Poroari River, Paparoa National Park, West Coast of New Zealand

Best Things to Do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

Last Updated: 5th August, 2023

Punakaiki is a stunning coastal town found on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island! It is set in the lush Paparoa National Park, and home to the famous Pancake Rocks. It is often overlooked, however is a hidden gem of the West Coast. Here are the best things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand!

Kayaking Pororari River, things to do in punakaiki, new zealand

If you are looking at planning a West Coast road-trip and don’t want to miss out on any of the awesome stuff to do while travelling, you might as well check out my post on the coolest things to do in Hokitika! Hokitika is a small town just an hour south from Punakaiki, and is the arts capital of the West Coast! With quirky shops, fun art galleries and studios, as well as stunning scenery to explore, it should definitely be on your West Coast bucket-list!

Top 10 Best Things to Do in Punakaiki!

1. Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes

One of the most notable thing to do in Punakaiki are the famous Pancake Rocks! These incredible rock formations are found on the wild West Coast, and are a part of the Paparoa National Park. The name “Pancake Rocks” was given due to their appearance of stacked layers, similar to the layers of a pancake!

Pancake Rocks, Things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

The formation of these rocks began around 30 million years ago when ancient marine creatures deposited layers of limestone and other sediment on the ocean floor. Over time, geological forces, such as pressure from the Earth’s movements and the erosion caused by wind and water, sculpted the rocks into their unique pancake-like shapes. The most striking features are the numerous vertical seams or “pancake stacks,” which give the rocks their distinct appearance.

One of the highlights of visiting Pancake Rocks in New Zealand is witnessing the blowholes. When the tide is high and the sea is rough, seawater is forced into narrow vertical channels and tunnels within the rocks. The water is then expelled upward with great force, creating impressive geysers and spraying seawater into the air!

Pancake Rocks, Things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

The area surrounding the Pancake Rocks is well-maintained and features a series of well-marked walking tracks and viewing platforms, allowing visitors to explore the site safely and enjoy the stunning coastal scenery.

2. Walk the Truman Track

If you are looking for a short walk that gives you an taste of the incredible scenery of this area of the West Coast, then check out the Truman Track! This popular short walk wanders through lush rainforest and along stunning coastline to Truman Beach.

  • Walking Time: 1.4 km return
  • Walk Length: 30 minute return
  • Trail Difficulty: An easy stroll through stunning subtropical forest to an incredible coastline, with a stairway down to the beach.

The track begins in dense, subtropical rainforest, filled with native rātā trees and nīkau palms. The forest is rich with wildlife, so keep an eye out as you may encounter a variety of bird species during your walk. After a short walk, the track emerges on the spectacular coastline of Truman Beach, complete with cliffs, caverns, and a waterfall that plummets straight onto the beach!

A viewing platform gives you stunning views of the coastline, or you can climb down the stairway and wander along the rocky beach. Along the coastal section of the track, you can also find intriguing limestone rock formations similar to those found in Pancake Rocks.

Getting there:

The start of the Truman Track is off the SH6, around 3km north of the Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre in Punakaiki. There is a small carpark across the road, so take care when crossing over to the track!

3. Explore the Punakaiki Cavern

One of the coolest things to do in Punakaiki is explore this hidden gem. The Punakaiki Cavern is a fantastic limestone cave you can explore by yourself, and is an awesome afternoon adventure for kids of all ages!

Located only a short walk from the main road, it is like entering a whole other world! Make sure to bring a headtorch, and wander into the depths of the cave down 130 meters of safe passageways, looking out for awesome stalactites along the way.

Hint: this cave is even more exciting to visit at night, when the roof is covered with the tiny blue lights of glowworms!

What to expect:

From the road, there is a small walkway that will take you to the mouth of the cave. This includes walking up and down a couple of staircases – but it’s definitely worth the effort! The path is a bit rugged and marked by poles, however it is relatively easy going – although it can get muddy after a bit of rain. The cave entrance is surrounded by lush nikau palms, and all you can hear is the crashing waves of the wild Tasman sea. Talk about atmospheric!

From the entrance, the cave turns pitch black, so make sure to have a couple of torches with you. There is a low ceiling to begin with, that opens up into a big chamber. From here you can follow the path through the cave, exploring the nooks and crannies and seeing if you can spot a glow worm or two!

