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Backpack the Gillespie Pass Circuit

Makarora, New Zealand

Details

Distance

36 miles

Elevation Gain

5259.2 ft

Route Type

Loop

Description

Added by Maggie Evans

This multi-day circuit takes you through some of the most picturesque landscape Mount Aspiring National Park has to offer. You'll enjoy everything from gorgeous river valleys, native beech forests and waterfalls to alpine passes and tarns with icebergs. Although the trail is well marked, it's not always well formed, so be prepared to tackle some fun terrain!

The Gillespie Pass Circuit is a 58km loop that connects the Makarora, Young, Siberia and Wilkin river valleys. It can be walked in the clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, and it can be enjoyed as a massive day trip (I've done it, but it took over 12 hours....) or a more leisurely multi-day backpacking adventure. I suggest taking a few days to do it so you have the time to enjoy a detour to Lake Crucible (a tarn with icebergs in it!). Even better, if you have an extra day to spare, I highly suggest using it to explore the north branch of the Wilkin river valley which has 3 more alpine lakes. Luckily, you can travel somewhat light since there are several huts along the way!

The DOC website offers a really good description of walking the 58km circuit in an anti-clockwise direction over 3 days (2 nights): http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/otago/places/mount-aspiring-national-park/things-to-do/gillespie-pass-circuit/.

However, if you're up for the 114km extended version (includes a detour up the North branch of the Wilkin river and its lakes, a detour to Lake Crucible, and a visit to the Blue Pools), then below is a description of what I think is the best way to do it:

Day 1: Blue Pools to Young Hut (27km)

Rather than starting at the confluence of the Makarora and Young rivers, start at the Blue Pools car park (off SH6), which is ~10km north of the Makarora visitor center. The track takes you through beech forest and over several bridges above crystal clear blue water. This 'bonus' leg adds an extra 7km, but it allows you to skip a river crossing and you get to see the spectacular blue pools. I reckon it's worthwhile, but it's definitely optional.Once you get to the Young river, you can start following the DOC brochure's description of getting to Young Hut, which reads as follows:"... follow Young River on the true left to a swing bridge at the junction of the North and South branches (3–4 hr).The track divides after the bridge, and the Young Forks campsite is 200 m upstream, with an open shelter, toilet and fireplace, which campers are encouraged to use. The track to Young Hut (550 m above sea level) continues downstream to cross a grassy flat then enters the forest on the true left of South Branch, just beyond the junction. The track climbs steeply for 100 m and then sidles through a series of unstable slips to reach Stag Creek. From here, it’s a steady climb to the 20-bunk Young Hut."

Day 2: Young Hut (via the Gillespie Pass) to Siberia Hut (12km)

As per the DOC brochure:"Climb 1 hr to the bushline, cross the bridge over the upper Young and follow the valley floor for about 20 min until you reach the start of the Gillespie Pass track on your left. This is usually the last water source untilwell over the pass, so fill your water bottles before leaving the valley. The track climbs steeply alongside a rock bluff onto a snow-grass spur that, after 3–4 hr, veers off to the left before the pass and climbs the ridgeto a height of 1600 m. From here, there’s an impressive view, with Mount Awful dominating the skyline. The track descends steeply before sidling down through a series of snow grass basins. Take care; snow grass can be very slippery when wet. The track enters the forest on a small predominant spur and leads down to Gillespie Stream, a beautiful spot for a rest.The track continues down through the forest, sidling above Gillespie Stream before descending in a series of zigzags to Siberia Stream. On the valley floor, it’s an easy 1 hr walk to the 20-bunk Siberia Hut (630 m a.s.l.)."

  • TIP #1: Once you hit the valley floor, before you carry on to the hut, decide if you want to enjoy the detour to Lake Crucible. If you're keen on the detour, then rather than heading south along the Siberia stream to the hut, look for a good place to cross the stream and then follow the orange poles marking the route to Lake Crucible. The signage should make it clear. Drop your pack somewhere and just take water and snacks (and a camera!), since it's an out-and-back trip and there's no point in carrying the extra weight for the 14km trip.

