One of my favourite hikes in New Zealand. Situated in Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, the Five Passes Route is a mostly off-trail wilderness trek that requires good navigation skills and a sprinkling of luck on the meteorological front. Despite being one of the most spectacular hikes in the country, it remains relatively unknown outside of the NZ tramping (Kiwi-speak for ‘hiking’) community. I walked the Five Passes Route in 2010. All logistical information has been updated as of January, 2018.
Distance: 40 miles (64 km)
- 5 days. This number can vary significantly, depending on the conditions, along with the fitness and experience of the hiker. Strong trekkers that have a decent weather window can comfortably do the the tramp in three days, whereas slower folks and/or hikers that just feel like taking their time, may take seven or eight.
Difficulty Level: Challenging
Start / Finish:
- Lake Sylvan car park and/or Routeburn shelter.
- I was dropped off at the junction to the Lake Sylvan car park and walked in a counter-clockwise direction from there. I finished at the Routeburn shelter, from where you can catch one of the regular shuttles back to Queenstown (see Transport for details).
- For those with private transport, it is possible to leave your vehicle at the Routeburn car park for the duration of your trip. From this point it is an easy 5 or 6 km walk along a dirt road to the Lake Sylvan car park.
- Queenstown (the nearest large town) is around 1 h 30 min drive from both trailheads.
- Transport via shuttle bus is easy to arrange for the Five Passes Route. Hikers can use the same shuttle used by those hiking the popular Routeburn Track. See the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) website for details.
- December – March.
- Most of the track takes place in Mount Aspiring National Park, but part of it is also in Fiordland National Park. Freezing temps, heavy rain, high winds and snow can occur at any time of year in this region. Indeed, according to the DOC: “An average of about 7 metres of rain falls per year, over an average of about 200 rain-days per year. Don’t forget your rain jacket!”
Maps / Info:
- Maps: Three Topographic maps are needed for this hike: Topo50–CA09 Alabaster Pass; Topo50–CB09 Hollyford, and; Topo50-CB10 Glenorchy. All maps in the Topo50 series are widely available in outdoor stores and DOC offices throughout NZ. Alternatively, you can download them from the Land Information New Zealand website.
- Guidebook: 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.
- GPS Information: For a GPX file of the route, see Wildernessmag.co.nz.
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.
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.
- From the trailhead, head north on the well marked Rockburn Track, reaching the 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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.