Mt Watson Route to Ces Clark Hut
The Mt Watson Route at the southern end of the Paparoa Ranges makes a stunning overnight or long day walk. The route climbs approximately 780m from the Smoke-ho car park (for the Paparoa Track) up to Mt Watson at 1102m. From there it heads north to Mt Leitch and along the tops of the Paparoa Range to Croesus Knob before joining the Paparoa Track.
We took six hours to walk the Mt Watson Route to Ces Clark hut and stayed overnight (bookings essential as it’s on the Paparoa Track). In the morning we walked the leisurely three hours downhill back to Smoke-ho car park.
The Mt Watson Route starts just outside of Blackball. It took me about 50 minutes to drive from Hokitika on the SH6 to Greymouth, then turn off to Blackball just after the river. Rich came from Reefton which took about 45 minutes. Drive straight through Blackball then turn right to Smoke-ho car park, which takes about fifteen minutes. We walked in early September and there were only a couple of cars in the car park.
If you have time make a stop in Blackball. It’s a cool little village boasting a rich history a couple of pubs and some nice little stores.
- Smoke-ho car park to Mt Watson (320m – 1100m): 2 hrs 40 mins (incl 10 min break)
- Mt Watson to Mt Leitch bivvy and back to tops: 50 mins
- Lunch stop 30 mins
- Along the tops to Ces Clark Hut: 2 hours
- Ces Clark to Garden Gully: 1 hour
- Garden Gully to Smoke-ho car park: 2 hours
Blackball to Smoke-ho Car Park
We met for a coffee in Blackball before starting the walk. Or should I say, we met in Blackball. There was no coffee because it was early spring when Blackball had little reason to be open at this hour. Heading straight through the village we continued up to the Smoke-ho car park, turning right off the main road where signposted for the Paparoa Track.
The unsealed road was in good condition and suitable for all vehicles. Twisty in places, narrow in others, with a few bumpy bits but nothing serious. The large car park was practically empty with decent-looking toilets and we chatted with a couple of mountain bikers who were about to start the track. I shouldered my new (to-me) second-hand 40L pack bought the weekend before (excited to be giving some new gear a spin) and we were ready to go.
From Smoke-ho Car Park
It was 9.30 am when we started walking. We headed up the Paparoa Track for just a minute before heading off to the left for the Mt Watson Track. A sign reminded walkers that this route was for experienced trampers only. The track started with an undulating first twenty minutes or so through regenerating forest before settling into a steady climb as the topo map indicates.
The steepest part was between 500-600m, but none of it felt like anything too serious. It was marked all the way but we had to to hunt for a couple of markers. I managed to get us off track for a little 10-minute escapade at one point by not paying attention and then following a piece of random flagging tape. Just after our little detour we found a comfortable mossy patch and took a ten-minute break.
Above the Bush Line
At 11.45 am, two hours and fifteen minutes after starting the walk, we popped out of the trees and into the golden tussock. Turning back, the views of Blackball and across to Grey River / Māwheranui were already superb. The route was poled from here although we needed to walk up the hill a bit to find the first pole out on the tussock. Just carry on up and you’ll be fine.
Climbing higher the views get better and better if you can ignore the large active coal mining area just across Waterfall Creek to the south.
The terrain eventually became more rocky as we approached Mt Watson summit, and we came across a couple of rock walls people had built for shelter. We’d picked a wonderful, clear calm day for our adventure, but the Paparoas take a pummelling in bad weather. If you happened to be up here then, you’d be glad of any shelter.
Mt Watson to Mt Leitch
At 12.10 we reached Mt Watson summit at 1102m. Ahead, the walk over the ridge to Croesus Knob looked absolutely fantastic. Turning back, the views down the coast to the Southern Alps were incredible (ignoring the mine). We made out the rocky outcrops off the Point Elizabeth Walkway just north of Greymouth.
The route led around the eastern flank of Mt Leitch.
When we met the main ridge again about twenty minutes later we turned left to check out the Mt Leitch bivvy a few hundred metres off track. This cute wee bivvy belongs to the Paparoa Wildlife Trust who run a number of conservation projects in the area. (locked, and not for public use). We sidled our way back up to the ridge and reached it at around 1 pm, walking a little further to find a good lunch spot and inspecting the dark vegetable sheep clinging to the ridge.
Over lunch, we attempted to decipher the major peaks in the distance, from Nelson Lakes down to Springs Junction and into the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana down to Arthurs Pass and beyond.
Paparoa Range to Croesus Knob
The weather had turned out even better than we thought and the walk over the Paparoa Range was beautiful. We set off after lunch at 1.30 pm and an hour later were at pt 1127. From here we could clearly make out the line of an old mining tramway that ran below Croesus Knob. Half an hour later we reached it. The twisted remains of an old mining cableway were visible above and below the track.
