With a permanent population of just 48 people and an altitude of 739 metres above sea level, Arthur’s Pass is one of the smallest and highest rural townships in New Zealand.
The town (which is known as Arthur’s Pass Village) is best known for sharing its name with the Arthur’s Pass mountain pass, the 47-kilometre road which connects Christchurch to the West Coast.
Thousands of tourists take this stunning mountain road yearly, which weaves through some of the Southern Alps’ most impressive scenery. The road is officially known as State Highway 73, but it’s no surprise that it’s also referred to as the Great Alpine Highway, and most commonly, as Arthur’s Pass.
Arthur’s Pass Village is a popular base for exploring Arthur’s Pass National Park.
The park covers 1,185km2 of alpine terrain, making it a popular destination for tramping, skiing and mountaineering. A friendly kea might also greet you during your stay too – the world’s only alpine parrot!
A visit to Arthur’s Pass is well worth the winding mountain drive, and you’ll find plenty of natural attractions to explore on the way, including waterfalls, secluded caves and fascinating rock formations.
If you don’t fancy the drive, take the spectacular TranzAlpine Train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth – considered one of the most remarkable train journeys in the world!
Fun Fact: Before Arthur’s Pass existed, Arthur Dobson, an engineer and explorer, found one section so challenging to pass that he had to lower his dog down on a rope.
An overview of Arthur’s Pass
|739 metres above sea level
|Avalanche Peak Walk, Arthur’s Pass Walking Track, Otira Rail Tunnel, Devil’s Punchbowl, skiing and climbing
|Christchurch, Greymouth and Hokitika
|Hokitika and Christchurch
History of Arthur’s Pass
The village and mountain pass are named after Arthur Dobson, who took the first party of Europeans over Arthur’s Pass in 1864.
Before he ventured over the mountains, he was advised by West Coast Māori chief, Tarapuhi, on which route was used by Māori hunting parties, which informed Arthur’s journey.
He originally named the site that would become Arthur’s Pass Village ‘Camping Flat.’
After the discovery of gold and the West Coast gold rush, businessmen wanted to find the best official route to connect Canterbury to the West Coast. It was decided that ‘Arthur’s Pass’ would be the most appropriate.
The small township became the base for those working on the construction of the Otira Tunnel in 1908, which later became part of TranszAlpine’s famous cross-country route.
Arthur’s Pass National Park was later established in 1929. It was the South Island’s first-ever national park and the third in New Zealand.
Things to do in Arthur’s Pass
There are many activities and outdoor adventures to be had in Arthur’s Pass and the surrounding area.
You can’t beat exploring the Arthur’s Pass scenery on foot.
These tracks are appropriate for those short on time, families and those looking for a more relaxed stroll.
Dobson Nature Walk
The Dobson Nature Walk is perfect for families; the 750m trail will take you past tussocks and wildflowers, with great views over the valley. Then return the same way over the boardwalks.
Total distance: 1.5km return.
Total time: 30 minutes.
For those with prams in tow, the Millennium Walk begins at the visitor centre and will see you reach the lookout to Avalanche Creek Waterfall. The waterfall tumbles 50 metres down the cliffs and is worth checking out.
Total distance: 500m round trip.
Total time: 10 minutes.
Arthur’s Pass Historic Village Walk
If you want to explore the village, the Arthur’s Pass Historic Village Walk takes visitors through the town and beyond, with plaques providing information about the settlement’s unique history.
This easy trail is suitable for the whole whānau.
Download your map before starting the walk.
Total distance: 2.5 km return.
Total time: 1 – 1.5 hours.
Bealey Spur Track
The Bealey Spur Track is a 6km tramp that crosses through beech forest before arriving at a dramatic cliff looking over Bruce Stream.
Continue through the grasslands for fabulous views across the Waimakariri river and gorge.
This trail has less elevation gain than the other tramps on this list so is a great choice if you’re new to longer walks.
Total distance: 6km.
Total time: 4 – 5 hours return.
Arthur’s Pass Walking Track
The Arthur’s Pass Walking Track is a moderate hike that weaves between the village and the Dobson Memorial, with views over the alps and Bridal Veil Falls.
Arthur’s Pass Walking Track, Canterbury 7875
Total distance: 6.8 km loop track.
Total time: 2.5 hours.
Avalanche Peak Hike
Another brilliant 6-kilometre trail is the Avalanche Peak Hike, which covers an impressive elevation gain of 1,110 metres!
If you’re not put off by the steep ascent, you’ll be rewarded with an excellent vantage point over the Southern Alps.
Be warned though, due to the steep climb and unsteady rocks, this is not a walk for beginners.
Total distance: 5 km + depending on the track you choose.
Total time: 6 – 8 hours.
Avalanche Peak also connects up with Scotts Track so you’ll likely walk part of this trail too.
