Arthur's Pass National Park. National Park in New Zealand, Oceania

Arthur's Pass National Park

National Park in New Zealand, Oceania

Arthur's Pass National Park Photo ©

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Arthur's Pass National Park

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With high mountains, large scree slopes, steep gorges and wide, braided rivers, the park straddles the main divide of the Southern Alps, which form the ‘back bone’ of New Zealand’s South Island.


The park is distinctly split in two by the Southern Alps, and straddles the edge of two tectonic plates. Gradual uplift over the past two million years raised the Alps. Much of the geography was formed by ancient glacial action, forming flat-bottomed, U-shaped valleys. Evidence of erosion is everywhere, in crumbling ridges, screes and riverbeds.

The source of the Waimakariri River (Wikipedia Article) is found in the park, close to the Waimakariri Falls Hut.

Mt. Murchison is the park’s highest peak, standing at 2,400 meters.


The indigenous Maori people used the passes through the Southern Alps to trade pounamu (greenstone/New Zealand jade) from Westland to Canterbury. Maori told European explorers of the location of Arthur’s Pass.

Explorer Arthur Dudley Dobson (Wikipedia Article) surveyed the pass in February 1864. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, the rush to link the city of Christchurch with the West Coast gold fields saw the road built in less than a year, opening in 1865. The road was a remarkable feat of pioneer road building. A thousand men with axes, picks, shovels, crowbars, wheelbarrows, rock drills, and explosives built the road during a bitterly cold winter. They would often spend a whole day clearing snow, only to find the next morning they had to do it over again.

Stagecoaches ran a regular service across the Southern Alps from 1886 to 1923 on the alpine road. The Arthur’s Pass coaches were New Zealand’s last horse-drawn coach service.

In 1923 the Otira rail tunnel was completed, providing a path through the mountains and spelling the end of the line for the Wild West days of backcountry travel. Cobb & Co was New Zealand’s most famous coaching brand, and a restaurant of the same name still exists in New Zealand today. A coach is preserved in the Arthur’s Pass Visitors Center.

The rugged terrain and inclement weather has meant that Arthur’s Pass has always been a difficult thoroughfare. Even today the road is frequently closed because of rock fall, slips or snow. A viaduct was built over the Otira Gorge in 1998-99 to replace this tricky section of road, and is a spectacular engineering feat.

The park was established in 1929, becoming the first national park in the South Island, and just the third in New Zealand. It is managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC).


The park is remarkable for its widely varying vegetation and habitats, with differences depending on which side of the main divide you are on. The eastern side is typically drier, with its slopes covered in mountain beech (tawhai). On the western side of the alps you can find lush-mixed podocarp rainforest and red-flowering rata, with a thick undergrowth of shrubs, ferns and mosses. Above the bushline, snow tussock alternates with alpine meadows.


The park is home to many Kea, a native alpine parrot famous (or notorious) for its inquisitive nature. Keas picking apart rubber fixings on the exteriors of parked cars are not unheard of! Scott's Track to Avalance Peak is a prime site for finding Kea in their natural environment, especially around the tree line. Young Kea, identified by a yellow ring around eyes and nostrils, often gather at the viaduct lookout (Death's Corner).

Also found in the park is the endangered great spotted kiwi (Roroa), the more mountain-loving of kiwi varieties. The kiwi is especially important, as New Zealand’s national bird. New Zealanders also informally call themselves “kiwis”. They are often heard around Arthur’s Pass Village, but are rarely seen. There may be up to 40 birds living in the Bealey Valley, which is more than the permanent human population of the area!

The male birds call year-round with a very loud high-pitched whistle. The females call in spring and summer with a loud warbling whistle. The best time to listen is the first two hours after dark.

If you are lucky, you may see the very rare blue duck, or Whio. Smaller than paradise shelducks, the birds are blue/grey in color with a reddish-brown chest. To take your chances, try Otira Gorge just below Windy Point, or the Otira Valley Track just above the footbridge. If you are lucky, be sure to report any sighings to DOC.

More common forest birds, such as bellbirds (Korimako) and fantails (Piwakawaka) also make their home in the area. The open braided rivers of the Waimakariri and Poulter provide nesting grounds for birds such as the wrybill (Ngutu Parore) and black-fronted tern (Tarapirohe).


Arthur’s Pass National Park is home to some of New Zealand’s most stunning, but treacherous, hiking trails. Extreme care must be taken at all times, and be sure to check in at the DOC Visitor Center before any hike. The Park offers short family hikes, through to expert-grade, multi-day walks. The following are some of the most popular.

Arthur’s Pass Walking Track

A 3.4-kilometer walk, this short walk offers a perfect snapshot of the best of Arthur’s Park. Passing through diverse alpine vegetation, waterfalls and wetlands, the track is an easy trail for families. The track can be started at the Punchbowl, Bealey Chasm (Jacks Hut), or Temple Basin car parks to walk all or part of the track, and return the same way.

From the Punchbowl car park it’s a 20-minute walk to the Bridal Veil Falls lookout through subalpine mountain beech forest to a small clearing with a picnic table, and good views of the falls, surrounding peaks and Arthur’s Pass village. Be sure to check out the striking red leaves of the Dracophyllum plant in spring and summer.

After crossing Bridal Veil Creek, the track travels through alpine shrublands and wetlands before reaching Jacks Hut – a restored roadman’s cottage. Built in 1879, the hut housed roadmen and their families responsible for maintaining the early highway. At Jack's Hut cross SH73 to Bealey Chasm car park and follow the track through old-growth mountain beech for good bird watching.

At the intersection with the Dobson Nature Walk, turn right to cross the road again to the Temple Basin car park or turn left to follow the Dobson Nature Walk to the Arthur’s Pass lookout on the summit of the Pass.

Temple Basin

A short 3-hour hike, this track starts from above the bushline at the State Highway 73 roadside carpark, 5 kilometers north of Arthur’s Pass township. Providing stunning views, the track cuts a zig-zag up the hill to an open tussock basin, and the Temple Basin Ski Club buildings. On a clear day you get magnificent views of Mount Rolleston (Wikipedia
	Article) across the valley.

Avalanche Peak – Crow River

This trail is perfect for a weekend trip. It features a backdrop of some of the best features of Arthur’s Park National Park – glaciers, mountain peaks, and ice-fed rivers. Crow Hut is at the bush edge in an alpine meadow.

Starting from Arthur’s Pass village on State Highway 73 (150 kilometers from Christchurch), the trail finishes at Klondyke Corner, 8 kilometers south of Arthur’s Pass village. There are two tracks that head to Avalanche Peak: Avalanche Peak Track is steeper and more direct, while Scotts Track climbs more gradually and has better views.

An unmarked trail then follows the ridgeline from the Avalanche Peak summit, before leaving the ridge and following a scree slope to Crow River. After following the riverbed downstream for a short distance, you will find Crow Hut. From the hut, continue to follow the river down, before crossing onto the Waimakariri flats.

Casey Saddle – Binser Saddle

A pleasant 2-day hike, this trail crosses easy saddles on well-defined tracks, through open mountain beech forest. The track starts at Andrew's Shelter on Mt. White Road. To get there, turn off State Highway 73, 24 kilometers east of Arthur’s Pass village.

The track is suitable for fit, well-equipped people with moderate tramping experience. The weather is regularly drier in this southeastern corner of the park than in Arthur’s Pass Village, so this hike can often be undertaken when conditions elsewhere in the park are unsuitable.


For overnight trips, there are many backcountry huts at the disposal of hikers. Tracks to reach these huts, however, are not as developed or marked as well as in other parks. In addition, most involve river crossings, and some are prone to avalanche risk in winter months. Check at the DOC visitor center for up to date information on huts and track conditions (or call +64 3 318 9211).

In Arthur’s Pass village itself, try the Arthur’s Pass Alpine Motel or Arthur’s Pass YHA for a budget option.

How to get there

State Highway 73, the main road between Greymouth and Christchurch in the South Island, runs right through the park and the village of Arthur’s Pass. Don’t be deterred by its curves and bends: it is one of New Zealand’s most scenic drives.

The park is two hours drive from Christchurch in the east, and around one and a half hour’s drive from Greymouth on the west coast.

Regular bus services operate between Greymouth, Hokitika, and Christchurch. The best view has to be from the windows of the Tranzalpine Express, a daily train journey between Christchurch and Greymouth, stopping at Arthur’s Pass.

Further Info

Arthur’s Pass National Park contains some very challenging terrain. Be sure that you are fully prepared and equipped for any hiking. Also check in at the DOC Visitor Center in the park before embarking for up-to-date weather and trail conditions.

As with all of New Zealand’s national parks, the weather can change rapidly. Be sure to bring warm and waterproof clothing, even in the height of summer.

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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Sep 06, 2015


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