Southern Alps, West Coast

Between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea you will find the West Coast area in a spectacular and beautiful environment.  With a range of unique untouched land from native protected forests, to wetlands and a stunning coast it's all here.

About the Coast

Southern Alps
Travelling times and distances

 © Paula Sheridan

The West Coast is a narrow strip of land 600kms long and only 70km across at its widest point. It is bordered on the east by the Southern Alps, and on the west by the Tasman Sea. A quarter of all protected land in New Zealand is to be found here, nearly 2 million hectares, as well as three remote wilderness areas and the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a stunning area with spectacular mountains, lush green rainforests and wild beaches.  


The weather on the coast is temperate with good rainfall, high sunshine and few weather extremes. Summer temperatures range from 17C to 22C, and winter daytime temperatures from 10C to 14C. Annual rainfall in the mountains of the West Coast is around 8000mm, but only about 2000mm fall on the coast itself - enough to keep the forests lush and green. 


The people of the West Coast (often referred to as Coasters) are renowned for their friendly, outgoing and can-do attitude. Less than two percent of NZ’s population live on the West Coast, about 32,000 people, with most involved in farming, mining and tourism.  The largest town is Greymouth with a population of around 10,000. 

 Still waters of Okarito Lagoon reflect Heron and Mount Cook  © Paula Sheridan

The Southern Alps are the result of two plates, the Pacific and the Indo-Australian, pushing against each other along the Alpine Fault. Sixteen of the mountains in this range are over 3000m high, and the range itself rises more steeply from the sea than any other on Earth. When warm moist air from the Tasman Sea to the west meets these mountains, it is forced upward into the colder air where it condenses and falls back as rain and snow.  


There are 360 glaciers hidden in the Southern Alps, the largest being the Tasman Glacier which is 29kms long. However, probably the best known ones are the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier. Maori called these two glaciers ‘Nga roimata o hine hukatere’ or ‘Tears of the avalanche girl’, and they are unique in that they are the only glaciers in the world to come all the way down into rainforest.  The high snowfall at the top of the glaciers, and the narrow valleys into which they descend, also mean they have a high movement rate. Where other glaciers are measured in centimetres of movement, the Fox glacier currently moves at a rate of two metres each day, and has in the past been measured at up to seven metres a day. Visitors can hire guides to take them to the face, where they will see chunks of ice breaking off, and hear the great creaks and sighs as the ice moves. 

 © Paula Sheridan

Many beautiful lakes are to be found on the West Coast, some renowned for their good brown trout fishing.  Lake Brunner is the largest of these lakes and is a popular and fast growing holiday destination for both visitors and locals.  A wide variety of water sports can be found, or just enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of the area. Lake Matheson to the south is famous for its mirror-like quality which clearly reflects the highest peak in NZ, Mt Cook Aoraki


Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast closely followed by Hokitika to the South and Westport to the north.  The roads run through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and the drive along the coast is rated as one of the Top 10 Best Drives in the World by Lonely Planet. 

Times below are only a guide.  Remember that you may encounter bad weather or simply want to stop off to take in the beauty of the area.  The coast has plenty of accommodation for travellers, from quality hotels to friendly back-packer hostels, and everything in between. 


Greymouth to Time (approximate) Kilometres
Blackball 25 minutes 28
Moana/Lake Brunner 25 minutes 29
Hokitika 40 minutes 40
Reefton 1 hour 79
Karamea 2 hours, 55 minutes 185
Westport 1 hour, 25 minutes 97
Punakaiki 40 minutes 43
Whataroa 2 hours 130
Okarito 2 hours, 15 minutes 150
Franz Josef 2 hours, 30 minutes 179
Fox Glacier 3 hours, 5 minutes 204
Haast 4 hours, 25 minutes 322
Picton (via Westport) 5 hours, 50 minutes 391
Nelson (via Westport) 4 hours, 55 minutes 327
Nelson (via Reefton) 4 hours, 20 minutes 291
Christchurch 2 hours, 53 minutes 330
Wanaka 6 hours, 30 minutes 470
Queenstown 8 hours, 10 minutes 561


West Coast Web Sites

Find out about what's happening on the West Coast from the regional web site:

Find out about visiting the West Coast on:

Find out about conservation areas on the west coast from the Department of Conservation web site: