It’s no secret that New Zealand is home to numerous enchanting mountain ranges, but there is one range many locals and hiking enthusiasts might not know about – the Tararua Ranges.
This Wairarapa mountain range is in view from the capital city of Wellington. On a clear day, us Wellingtonians can look out over the harbour and see this North Island range jet out from the Earth. And in less than two hours, we can be amongst it.
When my husband and I first moved to Wellington, we hiked every hill and trail we could get to via bus, train and our own two feet. When we purchased a campervan, we were finally able to explore Tararua Forest Park and its mountains that piqued our interest since we moved to the city.
More info on our tramps around Wellington available here!
The most known track in this native bushland is the Mount Holdsworth circuit which offers a plethora of one-day and multi-day treks. Our favourite one and the one I’ll be sharing with you is the overnight hike to Powell Hut. We completed this hike in the past and absolutely loved it so when the opportunity arose for us to do it again, and this time with our toddler daughter, we leaped at the chance.
Check out more things to do in the wild Wairarapa before or after your hike in the Tararuas!
How to get there
To get to the trailhead, drive towards Masterton in the Wairarapa. Use your Campermate app to locate Holdsworth Camping Area on Mount Holdsworth Road, about 15km from State Highway 2. This 150-spot campsite is a great low-cost option for those not wanting to bunk up at Powell Hut. From the carpark you’ll find the trailhead and a large map of the forest park.
Now for the hard part, the hike. This 5-6 hour hike to Powell Hut starts off easy like many New Zealand tracks. Trampers first follow the Gentle Annie Track crossing swing bridges and winding through the densely rich woodlands until reaching the Rocky Lookout. Here, we like to take a quick break, re-fuel and take in the first scenic view of the hike. You can also get a glimpse of the red roof of Powell Hut hiding below the ridgeline.
While Powell Hut is our home for the night, it’s not the end destination. Sitting at 1470m tall is Mount Holdsworth, an additional one to two hour hike from the hut. At the summit, we can hope for sweeping, panoramic views of the mountain range and the entire Wairarapa out to the South Pacific Ocean.
For this trip, our group included me, my husband, our good friend Jinal and our at-the-time one and a half year old daughter. With Lia strapped to Ryan and me carrying the hut gear, we strode off for our mountain mission.
As I stated before, we always stop at Rocky Lookout and this time was no different. The trail then heads to Mountain House shelter where you’ll find the Mount Holdsworth Track. The thick beech forest conceals the view only letting small rays of light pour through the branches above and it feels all the more magical. At some point you’ll reach the stairs, which means it’s time to work those glutes. The next few hours are challenging. I struggled with the weight of the pack and used hiking poles to assist me on the unportionally large steps. We carried on, cursing the endless staircases as we climbed. Our pace surpassed the DOC recommended time and we found ourselves overlooking the remarkable Waiohine Valley. From this rocky outcrop, hikers are rewarded with a view of the High Ridge and the Totara Flats. It’s a spot worth pulling out the camera.
After a short break, we groaned with more staircases in sight and sludged our way up to Powell Hut.
First built in 1937, this hut has been re-built a few times and its most recent facelift occurred in 2019, making this 32-bunk backcountry hut one of the nicest in the country. It’s bright red roof welcomes you and makes it easy to locate on the trails. It’s painted green and is perched on the perfect edge, giving its visitors a balcony over layers of mountains. There are four bedrooms allowing for more privacy and making it ideal for group bookings, plus it has a fireplace, access to water and cooking facilities.
We arrived at our treehouse for the night, ecstatic and ready for the next part of the trail. We dropped our food and sleeping bags into one of the rooms and re-packed for our summit adventure.
*price for Powell Hut is $15 per adult and $7 per child.
Hiking to Mount Holdsworth
While the trail to Powell Hut is brutally challenging thanks to the stairs and steepness, the next part of the track is a bit trickier and dangerous in the wrong weather conditions.
I advise you to be smart and safe in this section as even though the Tararuas seem calmer than most New Zealand ranges, the weather can change rapidly and this park has claimed too many lives. Always check the weather, always tell someone where you are going and to be extra cautious, call up the local Department of Conversation and chat to them about your plans. They are always willing to give advice about the trails and the weather conditions.
From the hut, it takes about one to two hours to the summit. Our goal was to reach it in time for golden hour and sunset to capture the magnificent glow spread across the mountains. This time I carried Lia on my back and slowly weaved up the skinny trail following a ridgeline to the top. This part is super exposed and you’ll almost always be greeted with cold wind. Thankfully it wasn’t too strong that day and we enjoyed our climb to the top.
The views from any point of this track are astounding. Home (Wellington) feels a lifetime away and the natural high one feels from connecting with the outdoors is overwhelming.
At the perfect time, we reached Mount Holdsworth. We let our daughter walk about the incredible ridgeline and captured views over the Greater Wellington region. Thankfully we did not underestimate the cold from the summit and bundled up as we waited for sunset.
As the sun dipped and we were left in the shadows, we decided to head back down to the hut to warm up with dinner and a fire.
If you stay in this hut, I urge you to climb out of bed just before sunrise and watch it light up the Wairarapa from your mountainside balcony. You will not be disappointed.
We did exactly that and enjoyed a warm breakfast before heading back down the same unfriendly stairs. The warm air greeted us as we descended and we carried on down with a new sense of energy, of gratitude. It was a successful family overnight hiking trip with memorable views and a beautiful sun set and rise, the ideal little getaway without having to go too far from home.
Tips for hiking and camping in the Tararuas
For those wanting to continue past Powell Hut, hike to Mount Holdsworth and head beyond, following signs to Jumbo Hut. Plan a day trip or hike up to four more days on this circuit, the huts and campsites are plentiful.
Powell Hut is just one of many in the Tararua Forest Park. If time is on your side, longer hikes are possible. Trailheads also begin from Otaki Forks in the Kapiti region. This is a great camping site next to a river with plenty of trail options. Check out the DOC site for more info on the available tracks, plus find updates regarding trail closures, weather, etc.
Mix and match with campsites and backcountry huts and as I stated before, always check the weather and tell someone where you are going. If anything, I hope I have inspired you to visit Wellington’s own mountain range and I hope you enjoy it as much as my family and I do.
If you are up for more hiking in the area, I highly recommend heading to the Putangirua Pinnacles for an otherworldly landscape. It was also used for a set in the LOTR films. Camping is available around the carpark and it is a great space for picnics and big groups.