The Heaphy Track is well formed and well marked. All major stream and river crossings are bridged.
You can start the track either from Brown Hut in Golden Bay (156 km from Nelson) or from Kohaihai on the West Coast (110 km from Westport). It's not a circuit track and is described here from Golden Bay to Kohaihai.
Popular walking options
For a 4 day, 3 night trip, most walkers stay at Perry Saddle, James Mackay and Heaphy Huts.
For a 5 day, 4 night trip, most walkers stay at Perry Saddle, Saxon, James Mackay and Heaphy Huts.
A popular 2 day, 1 night trip on the western side is from Kohaihai to Heaphy Hut, returning to Kohaihai.
Brown Hut to Perry Saddle Hut
Time: 5 hr
Distance: 17.5 km
About 180 m upstream from the hut, cross the bridge over the Brown River, then a grass flat, before winding up a well-defined track and into the bush. The track climbs gradually, following a route once surveyed for a road.
After 4 hours, Aorere shelter is reached. From here, the Aorere Valley is seen extending northwards and on clear days it is possible to see Mt Taranaki/Egmont. Thirty minutes before Perry Saddle Hut, a short track leads to a viewpoint at Flanagans Corner. At 915 m, this is the highest point on the track.
Perry Saddle Hut is 880 m above sea level. Near the hut in Gorge Creek is a deep but cold pool, popular for swimming.
Campsites and huts between Brown Hut and Perry Saddle
Perry Saddle to Gouland Downs Hut
Time: 2 hr
Distance: 7 km
Cross Perry Saddle and sidle above Perry Creek through tussock clearings and patches of beech. Soon the valley widens and the track climbs a small rise to where the Gouland Downs, an open tussock area, is revealed stretching out to the west.
The track meanders easily down to Cave Brook, passing the famed pole to which trampers have tied old boots over the years. Just beyond the brook is Gouland Downs Hut. Nearby, a small patch of beech grows on a limestone outcrop which has escaped erosion. This area is worth exploring. The track crosses one of several limestone arches, which are the remnants of old caves. Nearby, a small waterfall flows out of another cave passage.
Campsites and huts between Perry Saddle and Gouland Downs Hut
Gouland Downs Hut to Saxon Hut
Time: 1 hr 30 min
Distance: 5.4 km
Beyond Gouland Downs Hut the track is relatively level as it crosses the northern part of Gouland Downs. The tussock country and riverbeds make for good exploring but, when the mist lowers, the featureless downs can be confusing and it is easy to become disorientated.
Saxon Hut, nestled near the end of the downs, is named after John Saxon, who surveyed the track in 1886.
Campsites and huts between Gouland Downs Hut and Saxon Hut
Saxon Hut to James Mackay Hut
Time: 3 hr
Distance: 11.8 km
From Saxon Hut the track drops slightly to grassy flats beside the Saxon River and then climbs gently up to a broad ridge, which joins Gouland Downs to Mackay Downs.
Flood prone area between Saxon and James Mackay huts
A section on Mackay Downs floods in extremely wet conditions. This is a 70 m piece of the track across a wetland and a bridge. It becomes impassable and quite dangerous. Walkers should wait for the water to recede.
The track now skirts the edge of Mackay Downs to James Mackay Hut, winding in and out of several small streams, just before they tumble off the downs and fall to the Heaphy River on the left. The vegetation is alternately tussock field and shrub-fringed patches of beech forest. Small creeks dissect the landscape and the pink granite sparkles and crunches beneath your feet.
James Mackay Hut is situated just above the track on an open terrace. The Tasman Sea and Heaphy River mouth can be seen from here, 15 km to the west and 750 m below. It is named after the explorer who first pressed for a bridle track to be established between Collingwood and the West Coast.
Campsites and huts between Saxon Hut and James Mackay
James Mackay Hut to Lewis Hut
Time: 3 hr 30 min
Distance: 12.5 km
Beyond James Mackay Hut, a gradual descent to the Heaphy River begins. The track is through beech forest at first but soon the richer and taller forest typical of the West Coast becomes dominant. Occasional tantalising glimpses of the Heaphy River below are seen through the forest. The sounds of rushing water grow louder and suddenly the hut appears at the junction of the Heaphy River with the smaller Lewis River, along with sandflies and the first nikau palms.
Charles Lewis was a Collingwood surveyor who, in the 1880s, was first to investigate Mackay’s proposed bridle route.
Campsites and huts between James Mackay and Lewis Hut
Lewis Hut to Heaphy Hut
Time: 2 hr 30 min
Distance: 8 km
From Lewis Hut, head back up the track for a short distance and cross the Heaphy River, via the 148.4 metre suspended deck suspension bridge – the longest ever built by DOC. The track continues along the left bank to the river mouth through a forest of kahikatea, rimu and rata. Glossy-leaved shrubs perch precariously in the tall trees, flourishing in the abundant light and extracting nutrients from humus (accumulated plant debris) in their hosts’ branches.
In dry spells, the sluggish river meanders along peacefully, but in times of heavy rain especially when it’s high tide, sections of the track and bridges get flooded. An area of limestone and karst locally known as Cave Stream about 15 min before Heaphy Hut, floods after periods of heavy rain. Extra care is required at both places in flood conditions and walkers should wait for the water to recede.
Towards the river mouth, nikau palms become more common, the sea’s incessant roaring grows louder and, in some conditions, small waves can be seen running upriver. Heaphy Hut is situated far enough back from the sea to be spared the worst of the winds.
The river mouth is at the junction of two pounamu (greenstone) trails and archaeological work has uncovered evidence of occupation by Maori that extends back 500 years. In 1905, an extensive European settlement was surveyed in the lower valley, but it was never built.
Warning: It is dangerous to wade or swim at the mouth of the Heaphy River due to extreme tidal currents and rips.
Campsites and huts between Lewis Hut and Heaphy Hut
Heaphy Hut to Kohaihai River Mouth
Time: 5 hr
Distance: 16.2 km
Warning: Sections of the coastal track between Heaphy Hut and Kohaihai may be affected by large wave surges during high tides and rough seas which can cause the track to be temporarily impassable. Check tide timetables
The Heaphy River mouth is an exciting place. The river surges out through a narrow gap into the sea - in-coming waves halt the flow and the churning of salt and fresh waters is spectacular.
The track south to Kohaihai is through forest although beach walking is possible in some places. Some of the small streams are not bridged and can be dangerous after heavy rain. The forest has rata and karaka trees, many vines and groves of nikau palms. Be careful of the stinging nettle that grows in places.
Just beyond Katipo Creek is Crayfish (Koura) Point. The track takes visitors away from the coastal section, which can be impassable at high tide.
Soon Scotts Beach is reached - the clearing here is a good spot to rest before climbing over Kohaihai Saddle and down through wind-blasted shrubs to a bridge across the Kohaihai River. The track follows the riverbank for 400 m to Kohaihai carpark where there is a shelter and phone.
The section of track around the Kohaihai River mouth may experience flooding issues when the river mouth becomes blocked. An alternative track has been put in place to allow visitors to bypass this area when this occurs.
Warning: It is dangerous to wade or swim at the mouth of the Kohaihai River due to extreme tidal currents and rips.
Campsites and huts between Lewis Hut and Heaphy Hut