In a fine spell of weather, this might be the best tramping in the north of the South. Sometimes exhilaration requires effort, the views here, more than one 360°, are worth the toil.
From the summit of Mt Rintoul, 1761 m, there’s one humongous panorama taking in Mt Richmond, Cook Strait and the tip of the North Island, Blenheim and the Wairau valley, the Inland Kaikouras with Tapuae-o-Uenuku prominent, 2885 m, the reddish Red Hills, much of Kahurangi from Mt Owen round to Mt Arthur and beyond, Abel Tasman, a bit of Farewell Spit, Motueka and the Waimea Valley, round to Nelson airport. On a clear day there’s Taranaki popping over the horizon. Man, what can’t you see from up there?
Bad weather or winter trips? Not at all recommended, there are a few days oscillating around the 1500 m mark, walking on ridges, fully exposed to wind and the elements, and it can do the full-on howl up there.
There are climbs, like the 1300 m from Hacket to Mt Starveall, and odd 700 or 500 m grunts or plunges, you won’t lack exercise lugging all that food. And various gnarly bits, the scrambled descent from Little Rintoul to the saddle below is vertigo-inducing for the inexperienced, down scree slope chutes with loose head-sized boulders, gravel, and everything between. Actually, those with a delight in the scree sliding and boulder hopping would boost the enjoyment levels, there’s plenty of that elsewhere.
Better mention the extraordinary river scenery: the Pelorus is as pristine river you might come across, with swing bridges for major crossings, except for a couple of tributaries; Hacket Creek gets the feet wet; Wairoa River, gorgeous with those gorges, eight crossings required, sidling on steep slopes with big, ie, 20 m, drop-offs a major component; then the bigger and potentially gnarlier Motueka River; those valleys and water views are as good is you get round here.
And the vegetation: plenty of mature red beech forest with, often, an understorey of crown fem; the miniature mountain beech, real Hobbitland up near the bushline; the open snowgrass and tussock above the tops; that crazy raoulia, vegetable sheep, in the most inhospitable terrain; and then the complete different shrubbery of the Red Hills, scrubby manuka and dracophyllum, you sure don’t lack botanical variety.
Yeah, for experienced and well-equipped trampers the Alpine Route is really quite the memorable Little Adventure.
where | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
Nelson to St Arnaud via the Pelorus River and along the ridges of the Richmond Range and around the Red Hills.
click to view larger, more interactive topographic map from, err, topomap.co.nz
distance | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
120 km Brook Street, Nelson to St Arnaud, there’s almost 7000 m ascent involved
time | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
possible in 8 days for hut jumpers, better to take up to 12
when | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
November to April inclusive.
You travel for some of the trail, from leaving the forest at Mt Starveall Hut to Mt Rintoul Hut, at and around the 1500 m mark, Mt Rintoul is 1761 m, highly exposed and winter winds and storms aren’t the time to be up there. The climb down from Little Mt Rintoul, just before the easier climb up the main peak would be treacherous in snowy and icy conditions.
maps and GPS | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
It’s essential to have a paper map in case GPS batteries die.
Land Information New Zealand, LINZ, Topo50 maps, both digital and paper: the maps you need Nelson, BQ26; Mount Patriarch, BR26; and Tophouse, BR25.
Download free digital versions from LINZ Mapchooser, or buy the real thing, ie, on old fashioned paper, at DOC offices, outdoor shops and bookshops where maps sold. There’s a nationwide list at LINZ Map Retailers.
Need a custom map for your GPS device, download a more compact .klm format file from topomap.co.nz for free, although if you download a few maps consider a small donation, there’s considerable work gone into getting that info onto the internet and we should support these useful resources.
route description | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
This describes the complete route from Nelson through to St Arnaud although you can cut out all the scenic Pelorus River section and join the route at Hacket Hut by getting a ride up to the Hacket picnic area up the Roding River. Those without transport will find this option awkward, it’s 27 km from Nelson up the Aniseed Valley.
