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New Zealand’s best views – the South Island

Tarn on Yanks Hill with Faerie Queene in the Spenser Mountains rearing up behind it. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

We live in a country filled with best views, piled one on another. Every time you need a break in the hills there is a best view somewhere. There’s no golden rule as to what makes a view stunning – often it is the magic of the light, the season, how open our eyes are to seeing what there is to see.

1. Yanks Hill, St James Conservation Area, Canterbury

A tussock peak with picturesque tarns and surrounded by panoramic views

Yanks Hill, 1650m, above the Waiau River can be approached either from the Lewis Highway and St James Track or from Lake Tennyson and Maling Pass off the Clarence Valley Road. Either way it will take a long day on foot (much quicker if you ride or 4WD from the Lake Tennyson end).

From the base of Yanks Hill, untracked bush spurs lead to the tops. The long defined spur north-east, off Pt 1670m, is good, and with care the open slopes east of Yanks Hill itself can also be ascended without getting embroiled in much matagouri scrub.

Here, on the flanks of the Spenser Mountains, I spent a midwinter night camped alone by a little fire at the bushline, and in the dawn watched the fire of the sun light up the snowy faces from Gloriana to Duessa Peak. As the glow paled, I headed back up the hill past coalescing tarns studded with red tussock islands. It was stunning.

Back up on the range and looking south-east there is magical little Lake Guyon, where Wayne and a friend, with whom I cadged a 4WD ride to Maling Pass, were hunting. In front of the lake lay the wide dry trough of the Waiau, carrying the Te Araroa Trail and the St James Cycle Trail north and south.

It’s a magic spot.

Grade Moderate Time Overnighter from Lake Tennyson

2. Garibaldi Plateau, Kahurangi National Park

Enormous bluffs rising high into the sky

Bluffs on Garibaldi Plateau looking down into Silvermine Creek. Photo: Richard Davies

Bluffs on Garibaldi Plateau looking down into Silvermine Creek. Photo: Richard Davies

Some views just aren’t at all subtle. The huge bluffs of the Garibaldi Plateau fit this bill perfectly. This is big country, and you feel a bit exposed camped up on the plateau, high in the sky with no easy way off. Riven by deep gashes, like a grassy glacier, there are times when you can find yourself standing on the edge of massive drop-offs – especially as you traverse towards the Karamea.

You’ll need a good forecast and decent skills to get to this view. All the routes involve some serious off track tramping and route finding. For those who are suitably skilled and equipped it is well worth it.

Grade Difficult Time Three-plus days.

3. Wainui Falls, Abel Tasman National Park

A great place to view the Wainui River’s pulse 

Swingbridge on the track to Wainui Falls. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Swingbridge on the track to Wainui Falls. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Wainui Falls is a cool place, and none the less so for being a popular walking track. The trip starts in Wainui Bay on the road to Totaranui. Nikau palms drape the track and their red berries carpet the ground.

Wind in along the riverbank through varied native bush, including beech and kanuka, on a track that is sometimes benched from cliffs, and cross the swingbridge over the Wainui itself. Water swirls in the bedrock, leaving wonderful carved channels in the rock as you approach the falls.

Enjoy the view from an outcrop beside the pool at the base of the falls.

Grade Easy Time 1hr each way

4. Bushline Hut, Nelson Lakes National Park

A cosy hut that enjoys morning and evening views around Nelson Lakes

Lake Rotoiti from near Bushline Hut. Photo: Nick Groves

Lake Rotoiti from near Bushline Hut. Photo: Nick Groves

Bushline Hut is reached by a good track starting at the car park at 880m. Views from the front door down over Lake Rotoiti and across to the St Arnaud Range are reward enough for the climb to this 14-bunk hut at 1280m.

A further half an hour or so above the hut is Mt Robert, from where the vistas over this part of Nelson Lakes National Park are even better than down near the bushline.

Grade Moderate Time 5hr return

5. Mt Fyffe, Mt Fyffe Conservation Area, Kaikoura

An easy summit offering views of coastal plains and Pacific Ocean

On Mount Fyffe with Kaikoura Peninsula below. Photo: Nick Groves

On Mount Fyffe with Kaikoura Peninsula below. Photo: Nick Groves

On the edge of the Seaward Kaikoura Range, 1602m Mt Fyffe looks directly down upon a narrow coastal strip of farmland interrupted by a rocky peninsula that juts out into the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean next to the township of Kaikoura. Turn around through 180-degrees, and the view is one of high, barren and frequently snow-covered ranges of the Seaward Kaikouras, with Manakau cresting these ranges that rise abruptly from the coastal plain to just over 2600m.

