Nelson To Hokitika Self-Drive Road Trip – The Scenic Route

Friday, September 15th, 2017

A self-drive holiday from Nelson to Hokitika is a superb way to really enjoy the best New Zealand has to offer. Getting off the beaten track and exploring this extraordinary country without the restrictions or constraints of set tours and times allows travellers the freedom of choosing to stay a while, relax and soak up some of the traditional laid back Kiwi atmosphere.

For those wishing to do the ultimate ‘top of the South roadie’ we have put together this handy guide. By no means the shortest route, this trip is designed for the explorers out there who want to experience the real New Zealand, the best of the Nelson Tasman region, those who wish to take their time and really enjoy a great New Zealand road trip.

Stage 1 Nelson To Puponga (2.5 hrs 151 km)


Everybody knows Nelson is the place to be for sun, sand and stunning scenery. The nearby Abel Tasman National Park provides visitors with array of exciting outdoor activities including kayaking, bush walks, fishing, swimming and boating. While the city of Nelson offers up the chance to explore New Zealand’s creative artistic side, with boutique shopping, local arts and crafts, internationally recognised wineries and a vibrant music scene all part of the fun filled package.

What better place to start your great New Zealand road trip then by hiring a car from Nelson. Heading northwest the road trip from Nelson to Puponga is easily achieved in two and half hours. Make it a day trip or part of the journey – it’s your choice. Following the famous Coastal Highway, the route to Puponga takes travellers past Rabbit Island and on towards Motueka.

Totaranui Beach


Roughly a 40 minute drive from Nelson central, Motueka is a very popular spot for holiday makers. An abundance of beautiful sheltered bays, beaches and artistic entrepreneurs are to be found in Motueka, along with some (rare in NZ) historic salt water swimming baths.

Motueka is a great place to stop for a coffee or a long lunch, the café scene is full of small, quirky eateries and restaurants. Enjoy a wide range of fare including delicious home-made pies, cakes and slices, salads and coffee with many offering organic, vegetarian and gluten free options.

Don’t miss the quirky T.O.A.D. Hall Store and Café for the best real fruit ice creams, fresh juices and smoothies. 


Further along the coast out past Riwaka, take a side trip out to Kaiteriteri for a quick dip in the beautiful waters of Tasman Bay. Kaiteriteri is also a good place to hire the Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle service (great for those short on time or not wishing to walk the Abel Tasman Track). The Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle service offers Abel Tasman cruises and Water Taxi services to an assortment of drop off points along the way which include Medlands Bay, Tonga Quarry, Awaroa and Totaranui.

While out on the coast don’t miss catching a glimpse of Split Apple Rock – an iconic rock formation fifty metres off shore in the Tasman Sea between Kaiteriteri and Marahau as you travel up the coast towards the Abel Tasman National Park.


The Abel Tasman National Park

Marahau serves as the entry point to the Abel Tasman National Park, just a short 30 minute drive from Motueka. Walking the Abel Tasman is the one of those iconic New Zealand must-do’s, and upon arriving in the area it’s easy to see why. The beautiful coastline and remote undisturbed landscapes are picture perfect, there is great camping facilities along the way, and the views are simply to die for.

Totalling roughly 60 kilometres in length, walking the Abel Tasman Coast Track can take anywhere from three to five days depending on how much time visitors wish to spend soaking up the sun, sand and surf. Look out for the ancient Maori Pa sites, fur seals and maybe even some dolphins enjoying the sunny sheltered bays of the Tasman Sea along the way. Be aware crossing the Awaroa Inlet is dependent on tidal flows, check tide times to plan the trip around this.

As the Abel Tasman Coast Track is not a circuit track, travellers will find themselves separated from their transport (usually at Totoranui Bay) the best way to return to your rental car is to catch a Water Taxi. Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle and Marahau Water Taxis regularly operate in the area, with pick-ups and drop-offs available on a regular basis from various points along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. One way fares range from $30 to $50 per person depending on the distance travelled.

Abel Tasman National Park


Back on the road after a refreshing break in the Abel Tasman National Park, the journey toward Puponga takes travellers up the very windy and narrow Takaka Hill road, through Upper Takaka and eventually arriving in the small settlement of Takaka.

Stop for supplies, a quick coffee or take a look around the Golden Bay Museum. On your way out of Takaka visit the Te Waikoropupu Springs, a naturally occurring system of fresh water springs and has what many say is the purest water in the world. (5 minutes off the main Takaka-Collingwood Highway).



Back on the road following the coast the Takaka-Collingwood Highway takes travellers through Puramahoi, Onekaka and on to Collingwood. Feeling like some fresh air? Rent a mountain bike and explore the beautiful Aorere Valley or hire a kayak to paddle around the Ruataniwha Inlet.

Many travellers use Collingwood as a base to walk or bike the nearby Heaphy Track. Bus and taxi services are available from Collingwood to Brown Hut (the entry point to the Track). The Heaphy Track is also not a circuit track, so it is important to organise return transport before you go, or plan to only travel a certain distance and then return to base.

