Castle Hill and Arthurs Pass Hiking

By New Zealand Trails

6 minute read

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Our 13 day World Heritage New Zealand Walking Tour is packed full of highlights, so in true New Zealand Trails style, we'd like to slow things down and take some time to introduce you to each day of the tour.

Day one of our New Zealand hiking tour takes in the best of the Canterbury High Country - Castle Hill, Arthur's Pass hiking and the Great Alpine Highway. This part of the country is one that we know exceptionally well and we have spent many happy days here with guests on our New Zealand hiking tours. The Canterbury High Country is a truly stunning part of the South Island all year round and is the perfect place to start your adventure. Our tour begins in Christchurch with the amazing high country an hour’s drive away and that's where we'll head as soon as we've met your fellow guests and are ready to depart the ‘Garden City’.

The road from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass is undoubtedly one of New Zealand's great roads. There are so many highlights on the journey but we would like to focus on three of our favourites - the Bealey Valley, Castle Hill and the Otira lookout.

Arthurs Pass Hiking - the Bealey Valley

The name 'Bealey' is synonymous with the Arthur's Pass region and comes from an early superintendent of the Canterbury province, Samuel Bealey. In this area there is Mount Bealey, the Bealey Spur, the Bealey River, the Bealey Hotel and the original name for Arthur's Pass township was Bealey Flats. Somewhat confusingly, all of these places are in different locations, but just follow your guide and you'll end up at the right place! The Bealey Valley is just five minutes past Arthur's Pass Village, accessed from a small carpark on the road to Greymouth. There are a lot of Arthur’s Pass day walks, but the Bealey Valley walk is our favourite. For such a short hike, the views are spectacular!

Snow capped mountains in Arthurs Pass

Snow-capped vistas abound, surrounded by lush forest. Keen to join in?

We start our walk in beautiful lush native beech forest, real Lord of the Rings territory. As the altitude is much higher here (750m / 2500ft) than on other forest walks in our tour, we are walking in mountain beech forest, with trees in exposed places stunted and contorted by the alpine elements. You can feel the natural energy in this world of green, so soak it up and start to unwind.

As we cross the Bealey River bridge, it’s impossible not to marvel at the crystal-clear mountain waters cascading through the mini-gorge below - quite a sight when the river is in flood too. After a short climb from the bridge, we find an alpine wetland, a natural clearing in the forest with a thick peat soil. Upon taking a closer look, sometimes we'll see Kiwi footprints - there is a mating pair of Kiwi living in the Bealey Valley permanently and the local conservation volunteers are regular visitors. From the clearing, we'll also get our first view of the permanent glaciers of Mount Rolleston, the highest mountain in Arthur's Pass National Park at 2300m (7500ft). Once through the wetland, we're back in the forest for our gentle hike along the trail to our lunch spot, to take in the panoramic mountain outlooks whilst enjoying a hot cuppa served by your guide. 

Arthurs Pass National Park river

Gorgeous, crystal-clear alpine water rushes through the rapids below you as you cross the bridge.

After our break we'll continue on up the trail for some real variety; after only 20 minutes or so we'll leave the forest and enter the subalpine zone. This stretch of the walk offers a stark contrast in views and environment, as we've left behind the lush green world of the beech forest and are now walking through the subalpine flora such as native daisies, buttercups (including the Mount Cook buttercup) and even the rare New Zealand edelweiss. The mountains are all around and above us at this point, which is one of the highlights of this walk. We're in the heart of the Southern Alps but only a two hour drive and a little honest hiking from New Zealand's third largest city.

Mount Cook Lily in Arthurs Pass New Zealand

Keep your eye out for these cheerful native flowers, the Mount Cook Buttercup.

Depending on how much snow we've had through the winter, the Bealey Glacier often extends right down the valley to where we're hiking. It's a real treat when we can actually walk up to the end of the glacier - not bad considering where we started the day! The top of the Bealey Valley looks very alpine, but in reality it's a short hike that takes less than three hours even with breaks from our trailhead - that's what makes this hike one of our favourites in the whole country.

The Bealey Valley is home to pristine mountain beech forest, a clear alpine stream, a wetland environment, alpine flowers, glacier views and even more at the right time of year. All of this, combined with easy access from the main road and Christchurch, make it one of the best New Zealand day hikes.

'The spiritual centre of the universe' Castle Hill / Kura Tawhiti

A popular stop along the Great Alpine Highway and the perfect contrast to the lush beech forests of Arthur's Pass, this part of the Canterbury High Country was once home to forest life too. Over centuries, the bush has been cleared by both Maori and European settlers. The huge limestone boulders provided shelter for Maori food gathering and greenstone (Pounamu) parties and has the name Kura Tawhiti, which means “the treasure from a distant land" in reference to the precious food source, the kumara (sweet potato), which was brought over and cultivated here. European history here goes back 150 years, as the first Canterbury settlers spread out from the plains into the High Country in search of land to graze their stock. The history to neighbouring Castle Hill station is a whole encyclopaedia in itself.

The presence of the limestone rock formations is truly breath-taking - you'll see them from a long distance on your approach. You may even spot the extremely rare Castle Hill buttercup. These small, bright yellow flowers are fenced off to protect them.

There's an easy flat walking track up to the boulders, with your guide leading the way through the maze before you arrive at the centre of the rocks. It’s not difficult to imagine groups of early travellers resting under the rock overhangs and preparing a traditional feast (hangi) around the cooking fires. There's an energy here that is almost tangible. Upon his visit in 2002, the Dalai Lama christened Castle Hill as a "Spiritual Centre of the Universe".

Castle Hill, Bealey Valley

An incredible sight rewards you here at Castle Hill, steeped with history.

Otira Lookout

Ten minutes past Arthur's Pass village is the Otira Viaduct Lookout, perched on the edge of the bluff just on the Western side of the Main Divide. This is a compulsory stop on our tours for a number of reasons; the true pass is actually on the western side of the village, so a visit to the Otira Lookout takes us over the high point of the road and the Main Divide of the Southern Alps. It’s one pretty impressive road especially when you take a look at the original route which was in use until relatively recently (1999). It certainly gives visitors an appreciation of how tough the early settlers had it! They would make their arduous journey to the West Coast in all weather, perched high on their stagecoach and traversing the rocky road in a generation that didn't pay too much heed to health and safety.

Keas at Otira Lookout, Arthurs Pass

Inquisitive locals, the infamous Kea, investigate some of our equipment here at Otira Lookout.

The view from the Lookout itself is of a very impressive feat of engineering, the Otira Viaduct, but another real drawcard here is that this is one of the best places anywhere in New Zealand to see our unique and very cheeky alpine parrot, the Kea (Nestor Notablis). The world's only alpine parrot is only found in New Zealand's Southern Alps. We guarantee that this 'clown of the mountains' will bring a smile to your face. The Kea is highly intelligent and now very rare, with an estimated 5000 remaining in the wild, and while you can never guarantee seeing wildlife anywhere, a visit and overnight stay in Arthur's Pass as part of our tour will give you the best chance to see Kea anywhere in NZ. They’re incredibly cheeky creatures so don't be surprised if they’re quite curious around you and your possessions!

If you’d love to find out more about our multi-day, all-inclusive guided adventure tours, which includes a stop at Arthur’s Pass - order your free brochure now from New Zealand Trails.

Updated 17/8/2021


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