Below Mt Fyffe summit is the conveniently situated eight-bunk Mt Fyffe Hut.

Grade Moderate Time 8hr return

6. Barker Hut, Arthur’s Pass National Park

A strenuous trip to a hut with an exceptional view

Barker Hut offers an exceptional view, including of Mt Harper. Photo: Nick Groves

Barker Hut offers an exceptional view, including of Mt Harper. Photo: Nick Groves

The highest hut below the highest mountain at Arthur’s Pass is not reached all that easily. Most parties take two days to get to Barker Hut, up the increasingly rough White River by way of Carrington Hut.

Perched on a rognon – an isolated rock outcrop on a glacier – in the middle of the upper valley, the view from the hut balcony includes the nearby Marmaduke Dixon and Cahill Glaciers, with Mt Harper directly above. Framed by the White Valley and across the deep defile of the Waimakariri far below, rises the familiar form of Mt Rolleston and Waimakariri Col to the south.

With good binoculars, even Waimakariri Falls Hut ought to be visible on the edge of the rocky bluff. An easy climb (during the snow free months) to the top of Mt Harper would give superb views across this whole corner of Arthur’s Pass.

Grade Hard Time 2-3+ days (10-12hr to hut)

7. Cloudsley – Enys Traverse, Craigieburn Forest Park, Canterbury

A stiff climb onto the Craigieburn Range for 360-degree views from Aoraki/Mt Cook to the Torlesse Range

Lake Coleridge and the Rakaia catchment from Mt Enys. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Lake Coleridge and the Rakaia catchment from Mt Enys. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

This whole trip is a bit of a Canterbury Classic and particularly popular with alpine trampers in winter, but any fine day works.

Good access from Castle Hill Village off the Arthur’s Pass Highway leads to good exercise and then wonderful views on a traverse of the range that connects Cloudsley, 2107m, with Enys, 2194m.

Bare rocks, fresh air and deep snow at times (there are ski fields in other Craigieburn basins) bring an alpine feel to the journey. Be sure to take plenty of water and your storm gear.

From the traverse, Canterbury ranges sweep around your feet, with the basins of Castle Hill and Lake Coleridge laid out below.

Grade Moderate/difficult Time Full day

8. Meins Knob, Hakatere Conservation Park, Canterbury

Perhaps the most spectacular view in the entire Southern Alps

The Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe from Meins Knob. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

The Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe from Meins Knob. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Through the peculiarity of its position and topography, Meins Knob makes one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the entire Southern Alps. Along with Jims Knob, it is one of two great even-height mounds that guard the upper reaches of the Rakaia River like sentinels. The tarn-studded tops of Meins Knob have a grandstand view of the Lyell Glacier, Mt Ramsay, Whitcombe Pass, the Ramsay Glacier and – most impressively of all – the appallingly steep, unstable Ramsay face of Mt Whitcombe.

The roughly marked ‘Glenfalloch Route’ climbs onto the knob upstream of Reischek Hut, one of several huts in the Rakaia Valley. Good camping spots exists among the many tarns, and it’s as fine a place to spend a night in the mountains as any.

The view is so extensive because of the arc of the valley; and the knob is sufficiently close for the mountains to remain impressive, but just distant enough from the Main Divide to give a broad perspective.

Grade Difficult Time Two-three long days

9. Mt Guy (1319m), Hakatere Conservation Park, Canterbury

An easy climb to a small peak set in a sweeping tussock basin surrounded by Rangitata Mountains

The expansive Hakatere Basin from Mt Guy, with the snowy Taylor Range behind. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

The expansive Hakatere Basin from Mt Guy, with the snowy Taylor Range behind. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Here is a trip that, for only modest exercise, puts you in the box seat surveying a kingdom of wild natural tussock lands, much of which are now in Hakatere Conservation Park.

Surrounding 1319m Mt Guy in a 360 degree panorama are peaks that range from classic Canterbury summits like Mt Somers, 1687m, right through to Alma, 2510m, on the Two Thumb Range, which is often mistaken for Mt D’Archiac, 2875m, also visible from here further up the Rangitata Valley.

Even Main Divide mountains like McClure can be seen from Mt Guy, along with the bristling outline of the Arrowsmith Range.

Approach Mt Guy from Mt Somers township on a sealed road that changes to gravel at the Lake Heron road junction in the Hakatere Basin. The basin is awash with alpine tarns and lakes, and where the road passes between Camp lake and Lake Clearwater there is an iconic little bach community – classic Kiwi outdoor camping culture. Head down towards the Clearwater lakeshore where a DOC map and track sign at the car park tell all you need to know for the trip up the peak. The views are perhaps most spectacular when a dusting of snow hangs on the peaks, but the light here can be dramatic any time. It will just depend on your luck.

