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State Highway 6: Nelson, through mountain passes to Westport

The beginnings of State Highway 6 are in sunny Nelson where foodie trails, heritage and scenery add to a glamorous bookend to a New Zealand holiday experience. Then it’s off on a backcountry iconic road trip State Highway 6. Have you ever heard of Murchison? Here is a trip from Nelson to Murchison and beyond where west meets wild New Zealand. A scenic route through a roll call of gold mining nineteenth century towns of Murchison, Buller Gorge and Reefton. The scenery is classic landscape scenery, a photo opportunity around every bend while you wander, linger and explore the hidden corners. The holiday has options to fit the interests of families from adrenaline jet boating, exploring a bee hive or vigorous walks among 19th gold prospecting trails.

Trip Overview

Follow the trail of coal and gold on SH6 where to go and what to see


  • Spooners Tunnel walk (part of the Great Taste Trail)
  • Buller Gorge road hugging corners over turbulent white white river
  • Murchison and adrenaline lacked attractions
  • Abandoned cemeteries, forgotten towns
  • Lyell Cemetery and Old Ghost Trail
  • Westport

Duration: 1 day or several days
Start Nelson
Finish Westport


This trip is part of the Great West Coast Road (West Coast, South Island) check the following sections for details. You can travel this section independently or part of a larger trip. The larger trip is from the top of the South Island, Nelson to the bottom of the South Island, Invercargill.

For details about the kiwi towns the route passes or major settlements, linger, stay, spend as much time as you want.

Brightwater & heritage trails

Whistle stop photo moment at Brightwater and perhaps check out the wineries.  It is Nelson after all with its well known wine trails.  There are two heritage church’s worth a second look for those interested in New Zealand church architecture.

Brightwater highlights

  • Home to Lord Rutherford memorial, birthplace
  • Kaimara Winery
  • Middle-Earth Winery
  • Great Taste Cycle Trail entrance / exit
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Spooners Range tunnel
Great Taste Trail Spooners Tunnel, New Zealand @George Guille Media
Great Taste Trail Spooners Tunnel @George Guille Media

Great Taste Trail: Wakefield to Kohatu Spooners Range tunnel is 1.35 km in length and it is a shared tunnel with the Great Taste Cycling Trail.  It is an even surface with floor lighting which is triggered by movement.  It is advisable you wear a head torch to assist with vision.  The tunnel is hand carved. Check Travel Pack Information for details around the tunnel construction and history.

The 1.35 km-long tunnel was completed in 1893.  The tunnel closed when the railway was decommissioned in 1955. The tunnel lay mostly unused for 60 years until it was re-opened in 2016 to become part of the Great Taste Trail.

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Nelson Honey Shop & Quinney's Bush Camp
@Quinney's Bush Camp
@Quinney's Bush Camp

Quinney’s Bush Camp offers the chance to dry fly fish the Motupiko River. Motupiko River is a well known haunt for dry fly fishing.  Quinney’s Bush Camp has extensive adventure playground amenities including flying fox, water slides into the local river, hammocks, go-cart rides and skatepark.

Nelson Honey (walk across the road from Qinney’ Bush Camp) Nelson Honey New Zealand, Manuka Honey, Royal Nectar, Nectar Ease.

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Kawatiri Rail Tunnel
Kawatiri River trail deserted beach, a solitary surfer, South Island, New Zealand
Kawatiri, South Island

Located at Kawatiri Junction at the intersection of SH6 and SH63, the tunnel is 35 km northeast of Murchison. There is an information shelter, picnic site and toilets beside the large parking area. The walk starts from a carpark with information panels detailing the rich history of the area. The drive from Nelson to Murchison, through mountain beech forest, is your first taste of South Island high country forest and it is tantalizing.  At the Kawatiri junction wander to the river and there is the famous tea coloured water of the Southern Alps.  It looks as though crystal clear water has had tea poured into the stream.  Vegetation leeches tannin and favours the water with light bronze colours.

