The Three Passes trip can be started from either end, but the east to west route described here is recommended. It's considerably easier and safer to go down Cronin Stream after Whitehorn Pass than to travel up it from the western side. It's also easier to navigate and climb up to Browning Pass from the east.
Note: True left and true right refer to the side of the valley or river when facing and looking downstream.
Time: 4–5 hours one way
Time: 9–10 hours one way
This section goes over Harman and Whitehorn passes as detailed below. It can be undertaken over 2 days by camping at Harman Pass where there is a suitable site to pitch a tent by the Ariels Tarns – this is the only suitable site for camping.
Time: 3 hours one way
From Carrington Hut follow the track to the riverbed of White River. As you walk upstream, look for a place to cross White River to get to Taipoiti River on the opposite bank.
Warning: If you need to use Clough Cableway because of high river levels, do not continue as you will experience further serious problems with other rivers along the route.
If there is snow up the Taipoiti, the route will be difficult. During winter and spring, avalanches can funnel into the gorge over the cliffs.
Climb and scramble up through the steep gorge, crossing from side to side where necessary. At the top of the gorge, waterfalls tumble over impassable cliffs. Pass these waterfalls. The poled route to Harman Pass starts here, beside a small stream.
Once out of the Taipoiti gorge you can see the main Taipoiti River branches into two streams, each running down a deep gully. A well-worn trail marked with cairns and poles crosses the true left branch relatively soon and then climbs upwards, well above the true right gully. As the second stream becomes smaller and more open, cross it. After a short walk you will reach the top of Harman Pass.
Time: 2 hours one way
Warning: Do not attempt the route in poor visibility - Whitehorn Pass is only obvious on a clear day
Harman Pass is a junction point for trampers taking the marked route down Mary Creek to Julia Hut. Be sure you take the marked route to Ariels Tarns.
From Harman Pass, a poled route ascends to the first of Ariels Tarns by sidling on the tussock and rocky shelves well above the small gorge of Mary Creek. Pass the tarns and continue to follow the poled route past a small rock hump and onto piles of rock before reaching permanent ice/snow. The poled route stops here; make your own way up the valley to the pass. Near the top of Whitehorn Pass, head right to reach a cairn and marker on the saddle.
The permanent ice field of Whitehorn Pass may have crevasses, especially in late summer. If the snow is deep consider turning back.
Time: 4–5 hours one way
Warning: The steep drop-off from Whitehorn Pass is prone to avalanches.
A worn route zigzags down the screes from the true left of the pass – this is the best route down through the bluffed flanks of the pass. Take care not to dislodge loose rocks onto those below you. Once near the valley floor, travel along the true left of upper Cronin Stream. Terraces may offer better travel. Lower down, find a suitable place to cross to the true right. Just before the river drops into a deep gorge, look for orange markers (part way up the scree slope edge) or a large cairn on a large rock at the bottom of a scree slope.
Sidle across the scree at the level of the cairned rock to pick up the worn trail to the hut. Poles and cairns mark the ground trail. It crosses a side creek and scrubby spur before dropping onto a boggy grass terrace with small tarns. Skirt the terrace to the left and drop towards the confluence of Cronin Stream and Wilberforce River. By going around the tarns you avoid damaging the delicate bog vegetation.
Your first view of Park Morpeth Hut is of its radio aerial. The hut radio is linked to the Mountain Radio Service.
The Canterbury Mountaineering Club built the hut in memory of James Park and John Morpeth who died while tramping from Lake Kaniere to the Wilberforce valley in January 1929.
Time: 2 hours one way
This is the steepest section of the Three Passes route. From Park Morpeth Hut walk up the true left of Wilberforce River. Ford the Wilberforce after it joins with Hall Creek opposite Clough Memorial.
Start up the zigzag track to Browning Pass/Noti Raureka. The zigzags were part of a track started in the late1860s. John Pascoe warned in his 1938 route guide "it is inexpedient to follow the track to its illogical conclusion in the bluffs near the Hamer Falls, lest you join the shades of the miners who built the track."
From the top of the zigzag, before it disappears into the bluffs, climb the obvious scree (in summer there is a worn trail visible). Just before you reach the summit the scree narrows and the climb is at its steepest. Continue carefully up the rock and tussock left of the scree – there are markers that lead you through the bluffs.
Warning: If there is snow on this section (winter and early spring) it is essential that all members of the party can self-arrest. A cornice at the top or ice conditions can dramatically increase this section's difficulty. Once on Browning Pass relax; the steepest section is over.
