Covering epic New Zealand highlights, this 1-week West Coast New Zealand road trip itinerary combines stunning landscapes and cultural gems. Starting at the golden sand beaches of Abel Tasman, followed by impressive glaciers and dense native forests, this South Island road trip finishes in the breath-taking fiords of Milford Sound.
Why visit the West Coast of New Zealand
Locked between the fierce Tasman Sea on one side and the dramatic Southern Alps on the other, the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island really is a unique place on earth. You only have to drive a few hours a day to suddenly find yourself in a completely different scenery. Especially if you’re tight on time, driving the West Coast route allows you to see the most epic New Zealand gems.
New Zealand West Coast Highlights
When people refer to the West Coast, they mean a specific region along the coastline in the West of the South Island. This West Coast New Zealand itinerary however, covers pretty much the entire western coastline of the South Island. Starting at the northern tip to the furthest southern point you can reach by car.
This 1-week South Island itinerary covers the following West Coast highlights. Depending on your starting point, most likely Wellington or Christchurch, you may want to add 1 or 2 days to reach the first stop in this itinerary.
Day 1: Abel Tasman National Park (sleep in Motueka)
Day 2: Paparoa National Park (Motueka > Greymouth 309 kilometres)
Day 3: Franz Josef Glacier + Fox Glacier (Greymouth > Haast 322 kilometres)
Day 4: Mount Aspiring National Park (Haast > Wanaka 143 kilometres)
Day 5: Wanaka and Arrowtown (Wanaka > Queenstown 117 kilometres)
Day 6: Queenstown (no driving)
Day 7: Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound (Queenstown > Milford Sound > Queenstown 576 kilometres by coach)
Self-Drive New Zealand West Coast itinerary: from Abel Tasman to Milford Sound
Before we start, here’s some practical information to help plan your 7-day South Island road trip. We drove a rental sedan car and booked accommodations with fully equipped kitchens. This allowed us to pack our own lunch and make our own dinner. Considering we were out from early morning till evening on most days, this was ideal for us.
Relaxing on holiday is so overrated.
For fresh supplies, we stopped at local supermarkets every two or three days. Our freezer bag kept our groceries chilled whilst being on the road.
Day 1: Abel Tasman National Park
Named after the Dutch explorer who discovered the area in 1642, Abel Tasman National Park is a true slice of paradise. Located in the Golden Bay region, it’s home to glorious golden sand beaches and the clearest blue water I’ve ever seen.
The number of activities here are endless, with kayaking and hiking being the most popular ones. The Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of the most epic and easiest New Zealand hikes. It’s possible to walk the entire 60km-long track in 3 to 5 days.
However, if you’re not an avid hiker, you may opt for the one day round trip like we did. Combining a scenic boat ride and half a day walk, this allows you to enjoy the highlights of New Zealand’s smallest national park. Alternatively, go on a more intimate guided sailing trip or take full control and hire a kayak for the day.
Accommodation near Abel Tasman National Park
We stayed at the Motueka Terraced Chalets in Motueka which is about a 10-minute drive from Marahau. I highly recommend these comfortable and spacious chalets. Located in a serene environment, all chalets offer free Wi-Fi and parking.
Day 2: Paparoa National Park
Most people take a shortcut from Abel Tasman National Park straight to Greymouth to visit New Zealand’s most famous glaciers. Of course, we did things slightly different. Instead, we made a slight detour to stop at Paparoa National Park. I’m so glad we did, as it’s home to some of the most spectacular and quirky landscapes I’ve ever seen.
Taking only 30 minutes, the Truman Track is one of the shortest tracks in New Zealand we’ve done. And yet, its alien-like landscape proves that you certainly don’t have to hike for hours to find extraordinary sights.
Walking through a subtropical forest from the car park, you’ll soon see the staircase that leads you down to the beach. Here you’ll find a waterfall plummeting down the breath-taking limestone cliffs. During low tide you can walk across the beach and access the caverns and see the blowhole.
Do take notice of the slippery stones on the beach though. I ignored the warnings and slipped, ripping my brand-new cool leggings and grazing my knee. 1.5 years later the large scar still frequently reminds me of the unforgettable views … and the painful fall.
