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A road trip from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is a popular road trip route in New Zealand. At just over 217 kilometers (134 miles to be exact) it will take most drivers between 2 hours 45 minutes and 3 hours to complete, without stops. With that said, this is one road trip you’ll want to take your time doing to check out all of the amazing attractions on the way!
To help you plan your trip, in this blog I’ll list all the best stops when driving from Franz Josef to Punakaiki – 12 in total! With stops at the bright blue waters of Hokitika Gorge, the family-friendly West Coast Treetop Walk, and the lively town of Greymouth, there are some seriously epic places to check out on the road between Franz Josef and Punakaiki that you aren’t going to want to miss!
The journey from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is one of the most epic road trips on the South Island. So, without further ado, here is everything you need to know about driving from Franz Josef to Punakaiki.
Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY/Star RV because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. Plus, if you use my exclusive discount code DTRAVEL24, you’ll save 5%! This discount is only valid for bookings made before June 30, 2024, with travel dates before Dec 21, 2204. You can browse JUCY and Star RV’s availability here and apply the discount code at check-out.
About the drive from Franz Josef to Punakaiki
The drive from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is a 2 hours 45 minutes long journey that is 217 km (134 miles) in length. Including stops, I would allow 5 hours – which, I definitely recommend doing. There is just so much to see and do! Stopping for a night along the way and turning this into an overnight road trip is also highly recommended especially if you stay in Hokitika (more on that below.)
It’s important to note that driving from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is all on a paved highway, but sections of this route can be a little slippery in the winter months. If you’re visiting New Zealand in winter, check the road conditions before you depart Franz Josef.
During the summer the highway is usually completely fine to drive, however, always be prepared and watch conditions especially if heavy rain is forecasted.
So, when you’ve done all the exciting activities in Franz Josef, this road trip to Punakaiki should be next on your list! New Zealand’s “wild West Coast” is one of the best places to visit on the South Island.
Related Read: the journey from Christchurch to Franz Josef is also very popular – find out all about it in my detailed blog post! Or if you’re traveling to Franz Josef from Wanaka, you may want to read my road trip guide on that journey too!
Franz Josef to Punakaiki FAQs
Related Read: Read our complete guide to visiting Franz Josef Glacier!
Best Stops between Franz Josef and Punakaiki
1. Lake Mapourika Recreational Area
If you follow the SH6 from Franz Josef for just under 5 minutes you will come across the largest lake on the West Coast. Lake Mapourika is a water lovers’ paradise and a guided kayak tour across the Lake is a very popular activity! As well as that fishing, bird watching, and SUP are popular here too.
The abundant trout and salmon fishing here attracts many locals and tourists daily because the fish are huge. Would you believe that most trout caught in Lake Mapourika are between 3 – 5 pounds, and the salmon are even bigger! The annual fishing competition (held in February) has proven very popular over the years too. If you love to fish then book this 3-hour fishing tour and see if you can catch a record breaker!
If you don’t fancy getting in the water then you can book a 2-hour scenic cruise around the Lake. There’s varied birdlife so keep an eye out and you may spot birds like the rare crested grebe, white-throated shag, white-faced heron, and kingfisher to name but a few.
Related Read: Check out my guide about where to stay in Franz Josef!
2. Pakihi Walk Lookout
After driving for a little you’ll pass Lake Wahapo and eventually Forks-Okarito Road. A short detour down here brings you to the Pakihi Walk Lookout. Important to note this road actually leads to Ōkārito (the next stop I recommend).
The Pakihi Walk is a short 1-kilometer (0.6 miles) return trail that leads to a magnificent viewpoint overlooking the stunning forest and even the Southern Alps. You can actually spot Mt Cook from here! This short trail is well worth a stop even for just 20 minutes.
Note: Pakihi Walk Lookout is also one of the best stops on the road trip from Greymouth to Franz Josef!
Ōkārito is a small coastal village that is built on the shores of the Ōkārito Lagoon. Only 30 residents call this small town “home”, and for visitors, it’s a unique chance to explore a lesser-known area on the otherwise well-traveled West Coast.
One of the most popular things to do in Ōkārito is kayaking on the lagoon. Because it’s sheltered from the ocean, the waters are calm and easy to paddle. From your kayak, you can view wildlife including wading birds, and take in the views.