Both Avalanche Peak and Scotts tracks are classified as tracks as far as the bush line. Beyond this, they become routes marked with cairns and colour-coded snow poles. Yellow shows the Avalanche Peak Route and orange for Scotts Route.
Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall
Arthur’s Pass is home to some truly enchanting waterfalls, but Devil’s Punchbowl is the most impressive!
These gorgeous 131-metre falls are only a 25-minute walk from the village, so they’re well worth seeing.
Total distance: 1.75km return.
Total time: 40 minutes.
Devils Punchbowl Walking Track, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
Pro tip: If you only have time for one walk in Arthur’s Pass, make it this one!
Skiing and snowboarding
If you’re a winter sports enthusiast, take on the slopes at the Temple Basin Ski Area.
The skifield opens from June to October each year and is well suited to beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
Temple Basin is just a 15-minute drive from Arthur’s Pass Village.
Or, if you’d prefer, it’s also possible to tramp Temple Basin in the summer season.
The choice is yours!
Rock climbing (for experienced climbers)
There are 227 climbing routes to tackle in the park, though these are for experienced climbers so not suitable for the general public.
As there are no commercial operators in the area, climbers will need to carry their own equipment and take appropriate safety precautions.
Ensure you have a PLB if attempting a climb.
Places to eat in Arthur’s Pass
Dining options in Arthur’s Pass are limited, so you may like to bring your own snacks and packed lunch.
There are, however, a few places to grab a bite to eat in Authur’s Pass Village.
Wobbly Kea Cafe
Warm up in this cosy restaurant which serves lunch, afternoon tea (what we call the snack between lunch and dinner) and dinner.
They also serve a wide range of New Zealand wines and beers.
State Highway 73, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
Challenge Store and Cafe
Grab some hot or cold food while on the go, or stop by for a sit-down lunch and some home-baked goodies.
You can also purchase snacks, phone top-ups, petrol and souvenirs from the store.
85 West Coast Road, Arthur’s Pass Village 7654
Pro tip: Check opening times before arriving at the village. The Arthur’s Pass eateries close early in the low season, so it’s worth bringing your own food if visiting in the winter months.
Where to stay in Arthur’s Pass
Although many tourists only fleetingly visit Arthur’s Pass village, while on a road trip from Christchurch to Greymouth, we highly recommend staying overnight to make the most of this remote location.
For hikers, climbers, or skiers, you could easily spend at least three days here.
DOC Campsite: Avalanche Creek Shelter Campsite
Freedom camping is not permitted in Arthur’s Pass, but the DOC Avalanche Creek Shelter Campsite is a budget-friendly spot.
It has 30 non-powered sites, showers, toilets, running water and great views.
94066474/171 State Highway 56, Himatangi 4477
Powered campsite: Jackson’s Retreat Alpine Holiday Park
The nearest powered sites to Arthur’s Pass village are at Jackson’s Retreat Alpine Holiday Park. This is a 30-minute drive from the town. You’ll find it nestled within a rainforest with extensive views over the alps, making it one of the South Island’s best campsites.
The 5-star campground features a garden, barbecue, picnic area, shared kitchen and bathrooms. It even boasts an onsite glow worm dell and waterfall to entertain guests.
4464C Otira Highway (SH73 Jacksons, Arthur’s Pass Village 7832
Budget: Mountain House, Arthur’s Pass YHA
For cheap and cheerful accommodation in the heart of the mountains, you won’t get better than Mountain House, Arthur’s Pass YHA.
The property offers free Wi-Fi and car parking, a shared lounge, bathrooms, a kitchen, and an outdoor picnic area.
Choose between a dormitory bed, double room, triple room or family room.
Arthur’s Pass National Park 84 West Coast Road, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
Mid-range: Arthur’s Pass Alpine Motel
The Arthur’s Pass Alpine Motel is conveniently located in the centre of the village.
Each chalet includes Wi-Fi, fully-equipped kitchen facilities, laundry, and private bathrooms with toiletries. Electric blankets are also included to keep you cosy while up in the peaks, and board games will help keep you entertained.
52 West Coast Road, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
Hotel: The Bealey Hotel
Located just 10km from the village, The Bealey Hotel is a top-rated accommodation, offering an onsite restaurant, barbecue facilities, laundry room and exceptional mountain views.
Each unit features heating, a mini fridge, coffee facilities, and toiletries.
Guests love the delicious breakfast and unbeatable scenery, and you will too!
12858 West Coast Road, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
Self-contained accommodation: The Tussocks
This self-contained holiday home sleeps eight people and has a fireplace, board games, a dining area, and a fully-equipped kitchen with a coffee machine.
The property is located in the centre of Arthur’s Pass village, making it the perfect base for groups or families to explore the national park.
14 Sunshine Terrace, 7875 Arthur’s Pass
How to get to Arthur’s Pass Village
Take State Highway 73 (SH 73) from Christchurch or the West Coast towards Arthur’s Pass.