Getting to Punakaiki Cavern

Punakaiki Cavern is located only 700-meter from the famous Pancake Rocks, just outside the village of Punakaiki! There is no official carpark (told you this is a hidden gem!) so your best bet is to park at the Pancake Rocks carpark and walk down the road until you reach the signposted track.

4. Kayak the Pororari River

While in Punakaiki, you have to make a stop at the stunning and oh-so-scenic Pororari River! This river is just north of the Pancake Rocks, and close to the center of town. It is incredible to visit, surrounded by lush native rainforest and towering limestone cliffs on either side of the gorge. There are a few different ways to explore the river, if you are looking for a gentle stroll through the forest or a more action-packed kayak along the banks.

Pororari River Walkway

The Pororari River Track is a popular and well-maintained walking trail suitable for people of various fitness levels. The track takes you through dense native rainforest, alongside the Pororari River, and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.

  • Walking time: 1 hour 30 minutes return
  • Distance: 7 km return

The track is the pedestrian entry for the Paparoa Great Walk, a multi-day hike that travels into the stunning Paparoa National Park. The track follows a spectacular limestone gorge, towering above the river, with huge rocks set amongst deep pools. A gentle 15-minute stroll takes you to the first lookout, will views over the river and cliffs. From here, the track narrows and becomes a little steeper, until it reaches the suspension bridge. This is the ideal place from a rest and a few pictures before heading back to the carpark!

Getting there:

The track started at the carpark by the Pororari River bridge, around 1km north of the Paparoa National Park Visitor Center on the SH6.

Or explore the Pororari River by Kayak!

In addition to the walking track, the Pororari River offers an exciting kayaking option for those who prefer to explore the river from a different perspective. Kayaking on the Pororari River allows you to immerse yourself in the tranquil beauty of the waterway, surrounded by lush vegetation and impressive limestone cliffs.

The awesome team at Waka Puna have a selection of kayaks and paddleboards for hire, perfect for an afternoon exploration on the river. Families and beginners can enjoy paddling about on the calm river and lagoon, and if you’re feeling more adventurous you can explore further up the river to Cave Creek!

5. Venture into the Paparoa National Park

Paparoa National Park is a stunning and diverse national park located on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. It was established in 1987 and covers an area of approximately 306 square kilometers! The park is known for its unique combination of rugged coastline, limestone cliffs, lush rainforests, and stunning river valleys, making it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

There are a number of walks in the Paparoa National Park, ranging from short strolls through native bush, up to challenging multi-day hikes into the wilderness!

The Paparoa Great Walk

  • Walking time: 3 days one way
  • Distance: 55km one way
  • Trail Difficulty: Intermediate Great Walk/ Easier Tramping Track

The Paparoa Great Walk is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, providing a multi-day hiking experience through diverse landscapes, including rainforest, river valleys, and alpine tops. The track can be completed as a three-day hike, or visitors can opt for shorter sections.

The Inland Pack Track

  • Walking time: 2-3 days
  • Distance: 25km one way
  • Trail Difficulty: Advanced Tramping Track

This is a more challenging tramping track that takes you on a multi-day hike through diverse landscapes, including rainforests and alpine tops. The Inland Pack Track was built in 1867 during the gold rush to avoid dangerous coastal travel, and takes you through some of the finest areas of the Paparoa National Park!

Nikau trees in Paparoa National Park, Things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

Cave Creek Memorial Track

  • Walking time: 1 hour 10 minutes
  • Distance: 4 km return
  • Trail Difficulty: An easy walking track

A short track that travels down the deep, narrow chasm of Cave Creek from the carpark. The track crossed a ridge and descends into a gorge, where it ends at the bouldery and dry creek bed. Along the path you will see a stone memorial marking the site of the Cave Creek disaster, where a viewing platform allows you to observe the remains of the former viewing platform that collapsed in 1995.

Ballroom Overhang Track

  • Walking time: 4 hours return
  • Distance: 12 km return
  • Trail Difficulty: Advanced tramping track

This walk takes you to the Ballroom Overhang – a large limestone outcrop surrounded by bush, that provides an awesome natural shelter for overnight camping in the Paparoa National Park. The Ballroom is reaches via the Inland Pack Track, starting at the carpark at the mouth of the Fox River. The first part of the track follows the river through bush and over braided riverbed, before crossing the river and climbing through the gorge. This walk is challenging, but takes you through some of the most stunning sections of the park!

