This spectacular alpine region is a favorite hiking destination. Initially hacked through as a direct route to the West Coast gold fields in 1865, the road over Arthur's Pass was a tortuous dangerous track. It was frequently shut due to bad weather and slips. When the railway arrived, in 1923, the pass's skiing and hiking opportunities came to the fore, and the TranzAlpine train service now offers a supreme way to see this rugged area without getting your shoes dirty.
On the way to the pass, along State Highway 73 from Christchurch, you'll pass the Castle Hill Conservation Area, which is filled with interesting rock formations. The gray limestone rocks range in height from 3 to 164 feet and in spring and fall they're tackled by climbers keen to go bouldering. Nearby Craigieburn Conservation Park has wonderful beech and fern forests and some great mountain-biking trails—take the road leading to Broken River Ski Field. There's a campsite just half a mile up the road.
Sheltered as they are by the Southern Alps, these parklands get far less precipitation than the western side of the mountains, which gets five times more rain than the eastern side. Still, the area is subject to some heavy snowfalls, so in winter carry chains and check the road conditions before you go. Above the tree line you'll find ski slopes and, between November and March, masses of wildflowers, including giant buttercups. Around the summit you'll also have a good chance of seeing kea, the South Island's particularly intelligent and curious mountain parrots.
Arthur's Pass Village, at 737 meters (2,395 feet), is a true alpine village, so pack a jacket even in summer. A couple of restaurants and a store provide basic food supplies, and there are several places to stay, including an excellent wilderness lodge near Bealey. There's also a Department of Conservation visitor center to help with enjoying the vast selection of mountains and rivers in the area. Both the Devil's Punchbowl and Bridal Veil Falls are worth the short walk. The tracks are in good condition and, although they're a bit steep and rocky in places, no serious hiking experience is required.
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