The track starts on the easy Dun Mountain Walkway then drops into the attractive Pelorus River Valley, climbs over Totara Saddle, and over to Hacket Hut. Then the unrelenting 1300 m climb starts up to Mt Starveall Hut before you oscillate around the 1500 m mark on open ridge tops, a few scrambly bits, the most demanding being the 220 m drop down of Little Mt Rintoul and another 500 m scree slope that is easier to negotiate to Mt Rintoul Hut. Great views from there. Then you are back in the forest, mostly, and follow more ridges before dropping into the Wairoa River at Mid-Wairoa Hut. There are 8 river crossings of the Wairoa River before you finally climb out just before Top Wairoa Hut. Speaking of climbing you then climb over another saddle and drop down to Hunters Hut, many find this the best of the trip. There’s just a bit of up and down on the way to Red Hills Hut from where you drop into the Wairau Valley. The last bit is a road slog for about 10 km to St Arnaud, there’s even a hill to climb. PS, you are allowed to hitch this bit.
huts | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
There are plenty of huts in Mt Richmond Forest Park and these are the ones you are likely to encounter along the way, depending on where you start: the Pelorus valley roadend, Nelson, up Aniseed valley, or from St Arnaud.
Tramping times | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
Here’s the DoC-stated tramping times between huts, as shown on their website, usually actual walking times, ie, not taking into account any long breaks. DoC bases its estimation on times for an “average” tramper which means that it’s possible to slash times for more popular sections. With more remote sections the stated time is close to the actual time required.
Unfortunately, this time information tends to emphasise a pointless aspect of tramping, The Destination, and, some trampers feel they need to test themselves, rush, to prove something to someone. Aren’t you there to experience your environment, notice things, see the clouds, and watch the bellbirds flitting around? There’s no actual requirement to occupy the full 10 hours a day racing through the landscape.
Brook Street, Nelson to Rocks Hut
Time: 6 hours
Rocks Hut to Browning Hut
Time: 4.5 hours
Distance: 9 km
Browning Hut to Hacket Junction
Time: 1 hour (plus another 5.7 km, or 2 hours out to the Hacket Picnic Area for those finishing this section there).
Distance: 3.4 km
Hacket Junction to Hacket Hut
Time: 15 minutes (and a further 5.7 km if starting from the Hacket Picnic Area).
Distance: 1.3 km
Hacket road end to Starveall Hut
Time: 6 hours
Starveall Hut to Slaty Hut
Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Slaty Hut to Old Man Hut
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 10 km
Old Man Hut to Rintoul Hut
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 4.5 km
Rintoul Hut to Tarn Hut
Time: 4.5 hours
Distance: 8 km
Tarn Hut to Mid Wairoa Hut
Time: 4 hours
Distance: 6.5 km
Mid Wairoa Hut to Top Wairoa Hut
Time: 4.5 hours
Distance: 7 km
Top Wairoa Hut to Hunters Hut
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 10.5 km
Hunters Hut to Porters Creek Hut
Time: 4 hours
Distance: 9 km,
Porters Hut to Red Hills Hut
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 10.5 km
Red Hills Hut to SH 63
Time: 1.5 hours
Distance: 5.5 km
SH63 to St Arnaud (along road)
Time: 2.5 – 3 hours
Distance: 10.6 km
getting there | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
You can walk from downtown Nelson, or catch a taxi up Brook Street. Best to start near the end of the road a few hundred metres from the campsite, the trail is marked on the left hand side of the road.
Nelson Lakes Shuttles do the Nelson to St Arnaud run for $45 per person. $55 to Mt Robert carpark. There is a regularly scheduled service for the summer season (December to April inclusive), on Tuesday and Friday leaving St Arnaud at 11 am and Nelson iSite at 1 pm although they will pick you up along the way, ie, the airport or your accommodation, if previously arranged. They have other trips shown on their website page, nelsonlakesshuttles.co.nz/budget.fares.html. They have very much fewer scheduled trips during the off-peak season also shown on the budget fares webpage. Or, if you have a few people, or are rich enough, you can charter your own trip to suit your timetable. Phone 03 547 6896, mobile 0275 476 896. They are a helpful lot so just ask if they will accommodate your special requirements.
The competition Trek Express has recently taken over Nelson Lakes Shuttles so it remains to be seen how these services are rationalised. Currently Trek Express is advertising Nelson to St Arnaud at $50 per person, or up to the Mt Robert carpark for $60. They can also drop you off at Lake Rotoroa for $60. Free phone within New Zealand: 0800 128 735.
Getting around by hitching is also possible but, of course, entirely unreliable. Probably easier to hitch back to Nelson or Blenheim from St Arnaud.
supplies | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
Nelson, Blenheim, and Richmond have the usual major supermarkets, Countdown, New World, Pak’nsave for getting the main supplies. Shellite or Fuelite and gas canisters for your stove can be obtained at outdoor and hardware stores in Nelson or Blenheim, if you haven’t been allowed to fly with it.
