Kia ora! I’m Alice from Alice Adventuring. I’m a Kiwi who grew up tramping (what we in New Zealand call hiking) and I run a New Zealand hiking blog to document my adventures and to help inspire others to get out adventuring too.
Gillespie Pass (or the Wilkin-Young Circuit as it is otherwise known) had long been on my bucket list of tramps (what New Zealanders call hikes). I had my sights set on challenging myself on the steep climb up the alpine pass, wandering through picturesque alpine meadows in Siberia Valley, and memorising the beautiful blue of Lake Crucible in person.
I was looking for adventure, wonder, and an exciting challenge. But would Gillespie Pass live up to such high expectations?
Quick Overview of Gillespie Pass Circuit
Length: 58 km / 36 mi
Time: 2 nights / 3 days
Optional extra: an 8 km / 5 mi side trip to Lake Crucible from Siberia Hut (it’s definitely worth adding an extra night and day for this trip)
Start & end: north and south of Makarora respectively, near Wanaka. Most people go up the Young River, over Gillespie Pass, and then back down the Wilkin River.
Season: Gillespie Pass is a popular route, however, due to several significant unbridged river crossings, it is not one to be taken lightly. Several fatalities have occurred from people attempting to cross swift, freezing rivers when they were in flood, or by people lacking the necessary backcountry experience.
It should not be attempted during or after heavy/sustained rain is forecast.
Day 1: Up the Young River to Young Hut
My husband, Matt, and I chose perfect summer conditions to attempt this track; the middle of a drought. Water levels were so low that the jetboat we’d booked to get us across the first river crossing; the (normally) mighty Makarora River, couldn’t even run!
So instead of a thrilling jet boat ride, Wilkin River Jets drove us 3km up the road from the Makarora township in a van and dropped us off at the carpark. This meant we could leave our car in their secure carpark instead of having a 3km road walk at the very end of our trip (nobody wants that).
We crossed the Makarora River easily with the water not even reaching over our knees (which is not normal for the Makarora, even in summer). We found the track on the opposite river bank, and then spent the next few hours walking through the beautiful beech forest, the sunlight filtering through the dense canopy and highlighting little patches of fluorescent green moss.
After three and a half hours, we arrived at the Young Forks swingbridge and campsite. We ate lunch surrounded by chirping and fluttering piwakaka (fantails) and kakaruwai (bush robins), as well as a few annoying namu (sandflies). Then it was time to begin the climb up to Young Hut along the South Branch of the Young River.
The track, which had been relatively well-maintained and mostly flat up until now, was suddenly a lot steeper and wilder, a taster for what the next day over Gillespie Pass would bring. It was sweaty work in the middle of a hot day, even in the shade of the trees. Once up the climb, we took a dip in the sparkling clear waters of the Young River (very brief, both because of the cold and the namu / sandflies).
Young Hut snuck upon us, but after walking 17km with almost 1000m cumulative elevation gain, I was ready to relax.
Day 2: Over Gillespie Pass
The next day dawned beautifully clear without a cloud in the sky – the perfect day to attempt a crossing of an alpine pass. We left Young Hut before the sun had reached its deck, and climbed steeply above the hut, thankful for the coolness of morning under the trees.
As we climbed I could see signs of how ferocious the weather can be around this area – trees flattened by the last season’s avalanches, gravel and boulders covering the forest floor where tiny streams had risen by metres and spilt over their banks, changing the very landscape. It’s certainly not a place to be caught out by the elements.
The trees suddenly opened up to reveal views of the Young Basin that stopped me in my tracks. Highlighted by the rising sun were towering cliffs, imposing peaks, plunging waterfalls and a musical stream, running through boulders.
We crossed the stream on a bridge and walked through the alpine meadows next to the beautiful stream as the basin opened up further to us. On our left, I could see the ridge we would be climbing up. But surely I was mistaken, a track couldn’t possibly climb up that could it?
Yes, yes it apparently could. We reached the old sign saying ‘Gillespie Pass’ and looked up the ridge to the tops, towering high above us. The climb started off the way it meant to continue; steep. Matt had a very healthy appreciation of heights, so he didn’t love the climb up with its high steps and steep drop-offs, definitely Type II fun.
But the benefit of being so steep is that the track was very efficient. After only a couple of hours and 1000m elevation gain, we’d already reached the top. The views were stunning, particularly of Mt Awful (the person who named the mountains (there’s also a Mt Dreadful) in this area was obviously having a bad day).
There was still a small amount of snow on the south side of Gillespie Pass, even in the middle of a very hot summer season (end of January), but it was easily negotiated. The descent down the south-west side of Gillespie Pass was longer and less steep, which my knees greatly appreciated. We spotted some kea (New Zealand’s alpine parrot) near the bushline, before we descended to our wild campsite for the night. Most people continue on to Siberia Hut, but we enjoyed the solitude (and less distance travelled).
Day 3: Lake Crucible & Siberia Hut
We walked down to Siberia Valley the next morning (the part that most people would continue on with on Day 2 after climbing up and over Gillespie Pass). My wish for alpine meadows was being more than fulfilled, Siberia Valley in the dawn light was gorgeous, particularly with the wildflowers (even if they are a weed).
We dropped our packs at the track junction, crossed Siberia Stream, and climbed up to Lake Crucible with a small pack of essential items. It was a steep scramble in parts, but experiencing the glacial lake was well worth it.
We stayed on the shores of the lake for several hours, although I wasn’t brave enough to take a dip. Earlier in the month the lake’s surface had been covered in icebergs, but the drought and warm weather had obviously melted them all.
Too quickly we had to leave Lake Crucible and retrace our footsteps back down the steep climb. We picked up our packs (which felt so heavy after travelling without them) and tramped down the valley for an hour to reach Siberia Hut, crossing severals streams on our way.
We’d booked the hut, but it was quite busy so instead of staying in our booked bunks, we opted for the quieter option of tenting outside.
Day 4: Down the Wilkin River
Our last day on the Wilkin-Young Circuit was a leisurely two – three hour walk around to the Wilkin River to meet our jetboat. This means skipping the last 15km of the track along the Wilkin River, which is much less maintained than the rest of the track (mainly because most people either fly out from Siberia Hut’s airstrip, or opt for the jetboat trip).
The track itself was almost like a footpath; wide and gravelled. Many people do day walks on this part of the track (flying in to Siberia Hut and then jetboating out), so it was a much better quality than the rest of the tramp.
Too quickly we reached our designated jetboat stop and it was time to wave goodbye to one of my favourite tramp’s in New Zealand. The jetboat ride with Wilkin River Jets was one of the most thrilling jetboat rides I’ve ever been on (as the river was so ridiculously low). At times we were travelling through only a few centimetres of water, and I could hear the river stones scraping against the hull. It was an amazing way to finish an amazing tramp.
If you’re interested in the Gillespie Pass Circuit, then check it out on Hiiker here. If you want to see what other tramps I’d recommend for your bucket list – then have a look at my favourites. I love chatting with people over on my Instagram if you have any questions, or want some New Zealand tramping inspiration, so please reach out and say hi!