A two day overnighter is a popular option for those wishing to return to Collingwood. The Department Of Conservation has more details on the Heaphy Track, how to get there, what to take and the various huts along the way.


The Collingwood-Puponga Main road follows Golden Bay’s beautiful coastline all the way up to Puponga. Known as the gateway to Farewell Spit, Puponga has an assortment of places to stay and natural attractions to explore either on foot, horseback or by guided tour.

Farewell Spit is a 30 kilometre sand spit stretching out from the tip of New Zealand’s South Island. It is an internationally-renowned bird sanctuary only accessible by guided tour from licensed tour operators. Visitors can choose tours that include the historic lighthouse, sand dunes, stunning views out over the ocean and New Zealand’s newest Gannet colony.

Visitors are encouraged to freely explore the Department of Conservation’s working farm – Puponga Farm Park area and the first 4 km of the spit. There are a variety of walks and tracks on offer to suit all ages, dramatic look-outs and maybe even spot a few fur seals from the rocky Cape Farewell cliff tops.

Puponga Bay

Wharariki Beach

10 minute’s drive from Puponga along Wharariki Road, look out for the Wharariki Beach access way. The short 20 minute walk is well worth the effort, the remote windswept beach offers great views and photo opportunities of the Archway Islands and undisturbed idyllic and peaceful surrounds.

Low tide is the best time to visit as more of the beach is exposed, allowing visitors to make the most of this incredible beach. Horse riding along Wharariki Beach is one of many peoples must-do’s while in the area, be sure to book ahead to avoid disappointment.

Also, if you are lucky you will see baby seals, a very popular attraction.

Stage 2 Puponga To Kohaihai (6 ½ Hours 438 km)

On the road again back tracking towards Motueka, this time veering to the right and taking the Motueka Valley Highway, travellers will pass through the beautiful Motueka Valley, Stanley Brook, and Tapawera settlements.

Nelson Lakes

A Nelson Lakes side trip is the perfect way to kick off this stage of the road trip, look out for the highway 63 turnoff between Glenhope and Gowanbridge. Lake Rotoiti is roughly 20 minute’s drive from the turnoff and rewards travellers with excellent opportunities for swimming, boating and fishing. See here for more information on things to do in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Nelson Lakes


Skirting the boundaries of the Kahurangi National Park, the Puponga to Kohaihai stage then ducks around Mount Murchison and passes through the township of the same name – Murchison. Perfect for a quick bite to eat, some coffee or road trip snack, Murchison is popular with tourists for its extreme white water rafting.

Rivers like the Mangles River, Matiri River, Matakitaki River, Maruia River and the Buller River provide ample opportunity to experience all grades of white water difficulty, with everything from safe family orientated trips through to the extremes of heli-rafting. Ultimate Descents and Wild Rivers Rafting are two of the professional white water rafting guides operating in the Murchison area.

Maruia Falls

For a nice place to stop for a picnic lunch check out the Maruia Falls Scenic Reserve. Take the Highway 65 turnoff about 10 minute’s drive out of Murchison and follow it along for about 10 km. The Falls are well sign posted and there is a wheel-chair friendly walking track that leads to the lookout platform.

Back on the main road, don’t miss the Buller Gorge Swing bridge for a great photo op, then hit the road again, crossing the Tasman – West Coast regional border as the highway follows the Buller River to the Inangahua Junction and beyond to the town of Westport.

Maruia Falls


Sandwiched between the steep Paparoa Ranges and the Orowaiti Lagoon, Westport provides travellers with a range of services, including an airport, restaurants, cafes, petrol stations and a movie theatre.

Westport offers good access to the northern areas of Denniston, Stockton, Seddonville, Little Wanganui and Karamea. Local arts and crafts, 4WD tours, great surf, jet boating, horse riding and local populations of fur seals are found in abundance along with Westport providing the ideal pit-stop before entering the Kahurangi National Park.

Enjoy a visit to the Coaltown Museum to get some insight into what life was like for early settlers in this historic town or take a side trip to Denniston for a  guided tour through Oparara’s Honeycomb Cave at Karamea.


Kohaihai And The Kahurangi National Park

Westport to Karamea is about an hour and a half’s drive up the West Coast, from there Kohaihai is just a short 20 minutes further on. The Kahurangi National Park is easily accessible from Kohaihai and in fact it marks the beginning/end of the hugely popular Heaphy Track which winds its way through the Park towards Collingwood.

At over 450,000 hectares, walking tracks and biking routes are available throughout the Kahurangi National Park which is also accessible from Motueka, Takaka, Karamea, Tapawera and Murchison.

Stage 3 Kohaiahi To Punakaiki (2 ½ Hours 168 km)

Back on the road and heading south, State Highway 67 becomes State Highway 6 again south of Westport and veers away from the coast temporarily at Cape Foulwind. The Lighthouse and seal colony at the tip of Cape Foulwind are worth a look if you have time, just take the SH 67A turnoff after crossing the Buller River at Westport and return to the SH 6 route via Wilsons Lead Road (about a 20 minute round trip).

Stop off at the Mitchells Gully Goldmine on the road to Charleston for a chance to step back in time to the early gold mining days on the West Coast. Explore the tunnels, follow old trolley tracks or book a nocturnal glow worm tour.


Packed with things to do, Charleston offers travellers the chance to escape the vehicle for a while and enjoy some of the fantastic untamed West Coast scenery. Choose from Rafting, the Glow Worm Cave Tour and Adventure Caving in the Nile River cave system, or the Nile River Rainforest Train experience with local guides Underworld Adventures.

Underworld Adventures operate through the Nile River cave system which is one of New Zealand’s largest Natural Wilderness Cave Systems. The Adventure Caving experience includes abseiling, rock climbing, crawling and squeezing through narrow spaces all while exploring the underground water caves.

For a more relaxed pace take the kids and head out to the sheltered waters of Constant Bay for a picnic lunch. The beach is a great place to take a leisurely stroll, play in the water and enjoy the coastal views.

Charleston Coal Outcrop


Charleston to Punakaiki is roughly a half hour drive along the coast, passing Woodpecker Bay, the Fox River, Meybille Bay, Irimahuwheri Bay, and the settlement of Te Miko.

The Fox River offers travellers a great chance to stretch the legs on the 5km Fox River Cave Walk. The track is considered easy but be aware crossing the river bed is necessary in several places, and the track can be quite muddy and slippery. Well worth the effort though as walkers are rewarded with entry to the Fox River Caves. Take a torch if you intend to enter the caves, and allow at least 3 hours walking time for the round trip with additional time if entering the caves or stopping for a swim.  

Upon reaching Punakaiki, the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes take centre stage. These ancient rock formations are one of the most visited natural attractions on New Zealand’s West Coast.

The Pancake Rocks and Blowholes access if off the main road in central Punakaiki, allow at least half an hour for the walk itself and heaps more time to stop and enjoy the amazing rock formations and maybe even spot some dolphins out to sea. Time it just right and you will be treated to the true blowhole experience complete with sea spray and the loud swooshing noises, the blowholes are most impressive at high tide.


Stage 4 Punakaiki To Hokitika (1 ¾ Hours 117 km)

Although we have been following the coast for a while, Punakaiki marks the official beginning of the West Coast’s Great Coast Road. Flanked by the Tasman Sea and rugged West Coast forests, the trip offers the chance to explore small inlets, beautiful bays and rocky outcrops along the way with plenty of jaw-dropping photo opportunities.

Want to get creative and make your very own New Zealand souvenir? Create a unique bone carving with the team at Skeleton Crew Carving Studio at Barrytown, or forge a knife from red hot steel at the Barrytown Knifemaking facility. Enjoy creating something completely unique to remember this Nelson to Hokitika Self-Drive great New Zealand road trip.  

As the journey continues the Coast Road takes you past Barrytown and on towards Rapahoe, look out for majestic views of the Southern Alps, Mount Tasman and even Mount Cook on a clear day.


Arriving in Greymouth travellers will find the largest town on the West Coast caters well to every need. There is a good range of accommodation, restaurants, fast food, takeaways, cafes, shopping and local chain stores. Dotted around the town visitors will find galleries specialising in New Zealand Jade (Pounamu) carvings, the Pounamu is said to hold treasured spiritual significance.

Nearby local attractions include the iconic Shantytown Heritage Park (great for the kids), or get wet and muddy with the locals on a Quad Bike adventure with ‘On Yer Bike’ or take the Monteith’s Brewery Tour and enjoy a cold West Coast beer to finish off the day. Greymouth also provides the enthusiastic fisherman with ample ocean fishing and fly fishing opportunities.


Following the coast Greymouth to Hokitika takes approximately 30 minutes by car. Home to the only full public service airport on the West Coast, access to, or from Hokitika is easy for travellers from far and wide. Affordable car rental is available from Greymouth, with all good rental car companies offering airport pick-up services.

A very scenic thirty kilometres from Hokitika lays the Hokitka Gorge. Tempting turquoise waters and lush West Coast bushland make for the perfect spot to get some fresh air and take a few photos bound to impress the family back home. Take a walk along the easy Hokitika Gorge Track and cross the swing bridge to get the best views.

Hokitika Gorge

While this is the end of this handy guide to driving from Nelson to Hokitika, this doesn’t have to be the end of your great New Zealand road trip. From Hokitika visitors can head south and experience the West Coast Treetop Walk & Café, further south to the Franz Joseph Glacier or the Fox Glacier, or continue their great New Zealand road trip all the way down to the Milford Sound, Queenstown and beyond. 

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