Grade Easy Time 2.5hr to the summit

10. Cameron Hut, Hakatere Conservation Park, Canterbury

Sub-alpine grasslands and glacier scenery beneath some of Canterbury’s highest summits

Cameron Hut and Arrowsmiths. Photo: Pat Barrett

Cameron Hut and Arrowsmiths. Photo: Pat Barrett

Secreted among the mid-Canterbury foothill summits is a mountain valley which winds easily back through tawny, low hills to a remarkable spectacle: the Arrowsmith Mountains, viewed from the comfort and security of Cameron Hut.

Though well known among Canterbury alpinists, this hut and its jaw-dropping views are lesser known among the wider outdoor community as the terrain of the upper valley is of such an extreme nature that most will not care to venture here. However, to reach the hut is no particular hardship, where the views of the great black and white walls of the Arrowsmiths will immediately bring to mind comparisons with the magnificent Dolomite Ranges of central Europe.

Front and centre are some of the high peaks – Couloir, The Twins, Tent, and East Horn, all over 2400m and forming a terrifying rock and ice barrier.

Grade Difficult Time 2-3 days

11. Mt Fox, Westland National Park, West Coast

A horizon-filled vista displaying the highest summits of Westland National Park

On Mt Fox with Mt Tasman and upper Fox Glacier above. Photo: Nick Groves

On Mt Fox with Mt Tasman and upper Fox Glacier above. Photo: Nick Groves

It is well worth spending the night up here to increase your chances of a cloud-free view (best around sunset or sunrise) across to the curtain of ice-covered ranges filling the eastern skyline. This really is the ‘View of Views’, perched between the ocean and the incredibly mountainous backbone of the South Island.

Grade Moderate Time Two days (8-12hr total)

12. McNulty’s Tarns, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, Canterbury

A perfect place to picnic while gazing across to the highest peaks in the land

Mt Cook and Tasman Valley from above Red Tarns. Photo: Nick Groves

Mt Cook and Tasman Valley from above Red Tarns. Photo: Nick Groves

Fine views there are a-plenty around Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, and even those without special alpine skills can reach several outstanding spots from where the highest peaks in the land are stretched along the horizon.

The half hour walk up to Red Tarns is a regular excursion for visitors to the park, and on a good day the views from this highpoint are extensive. By continuing a further 30min uphill from these small ponds, the more adventurous day tripper is rewarded with a less-frequented and more expansive destination.

Hidden away up here is a broad, tarn-speckled shelf sandwiched between the broken crags above that guard Mt Sebastopol’s 1468m summit and the sheer sweeps of cliffs below, popular with rock climbers. There are several (I’ve never counted them) small, shallow tarns dotted across this shelf, which are known locally as McNulty’s Tarns after mountain and ski guide Dave McNulty who lived and worked at Mt Cook until his untimely death in an avalanche in the late 1980s. On his days off, McNulty used to fly his early prototype paraglider from up here.

In spring, creamy clusters of large mountain buttercups grow among the tussocks that cover this broad shelf, offering a perfect foreground to the mountain panorama to the north and west. Dominant among these snow-covered peaks is Aoraki, the shapely south face and elegant Hillary Ridge framed between the Hooker and Tasman Valleys. Visible from this highpoint are the two ever-enlarging terminal lakes nestled in these valleys, replacing the once-solid ice that issued from these deeply glaciated valleys.

To the west, an uninterrupted wall of peaks and tumbling glaciers occupy the horizon, culminating in the dinosaur profile of 3000m Mt Sefton, which regularly avalanches snow and ice down its steep east face.

With binoculars, try to find the small shed-like Sefton Bivvy, or even climbers descending the Eugenie Glacier from a climb of Mt Footstool. Only then will you truly appreciate the huge scale of the mountain ranges before you.

Grade Easy Time 2-3hr return

13. Marks Flat, Hooker-Landsborough Wilderness Area, Westland

A large sub-alpine grassland beneath the Hooker Massif

Trampers on the Solution Range with Marks Flat below and Mt Hooker towering above. Photo: Pat Barrett

Trampers on the Solution Range with Marks Flat below and Mt Hooker towering above. Photo: Pat Barrett

Perhaps the archetype of views when it comes to that coveted ‘best New Zealand backcountry vista’, Marks Flat, in the Hooker Landsborough Wilderness Area of South Westland is a stunner.