Another activity I recommend here is the Okarito Trig Walk. This is an easy 4.8-kilometer (3 miles) return track and leads to a breathtaking view of the West Coast. If you want to do a short hike – stop at Ōkārito Wetland Walk and turn back. This trail is only 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) return. For a longer hike, Three Mile Pack Track is a 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) return trail. All trails begin at the same location and follow the same path. You can read about all the trails in Ōkārito here.
Stay in Ōkārito
If you love getting well off the beaten path then a night in Ōkārito is a real treat. The Code Time Lodge is one of the only hotels in the town and it comes highly reviewed. For campervans/motorhomes and those with tents, the Okarito Camp Ground is the place to stay.
Hokitika is another place I recommend spending the night in, if time allows. There are lots of awesome things to do in Hokitika such as Dorothy Falls, Glow Worm Dell, Hokitika Beach, and the National Kiwi Center. You can also do Jade carving in Hokitika!
For lunch, head to Hokitika Sandwich Company or Cafe 39 for awesome coffee! Get a takeaway and head down to the beach and get a photo with the famous Hokitika sign. It’s a must-visit for tourists!
Stay in Hokitika
Hokitika is only a small town but it’s a very popular place to visit on the South Island so there are plenty of great places to stay. If you’re on a budget, you can’t go wrong with the Mountain Jade Backpackers. This hostel/hotel has dorm beds, budget doubles, and even cheap studio apartments. It’s located in the heart of Hokitika!
If you don’t mind splurging a little you can book a room at the Shining Star Beachfront Accommodation. Although located a little out of town, you are right on the beach with breathtaking ocean views. In summer, this is a very popular choice!
5. Hokitika Gorge
The bright blue waters of the Hokitika Gorge are a must-visit when driving from Franz Josef to Punakaiki. The water here is glacier-fed and rock flour in the glacier melt gives it its bright blue color.
It’s a short 2-kilometer (1.24 miles) walk to the gorge and its viewpoints. Take a couple of moments to watch the powerful river and take lots of photos! Hokitika Gorge is just outside of Hokitika so it’s super convenient to visit!
6. West Coast Treetop Walk
Ever wanted to walk among giants? Well on the west coast of the South Island you can visit the West Coast Treetop Walk and take a stroll 20 meters above the forest floor. This cool experience lets you explore the landscape from a different perspective.
Just a 15-minute drive from Hokitika, the West Coast Treetop Walk costs $32 NZD per adult, and here there are 450 meters (1,476 feet) of boardwalk to explore – which will take between 30-40 minutes to complete. Along the walk, there is also a tall viewing platform that must extend around another 20 meters (66 feet) higher.
This is a great option if you’re traveling with kids between Franz Josef and Punakaiki!
7. Lake Ianthe
Under a 30-minute drive from the West Coast Treetop Walk is the beautiful Lake Ianthe. On a clear day, the reflections here are absolutely stunning and the lake makes for a perfect place to stop for a picnic and even a toilet break.
The Lake Ianthe Matahi Campsite is also located here and a popular place to stay for those on a road trip. At only $10 NZD a night (for adults) it’s really cheap and is a peaceful place to spend the night.
Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast of the South Island. One of the town’s claims to fame is that it’s home to popular brewery Monteith’s. It’s something of a New Zealand legend! The brewery runs tours that include a tasting session. If you’re a beer lover this is a must-do!
There are some great things to do in Greymouth! You can take a visit to the History House Museum which showcases the town’s mining and jade-hunting past. To the south of town, Shantytown Heritage Park is a replica gold rush town with a museum and steam train – a great family-friendly activity.
If you are interested in participating in gold panning you can buy a combo ticket that includes admission to the park along with a gold panning experience and a ride on the steam train.
Also, be sure to stop into the many galleries in town that sell Pounamu. Did you know that Pounamu should not be bought for oneself as it’s ‘bad luck’ but instead as a gift for someone! This is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir for a loved one back home.
Related Read: If you’re a beer lover, be sure to check out all of the best breweries in Queenstown if you’re headed that way.