The DOC brochure describes the walk to Lake Crucible as follows:"High above Siberia Valley, nestled under Mount Alba, is Lake Crucible, an excellent day trip from Siberia Hut. Go up the valley flats to Crucible Stream, where the track enters the forest on the true left, climbs a narrow spur, sidles around to a river crossing, and comes out on a snow grass flat. Follow the pole markers in the upper basin and go up the flat to the lake. The tiny rockwren/pīwauwau can often be seen among the large rocks at the lake outlet. Camping is not allowed in Crucible Basin because of its fragile alpine herb fields."

  • TIP #2: there is an awesome waterfall and pool next to Siberia Hut that makes for a refreshing dip after a long day of hiking! It might be cold, but you won't regret getting in!

Day 3: Siberia Hut (via Kerin Forks Hut) to Top Forks Hut (23km)

To get to Kerin Forks hut (7km), start out from Siberia Hut along the true left of the river. Within about 30 min you'll enter beech forest on a very well manicured track that slowly climbs. The track will sidle above Siberia gorge before slowly descending to the Wilkin Valley. About 400m downstream from where the Siberia stream and WIlkin river meet you'll see Kerin Forks hut on the opposite side of the Wilkin. This is where you'll pick up the track to Top Forks Hut. To get there, you need to safely cross the Wilkin river, which can only be done if the river is low enough. From Kerin Forks hut, you can follow DOC's description to Top Forks Hut (16km):"The track begins behind the hut, passes through beech forest beside the Wilkin and over a number of slips and steep sided ravines that require care. It comes out at the mouth of Wonderland Stream – halfway between the two huts and a good place for lunch. From here the track re-enters the forest, climbs, then sidles above the river before descending to Jumboland. Note, on map BZ12 Jumboland is incorrectly marked. Go along the river flats to the junction of the north and south branches. In high river conditions, follow the markers that take you over a hill. The 16-bunk Top Forks Hut is above the junction, on the true right of the Wilkin’s south branch."

If it's a warm day and you're not completely out of energy, then drop your bag, grab a swimsuit and snacks, and follow the poled route to Lakes Diana (2.5km one-way) and Lucidus (3.5km). A long 8km away (one way...) is Lake Castalia, but I suggest skipping it and enjoying the more magnificent Lake Lucidus :). It's cold, but on a sunny day you'll warm up really quickly on a warm rock, so definitely take a dip!

Day 4: Top Forks Hut to Makarora (31km)

Option 1: Start hiking back towards Kerin Forks hut (16km), enjoy some lunch, and then prepare to embark on the last leg of your journey (15km), as DOC describes as follows:"The track from Kerin Forks follows the flats and enters the forest at the bottom of Dans Flat. The track from here is rough in places – when the Wilkin is low, it’s quicker to cross here, follow the flats on the other side(true right) and then cross back where the Wilkin and Makarora rivers meet.Cross the Makarora with care, watching for soft sand, then either tramp up the open river flats or continue out to the main road to Makarora Township. Be prepared to wait if the river is too high to cross. It is possible to fly by plane or helicopter from both Siberia and Kerin Forks. You can also catch a jetboat from Kerin Forks. All transport needs to be prearranged with providers; the Siberia Hut warden cannot make bookings."

Option 2: (as alluded to in DOC's description above...) hike to Kerin Forks hut (16km) and enjoy a Wilkin River jet boat (or plane or helicopter) ride back to Makarora. You'll need to book this in advance with http://www.wilkinriverjets.co.nz/.

  • Gillespie Pass DOC brochure: http://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/otago/gillespie-pass-brochure-web.pdf
  • Track info for the detour to Top Forks hut: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/otago/places/mount-aspiring-national-park/things-to-do/wilkin-valley-tracks/
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