With its golden tussock flats, small roche moutonnées (a small outcrop of rock shaped by glacial erosion), isolation and all-encompassing mountain grandeur, this is a place to savour, particularly because it takes most parties 3-4 days just to reach its fastness.

Lorded over by the immense rock and ice pyramid of Mt Hooker, 2640m, together with nearby Mt McCullaugh, 2266m, and Dechen, 2643m, the view of the flat from its eastern border, on the Solution Range, is overwhelming in its magnitude and depth.

The height gain from the flats to the summit of Hooker is 1700m – straight up, a staggering perspective. But that’s not all: this massive south face is encrusted with ice, beset with cliffs, and topped with the great white sheet of the Hooker Glacier icecap.

On the south side of the flat rears the towering bluffs of Kea Cliffs, a 300m-high black and grey wall that gushes with waterfalls after heavy rain.

Marks Flat, encircled between mountain, cliff, and ridge, forms a unique field of welcome amid a fearsome, daunting, and oftentimes dangerous landscape where adventurers are admitted solely at the whim of nature.

Grade Difficult Time 3-4 days

14. Wills Valley, Mt Aspiring National Park

A beautiful and relatively easily accessed South Westland valley

Mountain panoramas open up in the mid-reaches of the Wills River. Photo: Pat Barrett

Mountain panoramas open up in the mid-reaches of the Wills River. Photo: Pat Barrett

Flowing off the Main Divide in South Westland is the relatively short but rugged catchment of the Wills. This steep, voluminous river drains a spectacular slice of the mountains yet offers excellent tramping opportunities and wonderful mountain panoramas of the western slopes of the Southern Alps.

Both the mid and upper valleys have impressive views where the walls roll back, grassy flats lap the river, and the mountains are revealed.

There’s time to dream here of challenging routes to the tops and camps on distant flats amid the beauty of the hills.

Grade Moderate Time 2 days

15. Cascade Saddle, Mt Aspiring National Park, Otago

Gentle tussock country with a dramatic edge

amping at Cascade Saddle. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

amping at Cascade Saddle. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

With more tarns than the Romans had baths, a rolling tussockland of exquisite shape and an expansive view of such peaks as Rob Roy, Aspiring, Avalanche, Tyndall and Plunket Dome, Cascade Saddle ranks as one of the foremost viewpoints in the Southern Alps.

Rather than being a narrow scoop on a ridgeline, like many ‘saddles’, Cascade Saddle comprises a wide bench of gentle tussock country, but with a dramatic escarpment edge over the Matukituki Valley. This freak of topography gives trampers a pleasant tarn-side position from which to enjoy the view, while the valley below drops suddenly and exhilaratingly, most noticeably where the Heads Leap waterfall plunges for 200m.

The safest way to reach Cascade Saddle is from Dart Hut on the Rees-Dart Track. A more direct route exists up the steep Cascade Saddle Track from Aspiring Hut, but this route has claimed several lives and must be approached only in good conditions. When wet or snow covered, the steep and exposed track can be a serious undertaking, especially going downhill.

Grade Moderate/difficult Time Two days

16. Dingle Peak, Hawea Conservation Park, Otago

A long climb to a spectacular vantage point

Lake Hawea seen from the summit ridge of Dingle Peak. Photo: Richard Davies

Lake Hawea seen from the summit ridge of Dingle Peak. Photo: Richard Davies

Dingle Peak is a big haul from the Timaru River, but the view when you reach the summit is worth it.

A long, dry but easy climb opens up the views over the bare hills of the Hawea Conservation Park, but it is only when you reach the summit ridge that the expansive views of the Hawea Basin open up.

Lake Hawea itself nestles far below and, with the tawny barren hills behind you, the view here offers an explosion of blues, greens and even the black and white of the Main Divide. It is a sight to savour.

The comfortable four-bunk Moonlight and Roses Hut makes an excellent destination for an overnight trip. This is an untracked route, but straightforward in good conditions.

Grade Moderate/difficult Time Two days

17. Hunter Valley, Hawea Conservation Park, Otago

A large watershed draining north-west Otago and involving a long approach

The Main Divide from the West Hunter. Photo: Pat Barrett

The Main Divide from the West Hunter. Photo: Pat Barrett

Deeply cut into the fabric of the land of north-west Otago, the Hunter Valley, which flows into Lake Hawea, offers grandiose mountain views, particularly in its upper reaches where the river flows from the Divide and is constricted by the giant wedges of mountains that border the spacious valley flats.

Here there is both ambience and solitude, born of a neglected mountain region that is both bold in pattern and unforgiving in nature for the unprepared.

