Punakaiki travel guide: A West Coast must-see
The small village of Punakaiki is a scenic gem tucked away on the West Coast of South Island. You’ll find it nestled between the Tasman Sea and Paparoa National Park.
Although this tiny town has only seventy permanent residents, it’s home to some of the most beautiful scenery in New Zealand. Punakaiki is also where you’ll find the famous Pancake Rocks and Blowholes – a must-see while in the area – and it’s the perfect base for exploring the rugged Paparoa National Park mountain range.
This small town is a popular destination for outdoor activities, with plenty of trails to explore along the limestone rock formations and inside mysterious caverns.
A variety of hiking, kayaking, and caving opportunities allow visitors to fully experience the diverse ecosystems and landscapes that set Punakaiki apart.
Wildlife enthusiasts will also enjoy the various birds and marine and land animals that make their home in the area, including wēkā, tāiko/Westland petrel, kekeno/New Zealand fur seals and Hector’s dolphins.
With dense rainforests, mesmerising geology, and some of the most spectacular NZ coastlines you could imagine, it’s easy to see why Punakaiki is becoming one of the most recommended tourist destinations on the West Coast.
Did you know? When Europeans first arrived in Punakaiki, the area was the settlement of the Māori iwi, Ngāti Waewae.
In 1846, early European explorers had to explore the cliffs by dangling 46-foot-high ladders. These were only replaced by chain ladders after the gold rush in the 1860s.
An overview of Punakaiki
|Region||West Coast, South Island|
|Main attractions||Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, hiking in Paparoa National Park|
|Neighbouring destinations||Hokitika, Greymouth and Abel Tasman National Park|
|Nearest airport||Greymouth Airport (domestic), Christchurch International Airport (international)|
The Geology of Punakaiki
The distinctive Punakaiki scenery is characterised by the caves and rock formations that dominate the region.
The astonishing limestone structures at Punakaiki began forming 22 to 30 million years ago – when most of New Zealand was still submerged underwater.
Over thousands of years, vast amounts of shell fragments collected on the seabed 2km below the surface, along with sand and mud that had eroded from the emerging land. High water pressure caused these fragments to form hard and soft layers of limestone.
Eventually, seismic activity lifted the limestone above the ocean. This is the same seismic activity that led to the formation of the Southern Alps.
Over time, waves and weather events carved and chiselled away at the rock, shaping it into the unique ‘Pancake Rocks’ geological formations you’ll see when visiting.
Aside from the fascinating Pancake Rocks, many other caves and blowholes formed around the region due to various forms of erosion. We suggest you explore them from above and below ground during your stay.
The Wildlife of Punakaiki
Punakaiki is a great place to spot our native wildlife.
Many marine mammals live around the national park, including Hector’s dolphins and fur seals.
Endemic and endangered birds are found in Punakaiki too, including blue penguins, blue shags, weka, kererū, tūī, bellbird, tomtit and grey warblers.
In fact, one of the primary breeding colonies of the Westland petrel also makes its home in the forested foothills near the Punakaiki River. To get a closer look, you can watch the birds fly to and from their nesting sites with Petrel Colony Tours.
You can also find preserved fossils dating back 25,000 years within the limestone caves, giving a fascinating insight into the fauna that existed in New Zealand tens of thousands of years ago – including several amphibians, reptiles, moa, and kiwi.
Did you know? New Zealand doesn’t really have any deadly creatures you need to worry about. If you’re wondering what we do have though, you can check out our 10 of the most dangerous animals.
Things to do in Punakaiki
With so much incredible scenery at your doorstep, Punakaiki is the perfect destination to explore on foot. However, there’s a large variety of outdoor activities to enjoy here – especially when you consider what a tiny spot this actually is!
These are some of the most memorable things to do in Punakaiki…
1. Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Track
Although Pancake Rocks are a natural phenomenon that took millions of years to form, today it only takes visitors 20 minutes to get up close to the amazing limestone formations!
The beautifully-maintained Pancake Rocks Track is an easy and short loop walk that allows visitors to wind around the magnificent limestone rock formations.
