There are plenty of ways to travel through New Zealand, and some pretty epic journeys at that. Perhaps the most impressive, though, is Arthur’s Pass, a mountain road and railway which traverses across from the east to the west of the South Island (and vice versa). The Southern Alps is the glorious mountainous seam which splits New Zealand’s South Island, and Arthur’s Pass crosses them to connect Canterbury with Westland.
As well as the highway being an odyssey in and of itself, Arthur’s Pass National Park is a mecca of adventure. The mountains are home to ski fields, hiking tracks, gorgeous rivers and fantastic mountaineering, whether you’re after a quick trip or a few days of adventure off the grid.
Why is it called Arthur’s Pass?
First thing’s first. Who is Arthur? Arthur’s pass was named after Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson, who first discovered the route in 1864 with his brother, and was later knighted for his ‘discovery’. When the West Coast gold rush began with a roar the next year, they needed a way to transport all the gold over to Canterbury, and fast. Dobson quickly got to work, organising the building of the road (now known as State Highway 73) and railway over Arthur’s Pass and across to the West Coast. In 1929, the area got made into a national park. The railway line is an absolute feat of engineering, with bridges, viaducts and rock shelters.
These days, Arthur’s Pass is popular with tourists, hikers, mountaineers and skiers alike. And kea of course; New Zealand’s native alpine parrot, and one of the cheekiest, cleverest birds on the planet.
How high is Arthur’s Pass?
Arthur’s Pass is located at an altitude of about 740 metres, making Arthur’s Pass Village one of the highest settlements in New Zealand. Pack your woollies! The highest mountain in Arthur’s Pass National Park is Mt Rolleston, sitting pretty at 2275m.
Is Arthur’s Pass worth visiting?
It might not have quite the frenzy of the gold rush of days gone, but Arthur’s Pass is still spectacular, and absolutely worth visiting. The journey itself brings plenty of visitors, whether they make the pilgrimage by road, train, pedal or foot. The two sides of the Southern Alps are vastly different, making the divide a dramatic one. The eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park, is characterized by the wide, shingle-filled valleys and beech forest of Canterbury, whilst the western side becomes dense with classically West Coast rainforest almost instantly, and rewards with views of the wild and rugged Tasman sea.
In the winter, Arthur’s Pass National Park becomes a snow lovers playground, and is popular mostly with folks from Christchurch. There are five ski fields on the Craigieburn range, and one on the divide at the summit of Arthur’s Pass. The closest to Christchurch is Porter’s which is the only commercial field – the rest are all club fields. If you’ve never had a New Zealand club field experience, Canterbury is absolutely the place to do it.
For those properly equipped and experienced, the mountaineering is fantastic in the Arthur’s Pass National Park, too, and rewards explorers with views down to Christchurch, the Canterbury plains and the east coast to one side, and the luscious, wild west coast to the other. This is an alpine area, so always remember to check the avalanche forecast; when the snow comes, there can be avalanche risks all over the park. Come summer, there are some awesome hiking trails to be found, and they’re easily accessible from Christchurch. The Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, for example, is 150m of crashing waterfalls, found at the end of an easy one kilometer walk (one way). Start from the northern end of Arthur’s Pass Village, just off State Highway 73, and head into the Bealey Valley.
Believe it or not, a lot of people choose to walk the length of New Zealand, and Arthur’s Pass is part of that trail, which is called Te Araroa. Crossing the pass is an incredible walk, but does come with some warnings. Arthur’s Pass National Park is the most undeveloped in the country, which means few track markings and very few bridges. This makes river crossings pretty sketchy after heavy rainfall, and the department of conservation warns hikers to take care. Station up at your hut for an extra night or two if the weather has brought a lot of rainfall and the rivers are in flood, and search for other trampers (Kiwi speak for hikers) to meet up with for this section of your walk.
The Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre in the middle of the village has plenty of information about hikes and trips in the area, and is also good to check in with about avalanche risks and any weather warnings. The visitor centre also has day visitor gear storage, if you’ve hopped off the train to explore for the day.
You don’t have to be active to enjoy the attractions of Arthur’s Pass National Park, either. The landscape is insane, so even if you’re just gawking from behind a window, Arthur’s Pass is worth the trip.
How do I get to Arthur’s Pass from Christchurch?
No one is stopping you from the hiking or biking the 150 kilometers from Christchurch through Arthur’s Pass National Park to Arthur’s Pass Village, but the most popular option by far is the TranzAlpine train. This is one of New Zealand’s most incredible train journeys, and takes about five hours from coast to coast, with wide panoramic views the whole way.