9. Point Elizabeth Lookout
North of Greymouth, the Point Elizabeth Walkway is an easy 5.5 km (18 mi) one-way walking track that winds along coastal clifftops to the forests of Rapahoe Scenic Reserve. It’s popular with families due to its mostly flat nature. This walking track also boasts stunning sea views. In fact, the track follows an old water race that miners used to sluice their gold.
This track is considered easy and should take you about 1 hour 45 minutes to complete. One of the best parts of this walk is the exposed rocky point lookout, which has views of Mt Cook and the Paparoa Mountain Range.
Mountain biking is allowed between April – 20 September strictly and at night time only.
10. Motukiekie Beach
The stunning Motukiekie Beach is one of the lesser-visited beaches on the South Island and is a 20-minute drive from Greymouth. It is, however, popular with both photographers and geology lovers. It is accessible only at low tide.
You will likely have the beach to yourself to take in the impressive sea stacks and the many rocks of different shapes and colors dotted along the beach. The best time to visit this beach is at sunrise or sunset, which can be difficult to do considering the beach is only accessible at low tide – so, be sure to get your timing right!
11. Barrytown Knife Making
This is sure to be one of the most memorable stops on your journey from Franz Josef to Punakaiki. On a tour at Barrytown Knife Making you can create your own knife blade from red hot steel, and add to it with a native timber handle, brass bolsters, and pins.
Other free activities included in this full-day tour include axe-throwing, target practice, and a huge swing. The tour starts at 9:30 am and finishes at 4 pm it costs $190 NZD per person and includes lunch.
This is one of the most unique activities in New Zealand for sure!
And finally, you’ve made it to Punakaiki! This small town is your last stop on this epic road trip, and luckily, it’s filled with plenty of awesome things to see and do.
A quick walk along the Pororari River Track (one of the best hikes on the South Island) will have you surrounded by nature and even spotting lots of weka birds. Lots of people mistake them for kiwis but they’re much more common and you’ll likely see one!
Pancake Rocks is what people really come to Punakaiki for though, and this old rock formation is really unique. As the name suggests, the rocks appear like pancakes stacked on top of each other and there is a large boardwalk that navigates the rock formation for visitors. Wandering this boardwalk is one of the best things to do on the South Island – it really is impressive!
Along that boardwalk is also the famous Blow Hole. At high tide, you can see the huge power of water beneath the rock that shoots up the hole – it’s impressive to see!
If you have more time be sure to hike the Truman Track. This short 20-minute hike leads to a secluded beach where you can spot penguins and find starfish in the water. Just be sure to go at low tide as the beach isn’t safe to access at high tide!
Where to Stay in Punakaiki
Punakaiki is such a cute town that I bet you won’t want to leave – so don’t! Plan to stay a night or two in the beautiful and peaceful Punakaiki to fully enjoy it. There are a few different places you can choose from to stay in Punakaiki and something for every budget!
For travelers on a tight budget, you can’t go wrong with the Punakaiki Beach Hostel. Offering dorm beds and private rooms at an affordable price, this hostel is the perfect choice. It comes highly rated with beach views and plenty of communal spaces including a kitchen. And for a hostel, let me tell you, this place is super clean!
For something a little nicer than a hostel, a great mid-range price option for a hotel in Punakaiki is Punakaiki Beachfront Motels. The biggest drawcard to this property is the distance from the beach – only 30 meters! It is also only a 5-minute walk from Pancake Rocks. Besides the location, the rooms at Punakaiki Beachfront Motels are all self-contained featuring private kitchens. The price is really reasonable too and they even have larger family units available.
If you’re looking for luxury, then look no further than the Tasman Sea Retreat. This is the nicest place to stay in the area with impeccable reviews and plenty of amenities. It is actually a holiday home that features two bedrooms, ocean views, and a spa tub! This is the perfect place for a quiet escape in one of the most beautiful places in all of NZ. In fact, it makes a perfect romantic getaway destination in New Zealand for couples (imagine relaxing in the spa under the stars!)
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
As you can see the road trip from Franz Josef to Punakaiki is one epic adventure with lots of beautiful stops and attractions. Without a doubt, I’m sure you’ll find many more places to stop and take in the stunning views!
Thanks so much for reading. I hope this guide has helped plan your upcoming road trip. If you found this guide helpful, be sure to browse around some more! I have so many road trip blogs as well as guides about Queenstown, Wanaka, and so much more! Here are a few of my favorites: