Having passed through from the South Island’s east to west coast many times, we thought it was time to stop and take in all the scenes on the drive to Arthur’s Pass. We didn’t realise this part of the country had so much to offer!
Where is the Porters and Arthur’s Pass?
This beautifully scenic route will take you through cute little towns, past ice cold lakes and over mountain passes. The two passes that split the east and the west coast aren’t just pass-through spots, but are well and truly destinations within themselves. The Porters Pass is located within the Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park and is just under an hour’s drive from Christchurch. You’ll find the Arthur’s Pass a further hour along the Alpine Highway located in the Selwyn District.
There is no real service station or supermarket once you leave Christchurch so make sure you stock up on fuel and food before you leave. If you get desperate there is a store in the Arthur’s Pass Village but a bottle of water and a sandwich will cost you half your life savings so just be prepared. Also bring cash if you’re wanting to stay at some of the DOC camps in the park.
Now any road trip heading west from Christchurch has to start at the famous Sheffield Bakery. They claim they’re “world famous” and we kinda understand why, so fill your bellies before an epic alpine adventure.
Short walks and roadside stops
Porters Pass Lookout
Your first stop will be the Porters Pass. The views of the rolling brown mountains from up the top are stunning. Take a walk around, stretch the legs and enjoy the views. The Porters Pass is only 15 minutes from Sheffield so maybe grab your pies and eat ‘em up here!
Castle Hill Rock Formations
Visiting the grand limestone rock formations of Castle Hill, aka Kura Tawhiti, is an absolute must stop on your trip. This location is super underrated in our eyes and definitely doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a popular spot for local rock climbers and you can see why as you wander through these towering boulders.
The limestone rock that has been eroded by water into the sculptures that now stand is pretty impressive. You could spend a whole day here and is the BEST place for a game of hide and seek. We’ve always said it’s the ultimate adult playground, although it’ll definitely be a winning spot with the kids!
Just another 5 minutes up the road from Castle Hill you will find a roadside stop called Cave Stream. This is 362 metre cave system that you can go wander through (only when the conditions are right). The cave passage meanders and twists in darkness for the 362 metres between the two entrances before ending in a deep pool at the end. We both did this as kids with our families and absolutely loved the adventure. It’s extremely important to do the prior research on this one though. If the water level is to high do not attempt whatsoever. Make sure you’re with someone who has the experience to make the right decision as to whether to do it or not. You’ll need warm thermals and torches while you’re in the cave. If you do your proper research and are prepared this will be an event you won’t forget. It’s EPIC!
There are so many road side pull offs between the Porters and Arthur’s Pass that we highly recommending stopping off at for road trip photos. They’re some of our favourite mountain roads and as keen photographers this place in the right light is a dream.
Arthur’s Pass Village
The Arthur’s Pass village is nestled in the heart of the Southern Alps and is a really sweet little township filled with cute alpine huts. It’s super small so an hour walking around the town will be enough time to give you a good idea of everything that’s around. The Cheeky Kea is the little cafe and bar in the village and all I can say is if you life hot chips then this spot is for you!
Arthur’s Pass Viaduct
The Viaduct also known as Deaths Corner splits the East and the West Coast and is your entrance into the West. Witnessing a sunrise or sunset from up here is pretty incredible and worth the stop. You may even get lucky enough to see a kea!
Half and full-day hikes
Trig M starts just after the Porters Pass heading in the direction of Lake Lyndon. There is a little pull off on your left hand side next to a DOC sign before you reach the lake, this is the start of the hike. Ignore the hand written note that says it’ll take two hours one way. We completed the hike in less than three hours return going at a reasonably steady pace. The hike starts off steep then tapers out before reaching the final summit. Sitting at 1251 metres, you’ll be rewarded with insane views as far as Christchurch in one direction and of Lake Lyndon in the other. We did this hike for a sunrise and watching the sun come up over Christchurch City was a pretty cool experience!
This is another hike starting in the Porters Pass. Start climbing the hillside to the north. There a lots of vague tracks at the start but keep to the right along the ridge and a clear track will start to form. At the top you get killer views of Lake Lyndon and the whole Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands area. Give yourself three hours return to complete the hike!
Avalanche Peak is a much more strenuous hike that takes you to a summit sitting at 1833m. You have two options on how to complete this hike. The round trip starts at the Visitors Centre and descends from Avalanche Peak Summit via Scotts Track (the Scotts track carpark is the same carpark as the Devils Punchbowl Falls). Alternatively you have the choice of going up and down the same way.
If choosing the one way option then start at the Scotts Track car park and ascend from there (it’s not as steep as the Avalanche Peak track). This will take you up a track through the forest and gives you a really nice view of the falls from afar. The track is pretty rocky and steep as you climb through mountain beech trees but will reward you with insane views at the top! This is a full day hike so you should allow a good 6-7 hours to complete.
Devils Punchbowl Falls
Possibly the most popular walk in the Arthur’s Pass as it’s a nice short one for any experience level, and suitable to do as a family. A one hour return stroll takes you through beech forest, over multiple bridges, up way too many stairs, to a viewing platform of the 131m tall waterfall.
If you want to get a little bit closer to feel the power of the falls, take the little unpaved dirt track to the right of the platform. We’ve met quite a few people at the platform who said they were too tired to get any closer, not realising it’s only an extra five minutes. The closer you get the more you feel like you’re in the presence of something truly spectacular. It’s worth it, trust us!
Discover more of New Zealand’s most magnificent waterfalls.
Where to stay
We highly recommend doing this road trip in a camper as there are some seriously beautiful campsites between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass. Alternatively, the little villages of Castle Hill and Arthur’s Pass Village) where you can book Air BnBs. If you’re after an overnight mission into the mountains, the whole road into Arthurs Pass is full of backcountry huts! These are all still on our to-do list.
A special campsite to us for the sole reason it’s the first place we camped out when we fitted out our first van in New Zealand. Since that night we have spent many evenings and days hanging out around this icy cold lake.
With no real designated campsites, you’re welcome to find any spot along the lake to park up. Our favourite is around the east side next to the dirt road that leads to Lake Coleridge. There is a single drop toilet at the north side of the lake next to the road. As this is a freedom camp you will need to be in a self-contained vehicle.
A DOC run campsite between the Porters and Arthur’s Pass, Lake Pearson on a calm day is a stunner and you’ll hopefully be rewarded with picturesque reflections. Surprisingly the water wasn’t as cold as we expected being located in the mountains, so take your togs and go for dip. A great wee spot to stop for a picnic on your roadie or to park up for a night next to the lake. Plenty of spots to camp on the grass or gravel! This site is $8 per person and allows tent camping. The only facility is two drop toilets.
Check out more of our favourite lakeside campsites in the South Island.
A really nice big campsite that sits overlooking the Bealey River and has ripper 360 views of the surrounding mountains. A huge spot with plenty of places to park up for the night. This is another DOC run camp that is $8 per person and allows tent camping. Our only tip with this place is stock up on bug spray as the sand flies here are next level. Worse than Milford Sound, seriously!
This is good spot to stay if you’re wanting to be in the Arthur’s Pass Village. It’s a basic carpark next to the Visitors Centre with basic facilities (toilets and drinking water) for $8 per person.
With mountains, lakes, waterfalls, keas and epic hikes you’re sure to have a great time, whatever you find yourself doing. Pack those bags and get going! Catch you on the road and don’t forget Toitu Te Whenua // Leave the land undisturbed.