Connecting the West Coast Wilderness Trail with Central Otago, via the incredible Haast Pass, this highly memorable road ride serves up some of the best scenery in the country.
The West Coast Road (SH6) winds through diverse and spectacular landscapes as it traverses this long, skinny region. Although the highway is set back from the coast for much of its length, it hugs spectacular beaches in some sections and climbs over hills offering stupendous ocean views. And the journey over the Haast Pass is something else again!
Along the way are countless opportunities to take short walks or a lake swim, wander along a wild beach or view a waterfall.
Note, though, that this is a major national highway and very popular with tourist traffic. It is also narrow and winding in many places, with little road margin to spare. Road traffic increases considerably from October through May, peaking through the New Zealand Christmas holidays (around 22 December to end of January) and Easter.
Ideally this ride should be ridden from north to south simply because – as quite rightly pointed out by the Kennett Brothers – having the sun at your back means you won’t have to squint into the sunlight the whole way. The starting point of Ross is the southern end of the West Coast Wilderness Trail.
75km, 4–6 hours
From Ross, head south on SH6 for 5km and turn right down Bold Head Road, which rejoins SH6 after 12km. Then head south on the highway to tranquil Lake Ianthe (26 km from Ross and good spot for a break). Continue down the highway to a small town called Harihari.
About 75km from Ross is another small town called Whataroa, which is a good place to stop for the night and also famous for bird-spotting tours to see the beautiful kōtuku (white heron).
53km, 3–4 hours
Continue south, past Lake Wahapo and Lake Mapourika (good for a dip) to Franz Josef township (30km from Whataroa). This tourist town has many services, and is a good base for a visit to the glacier. Te Ara a Waiau cycleway through the rainforest provides off-road access to the glacier walk car park.
From Franz Josef township, the 23km journey south to Fox crosses three tough hills. Fox township is a similar size to Franz Josef. It also has a lovely rainforest cycleway, Te Weheka, providing a link to its glacier walk car park.
The DOC visitor centres at both towns can provide valuable information on the many local walks, the glacier cycleways (both 20km return and clearly signposted) and general background on this fascinating area.
Fox Township—Pine Grove
35km, 2–3 hours
Accommodation options between Fox and Haast are minimal. Pine Grove, in the middle of nowhere, is one option. It’s basic, but the staff are helpful, and the price is right.
The first 26km south of Fox is mostly downhill and leads to a small shelter and toilets at the start of the Copland Track.
Pine Grove—Lake Paringa
35km, 2–3 hours
From Pine Grove, the SH6 passes through some lovely native forest and across glacial-fed rivers. After 35km, you reach DOC’s Lake Paringa Recreation Area and campsite in incredible rainforest surrounds beset by sandflies (but you should be getting used to them by this stage).
Lake Paringa—Haast Township
49km, 3–5 hours including a walk at Ship Creek
From Lake Paringa, continue south past Lake Moeraki (16km) and on to Ship Creek, a popular recreation area with toilets and a shelter. There are two excellent, short loop-walks here; we recommend both. Excellent information panels illuminate what is a pretty exceptional corner of ancient Gondwanaland.
Ten kilometres south of Ship Creek, near Haast township, is one of New Zealand’s most informative and interesting DOC visitor centres – an essential stop for those looking to expand their knowledge or perhaps buy a merino beanie – possibly the best woolly hat on the planet.
Haast township, 3km further along the highway, has a general store, takeaways, a pub with antlers and the possibility of a whitebait pattie, and a range of accommodation. A rather fabulous woollens shop stocks yet more merino beanies.
81km, 5–8 hours
From Haast township, the highway follows the broad Haast River inland for 48km to DOC’s Pleasant Flat Recreational Area and campsite. This is a convenient and indeed pleasant spot for a rest.
The highway crosses the Haast River and begins its climb to Haast Pass – 564 metres above sea level and actually within the boundary of Mount Aspiring National Park.
