Mount Owen – Day 1

The tarns on the saddle beneath Mount Owen

Mount Owen via Granity Pass Hut

The spectacular rocky mass of Mount Owen is the highest point in the Kahurangi National Park, standing at 1875m. It looms over a beautiful glaciated limestone karst landscape, famous for it’s incredible rock formations and huge underground cave networks. There are several ways to walk to Mount Owen, and I took the easiest and most popular track from the Courthouse Flat DoC campsite. DoC reccommend 6 hours to walk the 8.3Kms to Granity Pass hut, and I made it in nearly 4 hours.

Getting there

To get to Courthouse Flat campsite, travel South from Nelson on SH6 and turn off to Tapawera. From there it is about an hour’s drive up Tadmor Valley Road and the Wangapeka River Road. The road narrows and becomes unsealed, but there are plenty of passing places, and when I went the road was in decent shape. It’s certainly a beautiful drive along the Wangapeka River. Beware however that there are numerous small fords to cross. Just before you get into the Kahurangi National Park itself, you cross a long concrete ford over the Dart river. Apparently it can silt up really badly and in heavy rains becomes impassable. There is an intentions book at Prices Clearing 7Kms into the park.

Crossing the ford over the Dart River
Crossing the ford over the Dart River

Courthouse Flat campsite

I spent the night alone at Courthouse Flat DoC campsite. It is a big site next to a creek with one (decent) toilet, some nice information boards, a couple of picnic benches and a fire box. If you have time you can explore the historic Gold field sites and walks just across the creek. I woke at 7.30am to my first frost of the Autumn and a completely frozen van. After breakfast and a mixture of mocachino and caramel latte coffees (too sweet if I’m honest) I left at 8.30am. Everything was frozen, including my hands and feet. Good thing it was an uphill slog right from the start!

Frozen van at Courthouse Flat campsite
Frozen van at Courthouse Flat campsite

Taking the ridge track

There is a choice of an upper or lower track to start the walk, which meet after around 2.5 Kms. I took the ridge track up the mountain and would take the lower track via Blue Creek on my return. The ridge track wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it. I took off all my layers, hat and gloves within 500m.

Starting the ridge track to Mount Owen
Starting the ridge track to Mount Owen

It was pretty steep, and climbed from around 320m at the campsite to around 860m at the junction with the Blue Creek track. There were no markers on this stretch, but I’m sure it would be impossible to get lost…

Looking back from the ridge track
Looking back from the ridge track

I was carrying four days worth of food with me, as I wasn’t sure how long I would stay. For the first time since Te Araroa Trail I was using Big Bertha a.k.a my Lowe Alpine Airzone Trek 45-55 litre pack. My amazing, and very much lighter Osprey Eja (which I used for the South West Coast Path and all subsequent trips) is being replaced by Osprey US. It has been ‘being replaced’ for some months now owing to a deep squeak I could no longer bear after almost a year of use. The track was relentless up and despite the pack, and the slog it felt great to be out there. Taking this way up was definitely worth it for the great views. I reached the junction at 9.45am.

Ridge Track junction to The Staircase

The two tracks meet in beautiful beech forest. As soon as I entered the forest section I was immediately struck with the number of birds I heard, and I saw lots of robins, bellbirds and fantails. In the background was an ever-present hum of wasps. I could see them high up in the branches, after the honeydew being produced by the tiny insects in the beech trees.

At the junction of the ridge and Blue Creek track
At the junction of the ridge and Blue Creek track

The track was well marked from here, and was in really good condition. The climb continued for the next couple of Kms or so to around 1300m.

Coming out of the forest after the climb
Coming out of the forest after the climb
Trees full of lichen
Trees full of lichen

The track came out of the forest onto open tops with tall clumps of grasses, and from there was in and out of forest. The views of the mountains of Kahurangi National Park to the North were incredible. Billies Knob was directly South, and Culliford Hill to the West.

Still climbing! With Billie's Knob in the distance
Still climbing! With Billie’s Knob in the distance
In and out of the forest
In and out of the forest
Flattening out as I approach The Staircase section
Flattening out as I approach The Staircase section

The Staircase

I reached the next landmark at 11am – The Staircase. You never really know what to expect when the contour lines on the map are so close together they’re almost solid. Each line indicates an ascent/descent of 20m, so the one thing you do know is that it’s going to be steep. Heading towards Mount Owen you take the staircase down.

