A Road Trip through the Southern Alps (Via Arthurs Pass)
The road trip from Christchurch to the West Coast is a journey through mountain passes, dazzling freshwater rivers and native New Zealand bush.
It crosses from the East Coast to the West Coast. It passes through the Southern Alps – New Zealand’s highest range.
Over the last 20 years, we have travelled to 50 countries in the world. The road trip through the Southern Alps is comparable in majesty to the highlands of Norway and Switzerland. You feel you are lost in a prehistoric time where nature ruled.
Words can never do justice to one of the most epic drives you will ever take.
There is a flight from Christchurch to Hokitika, but then you miss out on the epic adventure. And, in this case, it’s about the journey and the destination.
There are a few options to go overland.
A couple of express buses make the trip in 3.5 hours from Christchurch City Centre to Greymouth. But, your photos of the worlds most epic mountain views will be from behind a window. The panoramas are still legendary.
The next option hailed as one of the Top 10 rail journeys in the world, is The TranzAlpine train. There is even an outdoor carriage where you can sit and feel closer to nature.
And the last choice, self-drive is our preferred way to travel across the West Coast from Christchurch. Obviously, you get a lot more freedom to stop wherever you like. Also, you will find there are photo opportunities after every turn.
Some people take the train one way and then rent a car to return back to Christchurch. This depends on your schedule and where else you are going.
Road Trip Through the Southern Alps
There are two routes into the West Coast. The longer route via Lewis Pass takes four hours. Our favourite part of this trip are the thermal resorts of Hanmer Springs and Maruia Hot Springs. You also pass through Reefton, a historic gold mining town, which further magnifies the road trip.
The quicker route via Arthurs Pass is the one taken by the buses and train. It is also favoured by us as the scenery is more majestic and surreal. However, if you are self-driving, you may like to travel to the West Coast via the Lewis Pass and then return on the Arthurs Pass. We especially recommend this if you love thermal water.
The rest of this post is about the journey via Arthurs Pass and the stops you may like to take on the way.
The Overland Self-drive Journey
Beginning your journey from Christchurch on The Great Alpine Highway (State Highway 73), the first hour of the trip is through straight roads and lush farms. What we love about Christchurch is that it is a small, compact city, and you will be in farmland within 20 minutes of the City Centre. Numerous new subdivisions are being built in these rapidly growing outlying areas since the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.
One of the first towns you pass is Darfield. It is only half an hour from Christchurch. Most people bypass this tiny town on the Canterbury Plains. However, this is the departure point for hot air ballooning. The scenery is of pristine nature and spectacular views across to the Southern Alps. There is also Washpen Falls where you can take a 2-hour walk through the forest to majestic views of the high country with a waterfall at the end.
Fifteen minutes (25km) farther west, you arrive into Springfield. This town in the foothills and the gateway to the Southern Alps is one of the closest to six of New Zealand’s ski fields. This includes Porters Pass – one of New Zealand’s favourites. There are also Broken River Ski Area and Craigieburn Valley Ski Area. They are only five to ten kilometres away and are worth a detour if you have time. If you are going skiing, Springfield has several accommodation options.
Notable is the giant pink doughnut built to promote the Simpsons movie. There is also a gothic architecture revival church that is worth a photo. And from here you can book a tour to go jet boating on the Waimakariri River through the striking Waimakariri Gorge.
If you need food and water, stock up here. There are not many options on the way.
The Epic Panorama Begins
The landscape starts turning from rolling hills into mountain ranges to rocky mountain outcrops.
Twenty minutes from Springfield is the Kura Tawhiti Castle Hill Limestone Reserve. Created over 30 million years ago by the weather, there are spectacular limestone formations of karst landscape cliffs, gorges, rocks, arches, tunnels and outcrops of limestone boulders. The breathtaking scenery of the mountain ranges and unique limestone rock formations is unsurpassable.
This historic and cultural area is where the first known settlers of the South Island gathered for shelter. There are hints of 500-year-old charcoal drawings hidden among the outcrops.
The Dalai Lama visited this area in 2002 and sensed the energy was so powerful he called it a “Spiritual Centre of the Universe.”
The limestone formations of this magical place were the setting for the film “Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.”
Since then this hidden wonder has become a must-visit area.
Just off the Highway, the 10-minute walk on the path to the limestone formations is leisurely and scenic. Here you can wander around the rocks and capture your #PhotoOfTheDay Instagram moments. Adventurers love the world-class rock climbing and caving opportunities in this part of the world.
It is a surreal adventure and one of those places where you will take hundreds of photos.
A few kilometres north is the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. The 1-hour walk takes you through rocky limestone outcrops to a 594m long cave formed by a subterranean stream. The hike inside the cave is a fun adventure for active people. There is a 3-metre waterfall inside.
Note that the walk to the cave is easy. However, the hike inside has been treacherous, and the water is chilly. Be aware of weather conditions before entering the cave. Bring hiking shoes and torches.
Alpine Splendour in the Southern Alps
The 45 kilometres from Castle Hill to Arthurs Pass is one of the most remarkable drives in New Zealand. Passing along steep roads and rugged mountains you enter Craigieburn Forest Park. It is a happy hunting ground for walkers, climbers and skiers. The grand scenes of the Waimakariri River and the towering mountains on the road towards Arthurs Pass make this area feel like a surreal fantasy land.
If you are camping, there is a picturesque campground at Lake Pearson. Alternatively, there is the Klondyke Corner Campground. It is a large open campsite on the Bealey River, with walks to the Waimakariri River.
Arthur’s Pass National Park
Arthurs Pass is in the heart of the Southern Alps, and the highest pass across the Southern Alps at over 900 metres high. The national park is a mecca for skiers, mountain climbers, hikers, bikers and nature lovers. There are abundant walking tracks with majestic alpine views to rivers and waterfalls. The panoramas are dramatic.
Walks start from the township and are from 10 minutes (to Bealey Chasm) to overnight hikes. The most popular hike is the 1-hour return to Devils Punchbowl Waterfall. The views of the waterfall are sensational.
Or you can hike to see New Zealand’s last stagecoach service, or check out the historic Jacks Hut. One of few surviving examples of a roadman’s cottage.
You can get information on the walks and the check weather conditions at the Visitors Centre in the tiny town.
Also, you can check the Department of Conversation website for more information on walks, activities and weather warnings.
Arthur’s Pass town has accommodation, general stores and tea rooms. The TranzAlpine train stops here. And if you have chosen to make the trip by train, it is an excellent stopover for a night or two.
Look out for the many native birds including tui, bellbird and the beautiful alpine parrot called kea. Kea are often seen at Arthurs Pass. They are famous for their curious nature.
Crossing into the West Coast
A few kilometres after Arthurs Pass you will reach The Otira Viaduct. It is an advanced engineering feat of viaducts and bridges. The breathtaking drive passes through an overhang, and there are waterfalls redirected into chutes overhead. The drops below are significant.
Make sure you stop at the Otira Viaduct Lookout before getting on the Viaduct. The views are epic!
As you cross to the West, the road winds down from the alpine area to the lush rainforests of the West Coast.
On the way, the road travels along the Otira River. It is a scenic drive all the way to Jacksons where you then meet the Tamarakau River for the rest of the journey to the wild, windy West Coast.
The journey into the West Coast ends at the port town of Greymouth. It’s the administrative centre of the West Coast. And, a great stopping off point for supplies before you head up the coast and one of the most epic coastal drives in the world. Or, before heading south to the Franz Josef and Fox River glaciers.
The road trip from Christchurch to The West Coast is the start of an epic New Zealand journey that will leave you with many amazing memories. Have Fun and enjoy the journey.