Time: 3 hours one way
From the pass a poled track runs round the west side of Lake Browning/Whakarewa and over gentle boggy uplands.
The poled route then descends to the upper reaches of the Arahura River. Look for the benched track on the river's true right then cross to reach it. It is important to cross rather than try to travel down the true left because further downstream there are high waterfalls, bluffs and thick scrub on the true left bank.
Once you cross the river, follow the benched track. There are three avalanche chutes to cross, so take care from late July to the end of November and do not linger. The track ends at a side creek with steep gravel banks, close to the Arahura. Drop to the riverbed and cross to the true left.
From here continue downstream until you pick up the track marked with a large orange triangle. Follow this track to a small side stream, travel upstream for 100 m to pick up the wide grassy track leading off on the true left – do not miss this turn off. Harman Hut is 20 minutes away.
Time: 3–4 hours one way
From Harman Hut follow the track to a swing bridge, cross to follow the old benched track high above Arahura River. The turn-off to the boggy Styx Saddle is signposted and marked by large poles.
Once across the saddle, the track begins again at the bush edge following the true right of Styx River. The track is wet and boggy, with slippery damp mosses and lichen on the rocks. Look for the impressive twisted rātā trees.
Cross the river a few minutes after the track emerges from the bush onto Grassy Flat, picking up the orange markers on the true left. The hut is in the middle of the flats on the true left of Styx River.
Time: 4–5 hours one way
From the hut head downstream and re-cross Styx River. The track begins on the true right just below the prominent toetoe flat (toetoe is a tall native grass that looks similar to pampas grass).
Though much of the track to the road end is good going, bits of it are slippery underfoot and cut by streams. In places travel is along the riverbed. Where the track has eroded, you will need to scramble up and down the low, but steep, riverside terraces to get from track to riverbed and back again. At one point the track climbs high for a short distance to avoid the river where it cuts into the steep bank and is impassable. Close to the road end the river again cuts into a steep bank. At this point you need to cross briefly to the river's true left and then back to reach the road end on the true right.(Note: This can only be done when the river is at normal to low flow). Te track then merges into a 4WD track which is followed until the Lake Kaniere Road is reached.
Watch out for the rare native blue duck/whio, and report any sightings to the Department of Conservation (DOC). Also watch out for ongaonga, a painful giant stinging nettle that grows in sunny places along the lower reaches of the track. From above Harman Hut to the road end (via Styx Saddle) DOC runs a stoat trapping project. Trapping stoats protects whio and ensures a better chance of breeding success. Please do not disturb the stoat traps.
Alternative routes: You can follow Arahura River instead of the Styx, and Taipo River instead of the Waimakariri (see the route guide for Harman Pass for details from Harman Pass down the Taipo River)!
If you are crossing west to east, warning – the eastern face of Browning Pass/Noti Raureka is very steep. A route down is defined only by marker poles. Take extreme care when descending.
When walking down from Harman Pass, enter the Taipoiti River well to its true left to avoid the bluffs and waterfalls.
The eastern starting point is at the road bridge over the Waimakariri River, beside State Highway 73 (SH73), 10 km east of Arthur's Pass village.
On the western side, access to the ends of the Arahura or Styx river tracks is via Lake Kaniere Road, inland from Hokitika.
What to expect: This route requires several major river crossings, has some extremely steep sections, and all-year snow on Whitehorn Pass. You need to take an ice-axe and crampons and know how to use them. Browning Pass/Noti Raureka is very steep and can be icy.
Experience: Suitable for well-equipped and experienced backcountry trampers only. Alpine experience and equipment essential.
Best season: Mid to late summer (January to February). This crossing is not suitable over winter - the route passes through several known avalanche paths.
Required maps: NZTopo50: Otira BV20, Kaniere BV19
Hazards: Avalanche, rockfall, flooded rivers and steep ice slopes, variable weather.
Safety: This route guide must be read in conjunction with Tramping in Arthur's Pass National Park (PDF, 762K), and New Zealand's Outdoor Safety Code.
Before setting out, check the latest track conditions and avalanche advisory with the Arthur's Pass Visitor Centre.
Before you go into the outdoors, tell someone your plans and leave a date to raise the alarm if you haven't returned. To do this, use the New Zealand Outdoors Intentions process on the AdventureSmart website. It is endorsed by New Zealand's search and rescue agencies and provides three simple options to tell someone you trust the details about your trip.