Pororari River Track
From the Truman Track car park it’s only a 2-minute drive to the Pororari River Track. This 7km track is a 1.5hr loop along the Pororari River through a spectacular limestone gorge. We visited on a rainy day which actually provided a fantastic dramatic atmosphere as you can see in the photo.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk
Following State Highway 6 one minute south from the Pororari River Track, you’ll arrive at the highlight of the Paparoa National Park. Resembling stacks of pancakes, the quirky 30-million-year-old Punakaiki Pancake Rocks are the most unusual rock formations I’ve ever come across.
The entrance to this easy 1.1km loop is located across the road from the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre. Walking through the verdant forest, you’ll reach the dramatic coastline where you can enjoy a close-up look at the quirky limestone formation and spectacular blowholes.
Walking in the opposite direction along the road from the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre, you’ll find the Punakaiki Cavern. Climbing through narrow passages, you can explore 130 metres of this mysterious cavern. It’s recommended to bring a torch as the cave isn’t lit. We didn’t last here very long as we’re clearly not that adventurous but apparently you can see glow worms here.
Accommodation in Greymouth
On day 2 of our 1-week West Coast itinerary we stayed the night at Apostles View Motel in Greymouth. This lovely motel hasfree parking, Wi-Fi and laundry facilities.
Day 3: Franz Josef Glacier + Fox Glacier
Having only left the tropical beaches of Abel Tasman two days ago, we’ve now arrived in the heart of the dramatic Southern Alps. Home to New Zealand’s tallest mountains, there are over 3,000 glaciers here! Located at only 28 kilometres from one another, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are New Zealand’s most famous glaciers.
On day three of our 1-week West Coast itinerary we stopped at both glaciers in one day. But since there’s in essence not much difference between them, you may choose to visit only one. This allows you to spend more time exploring either Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier. You could even go for a scenic helicopter flight, which you could combine with a glacier hike!
Activities near Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
- Spectacular Franz Josef and Fox Glacier combi helicopter flight and snow landing
- 2-hour guided walk to the Franz Josef Glacier lookout
- Skydive over Franz Josef Glacier
- Fox Glacier: half day walking and nature tour with a local guide
Walks near Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
After an early morning start, we drove 181 kilometres from Greymouth to Franz Josef Glacier. Being such a popular New Zealand attraction, we were aiming to get here before 10am to avoid the crowds.
Looking over the valley towards Franz Josef Glacier it was quite shocking to see how much the ice has retreated over the last century.
From the car park it’s only a 1.5hr walk to the base of Franz Josef Glacier. However, I had planned on walking up to the Fox Glacier terminal face later in the day instead. As you can read below, that didn’t go as planned. In hindsight I obviously regret not having walked up to the Franz Josef Glacier base. Especially since the weather conditions aren’t always as perfect as the day we were there.
From Franz Josef Glacier it only takes you approximately 30 minutes to reach Fox Glacier. From here I wanted to do the 1-hour Fox Glacier Valley Walk as it was supposed to offer great views of the glacier. Unfortunately, the access road was washed away by a slip, making it impossible to walk near the glacier.
Alternatively, we did the 20-minute River Walk Lookout Track. Through the dense forest vegetation you can see Fox Glacier in the distance, but the lookout point wasn’t as awe-inspiring as I hoped for.
Slightly disappointed in myself for skipping the Franz Josef Glacier walk earlier in the day, we drove up to the Peak Viewpoint. From here you can enjoy quite dramatic views of Fox Glaciers and the surrounding Southern Alps mountain range.
After our stop at the Peak Viewpoint we went straight to our accommodation in Haast. But if you want, you could add another stop at the iconic Lake Matheson which is only a 6-kilometre drive from Fox Glacier. On a clear day you can see the beautiful mirror-like reflection of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, in the lake.
Accommodation in Haast
After visiting Fox Glacier, we drove 120 kilometres to our accommodation in the Haast River Motels & Holiday Park. Located right on State Highway 6, the apartments on this large yet quiet holiday park were basic but comfortable.
Day 4: Driving over Haast Pass in Mount Aspiring National Park
The drive on day 4 of this New Zealand West Coast itinerary is far shorter than the previous days. But, located in the Mount Aspiring National Park, the Haast Pass (official name: State Highway 6) is one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. And being a World Heritage Area, you’ll be making lots of stops to explore the multitude of natural highlights in Mount Aspiring National Park.
Besides the untouched native forest, it’s also home to numerous waterfalls, spectacular river crossings, ancient glaciers and endless lakes. Here are some of my personal West Coast highlights we stopped at between Haast and Wanaka.
Waterfalls in Mount Aspiring National Park
It’s amazing how accessible some of the most exquisite sights are in the middle of the wilderness of Mount Aspiring National Park. After only a short walk from the car park, you can catch amazing views of roaring waterfalls.
Following State Highway 6, we first stopped at the 30-metre-tall waterfall Roaring Billy Waterfalls. Barely twenty minutes later we found ourselves at the spectacular 96-metre waterfall Thunder Creek Falls. And from there it was only a 5-minute drive to Fantail Falls, our third and final waterfall for the day.
Blue Pools Track
Taking only 30 minutes, the Blue Pools Track is a very beautiful stop on the Haast Pass. From the suspension bridge you can see the clear turquoise glacial water rushing along beneath your feet.
Lake Wanaka and Lake Hāwea lookout points
The stunning lakes of Mount Aspiring National Park with its cloud-piercing mountains in the background are truly breath-taking. Not surprisingly, several scenes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy have been filmed in this area.
Still following State Highway 6 from Haast towards the next big town, Wanaka, you’ll first pass Lake Wanaka followed shortly by Lake Hāwea. Based on their sheer size, both magnificent lakes are in the top 10 of largest lakes in New Zealand. You’ll find various roadside lookouts en route, ensuring you can enjoy the views safely.
From Lake Hawea it’s only 17 kilometres to Wanaka, the final stop on day 4 of this 1-week West Coast itinerary.
Accommodation in Wanaka
We stayed the night in the wonderful West Meadows of Wanaka, a motel slightly outside of the city centre. The apartment was incredibly comfortable and spacious, making me wish to stay longer.
Day 5: Wanaka + Arrowtown
Taking it a bit easier today, we started with a leisurely walk into Wanaka town centre. Having only spent a few hours there, Wanaka seems like a quiet and quaint lakeside town. Its boulevard is lined with cafés and small boutiques, souvenir shops and of course shops geared towards outdoor activities. Because, like just any other city or town along the Southern Alps, life here is mostly spent in the glorious outdoors.
Some of the activities in Wanaka include regular biking, heli biking, climbing, snowshoeing and hiking. Not seeking any thrills that day, we simply went for a stroll along Wanaka Lake. Here we admired a tree growing in the midst of the lake. Having its own hashtag on social media, #thatwanakatree might be the most famous tree in the world.
The Roy’s Peak Tracks, one of the most popular New Zealand one day hikes, lies just outside of Wanaka. This 16km loop involves a steep climb through alpine meadows and offers epic views of Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring.
Drive from Wanaka to Queenstown via Cromwell
After our serene stay in Wanaka we headed down to ‘party town’ Queenstown with a stop in the historic Arrowtown in between. You can choose between two routes to get from Wanaka to Queenstown. The first one takes 45 minutes and goes via Cadrona on the Crown Range Road.
Being New Zealand’s highest public road, this is supposed to be one of the most scenic New Zealand driving routes. However, it’s also one to be very cautious on as it has a steep descent and seven hairpin bends. We therefore chose the alternative route to Queenstown via the town of Cromwell. Also offering memorable views, this route brings you from Wanaka to Queenstown in 75 minutes.
Whichever route you choose to take, you’ll pass the amazing Kawarau Gorge either way. And I recommend to make a few stops along the gorge. Some notable views include the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge and Roaring Meg power station. Since the Kawarau River was a major site during the Otago Gold Rush, you could even make a stop to try your luck panning for gold at the Goldfields Mining Centre.
A visit to the historic town of Arrowtown gives you more insight in daily life during the Otago Gold Rush. Attracting notably Chinese immigrants, thousands of fortune seekers flocked to Arrowtown between the 1860s and 1900 panning for gold in the Arrow River.
Looking at the humble huts in the preserved Chinese settlement of Arrowtown, it’s clear that the migrants’ lives weren’t as shiny as the gold nuggets they uncovered.
Adding a cultural and historic context to the natural beauty of New Zealand, I really appreciated our visit to Arrowtown. Our cultural outing was completed by the visit to the Lakes District Museum which fascinating exhibits focus on local history. Being one of the most beautiful towns in New Zealand, its modern town centre with cute boutique shops and cosy cafés make Arrowtown truly worth visiting.
From Arrowtown it’s about 20 kilometres to Queenstown, our final stop for day 5 of this 1-week West Coast itinerary.
Accommodation in Queenstown
Our accommodation in Queenstown was truly horrendous and the worst place we stayed in during the entire trip. It was dirty, noisy and checking in at reception felt like a dodgy transaction. Although we were there in March, shoulder season, it was very difficult to find accommodation in Queenstown. This proves what a popular place it is! Please find your (hopefully) nice accommodation in Queenstown via this link.
Day 6: Queenstown
On the penultimate day of our West Coast road trip, we gave the car a break and stayed in Queenstown for the day. Like Wanaka, Queenstown is a picturesque lakeside town offering tons of outdoor activities. Overlooking Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s largest inland lake, and The Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown is literally surrounded by natural beauty.
Iconic hikes in the vicinity include, listed in order of intensity, the Queenstown Hill Loop, Tiki Trail and Ben Lomond Walkway.
Yet, Queenstown’s biggest draw is its adventure tourism. Queenstown is even considered the Adventure Capital of the World! Attracting three million thrill seekers a year, this is the ultimate place to go ziplining, bungy jumping, skydiving, jet boating and all other extreme activities you could imagine. And let’s not forget the infamous Queenstown activity, pubcrawling.
As you might have guessed by now, none of these activities are ‘our bag’. But what did make our hearts beat a bit faster was the shopping spree at the Alchemy pop-up shop. We weren’t familiar with this New Zealand outdoor clothing brand beforehand, but instantly fell in love with their gorgeous designs and clever materials. Their Queenstown has now closed but we had another shopping spree in their permanent shop in Dunedin the following year.
If you need to fuel up again after all your heartpumping adventures, be it bungy jumping or shopping, then you might want to join the queue for the uber popular Fergburger. Praised for selling the best hamburgers in Queenstown, this is a popular foodie destination. However, locals told me that Devils Burgers serves equally good hamburgers in Queenstown. But fairly unknown amongst tourists, there are none of the long lines.
Day 7: Fiordland National Park: Milford Sound
I’ve already shown you some unique and astonishing sights. However, I’ve saved the very best for last. That’s why we’re finishing our South Island itinerary with an unforgettable tour in the mesmerising fiords of Milford Sound.
It is possible to reach Milford Sound with your own transport. However, since it’s a rather long drive, we decided to book a combi ticket for a coach ride + boat trip. After our 5.30am pick-up, it was joy to just sit back and enjoy the glorious views in our comfortable coach that was fitted with a glass roof.
The knowledgeable guide stopped at all famous sights along the way, allowing us to do some essential touristy sightseeing. Some of the stops we made on the Milford Road included the iconic Mirror Lakes, Lake Gunn and The Chasm Walk.
Known as one of the most scenic and untouched places in New Zealand, the fiords of Milford Sound are truly stunning. Leaving civilisation behind you and going deeper into the sounds, feels like entering a fairy tale world. It was my first time visiting fiords and seeing the mountain peaks appear in front of me envelope in the early morning sun, was just mind-blowing.
Being one of the wettest areas in the world, we were so lucky with the glorious weather on our Milford Sound cruise! The sunny weather meant we also got to enjoy rainbows appear on the waterfalls, giving them an extra magical look.
Besides glorious mountains and waterfalls, Milford Sound is also home to abundant wildlife. There’s a good chance you’ll see fur seals and dolphins. But also rare penguin species and the cheeky kea birds roam this beautiful part of New Zealand.
Finish your West Coast New Zealand road trip
The day trip to Milford Sound is a perfect ending to your epic West Coast road trip. After your return to Queenstown you may drive or even fly back home or to your next international destination.
However, if you have more time, you may want to continue your South Island road trip from Queenstown. You could explore the other side of the Southern Alps for example and visit Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain.
Or, traverse the south of New Zealand and make your way to Dunedin. This former Scottish settlement is home to beautiful heritage architecture but also modern street art. And let’s not forget its unique wildlife on Otago Peninsula.
Whatever you chose to do, I’m sure you’ll have an unforgettable time!