Going down The Staircase section
Going down the Staircase section

In actual fact it wasn’t too bad at all, and was just over 150m or so drop. It started with a series of reasonably steep switchback turns on a decent track. Easy-as. As I descended I passed some rocky bluffs and it became a little steeper. There were just a couple of times near the bottom where I needed to scramble down using both hands and feet.

Lower down The Staircase towards Mount Owen
Lower down The Staircase

Blue Creek to Granity Pass Hut

Once out of the staircase there was a flatter section through more forest, coming eventually to a grassy almost marshland area. I almost got lost amongst the huge grasses, but then spied a marker.

The Blue Creek valley
The Blue Creek valley
Getting lost momentarily in the grasses
Getting lost momentarily in the grasses

The trail from here was easy and flat on an open, nicely cut track through the valley. There were beautiful bluffs towering over me to the left and right. There were lots of birds in this little pocket too, and I had the feeling of being in a lost valley in a Bond movie.

Beautiful open trail following Blue Creek
Beautiful open trail following Blue Creek

At 11.50am I reached the section which walked up the dry river bed of Blue Creek. This section didn’t take long 20 minutes or so.

Walking the dry river bed of Blue Creek
Walking the dry river bed of Blue Creek
Entering Ghost Valley before Granity Pass hut
Entering Ghost Valley before Granity Pass hut

Then all of a sudden with numerous unnamed peaks in front of me, the trail swung a right and I was at Granity Pass hut. It was 12.15pm. DoC’s estimated 6 hours from the campsite had taken me nearly 4 hours.

Granity Pass hut

Granity Pass hut sits at around 1200m elevation. It is a gorgeous 12 bedder set in a stunning location in Ghost valley, surrounded by mountains. I signed the intentions book then ate my lunch on the beautiful verandah in the sun. I kept an eye on the weka nosing around at my feet. (Note, I had no phone signal at the hut, but did get one just before first tarns on the ridge about 1km up from the hut).

Granity Pass hut
Granity Pass hut

After lunch I inspected my feet. My hiking shoes (old Salomons, but barely worn) had been rubbing my heels, so I’d taped my feet this morning. However they felt sore for the last Km or so. When I took my shoes off I saw that both my socks had worn through to a hole at the heels (they’ve given me around 1500Kms) and all the tape had come off… The beginnings of a blister was starting to form on my right heel grrrr. I swore, put a compeed blister plaster on my heels and found my spare pair of socks.

Granity Pass hut to Sentinel Hill and the tarns

I left the hut at 1pm. Granity Pass hut to Mount Owen is an unmarked route, but from the hut there is a very well worn path up the ridge overlooking Sanctuary Basin. In good weather you almost can’t go wrong. In bad weather there is certainly potential to go wrong, so keep the map and gps handy.

Heading off towards Mount Owen from Granity Pass hut
Heading off towards Mount Owen from Granity Pass hut
Looking back to Granity Pass hut from the ridge
Looking back to Granity Pass hut from the ridge

Heading up the ridge, the narrow track leads you to the East of Sentinal Hill. Around the hill it was a teensy bit boggy – if I’m being really picky… I didn’t actually get my feet wet or anything. The views in all directions were absolutely amazing.

Heading towards Sanctuary Basin
Heading towards Sanctuary Basin
The beautiful ridge track towards Sentinel Hill
The beautiful ridge track towards Sentinel Hill
Approaching Sentinel Hill - One of the Cairns on the (officially) unmarked route
Approaching Sentinel Hill – One of the Cairns on the (officially) unmarked route

I was around Sentinel Hill and at the saddle below Mount Owen about an hour later. There are a number of tarns (mountain lakes) on the saddle. I found a flat spot above the largest tarn on some dry ground and set up my tent. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the sun was still shining.

First decent look at Mount Owen, from Sentinel Hill
First decent look at Mount Owen, from Sentinel Hill
The tarns on the saddle beneath Mount Owen
The tarns on the saddle beneath Mount Owen
One of the largest tarns, and the last source of water before Mount Owen
One of the largest tarns, and the last source of water before Mount Owen

I had brought a tiny day pack with me, into which I transferred all the safety essentials – then went exploring. I read that you can get up Mount Owen in a couple of hours from here, but after a little while I decided to turn back. There was no need for me to race up there today and have to beat the clock down before dark on this Autumn day. So I had a wander around the saddle and enjoyed the sunshine.

I enjoyed an early dinner at 4.30pm and watched a huge hawk catch the last of the warm Autumn air overhead.

My beautiful wild camp near Mount Owen - overlooking Mount Bell
My beautiful wild camp near Mount Owen – overlooking Mount Bell

 

 

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