My West Coast of New Zealand Road trip is one of my favourite memories from my time in this great country.

The West Coast does have a reputation as being wet, very wet, and it certainly was.

However, that doesn’t detract from it being one of my favourite trips during my New Zealand Working Holiday visa!

There are so many things to do on the West Coast of New Zealand. You can go ziplining at Buller Gorge, white water rafting, hiking and skiing if you travel during the winter.

If you’re travelling to New Zealand, you absolutely have to do a road trip here, otherwise, you’re missing out big-time!

There are many road trips in New Zealand that you can do, but I recommend this one highly.

The West Coast is a diverse part of New Zealand and you will see many different sides to it as you travel up or down.

This was one of the fun parts of the trip in actual fact, as it showcased a lot of the reasons to visit New Zealand!

West Coast of New Zealand Road Trip

Quick West Coast of New Zealand Drive itinerary
Distance – 1,084 km (673.5 miles)
Time – 7 to 9 days
Day 1 – Nelson, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman 65.3 km (40.5 mi)
Day 2 – Abel Tasman to Westport 240 km (149.1 mi)
Day 3 – Westport to Greymouth 101 km (62.7 mi)
Day 4 – Greymouth to Franz Josef 173 km (107.4 mi)
Day 5 – Franz Josef to Wanaka 286 km (177.7 mi)
Day 6 – Wanaka to Queenstown 67.2 km (41.7 mi)
Day 7 – Queenstown to Milford Sound 287 km (178.3 mi)

General info

The distance between Nelson and Milford Sound is 1,084 km (673.5 mi). These two places represent the start and end of the trip. You can start the trip from Queenstown and head to Milford Sound and then on to Wanaka if you wish.

It is a long road trip and one you can’t do in one go. It would more or less a whole day to do it!

There is a lot of beautiful scenery along the way. It’s better to take it slow and bask in the beauty of the South Island of New Zealand!

Before setting off

Before you do any road trip in New Zealand, it’s important to have everything you need! If something happens in a secluded part of the West Coast and you can’t fix it, you could be stuck a while. We had first-hand experience of this when travelling back to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass.

We came across a driver who had got a puncture from rockfall. As he didn’t know how to change a tyre, he was in quite the predicament until we turned up and helped him. This is just an example of what can happen if you’re not prepared!

Even though there are a lot of small towns across the West Coast, it’s best to have a few basic supplies with you at all times. Carrying food and water is essential in case of any worst-case scenario. The odds of you encountering trouble are quite small, but it can happen, so it pays to be prepared!

Check out my list of essential road trip items to see what you should be taking with you!

You can either rent a car or a campervan. If you’re planning on staying in hostels or camping, then a car is the best bet. Whereas, if you want to sleep in your vehicle then you should go with a campervan.

You can book these direct with companies such as Jucy and Wicked, but my advice would be to check deals online.

You can use a company such as Rental Cars.com to get a great deal. They compare prices from all the major rental providers to ensure you get a better deal. If you’re starting from Nelson, click here to book your rental car. If you want to start in Queenstown, click here to book your rental car.

 

Important info

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when driving around New Zealand is that they drive on the left. If you’re from a country that drives on the right, this is the most important thing you need to know!

Another important thing to consider is your driving licence, as you won’t get very far without one! If you have a valid English language licence then you can drive in New Zealand without too much trouble!

This is as long as you have no traffic infringements and you rent the vehicle less than 12 months before you entered New Zealand!

Things are little more complicated if you’re not from an English speaking country! You’ll need a valid translation to be able to drive in New Zealand.

Alternatively, you can use an international driving licence to convert to a New Zealand licence.

West Coast of New Zealand road trip

Why you should do a West Coast of New Zealand road trip

A West Coast of New Zealand road trip is one of the best things you can do in New Zealand. Despite being an underpopulated area of the South Island, it’s full of beauty. One of the things that make it one of the best road trips in New Zealand, is the diverse scenery.

As you travel up or down the coast, the scenery changes a lot. From the top of the West Coast, it’s almost tropical in nature, while the further south you go, you encounter glaciers and fjords. It’s quite the contrast!

A West Coast of New Zealand road trip takes in some of the best locations in the country, not just the South Island. Places like Milford Sound, Queenstown and Wanaka are vital stops on any New Zealand backpacking itinerary! Doing this road trip allows you to combine them all once, which makes for an even more memorable trip!

I’m of the belief that a road trip is the best way to see any country. New Zealand is no exception. If you don’t do a road trip here, then you’re missing out big-time. So much of the beauty of New Zealand is found by simply driving around.

Places to visit on a West Coast of New Zealand road trip

Franz Josef

View of Franz Josef glacier

Franz Josef is only a small town, but it is one you should stop at during this road trip! The primary attraction at Franz Josef is the glacier of the same name.

If you’ve never seen a glacier before it is quite the sight, as it meanders up the mountain!

You can choose to walk to the base of the glacier, go on a hiking tour, or even ride in a helicopter over it.

