Arthur’s Pass National Park
There is a striking difference between the habitats on either side of the main divide. Mountain beech/tawhai dominates eastern slopes. To the west is mixed podocarp rainforest and red-flowering râtâ, with a luxuriant understorey of shrubs, ferns and mosses. Above the bushline, snow tussock and alpine meadows can be seen quite easily on a short walk off the road, at the summit of Arthur’s Pass.
Look out for the kea – alpine parrots famous for their inquisitive nature. The endangered great spotted kiwi/roroa – the ‘mountaineer’ of kiwi – are also found in the park along with more common forest birds like bellbirds/koromiko and fantails/pîwakawaka. The open braided rivers of the Waimakariri and Poulter provide nesting grounds for birds such as wrybill/ngutu parore and black-fronted tern/tarapirohe.
Arthur’s Pass National Park is in the heart of the Southern Alps/Kâ Tiritiri o te Moana. Its high mountains with large scree slopes, steep gorges and wide braided rivers, straddles the main divide – the ‘back bone’ of the South Island – between Canterbury and the West Coast.
It’s a park of contrasts, with dry beech/tawhai forest in the east, luxuriant rainforest on western slopes, and a historic highway and railway running through the middle. Arthur’s Pass was established in 1929 and was New Zealand’s third national park and the first one in the South Island.
Culture and history
The passes through the Southern Alps were used by Mâori to trade pounamu/greenstone from Westland to Canterbury. Mâori told explorers of the location of Arthur’s Pass.
Arthur Dudley Dobson surveyed the pass in February 1864. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, the rush to link Christchurch with the West Coast gold fields saw the road built in less than a year, a remarkable feat of pioneer road building. But it was never an easy crossing through rugged terrain and unpredictable weather; even today the road is often closed because of rock fall, slips or snow.
The Otira rail tunnel took a little longer, and was completed in 1923. The viaduct, built in the Otira Gorge over 1998–99 to minimise the hazards of road travel, is a major engineering feat.
Did you know?
The road across Arthur’s Pass was built in less than a year (1865), during a bitterly cold winter. A thousand men with axes, picks, shovels, crowbars and wheelbarrows, rock drills and explosives worked in the rugged terrain. They would often spent a whole day clearing snow, only to find the next morning they had to do it over again.
Over 100 years later, the Otira viaduct was built to replace this section of road, and workers again suffered through wind, rain and snow to get the job done. Started in January 1998 it was completed two years later in November 1999.
Arthur’s Pass National Park Short Walks
Time: 10 min return
This easy walk starts beside the Visitor Centre. Follow the path along the base of the hill towards the village. Small trout are often seen in Avalanche Creek from the historic bridge. From here, the path goes up to a viewing platform overlooking the Avalanche Creek Waterfall, which is lit at night.
Village historic and interpretive walk
Time: 1 hr 30 min round trip
This leisurely, easy walk takes you around Arthur’s Pass village to historic sites. At each site photographs show you how the village used to look in the early 1900’s. A pamphlet for this walk is available from the Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre.
Devils Punchbowl Waterfall
Time: 1 hr return
The top of this spectacular fall (131 metres) can be seen from the main road, but a walk to the base of the waterfall is well worth doing in any weather, any time of the year.
A signpost just north of the Chalet Restaurant points to the carpark where the walk starts. The track goes up the side of the Bealey River and over two footbridges before zig-zagging up steps through the mountain beech forest to the waterfall's base. Return the same way.
Time: 1 hr 30 min return
This easy valley walk starts from the same carpark as the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall walk. After the first footbridge over the Bealey River, the track goes left through mountain beech forest. There is a view back to the village from a lookout, 20 minutes from the track start. Most of the track gradient is gentle, with a short steep section descending to cross Bridal Veil Creek about half way along.
Dobson Nature Walk
Nature walk loop
Time: 30 min return
This track, on the summit of Arthur’s Pass, offers a good introduction to the sub-alpine and alpine plants of this area. The alpine flowers are in bloom from November to February. An excellent self guided natural history booklet for this walk is available from the Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre.
The evenly graded track passes through a variety of alpine herbs, tussocks and shrubs. It also gives good views of the surrounding mountains.
To Otira Valley
Time: 1 hr 30 min return
When Lake Misery is low, you can carry on from the Nature Walk past the wetland area and through tall red tussock to the Otira Valley track.
Old Coach Road
Time: 30 min return
This pleasant forest walk starts and finishes near Greyneys Shelter, 6 km south of Arthur’s Pass village. It follows a gently graded section of the century-old coach road and leads back to the shelter on a more recent track. The Coach Road was cut into the hillside to avoid the Bealey riverbed, which is prone to floods.
