The most dramatic of the three Southern Alps crossings links Christchurch with Greymouth, via Arthur’s Pass, traversed by a scenic rail line and the equally breathtaking SH73.
The pass is surrounded by the 950-square-kilometre Arthur’s Pass National Park, a remarkable alpine landscape with some superb easy walks and tough tramps. The park centres on diminutive Arthur’s Pass Village, nestled along SH73 at 737m above sea level in a steep-sided, forest-covered U-shaped valley. Because the park spans the transition zone between the soggy West Coast and the much drier east, Otira, just west of the pass, gets around 6m of rain a year, while Bealey, 15km to the east, gets only 2m. Consequently, Arthur’s Pass Village is often shrouded in mist, providing a moody contrast with the rich vegetation of the valley floor and slopes. The village offers a slim range of lodging and even more limited eating: stock up beforehand if you’re planning to spend time in the area. Nights are often chilly and snow occasionally blocks the pass.
Arthur’s Pass itself is 4km west of the village and, at 920m, is almost 200m higher. It’s marked by a large obelisk dedicated to Arthur Dudley Dobson. Naturally, there are great views here and the Dobson Nature Walk.
Immediately west of the pass, the road drops away dramatically across the Otira Viaduct, a huge concrete gash built in 1999 to span the tumbling river below. Side streams carry so much water that one is diverted over the roadway in a kind of artificial waterfall. A small lookout provides the best view.
Arthur’s Pass was named after civil engineer Arthur Dudley Dobson, who heard about the route from local Maori (who had traditionally used it as a highway), and surveyed it in 1864. By 1866 horse-drawn coaches were using it to access the Westland goldfields.
Arthur’s Pass Village sprung up in the early 1900s to provide shelter for tunnel diggers and railway workers. The rail line’s completion in 1923 coincided with the boom in alpine tourism worldwide, and the village ticks by on summer hikers, winter skiers and the daily TranzAlpine train visits.