The Gillespie Pass Circuit Trail, located around an hour’s drive from Wanaka, is a downright humdinger of a hike. It serves up 58km worth of everything that’s great about trekking in New Zealand and all with a fraction of the crowds you’d find on the Great Walks!
- Spectacular mountain scenery
- Challenging terrain
- Pristine glacial lakes
- A network of cosy AF overnight huts
The Gillespie Pass Circuit Trail
The trail winds its way through Mount Aspiring National Park, sporting a high pass at 1600m in the shadow of the ungenerously named Mount Awful, and takes 3 or 4 days to complete.
But don’t rush it – both the first and second days are hard going (particularly when the weather turns, as I experienced in spades), plus leaving yourself a rest day at Siberia Hut allows for a day trip up to the unmissable Crucible Lake. Also make sure you plan ahead, both to book Siberia Hut (the others are first-come-first-served) and to organise any necessary jetboat collections (often the Makarora River is too high to cross, and a jetboat must be organised in advance to come grab you on the final day).
Given the lack of public transport in this neck of the woods, access to the trailhead from Wanaka is best done by hitch-hiking. This is completely legal in NZ, but just leave yourself enough time in case traffic is light, or drivers are feeling unobliging.
Day 1 – Blue Pools to Young Hut
Time: 7.5-9.5 hr
The first day is by far the longest and most strenuous (although you can nip off about 90 minutes of it if the river is low enough to cross from Makarora, or if you charter a jetboat).
I awoke early from my hostel beside Lake Huwea, hitched to Blue Pools and was on the trail by about 8.00am. Conditions weren’t ideal – pouring rain and cold for the season. However I soon met a lovely couple from Washington state, and together we hiked along – following the Young River (with occasional steep departures inland, which would eventually meander back to the river front), across bridges and up the occasional chain climb.
Much of the trail (and I use the term ‘trail’ generously) is modestly maintained and very slippery in the rain. Eventually we began a steep ascent up towards Stag Creek (perhaps the most challenging part of the hike – take your time here!), which delivered us out of the rainforest and into a gorgeous valley framed by steep mountainsides. From here, we made the final push to Young Hut after about 9 hours of hiking.
This hut sleeps about 20 in comfortable bunks, with a small fireplace to dry your gear, as well as tables and benches to hang out and cook meals. First-come-first served, so don’t worry about bookings for this one.
Day 2 – Young Hut to Siberia Hut (via Gillespie Pass)
Time: 6-8 hr
Another big day, but oh boy do the views make it worth your while. This leg begins with a short bash through another patch of forest, before opening up to a spectacular valley vista facing Mount Awful.
After a few more stream crossings (by this point you should be pretty used to them), you’ll begin a long and steep uphill slog up to the Gillespie Pass. I smashed two snickers and made it up within 90 minutes, but much of the terrain is crumbly and/or slippery, so taking it easy here is absolutely fine as well.
Once you catch your breath at the top (1600m) and look around, you’re treated to gorgeous views of surrounding peaks, glaciers and valleys. If you get here early enough (before the afternoon winds start to pick up) it’s a primo lunch spot.
The inevitable hike down from the pass is also long and testing, initially down exposed switchbacks and then into forest. Eventually (after almost 1000 joyful vertical metres of descending) you’ll reach the valley floor, where you trace the Siberia Stream all the way to a hut bearing the same name. The grass in the valley is heavenly soft, so I did this last hour bare-foot – something I would highly recommend.
Siberia Hut is another cosy 20-sleeper, with a stunning outlook over the valley. There’s also normally a resident ranger here, in case you have any questions or just want to chat about how neat birds are (as my ranger always seemed to like talking about).
Day 3 – Day Trip to Crucible Lake
Distance: 7km round trip
Time: 3-4 hrs
On day 3, treat yourself to a sleep-in and a good brekkie, then don a day pack for a saunter up to the local glacier lake. You’ll need to retrace some of the previous day’s trail north through the valley, before crossing a large-ish river (pick your point of crossing carefully).
Eventually, a sign will direct you west up a narrow forested spur and into a long set of switchbacks. This eventually flattens out into a pleasant walk through shady forest, until you reach the Mount Alba valley. One last push up a rocky incline brings you to the pristine Crucible Lake. Look out for tiny rock wren birds when you’re up there – neat!
Day 4 – Siberia Hut to Makarora (via Kerin Forks)
Time: 3-8 hr
The final day is either cruisy or challenging, depending on whether you catch a jetboat from Kerrin Forks (7km from the hut), or hike through to Makarora and brave a by-all-reports seriously gnarly river crossing (in total an additional 15km). At many times of the year, the Marakora is simply far too high to cross, so check with a ranger or National Parks office in advance.
For us, we waited beside the Wilkins River at the designated jetboat collection point, but our scheduled jetboat never arrived. Apparently all the jetboats were busy that afternoon – so instead, the company (Wilkins River Jets) sent a helicopter to pick us up, which we decided was just fine by us!
- Sleeping gear – As it’s a hut hike, you can save a fair bit of pack weight and leave your tent and sleeping mat at home – still pack a sleeping bag and a pillow (the latter if you’re a bit of a princess like myself)
- 4 days of clothes, food and general hiking gear. Distances between huts are considerable, and the areas are remote, so be well-prepped
- A good-sized hiking pack plus a smaller backpack for the Lake Crucible day trip
- Shoes – I mentioned before that there’s a fair bit of river crossing and general sogginess on the Gillespie Pass Circuit, so something quick drying or at least lightweight would be the way to go here (granted I slogged it out in my Scarpa hiking boots)
How To Get There
Hitchhike from Wanaka or the Lake Hāwea township 70km north past Makarora to Blue Pools. The Gillespie Pass Circuit begins from here.