The TranzAlpine train leaves from Christchurch railway station, also known as Addington Railway Station, within the modern Tower Junction retail park in Addington on the southwestern edge of Christchurch city. It coasts across the Canterbury plains before winding its way up the mighty Southern Alps. If there was one way to really experience the diversity of the South Island, this scenic journey into the mountains would be it.
While you’re in the Canterbury area, take a few extra days to explore Christchurch. It may not have quite the pizzazz of Queenstown or the culture of Wellington, but Christchurch city has a whole lot to love, especially with the recent earthquake rebuild efforts. Beachlovers, head for Sumner, and for a bit of quirky culture, make a beeline for arty village Lyttleton. The Christchurch Art Gallery in the city is outstanding, and Hagley Park is a pretty dreamy way to spend an afternoon. While it’s cold in winter, blue skies often abound and the mountain is only an hour way to hit the slopes. Trust us, it’s worth giving Christchurch a chance.
Where does the TranzAlpine go?
The TranzAlpine crosses the scenic alpine route between Christchurch and Greymouth, connecting the wide open plains of Canterbury with the lush West Coast. It’s a stunning scenic journey across arguably New Zealand’s most iconic pass, with wide panoramic windows and an open air viewing carriage to take in the alpine scenery. There are snacks and drinks on board, but we guarantee you won’t want to tear your eyes away from the window for too long. The nature is just too good.
From the eastern side, the train snakes through the Canterbury plains along the edges of the glacier-fed Waimakariri River and through miles of native beech forest before traversing the Southern Alps. It stops off at Arthur’s Pass Village along the way, which is perfect for a hot drink and some quick snaps. Then, it’s over and across to the western side. The West Coast is exposed to almost endless weather systems coming in from the west, which means it gets a whole lot more rainfall than anywhere else in the country. As well as a likelihood of a wet holiday over this side, this also means thundering waterfalls, dense native New Zealand rainforest and abundant birdlife.
The train goes on to Greymouth, the perfect launching pad to explore the coast. From tropical Karamea in the north all the way down to Jackson Bay, the west coast is wild, weird and absolutely stunning. Snow covered mountains tower over the ocean, native forest meets crashing seas and rivers snake their way through foggy valleys. There are also many, many sandflies, but don’t let that put you off. Bring your raincoat; the weather doesn’t muck around and delivers dumpings of rainfall at very short notice.
Where do you stop on Arthur’s Pass?
The TranzAlpine makes some charming stops along the way, and there’s absolutely no need to rush; if you’ve got the time, hop off and stay for the night and jump on the train the next day (or week). Probably the most popular is Arthur’s Pass Village, which is a great base for exploring the nature on offer, with a handful of accommodation options and a visitor centre to help you get the most of your trip.
From the village, explore all the nature that the National Park has to offer. In summer, this means walks, walks and more walks, through native forest and across mountain ridges. For a quick and easy walk, hit the Bealey Valley track. From the car park opposite Jacks Hut, the track crosses Bealey Chasm, a narrow channel where the river gushes over huge boulders. The track, which takes about half an hour, ends at the Bealey River. Take extra care past this point in winter, as the route is subject to avalanche hazard. In fact, whatever time of year you visit, it’s important to remember that this is an alpine environment, and the weather can turn at any point, no matter how easy a route you are on.
Or, explore the Otira Valley Track, which takes about 40 minutes from the end of Arthur’s Pass summit down to the footbridge. Or, take the mountaineer’s route to the head of the Otira valley, which takes about three to four hours.
Arthur’s Pass is also home to one of the biggest kea populations in the South Island. Kea are the world’s only alpine parrot, and one of the coolest animals nature has on offer. They’re said to have the intelligence of a four year old child, and when we say curious and cheeky, we mean they’ll pull the rubber off your car. They’re very cute though, and endlessly entertaining, but best to be enjoyed from a distance, and try not to play with them or leave food around.
Another great stop off on the journey across is Moana and Lake Brunner, located about halfway between Arthur’s Pass and Greymouth. Moana is a quaint fishing town on the shores of the lake, surrounded by gorgeous rivers and forest to explore. It’s a tiny settlement with camping sites and a store, but it’s made a name for itself for its abundant stocks of brown trout – they say trout come here to die of old age.
From the last stop in Greymouth, the coast is your oyster. Jump on two wheels and hit the wilderness trail, visit the historic Brenner mine, or take a tour of the Monteith’s Brewery. When the conditions are right, this coast also offers amazing surf, so grab a board and hit the road. Head north and check out the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, or south to the glaciers at Fox and Franz Josef.
Can you stay in Arthur’s Pass?
Most of Arthur’s Pass National Park is undeveloped and boasts far more wild space than accommodation. Arthur’s Pass Village, though, has a range of accommodation available, from cheap and cheerful backpackers or camping sites to a handful of different alpine lodges.