There are various lookouts over the rocks and blowholes (which are best at high tide), so take your time to soak up this magnificent scenery.
Most of the track is wheelchair accessible with some assistance.
If there’s only one thing you do in Punakaiki, this has to be it!
Total distance: 1.1km loop
Total time: 20 minutes
2. Punakaiki Cavern
Conveniently located at the side of the main road near Pancake Rocks, it’s well worth combining a trip to Pancake Rocks with a stop at Punakaiki Cavern.
Climb the wooden stairway to enter the cavern. Once you’re inside, use your phone torch to look around the mysterious grotto that awaits curious travellers.
There is 130m of safe passage to explore, just watch your feet (and your head) as the ground is bumpy and potentially slippery.
Walks in Punakaiki
There are several family-friendly short trails in Punakaiki. You’ll also find full-day hikes in the neighbouring Paporoa National Park.
These are a few of our favourites.
3. Truman Track
If you’re short on time but want a taste of New Zealand’s subtropical rainforest, don’t miss the 1.4km Truman Track.
After strolling through woodland, you’ll be treated to fabulous views over the coastline, cliffs, caverns, and a waterfall.
If the tide is out, you can continue your walk onto the beach (which we recommend you do).
Just be sure to keep a safe distance from the water as West Coast beaches are known for being wild, and this one is no different. We also suggest giving the cliffs a wide berth as they are relatively unstable.
Total distance: 1.4 km return
Total time: 15 minutes
Pro tip: Keep your eyes peeled for nīkau palm trees – this is the only palm species endemic to mainland New Zealand, and the southernmost palm tree species you’ll find anywhere in the world.
4. Kotihotiho Track (also known as Cave Creek Memorial Track)
This magical trail involves walking alongside an enchanting stream towards the deep and narrow chasm of Cave Creek.
As you stand at the bottom of the steam, you’ll be surrounded by towering moss-covered boulders and luscious forest scenery.
Total distance: 4km return
Total time: 1 hour, 10 mins
Did you know? While walking you’ll see a memorial stone. This was placed here to remember the 14 people that sadly lost their lives in 1995.
5. Pororari River Trail
Follow the trail that curves around the Pororari River and weave through ancient rainforest where you’ll have fabulous views across the river gorge and limestone cliffs.
Once you reach the picturesque suspension bridge, return back the way you came.
Total distance: 7km
Total time: 1 hour, 30 mins
Pro tip: For a longer walk, continue from the suspension bridge along the Punakaiki Pororari Loop Trail. This makes it a 3-hour trek, covering 11km.
6. Punakaiki Beach
With its towering cliffs and rugged coastline, Punakaiki Beach is one of the West Coast’s most beautiful bays.
This wild beach is not safe for swimming, but it’s well worth exploring on foot during low tide.
It’s also a great spot to enjoy those stunning West Coast sunsets!
7. Kayaking along the Pororari River
Exploring the Pororari River by kayak or paddle board is a great way to see more of Punakaiki’s distinctive scenery from a different perspective.
The river itself is calm and absolutely stunning, bordered by towering cliffs and subtropical rainforest.
You can hire all the equipment you need from Waka Puna (next to the Pororari River Bridge).
This really is one of the best things to do in the area – if you have the time, don’t miss it.
8. Pounamu carving at Barrytown
Although it’s possible to spot segments of dazzling greenstone on Punakaiki Beach, the best way to see this distinctive stone is by joining a pounamu/jade carving session in Barrytown, just a 15-minute drive south of Punakaiki.
During your workshop, you’ll learn how to design and carve your very own greenstone souvenir.
Barrytown Jade, 2726 Coast Road, Barrytown 7873
⚠️ FYI: It is illegal for visitors to collect greenstone from the Punakaiki River.
9. Explore the underground caves
There are several unique caving experiences to enjoy in Paparoa National Park.
Just 30 minutes north of Punakaiki you’ll find Underworld Adventures. Not only is this one of the top-rated black water rafting companies in New Zealand, but it’s also one of our personal favourites.
