Arthur’s Pass. The Great Alpine Highway. State Highway 73. Scenic Route. Whatever you want to call it, there’s only one road in and out of Arthur’s Pass National Park. It’s a mountain pass that takes you from the Christchurch area in the Canterbury Region to the West Coast on the South Island through the Southern Alps. As I’m sure you could’ve guessed, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. I know I’ve mentioned some stellar roads in New Zealand, but Arthur’s Pass had me hitting the car windows and pulling over every few minutes to take pictures and soak it all in. No joke. The first leg of the trip from the Christchurch area actually consisted of some of the straightest roads I experienced in NZ, up until you hit the mountains, of course. Most of the way you see the Alps in the distance, and it’s smooth sailing straight for them. It wouldn’t be right if there weren’t switchbacks, though, so throw some in there, add a little snow, and you’ve got yourself the “Great Alpine” part.
On a couple of the steep ascents, I literally had the pedal to the medal, and I wasn’t sure we were going to make it up. Granted, we were in a Griswold station wagon, but keep that in mind if going in wintertime! [Although NZ tends to just close the roads if conditions are bad.] We winded our way through the mountain range, and as if the drive itself wasn’t cool enough, NZ offers up some of the most scenic “rest stops” in the world (or so I imagine). Introducing Castle Hill.
You can get out and stretch your legs or play a game of hide & seek at this incredible site. Natural boulders line the hills, and dirt/muddy paths lead you around – some are pretty steep, but the views? Totally worth it.
There are a couple other scenic reserves to check out on the way, like this, but there’s never enough time for all of New Zealand’s beauty. Arthur’s Pass is a tiny little town that marks the halfway point along the route, and as you start the second leg of the journey, it’s almost as if you’re in an entirely different place. Mountain alpine turns rainforest. The waterfalls were so perfectly nestled into the mountainside, and the dreary day made the fog float mysteriously across the valley, clearing ever so slightly sometimes to reveal the lush vegetation. If cutting across to the west coast, this is the road you need to take.
Or…if you want to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, hop on the TranzAlpine train. Known as one of the world’s most famous train journeys, it takes you from Christchurch to Greymouth in about 4.5 hours. Book here, and you can even add stops to your trip!
Not a whole lot of options, as Arthur’s Pass is a teensy town, but the YHA Mountain House is great. It’s right in the village, has good internet, and pretty nice facilities 🙂 There are more options outside of the town, but being right in the center provides great access to the hikes – all within about a 5 minute walk.
- Grocery Store – decent selection considering it’s in the middle of nowhere, but closes at 5:00pm.
- One restaurant: The Wobbly Kea
Awesome. The main reason for visiting Arthur’s Pass (other than the drive in, of course). There are plenty of hikes in and around Arthur’s Pass whether you want a quick jaunt or a multi-day adventure. I’m more of a day hiker myself…
- Avalanche Peak: probably the most famous hike in the area, but if going in wintertime, you must go prepared. [Think: ice axe, good gear, and crampons] It’s supposedly a 6-8 return hike, but because we were there in winter and short on time, we didn’t get the chance to do this one. (Track begins right behind Visitor Center.)
- Devil’s Punchbowl: This is an easy 1 hour return hike that takes you to the base of a giant waterfall. Don’t miss this one. (There’s a carpark right off the road in the center of the village where it begins.)
- Mount Aicken: If you want to go off the beaten path, this is your hike. It’s on the way to the Punchbowl Falls, and the sign is slightly hidden. As soon as I pointed it out, I regretted it. The sign said “steep & rugged” and something along the lines of “for experienced hikers only”. We started to ascend, and it was an awesome trek because it really was steep and rugged. We pretty much climbed it on all fours, and there was no clear path. Some parts were wet, some were icy, and some were sketchy. We didn’t know how long it was to the tree line so we never made it to the top, but about halfway up were some pretty spectacular lookout points. Although I was out of breath most of the time, it was worth the struggle.
- Arthur’s Pass Walking Track: An all encompassing hike that begins at the same place as the Devil’s Punchbowl. It curves through beech forest, over streams, and into wetlands and takes about an hour and a half one way. (You return via the same track.) When you reach the highway, you can cross and continue on for more hiking or turn back if you’ve had enough. The other side is the starting point for the Bealey Valley walk, and a 5 minute stroll will take you to the Bealey Chasm. You can also carry on to the Dobson Nature Walk that will guide you to Arthur’s Pass Lookout. Might as well do it all.
All of the hikes are easily accessible from Arthur’s Pass Village. Big green signs clearly mark the tracks, and guide you along the way. I’d be impressed if you got lost.
- Good news, there is a petrol station in Arthur’s Pass village if you’re running on empty, but it’s not typically the cheapest option.
- And just so we’re clear, Arthur’s Pass is a village, a road, and a national park.
“The best things come in small packages.”
Arthur’s Pass village may be so little that if you blink, you’ll miss it, but it’s anything but insignificant. And besides, the mountains have a way of making you and everything else seem so small.