This epic road carves through the Southern Alps, with many surrounding peaks reaching over 2,000m tall.
The road has a 16 per cent gradient, so be prepared for a beautiful but, at times, challenging drive.
If visiting in winter, check road conditions before making the journey, and ensure you bring snow chains.
Top up your car with fuel before making the journey across Arthur’s Pass and keep your eyes peeled for kea when you stop. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some of these incredible native birds on your journey.
If you’re short on time or would prefer not to drive yourself, why not take the Arthur’s Pass TranzAlpine Train and Castle Hill day tour?
You’ll enjoy the views from the comfort of the famous TranzAlpine train before getting out to enjoy the fantastic scenery, including Castle Hill, Lake Pearson, and the Otira Viaduct Lookout. All while under the watchful eye of your guide.
Alternatively, take the entire TranzAlpine journey across the Southern Alps from Greymouth to Christchurch (or vice versa).
Watch the towering mountains pass by as they steeply slope into beautiful valleys with winding rivers – this is a truly unforgettable way to experience the magic of Arthur’s Pass.
We suggest you get off at the Arthur’s Pass train station, in the middle of the ride, but if you’re short on time, you’re able to pass right on through, enjoying the scenery from the train.
Notable locations to stop at along Arthur’s Pass Road
If you choose to drive into Arthur’s Pass, we suggest adding the additional stops to your itinerary.
These stops are written in the order you’ll come across them, if you drive from Christchurch, through Arthur’s Pass and on to the West Coast.
This small lake is a popular place to fish for rainbow trout. The fish are plentiful there thanks to the dense oxygen weed beds.
In the wintertime, Lake Lyndon often freezes over due to its high elevation and position on the outer border of the Southern Alps.
Whatever the season though, this is a beautiful little lake and a good place to stretch your legs.
Lake Lyndon is just before Castle Hill, as you drive from Christchurch towards Arthur’s Pass Village.
Castle Hill Conservation area
Also known as Kura Tawhiti in te reo Māori, walking up to Castle Hill is a must-do in Arthur’s Pass National Park.
The towering limestone rock formations have fascinated visitors for centuries. Now, they also provide a great opportunity for a picnic as you near the Christchurch side of SH 73.
We also suggest you take the paved footpath that weaves around the boulders. This track takes around 20 minutes to complete.
If you’d prefer, you’re also free to freely roam the conservation area.
West Coast Road, Castle Hill 7580
Cave Stream Scenic Reserve
Take the 5-minute walk from Cave Stream car park down to the entrance of the 549-meter-deep cave and watch the rushing river carve its way through the mountain.
Experienced cavers can also walk through the cave itself.
A tour is recommended if you want to take on this unique adventure.
Find the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve close to Castle Hill, heading in the direction of Arthur’s Pass.
This stunning alpine lake is well worth stopping at.
It offers mountain views and is a popular spot for bird-watching, camping, fishing, or picnicking.
On a still day, be sure to have your camera at the ready – it’s also a great place to spot mirror reflections on the water.
Lake Pearson is a little closer to Arthur’s Pass Village than Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.
Otira Viaduct & Otira Viaduct Lookout
While driving along the mountain pass, pull over at one of the viewing points over the impressive Otira Viaduct. The bridge is 440 metres long and is one of the most dramatic sights in New Zealand.
Stop at the Otira Viaduct Lookout for great views of the bridge and a good chance at seeing kea.
The Otira Viaduct is beyond Arthur’s Pass Village, heading for the West Coast.
14408 Otira Highway, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
Otira Gorge Rock Shelter, Reid Falls aqueduct & Lookout
The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter was built to capture and deflect the rockfall that comes from the cliffs above.
Falling rocks have been an issue in the area since the road was first built in the 1860s, but was made worse during an earthquake in 1994 when rock blocked the road.
Just on from the rock shelter, you’ll see the Reid Falls aqueduct. This concrete ramp was built to divert the waterfall, preventing the highway from flooding.
As you drive through, you might like to stop at the lookout to get a good shot of the rock shelter and aqueduct.
The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter and Reid Falls Aqueduct are a little beyond the viaduct, closer to the West Coast.
Otira Gorge Rock Shelter Lookout: State Highway 73, Arthur’s Pass Village 7875
At 40 km2 and with a depth of 109 metres, Lake Brunner is the largest lake on the West Coast of New Zealand.
It’s an excellent spot for outdoor activities, including swimming, fishing, water skiing, cycling, jetboating or hiking.
Lake Brunner is much closer to the West Coast, nearing Greymouth.
Arthur’s Pass is so much more than just a way to cross between the east and west cost of Aotearoa.
It is a cute (and tiny) alpine township and home to a number of fascinating natural attractions and walking tracks.
Be sure to include it on your South Island itinerary!