Woolshed Hill Track
The Woolshed Hill Track is a great 8 km (return) half-day walk in Arthur’s Pass National Park with a stiff 890m climb to 1429m and terrific views overlooking the Hawdon and Waimakariri Rivers. I walked in mid-winter when, surprisingly, there was no snow on the tops. However, above the bush line, it was absolutely freezing. If you’re making it a winter trip, make sure you’re well prepared.
I would rate the Woolshed Hill Track as an easy-to-moderate track if you’re an experienced tramper. It depends on how much you like reasonably steep uphills. I love a climb and this one, while generally not too technically challenging had a couple of places where you’re scrambling up rocks and tree roots. The track through the forest is marked but unmarked above the bush line. There are a couple of sporadic cairns but the track wasn’t always completely obvious.
It took about 1 hr 45 mins to drive from Hokitika along the SH73. I drove through Arthur’s Pass, across the Waimakariri River, past Bealey Spur then turned left at Mt White Bridge. Google Maps tells me it would be about the same time to drive from Christchurch along the SH73.
I car camped in the beautiful Hawdon DOC Shelter campsite $10 per night, close to the start of the Woolshed Hill Track. It has a great shelter, a decent drop-toilet and a couple of toilets scattered about the huge site. Beware the rampant sandflies. There were a few cars parked at the shelter for the Hawdon River and a couple of families caravanning further into the site.
I had previously read a Wilderness Magazine article about the Woolshed Hill Track. It suggested 3.5 hours for the return trip. My time was exactly that, with ten minutes at the top and no real break.
Woolshed Hill Track to Kidson Lodge
I woke at 7.45 am. Breakfast was a beautiful, chilly, sandfly-free affair. The campsite was practically empty. Over breakfast, I waved hello to a group of four heading off up the track.
The Woolshed Hill Track starts close to the Hawdon shelter and I set off at 9.45 am. Cutting the corner, I walked straight across the frosty campsite from the car to climb a narrow track up a steep terrace and join the track a little way from the start.
The first ten minutes were spent walking along a pleasant, wide flat track to the grassy grounds of Kidson Lodge at the base of the hill (a private lodge used for outdoor education). It’s worth a quick pause there to appreciate the great views straight ahead across towards the Binser Saddle. I followed the marker to the left into the trees.
Through the Forest
You get the ugliest part of the climb over and done within five minutes, after which the marked track mostly climbed up a beautiful cushion of beech leaves through a lovely mossy forest. There was a tiny stream to cross early on but no threat of wet feet. I stepped over one fallen tree, the rest had been taken care of.
The climb was pretty steep in places, requiring some fun scrambling. An inquisitive robin followed me for a while and I used him as an excuse for a micro-break. At around 10.25 am, 30 minutes into the climb things flattened out a little as I passed below Pt 952 and this was where I met the sun for the first time. The flatter section was just a brief interlude before a further climb.
The beech trees swayed and clattered in the strengthening breeze. I’d been following a trap line up the hill and thought how great it would be to get this line as your day’s work. A bellbird sounded a shrill alarm call, and I remembered I’d brought the bird caller with me. I gave it a tune but got no responses.
To the Tarn
Contour 1020m or thereabouts yielded the first splendid views up the Hawdon Valley, a taster of what was to come. The track popped out of the trees for a short section and I was momentarily blinded by the sun. The wind was pretty strong and I was glad I’d brought plenty of warm clothes in my daypack – I was going to need them.
By 10.50 am and just over an hour into the walk I was at Contour 1100 and out into the open. Even if you didn’t go any higher it’s worth the climb to this point. The views up the Hawdon River were incredible. Out of the forest, the track continued through copper bushes and tufty grasses onto a solid scree slope. I don’t remember there being any markers from this point, but there were a couple of cairns dotted here and there. I kept right initially, following a faint track close to the vegetation before crossing a more open section where the track was more obvious.
As I crossed the slope I kept looking back at the views of the Waimakariri, the Southern Alps and the ranges to the south opening up behind me. It was the perfect day for it.
At 11.15 am and after another short stretch through the bushes I arrived at a beautiful tarn, shimmering in the morning sun. I hadn’t at all expected it and thought what a wonderful place it would be to camp on a still summer night – although I wasn’t sure the tarn would be here in summer (it wasn’t on the topo map). The wind was cold and gusty up the scree slope and there was a bit of shelter at the tarn, so I took the opportunity to put on my warm clothes, coat hat and gloves. I saw the group from this morning – tiny specks on the summit in the distance.
The Tarn to the Summit
I headed straight on up to the left past the tarn and up onto another stony slope. From here I was slightly alarmed by what looked like a fairly scary-looking narrow ridge in the distance between me and the final climb to the summit. I continued up and the route met the bush line again, then followed the trail into the trees.
When I popped out of the trees I was relieved to see that the ridge wasn’t half as scary or narrow as it appears from below. There were several rocky outcrops to cross and trees on the lee side. Looking down the scree side when crossing the rocky outcrops gently challenged my fear of heights.
Twenty minutes after arriving at the tarn, I had crossed the ridge and was heading back into the trees then up the frozen golden tussock for the final climb. The sun hadn’t reached here yet and the cold was biting. At 11.45 am, two hours after setting off I came onto the 1429m summit at a cairn and wandered around taking in the magnificent views.
The opportunities for exploring the tops from here looked great. The views were a 360-degree panorama of jaw-dropping proportions in all directions. Up the Hawdon, to the Taramakau across to the Poulter and so many adventures beyond. I retraced my steps up Mt Bruce to the south west which I’d walked as part of Te Araroa years ago. Sugar Loaf and the Cass were in the foreground. It would be nice to complete the Cass Lagoon circuit from the Cass side one day.
I waved to the group from this morning again. A happy young foursome taking their guns for a walk. The girls in pink-trimmed gear and the boys in camo. After making a small circuit at the top I headed back down.
I only stayed ten minutes or so at the summit and left at 11.55 am. Going back I seemed to find a different route over each of the rocky outcrops and was back at the tarn by 12.15 pm. The copper-coloured bushes almost seemed to glow in the midday sun. I was back down at the 1020m contour by 12.35 pm. I stopped for some water and took off my warm clothes as it was downhill in the sheltered bush from here.
It was a great downhill for the quads, and I descended fairly quickly apart from the few scrambly parts. By 1.10 pm I was back at Kidson Lodge. Lunch was cooking on the barbeque for a group of boys. The delightful smell of burgers and sausages wafted across to me. I was pretty hungry, not having eaten anything since breakfast.
I was back at the car by 1.15 pm and waved to the few families playing in the warm winter sun. Woolshed Hill is an absolute cracker of a walk. I can’t wait to go back.
Click below for some more walks in Arthurs Pass and the West Coast: