Backpack the Gillespie Pass Loop

Rate this Adventure 33.6 miles 4199.5 ft gain  - Loop Trail

Added by Emily Noyd

This challenging circuit is off the beaten track in New Zealand's Mt. Aspiring National Park. The trail runs along (and across) rivers, up steep slopes of snow grass, and over Gillespie Pass to alpine views of Mt. Awful and Mt. Dreadful. Despite foreboding names, these mountains have awesome glaciers and comfortable backcountry huts that make the arduous trek worth it.

The Department of Conservation has offices throughout the South Island to provide detailed information and maps. Below is our experience as an abbreviated version of the route described here.

This adventure begins in Makaroa, a barely-there town in the Queenstown-Lakes district of Otago on the South Island. Access to and from the Young Valley requires crossing the Makaroa River, which can be dangerous and must be timed correctly. The best time of year is late summer or early fall, and be sure to avoid Young Valley after heavy rain. If Makaroa River is too high to cross safely, there are three options: wait for the river to drop; take the Blue-Young link track; or use a commercial jetboat. Young Valley is signposted on the left, 2.5 km north of the Makaroa Visitor Center. Throughout the circuit, follow orange poles (the NZ cairn equivalent) to find junctions or navigate unclear trails. 

Day 1

After finding the track into Young Valley, follow the Young River on the true left to a swing bridge at the junction of the North and South branches. The track to Young Hut continues downstream and enters the forest for a steep, steady climb. This portion of the trip is 20 km and culminates at the 20-bunk Young Hut: a shelter with water, mattresses, and a pit toilet. These huts are first-come, first-serve and require backcountry hut tickets or passes purchased before your trip at a DOC office.

Day 2

From Young Hut to Siberia Hut, prepare for a challenging 12 km up and over Gillespie Pass. It took my group 9 hours to complete this stretch. Climb to the bushline, cross the bridge over the upper Young, and follow the valley floor for about 20 min until you reach the Gillespie track on the left. This is the last water source for most of the day, so fill up before climbing to the pass. The track climbs steeply and steadily among slippery snow grass before hitting the ridge at a height of 1600 m. Relish the views, you earned it!

The track descends steeply through rocky ledges, snow grass basins, and ultimately to the forest floor. After leading to Gillespie stream, the track descends on switchbacks to Siberia stream. On the valley floor, it's an easy 1 hour walk to Sibera Hut (20 bunks).

Day 3

The track from Siberia Hut to Makaroa is entirely flat, filled with cows, and the most difficult portion of the trail to follow. The first half of this 22 km stretch is expansive snow grass fields along the Siberia River. Don't forget to follow the orange poles! The track description from DOC indicates a track to the Wilkin Valley that enters the forest and zigzags to the Wilkin River. Our route crossed the Wilkin several times but stayed at the valley level entirely without entering the forest. You can essentially follow the river to its outlet at Makaroa River, where a single orange pole marks the easiest path across in an otherwise treacherous river stretch. Many river crossings on this stretch are waist-high and swift moving, please use caution while navigating the best route. After crossing the Makaroa, we hitch-hiked from the Wilkin River outlet north to our car.

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