Although, the latter option is expensive. If you’re feeling really adventurous then you can also do a skydive in Franz Josef! There’s quite a bit to do in Franz Josef, despite its small size!

 

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Milford Sound is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand. Even though I didn’t visit during my West Coast of New Zealand road trip, I feel it should still be included.

It’s an amazing place, even when it’s pouring with rain and cloudy, as it was when I visited!

Perhaps the best way to see Milford Sound is to go on a boat tour. This way you get to travel around the sound and see it in all its glory. Even during a bad day, it was still incredible!

This is one of the wettest places in New Zealand, so the odds of seeing Milford Sound on a clear day are low. If you do, you’re very lucky indeed!

Nelson

Nelson is a city right at the top of the West Coast. This was one of my favourite cities I visited while travelling around the South Island. It actually reminded me of where I come from in England, Chester, due to architecture being quite similar!

Nelson is a great base to explore the Northern end of the West Coast. From here you can visit Abel Tasman National Park and Golden Bay.

These are some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and should not be missed on your West Coast of New Zealand road trip!

Queenstown

Mountains covered in snow above Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

If you’re backpacking New Zealand, then you absolutely have to visit Queenstown at some point! This was one of my favourite places in the country, so much that I went back four times!

There are so many things to do in Queenstown, that I simply can’t list them all here, though most of them involve a shot of adrenaline!

As well as all the adrenaline activities, Queenstown has some of the best scenery in New Zealand. The view across the lake is incredible and the view from the hills surrounding the town is magical as well.

If you visit during the winter, then you have to go skiing, as the slopes here are great!

 

Wanaka

Tree in the water at Lake Wanaka

Wanaka was somewhat of a mystery to me before I visited. I hadn’t really heard of it, nor did I know what there was to do there.

It was safe to say, that I was pleasantly surprised when we rolled into Wanaka during our West Coast of New Zealand road trip!

Wanaka is beautiful, it may just be the most beautiful town in the whole of New Zealand, which is some claim in itself! The views across the lake are amazing and the surrounding area is full of beauty.

If you visit during the winter you can also go skiing at Coronet Peak and see Wanaka’s beauty from up on high! It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in the South Island!

 

Example West Coast of New Zealand road trip itinerary

Perhaps the best place to start a West Coast of New Zealand road trip is Nelson. This way you can explore Golden Bay and Abel Tasman before heading south and exploring the rest of the West Coast.

This can involve a bit of a drive to get to Nelson. We had to drive from Christchurch, which took about 7 hours via Arthur’s Pass. It’s worth factoring this in if you have to drive to the West Coast, as it can take a while. Road trips in New Zealand can be surprisingly long!

Day 1: Nelson, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman

Distance: 65.3 km (40.5 mi) | Time without stops: 1 hour 2 minutes


Farewell Spit in Golden Bay

Depending on whether you’ve been in Nelson for a while or not, you can explore the city a little bit.

It’s an interesting city and quite nice, but I’d recommend heading off to Golden Bay and Abel Tasman. These places are amazing and full of natural beauty. You want to spend as much time as possible here to enjoy the scenery.

Farewell Spit is one of the best things to do in Golden Bay. It’s amazing walking along the spit, as all you can see is sand! It’s also the northernmost point of the South Island, which is a cool little fact!

If you have the time on this day, you can also visit Abel Tasman National Park, which is just as beautiful as Golden Bay!

There are lots of great walks to do here and amazing scenery to take in. If you’re an outdoors person, you’ll love it here!

 

Day 2: Abel Tasman to Westport

Distance: 240 km (149.1 mi) | Time without stops: 3 hours 28 minutes


Buller Gorge Swingbridge

The drive from Abel Tasman to Westport will bring you onto the West Coast. Abel Tasman is located a bit further inland.

This is a good drive and there’s one place that you should definitely stop at, which is Buller Gorge.

Buller Gorge has a number of activities that you can do here. The main one is a zipline across the gorge. This is a fun activity to do and breaks up the drive as well!

There are also some good walks around the area, which are a good alternative to the zipline if you don’t fancy it! You can also do rafting and jetboating in Buller Gorge if you fancy a bit more of an adrenaline shot!

Westport is probably the best spot to stop for the night. There’s not an awful lot to do here, as it’s quite a small town, but the hostels here are good.

You can take a trip to Cape Foulwind to see the seal colony there. However, as the name suggests, it can be a rough place weather-wise!

 

Day 3: Westport to Greymouth

Distance: 101 km (62.7 mi) | Time without stops: 1 hour 27 minutes


Pancake Rocks

This is one of the best parts of the West Coast of New Zealand road trip. There’s a number of activities you can do along the way, such as rafting.

We did white-water rafting on the Buller River near Westport with Wild Rivers Rafting. You have to drive a bit inland, but it’s definitely worth it.

The drive down to Greymouth is great as the scenery along the coast is beautiful. One place that you should definitely stop at is the Pancake Rocks or Punakaiki in Maori.

They’re called the pancake rocks because they resemble layers upon layers of pancakes stacked on top of each other.

