Arthur's Pass National Park: The Complete Guide

forested mountains in background and blue river with stony banks in foreground

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Arthur's Pass National Park

Address
Canterbury 7875, New Zealand
Phone +64 3 318 9211

New Zealand's Arthurs Pass National Park was the first national park to be formed in the South Island, back in 1929. The park was established to protect alpine flora and fauna that still attract visitors almost 100 years later.

Offering day hikes and challenging long-distance hikes, Arthur's Pass lies approximately in the center of the South Island, in the mountainous terrain of the Southern Alps. The pass itself is 3,020 feet (920 meters) high and is on the boundary between the Canterbury and West Coast regions. Travelers with less time or limited mobility can also enjoy views of the park via one of New Zealand's greatest train rides.

Things to Do

Climbing: As a mountainous national park, mountaineering and rock climbing can be enjoyed here. There are even options for relative climbing novices, unlike at some of the national parks further south. Mount Rolleston is especially suitable for climbers with less experience.

Mountain Biking: Mountain biking options are limited in this park but the available trails are great for beginners or families. The Poulter Valley area of the park has an easy trail that takes two hours one way or a longer intermediate trail that takes about three-and-a-half hours one way. Bikers must stick to formed roads and not venture off track as this might damage flora and fauna.

Bird Watching: The two strikingly different ecosystems on the eastern and western sides of the mountains provide various habitats for native New Zealand birds. Look out for cheeky kea (mountain parrots), kiwi, wrybills, and black-fronted terns along the banks of the open braided rivers of the Waimakariri and Poulter.

Woman in a yellow jacket walking over a footbridge across a river towards a group of mountains in Arthurs Pass
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Best Hikes and Trails

Most of the hikes in this park are challenging and require good backcountry experience and skills. The terrain itself is difficult to manage, but the high altitude makes the hikes even more challenging. River crossing skills are also required because most streams and rivers along hiking routes aren't bridged, and heavy and unexpected rainfall can cause river levels to rise quickly. The routes here are also less developed compared to other New Zealand national parks.

  • Bealey Valley: Possibly the shortest, easiest hike in the Arthur's Pass National Park, the Bealey Valley walk can take as little as five minutes or as long as 25 minutes. Five minutes of walking from the parking lot will take you to Bealy Chasm, where water gushes over large boulders. Keep walking a bit further for great views of Mount Rolleston.
  • Otira Valley: The Otira Valley walk is an easy 90-minute walk through a deep alpine valley. Summer is a great time to walk this as you'll see colorful alpine flowers. Stop at the Otira River footbridge if you want to keep this as an easy hike. Navigating the trail beyond the bridge requires map-reading and route-finding skills.
  • Devils Punchbowl Walking Track: Everybody enjoys a hike that ends in a waterfall, especially when that waterfall is one of the most beautiful in New Zealand. The trail takes about one hour, return, and is classified as easy.
  • Avalanche Peak Route: If you're an expert hiker but don't have time for a multi-day trip, this challenging six- to eight-hour hike to the top of Avalanche Peak is a good option. It's the only peak in this national park that's marked with a poled route to the summit, making this aspect of navigation relatively easy, even if the rest of the hike isn't. The trail ascends about 3,600 vertical feet but the views at the top are incredible. Take the peak's name seriously: avalanches are a hazard, especially in winter and spring.
  • Avalanche Peak Crow River Route: If you're up for an adventure, and have the experience and skills to get you through, the Avalanche Peak Crow River route is a challenging two-day hike worth the effort. You'll experience some of the biggest attractions of this national park—mountains, glaciers, and icy rivers—and stay overnight at a hut in an alpine meadow.

Check out the Department of Conservation's website for more hikes in the Arthurs Pass National Park. Note that most longer-distance hikes are classified as "advanced" or "expert".

Where to Camp

Camping in New Zealand's national parks is only permitted at Department of Conservation (DOC)-run sites and tramping huts. There are four campsites within Arthur's Pass National Park, all of which offer facilities for campervans and caravans as well as tent camping.

Two standouts are the Avalanche Creek Shelter Campsite, just outside Arthur's Pass Village, and the Klondyke Corner Campsite, which is very popular in summer.

In addition to campsites, there are many tramping huts in this park, ranging from basic to serviced. These cater specifically to long-distance hikers and are usually in locations far off the road that must be hiked to. Basic huts don't need to be booked in advance but serviced ones do, particularly in the summer.

Where to Stay Nearby

If camping isn't for you, there are a number of motels and lodges in and around Arthur's Pass Village and along State Highway 73 (SH73) that runs through the park. Many people pass through this national park when traveling from Christchurch to the West Coast, or vice versa, and therefore stay in Christchurch, Greymouth, or Hokitika.

photo taken from a moving train with mountains and clouds

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How to Get There

Unlike many national parks in New Zealand, a state highway (SH73) passes right through Arthur's Pass National Park. It's easy to drive to or through the park en route between Christchurch and the West Coast. SH73 emerges on the West Coast at Kumara Junction, which is roughly halfway between Greymouth and Hokitika. It's a very scenic route and the drive between Christchurch and Arthur's Pass Village takes about two hours without any stops. From Arthur's Pass Village it's about another hour from there to Kumara Junction. If you're not self-driving, regular long-distance buses travel between Christchurch, Greymouth, and Hokitika.

Alternatively, you can visit the park on the TranzAlpine train that travels between Christchurch and Greymouth. The journey takes a bit longer than traveling by car (about five hours) but the benefits of train travel are that it's more environmentally friendly and you can move around, use the bathrooms onboard, enjoy the views from the viewing carriage, and eat in the dining car. Trains run once per day in either direction.

Accessibility

Thanks to this park's physical accessibility by road and rail, travelers who are unable to hike or bike can still enjoy the mountain views. You don't even need to leave your vehicle or train to experience Arthur's Pass National Park. Some very short walking trails also let travelers with small children or limited mobility enjoy great views without having to walk far.

Tips for Your Visit

  • As mentioned, a majority of the hikes in Arthur's pass require considerable backcountry experience.
  • Travelers coming from other national parks in New Zealand may be surprised that the trails and tramping huts here aren't as well developed as in some other parks. This adds to the challenge of hiking here and is something potential travelers should be aware of, for their safety as well as their comfort.
  • Avalanches occur between May and November (late autumn to late spring). Take extra care if you're hiking in the park outside the more popular summer season.
  • If you're leaving your car at a trailhead while you head out on a hike, don't leave valuables in your vehicle. Cars are frequently broken into. Opt for more public, visible parking spots over remote ones, where possible.
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What to Expect From a Visit to Arthur's Pass National Park