Backpacking Near Arthur’s Pass

View from Cass Pass in New ZealandOn the 16th of February my friend, and fellow sailing skipper, Mark Hayden (of s/v Northfork) and I drove up to the town of Arthur’s Pass. We had a beautiful drive up as there was not a cloud in the sky. We stopped for dinner before locating a camping spot since we were late arriving and it was going to get dark soon. We ended up near a river for camping and quickly set up the tent as there was a swarm of biting insects. We got inside the tent and the insects were cluttered by the hundreds on the outside!

The next morning, we again had beautiful clear skies, and we put on some insect repellent while we quickly put the tent and gear away. Then we drove back to Arthur’s Pass and got some breakfast before going to the Department of Conservation (ranger’s office). There we got some advice on the trails in the area and we decided to go with the trail we had already picked called “Cass Lagoon”. This trail reportedly walks around some mountains and over the Cass and Lagoon saddle passes. There’s a nice hut called Hamilton Hut about half way through the 32 km (or 20 miles) of the main trail. The guide didn’t put it in distance terms though, they just said 6-8 hours for each of the two main walks. I wasn’t fully realizing how far, or how hard this walk would be.

We got a late start since we still had to properly load our packs. Plus, we took the ranger’s suggestion and I dropped Mark off with the gear at the trailhead. Then, I drove back up the road several kilometers to the end of the trail – which was about 1.5 km off the main road up past a farm. I had to go through a herd of sheep on the walk back to the main road (they scattered away from me as I walked between gates), and I watched a herd of cattle grazing on the fields along the way. Eventually, after about 12 cars, I managed to hitch-hike back to the trailhead. It was past noon by the time we started.

It turns out I should have done some more exercise before starting this hike. The trail led along a river and we had to scramble over a lot of rocks along the way. Plus, this was my first time (despite many years of backpacking) of having to walk through water rather than jumping rocks or bridges to get over water. (Most of my life I’ve backpacked in Arizona, so I really haven’t had much exposure to running water). I also must have neglected to drink enough water, because as we approached the steep ascent to the pass, my leg muscles started to cramp. In fact, I had to stop 10 or so times due to the muscles – which is the first time this has ever happened. But, I pushed on, and we finally made it to the hut about 8 PM.

Even after doing the walks we underestimated the distances, but in reviewing the GPS data, we walked 17 km (10.7 miles) and climbed up and down through 1000 m (3600 feet) in altitude along this first day’s trek.

The hut was very comfortable. Nice bunks, tables, a sink, and a fireplace (not needed in the summer time). We had some dinner and rested from our arduous hike. Mark did better at the hike than I since he has already completed several rigorous hikes here in New Zealand. I slept pretty soundly that night for sure!

The next day Mark and I decided to take a “day” hike to the Pinnacles. We were once again thrown off by the distance in our guide which said it was a 4-6 hour hike round-trip. The hike had very little altitude change, but it turned out it was over 18km (11 miles) round trip! At least we were only carrying one day pack – not our full backpacks. On the way up, I got off the jeep trail and went through a muddy bog for a while – that wasn’t easy either! Fortunately, my legs held out just fine though. We eventually got to the Pinnacles which were these strange rock/clay formations on a hillside. Mark and I climbed up the ravine to see them up close and had some lunch before walking back to the hut. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening reading our Kindles and talking to 4 backpackers that showed up just before dark.

On our third day, we woke up and took our time getting ready for our final hike back. We figured it was a mostly downhill run, and we could complete it faster. But, it turns out the walk to the Lagoon pass was pretty challenging as well. More river rock scrambling, and some steep sections leading up to the pass. The view from the Lagoon pass was spectacular, but somewhat dampened by the overcast weather. Make sure to check out the photos of the lagoon pass. I will be publishing a panorama (not full 360) later, but you can see the unstitched photos in the album.

View full-sized with descriptions

We had to traverse around Bealey Peak to get to the point where we headed down to the end of the trail where our car was parked. We finally made it down about 1.5 hours faster than the estimated times. My legs were definitely in better shape at the start of the third day, which is why we made good time back. But, my legs were really sore and stiff by the time we finished driving 2 hours to Christchurch after the hike.

You can view the entire GPS track of this backpacking track including some placemarks of the key points along the way by loading this Google Earth file . The GPS track has been colorized by altitude to give you an idea of the heights we climbed. But, you should tilt your view in Google Earth to really appreciate the terrain of this trek.

GPS track view in Google Earth of our hike

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