6. Visit Punakaiki Beach

Punakaiki Beach is a picturesque coastal area found just in the heart of Punakaiki Village, and is the perfect place to enjoy the waves or watch the incredible West Coast sunsets! It is part of the Paparoa National Park and is renowned for its stunning natural beauty and unique rock formations. The beach is a popular destination for both tourists and locals, offering a variety of attractions and recreational opportunities.

7. Take a day-trip to Hokitika

A day trip from Punakaiki to Hokitika offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the scenic West Coast highway! Hokitika is a vibrant and lively town around 1 hours drive (83km) south of Punakaiki, and is known for its incredible arts and crafts scene, as will as it’s stunning beach!

Hokitika, things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

Road Trip Highlights!

  • Coastal Drive: Embark on a scenic coastal drive from Punakaiki to Hokitika, which takes approximately 1 to 1.5 hours, depending on stops and driving speed. The route offers breathtaking views of the Tasman Sea and lush greenery.
  • Hokitika Gorge: Once you arrive in Hokitika, make your way to Hokitika Gorge, located about 33 kilometers (20 miles) inland from the town center. The gorge is famous for its vivid turquoise-blue waters, surrounded by native bush and stunning rock formations. A short walk leads you to a swing bridge, offering a fantastic view of the gorge.
  • Hokitika Town: Return to Hokitika town and explore its charming streets and vibrant arts and crafts scene. Hokitika is renowned for its jade (pounamu) jewelry and carvings, and you can visit local galleries and studios to see skilled artisans at work.
  • Hokitika Beach: Spend some time at Hokitika Beach, known for its driftwood art installations and stunning sunsets. Take a stroll along the sandy shore and enjoy the views of the Tasman Sea.

To read more about visiting the amazing Hokitika Gorge, as well as on other cool stuff to do in the West Coast, check out my travel guide here!

8. Join a Petral Colony Tour

If you are looking for an incredible wildlife encounter on the West Coast, then consider checking out the amazing Westland Petral Colony tours! These amazing seabirds are endemic to New Zealand, and spend most of their life at sea – only returning to land to breed.

The only known breeding colonies of the Westland Petral are in the small coastal foothills between Barrytown and Ounakaiki on the West Coast! This gives you a rare and unique chance to see these incredible birds in their natural habitat!

The Westland Petrels are nocturnal birds, meaning they are active during the night. The guided tour typically takes place at sunset or sunrise, allowing visitors to witness the petrels’ return to their nesting sites under the cover of darkness. The tour takes visitors to carefully constructed viewing platforms or hides from where they can observe the petrels without disturbing them. These platforms offer excellent opportunities for birdwatching and photography!

9. Cave your own bone necklace!

For a true cultural experience, and the chance to make your own unique New Zealand souvenir, you should check out the awesome team at Skeleton Crew Carving Studio! Located just 20 minutes from Punakaiki, this awesome Studio offers half-day tutored bone carving workshops, where you can learn about the skills and cultural significance of bone carving, and make your own special taonga!

This is an awesome hands-on experience with knowledgeable and friendly locals, who will help you to choose or create a design and bring it to life! It is also an awesome experience to do with kids, and is available for those over the age of 9! Its essential to book, so check then out here!

10. Visit the seals at Cape Foulwind

Cape Foulwind is located a short distance south of Punakaiki, also within the Paparoa National Park. It is named after the English navigator Captain James Cook, who first explored the area and gave it the name “Foulwind” due to the strong, often gusty winds experienced at the cape.

Cape Foulwind is home to a thriving seal colony, where visitors can observe New Zealand fur seals in their natural habitat! A well-maintained walking track leads to a viewing platform overlooking the seal colony. The platform provides a safe and non-intrusive way to view the seals basking on the rocks, playing in the water, or nursing their pups.

NZ fur seal, Things to do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

Besides the seal colony, Cape Foulwind offers breathtaking coastal views and opportunities for birdwatching, with the chance to spot various seabirds and native bird species in the surrounding area.

FAQS – Things to Do in Punakaiki, New Zealand

Is Punakaiki worth visiting?

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What is the best time to visit Punakaiki?

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Thank you for reading my post on the best Things to Do in Punakaiki! This is an hidden gem on the West Coast of New Zealand, with loads of incredible things to do and see while you’re there!

Now that you have an itinerary planned, time to find your ideal accommodation for your stay! Punakaiki has heaps of options, so whether you are looking for luxury accommodation or more budget-friendly digs there’s sure to be the perfect place for you! Happy Travelling!

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