Māori were here first, searching for food and pounamu (greenstone). “Greenstone trails” along mountain passes are still in use today such as Haast Pass on State Highway 6 (the major road between Wanaka and Haast).
Māori called Mount Aspiring, Tititea, meaning steep peak of glistening white. Throughout the year they came from Foveaux Strait and Coastal Otago to the inland lakes to collect kakapo, kaka, kereru (wood pigeon) and tui from the forest. For the first 200 years of Māori settlement there would also have been moa along the forest edges.
Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu both had named settlements around the shores of Lakes Wānaka and Hawea, including Nehenehe (literally meaning forest), on the north side of the mouth of the Matukituki River. There are several sites on the lake shore with ovens for cooking ti rakau (cabbage tree) roots.
The first European to see Mount Aspiring/Tititea was government surveyor John Turnbull Thompson in 1857. After European settlement many of the valleys were farmed and exploited for minerals such as scheelite. Remnants of these activities can still be found in and around the park. Tourism development began in the late 1880s. Even then it was possible to take a guided trip into the Routeburn Valley. Mount Aspiring is possibly the least developed of New Zealand’s 14 national parks.
The park spans a large area, from the Haast River in the north to the Humbolt Mountains in the south. Large valleys, carved out by ancient glaciers, dissect high mountain ranges.
Mt Aspiring itself is the only peak over 3000 metres outside Mount Cook National Park. One of the most unusual areas in the park is the Red Hills 'mineral belt' in the southwest. Here the concentration of magnesium in the soil is so high that only a few hardy plants survive.
Most of the Southern Alps/Ka Tiritiri o te Moana started over 220 million years ago as sediment and rock on top of volcanic rocks on the seafloor. Under intense heat and pressure the rock was consolidated, then uplifted to form the Main Divide. The present landscape was shaped by glacial processes during the Ice Ages, when huge glaciers filled and scoured out the valleys.
Beech forests dominate below the bush line. Each beech species favours slightly different growing conditions so while you might find red beech in sunny, frost-free situations, you will find silver or mountain beech at higher altitudes, happily surviving winter snow falls.
Ribbonwoods are among the first to colonise open areas (caused by slips and avalanches); these are among New Zealand's few deciduous trees. Above the bushline are snow tussock grasslands and herbfields with mountain buttercups, and daisies.
Rifleman, bellbird, South Island robin, yellow crowned parakeet, mohua (yellowhead), tomtit, South Island fantail and New Zealand pigeon are common bush birds. Towards evening, native bats and moreporks (small owls) may be seen and heard. Blue ducks and paradise shelducks live in the valley.
The park's alpine areas are home to the threatened rock wren and the high-profile kea. These mischievous mountain parrots have been known to take an unhealthy interest in visitors' packs and tents.
New Zealand has no animals which are harmful to humans. Introduced animals include whitetail deer in the lower Routeburn valley, red deer throughout the forested areas and chamois about the mountaintops. Possums, rats and stoats are widespread. Introduced brown and rainbow trout are found in the lower Route Burn and brown trout are present in Lake Howden.
Rare, threatened native long-tailed bats/pekapeka roost in mature red beech forests mainly in Makarora, East Matukituki Valley, and the Routeburn. Bats are New Zealand’s only native land mammal; their bodies are a similar size to mice.
World Heritage Area
Mt Aspiring National Park is included in the Te Wähipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area - a global concept that identifies natural and cultural sites of world significance … places so special that protecting them concerns all people.