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Introduction

The Rainbow Road is remarkable for the landscape’s transition from wide tussock lands and screes along the Clarence River to craggy, beech‑covered mountains in the Wairau catchment.

Track overview

112 km

Mountain biking

Advanced: Grade 4

Other activities

  • Four wheel driving

Seasonal restrictions

The road is only open from 26 December until Easter Monday. Outside this season, access permission must be obtained. 

Dog access

No dogs

About this track

Description

View from Rainbow Road. Photo: Jan Clayton-Greene.
View from Rainbow Road

Four wheel drive vehicles at Lake Tennyson.
Four wheel drive vehicles at Lake Tennyson

The Rainbow Road is a ‘wilderness driving’ experience across private land. The 112‑kilometre road from Hanmer to St Arnaud (via Tophouse Rd and Wairau Hanmer Springs Hydro Rd) is accessible by 4WD vehicles only (2WD to Lake Tennyson).

Combined with the Acheron Road, this makes a good round trip.

Allow at least three hours to drive from Hanmer to State Highway 63, on a road which crosses Rainbow Station courtesy of the runholder. 

From Hanmer, the route follows the Clarence River along Molesworth’s boundary with St James Conservation Area to its origin at Lake Tennyson. After crossing the Alpine Island Saddle (1347 m), it follows the Wairau River through Molesworth and Rainbow Station to State Highway 63 near St Arnaud (85 km from Nelson/131 km from Picton via Blenheim).

Note: Distances in brackets are provided firstly from Hanmer and secondly from St Arnaud.

Jacks Pass/Rainbow junction (8 km/104 km)

Jacks Pass opens the main route between Hanmer and St Arnaud, with Jollies Pass accessible only to 4WD vehicles.

Lake Tennyson (32 km/80 km)

This is a popular area for camping, with a shelter, toilets, and information panels about the history of rabbits and their management on Molesworth.

Camping by Lake Tennyson. Photo: G.Walker.

Lake Tennyson Campsite

Category: Basic
Facilities: 10 non-powered/tent sites, water from stream, wheelchair accessible with assistance
Bookings not required - first come, first served

Island Saddle (44 km/68 km)

At 1347 metres, this alpine pass is the highest point on the Hanmer to St Arnaud route and is claimed to be the highest publicly accessible road in New Zealand. The pass straddles the boundary between Marlborough and Canterbury and is the watershed between the Wairau and Clarence Rivers.

Short and tall tussocklands occur on mountain slopes, with a mosaic of carpetgrass turflands and alpine plants on mountain crests.

Island Gully Hut.

Island Gully Hut

Category: Standard
Facilities: 4 bunk beds, heating, mattresses
Bookings not required - first come, first served

Sedgemere Lakes (55 km/57 km)

Turk Ridge, Mt Balaclava, and the Crimea Range are among the names that date exploration of this area to the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The Sedgemere Lakes can be viewed from a short track off the road (walking/bicycle access only). Here you may enjoy an incredible summer display of the native gentian Gentianella corymbifera in flower.

Information about sheep and beef farming on Molesworth, Māori trails and explorers is displayed on panels in the shelter at the hut.

Severn to Sedgemere 4WD Road starts/ends here (55 km/57 km)

Sedgemere Sleepout.

Sedgemere Sleepout

Category: Standard
Facilities: 6 bunk beds, heating, mattresses
Bookings not required - first come, first served

Coldwater Creek camping area (66 km/46 km)

After crossing the bridge over Coldwater Creek, the road enters Hell’s Gate, a narrow gorge.

Coldwater Stream campsite. Photo: D Parr.

Coldwater Stream Campsite

Category: Basic
Facilities: 8 non-powered/tent sites, water from stream
Bookings not required - first come, first served

Rainbow Ski Area turn-off (86 km/26 km)

Outside the ski season, the 8 km skifield road is closed for vehicle access but open for walking. Alpine flowers, tarns and views are the summer attractions.

St Arnaud (112 km/0 km)

This is the front door of Nelson Lakes National Park. Food, petrol and a range of accommodation are available.

Getting there

St Arnaud is the main gateway to the Upper Wairau Valley, 85 km from Nelson or 131 km from Picton via Blenheim. Access is also possible from Hanmer Springs, 134 km north of Christchurch.

A high-clearance 4WD is required to negotiate the road.

Mountain biking

  • Permission is required for mountain bike access.
  • Touring cyclists with gear should allow two days to ride from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs.

Nature and conservation

The route is remarkable for the landscape’s transition from wide tussocklands and screes along the Clarence River to craggy, beech‑covered mountains in the Wairau catchment.

On the boundary between Molesworth and St James Conservation Area, Lake Tennyson’s combination of water, forest, high mountains, tussock and scree creates a scenic highlight. The 239‑hectare lake is dammed behind glacial moraines.

The vegetation is a mosaic of moraine communities including open red tussockland and low shrubland with patches of tall tussockland. A large area of mountain beech forest grows on surrounding slopes.

In the Sedgemere Protected Area, a range of landforms over a relatively small area has resulted in diverse vegetation types, with the wetlands including over 100 indigenous species of flowering plants. Bog pine and mountain toatoa stands are remnants of once larger shrub communities.

The lakes are regularly frequented by waders and waterfowl: pied stilt, pied oystercatcher, black‑fronted tern, banded dotterel and grey duck. This is an important moulting area for paradise shelduck.

History and culture

Rainbow homestead.
Rainbow homestead

Passes in the Upper Wairau Valley were part of overland routes used by Maori. Later, high country graziers moving mobs of sheep between Canterbury and Nelson/Marlborough built a chain of cob houses.

The road was built in the 1950s when the electricity pylons were built through this area to supply electricity to the Nelson and Buller regions.

Know before you go

  • For your safety we advise that the Rainbow Road is a wilderness driving experience. Drivers need to be self-sufficient and prepared for sudden changes in weather.
  • You drive at your own risk.
  • The road is only suitable for high-clearance 4WD vehicles; there is no cell phone coverage, and breakdown services may not operate on the private road.
  • Unseasonal snows, slips or elevated fire risk may close the road without notice.

Cows grazing, Rainbow Road. Photo: Joy Crump.
Cows grazing, Rainbow Road

Private land

The floors of the Wairau, Rainbow and Paske Valleys are farmed. Leave gates as you find them and respect stock and property.

Domestic animals

Leave dogs and domestic pets at home. Hunting dogs and horses may be taken on to private land with permission from Rainbow Station.

Fire

Fire is a major threat to vegetation in this area. We recommend portable cookers are used.

River care code

  • River birds nest on the ground. Their eggs and chicks are almost impossible to spot from a vehicle. Please refrain from driving in riverbeds from August to December.
  • Birds swooping, circling or calling loudly probably have nests nearby. Move away so they can return to them, or their eggs and chicks could die.

Open period

From 26 December until Easter Monday the road is a toll road; $25 per 4WD vehicle, $15 per motorbike, $2 per mountain or push bike, trampers free. The toll is collected at the Rainbow cob homestead.

Outside the open period there are locked gates just beyond Rainbow Ski Area turn-off and just before Coldwater Creek campsite (heading south).

Access outside open period

Contact the Rainbow Station Manager on +64 3 521 1838 after 6.30pm to arrange access through the station to 4WD, tramp, hunt, fish or mountain bike. 

Access forms and further information can be found on the Lone Star Farms website. Toll charges apply all year round.

Contacts

Rotoiti / Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre
Phone:      +64 3 521 1806
Address:   View Road
St Arnaud
Email:   nelsonlakesvc@doc.govt.nz
Full office details
Nelson Visitor Centre
Phone:      +64 3 546 9339
Address:   Millers Acre/Taha o te Awa
79 Trafalgar Street
Nelson 7010
Email:   nelsonvc@doc.govt.nz
Full office details
Hurunui Visitor Centre
Phone:      +64 3 315 7128
Address:   Amuri Avenue
Hurunui
Email:   info@visithurunui.co.nz
Full office details
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