The small store at St Arnaud usually has a reasonable, if expensive, supply of food and basic camping needs, matches, candles, gas canisters, Fuelite, etc, and operates normal business hours, seven days a week.
warnings | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
Weather good: no problem, at least for those who don’t mind the occasional gnarly challenge.
On the other hand, the conditions can turn horrendous real quick, then it’s a hugely different story. A day can start well enough and then speedily deteriorate to immensely heavy rain, or even snow, at any time of year. Then you have a major issue, particularly on those long, super exposed ridges where the wind can hammer in, 100 kph+ common enough and that ain’t good, even for the well prepared. Having adequate wet weather gear, ie, a proper storm coat and overtrou is essential equipment.
With rain the water levels can rise surprisingly quickly, but luckily it can dissipate in a hurry as well. There are a couple of unbridged crossings of what are usually small creeks in the Pelorus, Browning Creek can rage, there’s a number of crossings of Hacket Stream prior to the big climb. Later there were eight crossings of the Wairoa River but the track has been recently recut to avoid the crossing that used to be immediately above a 4m waterfall. Actually, there are a few stretches of track that care needs to be taken in the wet, steep 20 m dropoffs. This is a section where if the river is raging it is best to bunker down for a day until the river goes down, the river is steep so it doesn’t take long after the rain stops.
The 220 m drop off Little Mt Rintoul, ie, the officially unnamed hill to the north of the actual Mt Rintoul, is the most heart rate increasing part of the track, it is, err, steep, and there is nothing to hang onto, if travelling in a group make sure that people don’t roll any head sized boulders down on those below. Remember though, many people have walked through here, and most survive.
This route is now part of Te Araroa. Last year about 1200 trampers came through, and that has changed the track to some degree.
Overall this is a big step up in the level of difficulty and exertion required from the Great Walks, and even from a track like the Travers-Sabine Circuit. There are bigger, harder climbs and descents, and many of the rivers have no bridge. You can get yourself in a power of difficulty if you misjudge the conditions. But sometimes we need more of a physical challenge, this fits the bill for people wanting to give themselves a decent test.
Carrying an EPIRB, ie, an emergency locator beacon, is a sensible idea here, there may not be so many people out here on any particular day.
blogs | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
My own blog starts here: Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park blog
“Another beaut day, do I need to say much more?
OK, so there are many with fresher legs who cruise through the Alpine Route in half the time, jumping huts big time, long days spent dancing over the rocks and up-and-down slopes, busy getting somewhere else in a huge hurry. For me, at least this first trip over the Alpine Route, with the weather fantastic except for that rest day I spent Old Man hut with the wind whistling around, and maybe that first mizzly morning climbing up the fire track to hit the Dun Mountain trail, you might as well revel in the opportunity and make the most of the experience. If I came through again it will almost certainly be completely different, ie, not perfect weather, or with another person and the logistics then changes, and in any case I prefer any other trip to be in the opposite direction.”
There’s also Nicky and Cookie’s hugely entertaining account, with accompanying images, as part of their Te Araroa wander in the summer of 2010, this route starts when you click through to Crisscrossing Hackett Creek. Refer nickyandcookie.com/page/41/
Writing this a few days later it’s all a bit if a blur of sweat, tears, fears, cuts and bruises. But, in a way, it was awesome. Awesome in the way that you truly appreciate being alive! Awesome, in the way that you achieved something you never thought possible. And awesome in the way that you’ve experienced something hardly anyone in the world has. I’d say that makes it worth it.
But enough if that. Let’s get back to the horror! ;)
Little Rintoul is a mass of loose rock, sharp scree, very very steep exposed slopes, and boulder fields. When you climbed the boulders, they wobbled. Their rough volcanic surfaces grating your legs as you tumbled around them, sticks clattering. When you climbed the ridges, there were steep steep drop-offs for hundreds of meters, and brittle ledges of slate you hoped would take your weight as you shimmied round clinging on, butt swaying in the wind, fingernails clamped in and curling under your grip. When you sidled the slopes of loose scree the depth was thin, not enough to kick a step, or wedge a boot, just to press your foot flat and pray the marble-like balls of rock wouldn’t slide out from under you before you had the chance to place the next step. The perspiration was of a different sort today – pure fear!
other websites | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
a big image slideshow | Alpine Route, Mt Richmond Forest Park
Here’s a 38 image slideshow from the Alpine Route giving an indication of the general track conditions and sights along the way, if you need any further convincing.
Click on the thumbnail image below to get the slideshow started, then you can click on the left or right sides of the bigger images to go forward or back.
Images of the Alpine Route huts can be found in the Mt Richmond Forest Park huts section.