For outstanding Southern Alp views, try Forbes Flat and the Hunter West Branch where hanging valleys, waterfalls, and rocky spires dominate the terrain. At every clearing and pass top there are stunning views over seldom-travelled terrain, where almost every route requires sound mountaineering skills and good weather.

Grade Difficult Time 2-3days

18. Esquilant Bivouac, Mt Aspiring National Park, Otago

A mountain shelter for climbers an adventurers

Sunset at Esquilant Bivvy with the West Peak of Mt Earnslaw behind. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

Sunset at Esquilant Bivvy with the West Peak of Mt Earnslaw behind. Photo: Geoff Spearpoint

At Esquilant you are tucked into the mountains. Wright Col sits in a gravel trough, with the bluffs of the East Peak of Mt Earnslaw to the south and O’Leary peak to the north. East lie the ice remnants of the Birley Glacier, peeling off into the Rees Valley.

But the view I like the best is west, across the gulf of Bedford Stream to the rocky horn of Pluto Peak, which always draws the eye. But it is not the only thing to be seen west. Across the Dart Valley are a range of wonderful peaks: Darran outlines that include Mt Tutoko, the Cosmos Peaks, the Barrier Range and even the southern peaks of the Olivines.

It’s a visual feast, especially at sunset and dawn.

To reach the bivvy, head up the Rees Valley from Glenorchy and pick up the marked DOC track that leads up to Kea Basin. It’s prudent to have an ice axe and crampons on the last of the climb to the biv, but in late summer some may get away without them.

Take a careful note of the route as you climb up through the rocky bluffs above the tussock line. This is alpine country and needs treating as such.

Grade Moderate alpine Time Three days to really enjoy

19. Diamond Lake Walk, Wanaka

A fine viewpoint over Lake Wanaka and up to Mt Aspiring

Diamond Lake Track above Lake Wanaka. Photo: Nick Groves

Diamond Lake Track above Lake Wanaka. Photo: Nick Groves

About 20 minutes drive from Wanaka, the circuit around the 775m-high Rocky Mountain rising above the reed-fringed Diamond Lake, is a justifiably popular 2hr stroll above the craggy Matukituki Valley.

A well-maintained and well-trodden path leads up from the small lake through patches of forest and under steep cliffs of shiny schist to emerge at the tussocky hillside above. This isolated summit must, at some time in recent geomorphological history, have been surrounded by sizable glaciers that flowed down-valley from the ice-covered ranges to the north. The vista from the top offers a 360-degree panorama over the southern end of Lake Wanaka with the mouth of the Matukituki River below to the neighbouring Harris Mountains. To the north lies the perpetual snows of the Southern Alps, culminating in the distinctive icy pyramid of Mt Aspiring/Tititea.

Grade Easy Time 2-3hr return

20. Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland National Park, Southland

A perfect day trip surrounded by some of the steepest and most impressive mountains in New Zealand

A hiker on Gerturde Saddle with Milford Sound beyond. Photo: Nick Groves

A hiker on Gerturde Saddle with Milford Sound beyond. Photo: Nick Groves

The vertiginous landscape of Fiordland does not offer many easily accessible viewpoints from where you can gaze over the rugged wilderness of improbably steep mountains and deep, narrow valleys.

Gertrude Saddle is one destination reached in about a 3hr hike from the main Milford Highway, offering some outstanding views across the seriously glaciated landscape that makes Fiordland National Park famous throughout the world.

The view from this 1410m saddle is reward enough for the effort made, although the sure-footed can scramble up along the ridge to Barrier Peak, from where Milford Sound and Mitre Peak are framed by the granite precipices that rise above the Gulliver and Cleddau Valleys.

Grade Moderate Time 6-8hr return

21. Lake Poteriteri from tops – Fiordland National Park

A huge remote lake, glimpsed through the trees

A soul-lifting view – Fiordland’s Lake Poteriteri. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

A soul-lifting view – Fiordland’s Lake Poteriteri. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

One of the best views you can come across is the surprise view, one that is as unexpected as it is spectacular.

While traversing the thick forests of southern Fiordland, we emerged from the bush into a small clearing overlooking Lake Poteriteri. Row after row of mountains marched into the distance, then, just as soon as we’d seen it, it was gone, and we plunged back into the tangled undergrowth. It was a long day from the Slaughter Burn Hut through to Lake Poteriteri Hut, with some careful navigation required on the flat ridge, the glimpse of the lake lifted our spirits, as well as providing a useful navigational aid.

Grade Moderate/difficult Time Three-plus days

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