I’ve never seen rocks like this before, so it’s definitely worth checking out before you arrive in Greymouth. It can get quite busy here, so be prepared for a fair few tourists!

 

Day 4: Greymouth to Franz Josef

Distance: 173 km (107.4 mi) | Time without stops: 2 hours 12 minutes


This is one of the longer parts of the trip, as the drive from Greymouth to Franz Josef is quite far. There’s not an awful lot to see along the way, but the scenery is still great.

Once you get to Franz Josef, the main thing to do is to visit the glacier there. It’s an amazing sight if it’s not too rainy and cloudy that is. But even if it is cloudy, it’s still great!

If it’s too crowded or the weather is rubbish, you can also head down to Fox Glacier, which isn’t too far from Franz Josef.

There are a few things you can do in Franz Josef, such as skydiving.

However, if you’ve already done a few activities on the way down, then it may be best not to bother! Other than that. there’s not much to do in Franz Josef, it’s quite small and all the places are geared around the glacier.

Day 5: Franz Josef to Wanaka

Distance: 286 km (177.7 mi) | Time without stops: 3 hours 47 minutes


View of Lake Wanaka

It’s a bit of a drive from Franz Josef to Wanaka, as you’re heading away from the coast and inland.

You’ll pass through some of the best scenery in New Zealand along the way which makes the trip more than worthwhile!

Wanaka is a small town, but that doesn’t mean there’s not much to do! It’s a picturesque place and the views across the lake are great!

A visit to the quirky Puzzle World on the outskirts of Wanaka is a must!

If you visit during the winter, then you also have the option of skiing at Coronet Peak.

There’s also quite a lively nightlife scene here as well, given the small size of the place! Wanaka is beautiful and it’s definitely a good idea to make the most of your time here!

 

Day 6: Wanaka to Queenstown

Distance: 67.2 km (41.7 mi) | Time without stops: 1 hour 9 minutes


The drive from Wanaka to Queenstown isn’t a long one, but it is a very scenic one.

This was perhaps the best part of the West Coast of New Zealand Road trip, as the road snakes through the mountains above Queenstown!

There’s ample opportunity to stop and take pictures of the incredible scenery! Once you arrive in Queenstown, you have essentially arrived in backpacker central. I don’t think there’d be anyone here if all the backpackers left!

There’s a lot of things to do here, as I’ve already mentioned. So, it’s worth deciding before you get here what you want to do!

The nightlife here is great as well, and you definitely shouldn’t miss out on it while you’re here!

Day 7: Queenstown to Milford Sound

Distance: 287 km (178.3 mi) | Time without stops: 3 hours 42 minutes


Milford Sound boat trip

It’s a bit of a drive to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

You have to take Highway 6, change to Highway 97 and then head to Te Anau, before heading onwards to Milford Sound.

It’s also best to book accommodation in Te Anau if you’re travelling by campervan. There’s not much accommodation at Milford Sound.

Milford Sound is one of, if not the, best place to visit in New Zealand.

It’s absolutely beautiful here, and the drive down to Milford Sound through Fiordland is just as good. The problem is the weather. As this is one of the wettest places in the world, the odds are it will be raining.

Even if it is raining, it’s still a great place to visit, you just won’t be able to see Milford Sound in all its glory.

You should definitely do a boat tour while you’re here, as you’ll get to appreciate the sound from up close!

 

How much does a West Coast of New Zealand road trip cost?

This road trip is definitely one of the best things to do in New Zealand, however, there is a caveat. It’s not going to be cheap! New Zealand can be an expensive country at times, and doing a road trip is no exception. Depending on the activities that you do, you could end up spending a lot of money!

If you decide to do a bungee jump, skydive and white-water rafting, you could be looking at an extra $200 on top of fuel, food and accommodation.

Obviously, you’re going to do some activities, it would be stupid not to. However, I advise picking one that you really want to do, and then decide if the others are value for money!

The bulk of your expenses will come from renting your vehicle, food and accommodation. You can combine two if you rent a campervan, but it might work out cheaper to just stay in hostels.

As I found they were quite cheap along the West Coast. With the exception of Queenstown, they were around the $20-25 mark, some were even less!

Tips to save money

  • Some hostels in New Zealand charge extra to use their WiFi. Most of the hostels along the West Coast didn’t but, if that’s the case, then finding a library or McDonald’s etc, will allow you to use free WiFi.
  • Cook your own food as much as possible! This is a great way to save money. It’s more convenient to just buy food, but the costs soon add up. If you cook as much as possible and use pasta and rice as your staple ingredients you’ll save a fair bit of money!
Puzzling world

Photo credit: Yogi de

Concluding thoughts

A West Coast of New Zealand is definitely one of the best things you can do in New Zealand.

If you don’t do this road trip then I feel that you’re missing out on a great part of the country, that you must explore!

There’s a lot of diversity travelling around the West Coast, which is quite surprising, considering it only makes a portion of the South Island!

This diversity is what makes it one of the best places to visit in New Zealand!

Have you done a road trip around the West Coast of New Zealand? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of the road trip? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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