Croesus Track to Ces Clark Hut
At 3.25 pm we rounded Croesus Knob and reached the signage for the Paparoa Track. We didn’t feel the need to climb to the top of Croesus Knob given we’d not been far off it just up the track. The views north across the Paparoa Range were incredible and absolutely deserving of their Great Walk status.
Doubling back on ourselves we walked down the wide, open track towards Ces Clark hut along the Croesus Track, now part of the Paparoa Track.
Ces Clark Hut
The 16-bunk Ces Clark Hut (named after a Forest Service Ranger who reopened the Croesus Track) was like a palace. I don’t often stay in Great Walk huts so I’m always surprised when I visit one. It had a wonderful deck with a large picnic bench overlooking the Grey valley and large windows inside the hut which made the most of the views across the Roaring Meg valley.
Other mod cons included gas hobs, an assortment of saucepans and a whistling kettle. There was toilet roll in the long drops and firewood and coal available for the stove. Bookings are required year-round, however, if you have a Backcountry Hut Pass, you can claim the money back for this hut. Find out more about the hut and bookings on the DOC website.
Later, we went down for a look at the historic Top Croesus Hut, just downhill a little from Ces Clark. It was built for miners in the 1930s and restored in 1999. No stays allowed.
We enjoyed a cosy night at Ces Clark (with the added bonus of having the hut all to ourselves!) and were in bed before 8.30 pm.
Day Two – From Ces Clark Hut
In the morning as we were packing up a large group of very fit, high-spirited trail runners from the North Island came through and stopped for a quick break. They were on a mission to run the length of the Paparoa track in a day and had started in the dark.
We left Ces Clark hut at 9.30 am. It was another beautiful day in the Paparoas. Just as we left we heard, then saw an unusual bird in the bushes close to the hut. Doing some research at home later, we thought it could only be a fern bird but found it a little confusing. Firstly because we thought they only lived in swampy areas and secondly because it was singing more tunefully than the ‘tick’ sound we’d heard before. Then I found this article from the Paparoa Wildlife Trust confirming that fern birds were indeed present in the area – what a treat!
The Croesus Track
Now part of the Paparoa Track Great Walk, the Croesus Track down from Ces Clark to Garden Gully was pretty bumpy in places. It was originally a miners’ pack track from Blackball over the Paparoa Range down into Barrytown. The integrity of the track has been maintained and it was a lovely downhill walk. Check out the DOC website for full details.
Garden Gully Hut
Forty minutes later at 10.20 am, we reached the turnoff for Garden Gully, another mining area from the 1930s. Garden Gully Hut five minutes down the track is another historic hut from the mining days (stays are not permitted and no fires in the fireplace).
Garden Gully to Smoke-ho
We enjoyed the walk back to Smoke-ho from Garden Gully. The sun hadn’t reached the valley and it was cold, so we donned our hats and gloves for most of the walk. Basking in the sun for ten minutes at a conveniently situated picnic table at about 11.15 am, we aroused the attention of a confident weka.
At about 11.40 am we crossed the Blackball Creek swing bridge followed by another couple of bridges further down the valley. Just under three hours after leaving Ces Clark hut we arrived at the Smoke-ho car park at 12.20 pm.
The Mt Watson Route is one I will probably come back to for a summer day mission. If you’re going to walk it in a day I’d suggest doing it the same way around (Mt Watson to Ces Clark). The Paparoa Track would be the easier/preferable option to walk in the dark.
We completed our visit with a burger for lunch in the world-famous-in-NZ Formerly Blackball Hilton.
According to the West Coast Recollect site, it was originally named the Dominion Hotel and was later renamed to the Hilton (same as one of the main streets in Blackball) after the manager of a local mine. However a certain large hotel chain objected to the use of the name, hence the now the even better name.
The giant burgers hit the spot, after which we needed a walk before our respective drives home so we strolled over to the car boot sale which had popped up over the road. The perfect end to a great weekend.
Click the links below for some more walks on the West Coast
- Myra’s Track and Mt William, Westport – day walk
- Buckland Peaks, Westport – overnight
- Inland Pack Track, Punakaiki – overnight
- Point Elizabeth Walkway, Greymouth – half day walk
- Mananui Tramline Track, Hokitika – half day walk
- Camp Creek Route to Mt Alexander, Brunner – two nights three days
- Mount Brown Hut, Kaniere – overnight
- Cedar Flat and Adventure Biv, Toaroha River – overnight
- Alex Knob Track, Franz Josef – day walk
- Roberts Point Track, Franz Josef – day walk
- Stafford Bay Route, Jackson’s Bay south of Haast – day walk or overnight