Five Passes Route | New Zealand


The Ascent to Fohn Saddle.

One of my favourite hikes in New Zealand. 

Situated in Mount Aspiring & Fiordland National Parks, the Five Passes Route is a wilderness tramp (Kiwi speak for ‘hike’ or ‘trek’) that requires good route finding and map reading skills. It’s relative anonymity means you are unlikely to see too many other hikers along the way.

The Five Passes Route is scenically stunning from start to finish. Glacial valleys, alpine lakes, majestic passes. The views are amazing……… assuming you have a decent run with the weather…………best of luck with that 😉 .

I hiked the Five Passes Route in early 2010. All information has been updated as of January, 2017.

Distance:  40 miles (64 km)

Avg.Time:  5 days


Lake Sylvan Carpark.

Start / Finish:

  • Lake Sylvan car park /  Routeburn shelter.
  • Alternatively, the hike can be started or finished at Chinaman’s Flat. This involves a fording of the Dart River to or from the Beans Burn. Not advisable during periods of heavy rain. Check on current river conditions at the DOC office in Queenstown before setting out.
  • Queenstown (the nearest large town) is around 1 h 30 min drive from both trailheads.

Season:  December – March.


Dart River

Maps / Info:

  • Three Topographic maps are needed for this hike: Topo50CA09 Alabaster Pass; Topo50CB09 Hollyford, and; Topo50-CB10 Glenorchy. All maps in the Topo50 series are widely available in outdoor stores and DOC offices throughout NZ.
  • The excellent Moir’s Guide North (8th Edition; 2013) contains trekking notes for the route’s various sections. As with the above-mentioned maps, this book is widely available throughout NZ in outdoor stores and DOC offices.

Lake Sylvan

Food & Water:

  • Everything you need in regards to supplies can be purchased in Queenstown.
  • As for H20, there is an abundance from start to finish. I never carried more than a litre at any one time.
  • I chose not to treat my water and had no issues. That being said, as always this is a personal decision and some form of water purification should be carried.

Fiery Col

Route / Conditions:

  • The Five Passes Route is a wilderness hike that requires good route finding and map reading skills. If you are looking for a well marked, easy to follow trail, you may want to try the nearby Routeburn Track.
  • I started this walk from the Lake Sylvan car park and walked in a counter-clockwise direction, eventually finishing up at the Routeburn shelter. The following notes reflect that directional choice.

Dart River

  • From the trailhead, head north on the well marked Rockburn Track, reaching the somewhat dilapidated Rockburn shelter after a couple of hours. From the shelter, easily ford the Rock Burn and continue north along the true right side of the Dart River.
  • Reaching the confluence of the Beans Burn and Dart River (Grid Ref: CA09 277463), head north along the Burn. The route is marked by orange blazes up to just south of the Beans Burn rock bivy (Grid Ref: CA09 237562).

Hiking along the Beans Burn.

  • From the Beans Burn rock bivy, continue upstream for a couple of kilometres until, on the burn’s true right side, there are cairns marking the point at which to ascend to Fohn Saddle.
  • From the saddle, it is worthwhile making a short side trip to the beautiful Fohn lakes.

Fohn Lakes


Fohn Lakes

  • From Fohn lakes, descend SW towards Olivine ledge, initially staying on the true right side of the Fohn lakes main outlet stream. Once the gradient has eased, cross the stream as high up as practically possible, and continue contouring SW across the tussock grass towards Fiery Creek. Just before the creek is reached climb south towards the now obvious Fiery Col (Grid Ref: CA09 209569).

Olivine Ledge


The Ascent to Fiery Col.

  • From Fiery Col, the descent to Cow Saddle is straightforward. The ground is boggy at the saddle, so if planning to camp, you are better off continuing south for another 20 to 30 minutes down Hidden Falls creek.
  • From Cow saddle the route is marked by periodic cairns and stays close to the creek bed until you reach the starting point of the climb to Parks Pass.
  • This point is indicated by a large rock cairn, situated immediately after a five metre wide mossy stream (Grid Ref: CA09 191508). A few minutes after passing the cairn, the trail momentarily disappears in a large patch of ferns, at which point an orange metal marker can be seen across a gully some 30 metres to the right. From there the trail becomes obvious and is subsequently easy to follow all the way to Parks Pass.

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  • From Parks Pass there are regular cairns indicating the route until you re-enter the bush, at which time the orange blazes begin again.
  • The rest of the route via the Rock Burn, Theatre Flat and Sugarloaf pass (Grid Ref: CB09 253406) is well marked and straightforward.

Descending from Parks Pass.


  • There are no huts, except for the somewhat dilapidated Rock Burn Shelter, situated a few kilometres north of Lake Sylvan car park.
  • There are rock bivvies at Beans Burn, Olivine Ledge, Parks Pass and Theatre Flats. See Moir’s Guide for details of exact locations. The Beans Burn and Parks Pass bivvies are the pick of the bunch.
  • Whilst it may be possible to spend all of your nights under the rock bivvies, considering the challenging terrain and unpredictable nature of the weather, you would be wise to bring your own shelter.



  • A challenging trek for experienced hikers only. Scenically stunning from start to finish.
  • The relative anonymity of the Five Passes Route means that you are unlikely to see too many other hikers along the way. A welcome respite from some of the more crowded walks on the South Island.

Dampish final day.


No problem finding water on the Five Passes Route.





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