You can still see sections of old rockwalling along one part of the track. It is suitable, but challenging for people using wheelchairs and for young children. At the northern end of the track there is a rope handrail. You can use it for guidance, so shut your eyes, and use your other senses as you move through the forest.
Cockayne Nature Walk
Time: 30 min return
The loop track starts from the carpark at the end of the side road behind Kellys Creek Shelter. It winds through the diverse podocarp-broadleaf forest of the West Coast. It climbs up over a small hill and comes back out near the shelter. A short connecting track leads back to the carpark. The track is named after Dr Leonard Cockayne, a renowned botanist, who provided the original inspiration to create Arthur’s Pass National Park.
Arthur’s Pass National Park Half Day Walks
Time: 3 - 4 hr return
This is an attractive well-graded walk through mountain beech forest to the base of Mount Rolleston. The track starts from a car-park three km north of Arthur’s Pass Village on SH 73. Jack’s Hut, an historic road worker’s hut, is just across the road.
The track is bridged across the Bealey River at ‘The Chasm’. It then goes through a tussock clearing and into the forest again before reaching the river. From here you can scramble up the river-bed to go further up the valley. Avalanched snow often collects at the head of the valley in winter and remains throughout the year. This forms a false glacier which is undercut by the Bealey River flowing below it.
Warning: Avalanche debris collected at the head of the valley may be unstable. Large rocks and chunks of ice can fall at any time. Do not walk on the avalanche debris.
In winter when there is avalanche hazard do not go past the avalanche warning sign in the Upper Bealey Valley.
Time: 2 hr return to the footbridge (unmarked route beyond)
The track leaves from a car-park beside SH 73, just north of Arthur’s Pass summit. This relatively easy graded track follows up a deep alpine valley on the northern side of Mt Rolleston. It climbs over an old glacial moraine, then follows the contour through subalpine scrub and tussock to the Otira River foot-bridge. On a good day this is an awesome walk to view the summer alpine flowers.
Warning: The track finishes at the foot-bridge. Travel past this point requires map reading and route finding skills. For experience alpine trampers and mountaineers only.
This track is subject to avalanche hazard in winter.
Time: 3 hr return
This track starts from above the bush-line at the SH 73 roadside car-park, five km north of Arthur’s Pass township. A nature photographer’s dream, the track zig-zags up the hill to an open tussock basin and the Temple Basin Ski Club buildings. On a clear day you get magnificent views of Mt Rolleston across the valley.
Arthur’s Pass National Park Day Walks
Time: 4 - 6 hr return
The track starts from the end of Cloudesley Road, off the main highway near the Bealey Hotel, 14 km south of Arthur’s Pass Village.
This walk is often a good choice when north-westerly winds are bringing rain to Arthur’s Pass - being further east, it is drier in these conditions. The track also appeals to many walkers because it is more gradual than most of the alpine tracks around Arthur’s Pass Village, and it does not climb above the bush-line. It is also well marked and is suitable for reasonably fit people who are well equipped.
The track climbs gently up the spur, through mountain beech forest. In summer look out for red flowering mistletoe near the start of the track. At one point there is a dramatic view down to Bruce Stream—take care with children. Higher up, the track passes through tussock grasslands and subalpine scrub, and passes near several tarns. There are expansive views of the Waimakariri River Valley and surrounding mountains.
The track ends at an historic hut, once used by musterers in the days when this area was farmed for sheep.
Time: 6 - 8 hr return
This is the most popular day walking peak at Arthur’s Pass. It is the only peak in Arthur’s Pass that is marked by a poled route to the summit. The climb is 1100 metres from the village and, on a fine day, you will be rewarded with fine views of the surrounding peaks, particularly of Mt Rolleston and the Crow Glacier on its southern face. There are two tracks to the summit, Scotts Track and Avalanche Peak Track, both of which start from Arthur’s Pass Village.
If you wish to climb to the bush-line only, Scotts track is the best local track for views, particularly of Mt Rolleston, the highest peak near Arthur’s Pass Village. You also get an excellent view of Punchbowl Falls 10 minutes up from the start of the track.
Be sure to take the map and Arthur’s Pass: Avalanche Peak Route Guide available from the Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre.
Warning: In winter this track is subject to avalanche hazard. In winter conditions you must carry snow and ice climbing equipment and know how to use it.
Time: 6 hr return
This track starts at Kellys Creek Shelter beside SH 73, three km north of Otira Village. It is a steep climb through rata/kamahi forest and subalpine scrub. This leads onto the tussock grasslands which surround the hut on the Kelly Range. On fine days there are good views from the saddle behind the hut looking down the Taramakau River to the West Coast.
With thanks to the NZ Department of Conservation for some of this information.