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Quirky original junk is someone's treasure shop Murchison, the business was for sale!
Quirky original junk is someone's treasure shop Murchison

Murchison’s story and the Buller River and its tributaries are inextricably entwined.  The Buller is 177 km in length originating in the Nelson Lakes National Park.  The Buller meets the sea at Westport.  Near Murchison the Buller River becomes a force to be reckoned with.  The Matakitaki, Mangles and Matiri Rivers flow into the Buller forming a major confluence. Flowing through narrow granite gorges the river boils and roars its way past Murchison.

Murchison is part of the Nelson Regional District yet you are in an area where it is wild meets the west coast.  The South Island west coast ethos is alive and well in Murchison.

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Murchison to Westport
Westport main street South Island, West Coast, New Zealand
Westport main street South Island, West Coast

This part of the road trip is about fabulous, glorious South Island scenery.  For even jaded New Zealanders the road from Murchison to Westport is the most beautiful in the country.  Breathtaking mountains vie with plunging gorges and the roar of white water. Maori prospectors were the first to obtain gold from the Lyell region and by 1863 the gold rush had started. There are heritage sites to explore, perhaps some gold prospecting and bridges that sweep over numerous rivers and cataracts.

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Buller gorge
Beautiful scenery at Buller River, South Island, New Zealand
Buller River, South Island

The Buller gorge flows through a deep canyon between Murchison and Westport.  There are two sections to the gorge, Upper Buller Gorge and Lower Buller Gorge. State Highway 6 runs alongside the gorge through cut rock faces and the river is your companion.  There are stupendous moments where you are suspended between the river and the road. The route SH6 on this trip is the Upper Buller Gorge only. The Lower Buller Gorge SH6 leads to Westport.

Points of interest on the Buller Gorge route…

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Swing Bridge
New Zealand’s longest swingbridge at 110 metres (360 ft) in length spans the Buller River 14 kilometres west of Murchison in the Upper Buller Scenic Reserve
New Zealand’s longest swingbridge at 110 metres (360 ft) in length spans the Buller River

As you depart from Murchison you will notice signs for Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park. It’s the home of New Zealand’s longest swing bridge.  Crossing the white water magic of the Buller River on a swing bridge leads to a park where you can pan for gold, learn about the gold mining heritage of the area and do a giant zipline across the surging Buller river. The bridge is 110m in length and 19m above the Buller River.  There is an admission fee to cross the bridge. For views of the Buller swing bridge turn onto New Creek Road and park.

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Maruia Falls
Maruia waterfall in New Zealand
Maruia waterfall

Maruia Falls are a short distance from the swing bridge. An easy 10 minute walk from the carpark. (SH65). The waterfalls are the result of the 1929 Murchison earthquake which forced the Maruia Rivercut a new channel over an old river bank. The 10 metre falls are easily accessible from SH65 and are only a short 5-minute walk from the roadside car park. The roar of water hitting the deep pools is background to the wide sweep of waterfalls easily visible from the track. This torrent of water is joining up with the Buller River increasing its volume to create the natural spectacle of the Buller gorge.

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Lyell Cemetery
Cemeteries, forgotten graves. Lyell historic graveyard Buller Gorge
Historic graveyard of Lyell

Lyell Historic Reserve has ample parking, a Department of Conservation Campground, water and toilet facilities.  The campsite has signposts to Lyell Cemetery. Leaving from the campsite, the track passes the former Catholic Church site and enters native beech forest clinging to a steep hillside and leads on to one of the more picturesque goldfield cemeteries.  The headstones, some in lace iron fenced plots are of young people and tell the story of tragic deaths.  It is quiet and the surrounding beach trees offer a place of contemplation.  Between 30 and 40 people were buried here from 1880 to 1900.

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Lower Buller Gorge
Westport, New Zealand

The road is suspended on its rocky base above the fast flowing river with the narrow winding road demanding the attention of the driver. For passengers it is an exhilarating section with the surging river water below and the sweep of dense bush up and around the road surface. Look out for Kilkenny lookout and Hawkes Crag as dramatic highpoints of this section of the road. Your journey into Westport continues to follow the path of the Buller River.

For more information about Westport check Westport Guide what to do and see.

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