: A long trip for a single day and not one that we like to make, if you’re coming to see the country then take your time over the pass and down the coast, there’s so much to see and do. All up, 385 km (240 miles) from Christchurch to the Westland National Park Visitor Centre in Franz Josef. We always break up our journey by staying in Punakaiki, adding Paparoa and Arthur’s Pass National Parks to your list before the World Heritage Area in Westland.
From Queenstown to Westland National Park: A lot of guidebooks will suggest this itinerary, but for us this is just a bit long for a single day’s travel, especially if it means missing out on staying in Wanaka. The 350 km (220 miles) will take 5 hours, with minimal stops only. If this is your one and (maybe only) trip to New Zealand then we reckon you should take your time and enjoy it, it’s pretty amazing country!
From Wanaka to Franz Josef: This is what we like to do, head up the coast from Wanaka, rather than Queenstown, giving us much more time to travel safely and really enjoy the ‘Heritage Highway’. We always take our time to cover the 290 km (180 miles), everyone always tells us they love all the photo stops and short walks on the way.
From Abel Tasman / Nelson to Westland: If we were showing mates around NZ and this was on our route, we’d travel from Nelson to Punakaiki, spend a night or two there, before heading down to Glacier Country. Technically you could do it in one day, but you’d miss so much of the countryside so what’s the point? The distance is 480 kilometers (300 miles), don’t even think about it!Weather in Westland National Park
Mountains and glaciers just minutes from the ocean, lush rainforest, the exposed West Coast of the South Island that led to the demise of many early of the early ships, this is the ‘wild side’ of New Zealand and every now and then the weather reminds us that we can’t have all these stunning landscapes without tipping our hats to the powers of nature that created it. Coming down the coast is all about getting outside, so get some expert advice from a local or your guide, sometimes the little microclimates around here can behave really randomly, meaning sunshine in one spot just minutes from another that’s raining. Local knowledge rules on the Coast!
Westland National Park Average Temperature:
• Summer, December - February. High: 75F, 24C. Low:.53F, 12C
• Autumn / Fall, March - May. High:.73F, 23C Low: 32F, 0C
• Winter, June - August. High:.53F, 12C Low: 35F, 2C
• Spring, September - November. High: 68F, 20C Low: 32F, 0C
Westland is famous for its changeable weather - always be prepared!
Average of rainfall days:
The highest rainfalls months: October, December, June with an average of 169 to 219 mm.
The lowest rainfalls months: February, July with an average of 106-188 mm
Something you didn’t know about Westland
Gold used to wash up on the black sand beaches in places like Okarito and Gillespies Beach - further fuelling the 1860s Gold Rush. The rarest of New Zealand’s five species of Kiwi, the Rowi (or Okarito Brown Kiwi) breeds here in the forest just on the northern end of Okarito lagoon.
Kiwi Tip for Westland National Park
If you’re heading up either Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers, check with the visitor centre the day before about the status of the track. If there’s been rough weather tracks are sometimes closed until DOC wardens can get up there themselves and check everything is safe for us. If you’re there in summertime, go as early as you can - the weather is often best in the morning and these tracks can get quite busy. Rainy day options - the Alpine Cinema, Glacier Hot Pools and Wildlife Centre - all in Franz Josef township.
Westland National Park with MoaTrek
Like so many Kiwis, we’ve got great memories of family holidays on ‘the Coast’ and we just love showing people all these awesome little spots like Okarito and Ship Creek. Coming through from Wanaka means we won’t miss a thing on the way, or once we’re there. Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, Lake Matheson and our favourite Okarito, we reckon if you could bottle New Zealand this would be it right here and everyone on our tours says the same thing!
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