It’s 62km in total from Haast township to the pass, with the last 2km very steep. Slow riding or even walking, however, will give you more time to appreciate the incredible, rocky narrows. New Zealand highways don’t get anymore dramatic than this.
From there, it’s almost 20km down to Makarora Tourist Centre, a great spot to stop for the night.
74km, 4–6 hours
From Makarora, the highway heads into a very different landscape – considerably drier with totally different topography and flora.
The highway soon meets the northern tip of Lake Wanaka, then follows the lake to nip through a gap to adjacent Lake Hawea.
Further along the lake edge, Lake Hawea shops are signposted a few hundred metres off the highway – a handy detour if you need supplies.
Back on the highway, turn down Domain Road for 1km to Cemetery Road. On your right, take the signposted Hawea River Track. Providing an off-road alternative to the highway, this easy gravel track eventually rejoins SH6, just north of a narrow road bridge across the mighty Clutha Mata-au River at Albert Town.
Cross the bridge on the pedestrian path and head right onto an easy gravel path. This becomes narrow and a bit bumpy as it heads around the lake edge to Wanaka township.
A helpful source of information about this ride, and other Heartland Rides, is Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails by the Kennett Brothers.
Need to Know
The surface is almost all sealed highway, although there is 24km off road trail on the last day from Lake Hawea to Wanaka. The highway has moderate traffic volumes, is hilly and winding and in places there is no shoulder. Riders should be confident riding on roads with other traffic.
FITNESS & SKILLS
There are long distances to be covered over multiple days with some significant climbs. This is a grade 4 (advanced) ride suitable for fit riders with cycle touring and road riding experience.
TYPE OF BIKE
A well-maintained touring bike is most suitable for the terrain and surface. A road bike is also suitable, except for the off-road section near Wanaka. E-bikes, with sufficient battery capacity, are also suitable. The remoteness of this ride means that riders should ideally have basic mechanical skills and carry a tool kit and spares.
WHEN TO RIDE
The best time to ride this route is between March and May when there is less traffic and the weather is generally mild.
Note, though, that this is a major national highway very popular with tourist traffic. It is also narrow and winding in many places, with little road margin to spare. Road traffic increases considerably from October through May, peaking through the New Zealand Christmas holidays (around 22 December to end of January) and Easter.
MAPS & NAVIGATION
It’s virtually impossible to get lost on this ride; if you’re heading south, keep the ocean to your right all the way down the West Coast until you head inland towards Haast Pass, and then keep going! A map, however, will help you time your ride and identify points of interest along the way.
This route can be ridden any time of year. However, the West Coast is subject to some of the highest rainfall in New Zealand (and the world!). Good wet-weather gear is therefore essential.
A variety of accommodation, from holiday parks and motels to B&Bs and luxury lodges can be found along this route, mainly at the townships mentioned in the trail description.
There are also three DOC conservation campsites between Ross and Haast (Lake Ianthe Matahi, Otto’s/MacDonald’s and Lake Paringa), plus four between Haast and Hawea (Pleasant Flat, Cameron Flat, Boundary Creek and Kidd’s Bush).
FOOD & WATER
There are restaurants and/or cafes in Ross, Hari Hari, Whataroa, Franz Josef, Fox Glacier, Haast, Hawea and Wanaka. The best places to stock up are Franz Josef, Fox Glacier and Wanaka where there are supermarkets, although the other townships mentioned do have a general store or petrol stations.
Drinking water is available at all townships. River and stream water along the route is plentiful and normally good to drink, however, you may wish to boil or treat it.
Ross is serviced by Intercity buses. However, the best way to get there is to bike the West Coast Wilderness Trail. If travelling from Christchurch, catch the TranzAlpine train (or bus) to the start of the trail at Greymouth.
Cellphone coverage is good in the townships but patchy or non-existent in between.
Public toilets are located in townships, and at DOC campsites and recreation areas.