They will guide you through water-carved canyons and caves on underground black water rafting tours and adventure caving expeditions.
While underground you’ll discover sparkling limestone formations lit up with thousands of tiny glow worms.
And when you’re done (if you’ve chosen the black water rafting option, which is our recommendation), you’ll float down the gentle rapids of the river.
This is a soft-adventure trip that has something for everyone!
Pro tip: If you’re travelling as a family with young children, it’s well worth taking a short ride on the quaint Nile River Train through the primeval rainforest. This is included in the full Underworld Adventures tours, but can also be purchased seperately.
Places to eat in Punakaiki
Though it’s only small, there are some great local restaurants and cafes in Punakaiki.
These are some of the best places to grab some kai.
Pancake Rocks Cafe
Wake up to pancakes at the Pancake Rocks!
Conventionally located opposite the Pancake Rocks Track, the cosy local cafe serves a variety of wholesome food, but its most popular options are pancakes and pizzas.
Coast Road, Punakaiki 4000
The Ocean View Retreat
Enjoy expansive coastal views from the floor-to-ceiling windows at The Ocean View Retreat. The stylish restaurant serves a tasteful menu of local fare within the setting of a four-star hotel dining room.
This is a great option if you’re looking to treat yourself as it’s pretty fancy, especially considering how remote this part of New Zealand is.
State Highway 6, Punakaiki 7873
Punakaiki Rocks Hotel & Garden Bar
Serving a hearty West Coast menu just 100m from Punakaiki Beach, the hotel bar is open for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
This is a great place to head for a relaxed evening meal.
13 Owen Street, Corner of Owen St & State Highway 6, Punakaiki 7873
Where to stay in Punakaiki
From coastal campsites to luxury cottages, there are some great places to stay in Punakaiki.
Best of all, most have sweeping coastal views and are nice and quiet, so you can soak up the majestic West Coast scenery from the moment you wake up.
Budget: Punakaiki Beach Hostel
Just 50 metres from the beach, budget accommodation doesn’t get much better than Punakaiki Beach Hostel. Choose from a dorm room, twin room, or family room – each with WiFi and a garden or sea view.
Other onsite facilities include a shared kitchen and lounge, luggage storage and laundry, and an outdoor terrace with a picnic area.
Everything is nice and tidy and well-cared for, making this a great budget-friendly option.
2 Webb Street, Punakaiki 7873
Mid-range: Punakaiki Beachfront Motels
With seaside views and just a short 5-minute walk to Pancake Rocks, the Punakaiki Beachfront Motel is perfectly located to explore the surrounding area.
Accommodation options include self-contained cottages and private studios. All include outdoor seating, a kitchenette, a TV and a sofa.
The units are stylishly furnished, with some also featuruing a BBQ, laundry facilities and wheelchair-friendly bathrooms.
13 Owen Street, Punakaiki 7873
Luxury: Tasman Sea Retreat
With mountain and ocean views and an outdoor hot tub, every stunning lodge at the five-star Tasman Sea Retreat really captures the magic of Punakaiki.
If you stay here, you’ll get your own full kitchen, TV, terrace and seating area, and you can rejuvenate at the onsite spa centre after a day of hiking in the national park.
A stay here feels like a home away from home – if your home sits on top of a stunning coastal view, that is!
Kaipataki Point Road, Punakaiki 7873
Holiday Home: Cliffscapes
If you’re travelling as a group or family, this 3-bedroom holiday home is a beautiful and spacious option. Just 200m from Punakaiki Beach, you’ll be treated to wonderful coastal and mountain views during your stay.
The home has everything you need for a relaxing stay, including a living room with a TV, a fully-equipped kitchen, and two bathrooms.
Spend your evenings relaxing on the terrace and in the gardens, where you’ll comfortable outdoor furniture, a barbecue and brilliant scenery.
5 Owen Street, Punakaiki 7873
Whether you choose to spend the night in Punakaiki or just pass through (as many choose to do), we recommend allowing yourself some time to explore this lovely little coastal town.